Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900

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Gentlemen and Amazons traces the nineteenth-century genesis and development of an important contemporary myth about human origins: that of an original prehistoric matriarchy. Cynthia Eller explores the intellectual history of the myth, which arose from male scholars who mostly wanted to vindicate the patriarchal family model as a higher stage of human development. Eller tells the stories these men told, analyzes the gendered assumptions they made, and provides the necessary context for understanding how feminists of the 1970s and 1980s embraced as historical “fact” a discredited nineteenth-century idea.

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Editorial Reviews

Feminist Collections - Mary Farrell Bednarowski
Gentlemen and Amazons is a compelling, complex . . . and formidably researched historical study.”
“Eller eloquently outlines what she believes is the myth of matriarchal prehistory. . . . Highly recommended.”
From the Publisher
"Eller eloquently outlines what she believes is the myth of matriarchal prehistory. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice

"Gentlemen and Amazons is a compelling, complex . . . and formidably researched historical study."--Feminist Collections


“Eller eloquently outlines what she believes is the myth of matriarchal prehistory. . . . Highly recommended.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520248595
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 290
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Cynthia Eller is Professor of Women’s Studies and Religious Studies at Montclair State University. She is the author of The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an
Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future; Am I a Woman? A Skeptic’s Guide to Gender
; and Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America.

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Read an Excerpt

Gentlemen and Amazons

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861â?"1900

By Cynthia Eller


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94855-6


The Travels and Travails of Matriarchal Myth

In 2003, Dan Brown became an overnight success and a media sensation with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. The novel is formulaic: a thriller. Before the reader can adjust her chaise longue and slather on her sunscreen, our hero, Dr. Robert Langdon, is falsely accused of a heinous crime at the world-famous Louvre Museum in Paris. A beautiful, intelligent Frenchwoman—Sophie Neveu—appears and helps Langdon escape. At first, he does not even realize that he is the intended prey of the authorities. Chases ensue, on foot, by automobile, and by airplane. The mystery begins with strange signs accompanying the murder of Jacques Sauniere, a curator at the Louvre, and spirals out from there. Our hero, a Harvard "symbologist," does not have the leisure to sit and cogitate, as he is undoubtedly accustomed to doing back home in the Widener Library stacks. No, he has to run fast and think faster. Not only must he be clever and quick, he must also be physically agile—even forceful—and attuned to the twisted channels of the minds of criminals, religious fanatics, eccentric historians, cunning priests, and corrupt officials ... all of whom turn out to have a lot in common, since they are on the side of evil. Whom can he trust?

As Western Christian history unravels before him, the apparently good turn out to be evil, and vice versa. Jesus, Christian readers may be relieved to learn, is good, very good. So is his mother, the Virgin Mary. So far so ... Catholic. But wait: don't start to genuflect yet! Yes, Jesus is good, and his mother is good, but so is his wife! That's right, Jesus's wife, Mary Magdalene. And his great-great-great-etc. granddaughter, our hero's beautiful sidekick and skilled code cracker, Sophie Neveu. If you've never heard of Jesus's wife—or you had, but thought she was a reformed prostitute and devoted disciple, but not a "special friend" of our Lord-don't feel bad. It's a news fl ash for most of us, because the world's most powerful and secretive institution (the Catholic Church, naturally) has conspired to keep this information from Jesus's flock for nearly two thousand years. Only a few, the elect, the Leonardo da Vincis of the world, have kept the flame of truth alive for future generations, hoping that one day all Christians will be able to accept the full humanity of the Christ.

After The Da Vinci Code raced to the top of the best-seller list, it prompted a culture-wide discussion, from Internet opinion-fests to sermons and Sunday school lessons. It was a boom time for New Testament scholars, who were abruptly handed an audience clamoring to know if any of the novel's revelations could possibly be true. Had Jesus been married? Did he have children? Was Mary Magdalene actually sitting at the table with Jesus and his disciples in Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper? Had the Knights Templar carefully preserved secrets too combustible to be acknowledged by the Catholic Church for thousands of years of Christian history? Was there a secret society called the Priory of Sion dedicated to protecting the truth about Jesus and his bloodline? Could the Catholic Church—which everyone seemed ready enough to believe was sufficiently conniving to hide inconvenient truths from its lay members—successfully keep something like that secret? And if it were true that Jesus had been married and had children, what would it change? Everything? Or only a few details, none of them faith shattering? Indeed, was it possible that the new Jesus, the post–Da Vinci Code Jesus, could be even better suited to modern sensibilities than the old one?

The Da Vinci Code broke upon the consciousness of most readers not only with the predictable force of a fast-paced thriller, but with the bracing air of unanticipated iconoclasm. And yet part of the appeal of The Da Vinci Code's plot is that it is not really new at all: it is simply the elephant of six-blind-men fame suddenly seen from a different angle. The main fixtures of The Da Vinci Code are familiar. With the exception of the alluringly subterranean elements of Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion, they are drawn from Christian high culture: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Emperor Constantine, the Catholic Church, the Holy Grail, Leonardo da Vinci, the Louvre, Westminster Abbey. All these people, places, symbols, and organizations are ones we feel proud to be aware of, to embrace as our cultural heritage. Dan Brown tosses them into the air for the action of his novel. But when they come down, they do not form the old familiar picture. Nor do they end up as a heap of unrelated scraps. The puzzle pieces that seemed to admit of only one possible configuration emerge, after a twist of the kaleidoscope, in another light, forming a new, equally symmetrical, and appealingly fresh pattern.

