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Rosemary Radford Ruether begins her exploration of the divine feminine with an analysis of prehistoric archaeology that challenges the popular idea that, until their overthrow by male-dominated monotheism, many ancient societies were matriarchal in structure, governed by a feminine divinity and existing in harmony with nature. For Ruether, the historical evidence suggests the reality about these societies is much more complex. She goes on to consider key myths and rituals from Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Anatolian cultures; to examine the relationships among gender, deity, and nature in the Hebrew religion; and to discuss the development of Mariology and female mysticism in medieval Catholicism, and the continuation of Wisdom mysticism in Protestanism. She also gives a provocative analysis of the meeting of Aztec and Christian female symbols in Mexico and of today's neo-pagan movements in the United States.
To examine the contested issue of gender in ancient Near Eastern prehistory, I begin with a definition of the period. Prehistory is the time before the invention of writing (which took place around 3500 BCE in the ancient Near East). This period is divided into several major eras of human development in eastern Europe and the ancient Near East: late Paleolithic (c. 30,000-9000 BCE), proto-Neolithic and Neolithic (c. 9000-5600 BCE), and Calcolithic (5600-3500 BCE). In the European late Paleolithic, we begin to have some evidence of human creative consciousness in the form of cave paintings, figurines, and tools decorated with designs or with figures of animals or humans. The Neolithic is divided from the Paleolithic by the movement from food gathering (hunting and collecting fruits, nuts, and plants) to food growing and domestication of animals. The Calcolithic describes a time of more developed agriculture (including the use of the plow and irrigation) as well as trade and early urbanization.
The Neolithic revolution took place gradually in the ancient Near East between 9000 and 7000 BCE. At first, herds of wild animals or areas of wild grains were cordoned off and controlled by more settled human groups; later, with fulldomestication, animals were bred for food, milk, or skins, and seeds were conserved for planting grains. These innovations developed along parallel lines in several places in the ancient Near East and spread to other nearby areas. There was not a uniform, straightforward pattern of development. Agriculture might have been started in one area and then abandoned when water supplies gave out; the group that had begun to grow food might then have migrated and become pastoral. Earlier Paleolithic patterns of hunting and gathering continued in societies near those that had moved on to agriculture and stock breeding. Many Neolithic societies mixed stock breeding and agriculture with hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.
A variety of female figurines with markedly large breasts, buttocks, and bellies are found in Neolithic sites. These figurines are often seen as reflecting a view that links the female body with fecundity, likely an inheritance from the Paleolithic period. The development of pottery around 7000 BCE offers new artifacts with geometric designs, often molded in human and animal shapes. But without writing, it is very difficult to determine the actual thoughts or intentions of those who created these images. Even early writings, such as texts from third-millennium Sumerian cities, are not easy to interpret, a topic explored in the following chapter. With no writing, and with only those artifacts that happen to be made of materials capable of longer survival (stone, metal, baked clay, bone), determining what a group of people meant by particular images is guesswork, an area into which trained archaeologists venture with great caution.
Yet humans, including trained archaeologists, are driven to know what such things meant and thus what they might mean for us today. This is why such quests for evidence of the lives of earlier peoples are undertaken. How does knowing the paths trod by humans in the past inform us about what we are, about our potential as humans? Prehistory-precisely because one can say so little about it or about the inner life of its people with certainty-easily becomes a tabula rasa on which to project our own theories about what humans necessarily are or should be and hence must have once been. Questions of gender roles, in particular, have reflected the social assumptions of the archaeologists.
Archaeological studies of prehistory reflect sharply contrasting lines of interpretation of gender roles. The dominant line in archaeology, which continues today, simply assumes that, however much human society might change in terms of technology and movement from hunting and gathering to agriculture and stock breeding to industrialism, gender roles are fixed by biology. This interpretation holds that the male is the dominant food provider, that from the dawn of human development he was the one who left the home base to secure food, primarily by hunting animals. The focus of many paleoanthropologists, then, has been on "man the hunter." This view assumes that the primary diet of early humans was meat and that the role of hunter was filled exclusively by males. Males are also seen as the primary innovators of social and technological advances: hunting generated both social cooperation among men and the impetus to create implements such as spears, axes, and knives.
This view casts women as passive recipients of the food brought back to the home base by the males. Women's primary work was maternal, producing and raising babies. They also did secondary food processing, grinding and cooking grains or meat. This image of Paleolithic humans has had an overwhelming impact on anthropological museums throughout the world as well as pictorial representations in introductory anthropology books. Representations of "early man" picture males as mobile, working in groups, hunting, fishing, and shaping tools for the hunt; women are isolated, sedentary, caring for children, cooking food.
