Sarah Glazer examines the legend of female rule and finds some problems.
Once upon a time, women ruled over men, and women goddesses were worshipped as supreme. That’s a world view that’s been picked up by Wicca and The Da Vinci Code. It was promoted by some feminists and women anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s. But it’s probably not true.
Recently, I was asked to revise an article by someone else in which this statement was repeated as an article of faith. So I became intrigued by how far the ideology had strayed from what we can actually know.
What I discovered is that the argument for the existence of female-dominated prehistoric societies is by necessity based more on speculation than hard evidence. Since the discussion involves societies that existed before the age of writing, archaeologists have had to base their conclusions on the relics they find, which don’t always tell a clear story.
Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-American archaeologist who died in 1994, and was a specialist in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, excavated hundreds of female figurines from the period 7000 to 3500 B.C. She argued that they were mother goddesses, and the central deities of those early societies.
Gimbutas has been dubbed the grandmother of the “Goddess Movement,” which developed in the 1970s among second-wave feminists who embraced the idea of a female deity.
Several archaeologists, such as Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, have argued that her interpretations are highly speculative. But her theories have been tremendously popular, and her ideal of an early cult of a fertility deity represented as a large, pregnant, woman has entered our popular imagination.
It’s true that female figurines with exaggerated breasts, bellies and buttocks are found all over Europe, the Mediterranean and Eastern Asia. However, it isn’t clear that these represented either the dominant gods of the time or that they prove women exercised the power of rule in daily life, as historian Gerda Lerner explains in her fascinating book The Creation of Patriarchy.
In much the same way, future archeologists would be mistaken if they were to conclude, from the many medieval statues of Virgin Mary that Mary was the dominant God in Christian society or that medieval society was ruled by women, Lerner points out.
“There is not a single society known where women-as-a-group have decision-making power over men or where they define the rules of sexual conduct or control marriage exchanges,” Lerner states in a conclusion that is today widely accepted in the field.
Why has the myth of a woman-ruled society remained so powerful for thousands of years? One has only to think of the legend of the war-like Amazons—an all-woman tribe that was said to have besieged the Athenians in 1200 B.C. According to some versions of the legend, the Amazons did not permit any men to live with them. But once a year, they visited a neighboring tribe, had sex with the men and took only the girls back with them to be trained in the arts of war. In some versions of the legend, the baby boys resulting from these unions were killed or abandoned to die in the wilderness.
In ancient times, and later, these stories of the Amazons and their ilk were told not because they were true, but because they justified male power, argues Joan Bamberger in Women, Culture and Society. She found that men used myths of Amazonian societies to justify their rule “through the evocation of a vision of a catastrophic alternative—a society dominated by women.” The myths were supposed to show that women did not know how to handle power.
Indeed, many of these myths were told in patriarchal ancient Greece and Rome to justify the abandonment of female-centered cults and matrilineal kinship. Of course some writers just thought it was a neat idea. Robert Graves argued in The White Goddess that goddess worship coincided with the time when calendars were primarily determined by the moon, but that societies shifted to male deities with the shift to a solar calendar. But his was “more a poetic vision of artistic inspiration than a work of scholarship,” according to the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
More likely, archeologists now think, were societies in which men and women played more egalitarian roles, based on evidence from tribes in places like New Guinea and Asia. Perhaps it’s a less romantic notion than the female-dominated society that followers of the Goddess Movement have cherished.
But after all, isn’t that society of equals what most of us are after?