The Myth of Universal Patriarchy:
A Critical Response to Cynthia Eller's Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory
Joan Marler 2003
In 1993, Cynthia Eller published Living in the Lap of the Goddess (1993) hailed by leading spiritual
feminists as an illuminating study of the feminist spirituality movement in America. Her more
recent book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future
(2000) published by Beacon Press, seeks to eviscerate this same movement. The key arguments
in this book are not original and were presented three decades ago in Michelle Rosaldo and Louise
Lamphere's anthology Women, Culture, and Society (1974). The main thesis of The Myth of Matriarchal
Prehistory is stated in the concluding sentence of Joan Bamberger's article, "The Myth of Matriarchy,"
from the same 1974 volume: "The myth of matriarchy is but the tool used to keep woman bound to
her place. To free her, we need to destroy the myth."
The political nature of Eller's book is revealed in the opening quotation by Kwame Anthony Appiah:
"The real political question. . .as old as political philosophy. . .[is] when we should endorse the
ennobling lie." Such "falsehoods," he writes, are not only "useless," but "dangerous."
The dangerous, "ennobling lie" that Eller attempts to debunk is the recognition that human societies
have not always supported male domination in social structure and religious practice. In contrast to
Western myth of universal patriarchy and the hegemony of a transcendent male monotheistic God
believed to exist from the beginning of time, the so-called myth of matriarchal prehistory posits, in
its simplest terms, that women were honored at the center of early non-patriarchal, non-warlike,
egalitarian societies and the powers of nature were originally venerated primarily in female forms.
Male domination, therefore, is not an inevitable, universal human condition and it is possible to
create viable, balanced societies in the future.
Eller tells a revealing story about visiting the archaeological site of Knossos on Crete as a student
and hearing from her professor that the Minoans were matriarchal. The derisive laughter that
followed from the other students left her with the attitude that pervades this book: "'Matriarchal?
So what?' If a lot of snickering was all that prehistoric matriarchies could get me, who needed them?"
Sometime later, she became intrigued with the idea of female "centeredness" in society, which she
erroneously equated with female rule that represented for her "a reversal that had a sweet taste of
power and revenge. More positively," she wrote, "it allowed me to imagine myself and other women
as people whose biological sex did not immediately make the idea of their leadership, creativity, or
autonomy either ridiculous or suspect." After the appearance of Living in the Lap of the Goddess in
1993, Eller became identified with the goddess spirituality movement. As an ideological backlash
intensified during the mid-1990s, she reversed that identification by producing The Myth of Matriarchal
Prehistory which safely positioned her as one of the movement's most vehement critics.
Matriarchy is strategically defined by Eller as "any society in which women's power is equal or superior
to men's and in which the culture centers around values and life events described as 'feminine.'" This
carefully constructed definition does not diminish the negative projections and historical baggage the
word carries concerning the imagined dangers of female power.
Johann Jakob Bachofen, author of Das Mutterrecht (1861), is usually associated with the concept of
matriarchy, although he actually never used the term. His English translator substituted matriarchy in
place of gynaikokraite (gynecocracy, meaning rule by women) which he considered a prerequisite for
the development of mutterrecht in which daughters inherit rights through the mother line. This
"mother-right" was conceived by analogy with "father-right" rather than from ethnographic studies of
female-oriented social forms. For readers of the English translation, the term matriarchy became
equated with the idea of a society ruled by women, dismissed as fantasy by most anthropologists. As
Sanday deftly notes, "It is impossible to find something that has been defined out of existence from
Eller admits that "none of the women who champion this version of Western history call themselves
'feminist matriarchalists,' and none refer to the story they tell as 'the myth of matriarchy prehistory,'"
yet Eller utilizes this term throughout her book to cast suspicion on anything that "feminist
matriarchalists say. . ." Although German researchers, such as Heide Göttner-Abendroth do use the
term matriarchy (without confusing it with gynecocracy), the Lithuanian/American archaeologist Marija
Gimbutas and most American scholars reject its use as a description of prehistoric cultures precisely
because it has come to imply a social structure that is the mirror image of patriarchy in which men are
dominated by women. Therefore, the honesty of Eller's use of "feminist matriarchalists" as a
name-calling device must seriously be questioned.
Although contemporary Western feminism is far from monolithic, with three distinct and nuanced "waves"
of theoretical development, it is characterized by a critique of systems of domination for the purpose of
promoting equality between the sexes while respecting the human rights of all individuals in society.
Nevertheless, just as the word matriarchy carries the implication of domination by women, the word
feminist commonly evokes the connotation of in-your-face-uppity-females who think they should run
the world. Eller gives voice to this sentiment: "As if women would ever have run things, could ever have
run things. . .and if they did, men surely had to put an end to it!" Therefore, the term "feminist
matriarchalists" carries a dual negative which Eller relies upon to strengthen her purpose.
The idea that not all human societies and religions throughout time were male-dominated came as an
awakening to thousands of women during the last decades of the twentieth century. A tremendous
outpouring of art, literature, ritual, and all manner of creative expressionofrom the most scholarly to
the most fancifulopoured forth from the widening cracks in the myth of universal patriarchy. Drawing
from research on the women's spirituality movement, feminist discourse and anthropological theories,
Eller attempts to denigrate the idea that non-warlike societies ever existed where women were honored
at least as much as men. In her view this is a utopian, escapist fantasy.
