The Scholars and the Goddess

Historically speaking, the "ancient" rituals of the Goddess movement are almost certainly bunk

An even more controversial strand of the challenge to the Wiccan narrative concerns the very existence of ancient Goddess worship. One problem with the theory of Goddess worship, scholars say, is that the ancients were genuine polytheists. They did not believe that the many gods and goddesses they worshipped merely represented different aspects of single deities. In that respect they were like animistic peoples of today, whose cosmologies are crowded with discrete spirits. "Polytheism was an accepted reality," says Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of classics at Wellesley College. "Everywhere you went, there were shrines to different gods." The gods and goddesses had specific domains of power over human activity: Aphrodite/Venus presided over love, Artemis/Diana over hunting and childbirth, Ares/Mars over war, and so forth. Not until the second century, with the work of the Roman writer Apuleius, was one goddess, Isis, identified with all the various goddesses and forces of nature.

As Christianity spread, the classical deities ceased to be the objects of religious cults, but they continued their reign in Western literature and art. Starting about 1800 they began to be associated with semi-mystical natural forces, rather than with specific human activities. In the writings of the Romantics, for example (John Keats's "Endymion" comes to mind), Diana presided generally over the woodlands and the moon. "Mother Earth" became a popular literary deity. In 1849 the German classicist Eduard Gerhard made the assertion, for the first time in modern Western history, that all the ancient goddesses derived from a single prehistoric mother goddess. In 1861 the Swiss jurist and writer Johann Jakob Bachofen postulated that the earliest human civilizations were matriarchies. Bachofen's theory influenced a wide range of thinkers, including Friedrich Engels, a generation of British intellectuals, and probably Carl Jung.

By the early 1900s scholars generally agreed that the great goddess and earth mother had reigned supreme in ancient Mediterranean religions, and was toppled only when ethnic groups devoted to father gods conquered her devotees. In 1901 the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, on Crete, uncovering colorful frescoes of bull dancers and figurines of bare-breasted women carrying snakes. From this scant evidence Evans concluded that the Minoans, who preceded the Zeus-venerating Greeks by several centuries, had worshipped the great goddess in her virgin and mother aspects, along with a subordinate male god who was her son and consort. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s archaeologists excavating Paleolithic and Neolithic sites in Europe and even Pueblo Indian settlements in Arizona almost reflexively proclaimed the female figurines they found to be images of the great goddess.

The archaeologists drew on the work of late-nineteenth-century anthropologists. A belief that Stone Age peoples (and their "primitive" modern counterparts) did not realize that men played a role in human procreation was popular among many early British and American anthropologists. Female fertility was an awesome mystery, and women, as the sole sources of procreation, were highly honored. This notion—that hunter-gatherer societies couldn't figure out the birds and the bees—has since been discredited, but "it was very intriguing to people mired in Victorianism," according to Cynthia Eller, a professor of religious studies at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, who is writing a book on the subject. "They wanted to find a blissful sexual communism, a society in which chastity and monogamy were not important," Eller says. It was the same general impulse that led Margaret Mead to conclude in the 1920s that Samoan adolescents indulged in guilt-free promiscuity before marriage.

Mellaart's conclusions were bolstered by the work of the late Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-born archaeologist who taught at the University of California at Los Angeles until 1989. Gimbutas specialized in the Neolithic Balkans. Like Mellaart, she tended to attach religious meaning to the objects she uncovered; the results of her Balkan digs were published in 1974 under the title The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe. In 1982 Gimbutas reissued her book as The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, and she began seeing representations of the Goddess, and of female reproductive apparatus (wombs, Fallopian tubes, amniotic fluid), in a huge array of Stone Age artifacts, even in abstractions such as spirals and dots.

