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According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society. Given the universality of patriarchy in According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society. Given the universality of patriarchy in recorded history, this vision is understandably appealing for many women. But does it have any basis in fact? And as a myth, does it work for the good of women? Cynthia Eller traces the emergence of the feminist matriarchal myth, explicates its functions, and examines the evidence for and against a matriarchal prehistory. Finally, she explains why this vision of peaceful, woman-centered prehistory is something feminists should be wary of.


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According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society. Given the universality of patriarchy in According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society. Given the universality of patriarchy in recorded history, this vision is understandably appealing for many women. But does it have any basis in fact? And as a myth, does it work for the good of women? Cynthia Eller traces the emergence of the feminist matriarchal myth, explicates its functions, and examines the evidence for and against a matriarchal prehistory. Finally, she explains why this vision of peaceful, woman-centered prehistory is something feminists should be wary of.

30 review for The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future

  1. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Vidrine

    **Edit 7/6/2017: I'm getting people starting to comment on this review who clearly have not read the book nor understood my review. If you use ad hominem attacks you will be reported and blocked. Please do us all a favor and keep discourse civil. This is Goodreads for Pete's sake. It's a website about books. Why would you troll a book review site and start arguments with strangers over a book you've never read? Also, this is a *really old* review, and lots has changed since then. I'm leaving the **Edit 7/6/2017: I'm getting people starting to comment on this review who clearly have not read the book nor understood my review. If you use ad hominem attacks you will be reported and blocked. Please do us all a favor and keep discourse civil. This is Goodreads for Pete's sake. It's a website about books. Why would you troll a book review site and start arguments with strangers over a book you've never read? Also, this is a *really old* review, and lots has changed since then. I'm leaving the review as is, but I think people are upset that I have claimed here that I am not a feminist. I had very good reason, back in 2010, as to why I did not identify as a feminist. All the feminists I knew were TERFs and I was a closeted trans person. So... please read this with that in mind.** Okay, so I'm going to start this review with a disclaimer. I wholeheartedly agree with Eller's main point: there is very little evidence to support a matriarchal prehistory, either in ethnographic or in archaeological evidence. However, I have some issue with some of the points she makes. Here we go... First off, she spends a great number of pages talking about feminists and their points of view on a matriarchal prehistory, which is fine. Not really being a feminist myself (other than *being* a female, and believing that, yes, we are humans, too, and deserve as much respect as the male version of a human), this was good information, and I was glad to have it. However, in this section, she points to some things that I think are wrong, wrong, wrong. In it, she says that myth is an important part of many religions, and that's a good thing: it gives people something to believe in, even if they know it is not real, because it *could* be historically true. For instance, there is very little historical or archaeological evidence for Moses bringing the ten commandments down the mountain, but it's okay for Christians to believe in this, because it makes their faith stronger. There is no need for proof, because it is faith. Okay, that's fine. She then goes on to say that feminists and goddess worshipers should lay aside myth (namely, this one), because there is no evidence (or very little) to support it. Excuse me? Why do Christians get to use myth and Pagans do not? In fact, this entire book is about why we should drop the myth of matriarchal prehistory like a hot potato: because it's a myth. Well, with that thinking then, all Christians should stop believing in Christ, and Moses, and pretty much everything else, because that's all myth, too. Ahem. As a professor of religion, Eller should know better. As a Pagan that strongly believes that myth has a powerful effect on us as humans, I do not believe that myth should be dismissed just because it's myth. Sure, there is little evidence for a matriarchal prehistory. However, the myth is still important. It gives feminists (and Pagans) a little bit of hope. As in, "See, it wasn't all bad forever and ever and ever." Just as the myth of Christ's crucifixion gives Christians hope of redemption, so does the myth of matriarchal prehistory give some of us some hope that maybe, just maybe, women can be seen as complete equals, and even give the Goddess a place among the other "mainstream" gods. However, I don't always agree that we need this hope (more on that later). With that said, I should point out that it is still a myth, and the matriarchal prehistory flag-carriers should take note of that. She also seemingly looks down her nose at those of us who are goddess-worshipers by pretty much saying that all of us are deluded into believing this myth is fact. Wow, go professor of religion. *rolls eyes* However, she also makes a very important point that many feminists totally miss. The vision of women that feminist matriarchalists have is very, very narrow. They believe that motherhood was what made women sacred, and that the ability to bear children was the supreme power. Ugh. No, thank you. Isn't this a very 50's view of women? A "get your butt back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant" sort of vision of women? Sure, it is miraculous that women can have babies (none of us would be here otherwise!!), but what happened to women being sacred because we are human beings? What about all that feminist stuff about going out into the world, and getting jobs, and having a choice about having babies? According to feminist matriarchalists, women have to be mothers in order to be revered. Excuse me? Um, no. I made a choice not to have children, and I get the most heat about it from other women, and I blame this sort of notion. Women do not have to be mothers in order to be valued as women, thankyouverymuch. Later, then, we get into what I really wanted to the book to be about: evidence against the myth. But, you know, there really wasn't a lot of it. Eller does acknowledge that it is interesting that male figurines are rare, but she doesn't even attempt to explain it. She glosses over it, "Oh, yeah, there were all these 'Venus' figurines that might be goddesses, but we don't know that for sure...and then here we have all these silly notions of what nets and swastikas are supposed to represent..." She does, however, refute some of the sillier notions about prehistoric art that I have read about in other archaeology-ish texts, which was a relief. There were times, when reading those other books, I had to scratch my head and go, "That doesn't look like a woman at all." Eller pretty much says the same thing, that these "bird goddess" figurines or paintings were likely something else entirely (namely, one "painting" could rather have been a map of a river, with an island in the middle instead of a weirdly bent-over woman/goddess with the "cosmic egg" in her butt). Later, she then discusses the the notion of whether there was a "patriarchal revolution" at all, and goes into detail about linguistics and the spread of Indo-European languages. For me, though, she did not go into enough detail, and left me scratching my head on some of the "core" words and how they were used to determine how language spread. This particular chapter would probably make more sense if I was a linguist. Which I am not...so perhaps some explanation might be added to a later edition. The last chapter (the shortest) is probably the most important. Here, she does acknowledge that feminist matriarchalists *could* use the myth as myth instead of historical evidence (see above), but that she would continue to refute it, even then, because she sees it as, in the end, futile to think about a golden age past. But her most important point is the very last paragraph, "Feminist matriarchal myth does not actually recount the history of sexism, as it purports to do. It may provide us with a vision of what it considers to be socially desirable and the hope that it can be attained. But we do not need matriarchal myth to tell us that sexism is bad or that change is possible. With the help of all feminists, matriarchalist and otherwise, we need to decide what we want and set about getting it." YES. I've argued about this about Wicca as well. Wicca is a new religion--it does not extend into the distant past (meaning, cavewomen were not casting circles and calling Quarters, okay?)--but that doesn't stop it from being a real religion. Women do not need a past where we were the supreme rulers in order to make a future where women at least have a voice. Change can happen without precedent. Hey, even judges can make rulings without precedent, so why can't we? Can't we say that sexism is bad without saying sexism is bad because we were once the rulers and not the men? Sure, we can have the myth to give us hope, but we really don't need the myth to drive us to make the changes (or, we *shouldn't* need to the myth to drive us). In all, it was an interesting book, but I think that Eller suffered from being on a bit of a crusade. She points out where feminist matriarchalists ignore certain points, but then she turns right around and does the same thing. She may need to read a bit more Joseph Campbell before she goes around dismissing myth as useless, and, as a religion professor, she needs to bone up a bit more on the divine feminine and the current religions that acknowledge Her. Otherwise, I agree.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Terence

