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“All hail to the Goddess,” chanted the berobed and garlanded women, as they stood in a circle, hands clasped. “All hail to Her whose good green earth we share and guard. All hail to Her whose time has come again.” The ritual, which took place in a forest clearing somewhere in Massachusetts, was filmed several years ago for a television documentary about covens of witches and the growing popularity and growing visibility of witchly leagues and associations. Devotees prefer the term “Wicca”—better yet, “Wicce,” which refers specifically to female congregations and rites honoring the Great Goddess who ruled in Europe before Christian times, before her followers were martyred, before her worship was driven underground.

Wicce devotees are not the only women to have rediscovered the Goddess. She has become the sacral element of the feminist movement, its binding spiritual force. Congregations of Womanchurch abound. They meet in small groups and occasionally in large conventions. They support magazines and journals devoted to Goddess concerns. They have inspired the production of radio and television documentaries. When questioned by journalists about their beliefs, Goddess devotees are at pains to emphasize a common creed of nonviolence, care for the earth, and harmony of all things with nature. They point to the presence of men as well as women among their congregants (the actual numbers are not available), and they insist that, really, they are not man-haters. It’s all bad press. The message of the Goddess is love.

Whatever the stated creed, not much love appears to be lost on either the male principle or the hapless male. Not, at least, in congregations all-female in membership. Nor in the writings of their theologians, who tend to blame “patriarchy” for all the world’s ills—from war and poverty to the rape of Mother Earth. Racism and sexism complete the list of indictments, with emphasis on the latter.

Rituals used in worshipping the Goddess vary from group to group. Some take their inspiration from the practices and beliefs of tribal folk or are culled from the literature of myth and lore. Actual liturgies from the days when temples to various goddesses were still in business have been lost; ancient devotees took their secrets into the grave. Even so, knowledge of some few celebrations has survived in historical records or the findings of archaeology. One of these is the rite of the Corn King. Certain German tribes each year chose a man to fructify the Goddess Nertha and afterward to submit to sacrifice. The Roman historian Tacitus reported this practice in a.d. 100 or thereabouts, and the bodies of Nertha’s victims have turned up, tanned to leather and nearly intact, in Danish peat bogs. Another well-known rite, this one associated with Anatolian Cybele, involved ecstatic self-emasculation by male converts to her worship. Roman society was understandably outraged when Cybele traveled to the gates of their city but, preoccupied as the Romans then were with invading Celts, could do little to keep her out.

Modern Goddess devotees are too polite—or too cognizant of legal consequences—even to call such rituals to mind, much less suggest reenactment. And, truth to tell, there would be few modern men, however Goddess-enamored, willing to go under the knife. A faint note of nostalgia nonetheless permeates the writings of feminist theologians, a sigh for the time when men cheerfully gave their all for love of Her, when they knew their place in religion and stayed there.

Is Womanchurch in its various congregations and manifestations simply another of the fly-by-night cults that appear briefly in the encyclopedias of contemporary religion? Or has it succeeded in pushing institutional change? Under the lash of feminist rebuke, Reform and Conservative Judaism and a number of liberal Protestant denominations have hastened to ordain female rabbis and ministers. The Bible has been shorn of language deemed to be sexist. And in 1990, Presbyterians promulgated a new statement of faith that declares God to be both Father and Mother.

Womanchurch theologians, however, are unlikely to be appeased. For the real issue is not parity but power. Perhaps only when the Creator wears a female face and the beings made in Her image are given priority and precedence will hostilities be suspended. It will be a better world, then, with women in charge of it. Or so the reasoning goes. It will be a gentler world, one more attuned to feeling than to thinking, to the personal than to the mechanistic. Paradise will obtain again as it did before the Fall, before invading males and their false gods banished or tamed the Goddess in her many forms and subjugated her living daughters and devotees.

Was there ever such a world? Among today’s Goddess congregations, its existence is an article of faith. In the late 1960s, art historian Merlin Stone set out to find the facts. She sought scientific confirmation of the Golden Goddess Age and of its Fall, publishing her findings in the book, When God Was a Woman. It is a vision of Utopia.

