Ancient Goddess or Political Goddess?

Gwendolyn Taunton

 The Goddess – in Wicca she is the benign mother, all powerful, all loving, splendid and benevolent, she is a goddess in her prime. To many Western women, deprived for so long of a religion or mythology to fire their imaginations, the alluring romance of the Tripartite Goddess is such a temptation that her gentle moonlit glow lures women like moths to the nocturnal flame. But is her glow really so warming, or is the light that the candle creates just a cold fire that threatens to eventually singe the wings of the beloved devotee? That the fact that goddess imagery provides a much needed religious respite for Western women who have for so long felt isolated from religious life by the inability to relate to the Abrahamic god cannot be denied. In this, the purely archetypal or psychological aspect of goddess worship, there can be no doubt the role of the goddess is beneficial to some women. Likewise, goddess worshippers who simply try to revive genuine Pre-Christian ethnic religions will not be questioned here. What will be questioned, though, are the motivations of goddess revivalists who promote the idea that the goddess (as a singular entity) played a pivotal role in a virtually global Neolithic or Paleolithic religion, and moreover, that the goddess was the dominant deity of a matriarchal people in this era. This issue has been questioned before; however, it has always been examined from the angle that this belief is spread as an innocent byproduct of the need to vitalize a goddess movement. The approach taken here is a significantly different one that raises a bold new question: what if these references by the goddess movements are deliberate and if so why do they attempt to perpetuate the belief in an archaic global religion?

Eller, commenting on some of the features found in women’s spirituality movements notes that one striking feature of the movement is its historical revisionism. She summarizes some key issues on the topic by saying that “the reconstruction of standard Western history places female-ruled or equalitarian societies at the dawn of civilization, traces their overthrow by patriarchal powers from 4500 to 2500 B.C.E., and looks forward to a coming millennial age in which society will be returned to ‘gynocentric,’ life-loving values.”[1] Such ideas are also clearly expressed by one of the leading figures in contemporary goddess worship or Wicca (as it is sometimes referred to as), is Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance, which is a well-known book in women’s spirituality circles. Within the introductory pages of this book Starhawk is quick to point out that “according to our legends, Witchcraft began more than 35,000 years ago, when the temperature of Europe began to drop and great sheets of ice crept slowly south in their last advance”.[2] This reign of magic and the goddess persisted until,

Wave after wave of Indo-European invasions swept over Europe from the Bronze Age on. Warrior gods drove the Goddess peoples out from the fertile lowlands and fine temples, into the hills and high mountains where they became known as Sidhe, the Picts or Pixies, the Fair Folk or Fairies.[3]

Similar views are expressed by another leading author in the genre Merlin Stone, author of When God was a Woman. Stone states that “the Upper Paleolithic period, though most of its sites have been found in Europe, is the conjectural foundation of the religion of the goddess as it emerged in the Near East.”[4] Though by use of the word ‘conjectural’ Stone suggests that this is just a guess and not a fact, Stone nonetheless draws an association between the two – the foundations for an archaic global goddess religion are laid. Other authors working, not in this field of pre-history, but instead with archetypal roles of the goddess, are also quick to point out that “just prior to and during the early part of the pre-Iron Age, the third form of matriarchal mythology began to emerge”.[5] In a generalized synopsis of the argument presented by advocates of the goddess movements, Townsend deploys the following description.

