Historiography and the Goddesses
Koeln, Germany (museum collection)
Photo © 2003 Dawn
larger view of image
This fall I'm taking a seminar in Historiography.
Sometimes I think that my journey through the Ph.D. degree is going to
be one long exercise in the spelling and pronunciation of jaw-breaking
words. Historiography? Unbelievably enough, my spell-checker knows the
Historiography: How to do history. How
to study history, read it, think about it, write about it.
I heard this phrase once a long time ago, when
I had just finished an undergraduate degree in Music Performance followed
closely by a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science. "How
to do history." I'm living in a college town; why not get
another degree, I thought? (How many Goddess-women can relate to that
idea?) Pick a field, any field. A lot of academic library jobs require
that the librarian have at least a second Master's degree, or even a Ph.D.
in another academic subject. I guess I thought History might be interesting.
So I drew up my courage and called a professor in the Department of History.
He was married to a well-regarded librarian; maybe I thought that would
help in my initial foray. After questioning me a bit about my background,
the professor mentioned that I would be beginning at the beginning, that
I really didn't know anything about doing history.
Huh? I think I felt vaguely insulted, even though
I hadn't really understood what he'd said.
Like many non-historians, I thought of the required
history courses from high school, and from my undergraduate days. These
had consisted of long lectures full of "facts," mainly about
the political, military and economic doings of "Western" nation-states
and their elite males. (You'll have to cut me some slack here. I was young
and benighted and hadn't yet heard of feminism, which was emphatically
not covered in my high-school history book.) There was surely no
"doing" to history, just parroting or reporting a long list
of facts about wars that depressed me. I don't think I'd ever considered
that history might be anything but the processing of facts, eating, regurgitating.
This view of teaching high-school history is
soundly trounced in the readable Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural
Acts, by Samuel Wineburg. (Wineburg
2001) The reason that he calls historical thinking an "unnatural
act" is that it's not a type of thinking that comes naturally to
many of us. We need to be taught it, and we need to work to learn it.
So much of our study of history has been from what are called secondary
sources: textbooks, books and articles about history, written from
the author's ideas about the historical events necessarily inherent in
the text. "Doing history" ourselves requires getting involved
with the primary sources: eyewitness accounts, letters, newspaper articles
from the time, photographs, diaries, interviews, tapes. "Doing history"
means that we work with these like a detective, not only reading them
but critically analyzing them, looking for their viewpoint, reading for
what is said and what is not said. We find that the "facts"
are much more slippery than they seem, and that there's a story behind
just about everything. (For an incredible example of doing history with
a woman at the center, see A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard,
Based on her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. (Ulrich
So, how would one "do" the history
of the Goddesses and Goddess religions? What would a religious historiography
of the Goddesses look like? If you're a Ph.D. student, you must be able
to write and speak of the methods you are using to do your studies, so
that other scholars using the same methods can evaluate your work. For
me, religious historiography looks like one of the most powerful tools
for doing the history of the Goddesses. But we run into a problem right
away. The study of history assumes that the scholar has access to written
primary source material. If the culture being studied does not have a
tradition of writing, then the scholar is not doing history, but prehistory,
or even proto-history.
die drei heilige
Jungfrauen in the church at Meransen, Italy
Photo © 2004 Dawn
larger view of image
For my own particular dissertation, I'm going
to be looking at two different collectives of Goddesses or sacred females
from Germanic Europe. The first collectives are the Deae Matronae,
the groups of three Goddesses found along the Rhine River around the beginning
of the Common Era. There is no primary source material in the form of
written documents. The primary source material is all in stone: statues,
inscriptions and ruins of temples. The second collectives I'm studying
are the drei heiligen Jungfrauen (Three Holy Maidens), groups of
three Catholic Saints from Germanic Europe, medieval times to the present.
Their primary source material is church art, church statues, written lives
of the Saints done by the Church.
That's the problem with so much of women's "history,"
at least in European-American culture. Without access to power, education
and leisure, women didn't write the primary source materials. Women didn't
even pay for statues of the Deae Matronae to be installed in temples
along the Rhine. Men did, and Roman men at that. This is the joy and the
challenge of doing women's history of any kind, and historiography of
the Goddesses particularly. Our minds need to open to new categories of
primary sources: in my work, it is art and architecture, fountains and
frescoes, pamphlets found in the back of silent Alpine churches, half-broken
stones gratefully created for Goddesses who have given aid, fragments
of myth written down by men. Like with any "doing of history,"
the primary sources need to be looked at critically: who created this
source? What were their reasons, needs and biases? Whose stories are being
left out and why?
drei helige Jungfrauen in the church in Meransen, Italy
Photo © 2004 Dawn
larger view of image
people who have thought about the history of women's Goddess worship have
pointed out that women's offerings to their Goddesses would most likely
have been perishable goods. Loaves of bread, perhaps, or other foodstuffs,
flowers, fruits. This summer I was fortunate enough to be poking around
churches seeking my drei heiligen Jungfrauen and I happened upon
an amazing set of semi-perishable offerings to the Maidens. There was
a display case of small porcelain hearts, arms and legs, tied with ribbon,
and probably given as thanks for healing or recovery from injury. Even
more amazing were the cross-stitched embroideries, thanking the Jungfrauen
for their help. I had never thought about the cloth and sewing and weaving
that might have been lovingly created for the Goddesses, and offered at
their shrines. (And being a spinner and weaver, I should have known better.
Also, this possibly explains an ancestral tradition of memory that causes
all of us Goddess-women to be constantly making crafty items.) Yet here
in a lonely little church nestled in the Dolomites was a display case
of offerings, many probably given by women, to sacred female beings that
had brought help and healing.
historians are finding that the history of the world includes the work,
lives, loves and hopes of women just as much as those of men. The "doing"
of history now requires that previously-ignored genders, races and classes
must be discovered and uncovered in order to make our knowledge radically
more complete. So therefore, the "doing" of religious history
must dig for, detect and uncover the history of women and Goddesses. I
would invite my sisters to begin looking right under their noses for primary
source materials that show the "hidden in plain sight" work
of women and Goddesses in our religious history. Come on in, the water's
fine, and the words are pronounceable and spell-able if you just take
them in short segments. And the journey of discovery is just plain fun.
- Ulrich, Laurel 1991. A Midwife's Tale:
The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812. New
York: Vintage Books.
- Wineburg, Samuel S. 2001. Historical
Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching
the Past. Critical Perspectives on the Past. Philadelphia: Temple
- Deae Matronae, Koeln, Germany,
© 2003 Dawn Work-Makinne. All rights reserved.
- Die drei heilige Jungfrauen in the
church at Meransen, Italy, © 2003 Dawn Work-Makinne. All
- Offerings to die drei heilige Jungfrauen
in the church at Meransen, Italy, © 2003 Dawn Work-Makinne.
All rights reserved.