carol christAlthough writing in patriarchal Greece from a patriarchal perspective, Hesiod said in his Theogony or Birth of the Gods that Gaia or Earth alone was the mother of the Mountains, Sky, and Sea. With the male Sky she gave birth to the next generation of deities known as the “Titans,” who were overthrown by Zeus. Hesiod’s was a “tale with a point of view” in which “it was necessary” for the “forces of civilization”–for him represented by warrior God and rapist Zeus–to violently overthrow and replace earlier conceptions of the origin life on earth and presumably also to overthrow and replace the people and societies that created them.

With the triumph of Christianity in the age of Constantine in the 4th century AD, Christus Victor replaced Zeus in the cities, while the religion of Mother Earth continued to be practiced in the countryside. Over time, many of the attributes of Mother Earth were assimilated into the image of Mary, and priests began to perform rituals earlier dedicated to Mother Earth, such as blessing the fields and the seeds before planting. In the Middle Ages “the Goddess” re-emerged within Western Christianity in devotion to the Virgin Mary, the female saints, and figures such as Lady Wisdom, at the same time that the history of the Goddess was being erased.

In the middle of the 19th century, in Das Mutterrecht (The Mother Right), J. J. Bachofen stunned the scholarly world with his theory that matrilineal kinship, matrilineal inheritance, and reverence for the Great Mother were to be found at the origins of civilization. Bachofen challenged the view that patriarchy and the worship of male Gods had existed “from the beginning .”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a large number of scholars and writers agreed with Bachofen that Mother Earth was worshipped in early “matriarchal” socieities. Almost all of these scholars also agreed with Bachofen that the religion of the Goddess in matriarchal societies represented a “primitive,“ “inferior,” and “lower” state of culture. Thus they also concurred that “it was necessary” for matriarchy to be overthrown by patriarchy in order for civilization to “advance.”

19th and 20th century theorists invoked Darwin’s evolutionary theory and spoke of an “evolution of cultures” in which the “stongest” and the “fittest” survived. For them, it was “obvious” that the triumph of patriarchy over matriarchy was a triumph of reason over unreason, the individual over the group, and civilization over its opposite.

The classicist Jane Harrison whose work uncovered a history of the Goddess underneath the art and literature of the Greek “classic age” can be read as having had a preference for the earlier religion of the Goddess and an antipathy for the Olympian religion of Zeus. However, she deemed the shift from “matriarchy to patriarchy” a “necessary stage in a real advance. Matriarchy gave to woman a false because magical prestige.” (Prolegomena, 285) On the same page she noted that (true) “understanding was not granted to the Greek.” Presumably she looked forward to a time when the “mystical truth” that the “stronger had a need, real and imperative, of the weaker” would lead to a new cultural synthesis in which the stronger would no longer feel it necessary to “despise and enslave” the weaker. However, her language is so cryptic that it is easy to miss her point—whatever it is.

Carl Jung and his disciple Erich Neumann who wrote the widely read Jungian book, The Great Mother, accepted Bachofen’s theory that matriarchy preceded patriarchy and his conclusion that patriarchy marked an advance in culture. Neumann argued that patriarchy allowed the individual to emerge from the group and for rationality to emerge from the mists of magical and irrational thinking. For all his love for and interest in “the Great Mother,” Neumann concluded that it was necessary for her “reign” to end.

Jung and Neumann agreed that rationality and individualism which they viewed as “brought to us by patriarchy” were a “good thing.” However, in the face of modern technology, growing alienation of city dwellers from nature, and the destruction wrought by modern warfare, both Jung and Neumann concluded that it was time for patriarchy to reincorporate at least some of the values of matriarchy. For them “the masculine” had need of “the feminine” in order to reunite the masculine with the body, nature, and the unconscious. While they spoke of the reintegration of the masculine and the feminine, neither Jung nor Neumann mounted a full-on critique of patriarchy for the violence it brought with it, nor for despising and enslaving women in real life.

The view that a matriarchal age preceded patriarchy was challenged in the mid-twentieth century by mainstream scholars who argued that no matriarchal societies ever existed. These scholars called attention to the power of uncles, the brothers of the mothers through whom matrilineal kinship was traced, and concluded that societies with matrilineal kinship were patriarchal after all.

After the Second World War, interest in matriarchal societies and the Goddess waned in the face of a new view of “man” as the “naked ape.” The idea that mother-honoring societies of peace preceded patriarchy was deemed a romantic longing for a golden age and viewed as a fantasy belied by the inheritance of aggression from “the apes.” (The idea that dominance and aggression is the main human inheritance from apes has been challenged by studies of the bonobo apes.)

