Matriarchal religion

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The Minoan snake goddess figurines, though an almost unique find, feature frequently in literature postulating matriarchal religion

A matriarchal religion is a religion that focuses on a goddess or goddesses.[1] The term is most often used to refer to theories of prehistoric matriarchal religions that were proposed by scholars such as Johann Jakob Bachofen, Jane Ellen Harrison, and Marija Gimbutas, and later popularized by second-wave feminism. In the 20th century, a movement to revive these practices resulted in the Goddess movement.


The concept of a prehistoric matriarchy was introduced in 1861 when Johann Jakob Bachofen published Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World. He postulated that the historical patriarchates were a comparatively recent development, having replaced an earlier state of primeval matriarchy, and postulated a "chthonic-maternal" prehistoric religion. Bachofen presents a model where matriarchal society and chthonic mystery cults are the second of four stages of the historical development of religion. The first stage he called "Hetaerism", characterized as a paleolithic hunter-and-gatherer society practicing a polyamorous and communistic lifestyle. The second stage is the Neolithic, a matriarchal lunar stage of agriculture with an early form of Demeter the dominant deity. This was followed by a "Dionysian" stage of emerging patriarchy, finally succeeded by the "Apollonian" stage of patriarchy and the appearance of civilization in classical antiquity.[2] The idea that this time period was a golden age that was displaced with the advent of patriarchy was first described by Friedrich Engels in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.[3]

The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the main rediscoverer and promoter of Minoan civilization, believed that Minoan religion more or less exclusively worshiped a mother goddess, and his view held sway for the first part of the 20th century, with a wide-ranging influence on thinking in various fields. Modern scholars agree that a mother or nature goddess was probably a dominant deity, but that there were also male deities.

In the early 1900s, historian Jane Ellen Harrison put forward the theory that the Olympian pantheon replaced an earlier worship of earth goddesses.[4]

Robert Graves postulated a prehistoric matriarchal religion in the 1950s, in his The Greek Myths and The White Goddess, and gave a detailed depiction of a future society with a matriarchal religion in his novel Seven Days in New Crete.[5]

Verbotenes Land ("Forbidden Land"), 1936

Inspired by Graves and other sources was the Austrian Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen who, in his painting "Pays interdit" ("Forbidden Land"), draws an apocalyptic landscape dominated by a female goddess and, as symbols of the male gods, fallen, meteorite-like planets.

Second-wave feminism and the Goddess movement[edit]

The ideas of Bachofen and Graves were taken up in the 1970s by second-wave feminists, such as author Merlin Stone, who took the Paleolithic Venus figurines as evidence of prehistorical matriarchal religion. She presents matriarchal religions as involving a "cult of serpents" as a major symbol of spiritual wisdom, fertility, life, strength.[6]

Additionally, anthropologist Marija Gimbutas introduced the field of feminist archaeology in the 1970s. Her books The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974), The Language of the Goddess (1989), and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991) became standard works for the theory that a patriarchic or "androcratic" culture originated in the Bronze Age, replacing a Neolithic Goddess-centered worldview.[7] These theories were presented as scholarly hypotheses, albeit from an ideological viewpoint, in the 1970s, but they also influenced feminist spirituality and especially feminist branches of Neo-paganism that also arose during the 1970s (see Dianic Wicca and Reclaiming (Neopaganism)), so that Matriarchal Religion is also a contemporary new religious movement within the larger field of neopaganism, generally known as the Goddess movement.[8]

Most modern anthropologists reject the idea of a prehistoric matriarchy, but recognize matrilineal and matrifocal groups throughout human history.[9] In recent years, genetic and other evidence has accumulated in support of the view that early human kinship was probably matrilineal,;[10] on the other hand, matrilineal descent does not necessarily imply matriarchal political rule.

In contemporary spirituality, the Goddess movement has been used[by whom?] a way for women to separate themselves from powerlessness they were put under and to accept and come to terms that they are powerful.

Goddess Spirituality was not used early on in the feminist movement when it came to women expressing their spirituality because they[who?] did not see the correlation and saw it fit as a way to express different situations and events women faced. Also feminine spirituality and gerontology are closely derived or related to one another because feminine spirituality focuses very closely on newer generations and how they need to be in touch with themselves and the world around them.[citation needed] But it is also something that should be pushed onto older women[citation needed] because feminine spirituality, as spirituality is found in people of all ages.[11]

The Goddess Movement and Women’s Movement have at times been closely associated with one another. One example is the idea of bodily autonomy. Many feminist movements and leaders believe that women's bodies have been oppressed for many years, with accusations of slut shaming being aimed at some religious groups, for example.[who?] Members of this movement see women being fetishsized and exploited, and believe that it has played a large role in violence against women. [12]

Triple goddess and other deities[edit]

There is a deity known within the movement and other spiritual groups as the Triple Goddess, who is the representation of a woman's stages or life. Members say, it's not strictly for women but for a general guide through childhood, maturity and old age but it strongly correlates with women. The Triple Goddess is a deity that is worshiped by a large swath of neopagan groups; women, children and men. In these movements, she is seen as a deity that helps people understand what is happening in their lives in all ages. Many[who?] believe the stages within women that the Triple Goddess guides them through is maiden/youth, then mother and lover and finally wise woman. All of this is rooted from Pagan people and their beliefs but has gone through changes throughout time yet her main representation has remained the same. [13]

Triple goddess symbol
  • Aphrodite - goddess of love
  • Aditi - mother of the gods
  • Calypso - goddess of silence
  • Durga - warrior goddess
  • Inanna - queen of heaven, goddess of rain and moonlight
  • Harmonia - goddess of harmony

Cultural impact[edit]

The Mother Goddess is a widely recognized archetype in psychoanalysis,[14] and worship of mother earth and sky goddesses is known from numerous religious traditions of historical polytheism, especially in classical civilizations, when temples were built to many Goddesses.


