Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.03
Bella Vivante, Daughters of Gaia. Women in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2007. Pp. v, 230. ISBN 0-275-98249-1. $49.95.
Reviewed by Christina A. Clark, Creighton University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 852 words
Table of Contents
In her preface to Daughters of Gaia, Vivante declares that this book is a labor of love. Clearly it is so; Vivante has published many articles and books dealing with the lives and experiences of women, both in ancient Greco-Roman cultures, and in other important world cultures such as China and India. This book is a thematic study of women's roles in the ancient Mediterranean world starting from the assumption that pre-state societies positively valued women and their contributions to culture and daily life, whereas later patriarchal societies consistently downgraded women's roles and contributions. Vivante has used information from modern American indigenous cultures to provide gynocentric models for framing her research questions, which, in her view, enable "a far greater understanding about ancient women's lives than conventional Western lenses allow" (xiii). Indeed this is the author's stated goal: "to gain meaningful appreciation of the fullness of women's lives in the ancient Mediterranean World" (xxii). She examines evidence spanning four thousand years from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, employing a "feminist and multiethnic" analytical framework (xxiv). Topics addressed are those common to studies of women in antiquity: goddesses and women's roles in religion, daily life, health and medicine, women and economics, women with political power, women and war, and women writers (philosophers and poets, for the most part). While Vivante's book is clearly written and full of interesting material, I am unsure of its target audience. I asked to review the book, hoping to use it in my own classes and my own research on women in the ancient Mediterranean world; in the end, I will not be adopting the book for reasons I discuss below. Perhaps the book is best suited to the general reader unfamiliar with, but interested in the ancient world. However, Vivante's section on "Further Readings" at the end of the book includes an annotated bibliography organized by chapter which might be useful for undergraduate research papers.
The major strength of this book is its focus throughout on the positive views of women's roles in and contributions to their societies. However, Vivante presents a view of gender ideologies and relations in history that relies on a once popular but now largely discredited nineteenth century paradigm that was argued initially by Johann Bachofen, among others. She adheres to the idea, propagated most famously by Marija Gimbutas, of a primordial Mother Goddess-centered matriarchy in the Aegean that was displaced by patriarchy. While no one could argue that creation accounts such as Hesiod's Theogony do not begin with powerful goddesses supplanted by gods through gender and generational conflict, Vivante asserts that the reality of matriarchy is shown by such evidence as Neolithic figurines. She states that "Archaeological and early historical records worldwide reveal that the first deities human beings worshipped were female ... Early peoples perceived the natural world as sacred and female" (1). Paleolithic "Venus" figurines and Neolithic female representations are cited as evidence for a pan-Mediterranean belief in a mother goddess associated with fertility; Vivante doesn't note, however, that Aegean prehistorians have rejected this monolithic interpretation of such figurines, many of which are sexless or even male.1
In her desire to present women's roles thematically, Vivante is forced to lump disparate evidence together synchronically and cross-culturally in a way that can be frustrating for the reader. One example: in chapter 3, describing women's lives in ancient cultures, Vivante discusses housing types of the wealthy (69). I was unable to get a clear view of which culture and time period she meant, as she went from general description ("Many featured homes built around a central courtyard") to specifics ("Some Egyptian homes had limestone-lined bathrooms"). Are readers to assume that the houses of wealthy Sumerians were essentially the same as those in imperial Rome? In addition, Vivante is not consistent in her citation of evidence. Fascinated by her account of the class-related tattoo practices in Egypt on p. 72, I hoped in vain for a footnote or source identification in the text. Vivante often mentions evidence without identifying it: "One story describes a woman who underwent medical training dressed as a man" (77). Which culture? What time period? Which story? Vivante's book is most effective when she is specific, such as her discussion of wet nurses on pp. 96-98, in which she cites evidence from Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Given the spotty citation and lumping of evidence, I was uncomfortable with Vivante's strong statements asserting that ancient women from all the cultures discussed prominently emerged "in their societies' domestic, religious, economic, governmental, intellectual, creative and even military spheres" (203). I can believe that women participated to greater or lesser degrees in these spheres, but Vivante overstates her case when she claims prominence. Her overarching argument that societal valuation of women's roles diminished over time as patriarchy overtook matriarchy relies on one accepting this rather simplistic and outdated historical scheme. However, Vivante's focus on the ways in which we can glimpse ancient women actively shaping their own lives is thought-provoking and welcome. In Vivante's own words, "the sparks of women's intelligence, creativity and resourceful capabilities have not been lost" (204).
1. For an overview of the history of the Mother Goddess idea, see Talalay, L. E. 1994. "A Feminist Boomerang: The Great Goddess of Greek Prehistory," Gender and History 6.2: 165-83.