There is nothing in the archaeological record that is at odds with an image of prehistoric life as nasty,
brutish, short, and male-dominated. . . [although] it could have been blissful, peaceful, long, and
matriarchal. Female and male grave goods of equivalent wealth do not prove that men were not
dominant, nor does the absence of weapons of war among the material remains . . . mean that there
was no warfare.
As a leveling tactic, she throws everyone who has written positively on the subject into the same pot
and admits: "I make no distinction between the tenured professor examining cuneiform tablets, the
novelist spinning out imaginative fantasies about prehistoric Europe, and the New Age practitioner
writing. . .about past lives as a priestess. . ." Conveniently, the voices of respected scholars are
disregarded as easily as the most fanciful interpretations by New Age writers. Strategically chosen
phrases are combined out of context from many different sources spanning decades of published
work to create a series of parodies crafted for easy dismissal. The divisive tone of Eller's book is
typical of the antagonistic postures critiqued by such scholars as Deborah Tannen in The Argument
Culture (1999) and Phyllis Chesler in Women's Inhumanity to Women (2001).
Eller correctly acknowledges that a myth has arisen that has tremendous psychological and spiritual
significance. The word myth, however, must be qualified. In contemporary vernacular, myths are
equated with lies or with ideological fabrications. More importantly, myths transmit patterns of
cultural significance that promote balance, continuity, and mutual identity within societies. The
mythologist Joseph Campbell emphasized that the deepest level of myth cannot be ideologically
constructed, but is generated from a perception of the wonder and divinity of life and the
interconnected unity of the cosmos. The viability of any mythology derives from the ability of its
metaphors to provide personal and cultural meaning.
More and more people are recognizing that the constellation of Western myths and symbols have
reinforced systems of domination, exploitation, and manifest destiny. The myth Eller seeks to
disqualify is inseparably linked with a rediscovery of the sacredness of the earth and the necessity
to cultivate respectful relationships between the sexes and with all forms of life.
The work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas from the 1970s and 1980s about Neolithic female imagery
(1974/1982, 1989) coincided in the United States with publications by Mary Daly (1973, 1978) Merlin
Stone (1976, 1979), Susan Griffin (1978), Charlene Spretnak (1978, 1982), Starhawk (1978),
Carolyn Merchant (1980), Gerder Lerner (1986), and numerous other scholars promoting the second
wave of feminism, the reemergence of an earth-based spirituality and the ecology movement.
Collectively, their research provided an historical basis for the rejection of entrenched beliefs in the
universality of male dominated religions and social structures and the reclamation of women's
leadership roles as creators of culture.
Eller counters: "Discovering or more to the point, inventing prehistoric ages in which women and men
lived in harmony and equality is a burden that feminists need not, and should not bear." In her view,
the "matriarchal myth" tarnishes the feminist movement by leaving it open to accusations of "
vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court." Scholarship in every field must be
continually refined, and it is particularly important to examine the underlying assumptions and
methods by which interpretations about prehistory are made. But who presumes the authority to
accuse anyone of "vacuousness and irrelevance" for considering the possibility that women and
men may have lived, at some time, in balanced, egalitarian societies? Whose interests are served
by perpetuating such a fear of criticism?
Gender and Social Structure
From before the time of Plato, Western philosophy equated natural differences with a hierarchy of
inequality, leading to the prevailing conclusion that women can never be equal to men. In effect,
the doctrine of universal sexual asymmetry (interpreted as inequality) has achieved the status of
theoretical as well as political hegemony in Western thought. This assumption has resulted in the
naturalization of male-centered reconstructions of the past that have dominated archaeology for
more than two centuries.
Archaeologists have traditionally assumed that male activities in all societies represent power,
prestige, and spatial segregation, whereas females are associated with subordination, domesticity,
the burden of childcare, and the use of tools that are technologically or aesthetically inferior. Male
power is considered ubiquitous and is "observed" even when there is none. Moreover, all gender,
social, political, and economic differences are typically arranged hierarchically. It has not been
uncommon for anthropologists to transform informants' neutral statements of differences
between male and female activities into hierarchical gender categories even when the informants
considered the categories to be separate but not ranked.
During the last thirty years, explorations of gender from a feminist perspective have precipitated
an enormous body of literature that challenges prevailing androcentric bias in anthropology,
archaeology, and numerous other fields. While the study of gender has led to radical analyses
of socially constructed differences between women and men, a primary anthropological question
continues to be asked: Have any societies existed in which women were recognized as equal to
or more powerful than men? Eller repeats Rosaldo and Lamphere's outdated thesis from 1974
that "all contemporary societies are to some extent male-dominated and . . . sexual asymmetry
is presently a universal fact of human social life," even though this conclusion was later modified
by Rosaldo to reflect a less polarized theoretical approach.
Numerous feminist scholars have criticized the projection of Western assumptions about the
universality of male dominance onto past societies and non-Western cultures. In Female
Power and Male Dominance (1981) anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday did not make
sameness of gender identity a condition for equality. After analyzing ethnographic data from
over 150 indigenous societies she rejected the notion of universal male dominance. Two decades
of her own primary ethnographic research has clearly documented matrilineal, egalitarian,
democratic relationships between women and men. Eller, however, who has done no such primary
If there are in fact societies where women's position is high and secure, these exceptions
cannot lead us to believe that it was this pattern (rather than the more prevalent pattern
of discrimination against women) that held in prehistory.