In early 1970s when second wave feminists began to critique “patriarchal” religions and to seek alternatives to them, they rediscovered the literature on matriarchy and the Goddess. This literature seemed to confirm feminist longings for an alternative to patriarchy and its Gods. While some feminists criticized earlier scholarship, others simply ignored its assumption that early civilizations were primitive and its conclusion that it was necessary for matriarchy and the era of the Goddess to be superseded by patriarchy and the era of the Gods—in order for civilization to advance.

In her great works The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas did not directly address the assumptions and conclusions of earlier scholarship on the Goddess. However, her conception of the “civilization of the Goddess” boldly challenged the assumption of earlier scholarship that Goddess cultures were “primitive” and “uncivilized”; it thus undermined the conclusions of earlier scholars that “it was necessary” for such cultures to be overthrown. Gimbutas argued that in many respects the civilization of the Goddess was “higher” than the patriarchal ones that replaced it. As she said, the civilization of Old Europe was peaceful, egalitarian, sedentary, and highly artistic—and survived for millennia without war.

Gimbutas did not use the term “matriarchy” in her works, because she rejected the popular and scholarly assumption that matriarchy is the opposite of patriarchy—a society where mothers rule and females dominate males. She spoke carefully of egalitarian cultures that were “matristic” or mother-honoring, and probably matrilineal and matrilocal. In recent years, a new group of scholars have redefined matriarchy to refer to mother-honoring egalitarian societies where grandmothers and great uncles share power in community. I suspect that Gimbutas would have adopted this new definition of matriarchy. However, the fact remains that she did not use the term.

Despite the attempts of new generations of scholars to redefine terms, and to challenge the assumptions and conclusions of earlier scholars, those who dismiss Goddess scholarship generally assume that new generations of scholars are saying “the same old thing.”  What is the cause of this failure of scholarly objectivity?  The whole discussion of the power of women and Goddesses in prehistory raises questions that cannot help but stir up emotion. Was patriarchy and advance in civilization? Was it necessary for men to dominate women in order for civilization to advance? Is war inevitable? Or was patriarchy a wrong turn in human history fraught with violence and injustice?

I suggest that the emotions involved in the above questions have made it difficult for sustained rational discussion to occur. It was one thing to discuss matriarchy and the Goddess as a sideline to the necessary triumph of patriarchy. It is quite another to suggest that patriarchy might not have been “necessary” at all. This thought threatens the foundations on which our entire understanding of civilization–and our educational system–is based.

A woman harvests fruit while her companion thanks the Goddess for the harvest. The Goddess religion of Old Europe did not celebrate violence and domination.
A woman harvests fruit while her companion thanks the Goddess for the harvest. The Goddess religion of Old Europe did not celebrate violence and domination.


Carol P. Christ is looking forward to the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institutespace is still available on the spring tour. Carol can be heard in a recent interview on Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding mother in feminism and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

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.


  1. I chanced upon a copy of Lao Tzu at a Buddhist Retreat. I was astounded to find the following reference to the Great Mother:
    ”Something there is, whose veiled creation was
    Before the earth and sky began to be;
    so silent, so aloof and so alone,
    it changes not, nor fails, but touches all:
    conceive it as the mother of the world.”

    This is only the first stanza of No. 25 in my translation by RB Blakney.

    Lao Tzu lived and wrote plus minus 500bc.


  2. Thanks Carol, for the history — it helps put things on a path of evolution too, and one that I believe is ultimately positive for women, maybe just because the discussion ends up here, today, on the Internet, and at FAR, wide-open to all ideas and to a participation that is now global. Feminism has always remained democratic, that is, we have always agreed to disagree. Each one has the right to envision what to her are the roots of our liberation. How we understand that vision too can keep changing. No one is ever objective. Subconsciously like dreams, there’s something being working through in the way we see things, the side we take, etc. It doesn’t matter, we’re not preaching dogma, we are participating in an ever-changing dynamic of FREEDOM.


  3. Thanks for this history. I’m glad it’s being reblogged. I’m one of the ones who think history made a wrong turn when people turned to the violent, jealous, zealous gods. I’m glad you wrote this. Brava!


    1. No, it wasn’t all “onward and upward” and no, it wasn’t all “for the best.” Somehow this is hard for people to accept.


  4. Abuse is intended to leave bitter memories in our psyche — if we are able to move somehow beyond that, we can defeat the oppression far more effectively.


    1. In my experience the best way to deal with abuse whether to the individual self or to a group is to acknowledge the harm that has been done, take a deep breath, and affirm life in its present reality and future possibilities.


      1. This sounds like a good path for any kind of harm, whether psychological or physical, disease or injury, group or individual. I’m taking lots of deep breaths lately, and I’m beginning to affirm life in a big way — today I sang a lot and thanked the trees for their early spring beauty — both in its present reality and in its future possibilities. Thanks, Carol. I think this could become a three-part daily practice: 1) Acknowledge reality; 2) Take a deep breath; 3) Affirm life.