    Despite its length (188 pages in my edition), Cynthia Eller manages to thoroughly destroy the idea that a "matriarchy" ever governed the affairs of men and women. And she argues this based on three obstacles: 1. There's no evidence that woman ever held the dominant position. There's evidence that woman could hold relatively high status in some cultures but in even the "poster child" of matriarchalism, Minoan Crete, the evidence turns out to be far more ambiguous and open to interpretation. 2. Ther Despite its length (188 pages in my edition), Cynthia Eller manages to thoroughly destroy the idea that a "matriarchy" ever governed the affairs of men and women. And she argues this based on three obstacles: 1. There's no evidence that woman ever held the dominant position. There's evidence that woman could hold relatively high status in some cultures but in even the "poster child" of matriarchalism, Minoan Crete, the evidence turns out to be far more ambiguous and open to interpretation. 2. There's no reason to assume that human cultures before about 3000 BC, which the matriarchalists claim to have been matriarchies, were such. 3. There's no compelling reason to explain why things changed. Essentially Eller argues that the "matriarchy" is a feminist myth that's meant to address the needs of some modern-era feminists and harken back to an era when women did hold power and their contributions were valued. The reality is far more complex and, for those looking to find a matriarchy, depressing since male domination appears to be universal. There are (were) plenty of cultures that gave women a relatively high status but apparently there are none who gave her equal or preeminent status. I read the book because I was interested in the evidence marshalled to support the "matriarchy" and Eller's rebuttal to it but for those more interested in the feminist/feminism aspects of the subject, Eller argues that inventing a fantasy of female rule is irrelevant, if not downright harmful, to efforts to create a more equal society. One doesn't need to have a woman-ruled past to know that denying them equal rights today (or at any time) is wrong. She likens it to American slavery: While there's importance in knowing that Africans were kidnapped and brought to America, it's truth is irrelevant to the knowledge that slavery was wrong and that it could be changed. Rather than paraphrase, I'll quote her final paragraph: "Feminist matriarchal myth does not actually recount the history of sexism.... It may provide us with a vision of what it considers to be socially desirable and the hope that it can be attained. But we do not need matriarchal myth to tell us that sexism is bad or that change is possible. With the help of all feminists...we need to decide what we want and set about getting it. Next to this, the 'knowledge' that we once had it will pale into insignificance."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lucinda Elliot

