Gentlemen and Amazons traces the nineteenth-century genesis and development of an important contemporary myth about human origins: that of an original prehistoric matriarchy. Cynthia Eller explores the intellectual history of the myth, which arose from male scholars who mostly wanted to vindicate the patriarchal family model as a higher stage of human development. Eller tells the stories these men told, analyzes the gendered assumptions they made, and provides the necessary context for understanding how feminists of the 1970s and 1980s embraced as historical “fact” a discredited nineteenth-century idea.
Gentlemen and Amazons The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861–1900
The Travels and Travails of Matriarchal Myth
In 2003, Dan Brown became an overnight success and a media sensation with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. The novel is formulaic: a thriller. Before the reader can adjust her chaise longue and slather on her sunscreen, our hero, Dr. Robert Langdon, is falsely accused of a heinous crime at the world-famous Louvre Museum in Paris. A beautiful, intelligent Frenchwoman-Sophie Neveu-appears and helps Langdon escape. At first, he does not even realize that he is the intended prey of the authorities. Chases ensue, on foot, by automobile, and by airplane. The mystery begins with strange signs accompanying the murder of Jacques Saunière, a curator at the Louvre, and spirals out from there. Our hero, a Harvard "symbologist," does not have the leisure to sit and cogitate, as he is undoubtedly accustomed to doing back home in the Widener Library stacks. No, he has to run fast and think faster. Not only must he be clever and quick, he must also be physically agile-even forceful-and attuned to the twisted channels of the minds of criminals, religious fanatics, eccentric historians, cunning priests, and corrupt officials ... all of whom turn out to have a lot in common, since they are on the side of evil. Whom can he trust?
As Western Christian history unravels before him, the apparently good turn out to be evil, and vice versa. Jesus, Christian readers may be relieved to learn, is good, very good. So is his mother, the Virgin Mary. So far so ... Catholic. But wait! Don't start to genuflect yet! Yes, Jesus is good, and his mother is good, but so is his wife! That's right, Jesus's wife, Mary Magdalene. And his great-great-great-etc. granddaughter, our hero's beautiful sidekick and skilled code cracker, Sophie Neveu. If you've never heard of Jesus's wife-or you had, but thought she was a reformed prostitute and devoted disciple, but not a "special friend" of our Lord-don't feel bad. It's a news flash for most of us, because the world's most powerful and secretive institution (the Catholic Church, naturally) has conspired to keep this information from Jesus's flock for nearly two thousand years. Only a few, the elect, the Leonardo da Vincis of the world, have kept the flame of truth alive for future generations, hoping that one day all Christians will be able to accept the full humanity of the Christ.
After The Da Vinci Code raced to the top of the best-seller list, it prompted a culture-wide discussion, from Internet opinion-fests to sermons and Sunday school lessons. It was a boom time for New Testament scholars, who were abruptly handed an audience clamoring to know if any of the novel's revelations could possibly be true. Had Jesus been married? Did he have children? Was Mary Magdalene actually sitting at the table with Jesus and his disciples in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper? Had the Knights Templar carefully preserved secrets too combustible to be acknowledged by the Catholic Church for thousands of years of Christian history? Was there a secret society called the Priory of Sion dedicated to protecting the truth about Jesus and his bloodline? Could the Catholic Church-which everyone seemed ready enough to believe was sufficiently conniving to hide inconvenient truths from its lay members-successfully keep something like that secret? And if it were true that Jesus had been married and had children, what would it change? Everything? Or only a few details, none of them faith shattering? Indeed, was it possible that the new Jesus, the post-Da Vinci Code Jesus, could be even better suited to modern sensibilities than the old one?