According to this non-scientific assumption, Eller presents male domination as the most likely
template for understanding all forms of social organization, even egalitarian, and she imagines
"the broad pattern regarding women's status. . .as lower than men's, whatever the prevailing
economy." From this biased perspective she declares: "gender naturalizes male dominance"
and "'femaleness' serves sexist interests, was possibly created to do so, and will always
threaten to continue to do so." Anthropologist Maria Lepowsky presents a different view:
A focus upon asymmetry and domination . . . tends to presuppose its universality as a
totalizing system of belief and practice and thus to distort analyses of gender roles and
ideologies in places with egalitarian relations.
Ethnoarchaeologist Susan Kent notes, however, that egalitarianism is not an absolute or static
category and is represented cross-culturally as a continuum between highly egalitarian and highly
non-egalitarian societies. She nevertheless points out that
those scholars who claim that gender egalitarianism does not exist in any society do so
because they are unwilling or unable to see highly egalitarian societies outside their own
hierarchical cultural filters.
Only by removing those filters and incorporating the full range of non-biased research can scientists
accurately document the complete scope of women's cultural roles "negotiating, contesting, exercising
and holding power as autonomous agents and individuals rather than as dependents or subordinates
of men." To assume that women have always been subservient to men disregards an essential body
of scientific evidence.
To essentialize something is to reduce a complex idea or object to simplistic characteristics, thereby
denying diversity, multiple meanings and alternative interpretations. By this definition, Eller is
"essentializing" the rich variation of world-wide culture systems throughout time by collapsing them
into the narrow confines of androcentric expectations. (The typical use of the term "essentialist,"
however, is similar to "feminist matriarchalist".)
Feminist archaeologists Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector acknowledge that archaeology "has been
neither objective nor inclusive on the subject of gender" and that contemporary experience of social
roles has been used as the framework to interpret gender in the archaeological record. Eller, however,
relies upon the same traditional framework that assumes a lower status for females in prehistory
based upon women's essential difference from menothe ability to give birth:
If it is possible for our ancestors to systematically disadvantage women in spite of (or perhaps
because of) their unique and essential mothering capacities, why should it not have been equally
possible for our prehistoric ancestors to do the same?
She continues: "If gender exists only (or primarily) as the means through which oppression is achieved,
surely there can be no merit in reifying it, as feminist matriarchalists do."
Women and Nature
In 1974, Sherry Ortner published her landmark article "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" in
which she gives voice to entrenched Western attitudes by attributing the devaluation of women's status
to a closeness with nature, while associating men with culture and "higher" human activities. Although
she admits in her conclusion that "the whole scheme is a construct of culture rather than a fact of
nature," the task of "elevating" women to a level equal with men is described as exceedingly difficult
due to the reality of female biology and the perceived universality of male dominance.
At precisely the same period, during the mid-1970s, a movement arose sometimes referred to as
"Cultural Feminism." Cultural feminists refused to accept the inevitability of women's oppression,
focusing instead on the role acculturation plays in perpetuating the dynamics of sexual inequality.
Instead of attempting to transcend and control the body, women began to seek liberation from
oppression by embracing and redefining femaleness on their own terms and by personally investigating
internalized oppression, rather than focusing primarily on external factors. Women began to celebrate
their relationship with the cycles of the earth, cultivating a new respect for the female body in contrast
to prevailing attitudes of shame and inferiority. A deepening alignment between embodied spirituality
and a responsive kinship with all of life connected the personal with the political as expressed in this
excerpt by author/activist Starhawk:
If the sacred is immanent in nature, then we no longer have license to exploit, pollute and
destroy the natural systems which sustain life. If the sacred is embodied, then our bodies
carry with them a sacred authority. If the earth herself is the location of the sacred, then
we must learn to live in harmony with the earth.
Subsequent investigations into the origin of patriarchy, the search for evidence of balanced,
egalitarian cultures, the cultivation of an earth-based spirituality and the desire to create more
balanced and humane societies are at the core of what Eller derisively calls the matriarchal myth.
This movement that embraces nature and the body, experienced by many as a dynamic process
of spiritual and cultural renewal, was and is seen by certain feminists (and anti-feminists as well)
as embarrassing and ultimately regressive, illustrating a major bifurcation within the feminist
Eller acknowledges that women from many socioeconomic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds
"married, single, lesbian, bisexual, and straight, with no one status dominating" have been
inspired by the so-called matriarchal myth. It is true that many women from diverse backgrounds
and lifestyles have come to honor the Sacred in female forms, and celebrate the entire range of
female (read "human") capacities, while holding the conviction that male domination is not inevitable.
In spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, Eller nevertheless asserts that the matriarchal myth
rests on "gendered stereotypes" that
work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between women and
men; and to hand women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal, instead of
giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments. . . .
Instead of broadening the concept of what women can be, feminist matriarchal thought
narrows it, making 'femininity' about as inescapable as a pair of leg irons.
Similar themes are promoted by other feminist scholars. For instance, in an overview of anthropological
history, Micaela di Leonardo states:
Both feminist essentialists and conservative anti-feminists have continued to draw on the
nineteenth-century storehouse of moral motherhood symbolism, stressing women's innate
identity with and nurturance of children and nature."