    I am not as impressed by the research as I expected to be, as this book was recommended so enthusiastically by a group of (mainly male) historians, and I'm surprised they weren't more critical of the methodology. I don't think the discussion was as thorough on many aspects as it should have been. A lot of counter arguments have been left out; though I make no claims to be an expert, that was obvious even to an interested amateur. For instance, no attempt seems to be made to do justice to the dept I am not as impressed by the research as I expected to be, as this book was recommended so enthusiastically by a group of (mainly male) historians, and I'm surprised they weren't more critical of the methodology. I don't think the discussion was as thorough on many aspects as it should have been. A lot of counter arguments have been left out; though I make no claims to be an expert, that was obvious even to an interested amateur. For instance, no attempt seems to be made to do justice to the depth of Gimbutas' research, and the biased nature of the supposed refutations is overlooked. It's startling how many people seem to believe that while research by those willing to concede that there may have at one time been societies where women were not oppressed must be definition by biased, male historians raised to believe in patriarchy as natural and inevitable are totally objective in defining data. Yes, well... Eller seems to have taken as examples the weakest cases of statuettes as evidence of female power and Goddess worship. All so called 'feminist matriarchs' are lumped together, presented as some sort of 'lunatic fringe' of naive latter day hippies prattling of a Golden Era of universal peace and prosperity. I have since read criticisms of the methodology of this book; that some of the 'quotes' are selective, and that Eller in fact formerly espoused the matriarchalist theory herself, and has turned against it, which might account for her attacking it so savagely, albeit wittily... I don't think people should take this as the last word on the subject yet. Eller takes the illogical position that as there isn't overwhelming evidence that there was an overwhelmingly matriarchal prehistory, then by definition it must have been patriarchal. I have to say that is flawed logic. Some readers enthusiastically recommend this book. I am sure in the interests of objectivity, they will read Max Dashu's article in refutation 'Knocking Down Straw Dolls' equally enthusiastically,and also this impressive work by Kristy Coleman. [[http://www.cynthiaeller.com/colemanre...]]

  4. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Really compelling!! She describes herself as a feminist, doesn’t come across as much of one to me, and her criticisms of goddess spirituality exclude lesbian-focused beliefs that don’t fit nearly as neatly or consistently with some of the points she’s making, but her criticisms of the idea of matriarchal prehistory are super thoughtful and make a lot of sense. Chapters 6, 9, and the conclusion were the most interesting to me. Basically she says the evidence doesn’t especially support the idea of Really compelling!! She describes herself as a feminist, doesn’t come across as much of one to me, and her criticisms of goddess spirituality exclude lesbian-focused beliefs that don’t fit nearly as neatly or consistently with some of the points she’s making, but her criticisms of the idea of matriarchal prehistory are super thoughtful and make a lot of sense. Chapters 6, 9, and the conclusion were the most interesting to me. Basically she says the evidence doesn’t especially support the idea of a matriarchal prehistory and anyway, positively valuing sexist ideas of women (focusing overwhelmingly on our fertility, connection with nature, nurturing, etc) doesn’t make them any less restrictive (this is a point that doesn’t really apply nearly as much to lesbian versions of what she’s talking about). She points out that goddess worship has existed in a ton of woman-hating cultures, that goddesses can be worshipped primarily by men and represent sexist stereotypes, and that veneration of goddesses can function as an opiate of the female masses. I found the details of her pointing out problems with specific (pre?)historical claims really boring and barely read them but her criticism of the ideology super interesting. To the extent lesbian goddess spirituality doesn’t focus on unconfirmed pasts, is clear about femaleness encompassing everything anyone female does/is, successfully shifts focus from reproduction, and avoids male/female duality, I think it sidesteps a lot of the problems she’s talking about... but absolutely can still function as a distraction that makes us feel better without changing anything and so be worse than nothing. There has to be an active guarding against that and continual refocusing on creating the change we need for it to be better than nothing. Definitely made me think :-) max dashu has a great response to it btw. I still think eller’s book is pretty accurate re: totally unsourced claims made most often by straight, kinda wishy washy goddess types but it’s wrong to ignore that a huge body of work exists that can’t be fairly lumped in with that http://suppressedhistories.net/articl...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Michaela Hutfles

    It's a shame the author's only comparative motif is social commentary instead of archeological evidence. I do not believe she makes her premise solid enough in order to stack her burdensome scholarship on top of it. I hope it get better.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Serina