Originally, society was matriarchal, matrilineal, matrilocal, egalitarian and peaceful. Women held positions of power equal to, or greater than, that of men. The religion of this primal stage of culture was concerned with “the (Mother) Goddess.” A time of destruction followed. Matriarchal (or at least matrilineal) society under the Mother Goddess was usurped by the invasion of more warlike, male-dominated, pastoral societies whose deity was male. This is often equated with the “invasion” of Indo-European speakers into Europe, which allegedly “overthrew” the peaceful “Old European” egalitarian, matriarchal Goddess, agricultural “civilization”. Following that conquest by the pastoral, patriarchal, patrilineal societies, the Goddess religion was suppressed and women were subordinated to the rule of men.[6]

There are three main topics employed in the reconstruction on the archaic goddess religion – one is to use arguments based on the archeological excavations of Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, dated 6250-5400 B.C.E[7] and another is the Knossos excavations by Sir Arthur Evans in Crete.[8] Both of these sites remain speculative and the nature of the artifacts connected with the religions there is still highly contested. There have even been suggestions that the famous ‘Boston Goddess’ statue found by Evans is a fake – furthermore, thirteen similar statues thought to depict Minoan Goddesses have been proven to be forgeries[9]. The third strategy to prove the existence of the goddess in the ancient world is the profusion of the so-called ‘Venus statues’, the most famous of which is the Venus of Willendorf  – given the time in which these figurines were carved, it is not possible to reach any conclusion as to what their purpose originally was – as this goes beyond the records of history to the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, we have no way of knowing they were even used for religious purposes. Also, we have no way of knowing if people living in these times even had a religion. The statues may have been used in a religious sense, or they may have been purely aesthetic, for it would rather inane to surmise that every depiction of a woman found in even a modern home is one of a deity and the same reasoning should apply to this era of history also.

Closer examination of material based on the continuity of the cult of Goddess from ancient times through to the contemporary period reveals yet another common link. Again and again, the same name appears within the books – the name of the author J.J. Bachofen. Bachofen, as Culpepper says, seems to be a “fruitful catalyst for Theaology”.[10] Bachofen, who composed his works in the historical setting of the nineteenth century, accepted the idea of an ancient matriarchy, regarding it as a specific stage a society must pass through in order to develop. In this theory of evolutionary development within societies, Bachofen believed that it was first necessary for a society to pass through a matriarchal stage of development, before evolving into a superior patriarchal civilization.[11] Though Stone briefly describes Bachofen’s theory, other authors in the Goddess Movement (Starhawk, Woodman, Sjöö) cite his name to prove that a matriarchal civilization existed in ancient times. They do not, however, mention the fact that Bachofen believed matriarchal civilizations to be inferior to patriarchal ones. So why, then is Bachofen so widely cited in texts which look back to the ancient past to reconstruct a future for the Goddess in the present, given that his works in no way promote an egalitarian society for women? To answer this question adequately, we must first pay closer heed to what Bachofen’s writing actually contains, and not to what it is presumed to contain.

Outside of the Goddess movement, the works of Bachofen have been almost universally discredited but were generally accepted prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.[12] With an educational founding in Law, Bachofen studied ancient texts to find mythological references that would provide a clue to the origins and the development of civilizations. In particular, he concentrated on the Mediterranean district but applied universally the material that he found contained in Greek & Roman myths. Thus his examination of the world’s civilizations begins with Herodotus in Lycia and ends in Lesbos. One can, therefore, conclude that though there may be some evidence for a Goddess-based religion in parts of Greece, he provides no evidence that this religion can be found anywhere else – in short, his theory is seriously flawed. Other than providing two extremely brief and unenlightening chapters on Egypt and India, nothing is mentioned of any other culture, at any stage of development in his seminal text Mother Right. A similar problem regarding the geographic locations of the matriarchy is encountered in the goddess movement today – like Bachofen authors in this field generally imply “that prehistorical matriarchies were a worldwide phenomenon, but in point of fact, discussions of ancient matriarchies are almost exclusively limited to the Middle East and Southern Eurasia.”[13] Furthermore, Bachofen’s theory of the evolution of societies is somewhat reductionist in its outlook, providing only three stages of growth, which can be summarized by the following:

The three stages according to this schema are first the Tellurian, in which there is motherhood with no marriage, no agriculture, and apparently nothing resembling a state; then the lunar, in which there is no conjugal motherhood and authentic or legitimate birth, and which agriculture is practiced in settled communities; and lastly the solar period, in which there is a conjugal father right, a division of labour, and individual ownership.[14]