The Da Vinci Code broke upon the consciousness of most readers not only with the predictable force of a fast-paced thriller, but with the bracing air of unanticipated iconoclasm. And yet part of the appeal of The Da Vinci Code's plot is that it is not really new at all: it is simply the elephant of six-blind-men fame suddenly seen from a different angle. The main fixtures of The Da Vinci Code are familiar. With the exception of the alluringly subterranean elements of Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion, they are drawn from Christian high culture: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Emperor Constantine, the Catholic Church, the Holy Grail, Leonardo da Vinci, the Louvre, Westminster Abbey. All these people, places, symbols, and organizations are ones we feel proud to be aware of, to embrace as our cultural heritage. Dan Brown tosses them into the air for the action of his novel. But when they come down, they do not form the old familiar picture. Nor do they end up as a heap of unrelated scraps. The puzzle pieces that seemed to admit of only one possible configuration emerge, after a twist of the kaleidoscope, in another light, forming a new, equally symmetrical, and appealingly fresh pattern.
It is the Christian story retold, but with a few key changes. First, the Catholic Church is not the body of Christ on earth. It is wealthy, powerful, sneaky, and bent on retaining its paternalistic authority over its flock by doling out Christian truth in the bite-size servings it believes its children are capable of swallowing (a very Protestant view of Catholicism!). Second, on the fully human, fully divine spectrum debated by the early church councils, Jesus swings dramatically toward the fully human. And he does so in a very significant way: by loving a woman and having a child with her. From this one deft fictional device (toyed with earlier in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ) comes a river of theological innovation, all apparently quite intriguing to the modern mind. Christianity is redeemed from its ascetic moralism. We get to keep Jesus, but throw out everything we as a culture have come to find distasteful about Christianity: dogma, institutional authority, the secondary status of women, and a moral preference for chastity over sex. The Holy Grail, sought after by zealous Christians for centuries, turns out to be the sexual, reproductive body of a woman. Sex is good; women are, at the very least, equal to men; and Christianity has its Goddess again.
Wait ... a Christian Goddess? Now that's not something I learned about in Sunday School. Even if Jesus was married, as the novel contends, where does "the Goddess" come in? Jesus's mother, the Virgin Mary, has been knocking pretty hard on the door of deification for the past thousand-plus years of grassroots Christian culture, but she is still not regarded as a goddess by people who want to keep their Christian nose clean. To complicate matters, the popularity of the Virgin Mary was waxing strong in Western history at the same time that, according to Dan Brown's novel, "the sacred feminine" was being ground under the boot heels of the cassocked gentlemen of Rome. It doesn't seem likely that they would have extended so much ecclesiastical and theological support to the Virgin Mary if she was the secret Christian Goddess. And if the Virgin Mary does not qualify as the "lost Goddess" of Christianity, it is not immediately clear how Mary Magdalene could so qualify in her stead.
The Da Vinci Code is never very precise on this point. Its theological vision is somewhat muddy (perhaps forgivable, given the genre). Throughout, The Da Vinci Code stresses the presence of pagan symbols and elements in Christianity, which are gleefully discovered in famous cathedrals all over Europe by the novel's hero. It describes a pre-Christian, "ancient" religion of nature worship and gender balance, "yin and yang," that assures "harmony in the world." Da Vinci himself, according to Langdon, was "in tune with the balance between male and female," believing that "a human soul could not be enlightened unless it had both male and female elements."
This gender balance is the official line, but from the outset, the novel emphasizes the "feminine" at the expense of the "masculine." The good Dr. Langdon is writing a book titled Symbols of the Lost Sacred Feminine. Saunière, the curator at the Louvre whose murder drives the book's plot, is described as "the premiere goddess iconographer on earth," with "a personal passion for relics relating to fertility, goddess cults, Wicca, and the sacred feminine." Indeed, Saunière "dedicated his life to studying the history of the goddess." The Priory of Sion, the secret society said to have preserved the truth about Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene, is not described as a Christian group upholding the ancient notion of divine gender balance in the face of a male-dominated Church. It is a, even the, "pagan goddess worship cult." Meanwhile, the Emperor Constantine is said to have been responsible for "waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever." It is the "feminine-worshipping religions" that are the target of persecution, not some ideally balanced male-and-female religion. And the central tragedy of Western history is the church-driven conversion of the world, in Dan Brown's phrase, "from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity."