Archaeologists have typically assumed that males created and used most of the surviving stone or bone tools from Paleolithic peoples. Thus, a rounded implement is likely to be interpreted as a mace used by males to kill animals, rather than as a pounding tool used by women to process grain or nuts. Such depictions of Paleolithic "man" reproduce the presumed sexual division of labor within the Western industrial middle class, with its split between "home" and "work," with men as providers and women confined to domestic work and child raising.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a different picture of prehistoric humans, as originally matriarchal and only later developing patriarchal societies, was advanced by a few Western thinkers, based more on traditions of classical literature than on field studies. The pioneering exposition of this thesis of original matriarchy was the three-volume work Myth, Religion, and Mother Right, published by German classicist J. J. Bachofen in 1861. This work had a major impact on nineteenth-century thought. It shaped the way classicists such as Jane Harrison and archaeologists such as Sir Arthur Evans, who explored the ruins of the palace of Knossus in Crete, looked at the evidence of pre-Hellenic societies.
Lewis Morgan, in his study Ancient Society (1877), on American Indians, also read his evidence through the lens of the idea that human society passed through an original matriarchal stage. From Morgan's work, the idea entered Marxist discourse and became a permanent part of Marxist theory as it described stages of social development. Frederick Engels, in his treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), drew from Morgan the concept of an original stage of "mother right" that had been superseded by patriarchal property holding and lines of descent.
Bachofen did not see original matriarchy as a time of high civilization. Rather, he considered the end of matriarchy and the development of patriarchy as the triumph of the "masculine" qualities of rationality over the inferior "feminine" qualities of instinct. Engels, however, drawing on patterns of Western thought that posited an original "Eden" followed by a "fall," described original matriarchy as a time of "primitive communism," contrasting it to the ascendance of patriarchy that followed, with its unjust domination of the male over the female. As Engels put it, "the overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex." This, for Engels, was the cellular model of all subsequent oppressive class relations between owner and worker. He argued that civilization had been built on a series of unjust systems of exploitation, but that this history would culminate in a final transformation, in which women would be emancipated and communism would reappear as a higher and final stage. Late Victorian feminist theorists, such as Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her 1893 treatise Woman, Church, and State, also imagined the time of original matriarchy as one of high civilization, followed by a fall into violence and oppression under patriarchal rule.
But these nineteenth-century theories of a fixed sequence of social stages, in which original "promiscuity" was followed by matriarchy and then by patriarchy, were discredited in the new anthropology pioneered by Franz Boas in the 1920s. Boas considered such theories of universal social evolution to be unscientific and argued that they should be entirely abandoned in favor of painstaking research on particular local societies. Each society, he believed, was sui generis and needed to be studied for its own distinct configurations rather than being fit into a universal theory of stages of development. Boas's methods have helped to provide a foundation for modern scientific anthropology and archaeology.
The link between nineteenth-century concepts of early matriarchy and both feminism and Marxism perhaps made this theory particularly objectionable to American male anthropologists of the twentieth century. Robert Lowie, author of Primitive Society (1920), sought to demolish this hypothesis as it had been advanced in Morgan's study of indigenous American societies. In this work, Lowie asserts that there has never been an instance of actual matriarchy-that is, rule by women that parallels patriarchy. He goes on to claim that matrilineal descent has had no universal priority in human history. In his view, it occurs only rarely and only as an anomaly when normative paternal rule is temporarily interrupted. But it is inherently unstable and soon disappears. For Lowie, paternal descent and male dominance are the natural and universal human patterns.
The primacy of patriliny became a widely shared consensus in American anthropology into the 1960s, as theories of the evolution of society and the search for the origins of certain developments assumed to be normative in human society came back into favor. Elman Service's Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective (1962) reflects this consensus. Service traces the organization of human society back to the earliest emergence of hominids from prehuman primates. Although the mother-child dyad may be the core of the human family, he assumes that prolonged human infantile dependency and the change from seasonal to continual sexuality in females created the necessity of protecting women from sexually aggressive males and the need for males to provide for women and children. The conjugal male-female bond developed to satisfy these needs, he argues.
