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Goddess and Scholar
by Dawn Work-MaKinne
Beltane 2003, Vol 2-3
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MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Salvia patens, gentian sage. Lamiaceae.
Photo courtesy of/copyright © Henriette Kress, http://www.ibiblio.org/herbmed

Sage, Scholar and Story

Our illustrious editor, Sage, once wrote to me about some of the scholarly questions that were interesting to her. What did Sir James Frazer , Erich Neumann and Robert Graves contribute to scholarship about the Goddess, and how did these men shape the literature of Goddess scholarship? What about the work of Jane Ellen Harrison on Greek religion? How important was and is the work of Margaret Murray? And what of Marija Gimbutas, the respected archaeologist and scholar whose work suffers from almost unheard-of post-mortem backlash?

Hopefully, this column will offer future essays on each of these important figures, and many more. All have contributed important questions and their own unique answers to the riddles and hints left by the Goddess(es) in human history. They wrote from within their various fields of endeavor, as religious scholars, psychologists, creative writers, scientists. Some thought of themselves as feminists, others didn't.

In subsequent years other scholars have criticized them, sometimes scathingly. And in their turn, Goddess women themselves have been criticized for being influenced by these same writers and their work, for accepting the earlier work as true or proven, and for building religion on what were seen as mistaken premises. Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, criticism of writers and thinkers about the Goddess continues to grow. Many Goddess women are wondering about the scholarly criticism and what it means to practitioners of a Goddess religion.

One of the great benefits of being a column editor is being able to add one's own voice and interpretation to the great discussions, by choosing subjects and authors, and placing them in some sort of context. Thus, be warned that what is written here is my view, and only mine, but does provide my particular context for columns to follow. To me, what seems to be at stake here is a story. For those of you who know me, and know my bardic approach to scholarship, you know that I don't ever use the word "story" dismissively. Our stories may well be our most important possessions. Goddess religion is new, as well as old, and the reborn religion is still less than 50 years old. Our sacred stories are still in the spinning: tales of primal connection and violent loss, of an ongoing community of women that reaches back into dimmest prehistory, honoring our power, the Goddess(es), and the sacred Earth. The story is a hopeful one, telling us that systems of oppression are human-made, not crafted by the Earth or the Divine, and thus oppression can be unmade. I cannot do justice here to the stories' complexity and power.

Many people, whether scholars or religious people or both, have no problem with sacred story as myth. In this view, the Goddess story need be no more or less "true" than the story of God's creating the universe in seven days. Both can be honored and appreciated as sacred narrative, and can be studied as such. People can argue whether myths of different religious impulses create equally powerful, valid and ethical faith communities, or they can argue any other of a thousand things. As long as the stories stay safely in the realm of "myth" (meaning poetic, metaphoric, unscientific) they can be left undisturbed.

It is when the sacred tale intersects with other disciplines in the scholarly academy that things heat up, and that is what has been happening with the Goddess story. Some scholars inside the academy have asserted that particulars of these sacred stories are indeed expressions of historical fact. Dr. Marija Gimbutas is one of the most powerful of these voices. Impeccably credentialed, she had a long and illustrious career in archaeology, becoming one of the most respected scholars of European prehistory. Her ability to read a huge number of languages allowed her unparalleled access to scholarly literature and to ancient and modern writings. In her later years, Dr. Gimbutas synthesized her work into an overarching theory of European prehistory, in which the artifacts told of cultures that were peaceful, egalitarian, ecologically balanced, and that honored above all a Goddess.

The academy has its own set of (sacred or not-so-sacred) myths, and is bound by its own history and assumptions. Many of these assumptions have been coded into the different research methodologies, which have brought us magical technologies like this computer at which I sit, deadly technologies like the atomic bomb, or wonderfully varied ways of looking at the world that have come from the sciences and the humanities. According to many critics who value a tradition and methodology such as the scientific method, Dr. Gimbutas' work is flawed. It is acknowledged to be visionary and radical and not without its positive features, but at the same time not to be taken as an accurate expression of historical truth.

I am fascinated by this particular junction in Goddess scholarship, and excited to be beginning Ph.D. work at this moment in time. How should Goddess religion be studied in the academy? What methodologies will be useful and compelling? What criticism stems from useful observation, and what from prejudice, patriarchy or fear? Author Rita Rippetoe, working with the ideas of archaeologist Colin Renfrew, has touched upon what I feel is central in this discussion, and what is at stake:

...if hierarchy, patriarchy and war-focused cultures evolve independently in different areas, it can be claimed that such structures are necessary stages through which all cultures must move -- and even that they are beneficial, with hierarchy and wealth accumulation through war causing specialization and advancement in technology and the arts. ... But if these developments were imposed upon a previously peaceful and egalitarian culture ... which appeared to be developing the variety and plenty associated with historical civilizations ... then it can be argued that the new traits are caused by accidents of history rather than necessities of cultural evolution. Thus, the argument that civilization has always required inequality and must, because of human nature require it in the future, is attacked at its root.

It is difficult for me to remain neutral in the face of such questions, which perhaps reflects the polarization often found in this dialogue. The questions are profound, perhaps among the most important that we are considering in our time. Feminist scholars in many disciplines work with assumptions that systems of oppression need not be the necessities of cultural evolution, and the dialogue is far from over.

Upcoming Goddess and Scholar columns will consider many of the voices that have shaped the emerging Goddess religion. We will examine research and writings, particularly those aimed at a generalist audience, that are often quoted in the more popular Goddess literature and ritual. Early on, we will look at the work of Dr. Gimbutas, and note the common criticisms. I invite the readers of this column to submit their own musings on these important questions, and their own reactions to this contextual column.

I love our editor's name, Sage. A fragrant powerful herb, and a person wise in learning and lore. A poignant reminder that there need be no disconnect between the work of our minds and the work of the earth, for we are the earth. Sages have walked among us, speaking powerful words and we now answer, addressing each other, or maybe just the wild plants waving in the breeze.

Graphics Credits
+ Salvia patens, gentian sage. Lamiaceae., Photo courtesy of/copyright © Henriette Kress, http://www.ibiblio.org/herbmed

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