THE GODDESS MYTH

Philip Davies traces the history of a feminist fabrication

GODDESS SPIRITUALITY has made a remarkable entry into the religious and cultural life of the English-speaking world. At first encounter, its basic message seems preposterous: thousands of years ago, human beings lived in a female-centred utopia which ought to be taken as our guide today into a glorious New Age tomorrow. Yet this story, unheard until just a few decades ago, has rapidly achieved the sort of respectable status and social influence which most new religious movements never so much as contemplate.

In an earlier article, "The Goddess Arrives" (New Directions, July 2000),1 attempted to offer a general description and critique of this disconcerting development in the religious life of the West. Now let us explore the situation in further detail, posing three questions in three successive articles on Goddess spirituality: Is it true? Does it work? And, does it matter?

 

THE STORY OF THE GODDESS

The story of the Goddess has been told so often in recent times that it now often passes without comment. First surfacing amongst Gerald Gardner's Wiccans in the 1950s, it was later espoused by university professors, artists, writers, and even clergy who have never been within sight of a coven. But is the story true?

The essential claim of Goddess spirituality is simple to recount. The movement claims that for most of human history, from at least 35,000 B.C. onwards, the, female was the key element in life and community. People venerated the Great Mother Goddess of life, nurture and fertility. Women, as her living images, were therefore respected and honoured, giving leadership in religion, family and society. For precisely that reason, allegedly "female" values of love, cooperation, peace and equality prevailed. When the Goddess reigned supreme, we are told, there was a negligible distinction between rich and poor, harmony at home, peace in the world, and a healthy relationship with Mother Earth.

Supposedly, this idyllic existence was terminated by the rise of patriarchal cultures approximately 5000 years ago. Under their warlike sky-gods, barbaric Semites and Indo-Europeans overwhelmed the nonviolent Goddess cultures. They supplanted the female utopia with a male-dominated system of hierarchies, class stratification and racial discrimination, endemic warfare and ecological depredation -all rooted in the primary subjugation of woman under man, of Goddess under God. The triumph of patriarchy is supposed to have been assured by the establishment of the Roman Empire and especially by the spread of Christianity with its divine Father and Son, its male priesthood, and its supposed demotion of the Great Goddess to the domesticated, non-threatening Virgin.

The evils of our day, from war and poverty to racism and ecological despoliation, are all attributed in Goddess literature to the worship of a heavenly Father instead of Mother Earth, a worship which allegedly finds its practical application in men's oppression of women. The rise of the modern Goddess movement, however, is taken to be a sign that the Goddess herself never really disappeared. All through history, her loyal devotees passed her message along, risking persecution for witchcraft if they were found out. Now, however, with the supposed patriarchy of church and state bearing its poisonous fruit for all to see, the time is said to be ripe for the Goddess to re-emerge and inspire her human children to a restoration of the female values which constitute our only hope for salvation on this earth.

 

WHERE WAS UTOPIA?

The popular Goddess books which have appeared since the mid-1970s have often included cursory surveys of those ancient cultures which, they say, pre-date the rise of patriarchy and therefore display the glories of female civilization. The favoured examples include palaeolithic Europe, the Anatolian village of fatal Hiiytik, pre-Celtic Britain, and Crete, among others.

Interestingly, however, Goddess literature is not written by professional historians and archaeologists. With the single exception of the idiosyncratic Balkan archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the authors of these books are typically artists and art historians like Merlin Stone, Elinor Gadon, Michael Dames and Monica Sjöö; therapist/academics like Naomi Goldenberg and Jean Shinoda Bolen- and radical philosophers like Mary Daly; and Riane Eisler.

Moreover, when we compare the Goddess books with the actual reports of professional anthropologists and archaeologists, we consistently ford an astonishing level of discrepancy between the evidence we actually possess from the ancient cultures, and the claims made about them in the Goddess movement. In actual fact, the Goddess myth is surprisingly flimsy as an account of human history. Its proponents are compelled to employ several strategies to conceal this circumstance.

Frequently, the Goddess writers rely on arguments from silence. In their efforts to argue that Goddess cultures were egalitarian, for example, they highlight the fact that James Mellaart's digs at Catal Hüyük during the 1960s revealed houses which were almost identical in size; he evidently found no palaces or hovels which would betray a hierarchy of wealth and power. The Goddess books, however, omit the fact that he excavated a mere 4% of the town, perhaps just a single neighbourhood. Clearly, this is not enough to tell us anything certain about the social system of this ancient settlement. Only further excavation will reveal whether or not there was in fact uniformity in house size, or whether clear signs of class distinction will emerge.

Similarly, it is a well-known fact that Silbury Hill contains no burial of a powerful chief or wealthy king. Goddess folk offer this as proof that the builders of the hill had no such chiefs or kings at all, but surely it proves only that Silbury Hill is not a tomb.

Secondly, when the Goddess writers do actually appeal to some concrete evidence they frequently blow it coldly out of I proportion. Goddess literature abounds in extravagant, unsupported interpretations of the relics of ancient cultures. Unfortunately, not one of the alleged Goddess civilizations has left us a written account of its beliefs and customs; most existed before the invention of writing, while Crete's original script remains undeciphered. What we do know about these cultures, therefore, must be inferred from artifacts and architecture. This leaves ample opportunity for Goddess devotees to read their myth into the evidence.