Most of the world’s people have yearned for a perfect place where lions and lambs lie down together and everyone loves everyone else. Such hopes make endurable the bald realities of everyday life. Philosophers have composed many recipes for life as it ought to be lived, and now and again rulers have forced their people to follow the recipe. Some utopias have been located in a glorious future, still others in a glorious past, in a race of demigods after whose demise the world tottered slowly downhill. The Greeks named the stages of decline after the metals, ever less precious over time. Stone’s feminist utopia accords with that pattern. But it is not an original creation. And not a feminist one, either. The realm of the Goddess was actually pioneered by men.

The late 1800s were years of intellectual ferment and discovery. New and shocking ideas were beginning to take hold. Scholarly acceptance of physical evolution suggested that culture, too, must have evolved, must have risen through stages on the way to modern times, each stage with its own religious orientation and style of life. The budding science of anthropology had begun to take note of people around the world who traced descent, not through Father in the familiar pattern, but through Mother instead. Classical scholars of the day thought they saw in the literature of Greece and Rome puzzling suggestions of this sort of descent. Was it an old pattern, buried under the legalisms and formality of city folk? J. J. Bachofen, a Swiss jurist, thought it might just represent one of humankind’s stages of development. The fact that he adored his own beautiful mother and declined to marry until long after her death no doubt prompted his vision of a golden time characterized by what he called Das Mutterrecht—mother right—which also meant, in his thinking, mother-rule, or matriarchy. And why shouldn’t mothers rule? “At the lowest, darkest stages of human existence,” he said, “the love between mother and offspring is the bright spot in life, the only light in the moral darkness, the only joy amid profound misery.”

Bachofen believed matriarchy was a conscious achievement by women after a long struggle to end conditions of debasing promiscuity and to achieve a higher, purer life. It gave rise to a kind of Victorian moral order, and a way of life marked by the invention of agriculture, communal ownership of property, and strict division of labor. Women, he said, became the keepers of hearth and home, men the hunters and warriors. Exactly the sort of domestic arrangements sneered at and scorned by Bachofen’s contemporaries, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Equally enamored of a matriarchal age and of the deity who ruled it was Robert Graves, the English poet and classical scholar. But his version of the matriarchate, described in the 1950s, functioned somewhat differently from the decorous, Victorian, marriage-minded model proposed by Bachofen. Graves’ Goddess was different, too, being wholly compatible with the sexually free-wheeling attitudes then gaining ground among intellectual elites. In his book The Greek Myths, Graves offered this confident portrayal:

Ancient Europe had no gods. The Great Goddess was regarded as immortal, changeless, and omnipotent; and the concept of fatherhood had not been introduced into religious thought. She took lovers, but for pleasure, not to provide her children with a father. Men feared, adored, and obeyed the matriarch; the hearth which she tended in a cave or hut being their earliest social center, and motherhood their prime mystery.

His view of the past fired scholarly imagination and came to be widely shared.

In Bachofen’s vision, the Golden Age had come to an end when invaders bearing a solar religion had defeated the matriarchy with its lunar orientation. Graves’ invaders entered the Greek peninsula in waves. The first migrants, he believed, had dutifully accepted the rule of the female theocracy and been content to serve as its warriors and year-kings. Cheerfully they had represented local gods of vegetation in the sacred marriage rites and cheerfully submitted themselves to the knife when their year was up. Later invaders were not so accommodating. Gradually or brutally they wrested control from female hands. And that was the end of Graves’ Golden Age.

By the 1950s linguistic studies had identified the invaders to everyone’s satisfaction. They were, quite simply, ancestors of people speaking modern Indo-European languages—English, Greek, Celtic, the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic groups, and the groups of Iran, Pakistan, and Northern India. And their geographical coverage was immense, far beyond the confines of the Hellenic Peninsula. What sort of people were these invaders? Comparisons of vocabularies and root words in the most ancient as well as modern forms of the related languages, as well as comparisons of their historically attested mythologies and lore, revealed remarkable similarities. All, it seemed, had revered triads of male gods, sky gods, warriors. All had possessed similar words for weapons of war, for horses, wheels, wagons. Their ancient vocabularies suggested a nomadic way of life based on cattle and the domesticated horse. They further suggested (just as Bachofen had predicted) families based on patriarchal principles—descent through males and male dominance in society as in theology.

