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The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future

By Cynthia Eller. Boston: Beacon, 2000. 276 pages.

Barbara Wilson’s highly entertaining Trouble in Transylvania also proved to be informative; the accuracy of her historical and current (for the time) cultural research caused me to wonder about the factual nature of other names and theories proposed in the text. In particular Wilson made reference to Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade) and M. Gimbutas, so I chose to research these two individuals in greater depth, and in so doing I came across Cynthial Eller’s refreshing Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory.

By “myth” Eller intends two slightly different meanings: myth as an unproven yet widely held belief, and myth as a formative belief system—notably, while the book is polemic, she is careful not to use “myth” in its most derogatory connotation (as false, an urban legend even). Thus Eller’s goal is not to demonstrate the falsity of matriarchal prehistory, but rather to explore its rationale and its consequences; the resulting book is intriguing, readable, and thoughtful.

In a variety of social circles—in academia, in neo-pagan groups, and elsewhere—there is a widespread belief in “The Goddess.” Eller cites Goddess tours and clothing as examples of the extent of Goddess belief in popular culture. Although it has many variations, Goddess-theory tends to focus around several key points: in a time before written history, peaceful, egalitarian gynocentric or matriarchal societies were the norm, until around 3000–4000BCE, when there was a sudden shift to near-global patriarchy, which led to war/violence and the subjugation of women. Minoan civilization, Celtic or pre-Celtic cultures of the British Islands, and even according to some writers, all of pre-Indo-European Europe variously serve as such gynocentric civilizations; meanwhile, Hebraic/Semitic as well as Indo-European tribes act as masculine foils in some versions—in others, the change to patriarchy comes from within. What Eller demonstrates in several chapters (Chapter 5 “Finding Gender in Prehistory,” Chapters 6 and 7 “The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies I & II” and Chapter 8 “Was There a Patriarchal Revolution?”) is that no hard evidence supports the “matriarchal prehistory” hypothesis (partially since by definition “pre-historic” eras pass on no historic data, and partially because the interpretation of anthropological/archaeological “evidence” is highly uncritical and not at all convincing; i.e. some scholars categorically interpret all carvings on pre-historic pottery as vulva-symbols, and constantly equate contemporary tribal groups as “primitive” and hence “similar to how we used to be,” a fallacy that plagued colonial-era ethnology for decades). The result is a belief system, unsupported by evidence, that is taken as a given, as an axiomatic truth, by many—that is to say, dogma.

One might ask what harm this does; some might indeed question what difference it makes whether one believes in matriarchal prehistory verus traditional Christianity, Judaism, or other established religions: if they are equally “mythical” are the not equally valid, and is not personal belief exactly that: personal? Answers to these questions are provided in Chapter 4 (“The Eternal Feminine”) and Chapter 9 (“On the Usefulness of Origin Myths”), and the critical perspective provided by Eller is one that all those who might naively consider such myths should well heed.

In Goethe’s Faust we encounter the striving masculine force and the passive-receptive Eternal Feminine always driving it forward; we also find the notoriously misogynistic J.J. Bachofen, author of “Das Mutterrecht,” as an early formulator of the matriarchal prehistory myth. Similar beliefs are held by “White Pride” women’s groups. What ties these beliefs, along with current Goddess worship, together is that nothing has changed: the same gender divisions, the same definitions of masculine and feminine are in effect, and the one is still defined in terms of the other. The only difference is the value assigned to a given quality: in a patriarchal system women might be good only for bearing children and little else, whereas in the gynocentric the ability to bear children is a woman’s special gift; in one system men are active, hunt, create and strive while women act as inspiration and are passive, whereas in the other men are violent and competetive while women are nurturing and cooperative—the same limiting categories, however are still in effect, and such a matriarchal myth is hardly emancipatory.

Such romantic notions locate utopia in the past and in the other. Thus Tacitus formulated the (noble!) Germanic barbarian in opposition to the decadent Romans; Pushkin saw in the Gypsies a freedom unavailable to the over-civilized modern man; Rousseau gave us the “noble savage”—but it is worth noting that Schiller, who adopted Rousseau’s conceptual framework to an extent, knew that the noble savage was a construction: we merely use it as if it were real in order to construct a future utopia. And a better future is exactly what Eller wants, not a still-born neo-romanticism that wallows in a never-was fictional past; for her, active political change, not comforting mythology, is empowering and necessary.

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is at its most lively in its polemical moments; a well-written polemic that pokes holes in an opponent’s argument is a joy to read. At the same time arguing against and not for a position can be seen as the easy way out, and other reviewers have taken issue with Eller’s critique. The author’s arguments are based on the state of research at the time the book was written; new data could of course weaken Eller’s position. Her own (combination of radical and socialist/materialist feminist) political views might very well be equated with past political actions that have not brought about a utopian society. And lastly, in good polemical form, Eller’s critique of Gimbutas walks a fine line between attacking the ideas, and attacking the person—occasionally she crosses that line, though.

To conclude, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is a razor sharp and enlightening critique and polemic, and as such, it should be read by anyone confused by, interested in, or curious about the various gynocentrisms in vogue today. As such it has its weaknesses, for it is bound to its context, and as that context shifts, it will necessarily lose relevance. That having been said, it is a brilliant starting point, and well worth the read.