In Bachofen’s Mother Right, matriarchy is followed by patriarchy and preceded by unregulated hetaerism[15] – hence it ranks in Bachofen’s theory as an inferior stage of development, but necessary in order to evolve to patriarchy. This is in stark contradiction to statements posed by some authors commentating on Bachofen’s Mother-Right. For example, Sjöö states that,

Ancient woman groupings were the original Communism…Engels especially refers to the Mother-Right concepts of J.J. Bachofen and both men based their analyses of social development on the primary existence of ancient matriarchies – i.e. communal matrifocal systems.[16]

This statement also brings to light another key point of the goddess movement – politics, and here we see Bachofen’s name side by side with the political theories of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, this comparison is not an isolated incident, for Eller also notes the reoccurring comparison between feminist spirituality and Marxism, saying that in both ideologies “the society to come is initially portrayed as a reversal of the current power structure (the dictatorship of the proletariat), but is expected to evolve into a utopia that is radically equalitarian – a return of the original classless golden age.”[17] Could it be that Bachofen here is not being used so much to verify the existence of a past matriarchy, but to raise issues on the political level? Taking such liberties with Bachofen’s theory is not unheard of, for his work, like many other authors in the nineteenth century, revolved around a newly discovered piece of history – the Indo-Europeans, who were believed to have been a ‘solar civilization.’ This topic also features strongly in the works of writers on the Goddess. Both Stone and Starhawk state that the Indo-European or Indo-Āryans were the enemies of the peoples of the goddess. Stone quite clearly states in When God was a Woman that in India there is some of the clearest evidence of the Indo-Āryan invasions and the conquest of the original Goddess worshiping people.[18] Not only does Stone believe this to be applicable in India, Stone also accredits the conquest of the Goddess to have occurred on a global level.

The arrival of the Indo-Aryan tribes, the presentation of their male deities as superior to the female deities of the indigenous populations of the lands they invaded and the subsequent intricate interlacing of the two theological concepts are recorded mythologically in each culture.[19]

Not content with blaming the mythical Indo-European invasion for the destruction of the matriarchy, Stone also states that the patriarchal invaders, who saw women as inferior, were responsible for the origins of racist attitudes as well.[20] We also see this echoed by Starhawk.

The war of dark and light is the metaphor that perpetuates racism […] The Indo-Europeans carried it to the east, where they conquered the darker Dravidian people of India. In the West, it filtered through Persian and Greek thought leaving its traces in the Old Testament. Finally, it molded the imagery and symbolism of Christianity. It provided justification for the murder of women (Witches met, after all, at night, and were charged with worshipping the Lord of Darkness.)[21]

Such comparisons are not limited to the writings of Starhawk – in The Personal is Political, Sheila Collins gives the classic feminist analysis of the patriarchy: “Racism, sexism, class exploitation and ecological destruction are four interlocking pillars upon which the structure of the patriarchy rests.”[22] Though absent of references to Indo-European ‘invasions’, it is clear here that racial and sexual issues are combined at the political level in the Goddess Movement. This feature is more clearly emphasized here than in Starhawk’s references to the Indo-Europeans. The war of dark and light and the invasion of the Indo-Europeans described by Starhawk are hallmarks of pre-World War II scholarship; but nonetheless, they strike a similar chord in the subconscious to that of Bachofen’s clash between solar and lunar civilizations.