Nobody then questioned the fact of invasion, for there were in Europe survivors of pre-invasion times: the non-Indo-European languages such as Basque or Georgian in the Caucasic group. And had not both Homer and Herodotus written about the Cretan tongue—different from Greek and still in existence as recently as 450 B.C.? As to the Indo-European point of entry, however, nobody was certain. Whence had the invaders come into Europe? Champions of various homelands entered the scholarly lists. Those who favored what was then the southern Soviet Union gradually gained prominence.

That they did so owed in large part to the work of Marija Gimbutas, a renowned author, Professor of Archaeology at the University of California, and for many years a leading expert in the field of Indo-European Studies. Together with Soviet archaeologists, she was able to document the Caspian Steppes homeland of what has been variously dubbed the Battle-Axe Culture, the Corded Wear Culture, or, Gimbutas’ preference, the Kurgan Culture, so called from the type of burial its people accorded their elites, the chariot-driving, horse-riding warriors who overran the farm communities of Europe beginning sometime in the fifth millennium B.C.

By the 1970s Gimbutas was digging sites in Bulgaria where farmers had settled long before the arrival of horsemen on the scene. The pioneers had initially crossed the Hellespont from Anatolia sometime before 7000 B.C., it was thought, bringing with them horticultural skills and a way of life developed in the Middle East. Gradually that way of life began to claim Gimbutas’ entire attention and her allegiance as well. In 1982, she celebrated the farmers’ culture (and decried its “savage” destruction) in her book Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. By “Old Europe” Gimbutas meant Greece and the Balkans where, she believes, art and artifact give testament to a Goddess Creatrix who had many aspects but was always One.

In 1984 she confirmed her change of fealty in a scholarly forum. Responding to a paper in Current Anthropology, she described the basic warlike features of the Kurgan Culture and contrasted them with the Old European “matricentric, sedentary, and peaceful culture.” The invaders had imposed a “patriarchal/androcratic” system and hybridized the lunar and earth goddesses with the “Indo-European male pantheon of sky gods.” Colleagues were beginning to suggest that her reconstructions of Old European Culture went beyond what the evidence could properly sustain and that a little more attention to the ambiguities might well be in order.

Undeterred, Gimbutas continued to pursue her own vision of a Golden Age. Five years later, in The Language of the Goddess, she connected past to present: “We are still living under the sway of that aggressive male invasion and only beginning to discover our alienation from our authentic heritage—a gylanic [sexes equal], non-violent, earth-centered culture.” The heart of this culture was the Goddess, monolithic and triumphant. Images that other experts prefer to associate with the male principle Gimbutas ignores or recruits to the service of her divinity. Indeed the Goddess of Language has begun to displace the male principle altogether, having become parthenogenetic, able to conceive without the agency of god or man.

The process of displacement can be read in the organization of Gimbutas’ two books. In Goddesses, two chapters out of ten describe the male divinity as year king and holy child. In Language, which extends the sway of the Goddess both geographically and chronologically to the Old Stone Age, the male principle receives even shorter shrift. Of the book’s twenty-four color plates, only one depicts a god figure. Of twenty-eight chapters, only one describes his roles. Her hands are tied, Gimbutas explains. The male principle was simply not important to the people of Old Europe.

Central to this view is Çatal Hüyük. Located in what is now Turkey, settled before 6000 B.C. (how much before cannot be told since the excavations by James Mellaart have been terminated by the Turkish government), this nascent city site is a veritable Goddess bonanza. Her figures and symbols are everywhere in the excavated area. We see her slim and columnar, fat and fertile, giving birth to horned beasts. We see her in abstract signs that, says Gimbutas, represent butterflies and bees and call to mind the myths of Anatolian Cybele (goddess of more recent times in the region) who, in the guise of Queen Bee, rips out the drone’s genitalia in the act of generation. Certainly there is nothing abstract about the breasts of the Goddess depicted on the walls of many shrine rooms. Buried in each is the beak of a vulture or the jaw of a wild boar, explicit reminders that the Goddess is death-giver as well as source of life.

Topping even the Goddess in pride of place and number of images, however, are the modeled heads and wall paintings and engravings of horned animals. Dominant among these is the mighty bull. Though decayed by time, these figures convey an unmistakable sense of male energy. A superficial impression, Gimbutas would say. In her view, the bull heads merely reflect the generative powers of the Goddess, being each a model of the female reproductive system, metaphorically speaking. Head and horns represent the womb and paired fallopian tubes.

