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]

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]

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

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.

Cultural impact

The Mother Goddess is a widely recognized archetype in psychoanalysis,[11] 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.[12] 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."[13] 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.[14]

See also


  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. Erich Neumann The Great Mother
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Eller, Cynthia (2001). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. Beacon Press. p. 288. ISBN 9780807067932.
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