Jesus's humanity and Mary Magdalene's central role in early Christianity is positioned as a rediscovery of true Christian history, a redressing of the Christian church's gender imbalance and a long overdue correction to its anti-sex morality. But The Da Vinci Code actually goes further than this: it reclaims paganism at the expense of Christianity. Once "bad" Christianity-essentially, the Catholic Church-is separated from "true" Christianity, all that's really left is the person of Jesus. This Jesus does not emerge as the Christ, the Messiah, or even as a particularly astute rabbi. Rather, he is the sacrificed pagan hero-king, the consort of the Goddess, who appears in the person of his wife, Mary Magdalene. The Judaism of Jesus and his bride never appears in any guise other than as a variant of paganism, yet another of the many ancient religions devoted to fertility and goddess worship, the mating of male and female in sacred sexual union. Indeed, the Star of David, which we are told is ignorantly read as the central symbol of a monotheistic Judaism, turns out to represent two deities. It is a superimposition of male and female signs "marking the Holy of Holies, where the male and female deities-Yahweh and Shekhinah-were thought to dwell."
To me, this is what makes The Da Vinci Code so fascinating as a cultural phenomenon: it is a novel that imagines a sex-positive, harmonious ancient world, purportedly balanced between the genders but focused on "the sacred feminine"; and it blames religion-specifically Christianity-for the invention of male dominance. Even more striking to me is that this novel was received with incredible enthusiasm by a twenty-first-century, nominally Christian audience. People loved this book, as gushing commentary all over the Internet attests. In what did its appeal lie?
Whatever the appeal of The Da Vinci Code was to its readers, it is something that has been appealing for quite some time now. For The Da Vinci Code is yet another variant of a story I call the myth of matriarchal prehistory: the belief that women held greater power and place in times past than they do today; that male dominance, at least in the form we've known it in the past couple of millennia, is a comparatively new invention; that the gender of the deities a culture worships is indicative of which human sex it values more; and that we now stand at an important world historical turning point where gender relations are concerned. As Sophie Neveu's grandmother tells Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon at the close of The Da Vinci Code: "The pendulum is swinging. We are starting to sense the dangers of our history ... and of our destructive paths. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine.... You mentioned you are writing a manuscript about the symbols of the sacred feminine, are you not? ... Finish it, Mr. Langdon. Sing her song. The world needs modern troubadours."
And the world has them aplenty, most of them not making any pretense of hiding behind a fictional narrative, as Dan Brown does. For the past forty years, matriarchal myth has had quite a hearing, especially among feminists and neopagans. Feminists have found in matriarchal myth license to hope that just as male dominance had a beginning in ancient times, it can have an end too: that the oppression of women is not our only cultural heritage, but merely our most recent. Neopagans have relished telling a countercultural myth that reverses many of the value signs of Western culture, counting polytheism, magic, nature, sex, the body, and women among its greatest goods.
Others have also found succor in matriarchal myth. Afrocentrists such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Ifi Amadiume have assigned Mother Africa the role of the Goddess. In Africa, they say, benevolent matriarchs presided over the birth and long, peaceful history of humanity. It was in the north, in Asia and Europe, where warlike, patriarchal cultures emerged, viewing woman as "only a burden that the man dragged behind him." Another version of matriarchal myth, narrated in Jim Mason's An Unnatural Order, asserts that the fall of humanity came with the development of agriculture, which "broke the primal bonds with the living world and put human beings above all other life." Especially damaging, says Mason, was the domestication of large animals to provide work, milk, and meat. Mason's central concern is animal rights, but significantly, his story is also gendered: it is men who absorbed the lesson taught by animal domestication most readily and who applied it to the females of their own species, reducing them to economic and sexual slavery.
A few even quirkier takes on matriarchal myth emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century, each with its own peculiar focus. In Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna reminisces about the good old days, with their good old drugs (primarily marijuana and psilocybin), which made woman-centered prehistory a blissful place to hang out and get high. He laments the rise of patriarchy and its use of bad drugs (alcohol, cocaine, and sugar) that make people fretful and make men nasty and domineering. William Bramley, author of The Gods of Eden, takes matriarchal myth to its logical extreme. He argues that all was bliss on earth until we were colonized by extraterrestrials (the "Custodians") who brought war, disease, hierarchy, and, of course, male dominance. Other proponents of matriarchal myth have even suggested that earth was populated solely by females until male extraterrestrials landed with their alien Y chromosomes and irretrievably polluted the human gene pool with the virus of maleness.
