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Beyond Reality

At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

Beyond Indiana Jones versus the Mother Goddess

Bob Trubshaw

At the Edge aims to cover the broad territory where the disciplines of archaeology, folklore and mythology ‘converge’ on place-related topics. This is a wide-ranging scope in its own right. Why then should we be moving off into the apparently unrelated topics of sex and gender? Put simply, the answer is that those who are questioning how modern society constructs sex and gender are creating waves which ripple out into the comparative backwaters of, say, sacred landscapes and ‘earth mysteries’. However, so far as I am aware, little of the exciting and provocative thinking in gender issues has been surfacing in the more popular periodicals. This issue of At the Edge makes attempts to get behind the verbosity and highlight some of the ideas that are emerging.

The deeply entrenched ideology of Western culture has created biased thinking at the deepest levels of anthropological and scientific theory and method. This legacy of ‘modernism’ is being challenged from two main directions: firstly, by postmodern critiques and, secondly, by feminism. There are some similarities between the two movements but few feminists are willing to label themselves postmodernists and, similarly, many who might be described as postmodernists are profoundly sceptical of recent feminist thinking.

Those who have delved into the feminist approach re-emerge with uncompromising vigour:

‘The issues raised by taking gender seriously are extraordinarily varied and have significant ramifications . . .’ (Conkey and Tringham 1995: 203–4)

‘The issues at stake are far from trivial. Postmodernism is challenging, among other things, the fundamental dichotomies of Enlightenment thought, dichotomies such as rational/irrational and subject/object. It is questioning the homocentricity of Enlightenment knowledge and even the status of “man” himself.’ (Hekman 1990: 2)

‘. . . more than any approach within the human sciences, feminism does fundamental damage to the established traditions of working within archaeology . . .’ (Thomas 1992: 12)

The 1980s saw some pioneering work on archaeological approaches to women and gender but not until 1991 did a major study of feminism in archaeology appear in print (Gero and Conkey 1991). Indeed, the title of one of the key papers in this volume asked ‘Why is there no archaeology of gender?’ (Wylie 1991), although the author acknowledged that the absence was not quite total.

This is not to say that archaeology and feminism had not already crossed paths, although the results have left a legacy which is far from admissible. Marija Gimbutas’s interpretations of the early neolithic society at Catal Huyuk in Anatolia created the ‘mythopoetics’ of a peaceful, egalitarian, female-led society who worshipped a Great Mother Goddess. Gimbutas’s ideas may be unacceptable to the current generation of academics but they have become thoroughly entrenched in popular literature, making Catal Huyuk the archaeological site par excellence for feminists. I have no wish to summarise all the reasons why Gimbutas is ‘out of fashion’ in academe as this has been done adequately elsewhere (see especially Meskell 1995 and 1996; also Conkey and Tringham 1995; Hamilton et al. 1996; Georgoudi 1992). What these researchers emphasise is that Gimbutas, although now the best-known of the advocates of a pan-neolithic ‘Mother Goddess’, was not alone. Indeed, a number of her key arguments are based on the interpretations of highly-respected male archaeologists of the 40s and 50s.

An example of the false logic in Gimbutas’s interpretations can be seen in one of her best-known ideas, that the high frequency of ‘Mother Goddess’ images in the neolithic reflected the dominant position of women in society. However, history reveals that the presence of powerful goddesses in a religious pantheon rarely reflects anything about the role of females in that society. For instance, the prevalence of statues of the Virgin Mary in pre-Reformation churches in no way diminishes the profoundly misogynic inclinations of the Roman Catholic clergy. Female figurines do not ‘express’ female power and Gimbutas and her followers have perpetrated a non sequitur akin to observing that the popularity of Barbie dolls means that Goddess worship is widespread in American society.

From feminism to feminisms

‘First Wave’ feminism of the 60s and 70s countered androcentrism with equally extreme gynocentrism. ‘Male’ values of domination, rational thinking and abstraction were rejected, resulting in the privileging of nurturing, relatedness and ‘irrational’ thinking (more accurately, what might be termed a different kind of rationality). Feminist thinking in the 80s and 90s has rejected such over-generalised dualistic oppositions and considers the greater variability and diversity that exists within gender roles. Rather than reversing the dualism, postmodern feminism seeks to dissolve the distinction. Put succinctly, gender is the way cultures use sexual differences.