Gimbutas’ view of the bull is curiously at odds with those cherished by ancient cultures of the Middle East, themselves recipients of influences from Çatal Hüyük. We find those different meanings in the remains of Sumerian cities located in what is now southern Iraq. Sumerian writings (beginning sometime before 3000 B.C.) tell us that every god had a bull as alter ego and was addressed as “fierce young bull with lapis lazuli beard.” The destructive power of the sky—unleashed with fear and trembling by the gods—was called The Bull of Heaven. Gods were depicted standing on the backs of bulls or other horned animals. (Just such figures have been found in Çatal Hüyük, but Gimbutas neglects to note them.) Perhaps this convention sheds light on the cult of the bull in Crete (c. 1700 B.C.), where acrobatic youths once vaulted between the horns of wild aurochs. For sport? In sacrifice? We cannot say. But the Spanish Corrida, the yearly running of the bulls in Pamplona, is clearly an evocation of ancient meanings and metaphors, of times when the bull was seen as ultimate expression of male power, and young males must needs test their courage before the horns.

It is worth noting that all Sumerian deities, whether male or female, wore horned miters. So did deities of later people in the region. The largest number of horns crowned the fifty great gods of the Sumerian pantheon, headed by the primal four: An, the Sky Father; Enlil, his son, god of winds; Enki, patron of wisdom and sweet water; and Ninhursag, “Lady of the Womb”—mother of animals and men, form giver, birth giver, “Midwife of the Gods.” “Her image,” says Thorkild Jacobsen, one of the great Sumerologists, “was one rooted in the family … and she had no specific political function [but] a decisive power in the universe and in the scheme of things.” All in all, very like Gimbutas’ version of the Great Goddess of Europe. But a lot warmer and more personable.

Ninhursag, however, was soon enough put in the shade by lovely and willful Inanna, whose powers (wheedled from Father An) included command of thunder and rain. “Queen of Heaven,” she rode the back of a lion whose roar was thunder and who carried her into combat. For she was the goddess of war. She was also the camp follower, the harlot, the patroness of prostitutes. (Thus the ritual prostitution featured in many ancient temples of the Middle East.) Inanna also managed to charm the gift of cunning from Enki, and from Enlil, the gift of force. She literally cornered the power market. In his book Treasures of Darkness, Jacobsen says, “We see her in all the roles a woman may fill except the two which call for maturity and sense of responsibility. She is never depicted as a wife and helpmate or as a mother.” Samuel Noah Kramer, another great Sumerologist, calls her the epitome of liberated woman and, half in love with her himself, hopes that at life’s end his ashes may be buried in the ruins of Uruk, Inanna’s city.

Male gods of Sumer, and the Middle East in general, are seen to play one of two divine roles. They are gentle, self-sacrificing, obedient souls, pawns of the Goddess. Or they are forceful warriors who vanquish chaos, unleash the storm, defend heaven and earth. The goddess roles are likewise dichotomized. They are represented by Ninhursag and Inanna. The Ninhursag role is glorified by Gimbutas and in the celebrations of today’s Goddess devotees. But is it Inanna who supplies the real role model for today’s woman?

There is more than a whiff of the masculine about Inanna, as there is about the native goddesses of Greek mythology. Aphrodite, accounted a relative newcomer on the scene, embodies Inanna’s appetite for carnal love, but it is Artemis and especially Athena who are the more powerful players among the Olympians. Eternal virgins, they pursue the masculine occupations of hunting and war. Whatever gods can do, they can do better. In several myths, Athena is shown besting Ares, the male war god. Others describe Artemis wheedling out of Father Zeus exactly what brother Apollo had been given in terms of cities, retinue, and power.

Nor were their sister goddesses, those assigned the domestic duties of hearth and home, exactly shrinking violets. Mother Demeter valiantly searches the wide world and outwits gods and kings to find her lost child. And Hera, supposedly one of those parthenogenetic avatars of the Great Goddess, forcibly wed to the conquering male, so harried Zeus as to make him ridiculous among his peers, the ultimate henpecked spouse.

