Indo-European Studies

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory:  Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future

by Cynthia Eller

Everyone with any connection to the Pagan community has heard some form of the myth that Eller writes about – that one time, in the very far past (I can’t stop my head from saying “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”), before written records, all people lived together in harmony, women were revered and honored as living embodiment of the goddess, until some great force, or transformation, occurred – changing from a matriarchal society to the patriarchal society that we now have.

Eller states that “…the most commonly intended meaning of ‘myth’, at least when it is used casually, is ‘not true’…[1]”  But a myth does not need to really ‘be’ true, to make a difference.  Eller goes on to state that “The myth of matriarchal prehistory postures as a ‘documented fact’[2]” and that this reason is why she felt it necessary to ‘debunk’ the theory.  She writes “Relying on matriarchal myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves feminists open to charges of vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court.[3]”  As just a myth, this story has more power to help future society than proving it was a valid past.  Through archaeology, mythology, discovered artwork and sociology, she breaks the theory of this being true history, and returns it to the category of a myth – where it is still just as powerful.  She covers the various forms of ‘proof’ that were discovered and explains not only why it is not accurate, but how and why the evidence was perceived this way.

In Chapter 7 “The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies II”, Eller talks about the different archaeological finds and how the information is interpreted.  She says “One of the central problems in interpreting prehistoric images is that the material itself – pictures and statues of human beings and animals – looks disarmingly familiar, so it often seems that inferences about the meaning of this art have more to do with an individual observer’s imaginative, empathic, and intuitive abilities than with any archaeological credentials.[4]

One of the beliefs for the ‘patriarchal revolution’ is that migrations and raids caused the disintegration of the peace-loving matriarchal societies.  Through the study of linguistics – the movement of language – she concludes that even though the basic beginnings are similar across the continent, that we (as reviewers of the past) cannot be sure whether the language changes and additions were due to movement or to make trading easier.

Another belief is that it started at the same time as the development of written language and thus would be visible in the very earliest writings.  Starting with cuneiform and continuing through to Greek literature, she shows that there is nothing in particular that shows that a matriarchal history existed at the start of literacy.

Even in the study of modern ‘primitive’ cultures, the data gathered is inaccurate – based on both ‘insider’ accounts and ethnographic observation.  Eller states: “Two ethnographers reporting on the same group can – and sometimes have – come back saying opposite things.[5]

While using the results of these findings to remove the idea of seeing this as ‘history’, Eller does agree that the myth is still valuable – but as a MYTH – a way that is desired to be, not a history.  As a myth it provides a goal – a vision of what we want and the hope that it can be.

I personally found this book to be a wonderful read and very thought provoking.  One of the primary concepts that I came away from the book with is that ‘our perception and our personal goals may color our research and its results’ and to be sure that I am researching from a point of unbiased view.

[1] Eller, Cynthia:  The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory  Beacon Press 2006  Chapter 2 pg 13

[2] Ibid, Chapter 1 pg 7

[3] Ibid, Chapter 1 pg 8

[4] Ibid, Chapter 7 pg 117

[5] Ibid, Chapter 5 pg 85