    I went into Cynthia Eller's book already aware of and keeping in mind the criticism of her using "matriarchy" as too broad a brush. In reading though, I found this to be less of a concern than people made it out to be as Eller by in large sticks to addressing the most explicit notions of matriarchy, which are, in my opinion, the ones which are in most need of addressing. To this end, Eller makes a solid case with little wiggle room. I grew up in a feminist and liberal household, and so for many y I went into Cynthia Eller's book already aware of and keeping in mind the criticism of her using "matriarchy" as too broad a brush. In reading though, I found this to be less of a concern than people made it out to be as Eller by in large sticks to addressing the most explicit notions of matriarchy, which are, in my opinion, the ones which are in most need of addressing. To this end, Eller makes a solid case with little wiggle room. I grew up in a feminist and liberal household, and so for many years, I took for granted that it was just an established fact that prehistory was primarily goddess worshipping. Like many women, I took a bit of guilty glee in this, and enjoyed rubbing this "fact" in the faces of those who would declare male dominance inevitable and natural with a loud and proud, "Actually...." However, even during this period, not everything about the theory sat right with me. For one, I could never seem to get any solid facts regarding these societies, it always amounted to little more than "We found some statues shaped like women," which even to my young and unpracticed mind seemed like a stretch to say counted as definitive proof of women's rule. Secondly, the utopic flavor with which women's past was painted sounded extremely suspicious and far too good to be true. I could accept that there was a time when women's functions were given greater prestige, but peaceful and egalitarian? Why would they be? Because women can be mothers? This sharply contrasted with many facts that I thought should be obvious: not all women are mother material, not all mothers are kind, not all women are kind, and probably most damning, men can be just as invested in parenthood and general niceness as any woman — if fatherhood had clearly never lead to any kind of utopia, why would motherhood? These were questions I struggled with but tried and failed to find answers to. I assumed that I must be looking in the wrong places, that if I found a truly professional source, they would give me evidence and explanation that made far more sense than the endless shaky platitudes of, "we found pictures of women and moms are so great so there you go!" mixed with a few mythical reinterpretations that held no more water than your average fandom headcanon. Unfortunately, no matter how seemingly legit the source, that always seemed to be the gist of their argument. Compared to other branches of history, prehistoric goddess world seemed, to be put it less eloquently, straight up pulled out of people's asses. Despite this, I initially met the discovery of Eller's book with a chilly response. Sure, the popular image of matriarchies as perfect utopias didn't jive with me, but the basic premises behind them still made sense to me, so they must have at least existed in some fashion, right? For external reasons (mostly a lack of time and money or ability to yet comprehend this type of book), I put off reading it, and only after growing out of my more sentimentalist approaches to feminism did I finally get a chance to sit down and hear what Eller had to say. Eller does a fantastic job at addressing the matriarchy theory from both a place of objective evidence and ideological implication. The book doesn't so much present hard archaelogical evidence disproving matriarchy as it does meticulously pointing out that there is no evidence to suggest matriarchy did exist, and that if we are to apply inductive reasoning to the evidence we do have for the majority of human culture and history, there is ample reason to strongly suspect it never did. I imagine that for those who struggle with epistemology (which unfortunately seems to be a considerable amount of people) this will not be a strong selling point. People love to champion, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!" when faced with the weakness of their pet belief, and while this isn't untrue per se (as Eller makes clear several times in her book, which I've noted her critics seem to ignore), it definitely doesn't provide the glimmer of hope believers always think it does. Nonexistence, by definition, doesn't leave a mark on the world. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but evidence of absence is functionally indistinguishable from absence of evidence. That's why we have the burden of proof and Hitchens' razor, "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Feminist matriarchalists do do their best to provide evidence, but Eller works hard to strip away the mountain of fallacies, unwarranted assumptions, and hasty conclusions this evidence is based on. The case of prehistoric matriarchy is at best a soft "maybe" decidedly low on a totem of countless other possibilities, and at worst a complete fantasy. The ideological half of the book, wherein Eller argues that the implications made by the matriarchy myth are undesirable, is the part more likely to stir conversation among the laymen (like myself). While Eller makes some assertions about sex and gender that I don't entirely agree with (the discussion of which would be a disgression here), her overall point is a solid one: propping women up as the super nurturing, super creative, super special heralds of peace is essentialist thinking rooted in historical misogyny and responsible for modern misogyny and misandry alike. Too many feminists are easily caught up in anything that appears to praise women without fully thinking through the implications, and this leaves the movement vulnerable to both falling backwards in terms of progress for women and falling apart in terms of being a useful tool for the betterment of humanity as a whole. Women are people, not archetypes. Trying to put them into boxes of narrow values and behaviors — even supposedly beneficial values and behaviors presumedly granting them prestige — only serves to hamper their potential as individuals and perpetuate gender norms in some form or another, the latter of which inevitably leads to judgments of superiority and inferiority, a game which Eller shows women are practically destined to lose when shackled to these boxes: "The valorization of motherhood — as an ideal type separate from individual women's experiences of it — is a tactic that has served patriarchal cultures very well. Even as women's childbearing and childrearing activities have been named as the seat of a higher and purer morality — on the face of it, a very positive move — women have been bracketed off from historical