The Neolithic Great Goddess: A Study in Modern Tradition

By Hutton, Ronald | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Neolithic Great Goddess: A Study in Modern Tradition


Hutton, Ronald, Antiquity


Modern belief in the veneration of a single Great Goddess in the European Neolithic is often accompanied by the notion that those cultures of 'Old Europe' were woman-centred in society as well as religion. What is the long history which precedes these contemporary notions? What is the complex history of their political development? A chain runs from Classical times to Marija Gimbutas (Meskell 1995) and our own day.

Glyn Daniel once remarked, 'it is obvious to any historian of archaeology and ideas that Cyril Fox's views were based on Halford Malkinder's Britain and the British seas and the writings of Vidal de la Blanche, the French human geographer who invented the idea of geographical personality'. Yet when Daniel put this to Fox, the latter replied that he 'had never heard of, let alone read any of the works of, either Malkinder or Vidal de la Blanche!' (Daniel 1981: 167). If the relations between archaeological ideas and the cultural values even of other academics are not simple to trace or prove, those to a wider society will be even less clear. Nevertheless, some suggestions can be made in the particular case discussed here.

Sources amongst the Classical pantheon

An important shift in the way in which goddesses were treated in European letters took place towards the end of the 18th century. Until then, as in the classical ancient world, they had been regarded mainly as patronesses, or allegorical figures, of civilization. Eric Smith's Dictionary of Classical reference in English poetry (1984) provides a quick guide to their relative popularity in English literature between 1350 and 1800. Most favoured was Venus, mentioned in 66 works, followed by Diana in 42, Minerva in 32 and Juno in 26, with the other ancient female deities trailing far behind. What they represent between them is love, maidenly chastity, wisdom and majesty. Only Diana is shown in any connection with the natural world; in these cases (which are rare), she is represented mainly as goddess of hunting, the chief recreation of the nobility. In a different tradition, the Christian God had created a female figure identified with the starry heaven, who stood between him and the earth and acted as a World Soul. This notion, derived ultimately from the very unusual and late Graeco-Roman writings of Apuleius and the Corpus Hermeticum, remained the preserve of a proportionately small world of scholars interested in alchemy and related occult sciences; notable examples are in Robert Fludd's Utriusque cosmi historia (1617) and Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus aegyptiacus (1652).

It is more significant to our present purposes that the ancient Greeks had spoken of the earth as being female in gender and the sky as male (in direct contrast, for example, to the ancient Egyptians); this language became embedded in western science which derived from Greek roots. It was reinforced by the mind-set of the patriarchal societies which occupied medieval and early modern Europe, in which intellectuals in general, and those who dealt with the sciences in particular, were overwhelmingly male. Carolyn Merchant has led a number of writers in emphasizing the development of a scholarly language which identified the author and reader as male adventurers occupied in exploring and exploiting a female natural world (Merchant 1980). A concomitant was that from the high Middle Ages scholastic writers sometimes used a female figure to personify that world, and occasionally this got into creative literature. Its most famous appearance is probably in Chaucer's Parlement of fowles, where he felt sufficiently self-conscious about the use of it to cite his source, the 12th-century cleric Alanus de Insulis.

The Romantic impact

This was the pattern which prevailed, with remarkable consistency, until the decades around 1800, when it was altered permanently by that complex of cultural changes known conventionally and loosely as the Romantic Movement. One aspect to it was the exalting of the natural and the irrational, those qualities which had conventionally been feared or disparaged and characterized as feminine. …

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