The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory
Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future
By CYNTHIA ELLER
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Once while I was browsing through On the Issues, a feminist magazine, I happened upon an advertisement for a T-shirt: "I Survived Five-Thousand Years of Patriarchal Hierarchies," it proclaimed (see Fig. 1.1). This same birthday for patriarchy, five thousand years in the past, was mentioned several times in a lecture I attended in 1992 in New York City. I heard this number very frequently in the late 1980s and early 1990s; I was researching the feminist spirituality movement, and five thousand is the most common age spiritual feminists assign to "the patriarchy." Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to hear it yet again. But I was: the speaker was Gloria Steinem, and I hadn't figured her for a partisan of this theory.
As I later learned, Steinem had been speculating about the origins of the patriarchy as early as 1972, when she told the readers of Wonder Woman this story:
Once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought ... that women bore fruit like trees—when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it.... Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life.
The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold....
Gynocracy also suffered from the periodic invasions of nomadic tribes.... The conflict between the hunters and the growers was really the conflict between male-dominated and female-dominated cultures.
... women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences.
In 1972, Steinem was a voice in the wilderness with her talk of a past gynocratic age; only a handful of feminists had even broached the topic. The second wave of feminism was young then, but for most feminists the patriarchy was old, unimaginably old.
Too old, some would say. The patriarchy is younger now, thanks to growing feminist acceptance of the idea that human society was matriarchal—or at least "woman-centered" and goddess-worshipping—from the Paleolithic era, 1.5 to 2 million years ago, until sometime around 3000 BCE. There are almost as many versions of this story as there are storytellers, but these are its basic contours:
* In a time before written records, society was centered around women. Women were revered for their mysterious life-giving powers, honored as incarnations and priestesses of the great goddess. They reared their children to carry on their line, created both art and technology, and made important decisions for their communities.
* Then a great transformation occurred—whether through a sudden cataclysm or a long, drawn-out sea change—and society was thereafter dominated by men. This is the culture and the mindset that we know as "patriarchy," and in which we live today.
* What the future holds is not determined, and indeed depends most heavily on the actions that we take now: particularly as we become aware of our true history. But the pervasive hope is that the future will bring a time of peace, ecological balance, and harmony between the sexes, with women either recovering their past ascendancy, or at last establishing a truly egalitarian society under the aegis of the goddess.
Not everyone who discusses this theory believes that the history of human social life on Earth happened this way. There is substantial dissension. But the story is circulating widely. It is a tale that is told in Sunday school classrooms, at academic conferences, at neopagan festivals, on network television, at feminist political action meetings, and in the pages of everything from populist feminist works to children's books to archaeological tomes. For those with ears to hear it, the noise the theory of matriarchal prehistory makes as we move into a new millennium is deafening.
My first encounter with the theory that prehistory was matriarchal came in 1979 in a class titled "Minoan and Mycenaean Greece." While on site at Knossos, our professor—an archaeologist with the American School of Classical Studies in Athens—noted that the artifactual evidence on the island of Crete pointed toward Minoan society being matriarchal. I don't recall much of what he said in defense of this assertion or what he meant by "matriarchal." All of this is overshadowed in my memory by the reaction of the other members of the class to the professor's statement: they laughed. Some of them nervously, some derisively. One or two expressed doubt. The general sentiment went something like this: "As if women would ever have run things, could ever have run things ... and if they did, men surely had to put an end to it!" And, as my classmates gleefully noted, men did put an end to it, for it was a matter of historical record, they said, that the civilization of Minoan Crete was displaced by the apparently patriarchal Mycenaeans.
There were only a dozen or so of us there, ranging in age from teens to forties—Greeks, Turks, expatriate Americans—about evenly divided between women and men. The men's reactions held center stage (as men's reactions in college classes tended to do in 1979). I don't know what the other women in the class were thinking; they either laughed along with the men or said nothing. I felt the whole discussion amounted to cruel teasing of the playground variety, and I was annoyed with the professor for bringing it up and then letting it degenerate from archaeological observation to cheap joke. I left that interaction thinking, "Matriarchal? So what?" If a lot of snickering was all that prehistoric matriarchies could get me, who needed them?