Service concedes that females gathered plant foods, but he seems to regard this as a very inadequate food supply compared to the animal protein derived from hunting by males. He also sees females as incapable of forming organizations among themselves and describes them as gathering plants alone with dependent children. Males, in contrast, developed hunting as the main human food supply early in human history, an activity that inherently created cooperation among groups of men. The need to defend one's own group against other males, presumed to be always aggressive, made war necessary. Thus, men bonded through hunting and war. This theory of male bonding in the context of hunting and war as uniquely masculine activities was popularized in the era of the Vietnam war, reflecting the first wave of antifeminist backlash in books such as Lionel Tiger's Men in Groups (1969).
Described as physically weaker by nature, unable to travel far or run swiftly because of continual pregnancy and child care, the female necessarily submitted to the male to receive food for herself and her offspring and protection from the sexual aggression of other males. The male, superior in strength and mobility, decreed virilocal residence as the normal family pattern: the female was transferred from her natal family to that of her husband, while the sisters of her husband were similarly transferred to the households of other males. Service argues that this exchange, or "reciprocal giving," of women was the first expression of "human" sharing, and itself reflected the emergence of a truly human capacity to organize and plan for the future, as distinct from prehuman primates. Through such reasoning, Service construes something very much like the monogamous, male-dominant family, with male provider-protector and dependent female, as the original and universal human family.
This view was challenged by a growing number of women anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s. Studies of existing foraging and gardening societies conducted by male anthropologists were shown to be skewed by the men's inability to actually observe and speak with the women in such settings. Female anthropologists who could locate themselves in the women's community saw a very different picture. Their studies of foraging societies showed that female gathering of plants, nuts, and berries not only was an equal source of food for many communities but for some supplied the predominant food source. In addition, related females and their children generally gathered as a group, not in isolation.
Females also bonded with one another. Particularly in matrilocal societies (in which a male joins his spouse in the location of her mother's family), they worked together in procuring and processing food. Women, too, were toolmakers. They fashioned digging tools, invented weaving and basket making, and created slings to carry children, freeing their hands to gather food. Women invented tools for chopping and grinding gathered foods and containers for cooking and storage. Women in their work as gatherers and food processors were the primary creators of the technology that turned the raw into the cooked, plant and animal matter into clothes and containers. In their role as plant gatherers, they were probably the first to learn to scatter seeds to grow new plants.
Some women paleoanthropologists also challenged the dogma of a primordial division of labor between male hunters and female gatherers dating to early hominid or even prehuman primates. They suggested that a long period of scavenging young, weak, or dead animals preceded organized hunting, with both males and females participating equally in such scavenging.
In their landmark book The Female of the Species, M. Kay Martin and Barbara Voorhies describe matrilineal and matrilocal social organization as enduring and stable rather than rare and aberrant. Starting from the premise that the mother-child dyad is the core human group, they regard matrilineal and matrilocal societies as originally much more widespread in early foraging societies than they are now, although not universal. In these societies, the grandmother was the central ancestress, with her children and grandchildren clustered around her in an extended family. Men, rather than women, moved between matricentric extended households. The male gained access to a wife through serving her and her family, although he retained his relationship to his own mother's household and lineage. Male leadership was provided by brothers of the matrilineal group.
Matrilineal societies flourished particularly in situations of relative abundance, where there was not severe competition for resources. Such situations were common for early human foragers, who gathered food in regions that later became sites for the development of agriculture. In a 1965 symposium on "man the hunter," the mostly male contributors disputed the assumption that foraging societies were driven by scarcity and were always on the brink of starvation. On the contrary, they described this way of life as "the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved"-much more successful than the way of life initiated by the agricultural revolution and industrialization, which the writers saw as bringing humans to the brink of annihilation in the second half of the twentieth century. This early abundance and the ease of the foraging lifestyle that sustained humanity for 99.9 percent of its history have been obscured as patriarchal agricultural and industrial societies have taken over these regions, pushing foragers into marginal areas of the world.
Excerpted from GODDESSES and the Divine Feminine by ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER Excerpted by permission.
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1. Gender and the Problem of Prehistory
2. Goddesses and World Renewal in the Ancient Mediterranean
3. The Hebrew God and Gender
4. Savior Goddesses in the Mystery Religions and Gnosticism
5. The Spiritual Feminine in New Testament and Patristic Christianity
6. Feminine Symbols in Medieval Religious Literature
7. Tonantzin-Guadalupe: The Meeting of Aztec and Christian Female Symbols in Mexico
8. Mary and Wisdom in Protestant Mystical Millennialism
9. Contested Gender Status and Imagining Ancient Matriarchy
10. The Return of the Goddess