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The Faces of the Goddess.
Lotte Motz.
Oxford University Press (New York). Hb. $30.

Rarely have I read a book which combines good scholarship and bad to the extent that this one does. The author argues that the terms ‘Great Mother’ and ‘Mother Goddess’ owe more to modern notions of what a goddess ought to be like, including Jungian archetypal theory, than to the understanding of the goddesses in the times when they were worshipped. In particular, such notions obscure the particularity of the goddesses themselves. She discusses various goddesses in detail, some with a mother aspect and some without.

She also suggests that ‘mother’ should frequently be regarded as a term of respect which may mean ‘lady’, ‘goddess’, or ‘queen’, rather than a descriptive term. This is an interesting idea, but it is not explored in sufficient detail. It would be valuable to see how the word is used for human women (as, for instance, such women as ‘Mother Shipton’ or ‘Old Mother Hubbard’). It would also be useful to see how it is applied to Hindu goddesses, whom she does not discuss, where it seems to me it carries both interpretations (see, for instance, Katherine Erndl’s Victory to the Mother). So far, so good. Such arguments can form part of a feminist approach to our understanding of goddesses (it is precisely for such reasons that I rarely use the words ‘Great Mother’ or ‘Mother Goddess’; I prefer to say ‘Great Goddess’). But the author is no feminist. Indeed feminism and other movements for change appear to have escaped her notice. I am not sure which of two of her remarks most surprised and offended me — a throw-away comment that the relations of Zeus with nymphs and goddesses simply reflect the fact that “men rape women” or the reference to “ritual perversion such as transvestism or homosexuality”. And her understanding of motherhood seems very limited. She seems to regard ‘mother’ as synonymous with ‘birth-giver’ — to such an extent that she remarks more than once that the Mountain Mother Cybele never brought forth a mountain from her womb. She does not seem to see that the use of the word ‘mother’ to mean ‘nurturer’ is as common as the more specific meaning, and in one of the few passages where she mentions nurturing she simply remarks that the Corn Mother and Water Mother do not nurture corn or water.

She argues against what she refers to as “the creed of the goddess religion”, especially in its interpretations of history and prehistory. It is here that the flaws in her scholarship are most obvious. All books have mistakes, but some of hers affect her main arguments, and are not side issues. Can one take seriously someone who writes “In the late 1960s the Women’s Spirituality Movement came into existence, also known as Wicca …”?

In one chapter she discusses Inanna, who she claims cannot be separated from Ishtar, and who she sometimes refers to as Inanna-Ishtar. This seems to me somewhat of an exaggeration, though it is allowable as some scholars do consider that the very close connection between the two amounts to identity. But she is not entitled without warning readers to refer in a single paragraph on characteristics and behaviour of Inanna to texts which do name Inanna and to other texts a thousand years later which are about Ishtar . She also claims that the standard popular account of Inanna is an example of how “a goddess may lose in depth by the idealisation of a Goddess worshipper”. She consistently gives the author of this book as Diane Wolkstein, whereas it is actually by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (as she knows, since it is referenced correctly in the bibliography). This is not just a matter of shorthand convenience. The first author is a folklorist and storyteller, whose portrayal of Inanna could quite possibly have lost in depth through the need to tell a good story. But the second author is a leading expert on Sumer and Sumerian, who is the original translator of many of the texts about Inanna. The fact that he is happy to be listed as joint author is enough to convince an unbiased reader that the portrayal is accurate. It is difficult to regard these errors as merely the kind of accident or carelessness that all scholars sometimes fall into. There are other errors. The suggestion that “divine women are absent from the Hebrew texts” shows that Dr. Motz is unfamiliar with biblical scholarship of the past ten or more years. Her claim that “no female imagery is to be seen in the Paleolithic cave [paintings]” would not be accepted by many scholars of rock art. And she chooses not to mention those Celtic goddesses who Miranda Green, a leading scholar of that field, specifically refers to as “mother-goddesses” (in such books as Celtic Goddesses). In short, the flaws and failures of scholarship prevent one from taking her critique of goddess religion seriously, and even cast doubt on her more detailed discussion of the goddesses. Readers interested in how and why several feminist archaeologists criticise some of the views of people involved in goddess religion would do better to consult the articles by Lynn Meskell (Antiquity, March 1996) and by Meg Conkey and Ruth Tringham (in Stanton and Stewart’s Feminisms in the Academy). Nonetheless, the chapters on the individual goddesses are worth reading, covering as they do both well-known goddesses such as Cybele and Demeter and also goddesses from the Eurasian shamanistic tradition and Saule, the Latvian Mother Sun.

Wood and Water 62, Spring 1998
© Daniel Cohen

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