REMEMBERING MERLIN STONE, 1931-2011 by Carol P. Christ

“In the beginning…God was a woman.  Do you remember?”  Feminst foremother and author of these words Merlin Stone died in Feburary last year.

I can still remember reading the hardback copy of When God Was a Woman while lying on the bed in my bedroom overlooking the river in New York City early in 1977.  The fact that I remember this viscerally underscores the impact that When God Was a Woman had on my mind and my body.  Stone’s words had the quality of revelation:  “In the beginning…God was a woman. Do you remember?”  As I type this phrase more than thirty-five  years after first reading it, my body again reacts with chills of recognition of a knowledge that was stolen from me, a knowledge that I remembered in my body, a knowledge that re-membered my body.  My copy of When God was a Woman is copiously underlined in red and blue ink, testimony to many readings.

Though I could then and can now criticize details in the book, the amassing of information and the comprehensive perspective When God Was a Woman provided was news to me when I first read it.  Despite having earned a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale, I did not “know” that Goddesses were worshipped at the very dawn of religion.  I had not heard of the theories of Indo-European invasions of warlike patriarchal peoples into areas already settled by peaceful matrilineal, matrifocal cultures in Europe and India.  I had written my undergraduate thesis on the prophets, studying their words in the original Hebrew, but I did not understand that their constant references to the Hebrew people “whoring” after “idols” and worshipping “on every high hill and under every green tree” referred to the fact that many of the Hebrew people were choosing to worship Goddesses in sacred places in nature.  Nor did I understand that the Genesis story which I had studied and taught took the sacred symbols of Goddess religion– the snake, the tree and the fruit of the tree, the female body—and turned them upside down. 

Merlin Stone

Stone’s decoding of the way in which the Genesis story transformed the sacred symbols of Goddess religion into symbols of evil may be much ignored by scholars of the Bible to this day, but it cannot be refuted, because it is based on the “gestalt” of the story, not the interpretation of the subtleties of the meanings of its words.  Once the story of Adam and Eve is understood as a polemical (and largely successful) “tale with a point of view” intended to discredit Goddess religion, any and all exegetical attempts to rescue the story from sexist interpretations by later scholars and theologians seem doomed to failure.  When we remember that “in the beginning…God was a woman,” we can no longer hear or read the Genesis story as an innocent but flawed attempt on the part of “early man” to understand “his” origins.  We are forced to see the story as a part of a widespread rewriting of history that dethroned the Goddesses and the understanding of matrifocal cultures that female creativity and the female body are the origin of many things good and beautiful.

Stone’s focus on the Hebrew Bible in the second half of her book led some to conclude wrongly that she “blamed the Jews” for the origins of patriarchy.  Yet even a cursory reading of the first half of her book reveals that she understood that the transformation of matrilineal, matrifocal, Goddess-worshipping cultures into patriarchal cultures and religions was a worldwide event.  Stone spent more time discussing the rise of patriarchy in the Hebrew Bible than in the literatures of other cultures because the Hebrew Bible has had a far greater influence on Western culture than the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Vedic texts.  She understood that Biblical texts were (and are) understood as sacred by many of the women she addressed in her book.  It clearly was far more upsetting to Stone–as it was to me–to realize that the disempowering of female creativity, our minds, and the demonizing of the female body, our bodies, through religion was not something that existed only in the distant past, but that it was (and is) being re-enacted in churches and synagogues and in university classes in the present day.

I remember meeting Stone at a coffee shop somewhere in Greenwich Village; I remember her at the Great Goddess Re-emerging Conference in Santa Cruz in 1978; and I remember standing outside in the cold with her at a conference where smoking was prohibited inside.  Merlin Stone’s white hair was hennaed a bright red that my mother would have considered vulgar, long before this was fashionable; she wore dark sweaters and slacks and leather jackets; she usually had a cigarette in her hand.  She was striking; her voice was deep and confident; her eyes were piercing; her laughter was infectious; and she changed the world.