In Catal Hüyük homes, for instance,  Mellaart determined that the women had larger bed-platforms than the men. Goddess devotees offer this as proof that women were the leading figures in Catal Hüyük families and, by extension, in society as a whole. But does this necessarily follow? A large platform could have many practical purposes, from accommodating a lover or a nursing infant to a variety of daytime functions. Perhaps the man was left to sleep in peace on his platform while the woman stitched and sewed into the night on hers? We simply do not know, one way or the other.

By the same token, we are expected to believe that the various female figurines and carvings which have survived from the Old Stone Age, such as the "Venus of Willendorf," demonstrate the universality of Goddess worship at the dawn of human history. The truth is, however, that the amount of evidence we possess from this period is extremely sparse when set against the enormous range of time and space it is meant to represent: all of Europe and the Near East over a period of roughly 30,000 years. Was the "Venus" a representation of the Great Goddess, one of many goddesses, a particular woman, or an abstract idea? Was the statuette intended as a divine image, a votive offering, a talisman, or a decoration? We have no way of knowing what this single artifact actually meant; extrapolating an entire system of religious beliefs and values from this and a few other relics is simply an exercise in fantasy.

A third trait we find in Goddess literature is the tendency to ignore uncooperative evidence, facts which appear to contradict the myth. Goddess books describe palaeolithic cave burials as being replete with Goddess symbolism, but they never mention the fact that almost all of these ceremonial burials contain male skeletons. Their descriptions of the allegedly peaceful matriarchy at Catal Htiyttk completely omit Mellaart's account of the impressive weapons industry he found there, or his surprise at the number of skulls he found which bore signs of head wounds.

By normal standards of historical and archaeological investigation, the Goddess myth fails on every count. The myth is sustained by distorting some data, ignoring others, and indulging in free speculation when supportive facts are lacking. It is no accident that Goddess writers are so fond of quoting the French feminist author Monique Wittig: "Remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent." The fruit of this advice is everywhere to be seen in Goddess literature.

 

WHAT IS TRUTH?

Of course, almost any writer who advances a particular argument may be guilty of overindulging in supportive evidence, while paying insufficient attention to contrary facts. Nonetheless, the claims made by Goddess writers can be punctured so easily that we are left wondering how they dare make such claims in the first case, and why these claims command such wide and increasing assent. Does anyone really believe that remembering and inventing are so interchangeable?

In a word, "Yes!" For many actual witches, the story is a myth in the technical sense: a metaphorical narrative within which they find a congenial worldview and personal direction. Even back in the 1970s, priestess Margot Adler asserted that the real point of the Goddess myth was not its historical accuracy but its experiential power to transform the lives of people today.

For other Goddess devotees, however, there is more at stake. When the Goddess serves as the figurehead for activists seeking to transform modern society, including the Church, the veracity of her story is crucial. Real utopian Goddess cultures in the past are essential to provide blueprints for our collective future. So the question remains, how can they insist on the truth of such an easily discredited narrative? In essence, they do so try redefining truth itself in terms of gender politics.

Genuinely radical feminism ("gender feminism," to use Christina Hoff Sommers' term) does not simply seek equality amongst men and women as individuals (as does "equity feminism"); rather, it highlights differences between the sexes as groups, blaming the masculine for the ills of the world and upholding the feminine as the beacon of a better way. What better symbol for such a view than an emphatically female deity?

In this connection, some radical feminist thinkers have turned the traditional stereotype of the female as naturally intuitive, emotional and loving into a full-blown theory of knowledge. Men, they say, think abstractly and deeper selves and the world around them. Women, on the other hand, are said to think holistically and feel themselves connected to each other, the natural world, and their own inner selves.

"Female truth" is thus different in kind from "male truth," rooted in a different subjective experience of the world. This emphasis on subjectivity is the key: truth itself is understood not as an objective reality to be perceived or learned, but as a subjective outlook which resonates with the inner self. As a result, there are no external standards of truth or falsity; only the individual person can decide what is "truth" for her.

If that happens to be the Goddess, then arguments about objective evidence (such as those offered in this article) are beside the point. Factual information is used in the Goddess movement as raw material for constructing a narrative which will be personally and politically useful, not as a binding test of objective veracity. That would be to impose oppressive male restrictions on female expressions of female truths.

Pilate asked our Lord, "What is truth?" He did not wait for an answer, but the question remains a vital one. It is perplexing that an account of history which can be so easily disproven continues to make its way into the mainstream of modern society, particularly amongst scholars. It is even more surprising to see this myth taken seriously in the Church, where it contradicts every major tenet of the historic Christian faith.

The Goddess movement grows despite the plain falsity of its story, not because of any compelling truth in it. In a future article, we shall see where its appeal actually lies.

Philip G Davis is Professor arid Chairman of Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and a parishioner of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Charlottetown. His book Goddess Unmasked: the Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality is available from Amazon. co.uk or directly from the publisher at www.spencepublishing. com.

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