In spite of its countercultural flavor, the myth of matriarchal prehistory has also been mainstreamed, appearing in world history textbooks, news magazines, and other popular media. Some, such as author Jacqueline Shannon, stick with the feminist message. Her reason no. 8 for "why it's great to be a girl" is that "anthropologists and archaeologists credit females with the 'civilization' of humankind" because they "dragged men, kicking and screaming, out of savagery into the New Stone Age." Former U.S. vice president Al Gore, arguing for sane environmental policies in Earth in the Balance, notes that a prehistoric "reverence for the sacredness of the earth" may have been tied to "the worship of a single earth goddess, who was assumed to be the fount of all life and who radiated harmony among all living things." Even the glossy magazine Healing Retreats and Spas got in on the action in 2000 with "The Goddess Issue," offering healthy eating with Demeter; aromatherapy "to nurture the goddess in everyone"; prenatal yoga ("Embodying the Goddess"); and an article titled "Season of the Goddess: Rediscovering the Divine Feminine," proclaiming that "the goddess was once a universal icon with countless names, faces, and attributes."
Anyone who lived through the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s knows that during those decades gender came, for a time, to be of overwhelming cultural and political interest. We were collectively absorbed in rethinking the rightful roles of women and men, from the kitchen to the boardroom to the sanctuary. That imagined alternative histories of sex relations flowered as the women's movement explored its contours in the 1970s and 1980s is to be expected. What is perhaps more surprising is that our love affair with matriarchal myth in its variant forms still continues today (as witness The Da Vinci Code phenomenon). And though it has been easy-and sometimes politically expedient-to forget this, matriarchal myth did not erupt onto the scene as a made-to-order feminist myth at the first conference of the National Organization for Women in 1966, or in the heady years immediately after. Matriarchal myth-the belief that women's status has declined dramatically, has changed completely, since a male takeover some three thousand years ago-has been a staple theme in Western thought for nearly a century and a half and has carried a variety of meanings and messages. The genesis of the myth as we know it today is easy to locate. In 1861, a Swiss lawyer and scholar of the classics, Johann Jakob Bachofen, published a book titled Das Mutterrecht: Eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach Ihrer Religiösen und Rechtlichen Natur (Mother Right: A Study of the Religious and Juridical Nature of Gynecocracy in the Ancient World). Bachofen's interest in woman-rule grew out of a tradition existing from classical times up through the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout this period, people were fond of telling stories of female-dominant societies, usually drawing explicitly on Amazon myths from antiquity. But Bachofen's Mutterrecht did something new. It claimed that Amazons were not oddities, prisoners either of the overheated human imagination or of a few isolated spots on the globe where women had set up their own societies without men. Instead Bachofen claimed that myths of Amazons, along with a lot of other mythical and archaeological evidence, added up to clear proof that in its infancy, humankind was actually gynecocratic: ruled by women. Only later did men seize the power that characterized most of recorded history and the western European society in which Bachofen and his contemporaries lived.
Bachofen was only the beginning. In his own lifetime Bachofen was quickly shunted aside to make room for other proponents of matriarchal myth, some of whom invented the idea independently of Bachofen. Leading the charge in Great Britain was the Scottish lawyer John Ferguson McLennan. Just four years after Das Mutterrecht was published, McLennan released Primitive Marriage, a very different sort of study from Bachofen's, but one that also "discovered" women's central role in prehistory. Enthusiasm for the matriarchal theory spread quickly and was essentially adopted as historical truth by the emerging discipline of anthropology, not only in Great Britain, but to a lesser extent, in the United States and continental Europe as well. From the mid-1860s through to the 1890s, the question was not so much whether "primitive" and prehistoric societies were matriarchal, but in what way. Then, beginning in 1884 with the publication of Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, by Friedrich Engels (communist organizer and longtime collaborator with Karl Marx), the myth of matriarchal prehistory was taken up as effective political ammunition by both communists and first-wave feminists, and later by fascists as well.