Having thus washed my hands of the theory of prehistoric matriarchy, I didn't encounter it again until the early 1980s, when I was in graduate school doing research on feminist goddess-worship. I heard the theory constantly then, from everyone I interviewed, and in virtually every book I read that came out of the feminist spirituality movement. This matriarchy was no Cretan peculiarity, but a worldwide phenomenon that stretched back through prehistory to the very origins of the human race. These "matriarchies"—often called by other names—were not crude reversals of patriarchal power, but models of peace, plenty, harmony with nature, and, significantly, sex egalitarianism.
There was an answer here to my late adolescent question, "Matriarchal? So what?"—a thoroughly reasoned and passionately felt answer. Far from meaning nothing, the existence of prehistoric matriarchies meant everything to the women I met through my study of feminist spirituality. In both conversation and literature, I heard the evangelical tone of the converted: the theory of prehistoric matriarchy gave these individuals an understanding of how we came to this juncture in human history and what we could hope for in the future. It underwrote their politics, their ritual, their thealogy (or understanding of the goddess), and indeed, their entire worldview.
As a student of religion, I was fascinated with this theory, with its power to explain history, to set a feminist and ecological ethical agenda, and incredibly, to change lives. Of course I knew theoretically that this is precisely what myths do—and this narrative of matriarchal utopia and patriarchal takeover was surely a myth, at least in the scholarly sense: it was a tale told repeatedly and reverently, explaining things (namely, the origin of sexism) otherwise thought to be painfully inexplicable. But to see a myth developing and gaining ground before my own eyes—and more significantly, in my own peer group—was a revelation to me. Here was a myth that, however recently created, wielded tremendous psychological and spiritual power.
My phenomenological fascination with what I came to think of as "the myth of matriarchal prehistory" was sincere, and at times dominated my thinking. But it was accompanied by other, multiple fascinations. To begin with, once the memory of the derisive laughter at Knossos faded, I was intrigued with the idea of female rule or female "centeredness" in society. It was a reversal that had a sweet taste of power and revenge. More positively, it allowed me to imagine myself and other women as people whose biological sex did not immediately make the idea of their leadership, creativity, or autonomy either ridiculous or suspect. It provided a vocabulary for dreaming of utopia, and a license to claim that it was not mere fantasy, but a dream rooted in an ancient reality.
In other words, I had no trouble appreciating the myth's appeal. Except for one small problem—and one much larger problem—I might now be writing a book titled Matriarchal Prehistory: Our Glorious Past and Our Hope for the Future. But if I was intrigued with the newness and power of the myth, and with its bold gender reversals, I was at least as impressed by the fact that anyone took it seriously as history. Poking holes in the "evidence" for this myth was, to rely on cliché, like shooting fish in a barrel. After a long day of research in the library, I could go out with friends and entertain them with the latest argument I'd read for matriarchal prehistory, made up entirely—I pointed out—of a highly ideological reading of a couple of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology, perhaps a little astrology, and a fatuous premise ... or two or three.
When I picked up my research on feminist spirituality again in the late 1980s and early 1990S, I got to know many women involved in the movement, and I felt largely sympathetic toward their struggles to create a more female-friendly religion. But I continued to be appalled by the sheer credulousness they demonstrated toward their very dubious version of what happened in Western prehistory. The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals. But even with these limitations, what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon it by the matriarchal thesis. Theoretically, prehistory could have been matriarchal, but it probably wasn't, and nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is especially persuasive.
However, a myth does not need to be true—or even necessarily be believed to be true—to be powerful, to make a difference in how people think and live, and in what people value. Yet even as I tried to put aside the question of the myth's historicity, I remained uncomfortable with it. It exerted a magnetic appeal for me, but an even stronger magnetic repulsion. Eventually I had to admit that something was behind my constant bickering about the myth's historicity, something more than a lofty notion of intellectual honesty and the integrity of historical method. For certainly there are other myths that I have never felt driven to dispute: White lotus flowers blossomed in the footsteps of the newly born Shakyamuni? Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments carved into two stone tablets? Personally, I doubt that either of these things happened, but I would never waste my breath arguing these points with the faithful. Truth claims seem beside the point to me: what matters is why the story is told, the uses to which it is put and by whom.