processes, indeed from the entire project of culture. Romantics have hailed "Woman" as the avatar of "nature" for centuries now, as a being that could rescue us all from "the artificiality of civilization." But such views have typically left women firmly in their traditional places, not significantly disrupting the public, patriarchal world or its politics. It is hard to believe that staying within a patriarchal culture's lexicon of femininity can provide a hardy alternative to the present order. Falling back into the traditional meanings of these stereotypes will be the path of least resistance. The is particularly worrisome when one takes note of the longevity and cross-cultural prominence of association between women, the body, and nature. These associations reach back through Western history for millennia, but, as Sherry Ortner notes, they are "hardly an invention of 'Western culture.'" According to Ortner, all cultures seek to negotiate the divide between "what humanity can do" and "that which sets limits upon the possibilities." This divide has frequently been linked to gender, with males representing freedom and females constraint, males "culture" and females "nature." There is a natural human tendency to favor possibility, opportunity, and achievement over impotence, restraint, and stasis, and so long as women are linked with the latter they will be relatively devalued."[emphasis mine] Eller hits the nail on the issues I took with the assumptions made by matriarchy theory, and indeed, the assumptions made by many none-too-unpopular branches of feminism. This desire of many feminists to have their cake and eat it too — to paint women as simultaneously equal to and yet more inherently special than men — is only going to end in disaster. In trying to strip women of the traits that resulted in the "evils" of manhood we see today (war, oppression, disconnection from nature, etc.) you inevitably also stip them of the power and impact those traits have on the world. Progress can be a double-edged sword. The things that created many of society's worst problems also gave us some of our greatest accomplishments, both are side effects of our ambitions — which is not at all to say that those problems are inevitable or acceptable — but because the possibility of these problems arising is so inexorably entwined without our potential for greatness (whether we like it or not), to say that a world run by women would lack the former is to say that it would also lack the latter. i.e., To say that women could never be as bad as men is to say that we could never be as good as them either. It leaves women at the mercy of the world and expects them to be consoled with the knowledge that at least they can sleep easy knowing they're so very above it all. I, for one, do not find morally pure impotence to be preferable to morally vulnerable potential. As feminism matures and deals with a changing world, it's going to have to accept that, as old Uncle Ben always said, great power comes with great responsibility, and with responsibility comes accountability for when things go horribly, horribly wrong. If being fully human and not "merely woman" means having to internally confont the darkness history has shown humanity can harbor, I can accept that. Anyone who can't is free not to, but they would do well not to hold me back with them. Ultimately, I would recommend this book for feminists, critics of feminism, and those with an interest in history alike. Eller makes not only a powerful case again matriarchal prehistory, but also provides hope in making the case that such a myth is unnecessary to pursuing equality. Our past does not define our future, "nature" is flexible and ever-changing, and we don't need to believe in fairy tales to accept their lessons.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    Cynthia Eller's THE MYTH OF MATRIARCHAL PREHISTORY is a careful deconstruction of the ever more common urban myth that thousands of years ago women were held equal or even superior in all human societies. This misconception has worked its way from a small group of extreme feminists and passe archaeologists into even some high school and university courses, and Eller's work is most welcome. Her archaeological critique is right on target. While some feminist matriarchalists assert that it was the I Cynthia Eller's THE MYTH OF MATRIARCHAL PREHISTORY is a careful deconstruction of the ever more common urban myth that thousands of years ago women were held equal or even superior in all human societies. This misconception has worked its way from a small group of extreme feminists and passe archaeologists into even some high school and university courses, and Eller's work is most welcome. Her archaeological critique is right on target. While some feminist matriarchalists assert that it was the Indo-European invasion which wiped out a world-wide matriarchy, Eller shows how there probably was no "invasion" as such, but rather gradual transfer of cultural traits across neighboring populations, none of whom were ever matriarchal to begin with. Eller points out the absurdity of thinking that the matriarchy was some world-wide phenomenon yet destroyed by Kurgan culture, for how could European events influence the Americas and Australia thousands of years before sea-faring? The movement's peculiar interpretation of artifacts is also examined. Eller notes the irony that all female figures are held to be goddesses, while male or animal figures are of no great importance, religious or not, at all. The movement sees goddess symbols in everything, here saying that "wavy lines" on artifacts represent the single female deity, while there "straight lines" represents her as well. "But if straight lines and wavy lines are both symbols of the goddess, is it possible to draw a line another way, or use it to mean something else? They may mean nothing, prehistoric doodles." The subtitle of the book is "Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future". Very little space, however, is dedicated to this portion of her thesis. Eller seems to expect the reader to automatically understand that a movement based on bad science simply won't have any value. But in fact, she admits that the story persists precisely because of its ability to give hope and motivation to many radicals. Nonetheless, sometimes Eller does make pointed statements off the cuff, e.g. "in short, 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." While there is a great deal of repetition and the book doesn't entirely live up to its title--for which I am giving the book four stars--this is a very necessary book for people unfamiliar with the real state of archaeological and anthropological thought. Eller serves to help us look at the past with a sober view, and work to build a progressive future in spite of the former inequalities of the human race.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ari