The myth of matriarchal prehistory was largely set aside by anthropologists in the early years of the twentieth century. Matriarchal myth lost the center stage it had enjoyed in the last decades of the late nineteenth century and would not regain it until the late twentieth century, under feminist auspices. However, these two efflorescences of matriarchal myth are intimately, even lineally, related. For when the discipline of anthropology disavowed matriarchal myth, others picked it up: some in the academy and many outside, bringing with them wildly diverse political, psychological, and scholarly interests. In the first half of the twentieth century, matriarchal myth traveled across continents, between academic disciplines, from the political right to the political left and back again. The myth did not attain the common cultural currency it held in the late nineteenth century, which it would find again in the late twentieth. But it was still on the move. It made itself at home among sexologists, psychoanalysts, poets, mythographers, and archaeologists, to name a few, and served as a foundational myth for the emerging religion of Wicca beginning in Britain in the 1950s. Meanwhile, in nations striving to remain true to Marxist principles-Soviet Russia and Maoist China-matriarchy was what archaeologists and anthropologists were supposed to find when they entered the field (because Engels said they would), and find it they did.
When second-wave feminists "discovered" matriarchal myth in the late twentieth century, they did so primarily by reading the work of their forebears, from nineteenth-century anthropologists up through the scattered variants of matriarchal myth that had sprung up in multiple pockets of the social fabric in the intervening decades. The reconstructions of prehistory that feminists found most convincing were archaeological, and they made ample use of both old and new archaeological findings to support their argument that patriarchal society and patriarchal gods were a recent development. But pretty much every available approach to matriarchal myth was interleaved into the emerging feminist myth. The existence of goddess-worshipping, nonpatriarchal societies was confirmed for its proponents through myth, folklore, psychology, poetry, even dreams and past-life recollections. Given the many proponents of matriarchal myth who came before them, only rarely did they have to create their material ex nihilo. What we are looking at, then, is a modern conversation spanning many decades, many generations, and many political orientations. The Da Vinci Code is just another link in the chain.
When seen in historical perspective, what is most intriguing about the myth of matriarchal prehistory is not so much its recent feminist message, but rather the robustness and flexibility of the myth itself. Matriarchal myth is a thread that runs brightly through the intellectual life of the West, testifying to the confusion, conflict, and political interest surrounding the topic of gender. "What if?" the myth asks, over and over again across the decades. What if women rather than men ran the world? What if the very things that have been seen as women's social disabilities-pregnancy, childbirth, lactation-were once regarded as the chief characteristics of the divine? What if the battle of the sexes were laid to rest and women and men cooperated to create a benevolent, harmonious social world? What if God were Goddess? The myth of matriarchal history is, at heart, an enormous thought experiment, a play with reversals, an endeavor to visualize a past radically different from the present. And though its fulcrum is gender, the pivot around which history turns, matriarchal myth takes up all manner of human concerns in its reach: sex, religion, economy, politics; art, food, language, child rearing, science ... all have been tagged with the labels "feminine," "matriarchal," or "goddess" at some point in the last century and a half. As an orientation-or reorientation-toward human history, matriarchal myth has been made to speak to nearly every aspect of human existence.
Today it is difficult to see the myth of matriarchal prehistory as anything other than feminist. What possible motive, if not a feminist one, could inspire such zeal to find a woman-centered utopia in the past? What possible take-home message could matriarchal myth have, other than its obvious one, that male dominance is a major historical mistake that must be corrected immediately, if not sooner? But matriarchal myth has not always carried a feminist message, nor have its narrators primarily been women.
This book examines the first era of matriarchal imagining in the modern West, one that permeated late nineteenth-century culture as thoroughly and effectively as contemporary matriarchal myth did in the late twentieth century. Late nineteenth-century narrators of matriarchal myth were almost all men. Indeed, when late nineteenth-century women took up matriarchal myth, they borrowed it from the men who came before them, changing relatively little in the process (the opposite of today's situation, in which men like Dan Brown follow in the footsteps of late twentieth-century women such as Marija Gimbutas and Riane Eisler, who have anchored the current era in the history of matriarchal myth). Among late nineteenth-century narrators of matriarchal myth, the rise of male dominance was more often viewed as an improvement in human social relations than as a catastrophe. Patriarchy was typically seen as another rung up the ladder of human progress from its beginnings in "savagery." But even in these earliest manifestations, matriarchal myth draws our attention to emerging fault lines in Western culture's understanding of gender and sex inequality. The very fact that patriarchy was not regarded as universal and inevitable by the late nineteenth-century men who pioneered matriarchal myth indicates that a more nuanced and ambivalent attitude toward gender was emerging.
