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The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give…

by Cynthia Eller

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1826120,586 (4.22)1 / 6
According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society. Given the universality of patriarchy in recorded history, this vision is understandably appealing for many women. But does it have any basis in fact? And as a myth, does it work for the good of women? Cynthia Eller traces the emergence of the feminist matriarchal myth, explicates its functions, and examines the evidence for and against a matriarchal prehistory. Finally, she explains why this vision of peaceful, woman-centered prehistory is something feminists should be wary of.… (more)
  1. 20
    The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Both books debunk the idea that current Neo-pagan ideas have historical roots. Both are sympathetic to the reasons why these myths about the past have emerged.
  2. 10
    Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (infiniteletters)
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As part of the generation that was inspired by Merlin Stone's _When God was a Woman_ and other books that tried to discover or reclaim a matriarchal past I find this an important study. Eller traces the history of such ideas, examines the evidence for their truth and finds it wanting. She also finds problematic any claims based on"nature" since they have so often been used to support rather than to overthrow the status quo. I too believe that we can strive to improve and consolidate the position of women without recourse to a myth of matriarchal past. ( )
3 vote ritaer | Jul 12, 2019 |
This is an utterly fantastic book about feminist mythology, gender roles, and how we know things about prehistory. Eller is demolishing the idea that there was once a universal, feminist, matriarchal utopia that was overthrown by patriarchal invaders, and she picks apart absolutely everything that's used as evidence in support of this story. Along the way she gives credit to the parts of the story that might have some basis in truth, discusses the feminist philosophical underpinnings of this story (and why she thinks they're inadequate to serve feminist ideals), and offers a great introduction to exploring the way our own biases influence the stories we tell about the facts we gather. ( )
1 vote jen.e.moore | Jan 7, 2016 |
4
  OberlinSWAP | Jul 20, 2015 |
A clear and rigorous criticism of unfounded belief in a prehistoric "golden age" when women wielded power and authority, Eller approaches the issue thoroughly. She begins with the modern (19th century and onward) mentalities that led to the popularity of such an idea, points out the fallacies and hypocrisies embraced by some matriarchalist feminists, and proceeds to the archeological and anthropological findings that have supposedly purported a time when females were ascendant.

While I found this book to be occasionally depressing (it becomes clear after sifting through the evidence that men have always dominated women and women wriggling out from under their thumbs is something very, very new), I appreciated the honesty and clarity with which Eller approached the question, as well as her conclusions.
  phoenixseventh | Jan 17, 2011 |
In the early 1970s I read a lot of feminist books. Working for a while in macho Puerto Rico in my first job out of college, and subsequently doing graduate work in a traditionally masculine field (geology), I needed all the help and encouragement I could find. But after a while, employed and getting on with life, I set the subject aside. The Myth of the Matriarchy – the central topic of this book – wasn’t important to me, although I must have encountered it at some point in my reading. So I came to Eller’s book with an open mind, and some curiosity as to what feminist theorizers had been up to in the intervening thirty years.

What at least some of them had been doing was making myths. Not myths in the everyday sense of “false stories,” although ironically that meaning may apply as well, but myths in the more academic sense of “shared beliefs about how things came about.” This is a reasonable thing to do in a religious context, but less helpful if the results are presented as scientific evidence, and particularly if this “evidence” forms the potentially unsound and readily falsifiable foundation of a political movement. It is therefore in a spirit of critical – but not hostile – inquiry that Eller sets out her thesis, distasteful as it may be to the feminist establishment – and judging by some of the reviews this book has garnered, it has been very distasteful indeed.

In a series of well-ordered chapters, Eller details the history and evolution of the Myth and its proponents, especially Marija Gimbutas; the contributions of cultural anthropologists; and the ambiguous nature of the available evidence. Then in two core chapters (The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies I: Other Societies, Early Societies and The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies II: Prehistoric Art and Architecture) she examines in some detail specific societies and artifacts which have been proposed as evidence by the supporters of the Myth and deconstructs their interpretations. Finally, after a discussion of the evidence for and against a patriarchal invasion of the supposedly matriarchal Eastern Mediterranean and Europe, as provided by proto-Indo-European linguistics and genetics, she considers the usefulness of origin myths in general, and of the Matriarchal Myth in particular. Her conclusion that

[P]erhaps the solution … is to embrace the myth of matriarchal prehistory as myth. If feminist matriarchalists abandon their ambitions to historical veracity, the accusations of sloppy or wishful thinking will not tarnish their myth (or the feminist movement more generally), and perhaps it could perform the functions for which it was intended.

is one with which I can agree. ( )
10 vote gwernin | May 10, 2010 |
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Nostalgia rarely is functional. Or rather, its function is escapism.
It should be obvious when we have reached foraging cultures that we have not reached 'nature,' we have reached other cultures.
The gendered stereotypes upon which matriarchal myth rests persistently work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between men and women and to hand to women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal instead of giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments, skills, preferences, and moral and political commitments.
We know enough about biological sex differences to know that they are neither so uniform that we either need to or ought to make our policy decisions in reference to them.
We are not forever condemned to find our future in our past.
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According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society. Given the universality of patriarchy in recorded history, this vision is understandably appealing for many women. But does it have any basis in fact? And as a myth, does it work for the good of women? Cynthia Eller traces the emergence of the feminist matriarchal myth, explicates its functions, and examines the evidence for and against a matriarchal prehistory. Finally, she explains why this vision of peaceful, woman-centered prehistory is something feminists should be wary of.

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