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The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory:
Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.
Cynthia Eller.
Beacon Press, Boston 2000.  ISBN 0-8070-6792-x  $26.00.

Asphodel’s review of this book (added 2005 — originally published in the same issue of Wood and Water  as this review, and available on her Web site) concentrates on Eller’s (mis)understanding of the goddess movement. I want to look more at Eller’s views on archaeology.

The more we can learn about archaeological data and interpretations the better. The work of Gimbutas and others stands up better if it is not swallowed whole, but looked at critically, so that one can see where she is probably right, where she is probably wrong, and where controversy still exists.

There is useful critical material in Eller’s book. She has a nice introductory account of Indo-European origins, what is known or conjectured and how views are arrived at. But, as Max Dashu has pointed out, she cited J. P. Mallory’s book on the Indo-Europeans with a quote taken out of context — in context its meaning is almost opposite to what Eller claims. She makes the interesting point that in early historical times in some areas texts and images of deities differ greatly, text referring largely to male deities and images being largely of female deities. Again, her discussion is weakened by her claim that “we know that the religion [in early Iron Age Israel] was adamantly monotheistic.” It is now commonplace among biblical scholars (added 2005 — for instance see William Dever’s recent book Did God Have a Wife? and the session devoted to this book at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature) that the ancient Hebrews had a goddess as well as a god — the debate has moved on from whether there was such a goddess to what her attributes and her connections with other goddesses were. These misinterpretations and failure to keep up with current research cast doubt on other parts of her book.

She says, justifiably, that it is not clear that the so-called vulva images in Palaeolithic cave art actually represent vulvas (in my opinion some do but some probably do not). However, she also suggests that these vulva images may not have sacred significance but be more akin to graffiti found in men’s lavatories. This silly comment suggests that she has never seen the cave paintings themselves. Firstly, the vulvas are found mixed among paintings of animals, which certainly have a positive social meaning, and so are likely to have a similar meaning. Secondly, even allowing for the possibility of young men daring each other to perform difficult and dangerous tasks, the original access to many of these caves was so difficult that the paintings can only have been made for some great purpose, perhaps as an initiation ritual.

For an understanding of why archaeologists are often critical of Gimbutas and the goddess movement, I much prefer two recent collections of essays, The Concept of the Goddess edited by Sandra Billington and Miranda Green (Routledge 1996) and Ancient Goddesses edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (British Museum Press 1998) — see reviews in Wood and Water, Spring 1997 and Yule 1998 (these reviews were reprinted in issue 8 of that excellent North American pagan magazine The Pomegranate — see Asphodel’s reviews The Concept of the Goddess and Ancient goddesses and my review at Ancient Goddesses); surprisingly, neither of these books is referred to by Eller.

An older book, Women in Prehistory by Margaret Ehrenberg (British Museum Publications 1989) (see my review of this) is also extremely interesting. Ehrenberg looks carefully at how data is collected and interpreted, which is valuable information in itself. She is extremely cautious, often indicating various interpretations of evidence without settling on one interpretation herself. For instance, when discussing the figurines, she says “It is clear that ‘mother’ or fertility goddesses are by no means the only possibilities … It is therefore not necessary to use any one explanation to account for all the figurines … [T]he dominance of female representations over male, even when the forms are not uniquely female, must be significant.”

The result is that when Ehrenberg does make a definite statement, her opinion is very convincing. For instance, she makes a clear case, based on anthropological arguments, for the discovery of agriculture as having been made by women. This is in sharp contrast to Eller’s statement that “there is no way to prove that women invented agriculture, and as speculative arguments go, this one is relatively weak.” I could only accept this if she were to say that there was no point in making any speculation about the origins of agriculture unless detailed archaeological, rather than anthropological, data was available. A general case against speculation on limited data can be made, but it would apply so widely as to cut out most interpretations of prehistory, not just those of people in or near the goddess movement.

Another very interesting recent book, which will be reviewed in a later issue of Wood and Water, is Is the Goddess a Feminist?, edited by Hiltebiel and Erndl (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000 (see my review of this ). This collection of articles discusses the relationship between goddesses of South Asia and the lives of local women. With many qualifications, the conclusion is that the presence of the goddesses does have a positive political effect. This is in contrast to Eller, who sees no advantage to women in the presence of goddesses in a culture.

Archaeologists nowadays tend to prefer small-scale detailed accounts to the grand theories of the past, which is a major reason for their criticism of Gimbutas. Eller’s book has its value as a warning against grand theory. Unfortunately, it is spoiled by her own grand theorising which does not look at the many differing views of women about prehistory but lumps them all together in one and so distorts their views.

A much more sympathetic viewpoint of the goddess movement and its relationship to archaeologists has been made by Ian Hodder, the director of the Catalhoyuk Research Project, on the Project’s official Web site at www.catalhoyuk.com.

Two other reviews of Eller’s book may be found in issue 13 of The Pomegranate. Max Dashu’s fascinating Web site at http://www.suppressedhistories.net contains a long and important critique of the book (added 2005 — which has been republished and expanded in Feminist Theology volume 13, number 2, January 2005).

Wood and Water 73, Winter Solstice 2000
© Daniel Cohen


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