The old equation tenaciously reappears: Because conservative, anti-feminist moralists have g
lorified motherhood, women's nurturing abilities, and "innate" closeness with nature (while keeping
women in the kitchen and the bedroom), any woman who honors the reproductive and nurturing powers
within her and experiences a deep kinship with the natural world is, therefore, assumed to be playing
into regressive, patriarchal stereotypes that will keep her in bondage. What's the alternative? Not to
honor motherhood? To deny women's nurturing capacities and resonance with nature in order to
escape a patriarchal trap? The personal lives of countless individuals, named by Eller as feminist
matriarchalists, have functioned for decades as multidimensional laboratories for personal and
societal transformation. These women are hardly the shrinking violets of 19th-century "femininity,"
yet Eller conflates their individually motivated, embodied inquiries with the simplistic stereotype of
sexist "femininity" in which women are assumed to be "clinging to a single concept of femaleness"
that she associates with "impotence, restraint, and stasis." Eller insinuates that these feminist women
are mindlessly directing their lives according to "universal claims about who 'women' really are, [and]
what traits they will (or ought to) evidence as a result of their biological sex." For women who have
devoted themselves to the arduous task of reclaiming personal identity from layers of patriarchal
conditioning, the imposition of such a narrow theoretical frame discards the validity of their own
experiences and achievements. How can such an injustice serve the interests of women or of feminism?
Lamenting that being female evokes male-defined categories and continual victimization, Eller a
nnounces: "The obvious option seems to be, as feminist Denise Riley suggests, 'to stand back
and announce that there aren't any women.'" Then, in a sudden stroke of insight, she adds:
Defining women by the sexism that labels them does not rule out the possibility of
rehabilitating values traditionally dismissed as 'feminine.' We can work to make the world
a place that practices compassion and nurturance, that values relationships and the natural
Cultivating these human values is what the so-called feminine matriarchalists have been doing all
along with one major difference: in Eller's scheme, male supremacy is never challenged.
The Presence of the Goddess
For Western women, steeped in androcratic traditions that exclude deity in female forms, the discovery
of Goddess worship in multicultural contexts and the profusion of female imagery from world prehistory
came as revelation. The title of Merlin Stone's 1976 volume When God was a Woman appeared as a banner
headline announcing a new consciousness that represented heresy within the Judeo-Christian context.
Women who searched for female imagery in the earliest human art found descriptions of "man the hunter"
as the first artist depicting animals and women as objects of his conquests. Ice Age sculptures of nude
females, found along the big game corridor between the Pyrenees and Siberia, 30,000-10,000 before
present, were named Venuses, implying an erotic function in service to the male imagination. These
sculptures, that fit easily in the hand, are typically described as fertility fetishes, Stone Age pornography,
or mother goddesses. Such definitions conform to the notion that, from Paleolithic times, men were engaged
in cultural activities as artists, shamans, and creators of technology, whereas women were sex objects
concerned with fertility, child bearing and primitive domesticity.
The first archaeologist to present an in-depth investigation of prehistoric European symbolism, offering an
alternative to the typical androcentric viewpoint, was Marija Gimbutas, whose theories are targeted for
dismissal in Eller's book. In Gimbutas' view, Paleolithic as well as Neolithic female sculptures were not
produced for the erotic stimulation of males, but expressed concepts of the sacred source and cyclic mystery
of life rendered in female forms, which she called "Goddess." Gimbutas stressed that this cosmogonic
concept of deity was not limited to fertility or motherhood, but had multiple functions and representations.
In order to adequately study these various manifestations, Gimbutas writes: "Attention must be paid to how
they are rendered, with what other symbols they are associated, and whether their depiction extends over
Ethnographic sources provide clues to the possible significance of miniature female sculptures found in Ice Age
contexts. For instance, in Siberia where the ice-shield melted slowest in Eurasia, a continuity of Palaeolithic
socioeconomic patterns endured in local populations. Various Siberian peoples have long associated the natural
world with female spirits. In the mythology of the Finno-Ugrians, for instance, the earth, forests, water, wind,
and fire are believed to express the living presence of female deities. The Siberian Evenki people traditionally
keep a female sculpture in every tent, symbolizing the spirit of a female ancestor guardian who protects the
fireplace and is responsible for the well-being and shelter of the family. The Chukchee people of the Siberian
northeast have a custom of giving a "doll" to the bride, symbolizing a protective female ancestor. Moreover, in
these cultures, the roles of prominent women, such as female shamans, have been preserved. There is no
contradiction between this evidence and Gimbutas' concept of Goddess.
Eller admits that "the idea that [prehistoric imagery] had a religious or magical function is relatively well
supported." Nevertheless, she devotes an entire page of drawings that she explains are "intended to illustrate
a resemblance between Paleolithic figures. . .and contemporary pornographic images of women." She discusses
the "vulva-finding expedition" of twentieth century male archaeologists, and repeats Sally Binford's remark that
Paleolithic vulva symbolism "would be right at home in any contemporary men's room." In contrast, Gimbutas
A serious and continuous obstacle in the study of ancient societies is the indolent assumption that they
must have resembled our own. . . the existence of 'a different world' is the hardest thing to admit.