In 1993 Ian Hodder, a Stanford University archaeologist, began re-excavating Çatalhöyük, using up-to-date techniques including isotopic analysis of the skeletons found in the graves. "Your bones reflect what you eat, even if you died nine thousand years ago," Hodder says. "And we found that men and women had different diets. The men ate more meat, and the women ate more plant food. You can interpret that in many ways. A rich protein diet is helpful for physical activity, so you could say that the men ate better—but you could also argue that the women preferred plant food. What it does suggest is that there was a division of labor and activity"—not necessarily the egalitarian utopia that Goddess worshippers have assumed.

Hodder's team also discovered numerous human figurines of the male or an indeterminate sex, and found that the favorite Çatalhöyük representation was not women but animals. None of the art the team uncovered conclusively depicts copulation or childbirth. Hodder, along with most archaeologists of his generation, endeavors to assess objects in the context of where they were unearthed—a dramatic change from the school of archaeology that was in vogue at the time of Mellaart's and Gimbutas's excavations. He points out that almost all the female figurines at Çatalhöyük came from rubbish heaps; the enthroned nude woman was found in a grain bin. "Very little in the context of the find suggests that they were religious objects," Hodder says. "They were maybe more like talismans, something to do with daily life." Furthermore, excavations of sites in Turkey, Greece, and Southeastern Europe that were roughly contemporaneous with the Çatalhöyük settlement have yielded evidence—fortifications, maces, bones bearing dagger marks—that Stone Age Europe, contrary to the Goddess narrative, probably saw plenty of violence.

Lynn Meskell, an archaeologist at Columbia University who has published detailed critiques of Gimbutas's work, complains that Gimbutas and her devotees have promoted a romanticized "essentialist" view of women, defining them primarily in terms of fecundity and maternal gentleness. "You have people saying that Çatalhöyük was this peaceful, vegetarian society," says Meskell. "It's ludicrous. Neolithic settlements were not utopias in any sense at all."

Despite their ire, both Starhawk and Eisler, along with many of their adherents, seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates, without exactly accepting, the new Goddess scholarship, much as they have done with respect to the new research about their movement's beginnings. If the ancients did not literally worship a mother goddess, perhaps they worshipped her in a metaphoric way, by recognizing the special female capacity for bearing and nourishing new life—a capacity to which we might attach the word "goddess" even if prehistoric peoples did not. "Most of us look at the archaeological artifacts and images as a source of art, or beauty, or something to speculate about, because the images fit with our theory that the earth is sacred, and that there is a cycle of birth and growth and regeneration," Starhawk told me. "I believe that there was an Old Religion that focused on the female, and that the culture was roughly egalitarian."

Such faith may explain why Wicca is thriving despite all the things about it that look like hokum: it gives its practitioners a sense of connection to the natural world and of access to the sacred and beautiful within their own bodies. I am hardly the first to notice that Wicca bears a striking resemblance to another religion—one that also tells of a dying and rising god, that venerates a figure who is both virgin and mother, that keeps, in its own way, the seasonal "feasts of the Wheel," that uses chalices and candles and sacred poetry in its rituals. Practicing Wicca is a way to have Christianity without, well, the burdens of Christianity. "It has the advantages of both Catholicism and Unitarianism," observes Allen Stairs, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in religion and magic. "Wicca allows one to wear one's beliefs lightly but also to have a rich and imaginative religious life."

"Diotima Mantineia," age forty-eight, is the associate editor of the Web site The Witches' Voice, found at witchvox.com (she would not divulge her real name, partly because she lives in a southern town that she believes is unfriendly to neopagans). She summed up her feelings on the debunking of the official Wiccan narrative this way: "It doesn't matter to me how old Wicca is, because when I connect with Deity as Lady and Lord, I know that I am connecting with something much larger and vaster than I can fully comprehend. The Creator of this universe has been manifesting to us for all time, in the forms of gods and goddesses that we can relate to. This personal connection with Deity is what is meaningful. For me, Wicca works to facilitate that connection, and that is what really matters."

Charlotte Allen is the senior editor of Crisis magazine and is a contributing writer for Lingua Franca. She is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (1998).
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