Book review: Merlin Stone Remembered: Her Life and Works by Barbara Ardinger


Barbara ArdingerWhen Merlin Stone’s book, When God Was a Woman, was published in 1976, it was a lightning bolt of feminist scholarship that told the world that before there was a Judeo-Christian god there were goddesses, and before there were goddesses, there was the Goddess. If you’re reading this review and you have not read When God Was a Woman, buy the book. Right now. As you sink into Stone’s book, try to imagine what it was like before we knew about Isis or Inanna or Astarte, before we knew that the tree in the Garden of Eden was probably a sacred fig and that the serpent was a symbol or aspect of the Goddess and that people (mostly women) who ate figs or worked with serpents were honored priestesses and prophets. Just imagine! The work of the second wave feminists added to the work of scholars like Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas, but it didn’t begin until the second half of the 20th century. Before that? All there was, was God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. Yes, Merlin Stone hurled lightning bolts into our hearts and minds and bookshelves.

Merline StoneMerlin Stone Remembered is a new book edited by Dr. Carol F. Thomas, Dr. David B. Axelrod, and Stone’s life partner Leonard Schneir, with an introduction by Gloria Orenstein, professor emerita, USC. Orenstein opens the book by putting Stone’s work in context. Before the 60s and 70s, she writes, no one was ever taught anything about the matristic cultures. Yes, a few books had been written. She cites G. Rachel Levy’s The Gate of Horn (published in England in 1948, republished in the U.S. in 1963), Helen Diner’s Mothers and Amazons (1973), and Elizabeth Gould Davis’ The First Sex (1971). These books gave us some of our foundational myths, but, Orenstein writes, “we can see that although there was some writing that had already attempted to reconstruct a history of women …, much more expertise and authority were needed” (p. 8). “Once Merlin Stone provided us with her careful scholarship and a truly feminist (not biased, patriarchal) accounting of ancient Goddess cultures, I and all who found Merlin’s work were finally able to understand our herstory…” (p. 9).

Merlin Stone Remembered is divided into eighteen parts of varying lengths. One is a timeline. Stone was born as Marilyn Jacobsen in 1931 Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY. She became a sculptor and teacher and in 1972-73 traveled in England, Lebanon, Greece, Crete, Turkey, and Cyprus to do research and collect evidence for her books. She met her life partner Lenny Schneir in 1976, was featured in Donna Reed’s film The Goddess Remembered in 1989, and died in 2011. Another long part is Schneir’s memoir, a panegyric in which he describes himself when they met as a wannabe “manly man” whose heroes included James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Though they never married, they lived together for thirty-four years. She turned his life around. “I worshipped her,” he writes. “She … sculpted me into everything I wanted to be. I needed her energy to succeed, and she gave it to me generously, naturally, and fully” (p. 74). And “the changes I made were either the easiest things I could do and/or they were extremely beneficial…. It appeared to me that Merlin was always right. … Imagine living with someone who was always right” (p. 77). He describes a homey, hippie life. It’s a fascinating read.

“Unraveling the Myth of Adam and Eve” is Chapter 10 from When God Was a Woman. Rereading this chapter, we see again the depth of Stone’s work, and not only in libraries. Citing the best known male scholars of the 20th century, she also tells us about evidence of Goddess cultures—not cults!—found by those scholars and others in sites around the Mediterranean.

Regarding Stone’s second book, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, which is descriptions of goddesses, stories about them, and liturgical free verse, editor David Axelrod writes that Stone’s poetry “teaches, coaches, and sings the long-lost, the banished, the often-forbidden goddesses back into our lives” (p. 141).

And there’s more. “Three Thousand Years of Racism” (1981) is an article in which Stone describes the history of economic and cultural racism and tells how the tall, white Aryans usually “appropriate[ed] the cultural and technological accomplishments” (p. 159) of the smaller, darker peoples they conquered. Stone’s notes for a presentation, notes in which she carries on a conversation with the voice, named Intuition, in her head. Unpublished works, including parts of a novel, poetry, color photos, a section on Stone as an artist and sculpture with photos of her works, a remembrance written by one of her daughters.

And a personal note. The book was lying on my couch when a friend who is an astrologer and Tarotist came to visit. She saw it, exclaimed, picked it up, and said. “I read When God Was a Woman in 1988 or 89 and it changed my life.” Me, too. Of how many people reading this post is it also true??

Note: A lightly different version of the review appeared in SageWoman Issue #87, “Sacred Lands.” The review is reprinted here with the kind permission of Anne Niven, publisher.