The fact that the theories of Bachofen and the myth of the Indo-Europeans are both frequently employed in the goddess movement is also suggestive of another possibility – they are not merely being advocated to reinstate an ancient goddess, for both these arguments have previously been employed on the political level. The ideas of Bachofen and the Indo-Europeans were utilized on the level of propaganda in the events leading up to the Second World War, except then they were used to promote the myth of a ‘solar’, ‘masculine’, ‘Indo-European’ civilization. When the authors in the goddess movement speak of the ‘patriarchal Indo-Europeans’ it seems highly probable that they are not taking an issue with the real Indo-Europeans peoples who settled across the Mediterranean and India many centuries ago, but rather the pre-World War II, Fascist mythos of the ‘Indo-European’. Thus it becomes apparent that the goddess movement, seeking to rally against the crumbling remnants of the ‘fascist patriarchy’, has cunningly appropriated their propaganda and simply inverted it, for it seems almost naïve to think that devotees of the goddess are unaware of the fact that both Bachofen and the old Indo-European invasion theories have been discredited. Rather, the goddess movement, in a reaction against the historical revisionism which was rampant in academia prior to the advent of the Second World War, adopted the methodology of what they perceived to be the patriarchy; thus in this schema, the core myths of the ‘patriarchy’ itself has been directly inverted and deployed destroy it. The goddess movement myth is in fact, the exact opposite of what is described by the author Julius Evola, and this appears deliberate.

What is happening here is that one myth is being used to counteract another previous myth. Furthermore, not just any myths – but the exact same ones that were utilized by governments and leading Fascist intellectuals in the events prior to World War II; the very same governments who are seen by contemporary goddess worshippers as the most extreme form of ‘patriarchy’, and thus their prime nemesis on the political level. When coupled with the comparisons between the myths of the goddess and the teachings of Marx, the picture becomes even clearer – the worshippers of the goddess also wish to create a classless, genderless, egalitarian utopia where all are equal. That the myths of the goddess also operate on a political level as well as a spiritual one can no longer be doubted. Whether or not adopting the same mythos of pre-World War II European society and reversing its focal point from the hierarchical white male to a classless, genderless and anonymous being is actually of any benefit remains to be seen, for can it be said that women will benefit from a mere inversion based on a historical lie? Such a strategy can be beneficial nor ethical to humanity if it seeks to oppress males with ‘matriarchy’  and simply substitutes the political component with Totalitarian Communism.




[1]Cynthia Eller, “Relativizing the Patriarchy: The Sacred History of the Feminist Spirituality Movement,” in History of Religions (Vol. 30, No.3., Feb. 1991), 281.

[2] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient religion of the Great Goddess (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989),17.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Merlin Stone, When God was a Woman (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1978), 10.

[5] Dickson, E., & Woodman, M., Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess and the New Mythology (NSW: Allen & Unwin Pty, Ltd, 1996), 18.

[6] Joan B. Townsend, “The Goddess:  Fact or Fallacy & Revitalization Movement” in ed. L. Hurado Godesses in Religions & Modern Debate (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 180.

[7]Townsend, Godesses in Religions & Modern Debate,  190.

[8] Ibid., 189.

[9] Kenneth Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art Desire and the Forging of History (Boston: Da Capo Press), 187.

[10] Emily Erwin Culpepper, “Contemporary Goddess Thealogy: a Sympathetic Critique” in ed. Atkinson Buchanan & Miles,  Shaping New Vision. Gender & Values in American Culture (London: UMI Research Press, 1987), 52.

[11] Merlin Stone, When God was a Woman, 33.

[12] J.J. Bachofen, trans. Mannhiem, R., Myth, Religion and Mother Right (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973), xviii.

[13] Eller, History of Religions (Vol. 30, No.3., Feb. 1991), 284.

[14]J.J. Bachofen, Myth, Religion and Mother Righ, xix.

[15] Ibid., 77.

[16] B. Moor,  & M. Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987), 13.

[17] Eller, History of Religions (Vol. 30, No.3., Feb. 1991), 291.

[18] Stone, When God was a Woman, 69.

[19] Ibid., 66.

[20] Ibid, 72.

[21] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1988), 21.

[22] Eller, History of Religions (Vol. 30, No.3., Feb. 1991), 287.

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