When the term ‘woman’ is unpacked it contains a range of possible social identities e.g. variations in social status/wealth; young women; old women; priestesses; etc. In modern Western society, the challenges facing a poor, coloured, single-mother are distinct from the challenges facing an affluent ‘bachelor girl’ intent on creating a high-status career in the male-dominated world of commerce. In some traditional societies, the range of female roles is at least as varied. Just as there are various roles for women, so polemical feminism has also fragmented into distinct approaches, such that it is now more appropriate to refer to ‘feminisms’ rather than ‘feminism’. What might be termed ‘third-wave feminism’ is concerned with culture, knowledge, language and representation.

Many genders

We are not talking here simply about the ‘substitution’ of male/female with an equivalent pair of ‘gender roles’. Such one-to-one links between sex and gender are naive. A quick glance at modern Western society reveals homosexuals and lesbians. A less furtive glance soon shows that both of these ‘genders’ can be subdivided into at least two gender roles, to which can be added a ‘middle ground’ of various bisexual ‘options’. Indeed, male homosexuality encompasses a great diversity of gender roles - and ‘closet gays’ (or whatever one should call gays who are not ‘out’) almost inevitably play out different roles at different times or places. [1]

A more lingering look at modern subcultures would also divulge a wide range of gender roles among those who are sexually ‘straight’ . Such variety is far from modern - traditional European society also knew of ‘sexless women’ (such as nuns) and, although the literature is scanty, must have coped with physical hermaphrodites (which naturally occur once in about 1,000 births although these are now ‘corrected’ by surgery).

The ambiguous status of women past child-bearing age has led to, on the one hand, their being acclaimed as healers or midwives while, on the other, running the risk of being ostracised as ‘witches’ (see Briggs 1996: 71; 270).

Even, as during the seventeenth century in England, when the cultural ‘norm’ is for women to be attached to fathers, husbands or (while ‘in service’) their masters, this does not prevent so-called ‘masterless women’ from leading their own lives - even though they caused consternation by defying conventional assumptions about women’s dependence (Underdown 1985: 36-7).

Ultimately, in studying gender roles, one begins to examine how individuals experience life within specific social and cultural contexts. It is this which makes ‘engendered studies’ so distinct from the ‘generalisations’ which are still the normal approach to recreating the past. In her article on ‘Constructing sex and gender in archaeology’ in this issue of At the Edge, Lynn Meskell sheds light on how she is adopting such an approach to her own critique of ancient peoples of the Aegean.

The boys’ club

But ‘engendering archaeology’ is not simply about putting gender into the interpretation of the past. Also is being ‘engendered’ is the process of doing archaeology. Unlike folklore, where female researchers have played important roles (despite the efforts of some overly-dominant males), academic archaeology has a reputation for being a ‘boys club’ where the quest for knowledge has centred on excavation, new scientific methodologies and similar macho concerns. Indiana Jones may be a caricature but he is simply larger-than-life, not fictitious.

The alternative to excavation is, of course, fieldwork and regional surveys. These have never been a ‘macho’ activity, despite the excellent results obtained, as much such work is performed by female archaeologists (see Moser 1996). A number of readers of At the Edge will quickly recognise that fieldwork has been deemed an area where ‘trained’ amateurs can contribute alongside professionals - although it would be widening the scope of this article too far to discuss how professional/amateur form all-too-obvious dualisms within archaeology.

Gender in folklore

Unlike archaeology, folklore and mythology in recent decades reveal a much better balance between male and female exponents, both in the ‘middle ranks’ and in the higher echelons. This is not to say that there have not been some overly-dominant men (see Billington 1995 and Boyes 1993).