    Vivid, clear, and reasonably well paced. While emphatically feminist in outlook, this book does a fairly thorough job of knocking the props out from underneath feminist myths of past matriarchal harmony and goddess-worship. The author quotes freely from other writers, but never loses control of the narrative. Very well done social science.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Zan

    Anyone who rubs shoulders in the worlds of feminism or neopaganism/new age spirituality has probably already confronted and formed some opinion on the subject matter of this book. However, I would also recommend it to anyone interested in human prehistory, historical linguistics, anthropology, or social science who may only be peripherally aware of it. If you are involved in any of these fields, you will likely have heard, at least in passing as I had, about the concept of matriarchal prehistory Anyone who rubs shoulders in the worlds of feminism or neopaganism/new age spirituality has probably already confronted and formed some opinion on the subject matter of this book. However, I would also recommend it to anyone interested in human prehistory, historical linguistics, anthropology, or social science who may only be peripherally aware of it. If you are involved in any of these fields, you will likely have heard, at least in passing as I had, about the concept of matriarchal prehistory. Especially if you deal less with academics and professionals in these fields and more with people who have gleaned their information from popular culture or publications, or are a critical reader of popular publications yourself, it would behoove you to have the information from this book at hand. At 188 pages without delving into the detailed notes, it is a quick read (I'm not a fast reader and it took me about a day) and well worth the investment. Eller is a good writer in addition to being well-versed in her subject matter (although she is a professor of religion she has done her research on the prehistoric topics that I'm more familiar with very well), and her prose are not dense and easy to read despite the thorough coverage of the subject she gives in such a small space. She is also extremely tactful and sympathetic on delicate topics without undermining her argument, sometimes wryly humorous, but mostly straightforward and matter-of-fact in her presentation. I think the best thing about Eller's deconstruction of the matriarchal prehistory myth is that she is not content to merely catalog the lack of evidence for matriarchal societies, past or present, in the archaeological and ethnographic record or the absurd lengths those looking for them go to read goddess iconography into every swirl and dot and wavy line found in prehistoric art. That is as easy as shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.* She, however, goes a step further to demonstrate how the very premises upon which feminist matriarchalists (Eller's preferred term for those who believe that human prehistory before about 3000 BC was matriarchal) base their arguments for what creates the conditions of matriarchy are false. The classic explanations include that in hunter-gatherer and subsistence horticultural economies women's activities provided the majority of calories for the community and thus took pride of place, but more importantly, that it was not understood that men had any role in reproduction, thus giving women and the female body a perceived miraculous monopoly on life, causing prehistoric peoples to practice exclusive goddess worship, and consequently privilege and adore real women. Eller shows with cross-cultural examples how each of these assumptions is groundless. There are many societies documented in the historical record and continuing into modern times which practice hunting and gathering and subsistence horticulture and worship goddesses. The ethnographic record even contains record of groups with a shaky grasp on the concept of biological paternity (though Eller gives good reason why any claims that such groups really exist should be taken with a heaping handful of salt). The presence of economic arrangements heavily reliant on women's work, goddess worship, and shallow understanding of reproduction do NOT correlate to improved status of women in observed societies which have them. By showing that the basis upon which past matriarchy is postulated is fundamentally flawed, Eller goes much farther towards discrediting it than simple demonstration of an absence of evidence would. She also gives very good reasons why the myth of prehistory matriarchy SHOULD be discredited. All versions of the myth are ultimately based in difference feminism, and emphasize (alleged) absolute biological differences between the characters of men and women as well as prescribing rigid and deterministic definitions of what is feminine versus what is masculine. In addition to its sexism and more or less benign misandry, this also levels or ignores the diversity between cultures and individuals. Some words of feminist matriarchalist writers quoted by Eller could have been imported, unaltered, from the 19th century (incidentally also a time that laid the foundations of some of their theories), which was at times full of rhetoric of the moral superiority of women and the brutishness of men, but was in reality generally oppressive and restricting to all individuals not comfortable with precise pigeonholing. Eller has more sympathy than I can muster for the positive effects on women the myth of prehistoric matriarchy can have.** This book is never the less a powerful argument as to why an imagined past is not a firm foundation on which to build a future of equality. *Itself obviously symbolic of the primordial cosmic womb. **Whether upon reading this one still sees this myth as potentially empowering even in light of its lack of historical grounding, or as nothing more than a blatant inversion of the excesses of patriarchy facilitated by a masturbatory power fantasy set in magical golden age so simplistically idealized it is an insult to all flesh and blood humans who have actually experienced the backbreaking hardships of life in subsistence economies everywhere for all time, is up to the reader.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Gunilla Madegård

    Why on earth, on which kind of strict scientific premises is the so called "matriarchalist´s" research about contemporary or prehistoric matriarchy, delineated by Eller as "essentialist" just because of claiming the nurturing and caretaking role of the mother being the leading principle of such societies, but not the patriarchalists claiming male domination, violence and warmaking as that universal principle being "essentialist" too? As there are so many young students and scholars today, as for Why on earth, on which kind of strict scientific premises is the so called "matriarchalist´s" research about contemporary or prehistoric matriarchy, delineated by Eller as "essentialist" just because of claiming the nurturing and caretaking role of the mother being the leading principle of such societies, but not the patriarchalists claiming male domination, violence and warmaking as that universal principle being "essentialist" too? As there are so many young students and scholars today, as for example G Vidrine who has blocked me just because me criticising her poorly underpinned reasoning, asking for ”EVIDENS” regarding historical events, I just wonder what kind of science philosophy and methodology is taught at the universities in USA today? What kind of evidence has Eller got for her claiming the universality of patriarchy? How come such a poor work as that of Cynthia Eller, which quite obviously lack of scientific rigor, not at least regarding her sheer ideological approach to the subject, refuting research about matriarchies of the very simple reason that she doesn´t find such recommendable from her own feministic view - see: http://mmstudies.com/eller - and in comparison with the new ecocentric paradigm worked out by the real great intellectuals and scholars from the 60´s and onwards during the end of the 20th century at Esalen. http://mmstudies.com/esalen? It seems to have been completely buried under the layers of neoliberal ideology in the arbitrary kind of postmodernist/ structuralist approach that was introducerad by of Lévi Strauss. http://mmstudies.com/father http://mmstudies.com/strauss

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sandy D.

    I found this an absorbing examination of feminism's spiritual roots and its use of myth, and a very interesting discussion of the implications of belief in this particular myth (or theory, if you prefer). As one of those "feminist archaeologists", I thought Eller handled the archaeological evidence (and the often abstruse archaeological literature) very well (see here for more on gender & archaeology. I found this an absorbing examination of feminism's spiritual roots and its use of myth, and a very interesting discussion of the implications of belief in this particular myth (or theory, if you prefer). As one of those "feminist archaeologists", I thought Eller handled the archaeological evidence (and the often abstruse archaeological literature) very well (see here for more on gender & archaeology.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Fabio