Marija Gimbutas had a long and esteemed career in archaeology before she was discovered by the Goddess
movement. After establishing her reputation as a renowned scholar of European prehistory at Harvard University,
Gimbutas became Chair of European Archaeology at University of California, Los Angeles, and was project director
of five major Neolithic sites in southeast Europe (1967-80). Her research on the earliest agrarian cultures of
southeast Europe (c. 6500-3500 BC) resulted in a pioneering study of Neolithic symbolism. Neveretheless, Eller
describes her status as "peripheral," insinuating through the press that Gimbutas "built a career upon her belief
in a matriarchal past."
While Gimbutas did not ignore the existence of male imagery (which she called "gods"), she interpreted the vast
majority and variation of female iconography (which she called "goddesses") as expressions of the centrality of the
female in myth and ritual and the significance of women's participation in the continuity of cultural life. While the
term "Goddess" is often problematic for Westerners who tend to imagine a female version of the transcendent
Father God, Gimbutas defined "the Goddess" as "the unity of all life in nature" and "the infinite powers and patterns
of nature expressed through plant, animal, and human life" oa metaphor of the powers of the living earth rendered
in myriad anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms.
Although Eller actually agrees that goddess worship is the "most likely" explanation of Neolithic figurines, she also
asserts: "There is no warrant for. . . the assumption that prehistoric goddess worship, insofar as it existed, conferred
greater respect upon women or insulated them from misogyny or subordination to men." Anthropological research by
Peggy Reeves Sanday, relegated to a footnote in Eller's text, supports the opposite conclusion: "male gods correlate
with male power while goddesses or mixed-sex pantheons correlate with greater status for women." Sanday asks:
Which sex is imbued (naturally or socially) with the reproductive powers that recharge the sources of
supernatural fecundity? What is the gender of the dominant symbols tying the archetypal to the social? How
do males and females complement one another in the political arena and how is this arena tied to the
Recognizing the difficulties involved in adequately interpreting the belief systems and social structures of prehistory,
Gimbutas developed an interdisciplinary methodology called "Archaeomythology" to broaden the scope of descriptive
archaeology by incorporating scholarship from ethnology, mythology, linguistics, anthropology of religion, historical
documents and other fields. Importantly, this multidisciplinary approach provides the ability to test the validity of
theories and assumptions: if an interpretation is acceptable according to one discipline but is invalidated by another,
the interpretation must be reexamined. One of Gimbutas' assumptions is that the core beliefs of traditional societies
are typically slow to change and may be perpetuated through folklore, mythology, religion, and social structure over
many generations, even as remnants of archaic cultural patterns. Applying an archaeomythological approach,
Gimbutas determined that matrilineal succession in the non-Indo-European societies of Europe and Asia
MinoroMinoan, Etruscan, Pelasgian, Lydian, Lykian, Carian, and Basque, among othersodid not arise from patriarchal
conditions, but represents substratum continuities from earlier egalitarian, matricentric cultures where the primary
deities were female.
The worship of female deities is connected to a mother-kinship system and ancestor worship in which the sexual
identity of the head of the family and kin formulated the sexual identity of the supreme deity. In the mother-kinship
system, woman as mother is the social center . . .venerated. . .as the progenitor of the family and stem.
Similar societies are well attested by ethnographic studies, such as the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, one
of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia. These egalitarian people, studied by Peggy Reeves Sanday for over two
decades, express many of the elements described by Gimbutas as Old European. Sanday writes that in their
tradition-based society, ultimate authority does not rest in political roles but in a cosmological order that pivots
around female oriented symbols upheld by ritual acts coordinated by women. Their social structure is based not on
a gendered division of political power but on gendered divisions within the sociocultural and cosmological orders in
which males and females compliment one another. The mother/child bond is sacred and customs associated with
matrilineal descent are treated as foundational to personal and cultural identity. All persons are connected through
females to a common ancestress who exemplifies primordial principles of conduct. Women's life-cycle ceremonies
bring members of different clans together and maternal symbols are venerated, representing "a female ethos that
emphasizes love, duty, and common commitment to a sacred tradition." The Minangkabau people refer to their own
culture as matriarchal with no implication of domination by women.
The symbolism of Neolithic figurines was rarely a topic for discussion before Marija Gimbutas' research on Old
European symbolism began to appear. The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe was published in 1974, the same
year as Ortner's article in Rosaldo and Lamphere's anthology. The fact that Gimbutas described women at the
center of Neolithic cultures and that her work (especially The Language of the Goddess, 1989) was discovered and
celebrated by the women's spirituality movement has disqualified her as a true scientist in the eyes of certain
critics. Gimbutas' theories struck a nerve at the center of the nature/culture debate that triggered a rising wave
of uninformed criticisms. She is typically accused, for instance, of collapsing the diversity of female images under
the rubric of fertility or mother goddesses. Instead of considering the full range of her theories, the critics repeatedly
cite each other and parrot the same tired phrases while disregarding Gimbutas' actual voice:
It is true that there are mother images and protectors of young life, and there was a Mother Earth and Mother
of the Dead, but the rest of the female images cannot be generalized under the term Mother Goddess...They
impersonate Life, Death and Regeneration; they are more than fertility and motherhood.
In Gimbutas' view, Neolithic sculptures and related symbolism are visual metaphors that "represent the grammar and
syntax of a kind of meta-language by which an entire constellation of meanings is transmitted."