So who conquered whom? And what happened to the Fall? One is hard put to read in these feisty figures evidence of a hostile takeover. Multiplying contradiction prompts skepticism. Can we really know what happened in the distant past? The answer must be no. Archaeology can recover the things people leave behind—their bones, their tools, their art and architecture. It can put them in a general time frame and compare them with findings at other sites. In the absence of writing, however, it cannot extract meaning. It cannot know for sure what ancient people thought about death or even the things they made. It cannot infer from the artifacts how people organized family.

Even writing (particularly in its fragmentary beginnings) does not wholly disclose old secrets. Nor do the myths of more recent times give certain clues to the way things were. Writings and artifacts are always subject to interpretation which, in turn, depends on what the scholar sees or chooses not to see or fails to see because it does not conform to the model he has in mind.

One record alone furnishes a corrective to interpretation. That is the ethnographic record, the collected descriptions of all the ways people have actually lived written by observers on the scene. (I emphasize totality; nobody supposes that mistakes in observation do not occur.) When in the early 1900s anthropology was able to get its ethnographers into the byways and backwaters of the world, it soon found that their reports quite contradicted the models of culture conceived by scholarly folk back home. All hunting people, it seemed, were not alike in terms of family, religion, technology, or outlook on life. Ditto for all the other modes of making a living. Each culture was, in fact, unique and had adapted to changing circumstances in its own unique way. The net weight of contradiction moved most anthropologists to discard their theories about cultural evolution. It was acknowledged that human society in general had tended over time to become more complex, but the rigid model of mega-stage advancement soon became obsolete.

Does that make the Golden Goddess Age obsolete as well? Was there ever a time when people everywhere traced descent through Mum, were ruled by Mum, lived in perfect harmony with Mum’s good green earth and with one another? The ethnographic record tends to veto the proposition. It tells us, for example, that matrilineal descent and farming are not necessarily bound together: everywhere economy and inheritance assort independently. It tells us that matriliny does not mean matriarchy. Descent through females does not imply female rule, in the house or out of it. Matrilineal families are headed, not by Mum herself, but by her brother. (Dad goes to Sister’s house to throw his weight around.) In many settings women individually or as a gender may wield considerable political power. Nowhere, however, do they enjoy dominion. The kind and degree of power they do possess, moreover, do not necessarily accord with the rules of descent. In some patrilineal societies, women may be forceful and independent; in some matrilineal ones, quite the reverse is true. If no unequivocal evidence of matriarchy has yet been discovered, neither is patriarchy anywhere absolute.

Nor does matriliny mean nonviolence. Some of the world’s most formidable warriors can be found in matrilineal societies. One thinks of the Bemba, who conquered widely in Central Africa, and of the Iroquois of Upper New York State. Even the stereotypically peaceable matrilineal tribes did and do honor war gods. The New Mexican Zuni are currently rescuing theirs from various modern museums.

Matriliny does not mean ecological purity, either. Among the most talented potters in the world, Pueblo people of the ancient American Southwest contributed to the region’s aridity and its erosion cycle by destroying forests to fuel their kilns. And Paleoindians, ancestors of living First Americans, rather handily made the native horses, elephants, and several species of bison extinct by driving them en masse over cliffs and into bogs where many were killed but few provided meat. (Were hunters matrilineal in descent? Let’s be fair; we don’t know.)

A goddess above does not guarantee rank below. Nor does a celestial tilt toward the male principle automatically disadvantage mortal women. Nowhere on earth is the Goddess in her aspects more powerful and more feared than in Hindu India. There reigns Mother Kali, mistress of life and death, hungry for blood. Once it was the blood of men she craved; today’s worshipers offer substitutes. Yet nowhere on earth do ordinary, lowly women have less power and suffer greater indignities than in India. Once it was a wife’s pious duty to accompany her husband in death, ending her life on his funeral pyre. Today’s bride of humble station, whose father cannot afford to go on paying dowry, chances immolation in her husband’s home, where she may be set alight by his mother in order to obtain for her son a new wife with yet another dowry.

