BMCR 2005.12.16

Goddesses and the divine feminine: a western religious history

, Goddesses and the divine feminine : a Western religious history. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 1 online resource (ix, 381 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780520940413 $27.50.

This book is to be admired for the sheer scope of the project undertaken (a review of the role of the goddess/divine feminine from the Neolithic period to present day) and any reviewer must feel a certain amount of trepidation in critiquing Reuther’s (henceforth R) work as she holds something of an iconic status in the field of feminist theology. However, the perception of this book will depend, I suspect, to a large extent on one’s attitude to ecofeminism and modern goddess-focused theologies. For those who view these in a positive light, then they will find much to catch their interest in this book. For those less positively inclined, the book will be at times confusing and sometimes (and especially for Classicists) an exercise in frustration.

R states her twofold aim in her introduction. The first part controls the main thread of the book and is to critique theories of ancient matriarchy and re-evaluate the histories used by contemporary Western (primarily North American) feminists who trace the roots of their own Goddess religions to Neolithic and Near Eastern sources. The second part comes out mainly in the introduction and conclusion and is R’s own mission statement: to affirm modern religious movements that reinterpret these roots for a feminist-ecological spirituality.

The introduction is also an opportunity for R to provide a history of her own involvement with this subject, relating how she first became interested in the religious worldviews of the ancient Near East and Greece in 1954 while studying with Robert Palmer. Through Jane Harrison she was introduced to the theory of a matriarchal society preceding patriarchal ancient Greek and Mediterranean cultures. Since then she has questioned the marginalisation of women in religious history and the treatment of women in Catholicism, and in the 1970s was part of heated exchanges with Goddess theologians such as Carol Christ, who felt she was not radical enough. R’s own teaching and work highlighted to her that interpretations of the cult of the Mother Goddess were projections from our modern context and that theories of matriarchy are primarily constructs of nineteenthcentury European scholarship. She doesn’t see this modern reconstruction as a bad thing, but notes that it is necessary to recognise it as such and to admit that the imagery and ancient meanings are ambivalent and partly lost to us.

The first chapter, ‘Gender and the Problem of Prehistory’, addresses the famous Neolithic figurines with large breasts, buttocks and bellies, and the interpretation that they represent fecundity and a ‘Mother Goddess’. R examines the nineteenth century theory that prehistoric humans were originally matriarchal and the challenges in the 1960s and 70s of this model by female anthropologists and archaeologists. She provides a thoughtful and balanced critique of Marija Gimbutas’ work, including the scholarship reacting against Gimbutas’ theories. R examines Çatal Höyük as an example of a Neolithic site which has been used as proof of a peaceful, matricentric, goddess-worshipping culture and again provides a balanced analysis of interpretations of the site. She questions the validity of the model of an original matriarchy overthrown by a violent patriarchy for the prehistoric period and suggests an alternative model which supports an equality between men and women and makes both genders responsible for creating a human integration into a ‘life-sustaining relationship with nature’ (40).

The second chapter, ‘Goddesses and World Renewal in the Ancient Mediterranean’, is more uneven, particularly from the point of view of a Classicist. R’s examination of Sumerian society and religion is well researched and clearly situated in the socio-political reality. She notes that the hierarchical nature of the culture did allow women to hold significant roles but that they were generally second to men. She examines the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, whose sexuality was a metaphor for fertility of foodstuffs, considering her to represent the power of sexuality and kingship. R considers that it is not appropriate to view Inanna/Ishtar as a model for women (Sumerian or modern) but rather as a mediator between the divine and human through her relationship with the king. Ugaritic Anat and pre-Ptolomaic Isis are also analysed, and R notes that both are tied to the ideology of kingship. Again R is sensitive to the changes in the nature of deities over time as well as the biases and methodological issues with chronological contexts of her sources (e.g., Plutarch’s second century AD Isis and Osiris).

The final, and brief, section of chapter two focuses on the Greek goddess Demeter and in particular in relating the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to the rites at Eleusis. This is by far the most disappointing section of the book as R’s research is sparse and does not do any justice to current scholarship on the topic. To be fair, this is a broad area of study and this review is being undertaken by a Classicist who of course focuses on what is most familiar, but even with these provisos R’s treatment of Demeter lacks the balance and research that has marked the book so far. For example, the relationship between the hymn and the rites is not addressed at all, she strangely refers to Hades as Pluto, and erroneously considers Eleusis to be an independent city-state (this is reiterated in the conclusion (301)) thereby ignoring the relationship of the site with Athens and the social-political role the rites played in ancient Greek society. She even more briefly examines the Thesmophoria and, in an interpretation completely removed from her analysis of Sumerian culture earlier in the chapter, she views Demeter and Persephone as reflecting women’s experience in real life and imposes modern attitudes onto ancient Greece, commenting that ‘mothers and daughters must have experienced [marriage] as rape’ (72). Even more confusing is R’s comment that women did have power in Greek society as they were able to withhold their sexual favours — she cites Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as evidence of a tradition of Greek women stopping the Peloponnesian War by doing exactly this, without appearing to recognise that the play was a comedy (72).

The third chapter, ‘The Hebrew God and Gender’, begins by discussing the origins of Israel in a group of tribes creating a national identity for themselves. R notes that early Hebrew religion did not exclude the existence of other deities with some, such as Asherah, forming part of Yahweh’s cult. She discusses the reforms which moved Hebrew religion from monolatry in the ninth to seventh centuries BC to strict monotheism during the sixth century exile in Babylon. R examines the uses of sexual and female imagery and discusses the practical role this imagery played in the socio-historical context. She provides a critique of scholarship of these works, concluding that the female figures were created by and for a primarily male world.