My primary presupposition is that they can best be understood on their own planes of reference, grouped according to
their inner coherence. They constitute a complex system in which every unit is interlocked with every other in what
appears to be specific categories . . .[of a] cohesive and persistent ideological system.
Gimbutas' methodology is not recognized as valid by processualist archaeologists who consider the symbolic
dimensions of culture inaccessible to properly scientific investigation, nor is it accepted by feminist archaeologists
who have ignored the archaeomythological basis of Gimbutas' investigations. Eller accurately states that feminist
archaeologists operate out of entirely different assumptions from Gimbutas who never entered the gender and
archaeology discussion. In contrast to Gimbutas' focus on symbolism, for instance, feminist archaeologists Ruth
Tringham and Margaret Conkey insist that prehistoric European figurines must be studied in terms of gender
ideology and the negotiations of power relations, an approach that Eller also embraces. They are cynical about
"Gimbutas' scenario of egalitarian, peaceful coexistence" which they see as encouraging conformity and discouraging
resistance that would challenge the authority of the Goddess. Tringham and Conkey prefer to imagine competition
between Neolithic households in which residents supposedly used figurines to express and maintain symbolic
autonomy. They also imagine figurines and rituals used by senior males as a way of dominating and exploiting
other groups. As an explanation for the increase in figurine production, they endorse the notion that figurines
could have been created by women, as a "muted group," to serve as insults as a way of resisting male domination
due to increased competition between the sexes.
It is imperative to point out here that there is absolutely no evidence whatever of competition between households
or male domination in pre-Indo-European Neolithic cultures. The assumption that competition and struggles for power
are forever ubiquitous is used as the primary "evidence" for such interpretations when no other evidence exists. This
is a prime example of "presentism"othe projection of contemporary conditions and expectations onto the past.
Collision of Cultures
Major social and economic changes took place in Europe within the 4th and 3rd millennia BC resulting in the
establishment of Bronze Age societies. Gimbutas' "Kurgan Hypothesis" remains the most accepted and consistently
debated explanation of these changes, which she described as "a collision of cultures" resulting in radical
transformations of ideology and social structure. The sophistication of this theory is lost when it is rendered simply
as a cartoon of "evil warriors on horseback" sweeping through Old Europe, destroying the "good Goddess cultures."
The peoples from north of the Black Sea (Proto-Indo-European speakers whom Gimbutas named Kurgans) who
began entering Europe after 4400 BC lived in small bands and, Gimbutas writes, "their encroachment on Old
Europe cannot be thought of as an organized, massive invasion of the type we know from historical times."
Nevertheless, when their barrow-type graves appeared in Europe for the first time (primarily containing males with
weapons), nearly 700 major habitation sites, representing a rich fabric of cultural and technological developments,
disintegrated after flourishing undisturbed for many hundreds of years. Tellingly, Eller misrepresents a statement
by archaeologist James Mallory from his landmark book, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, to give the impression of
wholesale rejection of Gimbutas' theory. Mallory was, in fact, reporting a minority viewpoint. Eller intentionally
omitted his primary message:
The Kurgan solution is attractive and has been accepted by many archaeologists and linguists, in part or total.
It is the solution one encounters in Encyclopedia Britannica and the Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse.
According to Gimbutas' theory, fundamental changes in language, economy, social structure, and religious
beliefs took place over two millennia as a result of complex processes of external and internal influences.
The stable, egalitarian, matricentric cultures of Neolithic Europe were replaced by patriarchal patterns of
dominance although Old European patterns continued as substratum elements in subsequent European
societies. As Susan Kent comments: "Culture forms an integrated whole system in which gender is culturally
constructed. If other parts of culture change, gender is also influenced." Eller and other critics (even feminist
archaeologists) seem squeamish about inquiring into the origins of patriarchy and appear more comfortable
imagining societies as always male dominated. After all, if the beginning of patriarchy in Europe can be traced
to the Bronze Age, its eternal status is threatened. Eller remarks:
The very attempt to ask and answer origins questions about sexismowhich is both matriarchal myth's
motivation and methodois fraught with danger . . .[leading to] a totalizing image of 'patriarchy'. . .[and a]
nostalgia for a lost past. . .[which] is usually escapist.
Conkey and Tringham, who hold a similar position to Eller's, state that theories about "the origins of patriarchy
become a 'narrative of closure' which shuts down our imaginative powers about the many ways in which people
could have lived." Instead of considering the veracity of the Kurgan Hypothesis on the strength of the evidence,
they simply reject it. For example, at the end of the Eneolithic (Neolithic with copper) period in the Balkans, so
many houses were burned that this period is called the "Burned House Horizon." Instead of considering the
wholesale burning and abandonment of villages, the disappearance of figurines, and the simultaneous
appearance of Kurgan burials as evidence of Gimbutas' theory of the end of Old Europe, Ruth Tringham (who
excavated a burned house at the site of Opovo, former Yugoslavia) proposes that the inhabitants burned their
own houses upon the death of the resident "patriarch."
As Alison Wylie has indicated, our knowledge of the past is not as limited by the fragmentary nature of our data
as it is by the limitations of our epistemologies. Ironically, Conkey and Tringham ask: "Are we, as feminists,
still embedded in scientific traditions of discourse and argument that are patriarchal, dominating and exclusionary?"