Judaism is often indicted by feminists as the ultimate in sexist faiths. After all, didn’t its male God create Adam in His image and then draw Eve from Adam’s rib as a sort of afterthought? Even so, male dominance in Hebrew politics and religion did not inhibit the martial valor of Jael or Judith, did not belittle the leadership of Deborah, a prophetess, a judge, and as she said, “a mother in Israel.” Where in ancient literature can one find a more reverential tribute to the good woman than in Proverbs, chapter 31? No cloistered drab, this busy creature did it all and had it all: contented husband, happy children, a well-run household, and her own little textile business to boot.

The Protestant Reformation, in its Old Testament orientation, has been viewed as more bad news for women. Didn’t pastors of New England churches often cite Milton’s line, “He for God only, she for God in him”? But wait. In the New World, maxims did not necessarily dictate behavior. American women fought Indians on the frontier, followed their menfolk to war, reared children in the wilderness, and were the backbone of a new nation. No wonder Alexis de Tocqueville held the American woman in such admiration. Unlike her European sister, he said, she makes her own choices and sticks by them. The Protestant emphasis on choice, on personal responsibility for salvation, made individualism not only possible for women, but virtually obligatory. Would either the suffragist movement of the last century or current feminism have emerged from another sort of cultural climate?

“Pay little attention to what people say,” advised a wise old anthropologist. “Watch what they do.” What people do everywhere is to honor, overtly or otherwise, both gender principles. In all truth, you won’t find one without the other, even in some unlikely places. The matrilineal Navajo may focus their religious affections on Changing Woman, but she did not create the universe, being the child of First Man and First Woman, nor does she rule alone. Talking God and the Hero Twins have equally important roles to play. Among the strongly male-oriented Cheyennes, the recognized culture hero is a little girl who, with the help of animals, punished her murdering father and brought order to the tribe. The Council of Chiefs and the Soldier Societies, all instruments of justice and order, were her gifts long ago.

The “patriarchal” Celto-Germans, offshoots and descendants of those Kurgan folk whose invasions supposedly conquered the Great Mother, honored goddesses as well as gods. And these formidable females were just as demanding and bloodthirsty as their male counterparts. The result was equal-opportunity sacrifice. Recovered bodies and the mode of execution employed in each case prove the point.

Even the Australian Aborigines who, when initially encountered by Europeans, did not know the first thing about biological paternity, honored power beings both male and female. These formed conjoint families, however much their sacred duties might keep them apart. And though anthropologists have long deemed Aboriginal ritual a male monopoly, we now know that women in their separate congregations and lodges have always held equal responsibility for serving the purposes of the great powers and maintaining the mighty rounds of nature.

The Great Goddess of ancient days was, in the view of scholars devoted to Her cause, an embodiment of the life cycle, of fertility, of nature, and of the earth. Her rituals—as reinterpreted in today’s Goddess congregations—focus on these attributes. That view and those rituals invite speculation about the true nature of the Fall. If over the long years involved in the onset of civilization the male principle actually did achieve prominence, the reason may hinge on the appeal it made to mind over matter. For mortals need challenge and stern tasks. That is a human, not a gender, imperative. As a species we represent a triumph in survival against the odds, and we survived by way of wits and will, by way of cooperation and interdependence, man and woman, young and old. Had we bound ourselves forever to the turning seasons, to flesh and process, time and tide, we should long since have been made extinct. Had we, like the Year King, chosen rather to accept fate than to seek possibility, we should never have left village life behind.

This is the message of the historical divinities, male and female, who over the long years ceased to be anonymous representatives of Process and became individuals with unique and sometimes capricious personalities, individuals who exhibited behavior sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes licentious and gross. Still more change was in order. As societies became larger and more complex, worshipers demanded more of their deities. Increasingly they were asked to transcend local traditions emphasizing fertility and the cycles of nature; increasingly they were asked to set moral standards and to exemplify the rule of law. Gradually their numbers were reduced and their functions consolidated until a Supreme Being, variously titled, governed all.

The Goddess did not fall victim to conquest but rather to trend, not to conspiracy but to obsolescence. She did not die alone. Most of the old gods went with her. Some few survived as djinns or evil spirits, some were translated into hobgoblins, fairies, “little people.” The process was well underway in the Mediterranean world before Alexander of Macedon came close to achieving imperium.

In the monotheistic shakeout, what of the old themes remained? The first themes of all remained: the gender principles, the great mysteries of life and death and salvation, incorporated into the image of Holy Family.

