Inspired by the Goddess

Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

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Fear and Loathing in the Discussion of Female Power in the Academy

No matter how carefully developed they are, theories of female power in pre-patriarchal societies are dismissed in academic circles as “romantic fantasies” of a “golden age” based in “emotional longings” with “no basis in fact.” I was reminded of this while reviewing three books about the Goddess last week.

In one of the books, the co-authors, who define themselves as feminists, summarily dismiss theories about the origins of Goddess worship in pre-patriarchal prehistory. In another, the author traces the origin of certain Goddess stories and symbols found in recent folklore back to the beginnings of agriculture. Inexplicably, she stops there, not even mentioning the theory that women invented agriculture. Considering that possibility might have suggested that the symbols and stories the she was investigating were developed by women as part of rituals connected to the agricultural cycle. To ask these questions would have raised a further one: the question of female power in prehistory. And this it seems is a question that cannot be asked. This question was addressed in the third (very scholarly) book, which I fear will simply be ignored.


Prince of the Lilies or Young Female Bull-leaper?
Prince of the Lilies or Young Female Bull-leaper?

When I mentioned my unease with the first two books to a friend who is friends with a number of archaeologists, she commented, “Archaeologists won’t say anything that cannot be proved.” “Not so,” I responded, “archaeologists will say a lot of things that cannot be proved. What they won’t do is put forward theories that challenge the idea that our culture, the modern western culture which is based on ancient Greek culture, is the highest culture in the history of the world." I believe that the work of Marija Gimbutas is being dismissed as nothing more than "romantic fantasy" because she dared to suggest that the religion and culture of Neolithic Old Europe might have been superior to those that came after it.

As I thought about these books, a discussion I had last summer with two male archaeologists kept creeping back into my mind. Beginning from our common assumption that the Goddess was the main deity in ancient Crete and that there was no evidence for war, I suggested to them that patriarchy and warfare arise together: the earliest kings are warrior kings. Thus, I continued, if Minoan Crete did not have war, it probably did not have kings.

Women in place of honor at ritual performance in ancient Crete
Women in place of honor at ritual performance in ancient Crete

I referred this conversation in a previous blog in which I presented rational arguments for the view that Crete was not ruled by a king. I outlined recent challenges to Arthur Evans’ reconstruction of the image of male rulership he named the Prince of the Lilies. I suggested that if kingship is not universal, then it must be symbolically articulated. In the absence of images of powerful kings, we should assume that kingship did not exist.

In the earlier blog, I did not mention the emotional nature of the discussion that ensued with my male colleagues. Before our discussion even got off the ground, one of the men interjected: “You shouldn’t blame men for warfare and all the evil associated with it. After all, there were women guards at the death camps in Nazi Germany.” Surprised that the conversation so quickly turned to the Holocaust, I responded that I did not blame men, but rather a social structure known as patriarchy for the evil of Nazi Germany, adding that women have always participated in patriarchy. The discussion continued on an emotional level, as the two men debated the point I had already conceded: that men are not intrinsically evil or responsible for all the evil in the world. We never returned to the question of kings in Crete.

Assyrian King Shamshi Adad V

This story suggests that “emotional issues” are easily evoked on the other side of the debate about female power in prehistory. In this case, the mere suggestion that Crete might not have been ruled by kings led to an emotional outburst based in fear—fear that discussion of alternatives to patriarchy is tantamount to blaming men for all of the evil in the world. I was unsettled by this turn in the conversation, but surprisingly, I managed to maintain my cool. I did not react emotionally. I kept trying to return the conversation to discussion of evidence. The discussion continued to revolve around the stated and unstated fear that men might in fact be evil or responsible for all of the evils in the world.

I have been thinking about this conversation off and on ever since. In retrospect, I am relieved that the emotional issues underlying the discussions of female power in prehistory were so clearly exposed. “Am I evil?” “Are men inherently evil?” These are the suppressed and repressed questions that were coming to the surface. I reiterate that no amount of assurance on my part that men are not inherently evil could stem these emotional responses.

