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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 emphasizes a goddess or multiple goddesses as central figures of worship and spiritual authority. 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. These scholars speculated that early human societies may have been organized around female deities and matrilineal social structures. 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," was characterized as a paleolithic hunter-and-gatherer society that practiced 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. The idea that this period was a golden age that was displaced by the advent of patriarchy was first described by Friedrich Engels in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.

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.

The extent of matriarchal influence, particularly from the Minoan civilization, remains a topic of debate among scholars due to limited archeological evidence. Nevertheless, Greek art and literature reflect a nuanced interplay between patriarchal and matriarchal themes, suggesting a multifaceted cultural landscape. This dynamic balance between different societal paradigms underscores the richness and complexity of ancient Greek civilization.

In the early 1900s, historian Jane Ellen Harrison put forward the theory that the Olympian pantheon replaced an earlier worship of earth goddesses.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

Most modern anthropologists reject the idea of a prehistoric matriarchy but recognize matrilineal and matrifocal groups throughout human history[1][2] (although matrilineal descent does not necessarily imply matriarchal political rule). Matrilineality or matrilocality occurred in some prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups and was probably common in ancient[clarification needed] societies. Modern anthropologists note a fairly flexible system of kinship and residence among hunter-gatherers (our ancestors).[3][4] It can be matrilineal and/or patrilineal, matrilocal and/or patrilocal.[5] Several scientists also advocate the multilocality of hunter-gatherer communities, refuting the concepts of exclusive matrilocality (matrilineality) or patrilocality (patrilineality).[3][6] Also, some scientific data refute the one-line theory of evolution, which claimed that the ancient society was exclusively matriarchal, and only after some cultural shifts it moved to patriarchy. Modern data call into question this point of view.[7] At the same time, for example, pastoralists-farmers tend to be more patrilocal and patrilineal than non-pastoralists.[8]

The predominance of matrilineality or matrilocality varies by culture and period, including specific prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities and ancient societies. While some researchers argue that hunter-gatherer groups are multilocal, disputing exclusive matrilocality or patrilocality, they require particular examples or references to support their claim. Furthermore, scientific facts opposing the one-line hypothesis of evolution exist; however, citing particular research or instances would increase the credibility of this argument.

Anthropologist Eleanor Leacock's research among Canada's Montagnais-Naskapi Indigenous peoples is one example of a study that calls into question the idea of exclusive matrilocality or patrilocality. Leacock discovered that, while these communities were frequently classified as patrilineal and patrilocal, family relationships were more complicated and flexible than previously imagined, including evidence of matrilineal and bilateral kinship practices. This study emphasizes the need to reconsider assumptions regarding the rigidity of family networks and the variety of social structures in hunter-gatherer groups.

In contemporary spirituality, the Goddess movement has been used[by whom?] as a way for women to separate themselves from the powerlessness they were put under and to accept and come to terms with the fact 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.[6]

The Goddess Movement and Women's Movement have sometimes been closely associated. 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 fetishized and exploited and believe that it has played a significant role in violence against women.[1]

Triple goddess and other deities[edit]

There is a deity known within the movement and other spiritual groups as the Triple Goddess, who represents a woman's stages of 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 worshiped by many 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 at all ages. Many [who?] believe the stages within women that the Triple Goddess guides them through their maiden/youth, mother and lover, and finally, wise woman. This is rooted in Pagan people and their beliefs but has changed throughout time, yet her central representation has remained the same.[7]

Triple goddess symbol

Cultural impact[edit]

The Mother Goddess is a widely recognized archetype in psychoanalysis,[1] 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 whether ancient matriarchal religion historically existed.[7] 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."[8] In her book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000), scholar Cynthia Eller discusses the origins of matriarchal prehistory, evidence for and against its historical accuracy, and whether the concept is suitable for modern feminism.[9]

Kavita Maya cites scholars pointing out a perceived lack of an ethnic mix in Goddess feminism, arguing that the Goddess movement incorporates "unequal relational dynamics between white Goddess feminists and women of color" and states that it is influenced by colonial narratives, resulting in both "silencing and the romanticization of racial difference."[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Smeds, John (Winter 1990–1991). "Graves, Bachofen and the Matriarchy Debate" (PDF). Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries. 1 (10): 1–17. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  3. ^ Stone, Merlin (1978). When God was a Woman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780156961585.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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. S2CID 144409754.