We find sacred marriage and holy family featured in nearly every people’s understanding of how the world began. Representations of father-mother-child turn up—along with and among the figurines of fat females and long horned bulls—in every Old World site associated with early farming days. Among Çatal Hüyük’s treasures are schist plaques of the Goddess with consort and child—a sacred family. (These are unmentioned in Gimbutas’ two books about the Goddess.)

Sacred marriage, usually completed by the birth of sacred child, was one of the most popular celebrations of Sumer’s city states. In ritual dramas, these happy events were often followed by tragic loss of child or perhaps one of the holy parents. Recovery of the lost one after long search brought joy to end sorrow, brought irresistible promise as well. For the ritual not only affirmed the continuity of life, but gave the ordinary worshiper hope of life ever after.

Ancient Egypt’s sacred family included Osiris, the first pharaoh, culture bringer and lawgiver, and Isis, his gentle sister-wife. Torn in pieces by his vengeful brother, the body of Osiris was scattered over the world. Isis retrieved each piece and from them conceived the holy sun child Horus, who lived to avenge his father. No college of priests was ever formed to celebrate this holy family, so loved and honored by common folk. Yet each living pharaoh was hailed as an incarnation of Horus and, after death, was given the Osiris name by which he would be remembered.

The concept of holy family in Greece flowered into the Eleusinian Mysteries, religious events celebrated on the Aegean Coast near Athens long before people speaking Greek (the Kurgan invaders) had entered that land. It would still be sacred long after the Olympian gods had ceased to inspire belief or to prompt worship. There were several cycles of rites—one did not, after all, become a full member the first time out. Although the public celebrations have come down to us—the processions, the shared banquets, the torchlit dramas, the purification of devotees in the sea—only initiates were privy to the holiest secrets, and these were never fully revealed. Hints in various records suggest an enactment of sacred marriage—God and Goddess—followed by the birth of sacred child. Writers of the period did, however, speak of the joy and solace experienced by participants in the mysteries.

The first Greek Ptolemy to rule in Egypt cannily sought to combine the Osirian family with that of Eleusis. He had very much in mind the unification of the two peoples, Egyptian and Greek. It was an inspired idea and a great success well into Roman times and everywhere in the Hellenistic world except Egypt. The two family dramas were easily merged because they shared many similarities; doubtless both forms reflected a common, more ancient origin. In the new religion—its liturgies composed by priests imported from Eleusis—Osiris became Serapis, “Savior of All Men.” Horus (always depicted as a nursing infant) became Harpocrates. But Isis remained herself, “Queen of Heaven, Haven of Peace, and Altar of Pity.” One of her hymns proclaims:

I am Isis. I am she whom women call goddess. I ordained that women should be loved by men; I brought husband and wife together and invented the marriage contract. I ordained that women should bear children, and that children should love their parents.

One could hardly find a more ringing endorsement of family.

After the triumph of Christianity, Isis survived in the Madonna, and not only through a melding of attributes. Some of her very statues later served to represent Mary in early Christian churches. Church fathers earnestly strove to perpetuate the rites and images of holy family. In addition to the Nativity, celebrated every year at Christmas time, Christianity itself was cast as Family writ large. Headed by Father God, it was nurtured by Mother Church, and upheld by the faithful as their children. The hierarchy of ministrants received family titles. The supreme pontiff was Il Papa, the Pope, Father of Christendom. Priests were also “father”; nuns, “sister”; monks, “brother”; leaders of convents, “mother.” Female saints were often thought of as “mother” by those dedicated to their celebration. In those early times, there were many female preachers, each one a “mother” to her flock.

It is true that the importance of celibacy was a tenet of early Christian faith. From its earliest days, Christianity fostered gender-segregated cloisters, devoted alike to the glory of God and the preservation of learning. And yet, in the church of each monastery and convent, there was to be found the same high altar dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the same Lady Chapel for the Blessed Mother, and altars and shrines to saints of both sexes. Though marriage might not be for them, cloistered congregations upheld the sanctity of the married state and the holy duty of couples to bring up offspring who would be a credit to their faith. In cloister or in home, meanings were the same. All prayed for a common goal, a common good, and the perpetuation of life, which is what family is all about.