Debate continues on whether ancient matriarchal religion historically existed.[15] American scholar Camille Paglia has argued that "Not a shred of evidence supports the existence of matriarchy anywhere in the world at any time," and further that "The moral ambivalence of the great mother Goddesses has been conveniently forgotten by those American feminists who have resurrected them."[16] In her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000), scholar Cynthia Eller discusses the origins of the idea of matriarchal prehistory, evidence for and against its historical accuracy, and whether the idea is good for modern feminism.[17]

Additionally, some believe[who?] that the Goddess movement is an empowering movement for women, but is not inclusive enough of women of color. Rather, they see it as influenced by colonial narratives and is disproportionately more European-descended than Western society at large.[citation needed] There have been charges within the Goddess movement of a division where white women and women of color from different backgrounds are not upheld to the same level of importance, and women of color not being heard enough by those supporting or involved in the movement. These critics say that minority women's voices get drowned out by the "powerful" white women and that the movement out is a step to recreating a movement holding all women to the same pedestal.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Andersen, Margaret L.; Taylor, Howard Francis (2010). Sociology: The Essentials. Cengage Learning. p. 439. ISBN 9780495812234.
  2. ^ Bachofen, Johann Jakob (1992). Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings. Princeton University Press. p. 93. ISBN 9780691017976. Retrieved 12 December 2012. Although the struggle of matriarchy against other forms is revealed by diverse phenomena, the underlying principle of development is clear. Matriarchy is followed by patriarchy and preceded by unregulated hetaerism.
  3. ^ Eller, Cynthia (2006). "Ancient Matriarchies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Feminist Thought". In Rosemary Skinner Keller; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Marie Cantlon (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253346872. Retrieved 12 December 2012. It restated the theories of Bachofen and Morgan but construed the era of ancient matriarchy as a golden age of sorts and described the patriarchal revolution as simultaneous with the evils (and benefits) of private property and the state.
  4. ^ Wheeler-Barclay, Marjorie (2010). "Jane Ellen Harrison". The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915. Victorian Literature and Culture Series. University of Virginia Press. p. 231. ISBN 9780813930107. [I]t was her interest in matriarchal religion and her insistence on its importance that most distinctly set her apart from other British scholars.... As early as 1900, she made note of the evidence of an older stratum of religion--the worship of earth goddesses--lying beneath Olympianism and supplanted it.
  5. ^ Smeds, John (Winter 1990–1991). "Graves, Bachofen and the Matriarchy Debate" (PDF). Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries. 1 (10): 1–17. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  6. ^ Stone, Merlin (1978). When God was a Woman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780156961585.
  7. ^ Husain, Shahrukh (1997). "The Paleolithic and Neolithic ages". The Goddess: Power, Sexuality, and the Feminine Divine. University of Michigan Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780472089345. Retrieved 12 December 2012. Marija Gimbutas is indivisibly linked with the study of the prehistoric Goddess.
  8. ^ Christ, Carol P. (2002). "Feminist theology as post-traditional thealogy". In Susan Frank Parsons (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology. Cambridge University Press. p. 80. ISBN 9780521663809. Marija Gimbutas unwittingly supplied the fledgling movement with a history, through her analysis of the symbolism of the Goddess in the religion of palaeolithic and neolithic Old Europe.
  9. ^ Welsh, Elizabeth (2009). "Matriarchy". In David A. Leeming; Kathryn Madden; Stanton Marlan (eds.). Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. 2. Springer. ISBN 9780387718019. Retrieved 12 December 2012. Currently, most anthropologists concur that there is no evidence for the existence of matriarchal societies in the primary sense of the term, but that matrilineal/matrifocal groups have existed in various places for many centuries.
  10. ^ Chris Knight, 2008. Early Human Kinship was Matrilineal. in N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar & W. James (eds), Early Human Kinship. From sex to social reproduction. London: Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. 61-82.
  11. ^ Manning, Lydia K. (2010-07-02). "An Exploration of Paganism: Aging Women Embracing the Divine Feminine". Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging. 22 (3): 196–210. doi:10.1080/15528030903547790. ISSN 1552-8030.
  12. ^ Gadon, Elinor W. (1989). The once and future goddess : a symbol for our time. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-250346-4. OCLC 19848105.
  13. ^ Mercree, Amy Leigh (2019). A little bit of goddess : an introduction to the divine feminine. New York. ISBN 978-1-4549-3670-1. OCLC 1096538546.
  14. ^ Erich Neumann The Great Mother
  15. ^ Eller, Cynthia (2006). "Ancient Matriarchies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Feminist Thought". In Rosemary Skinner Keller; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Marie Cantlon (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America. Indiana University Press. pp. 804–809. ISBN 9780253346872. Retrieved 12 December 2012. There continues to be significant debate about whether or not ancient matriarchies actually existed. But there can be no question that the possibility of their existence has inspired feminist thought and action for over a hundred years, providing a new and potentially revolutionary angle on human history.
  16. ^ Paglia, Camille (1991). Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Random House Digital, Inc. p. 42 & 8. ISBN 9780679735793. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  17. ^ Eller, Cynthia (2001). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. Beacon Press. p. 288. ISBN 9780807067932.
  18. ^ Maya, Kavita (September 2019). "Arachne's Voice: Race, Gender and the Goddess". Feminist Theology. 28 (1): 52–65. doi:10.1177/0966735019859469. ISSN 0966-7350.