The fourth chapter, ‘Savior Goddesses in the Mystery Religions and Gnosticism’, is rather disjointed as R attempts to encompass a broad spectrum of religious options available during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This results in an uneven feel to the chapter, with some elements getting a very brief treatment and some (such as the Bona Dea festival) being ignored completely. Again there is a sense that R has failed to engage with the scholarship in this (admittedly vast) area fully and her sources are often limited — for example she uses the Oxford Classical Dictionary as a source for Plato without any references to scholarship on Platonic theory (107, note 17).1 Her aim appears to be to provide a general sense that religion of the Hellenistic and Roman period focused on individual salvation and her particular interest is in Hellenistic Judaism and Gnosticism, with much of the chapter devoted to these areas. One of R’s dominant themes for the rest of the book – the place of the female in Christianity – begins here as R notes that while the Gnostics were wrestling with much the same questions as orthodox Christianity, they treated women as equals and R singles out Mary Magdalene’s role in Gnostic gospels as ‘first disciple’ for specific discussion.

Chapter five, ‘The Spiritual Feminine in New Testament and Patristic Christianity’ continues R’s focus on Christianity and traces how the feminine aspects of Christianity became eclipsed, with emphasis being placed on the father/son relationship between God and Jesus and a metaphorical gender division of male equating to the spirit while the female represented the body and passions which were to be rejected. She discusses the emphasis on masculine imagery used by the church fathers from 400 AD and how Mary became a focus for female imagery as a model of the ‘good woman’; a role which greatly expanded in the Middle Ages.

Chapter six, ‘Feminine Symbols in Medieval Religious Literature’ discusses Mariology in the medieval period, covering the religious arguments over Mary’s conception and her role as mediator of Jesus’ judgement. R examines the work of the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen and includes some of her religious illustrations. She compares the work of Bernard of Clairvaux with three female writers who combine mysticism with the secular tradition of courtly love: Mechthild of Magdeburgh (who views the soul as female), Hadwijch (who depicts love as female) and Marguerite Porete (whose doctrine of a spiritual ascent without the church ultimately led to her execution in 1310). R concludes with Julian of Norwich, who considered the figure of Mother Wisdom to form part of the Holy Trinity.

The seventh chapter ‘Tonantzin-Guadalupe: The Meeting of Aztec and Christian Female Symbols in Mexico’ begins with an overview of Mexican religion prior to the Spanish conquest. This is interesting in that it discusses a very different religion to any of the European ones treated so far, but feels rushed and cluttered and ultimately it is not clear why R considered it was appropriate to include it in a study of Western religion. The second half of the chapter deals with the Virgin of Guadalupe story and relates how the veneer of Catholicisim over continuing local beliefs, along with the historical battle for Mexican independence, supported the creation of a local cult of Mary.

R returns to Europe for chapter eight, ‘Mary and Wisdom in Protestant Mystical Millennialism’ and discusses Calvin and Luther’s masculine interpretation of Mary as a good Christian model rather than a divine figure. Her examination of Protestant mysticism, which includes Boehme, the Philadelphians, Swedenborg, the Harmony society and the Shakers, is a fascinating glimpse of not only Protestant views of Christianity, but also of the early religious history of colonial North America as R ties her discussion very closely to the societies in which these faiths existed, including the impact they continue to have today. She chooses those that believe in some form of divine androgyny, for example Boehme’s belief that the originally androgynous Adam was split to form Eve, and the Shaker’s belief that their leader Anne Lee was a female Christ who brought balance through the duality of gender.

Chapter nine, ‘Contested Gender Status and Imagining Ancient Matriarchy’ discusses the beginnings of the feminist movement in nineteenth century Europe and North America, and how the concept of matriarchy was used to both idealise and at the same time restrict and denigrate women. She addresses Bachofen’s theory of a matriarchy as part of the evolution of ancient society and how this theory was used by Classicists and anthropologists (she discusses John Ferguson McLennan, Edward Tylor, Sir Arthur Evans, Gilbert Murray and Jane Harrison but strangely makes no mention of James Frazer), socialists (who viewed matriarchy as an early communism) and early American feminists. R notes that early theories of matriarchy were used by various parts of nineteenth century community who saw what R rightly describes as ‘imaginations of ideal society’ (272). She notes that the assumed correlation of matriarchy and ancient religion supported a revival of goddess worship in the twentieth century.

Chapter ten, ‘The Return of the Goddess’ deals with these new goddess religions. R discusses the 1970s popularising of feminist religion by authors such as Elizabeth Gould Davis and Merlin Stone. R provides an in-depth examination of the growth of feminist Wicca and the roles played by Z Budapest, Starhawk and Carol Christ. Considering that R noted in her introduction that she had been involved in heated arguments with Christ in particular, she is very positive about both Starhawk and Christ. This positivity ties in with the re-emergence of R’s second aim as she calls for liberal Christians to work with the neo-pagan movement.

R’s conclusion reiterates her scepticism of the ‘storyline’ created by feminist goddess worshippers and notes that goddesses in early societies reflect the elitist ideology of their communities (with the exception of Demeter whom she considers reflects the anger felt by women against abuse by males (301)), and that Christian female images were generally created by men for men. But at the same time she believes the concept of matriarchy to have validity as a symbol, as long as it is not reduced to a feminist fundamentalism. R concludes with a call to arms for a common eco-feminist theology.

R’s work undoubtedly has a place in modern religious scholarship but based on this book, I am not convinced that place is within Classics. However the book as a whole does contain some strong scholarship and fascinating discussion. On a more quibbling side it would have been useful to have a separate bibliography and although illustrations appear throughout the book, they are under-utilised as a source.


1. Her only other cited reference for her discussion on Plato is Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans (New York, Putnam, 1912).