New ideas and forms of the sacred continually surface in the world. Their survival seldom depends on the validations of history or science or even common sense, but rather on how well they reflect current trend, meet current need, and express ultimate verities. Among these are the power of two and the holiness of family. Consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founded by Joseph Smith not much more than 150 years ago. It flourishes today largely because it is family centered. For Mormons, marriages are made in Heaven and sealed there for all eternity. The Universal family of Sun Myung Moon, founded less than fifty years ago, thrives on similar metaphors. Among America’s mainstream denominations, only those with strict rules and traditional standards, those at the sectarian end of the scale, are attracting many new converts. That trend is even more strikingly in evidence in Central and South America where, in some countries, evangelical Christians account for more than 25 percent of the population. In their congregations, the older Hispanic ideals of macho male and submissive female are submerged in the image of family partnership, faithful, self-improving, devoted to children and to one another. Devoted, too, to growing in grace, made manifest by growing prosperity.

Writings by feminist theologians have little to say about this kind of partnership and not much about children, either. And yet today the problems of children and their parents loom largest among our nation’s concerns. The intact family is now acknowledged to be the best guarantor of an individual’s happiness and health, society’s best hedge against disorder. What is more, the critical importance of father in the life and growth of children is widely understood. Can a spiritual movement that abolishes, diminishes, or demonizes men also persuade them to embrace the father role? Does the Goddess want to do that? Can a movement that portrays women as both better than, and victims of, men help to strengthen marital ties? Does the Goddess want to do that? At a time when the common good is all too often hostage to the desires of strident groups, can a movement that speaks of love but refuses conciliation help bridge society’s rifts? Or does it have a vested interest in continued strife?

If the Goddess does not speak to society’s problems, does she effectively address those of her own constituents? Yes, insist feminist theologians. She is the indispensable model and mentor without whom women cannot achieve their rightful place in the sun. But which model fills the bill? And which goddess is the real Goddess after all? Is she to be Birth Mother, patroness of procreation? (Can those who champion abortion on demand worship without contradiction an emblem of fertility?) Is she to be War Queen and Harlot, patroness of sexual recreation, gleefully beating men at their own game? (Doesn’t that image accentuate the masculine? Doesn’t it sanction bellicosity? How to reconcile a creed of nonviolence with the actual presence of women soldiers on the scene?) Is the Goddess to be Mother Nature, mistress of animals, vegetation, and the harvest? (Can such a being meet the needs of people inhabiting a complicated and technological world? Can she meet the needs of congregants who make a living by their wits and come no closer than the local supermarket to the ultimate sources of sustenance?) Is the Goddess to be anonymous, implacable Prime Directive, mistress of life and death, self-fertilizing and alone, disdainful of the petty concerns of men—or women, for that matter? (Such a grim vision, as remote as any male divinity, is unlikely to enjoy wide popularity.)

Constituents of the Goddess are, more often than not, academics, professionals, members of the highly educated elite. They talk a lot, they argue and dissent, they are keenly attuned to slight. They assemble in large convocations, look around, and then ask, “Where are the others? Where are the housewives and secretaries and factory workers? Where are the women who go dutifully to mass and cook for parish fairs? They need the Goddess, too.”

But do they? Does a philosophy that sacralizes Self speak to a woman concerned with Other? Does a movement that expects the worst of men touch the woman who has borne sons as well as daughters and loves them both? Can it recruit her whose husband is also best friend? Does it offer anything to the woman less interested in self-fulfillment than in making ends meet? Has the Goddess a reliable guide for negotiating everyday quandaries and perils? Can she bless and nourish those personal ties without which life is not worth living? Can she bring comfort when ties are broken and loved ones lost?

These homely tasks are not in Her celestial job description. The Goddess of feminism (in whatever form) was rescued from oblivion to emblemize and sanctify the quest for woman-power in the private as in the political arena. And the evocation of a Golden Goddess Age lent the quest scholarly warrant. Ultimately, the Goddess is not for the many but for the self-chosen few. She is not a divinity for all seasons. It is hard to believe she ever was.

Olivia Vlahos, before her retirement, chaired the Social Sciences Department at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. Her most recent book is Doing Business: The Anthropology of Striving, Thriving, and Beating Out the Competition.

Photo by Soumik Dey on Unsplash. Image cropped.

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