For all their bravado-and it was sometimes extreme-the matriarchal myth of late nineteenth-century men did not outlast them. As George Stocking points out, none of the evolutionary anthropologists who dominated matriarchal discourse during the Victorian era has today "the obvious world historical significance of a Marx, or the general intellectual historical significance of a Freud.... Nor have they the discipline-forming historical significance of a Weber or a Durkheim; none of them offers a general theoretical standpoint.... Nor would they be regarded today ... as major investors in the general intellectual capital of the modern human sciences." Ironically, the matriarchal myth of Bachofen's Mutterrecht, little celebrated when it was published, had a slightly longer shelf life than that of British anthropologists, as it gradually won fans on both the political left and right in continental Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. But neither Bachofen nor the British anthropologists, neither Friedrich Engels nor first-wave feminists, successfully pushed their matriarchal narrative forward to those they considered their proper intellectual heirs. Those that followed them in their chosen fields either disowned matriarchal myth entirely-sometimes with real vitriol-or else, like the Soviets, who preserved the matriarchal myth of Engels, half-heartedly kicked it along while turning their real intellectual passions in other directions.
The dramatic decline of matriarchal myth among anthropologists at the end of the nineteenth century is generally attributed to intellectual advances resulting from more and better ethnographic work and changing methodologies for addressing questions of human social relations, whether prehistoric, historic, or contemporary. But I believe that the heyday of matriarchal myth in the nineteenth century passed largely because the questions it addressed-having to do with marriage, women's rights, and Victorian sexual attitudes-fell out of vogue, and the whole theoretical apparatus of an evolutionary shift from matriarchy to patriarchy went with it, like the baby with the bathwater. Theories of matriarchal prehistory did not attain the same sort of prominence again until a similar set of questions-about women's rights and sexual attitudes, among other things-again engaged the public, this time in the United States in the 1970s.
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the nineteenth-century debate about matriarchy among Victorian men is the way that it prefigures twentieth-century feminist debate. Both return relentlessly to the same story of evolving human social life; both have a small set of confirming cases to which they appeal again and again (though in the nineteenth century, these were mainly ethnographic, and in the twentieth century, they were mainly archaeological); both are diligent about refining the particulars of their story and will debate relatively minor points without ever calling into question the larger enterprise; and both are populated by a handful of truly brilliant, synthetic minds, along with a veritable army of lesser devotees, pedantic detail-mongers, and other camp followers. Lastly, both have presented a story compelling enough that others with divergent political interests have found ways to bend it to their own use. In the late twentieth century, women owned matriarchal myth, though they shared it with others who did not always have the same political agenda. But in the late nineteenth century, men owned the myth: they defined it and refined it, most of them pretending to scholarly disinterestedness as they nevertheless vigorously interrogated the origins, legitimacy, and future of sex inequality.
The "Myth" in Matriarchal Myth
By now, it must be apparent that I regard this narrative of matriarchal human origins as a myth, but what does that mean? The term myth has a tortured history. For several centuries now, scholars from a variety of disciplines have devoted years of their professional lives to coming up with adequate definitions of myth. With the right definition, it has been hoped, myths could be made to yield up their true meanings, what has animated them and made them objects of respect, and sometimes reverence, by those who tell them. As with the term religion, the meaning of myth is both obvious and obscure. We feel we know a myth when we hear one, just as we usually feel comfortable identifying the presence of religion in cultures vastly different from our own. If we can keep our gaze in soft focus, it really isn't very difficult to know when we have encountered a myth or a religion. But scholars are notoriously dissatisfied with the soft-focus lens. And as soon as one attempts to define terms like myth or religion with any precision, they squirm away with impressive agility. It's like trying to catch fish with your bare hands. You might get lucky, but more likely, you'll just get wet.
