Volume 1 – Proceedings of the Association for the Study of Women & Mythology, edited by Marion Dumont and Gayatri Devi

This book is a fantastic resource for me, providing both information and inspiration. If I have any complaint at all, it’s this: I can’t seem to finish it! This is certainly not because of the quality of the writing or the interest the book holds, but rather that every time I open it something I read sends me off on a journey, chasing up a reference or turning to The Civilization of the Goddess(1) to check a thought or idea.

The Emperor’s Old Clothes

As Joan M. Cichon writes in the first of two papers included in the book(2), the archaeologist Colin Renfrew chose in the 1970s to focus on understanding Maltese temples as the territorial markers of chieftains, arguing that only great economic and political power in the hands of such chiefs could have made possible the major construction projects of that time.  He certainly wasn’t the first: early excavators of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire fully expected to find “King Sil” within this giant mound, quite possibly astride a golden horse and bearing the weapons one would expect of a great warrior, not to mention any treasure that may have been deposited with him.

It’s easy to smile at this today, when not gnashing one’s teeth at the damage caused by these early digs, but while I’m sure Renfrew wasn’t seeking treasure in the traditional sense, it’s interesting to ask oneself just how valuable to 20th century culture and politics was the idea that only a heirarchical and presumably male-dominated society could have produced such labour-intensive constructions? No investigations of Silbury Hill have found any trace of a burial and so one more mighty patriarch from pre-history turns out to be as invisible as the new outfit proudly worn by the emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s story.

I was therefore pleased to note in Francis Pryor’s Home that while Renfrew has been very influential in promoting archaeology in Britain:

“… his ideas didn’t seem to fit with what I had observed….There are other ways of viewing the growing complexity of sites and monuments in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain than the suggestion that it was all due to the expansion of new, top-down elites.”(3)

Pryor goes on to say that his own studies have shown absolutely no evidence for developing elites, and notes further that such over-hierarchical views of the later Neolithic reflected late 20th century priorities far more than it revealed anything about the past. Quite.

I have never understood why the work of Marija Gimbutas was greeted with such disdain, but lacking any formal education in archaeology and knowing little of its methodologies made me hesitate to say so, even though it makes perfect sense to me that any understanding of the Neolithic must depend in part on the other information available to us, whether that is in linguistics, mythology, folklore or any other relevant discipline.  Certainly the archaeology of the 1970s was not free from criteria imposed by 20th century culture as the example above suggests: why was an unstated political and cultural input accepted in Renfrew’s case but unwelcome in Gimbutas’ work, even though fully disclosed? But perhaps, as Naomi R Goldenberg wrote in Marija Gimbutas and the King’s Archaeologist: “Gimbutas’ detractors do not engage her complex and varied body of work … they simply turn away. These out-of-hand, total dismissals lead me to believe that Gimbutas’ theories are often being rejected on emotional, rather than rational grounds.”(4)

In the book’s foreword, Miriam Dexter Robbins writes: “Goddess spirituality is the most radical expression of women’s studies.”(5) That hasn’t always been appreciated by women’s groups I’ve belonged to in the past, some of whom saw Goddess spirituality very differently, as a distraction from the all-important politics at the very least. I thought them short-sighted then and still do, for if we allow heirarchical and patriarchal culture to set the agenda there is little room to consider and even emulate those egalitarian and peaceful cultures of the past. The dismissal of Gimbutas’ work is evidence that at least until very recently such cultures were not only brushed off as unimportant or irrelevant, their very existence was denied.

I have so many reasons to be grateful for this book and for the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology – without resources like this and of course the work of Marjia Gimbutas herself, it would be difficult to know where to start looking for help in understanding so much of our prehistory.  But perhaps most importantly to me and I’m sure to many Goddess Pages readers, this area of study provides so much inspiration in our quest to find the real treasure: signposts to Goddess, within myth, within cultural artefacts from the past and, last but by no means least, within ourselves.

Geraldine Charles

You can obtain the book from Goddess Ink or Amazon.

1. Marija Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess, 1991, HarperSanFrancisco
2. Joan M. Cichon, “Archaeomythology from Neolithic Malta to Modern Poland: Apprehending the Material and Spiritual Realities of Ancient and Present-Day Cultures”, Myths Shattered and Restored
3. Francis Pryor, Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory, 2015, Penguin Books, p. 118
4. Naomi R. Goldenberg, "Marija Gimbutas and the King’s Archaeologist", The Journal of Archaeomythology, Vol1, No. 1, 2005
5. Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Foreword”, Myths Shattered and Restored