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Historiography and the Goddesses

Deae Matronae, Koeln, Germany (museum collection)
Photo © 2003 Dawn Work-MaKinne.
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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 word.

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 1991)

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 Work-MaKinne.
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?

Offerings to drei helige Jungfrauen in the church in Meransen, Italy
Photo © 2004 Dawn Work-MaKinne.
larger view of image

The capital letter "M" in Medusa scriptany 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.

The capital letter "M" in Medusa scriptany 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 University Press.

Graphics Credits

  • 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 rights reserved.
  • Offerings to die drei heilige Jungfrauen in the church at Meransen, Italy, © 2003 Dawn Work-Makinne. All rights reserved.
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