There are indeed emotional issues, longings, and fantasies connected to the discussion of female power in prehistory. The emotion that is hampering scholarly discussion is not the longing for a golden age. The evidence for or against scholarship based in such longings can be discussed and debated. The emotion that is hampering the discussion is the fear that pre-patriarchal societies might have existed. Until this fear and the loathing associated are confronted, important questions--questions that may even be crucial to our survival as a species--will continue to be dismissed and ignored.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.

Also published on Feminism and Religion.

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Carol P. Christ is a author of the much-loved books Rebirth of the Goddess, She Who Changes, Weaving the Visions, and Womanspirit Rising, and forthcoming in 2016. Goddess and God in the World and A Serpentine Path. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall.


  • Meredith
    Meredith Tuesday, 19 January 2016

    Carol, thank you so much for this article, this sort of thing cannot be said enough. I have also encountered this attitude recently and it is a poison. I was recently reading about Merlin Stone and reviews of her excellent book "When God Was a Woman" and was surprised to see even a small handful of people criticizing her and her views almost to the point of attack, saying things like "She is an art teacher, not an archaeologist, she didn't do any research, none of this is founded, yadda yadda yadda..." I was not, however, very surprised (but was still sad and angry) to see that just about all of those opinions belonged to men. I find it very interesting that 9 times out of 10 it is only men who feel the need to attack these types of views and facts about pre-patriarchal worship and civilization. What threatens them so? Why all this fear? Is it just a lingering example of the original fears that led to the destruction of the Goddess in the first place? The oppression and destruction of women everywhere for generations? While it boils my blood, a small part of me can't help but feel somewhat pleased...after all, that fear means that, deep down, even the most hateful and sexist of people can see the awesome inherent power in women. I just wish more men could get over these ridiculous modern notions of "masculinity" and find a way to restore the balance and co-exist and co-create with women rather than to feel like they have to win, control or just otherwise be "in charge".

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 20 January 2016

    Thanks Meredith. Unfortunately, women as well as men summarily dismiss the research on female power in prehistory. I think there are two reasons for this. One is that we have all internaliized patriarchal attitudes, and sometimes we also worry about hurting men's feeliings or arousing their fear and anger. Two is that women who have spent a lot of time and money earning academic degrees understand that to defend Gimbutas or Stone is to risk being dismissed themselves by their colleagues. Stone was an artist not a scholar and most of her research was based on secondary sources--the researh of others; she also did not include footnotes. This makes it easier to dismiss her work. On the other hand, she offered a new paradigm for looking at Goddess history and that is more difficult to dispute, so it is just ignored. Gimbutas on the other hand was an established and honored scholar. Her work has also been dismissed and categorized as unscholarly. I suggest that the reason for this is that she challenged the whole edifice of the western educational system: her work suggests that "our culture" is not the highest culture, and this in turn suggests that what we teach and study is not what we should be teaching and studying. I agre with her. But I have also learned that we should not expect those whose love what they have been studying and teaching and whose positions are based on what they study and teach will just "give up."

  • lanette miller
    lanette miller Sunday, 24 January 2016

    Would you mind sharing the three books you were reviewing?

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Monday, 25 January 2016

    Goddesses in Context, Dancing Goddesses, Matriarchal Societies.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 27 January 2016

    Excellent discussion, Carol. I've believed Marija Gimbutas discovered the truth, ever since seeing that wonderful video, Signs Out of Time; and I, too, have been dumbstruck by the refusal of male scholars to admit her impeccable training and her years of rigorous study in the field. I'm so embarrassed by these other members of my sex, with their frightened little-boy egos and "no girls allowed" clubhouses; why can't they just grow up and get over themselves? More to the point, when are they going to realize that it's not about them, in the first place?

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Thursday, 28 January 2016

    It's not about them. It's about how to create a more egalitarian, peaceful, and harmonious world! Well said!
    Of course it is about them and their gatekeeping, unfortuantely.

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