This essay was originally published in the first issue of Goddess Thealogy, which also features a long interview with Carol by Chloe Erdmann.  The entire journal can be accessed on line without charge.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

27 thoughts on “REMEMBERING MERLIN STONE, 1931-2011 by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thank you so much for this timely and necessary post – necesary because, as you say, the use of religion to disempower women is still a fact of our contemporary world. I hope many women who post on this site will read and consider what you have written.

    Little by little we will grind to dust their heartless walls.


  2. I also know very well the first time that I remembered god is a woman and that was when you explained these same things to me in front of cases of minoan pottery and figurines in the old Heraklion museum in Crete in 1998. It was life changing and I still celebrate that everyday. Thank you Carol/Karolina!


  3. This is fantastic Carol! Merlin Stone was one of the truly great ones. I recall reading “When God Was a Woman” as a part of an international feminist group when I was living abroad in the late 70s. It was stunning. Coincidentally at the same time, I came across a poem written by a Japanese feminist around 1912 (1912 is not a typo :-) “In the beginning, woman was the sun, an authentic person…” So Merlin helped me connect with Amaterasu-o-Mikami, the great goddess of Japan.

    Then I was so fortunate to have met Merlin at Mama Bears Books in Oakland, and she seemed like such a mild mannered person to be creating a goddess revolution. I hope they are teaching all these books at colleges around the country, but alas, that stubborn woman hating myth of the fall of “man” is still holding strong out there! Blessed be the snakes!!


  4. Before I read your post, the picture caught my attention. This is a book that was not on my radar, but certainly within my realm of interest. Thank you for talking about this book and issue. I hope I can find time to read it over the summer.


  5. The British edition, which I have a vague feeling came out before the US edition, was called “The Paradise Papers”. I don’t know if the publishers thought the other title was too controversial. The paperback has in large letters on the back “In the beginning God was … a woman?” and the description inside the front cover starts with “Originally, God was a woman.”

    If I had had to guess the publication date, I would have put it several years earlier.


  6. The date of The Paradise Papers is not given in my version. I think it may have been the same year, but I don’t know. I think When God Was a Woman is a much better title.


  7. I agree with you that When God Was a Woman is a better title. I was wondering why the British title was different, and also just mentioning that the book exists under two titles. Looking more closely at the edition I have, I find that it says first published 1976, paperback edition1977.


  8. So that solves the mystery. As for the title, I think we can assume Paradise Papers to have been Stone’s original title and the US title to have been the idea of her editior and marketing. My publishers have chosen the tiltles for several of my books–over my dead body.


  9. Thank you so much for sharing this Carol. Certainly Merlin Stone’s work is so crucial to the feminist movement. It makes me sad to admit that I thought God was a man for many years because of the language I learned to use for God.

    Reading Stone’s words here in your article still has such an impact. Also, I wanted to mention, that I think for my generation – Rebirth of the Goddess has much of the same impact.


  10. I am so glad to read about Merlin Stone’s work. I am an initiate and practitioner of the Sakta tradition where Sakti or Primal energy visualized as a feminine power is the highest concept of divinity. At the time of initiation the guru instructs the initiates to look upon women as the living embodiments of divinity. The only taboo for a Sakta is disparaging or dishonouring women which is considered sinful than dishonouring the divine itself. Several Sakta rituals require the presence of a live woman to channel the powers and presence of the goddess. Women are considered wiser and closer to the divine than others. This reverence extends to veneration of the female kind in the animal kingdom also. Especially black she cats and black bitches are considered sacred according to some Sakta texts, which I find an interesting comparison with gynocentric religions especially witchcraft in which veneration of nature and harnessing of nature’s powers to heal and empower form the core of the practice.


  11. Meenakshi V. I wonder if your experience with Sakta (tantra?) is in a western or eastern context? I do think Tantra is closer to some aspects of ancient matrifocal religions, but I have no direct experience.