One might suggest that the answer is, unfortunately, "yes."
According to Cynthia Eller, the so-called matriarchal myth is based on sloppy scholarship and wishful thinking which
must be abandoned if feminists want to avoid being accused of "vacuousness and irrelevance." On the other hand,
she insists that the idea that all human cultures throughout time have probably been male dominated is the most
reasonable, scientifically sound approach to prehistory. The myth of universal patriarchy and the myth of universal
objectivity are apparently inseparable and ideology indeed masquerades as aetiology.
Eller recognizes that a primary motivation of the so-called feminist matriarchalists (as denizens of the "ennobling lie")
is to overturn patriarchy by a change of consciousness, but she asserts that they are so misled that they can only
manage to further incarcerate themselves into self-inflicted domestic cages by playing into sexist stereotypes.
Nevertheless, Eller argues that such women are dangerous: "Men have ample reason to fear that the desire for
revenge would run high if the tables were ever turned and women took power."
In spite of the extensive research she did for Living in the Lap of the Goddess, Eller seems to have missed the
point that women's spirituality has nothing to do with revenge or power politics, but it is about transformation
and the retrieval of inner authority which systems of domination externalize. In so doing, the so-called matriarchal
myth does present a story that challenges the foundation of universal patriarchy, which is akin to heresy. Eller writes,
"For those of us with ears to hear it, the noise the theory of matriarchal prehistory makes as we move into a new
millennium is deafening." The fact is, the "noise" Eller refers to, is the sound of liberation from the very myth of
universal male dominance that she seeks to uphold.
While conveniently stating that she does not intend to offer an alternative account of gender roles in prehistory,
Eller nevertheless admits to being a "partisan" of the belief that male dominance has been universal, at least up
until now. She also asks:
How can women attain real power when it seems we have never had it before? How can we hope that sex
egalitarianism is possible, that male dominance can be ended, when it has been a mark of who we are as a
species from time immemorial?
She suggests that we "comfort ourselves" with the thought that "male dominance may be perpetuated through
inertia and have no better reason to exist than tradition." However, as Susan Kent reminds us: "In patriarchal
societies, men expend much energy and resources to maintain their hierarchies, economic sources, purity, and
status that, from their perspective, allow them to control women."
Let us also not forget that one of the main goals of feminism is to correct the androcentric bias that places the
interests of men above all else. On this front, Eller contributes absolutely nothing. Instead, she adds weakly,
"The fact that a goaloin this case, eradicating sexismois in principle unreachable does not mean it is not worth
pursuing with every ounce of moral fiber we can muster." All we need to do is to "decide what we want and set
about getting it." The problem is, the belief in the universality of male dominance acts as an internal template
in which any impulse toward liberation is dangerous. In other words, as long as one believes in the inevitability
of domination, that inevitability is replicated in the present and projected into the future and onto the past. Eller,
therefore, is proposing a safely "unreachable" goal while leaving the androcentric model intact.
One way to keep from being criticized by those who hold power is to say what they want to hear as cleverly as
possible. While posing as the savior of feminism, Eller's thesis draws strength from a wealth of anti-feminist
attitudes, making her the darling of the status quo.
Eller does make a useful distinction between an origin myth that does not require historical veracity to be
powerful, and a viable reconstruction of the past that depends upon accurate interpretation. The question of
what qualifies as reliable scholarship, or as science, however, has yet to be universally agreed upon,
especially concerning reconstructions of prehistoric societies. Anglo-American archaeology has been mired
in philosophical debates about the dilemma of interpretation for decades and true objectivity remains an
illusion, regardless of the chosen methodology. All interpretations are based upon assumptions which
influence the range and direction of interpretive possibilities. To assume, for instance (even unconsciously),
that male dominance "has been a mark of who we are as a species from time immemorial"oor that balanced,
peaceful societies are, by definition, utopianopromotes a biased lens that diminishes any evidence to the
contrary. In the same way, the work of Marija Gimbutas is treated to ideological dismissals by critics who do
not possess the multidisciplinary competence that informed her scholarship. Instead of evaluating her work
on its own terms, they continue to cite each other, repeating the same false representations of her work.
Eller has laid out an entire range of arguments that exposes fanciful elaborations on both ends of the
ideological spectrum. Her approach, however, is snide and divisive and serves to intensify a split within
feminism that has festered for three decades. In 1982, Charlene Spretnak initiated the first published
debate on the nature/culture divide in an appendix in The Politics of Women's Spirituality. It is time now to
take another step in that direction by creating an environment of mutual respect that is broad enough to
embrace our differences and encourage fruitful dialogues.
In the meantime, as Eller has stated: "We still have to confront the possibility that prehistory happened
just as matriarchal myth says it did." Indeed. It is the myth of universal patriarchy that will not give women
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1. Bamberger 1974, 280. Interestingly, Bamberger's article is not included in Eller's list of references.
2. Eller 2000, 4.
3. Ibid 5.
4. Ibid 13.
5.The first writer to use the term was E.B. Tylor in his article "The Matriarchal Family System (1896).
6. Sanday 1998, 2002, xi. See Bamberger (1974, 263-4) who accepts "matriarchy" to mean domination of the
mother over family and society.
7. Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974, 2.
