Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future / Cynthia Eller
Boston : Beacon Press, 2000
276 p.

Many of us have come across a story about ancient, female-centric, goddess-worshipping societies in some context or another. These are typically evoked as paradise societies wherein people enjoyed peace and prosperity due to gender equality and a reverence for females and their child-bearing capabilities.

Many of us are also familiar with those artifacts that get dug up now and then -- the "goddess statues" that generally look like very full-bodied women, which people have taken as evidence that it is a representation of a mother-goddess used in worship. I've personally always wondered, though, how we can possibly know what a statue like that was used in a pre-literate society that left behind no records. Couldn't it just as easily be a piece of art or -- dare I say it -- an erotic pin-up girl? I've always wondered that, but never pursued the question.

But Cynthia Eller has. In this rational and thoroughly-researched book, she examines the theories and rationales put forth by feminist scholars, particularly the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, for the most part casting light on how flimsy the argument for a matriarchal society in prehistory.

Feminist herself, Eller outlines the reasons why a past matricentric society is appealing to many women for reasons of empowerment and to provide hope that we can have gender equality and eventually reform this idyllic society. But she maintains that much of evidence for such a past is spurious, derived from scholars seeing what they want to see in artifactual and artistic evidence. Her arguments are convincing and rational. In fact, I think she often concedes even too much to the scholarship she is disputing.

This book is not long and quite readable, so interested in the flip-side of this conception of history that's worked its way into an almost universal conception of how things may have been (whether we give it much thought or not), this is definitely worth reading.

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