  5. I love that you are discussing Gimbutas. In my humble opinion, the complexity and nuances of her work are too easy dismissed and overlooked just because she is considered controversial. I do agree with her choice not to use ‘matriarchy’ as a term, preferring her choice of matrilineal, matrilocal cultures that were more egalitarian. I suppose this is due to my own thought process that, even with a redefined ‘matriarchy’ term, it is still too easy to misinterpret the term matriarchy as the polar opposite of patriarchy in which women and men take turns being bullies. At least this has been the bulk of the response I’ve received when discussing patriarchy, the Goddess, and prehistory with others.


    1. I felt this way too until after I had read Societies of Peace and Women at the Center, It was only then that I learned of the existence of contemporary matriarchal societies. This emboldened me to use the word.


  6. Definitely a wrong turn. We would truly be an advanced civilization if we had never elevated the warrior hero and the thunderbolt hurler over the Great Goddess of Prehistory. Instead, we think of ourselves as an advanced civilization, yet in the nuclear age that we’ve created, we’ve taken our species to the brink of extinction. Thus, metaphorically speaking, bringing the Goddess back to humanity, is essential to restoring the balance that will ensure our survival and continued co-creation in a way that is sustainable and life affirming.


  7. Thanks for the cultural history, Carol. Although I was aware of all the “facts” you presented, looking at Gimbutas in this line-up of thinkers made it much clearer to me why she’s been received so negatively — oops, patriarchy wasn’t really necessary! In fact, it was a step backward from the culturally-superior, artistic, egalitarian, non-warring, and humane culture of Old Europe.


  8. Thanks for this really excellent historical summary- and done in a blog format! What are you going to do to top this? Watch out Twitter fans…
    Robert Bellah in his “Religion in Human Evolution: from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” seems to avoid the terms patriarchy and matriarchy- perhaps because they are so emotionally fraught? He opts more for tribal and organizational words.
    Perhaps some of the problem is that when you exceed tribal size (approx 200 people) and move into more complex organizational structures, you’re going to need more “enforcers” in order to get group compliance. When the ‘soft’ methods are not enough (= shame, teasing, reward, religion, nationalism), then you need the enforcers (the strongest ones in the group = typically men) to come in and exact compliance.
    Can we organize ourselves better; allow for dissent and critique but at the same time come to agreement on major decisions?


    1. Yet, weren’t Bards once a fully functional source of “punishment” for the noblemen with an overdose of hubris?


  9. Thank you, Carol, for the concise history of matriarchy and its theorists. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the same theme, so it was a pleasure to read. I read your work, of course, at the time too. My first three chapters were on theory and the last three on the application of matriarchal myth and a conflicting patriarchal mythic subtext in three women writers in French. If interested, you can find it on my publications page: Interestingly, I’m just finishing a book on poetry, neuroscience and creativity which looks at myth from the perspective of brain lateralization. I’ve been reviving ideas on the overthrow of matriarchal myth, which seem as real and pertinent as ever.


  10. Thank you for this very helpful timeline. It has helped to clarify some parts of Marion Woodman’s work with which I disagree, such as her comments like “the consciousness that was won in the past by heroes who fought their way out of the maw of the Great Mother by armoring themselves against the seductions of sensuality” and “the old earth goddesses were not conscious.” (both quotes from “Addiction to Perfection”). I like MW’s work overall, but with those aspects that challenge me, it’s beneficial to put them in context (Jung, religion, etc) of her education, life, and lifestyle. I really appreciate this brief summary.


    1. Exactly, parts of Jungian feminism are a contradiction in terms. If Goddess reigned when women invented agriculture, pottery, and weaving, there is no chance women or Goddesses were unconscious!!!


  11. I chalk up the failure of scholarly objectivity to the persistence of doctrines of universal and transhistorical male domination, and yes, that stance has a very emotional base, though a totally unacknowledged one. It is so easy to throw feminist scholars who research mother-right into the bin of “golden age utopian fantasy,” and to claim that we are rehashing discredited theories of 19th century male theorists like Bachofen. That does a great injustice to our work, and in fact the work itself does not get an objective hearing, no matter how carefully documented, because of this branding. I address some related issues around interpretation of ancient sacred culture here:


  12. I’ve sometimes wondered if that Old Testament story about when Yahweh helps the almost-Jewish boy steal his brother’s inheritance in order to begin his career (was that Abraham? never can remember) — if perhaps the story disguises that he was really stealing his Sister’s inheritance.

    Nothing but my own imagination used to create this question, and perhaps too much time to spend thinking about things not common to most.


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