This is when one is after a value-neutral, phenomenological definition of myth. Most people do not experience myths as value-neutral. Either they love myths, or they hate them ... or they love-them-and-hate-them, depending on which stories are being called myths. In any given cultural milieu, one can find people who yearn for myth with a lover-like desperation, who want to imbue every aspect of life, from the individual to the communal, with the "mythic" view, which seems to them the only one capable of capturing the essence of being and experience (a view especially associated with romanticism). On the other hand, it is just as easy to find those who think that myth is, in a word, ridiculous, and can't imagine what redeeming value could exist in such absurdly fanciful stories.
Imagine being herded into a concert hall to hear a performance of avant-garde classical music. Some members of the audience will be swooning with aesthetic ecstasy while others will want to cover their ears and run away. This may have something to do with individuals' musical education or lack thereof, or the fine-tunedness of their ear. Certainly those who love the music will claim that. But maybe it as simple as saying that there is no accounting for taste. Like avant-garde classical music, "myth"-that is, the big broad category of myth (myths, "mythic awareness," "mythic consciousness," etc.)-tends to be polarizing. It has been so since ancient times, when some Athenians lovingly recited and acted out their culture's myths, while others, such as Xenophanes, Herodotus, and even Socrates, dismissed the same myths as dangerous foolishness.
In the West, attempts to define myth have occurred within and alongside internal Christian controversies regarding the authority of scripture. Once having been exposed to other cultures' myths, Christians could not miss the similarities of foreign myths to biblical stories: similarities in style, cultural use, and sometimes even in content. But Bible stories were "true": they had been revealed by God. The myths of other cultures were just stories believed in by credulous "primitives." Since then, however neutrally scholars have sought to define myth, the term has never successfully been pried loose from its shadowy antipodes: "history," "science," and "truth." Nor has myth escaped its longstanding connotations of "fiction," "story," and "legend." In our commonsense use of the word "myth" there lingers the assessment of Sir James George Frazer that myths are "mistaken explanations of phenomena, whether of human life or of external nature."
Certainly it is possible to regard a myth as simultaneously untrue and enormously significant, as conveying important truths in the type of vehicle best suited for this purpose. Many Jews and Christians, for example, are now routinely taught that the first chapter of the book of Genesis is not a historical account of exactly how God created the universe and human beings in six days; rather, it is a metaphorical, symbolically rich story that we tell in order to illuminate the nature of God and God's intentions for humanity. Some proponents of matriarchal myth have taken exactly this step with the myth of matriarchal prehistory, claiming to speak of matriarchal origins in order to spark thought, inspire, or clarify and question what we ordinarily think of as "reality." Like the Romantic philosophers Schelling and Schlegel, these matriarchalists regard myth as "sublimely transrational," as "a vehicle of deeper truths than those conveyed by scientific, denotative discourse." But for most people, it remains difficult to completely disassociate the label "myth" from determinations of truth or falsity.
For the sake of the present discussion of matriarchal myth, the question of its accuracy as a factual account of human prehistory (and history) could simply be bracketed and set aside for the duration. Whether matriarchal myth is true or false, or true in parts and false in others, is, to one way of thinking, irrelevant to engaging with the story's history, its changing contours, and its enduring appeal. While one could do this, I choose not to. To me, it matters whether the account of matriarchal origins is factual or not. It tells us what the myth's narrators have been up to for all these years. Have they been scientifically reconstructing the history of human society on earth? Or have they been making up stories that fill their cultural and psychological needs?
At a deep epistemological level, depending on how nihilistic you are or how much you distrust "science," these two options may be the same: we may think we are engaging in rigorous intellectual, scientific thought when we are simply making up stories we find pleasing. Our intellectual abilities and our capacity for disinterestedness are limited. We cannot know exactly what happened in prehistoric times. Beyond a few particulars, we cannot really know what happened in historic times either, nor can we precisely identify the extent to which our wish to believe certain things about ourselves has prejudiced our reconstruction of the "facts" of history. History is an imperfect science, if it is a science at all.