It is the Christian story retold, but with a few key changes. First, the Catholic Church is not the body of Christ on earth. It is wealthy, powerful, sneaky, and bent on retaining its paternalistic authority over its flock by doling out Christian truth in the bite-size servings it believes its children are capable of swallowing (a very Protestant view of Catholicism!). Second, on the fully human, fully divine spectrum debated by the early church councils, Jesus swings dramatically toward the fully human. And he does so in a very significant way: by loving a woman and having a child with her. From this one deft fictional device (toyed with earlier in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ) comes a river of theological innovation, all apparently quite intriguing to the modern mind. Christianity is redeemed from its ascetic moralism. We get to keep Jesus, but throw out everything we as a culture have come to find distasteful about Christianity: dogma, institutional authority, the secondary status of women, and a moral preference for chastity over sex. The Holy Grail, sought after by zealous Christians for centuries, turns out to be the sexual, reproductive body of a woman. Sex is good; women are, at the very least, equal to men; and Christianity has its Goddess again.

Wait ... a Christian Goddess? Now that's not something I learned about in Sunday School. Even if Jesus was married, as the novel contends, where does "the Goddess" come in? Jesus's mother, the Virgin Mary, has been knocking pretty hard on the door of deification for the past thousand-plus years of grassroots Christian culture, but she is still not regarded as a goddess by people who want to keep their Christian noses clean. To complicate matters, the popularity of the Virgin Mary was waxing strong in Western history at the same time that, according to Dan Brown's novel, "the sacred feminine" was being ground under the boot heels of the cassocked gentlemen of Rome. It doesn't seem likely that they would have extended so much ecclesiastical and theological support to the Virgin Mary if she were the secret Christian Goddess. And if the Virgin Mary does not qualify as the "lost Goddess" of Christianity, it is not immediately clear how Mary Magdalene could so qualify in her stead.

The Da Vinci Code is never very precise on this point. Its theological vision is somewhat muddy (perhaps forgivable, given the genre). Throughout, The Da Vinci Code stresses the presence of pagan symbols and elements in Christianity, which are gleefully discovered in famous cathedrals all over Europe by the novel's hero.? It describes a pre-Christian, "ancient" religion of nature worship and gender balance, "yin and yang," that assures "harmony in the world." Da Vinci himself, according to Langdon, was "in tune with the balance between male and female," believing that "a human soul could not be enlightened unless it had both male and female elements."

This gender balance is the official line, but from the outset, the novel emphasizes the "feminine" at the expense of the "masculine." The good Dr. Langdon is writing a book titled Symbols of the Lost Sacred Feminine. Sauniere, the curator at the Louvre whose murder drives the book's plot, is described as "the premiere goddess iconographer on earth," with "a personal passion for relics relating to fertility, goddess cults, Wicca, and the sacred feminine." Indeed, Sauniere "dedicated his life to studying the history of the goddess." The Priory of Sion, the secret society said to have preserved the truth about Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene, is not described as a Christian group upholding the ancient notion of divine gender balance in the face of a male-dominated Church. It is a—even the—"pagan goddess worship cult."? Meanwhile, the Emperor Constantine is said to have been responsible for "waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever."? It is the "feminine-worshipping religions" that are the target of persecution, not some ideally balanced male-and-female religion. And the central tragedy of Western history is the church-driven conversion of the world, in Dan Brown's phrase, "from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity."

Jesus's humanity and Mary Magdalene's central role in early Christianity is positioned as a rediscovery of true Christian history, a redressing of the Christian church's gender imbalance and a long overdue correction to its anti-sex morality. But The Da Vinci Code actually goes further than this: it reclaims paganism at the expense of Christianity. Once "bad" Christianity—essentially, the Catholic Church—is separated from "true" Christianity, all that's really left is the person of Jesus. This Jesus does not emerge as the Christ, the Messiah, or even as a particularly astute rabbi. Rather, he is the sacrificed pagan hero-king, the consort of the Goddess, who appears in the person of his wife, Mary Magdalene. The Judaism of Jesus and his bride never appears in any guise other than as a variant of paganism, yet another of the many ancient religions devoted to fertility and goddess worship, the mating of male and female in sacred sexual union. Indeed, the Star of David, which we are told is ignorantly read as the central symbol of a monotheistic Judaism, turns out to represent two deities. It is a superimposition of male and female signs "marking the Holy of Holies, where the male and female deities—Yahweh and Shekhinah—were thought to dwell."