  12. I read “When God Was a Woman” on a canoe trip with my two best female friends in the Boundary Waters in June 1980. We saw loons hatching, a mother moose with her baby, and a clump of wild lady slippers on that divine trip. The news that goddesses were not only characters in Greek mythology, but that [the Christian] God had once had a wife (i.e., there was a Hebrew goddess called Asherah), was life-changing news for me (the general public remains oddly and unfortunately unaware of Asherah’s existence and how she was “disappeared”). In a later edition of her book, Merlin Stone graciously acknowledged the prior publication of Dr. Raphael Patai`s important work “The Hebrew Goddess” (1967), of which she had been unaware. I am grateful for Merlin Stone’s life and work and for this blog!


  13. Carol, I was delighted to find this site! I discovered Merlin’s book “When God was a Woman” in Glastonbury in 2011, when I’d gone to recover after a horrific trauma between my husband and son. I initially bought the book because I once worked with a man called Merlin Stone (a well known expert in Customer Relationship Marketing!)

    The book spoke to my heart and made me weep for what we’d lost. BUT then I realised how many of us are being awakened and called back to the truth of our deeper natures and now I rejoice. I think it’s not about proving that we’re better than men, but totally loving and being ourselves in a world ruled by fear (mostly).

    I’ve honoured my goddess nature for 18 years, following my dreams and intuitions, and only doing what FELT right. It has led to a complete inner transformation and acceptance of all the goddess virtues. Of course, it’s also led to condemnation by many men, most of whom think I’m “mad, or deluded”. That’s of course, a compliment when the main belief is centred around: “I’m better than you” and “Only money counts.”

    I’m working on my second book, which reveals that we are just one connection from the person we want to find, when we practise and use our goddess nature each day. I will revisit your site often.

    Thank you for your encouragement and commitment to the cause. We NEED to remember who we are, then act on this Gnosis………………



    This became my mantra after reading “When God Was A Woman”, as it reached into my soul, especially the way in which the sacrifice of the Christ was a continuation of the sacrifice offered by the young men of the Matriarchy to insure the offspring were those of the smartest, strongest most compassionate male of community ruled by women and then his body was used to fertilize the soil as it had fertilized the women of their community. “This is my blood, drink. This is my body, eat.”

    How sad this sacrifice was transformed into the harems of murderous caliphs and pseudo religions such as muslim and christianity with their nunneries.

    Love ya, R


  15. Carol, I had a dream about Merlin last night. I used to live next door to her, in lower Manhattan, and we’d meet up with friends every morning for breakfast at a local diner. I didn’t realize she’d passed away, but my dream last night was so vivid I went online to see where she might be. Thank you for this tribute — I too read her book, and was amazed to recognize her as a neighbor, from the photo in the book. I approached her and we struck up a friendship that lasted for years.


  16. Carol, I’m just catching up to this marvelous post that I gather you wrote some time ago. I can tell you — and this is from a guy’s standpoint — “When God Was a Woman” was the book that saved my life.


  17. I remember so well my first reading of “When God was a Woman.” I was stunned, blown away and in a fury because of my Judeo -Christian roots. This book was one that led me on a journey that I am still on… seeking the Feminine Face of god in Nature, in myself, and in others.


  18. Seems like everyone has a coming-of-age story re discovering Merlin Stone’s book When God Was A Woman. Me too – I had just discovered Charlene Spretnak’s anthology of essays from goddess-culture authors. Merlin’s was early on and I thought I’d take a look at her book next. What I read blew me away and changed the direction of my life for several years, as I spent the time reading the goddess-info books, followed by lots of group participation with others exploring all this material for the first time. We had classes, did workshops, created rituals, dressed up as god and goddess archetypes, enacted some of the old Mysteries – I mean, as much as we could, with modern interp. It was life-changing, and it started with reading Merlin’s book. I am so, so sorry I never got to meet her. I was able to meet a number of the authors who researched and wrote all these wonderful books.


  19. Her work inspired me. Found a lot of answers to my hidden questions inside… and energy enough for following to ask. She was great. Thank you for your words


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