    The idea that long ago human societies were matriarchal, ecologically sound, peaceful, is actually a pretty common one that many of us carry unquestioned (along with the image of the Venus of Willendorf as its go-to visual aid); this book aims to debunk that idea, but clearly Cynthia Eller is no anti-feminist. In fact it's pretty clear that Dr. Eller is a committed feminist researcher who has spent a lot of time thinking logically about a clear and simple argument, and she is committed enough to The idea that long ago human societies were matriarchal, ecologically sound, peaceful, is actually a pretty common one that many of us carry unquestioned (along with the image of the Venus of Willendorf as its go-to visual aid); this book aims to debunk that idea, but clearly Cynthia Eller is no anti-feminist. In fact it's pretty clear that Dr. Eller is a committed feminist researcher who has spent a lot of time thinking logically about a clear and simple argument, and she is committed enough to a legitimate base for feminism to risk the title of "feminism traitor" when presenting it. I'd summarize her argument in three parts: (a) Any theory claiming the past was dramatically different from what we know must be falsifiable and must provide its own evidence. Without it such narrative can only be of interest as myth. The evidence (ethnographic and material) doesn't seem to support the notion of a matriarchal prehistory, let alone one of goddess-worshipping eco-friendly peaceful bliss. We do have disjoint points that make varying degrees of sense (European migrations seem reasonable, geometric cave paintings interpreted as proof of vulva worship seem less so). When looked in any degree of dispassionate detail, the evidence of peaceful universal prehistorical matriarchy remain scientifically unconvincing. (b) If matriarchal prehistory is "only" a myth, it doesn't mean it is automatically useless. However, the myth of ancient societies ruled by women because of their mysterious ability to produce children doesn't seem like a very useful foundation for a future where women have all sorts of roles according to their own interests and proclivities, instead of being respected just as mothers. (c) We don't need myths of ancient Eden to justify why we want a future for women better than the current circumstances. All of the above make a lot of sense to me. In fact I think they are fairly simple and clear ideas, but as Eller herself mentions, the support for the matriarchal prehistory myth comes from something stronger than reason: it comes from passion and hope, so I'm pretty sure this book will do nothing to change the opinion of those committed to the ideology. It is also too scholarly and respectful to be anything but boring to those seeking anti-feminist material. However, if you simply held the idea of matriarchal prehistory as a nebulous article of faith and are open to hear a good argument against it, you will find this book interesting.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Andy

    Based on other reviews I've written I think I either got something different out of this book than others, or some readers take the book as saying no matriarchal societies do exist/have ever existed. The point I got from this book is that the idea of a universal European matriarchy involving the monotheistic worship of a Great Goddess and was characterized by a lack of warfare, a veneration of women (including women having the important voices with regard to tribal decisions) and, to some extent Based on other reviews I've written I think I either got something different out of this book than others, or some readers take the book as saying no matriarchal societies do exist/have ever existed. The point I got from this book is that the idea of a universal European matriarchy involving the monotheistic worship of a Great Goddess and was characterized by a lack of warfare, a veneration of women (including women having the important voices with regard to tribal decisions) and, to some extent, the toleration of men as similar to children, has a serious lack of supporting evidence. I don't doubt that societies existed where the genders were more equitably treated, or where goddesses were venerated. I also think there is insufficient evidence that one group of proto-Indo Europeans conquered all of the matriarchies and converted them, forcibly, to patriarchies. This could have happened, but Eller does a good job of noting the issues with this theory and the lack of significant evidence supporting it. Well-written, informative and well-supported without being redundant. The book has an interesting premise, a pretty tight thesis, and a laser like focus on accomplishing its point. Eller does a good job of pointing out the absurdities with some of the views of feminist matriarchalists without criticizing feminism or feminists. The book itself does a very good job of showing that people can take ambiguous pieces of data and make them fit pre-conceived ideas when there is a strong enough ideological or emotional motive. My favorite point might have been highlighting the argument that phalli someone point to matriarchal rule because they represent the goddess and women.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Scott

    There is a pervasive myth in our culture of a prehistoric Golden Age when a goddess-religion was universal and there was equality, peace, respect for the environment, and when women ruled and were valued as divine mothers- before monotheism and patriarchy arose and suppressed all this. In this book Eller shows that there is little to no archeological, anthropological, or linguistic evidence for this myth at all. Then she discusses the way that feminists use this myth as a source of inspiration, There is a pervasive myth in our culture of a prehistoric Golden Age when a goddess-religion was universal and there was equality, peace, respect for the environment, and when women ruled and were valued as divine mothers- before monotheism and patriarchy arose and suppressed all this. In this book Eller shows that there is little to no archeological, anthropological, or linguistic evidence for this myth at all. Then she discusses the way that feminists use this myth as a source of inspiration, ultimately concluding that while it is a nice idea, it does not serve women well because it is not factual and it is based on the past- instead of looking to the future and improving women’s lives here and now. As I’m not an archeologist, anthropologist, etc, I am not sure what I would think of her conclusions if I knew more, but she certainly reasons intelligently and has an impressive array of careful notes and a huge bibliography. She is not just throwing stones like some kind of anti-feminist activist.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    For those coming to this book without strong opinions one way or another, it is a reasoned, logical and flatly devastating dissection of recent efforts at historical revisionism by religiously and politically motivated feminists. It is also markedly free from malice. I sought out this book after becoming aware that congregants at UUA churches were involved in various activities rooted in beliefs about matriarchal prehistory. That struck me as odd, because I regarded contemporary Unitarians as rat For those coming to this book without strong opinions one way or another, it is a reasoned, logical and flatly devastating dissection of recent efforts at historical revisionism by religiously and politically motivated feminists. It is also markedly free from malice. I sought out this book after becoming aware that congregants at UUA churches were involved in various activities rooted in beliefs about matriarchal prehistory. That struck me as odd, because I regarded contemporary Unitarians as rationalists committed to Enlightenment thinking (I now know differently, although certainly many are). While I would surely benefit from reading a book written from the opposing perspective, I found Eller's treatment so overwhelmingly convincing (and materials to the contrary so flaky by comparison) that I have little desire to do so.