Mythology has its own ‘Gimbutas’, although intriguingly it is a man who promoted a ‘primordial matriarchy’. Inspired largely by Plutarch’s treatise on Isis and Osiris, written about AD 120, Johann Jacob Bachofen published his major opus on ‘The Mother Right’ (Das Mutterrecht) in 1848. Bachofen does not use the term ‘matriarchy’ but rather such terms as ‘maternal law’ and ‘gynecocracy’. His style of writing is ‘part poetry, part science’ but he develops a strongly dualistic view which identifies women with ‘mother’, ‘nurse’, ‘seat’ and ‘site’ of generation (Georgoudi 1992: 451). He suggests the human race first lived in a period of ‘chthonian materialism’ (with undisciplined sexual relations in the manner of Aphrodite) followed by a more ordered materialism incorporating both agriculture and marriage. This phase is exemplified by Demeter, leading to a Dionysiac gynecocracy where ‘the fragility and precariousness of the father’s victory’ leads to paternal principles beginning to dominate (Georgoudi 1992: 451–4).

Praised by some and criticised by others, Bachofen’s work on matriarchy is still the starting point for all histories of matriarchy - including both interpretations based on psychoanalysis and on Marxist-influenced thought. However, the difficulties of Bachofen’s complex prose mean that his ideas have been overly simplified or are inaccurately presented. However, even if Bachofen’s ideas received a lukewarm welcome in the conservative world of Classical studies, his notions are still pervasive. Those who have embarked on a critical re-examination of Bachofen find that they are removing nearly all the lower levels of the ‘tower of cards’ making up the prevailing interpretations of the Classical societies.

It should be emphasised that most of the researchers who are re-examining the gender prejudices of mythology and early societies, while often female, are not polemical feminists. In The Feminist Companion to Mythology (Larrington 1992) world mythology is examined by 21 female authors with a special emphasis on the identity and function of female mythical figures. In A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints (Pantel 1992), 15 women and a solitary man similarly explore how women have been depicted in early historical records. Clearly, in the pre-medieval eras which are being discussed in these books, history and mythology intermingle closely. Such ‘piecemeal’ examination of specific historical societies reveals a denial of women’s identity in myth, religion and culture (see also Eilberg-Swartz and Doniger 1995; and Birrell 1996 for a rare example of a feminist view of Chinese myths).

Taking as an example the Germanic warbands of the early medieval era, usually considered to be especially ‘macho’, the detailed study by Enright (1996) reveals that women had an ambiguous high-status role - encompass-ing the powerful roles of arbiter of social rank and of seeress within the superficially low-status function of serving the mead cup to guests.

Independently, Pollington (1996) has shown that, while warfare was generally regarded as men’s work in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon societies, there are enough allusions in the literatures of the northern peoples to suggest that women had a powerful role. The Norse valkyrjar (valkyries) are women dedicated to Oðinn who share the military life of his devotees. In later literature they appear as demure maidens, although there are enough clues to suggest a grislier earlier role - possibly priestesses of the cult of Oðinn who sacrificed captives to their god. The Irish warbands had female members who sometimes fought alongside the men and so were more akin to ‘shield maidens’ than mere camp followers tending wounds and other needs (Pollington 1996: 70).

Rituals of women’s initiation

The ethnographic literature has long concerned itself with initiation rituals of traditional societies. Much of the early fieldwork was by men, so there would be few opportunities to explore women’s rites, and as a direct result men’s initiation rituals dominate the established literature. However, in recent decades the increasing number of female field workers has begun to reveal how much evidence has been inaccessible to (or, more probably, simply missed by) male researchers. Based on available accounts, more than half (56 percent) the traditional societies initiate girls, but less than half (38 percent) initiate boys. Very few (7 percent) initiate both. ‘Girl’s rituals often differ from boys in exhibiting sexual licence, privileged obscenity or mockery of men and male occupations; while nothing similar takes place during the transformation of boys. . . . Such behaviour is not a spontaneous reaction to the occasion but a necessary part of the proceedings.’ (La Fontaine 1985: 108; 164-5; a striking re-examination of the rituals of women’s initiation can be found in Lincoln, 1981.)

Cracks or structural defects?