I have been a close observer of the myth of matriarchal prehistory for fifteen years now and have watched as it has moved from its somewhat parochial home in the feminist spirituality movement out into the feminist and cultural mainstream. But I haven't been able to cheer at the myth's increasing acceptance. My irritation with the historical claims made by the myth's partisans masks a deeper discontent with the myth's assumptions. There is a theory of sex and gender embedded in the myth of matriarchal prehistory, and it is neither original nor revolutionary. Women are defined quite narrowly as those who give birth and nurture, who identify themselves in terms of their relationships, and who are closely allied with the body, nature, and sex—usually for unavoidable reasons of their biological makeup. This image of women is drastically revalued in feminist matriarchal myth, such that it is not a mark of shame or subordination, but of pride and power. But this image is nevertheless quite conventional and, at least up until now, it has done an excellent job of serving patriarchal interests.
Indeed, the myth of matriarchal prehistory is not a feminist creation, in spite of the aggressively feminist spin it has carried over the past twenty-five years. Since the myth was revived from classical Greek sources in 1861 by Johann Jakob Bachofen, it has had—at best—a very mixed record where feminism is concerned. The majority of men who championed the myth of matriarchal prehistory during its first century (and they have mostly been men) have regarded patriarchy as an evolutionary advance over prehistoric matriarchies, in spite of some lingering nostalgia for women's equality or beneficent rule. Feminists of the latter half of the twentieth century are not the first to find in the myth of matriarchal prehistory a manifesto for feminist social change, but this has not been the dominant meaning attached to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, only the most recent.
Though there is nothing inherently feminist in matriarchal myth, this is no reason to disqualify it for feminist purposes. If the myth now functions in a feminist way, its antifeminist past can become merely a curious historical footnote. And it does function in a feminist way now, at least at a psychological level: there are ample testimonies to that. Many women—and some men too—have experienced the story of our matriarchal past as profoundly empowering, and as a firm foundation from which to call for, and believe in, a better future for us all.
Why then take the time and trouble to critique this myth, especially since it means running the risk of splitting feminist ranks, which are thin enough as it is? Simply put, it is my feminist movement too, and when I see it going down a road which, however inviting, looks like the wrong way to me, I feel an obligation to speak up. Whatever positive effects this myth has on individual women, they must be balanced against the historical and archaeological evidence the myth ignores or misinterprets and the sexist assumptions it leaves Undisturbed. The myth of matriarchal prehistory postures as "documented fact," as "to date the most scientifically plausible account of the available information." These claims can be—and will be here—shown to be false. Relying on matriarchal myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves feminists open to charges of vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court. And the gendered stereotypes upon which matriarchal myth rests persistently work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between women and men; and to hand women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal, instead of giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments, skills, preferences, and moral and political commitments.
In the course of my critique of feminist matriarchal myth, I do not intend to offer a substitute account of what happened between women and men in prehistoric times, or to determine whether patriarchy is a human universal or a recent historical phenomenon. These are questions that are hard to escape—feminist matriarchal myth was created largely in response to them—and intriguing to speculate upon. But the stories we spin out and the evidence we amass about the origins of sexism are fundamentally academic. They are not capable of telling us whether or how we might put an end to sexism. As I argue at the end of this book, these are moral and political questions; not scientific or historical ones.
The enemies of feminism have long posed issues of patriarchy and sexism in pseudoscientific and historical terms. It is not in feminist interests to join them at this game, especially when it is so (relatively) easy to undermine the ground rules. We know enough about biological sex differences to know that they are neither so striking nor so uniform that we either need to or ought to make our policy decisions in reference to them. And we know that cultures worldwide have demonstrated tremendous variability in constructing and regulating gender, indicating that we have significant freedom in making our own choices about what gender will mean for us. Certainly recent history, both technological and social, proves that innovation is possible: we are not forever condemned to find our future in our past. Discovering—or more to the point, inventing—prehistoric ages in which women and men lived in harmony and equality is a burden that feminists need not, and should not bear. Clinging to shopworn notions of gender and promoting a demonstrably fictional past can only hurt us over the long run as we work to create a future that helps all women, children, and men flourish.
In spite of overwhelming drawbacks, the myth of matriarchal prehistory continues to thrive. Any adequate critique of this myth must be based on a proper understanding of it: who promotes it and what they stand to gain by doing so; how it has evolved and where and how it is being disseminated; and exactly what this story claims for our past and our future. It is to this descriptive task that the next two chapters are devoted.
(C) 2000 Cynthia Eller All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8070-6792-X
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