But this sort of nihilism, I would argue, applies only at the extreme limits of human thought. Short of that, there are better and worse histories, ones that conform more closely or not to the evidence we have at hand. And as histories go, the matriarchal theory is very weak. There is little evidence to support it, and it is generally unconvincing to anyone not already wanting very much to believe it. The proffered evidence is said to prove a lot when it proves little or nothing; even when it sometimes better supports other interpretations of history. I have treated this issue at length in a previous book (The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future), and so I will not reiterate it here. Matriarchal myth is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and I want the freedom to treat it as one without having to shout down those who would balk at the notion that it is anything other than a true account of human social life on earth. We have little reason to believe that the story of our matriarchal, goddess-worshipping past (or a gender-egalitarian past, for that matter) is true. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that the matriarchal story first and foremost reflects our cultural needs and desires, and those of its earlier narrators.
So when I call the matriarchal theory "myth," I do indeed mean that it is not true, that it is fictional, that as an account of human social history, it fails elementary evidentiary tests. I will not be attempting to hide this "bias," this evaluation of the historical likelihood of society having once been universally matriarchal or gender-egalitarian up until patriarchy burst onto the stage of human history, unbidden, unwelcome, and utterly unprecedented. But in the present context I am far more interested in how the story is used, how it has been passed from one narrator to another, and what it says about Western culture's recent wrestlings with gender.
Fortunately, scholarly, value-neutral approaches to myth, slippery though they can sometimes be, take exactly this approach: they observe the existence of a story people hold to be important and then look to see how the story is deployed, what interests (or whose) it supports, and how it functions in society. In a pithy phrase, Bruce Lincoln sums up this view: "Myth is ideology in narrative form." The matriarchal theory of human origins and history fits scholarly definitions of myth beautifully. It is a story told repeatedly, in different versions and by different narrators, and it is granted a high degree of moral authority by its narrators.
Let us begin with the issue of repetition. Myths are told again and again, in different contexts, and across generations. Unlike one of Faulkner's short stories, for example, a myth "is not identical with any given text." It is, as French structuralist Lévi-Strauss has it, the sum of all its different versions, long and short, told in many contexts, with varying details and interpretations. Myths have "strong contrasts" (as, for example, matriarchy and patriarchy, goddess and god) that help to make them easy to memorize and retell. Their principal narrative elements stand out clearly against one another.
Myths are also characterized by the importance granted to them. They are considered more credible and influential than other sorts of stories; they are believed to speak about what matters most. As Bruce Lincoln puts it, myths convey not just truth, but "paradigmatic truth"; they evoke "the sentiments out of which society is actively constructed." Myths seek to order the world, to give it meaning. As such, myths tend to take, for their subject matter, things that are painful, inexplicable, or both. Sex inequality, I would argue, is painful, for both women and men, which is why it crops up in myths over and over again. Honestly, it does not take a moral genius to see that women are treated unfairly in patriarchal societies. Even people highly socialized to believe that sex inequality is natural, unavoidable, and morally right can find it troubling. An explanation for this inequality is required. Matriarchal myth, I suggest, is an effort to provide this explanation, to make sense out of the painful ambiguities of sex inequality. It does this, intriguingly, whether the narrator is in favor of sex inequality or against it, whether sex inequality is seen as a reality to be accepted in good grace or as a hideous abomination of the natural order.
As it has been told and retold by successive generations, matriarchal myth itself has been altered and adapted to suit the interests of its varied narrators. But this is only half the story. Matriarchal myth has shifted about in all sorts of ways over the course of the past 150 years. Yet it has also remained quite hauntingly the same story throughout its circuitous travels in Western thought and politics. Its grammar, its plot elements, its structuring devices are all very, very similar in its different tellings. The fact that such contradictory agendas have all found safe harbor in the confines of matriarchal myth is itself remarkable. It is testimony, I believe, to the shared bank of assumptions about gender made by most thinkers in the West, no matter what their political perspective. As such, the myth of matriarchal prehistory provides a superb case study for probing Western assumptions and ambitions regarding gender: both what is (largely) shared and what is contested. The core tropes of the myth show us the former; the morphing details show us the latter.