I have deliberately merely ‘dipped a toe’ into the various oceans of recent research which are re-examining all aspects of anthropology. By rejecting the preconceptions of modern androcentricity and the diminutive range of gender roles which are readily acknowledged in Western society then, firstly, richer and more varied versions of past civilizations begin to crack open - and quickly those cracks extend to risk toppling the entire edifice of how we ‘recreate’ the lives of people who are, more than ever before, different from ourselves. However, as Julian Thomas (1996) reminds us, for men there is ‘the awful dilemma of being a bloke and liking feminist theory’ as the fascination of feminist ideas ‘can become a means to an end, a way of addressing other questions’ whereas for women, feminism is above all a means of achieving one’s own emancipation.


My thanks to Julian Thomas and Lynn Meskell for making available their unpublished papers. Lynn and Kathryn Denning both kindly commented on an earlier draft of this article (although neither necessarily agree with all my remarks). Notes 1: Since publication two people have written to me independently suggesting that this paragraph somewhat misrepresents these issues.


BILLINGTON, Sandra, 1996, preface to S. Billington and M. Green (eds), The Concept of the Goddess, Routledge.
BIRRELL, Anne, 1996, ‘Where Daedalus meets Yu Ch’ui: a workshop on Chinese myth studies’ in Cosmos Vol.12, No.1 (June 1996), pp53–63.
BOYES, Georgina, 1993, The Imagined Village: Culture, ideology and the English folk revival, Manchester UP.
BRIGGS, Robin, 1996, Witches and neighbours, HarperCollins.
CONKEY, Margaret W. and Ruth E. TRINGHAM, 1995, ‘Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology’ in Stanton and Stewart, 1995.
EILBERG-SCHWARTZ, Howard and Wendy DONIGER (eds), 1995, Off with Her Head! The Denial of Women’s Identity in Myth, Religion and Culture, University of California Press.
ENRIGHT, Michael J., 1996, Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age, Four Courts Press.
GEORGOUDI, Stella, 1992, ‘Creating a Myth of Matriarchy’ in Pantel (1992).
GERO, Joan M. and Margaret W. CONKEY (eds), 1991, Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, Basil Blackwell.
HAMILTON, Naomi, Joyce Marcus, Douglass Bailey, Gunnar and Randi Haaland and Peter J. Ucko, [series of individual articles], 1996, ‘Can we interpret figurines?’ in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol.6, No.2 (October), pp281–307
HEKMAN, Susan J., 1990, Gender and Knowledge: Elements of a Postmodern Feminism, Polity Press.
LA FONTAINE, Jean S., 1985, Initiations: ritual drama and secret knowledge across the world, Penguin.
LARRINGTON, Carolyne, 1992, The Feminist Companion to Mythology, HarperCollins
LINCOLN, Bruce, 1981, Emerging from the Chrysalis: Studies of Rituals of Women’s Initiation, Harvard University Press.
MESKELL, Lynn M., 1995, ‘Goddesses, Gimbutas and “New Age” archaeology’, Antiquity, Vol.69, No.262, pp74–86
MESKELL, Lynn M., 1996, ‘Feminism, paganism, pluralism’; unpublished paper presented at TAG 96.
MOSER, Stephanie, 1996, ‘Science, stratigraphy and the deep sequence: excavation vs regional survey and the question of gendered practice in archaeology’, Antiquity, Vol.70, No.270, pp813–23.
PANTEL, Pauline Schmitt (ed), 1992, A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, Harvard University Press.
POLLINGTON, Stephen, 1996, The English Warrior from Earliest Times to 1066, Anglo-Saxon Books.
SPENCER-WOOD, Suzanne, 1996, exchange of ideas with Julian Thomas on Arch-Theory e-mail list, especially 18 Nov.
STANTON, Domna C. and Abigail J. STEWART (eds), 1995, Feminisms in the Academy, University of Michigan Press.
THOMAS, Julian, 1992, ‘Gender politics and American archaeology’ in Anthropology Today Vol.8 No.3 (June) p12–13.
THOMAS, Julian, 1996, ‘Men, feminism and gender archaeology’; unpublished paper presented at TAG 96.
WYLIE, Alison, 1991, ‘Gender theory and the archaeological record: why is there no archaeology of gender?’ in Gero and Conkey, 1991: 31–54.
UNDERDOWN, David, 1985, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603–1600, Clarendon.

Originally published in At the Edge No.6 1997.

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