8. Sanday 2002, xi.
9. Eller 2000, 12.
10. Göttner-Abendroth 1999 defines matriarchy as "in the beginning, the mothers." See discussion with Heide
Göttner-Abendroth in Marler 1998,45.
11. For a redefinition of matriarchy, see Sanday 2002, 1998, 1993.
12. For a perceptive overview of the development of feminist thought and gender studies see Gilchrist 1999, 1-16.
13. Eller 2000, 4.
14. Ibid 181.
15. Ibid 11.
16. See Bamberger 1974, 267.
17. See Campbell 1986, 17-18; Marler 1987. The ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) distinguished two mythic
levels: the universal (Elementargedanken), and the local inflections, or folk ideas (Völkergedanken), discussed in
Campbell 1986, 11.
18. Eller 2000, 8.
19. Sanday 1993, 5.
20. Arnold and Wicker 2001, vii.
21. Kent 1998, 19.
22. Kent 1999, 38.
23. Ibid, 32.
24. See, for example, Gero and Conkey 1991; di Leonardo 1991; Nelson 1997; Sweely 1999; Gilchrist 1999;
Mascia-Lees and Black 2000. For an introduction to the complexities of the subject of gender, see Oakley 1997,
25. Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974, 3.
26. Rosaldo 1980; Nelson 1997, 116.
27. See, for instance, Gero and Conkey, 1991; Kent 1998, 1999; Nelson 1997.
28. Sanday 1981, 1993.
29. Sanday 2002.
30. Eller 2000, 180-81.
31. Ibid, 118.
32. Ibid, 77.
33. Lepowsky 1993, 283-4.
34. Kent 1999, 38-41, 45.
35. See Sanday 1993.
36. Tringham and Conkey 1998, 22. The typical use of the term "essentialist," however, carries the same negative
implication as "feminist matriarchalist."
37. Conkey and Spector 1984, 1-2.
38. Eller 2000, 97.
39. Ibid, 77.
40. Ortner 1974, 87.
41. See Spretnak 1991, 128.
42. Starhawk 1997, 519-20.
43. Eller 2000, 8, 68.
44. di Leonardo 1991, 26.
45. Eller 2000, 67, 65.
46. Ibid, 79.
47. Ibid, 77.
48. Ibid, 79.
49. Gimbutas 1991, 223.
50. Haarmann 2000, 8, 13.
51. Eller 2000, 137.
52. Ibid, 123.
53. Gimbutas 1991, 324.
54. Eller 2000, 90; Jernigan 2001. Gimbutas insists that her work on European prehistory was never motivated by
ideological concerns. See interview with Gimbutas in Marler 1997, 18-21.
55.Gimbutas 1991, 343.
56. Eller 2000, 139, 141, 181, 107.
57. Sanday in Eller 2000, 216, n. 38.
58. Sanday 1998, 8.
59. Eller misrepresents my quote that "mythology and folklore are conservative and slow to change" by saying that
"any history contained within myths could be carried along intact for many generations" (2000, 173). I was referring
to metaphor, not literal history. The example she presents of the use of Romanian funeral laments actually endorses,
rather than disproves, the continuity of folkloric motifs. The lament in question was performed in a traditional manner
to merge the deceased person's death with an ancient mythic theme, transforming his personal history into a larger,
60. Gimbutas 1991, 344.
61. Ibid, 342.
62. Sanday 1998, 8.
63. Sanday 2002, xi-xii.
64. Other peoples considered "living matriarchal societies" include the Mosuo in China, near Tibet (see Göttner-Abendroth
1999, 31-41) and the women-centered society of Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico, among others.
65. See Marler 1997, 20 for an interview with Gimbutas in which she states that she was not motivated by ideology or by
the women's movement to conduct her research.
66. Conkey and Tringham 1995, 214; Beck 2000.
67. Gimbutas 1989, 316.
68. Ibid, xv.
70. Wylie 2002, 4. In an attempt to address the ideational and symbolic dimensions of prehistoric culture neglected by
processual archaeology, Renfrew and Zebrow (1994, xiii) introduced the "new" field of "cognitive archaeology" as rooted
in the scientific tradition and in an empirical methodology that "seeks to draw upon the cognitive, and the mathematical
and computer sciences."
71. Eller 2000, 89.
72. Tringham and Conkey 1998, 42-43.
73. Ibid 38, 42; Conkey and Tringham 1995, 228.
74. Tringham and Conkey 1998, 42 repeating the ideas of Shirley Ardener.
75. Gimbutas 1991, 359.
76. Eller 2000, 165.
77. Mallory 1989, 185.
78. Kent 1998, 18.
79. Eller 2000, 183.
80. Conkey and Tringham, 1995, 211.
81. Tringham and Conkey 1998, 38-9. Tringham attributed the house burning to the death of the "patriarch" during her
presentation at the 7th Gender and Archaeology Conference, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California, Oct. 4,
82. Wylie 1991.
83. Conkey and Tringham 1995, 231.
84. Eller 2000, 178.
85. Ibid, 3.
86. Ibid, 186.
87. Ibid, 185.
88. Ibid, 187.
89. Kent 1998, 18.
90. Eller 2000, 188.
91. For a masterful overview of the history of conceptual issues in archaeology, see Wylie 2002.
92. For an overview and analysis of the criticisms of Gimbutas' work, see Maguire 2002.
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