  16. 4 out of 5

    TJ Grant

    Excellent, careful, insightful deconstruction of everything wrong with the narrative of a pro-female prehistory that preceded patriarchy. There's no good historical case for such a narrative, and there are amble value reasons to not want to invent a myth of this kind. She takes on all the purported evidence, archeological findings, to anthropological ones. I was surprised over and over by the paucity of evidence on the side of feminist matriarchialists. And surprised again by how much great evid Excellent, careful, insightful deconstruction of everything wrong with the narrative of a pro-female prehistory that preceded patriarchy. There's no good historical case for such a narrative, and there are amble value reasons to not want to invent a myth of this kind. She takes on all the purported evidence, archeological findings, to anthropological ones. I was surprised over and over by the paucity of evidence on the side of feminist matriarchialists. And surprised again by how much great evidence there was to counter their claims. Professor Eller clears the air and the ground to begin work on what we actually need. Not a myth that originated from the patriarchy, but a new and possibly unprecedented relationship between the sexes. Thank you for the great work and excellent thinking you put into this book!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lydia Mills

    I wanted to read this book because of the title: I never knew there was such a thing as a myth of matriarchal prehistory / belief of matriarchal prehistory or that there may be a certain generation who sees the world through their eyes with the view that there is. I thought the author clearly explained her case and even though I don't share a much of view with her, however it was an enjoyably interesting and really informative book. I recommend it for anyone interested in womens issues, history, I wanted to read this book because of the title: I never knew there was such a thing as a myth of matriarchal prehistory / belief of matriarchal prehistory or that there may be a certain generation who sees the world through their eyes with the view that there is. I thought the author clearly explained her case and even though I don't share a much of view with her, however it was an enjoyably interesting and really informative book. I recommend it for anyone interested in womens issues, history, different belief systems etc.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Angrboda Lyndasdottir

    Very interesting as an introduction to the feminist spirituality movement and its rather problematic foundations in 'retrofitted' research and gender essentialism. I've never been able to 'get' modern goddess worship, and Eller's argument has reinforced my doubts. recommended to anyone flirting with pagan feminism as a critical analysis of that belief system.

  19. 4 out of 5

    l.

    Anthropology isn't of particular interest to me, but I've come across the (discredited) idea of a matriarchal prehistory repeatedly and was curious as to what were the arguments. This was concise, informative and pretty witty.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Story

    Excellent discussion of the problems inherent in invented histories and modern origin myths. Eller has an axe to grind, but I find myself in much greater agreement with her stances, observations, and assessments than with even the best stated theses of proponents of goddess spirituality.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul Brooks

    This book has invented a past that systematically undermines all of feminism's compassionate qualities in favor of a patriarchal history. Perplexed. If you read this book, please read Bell Hooks, Rita Gross, and even Eisler. And after them, Angela Davis, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mary Wolstoncraft, Charollette Perkins, Genevieve Vaughan, Göettner-Abendroth, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Carrol Gilligan, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and some of th This book has invented a past that systematically undermines all of feminism's compassionate qualities in favor of a patriarchal history. Perplexed. If you read this book, please read Bell Hooks, Rita Gross, and even Eisler. And after them, Angela Davis, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mary Wolstoncraft, Charollette Perkins, Genevieve Vaughan, Göettner-Abendroth, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Carrol Gilligan, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and some of the others... This should be noone's introductory to feminism.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Pancha

    Explores the myth of a Matriarcal past and why it isn't a helpful belief. Written by a feminist author, so this isn't about woman bashing. Rather is is about how this myth isn't particularly useful in carving out an egalitarian future.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Thorough dissection of The Myth--lacking a bit on application of her point. I felt like she never quite got exactly where she wanted to go... Regardless, was thought provoking and gave a refreshing voice to the feminist discussion.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Cranney

    Interesting case study in how ideological driven agendas can shape the archaeological record to say whatever they want it to say, although I thought at times that the author was oversold the "little or no differences" branch of feminism.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gail

    Quite intriguing--would love to read rebuttals!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nigel_s

    Well written, poignant very well researched and all in all one on the bravest books I have read over the last few years.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Loree Iverson

    I felt that it was a balanced, fair perspective on matriarchalist theory.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Derek

    States the case well of rejecting an assertion based in dogma and ideological purity rather than the historical method or evidence. That being said the book is pretty boring.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Janet Biehl

    Excellent fact-based refutation of assertions for an alleged matriarchal prehistory.

  30. 5 out of 5

    John Waldrip

    What a refreshing read this book has shown itself to be, reflecting the author's rare combination of expertise in her chosen subject matter and intellectual honesty. My interest in reading the book was to investigate this topic of matriarchal prehistory as a convinced opponent of feminism as one of the most destructive forces in Western culture, from its devastating effect on marriage, the home, the military, and the job market. I do not in any way oppose equal pay for equal work or equality und What a refreshing read this book has shown itself to be, reflecting the author's rare combination of expertise in her chosen subject matter and intellectual honesty. My interest in reading the book was to investigate this topic of matriarchal prehistory as a convinced opponent of feminism as one of the most destructive forces in Western culture, from its devastating effect on marriage, the home, the military, and the job market. I do not in any way oppose equal pay for equal work or equality under the law. However, I find it astonishing that feminism is blind to complementary differences between men and women. Ms. Eller's book is a refreshing breath of honesty that I heartily recommend.

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