To me, this is what makes The Da Vinci Code so fascinating as a cultural phenomenon: it is a novel that imagines a sex-positive, harmonious ancient world, purportedly balanced between the genders but focused on "the sacred feminine"; and it blames religion—specifically Christianity—for the invention of male dominance. Even more striking to me is that this novel was received with incredible enthusiasm by a twenty-first-century, nominally Christian audience. People loved this book, as gushing commentary all over the Internet attests. In what did its appeal lie?

What ever the appeal of The Da Vinci Code was to its readers, it is something that has been appealing for quite some time now. For The Da Vinci Code is yet another variant of a story I call the myth of matriarchal prehistory: the belief that women held greater power and place in times past than they do today; that male dominance, at least in the form we've known it in the past couple of millennia, is a comparatively new invention; that the gender of the deities a culture worships is indicative of which human sex it values more; and that we now stand at an important world historical turning point where gender relations are concerned. As Sophie Neveu's grandmother tells Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon at the close of The Da Vinci Code: "The pendulum is swinging. We are starting to sense the dangers of our history ... and of our destructive paths. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine.... You mentioned you are writing a manuscript about the symbols of the sacred feminine, are you not? ... Finish it, Mr. Langdon. Sing her song. The world needs modern troubadours."

And the world has them aplenty, most of them not making any pretense of hiding behind a fictional narrative, as Dan Brown does. For the past forty years, matriarchal myth has had quite a hearing, especially among feminists and neopagans. Feminists have found in matriarchal myth license to hope that just as male dominance had a beginning in ancient times, it can have an end too: that the oppression of women is not our only cultural heritage, but merely our most recent. Neopagans have relished telling a countercultural myth that reverses many of the value signs of Western culture, counting polytheism, magic, nature, sex, the body, and women among its greatest goods.

Others have also found succor in matriarchal myth. Afrocentrists such as Chiekh Anta Diop and Ifi Amadiume have assigned Mother Africa the role of the Goddess. In Africa, they say, benevolent matriarchs presided over the birth and long, peaceful history of humanity. It was in the north, in Asia and Europe, where warlike, patriarchal cultures emerged, viewing woman as "only a burden that the man dragged behind him." Another version of matriarchal myth, narrated in Jim Mason's An Unnatural Order, asserts that the fall of humanity came with the development of agriculture, which "broke the primal bonds with the living world and put human beings above all other life."?? Especially damaging, says Mason, was the domestication of large animals to provide work, milk, and meat. Mason's central concern is animal rights, but significantly, his story is also gendered: it is men who absorbed the lesson taught by animal domestication most readily and who applied it to the females of their own species, reducing them to economic and sexual slavery.

A few even quirkier takes on matriarchal myth emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century, each with its own peculiar focus. In Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna reminisces about the good old days, with their good old drugs (primarily marijuana and psilocybin), which made woman-centered prehistory a blissful place to hang out and get high. He laments the rise of patriarchy and its use of bad drugs (alcohol, cocaine, and sugar) that make everyone fretful and men nasty and domineering. William Bramley, author of The Gods of Eden, takes matriarchal myth to its logical extreme. He argues that all was bliss on earth until we were colonized by extraterrestrials (the "Custodians") who brought war, disease, hierarchy, and, of course, male dominance. Other proponents of matriarchal myth have even suggested that earth was populated solely by females until male extraterrestrials landed with their alien Y chromosomes and irretrievably polluted the human gene pool with the virus of maleness.

In spite of its countercultural flavor, the myth of matriarchal prehistory has also been mainstreamed, appearing in world history textbooks, news magazines, and other popular media. Some, such as author Jacqueline Shannon, stick with the feminist message. Her reason no. 8 for "why it's great to be a girl" is that "anthropologists and archaeologists credit females with the 'civilization' of humankind" because they "dragged men, kicking and screaming, out of savagery into the New Stone Age." Former U.S. vice president Al Gore, arguing for sane environmental policies in Earth in the Balance, notes that a prehistoric "reverence for the sacredness of the earth" may have been tied to "the worship of a single earth goddess, who was assumed to be the fount of all life and who radiated harmony among all living things." Even the glossy magazine Healing Retreats and Spas got in on the action in 2000 with "The Goddess Issue," offering healthy eating with Demeter; aromatherapy "to nurture the goddess in everyone"; prenatal yoga ("Embodying the Goddess"); and an article titled "Season of the Goddess: Rediscovering the Divine Feminine," proclaiming that "the goddess was once a universal icon with countless names, faces, and attributes."


Excerpted from Gentlemen and Amazons by Cynthia Eller. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. The Travels and Travails of Matriarchal Myth
2. Amazons Everywhere: Matriarchal Myth before Bachofen
3. On the Launching Pad: J. J. Bachofen and Das Mutterrecht
4. The Matriarchal Explosion: Anthropology Finds Mother Right (and Itself)
5. Making Matriarchal Myth Work: Communists and Feminists Discover the Mother Age
6. Mother Right on the Continent
7. Struggling to Stay Alive: Anthropology and Matriarchal Myth
8. Matriarchal Myth in the Late Nineteenth Century: Why Then? Why Not Before?



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