 

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

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Categories: Books, General, God-talk, Goddess, Review

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21 replies

  1. Thank you for writing this beautiful book review and tribute to Merlin Stone, Barbara!

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  2. Merlin was also a wonderful, welcoming woman. I had the privilege to attend one of her classes and she was so related, unassuming, inclusive in a way that was way ahead of her time.
    Blessed be, Merlin.
    And thank you, Barbara, for this review.

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  3. I’m raising my hand – Merlin Stone and her book also changed my life. In the 1980s I had two experiences at about the same time – first, I saw Diane Wolkstein perform Inanna at the NYC Museum of Natural History and then I heard Merlin Stone talk about her book and how the Goddess helped her write it by putting in her path exactly the right book or piece of information at the right moment, even if she hadn’t known the book or information existed. Suddenly I understood – “God” could have a face that was female like mine, I could participate in the sacredness of the universe, too, on a real, day to day level. Over the years I have further come to see that the lack of this understanding on a cultural level is at the core of so many of the injustices and violence that destroy the lives of women, children, and men, and put the existence of our entire planet at risk. May the work of Merlin and all those whose work created and creates this change reverberate for generations. Thanks, Barbara, for this review and letting us know about this book!

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  4. Thank you, Barbara, for writing this review. Merlin’s work helped to change my thinking on so many levels!

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  5. I LOVE the opening paragraph of this review. It reads like a poem. Thank you for your fine articulation!

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  6. Merlin Stone certainly changed my life. I was in the midst of a Christian related crisis and had gone to the library to look for books to help. I had to belong somewhere spiritually. “When God Was a Woman” literally fell on the shelf, dropping on my foot. I opened it and read, ““In the beginning people prayed to the Creatress of Life, the Mistress of Heaven. At the very dawn of religion, God was a woman. Do you remember?” And it struck me. The missing piece in faith: the Divine Feminine.

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  7. Many thanks to you all. Your praise is for Merlin Stone and her work, which has indubitably changed lives. If you haven’t read either her own books or this book about her–what are you waiting for? Buy ’em all! Enjoy them.

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  8. Merlin Stone’s two books were chapter and verse for many years. She gave me and many other women the goddess stories we were longing to read. And critiqued the patriarchal religion we had inherited. She and Starhawk and Margot Adler were the earliest lights for me, I think in part because I was not in the U.S. from 1976 – 1978. So although I was already a goddess woman in 1976, I discovered their three books at approximately the same time.

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    • Nancy, you’ve got me beat. I was immersed in mainstream metaphysics until the mid-80s, but then the Goddess called. I’ve meet Starhawk (once had lunch with her) and Margot Adler and have admired their work enormously. I never met Merlin Stone, but, yeah, her book among others turned my life upside down. In a good way. Thanks for your comment.

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  9. I partially read this book in the early nineties, what I did read, as you so beautifully write, hit me like a lightening bolt. At this point in my life I was emerging from a period of no-god/ess to something I could not yet name. I reestablished myself in the church of my youth, trying to fit a feminist sensibility into a patriarchal mindset. The process of decolonizing myself from traditional religion occurred in leaps and inches. Thank you for this review Barbara. I immediately ordered it–but this time I’ll read the entire text with new eyes.

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  10. The works of Stone, Adler, and Starhawk (among others) totally transformed my life in the 1990’s. I found a group called “Heart of the Goddess” in Berwyn, PA where I explored these new/old ideas with other women. It was wonderful!

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  11. There’s a point you make, tBarbara!, and it’s huge really! We are not talking about goddesses. As regards the anceint fertility figurines, we are addressing God as a woman!

    All praise to you, Merlin Stone!!

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  12. Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, which I read traveling in Greece and Turkey in 1986, did change my life, without a doubt. I still remember crying as I read about cultures with female dieties, sources of writing, literature, law . . . . I still remember the elation I felt. I’ve never been the same. My essay on the impact of the Goddess on my life was posted on The Girl God several months ago. I’ve published many poems about the Goddess, presented workshops centered on various goddesses. In fact just this past Saturday, I presented a workshop that featured Nyx. All of these things are directly attributable to Merlin Stone. Thanks for this review, for this reminder.

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  13. Fascinating, I always wondered who she really was. When God Was a Woman was breathtaking to read around 1983 or so. I’ve often felt sad that that level of woman power just kind of faded away in the world.

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  14. And many thanks to you all for reading and commenting. Merlin Stone’s work did indeed change the world for all of us.

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  15. I see a lot of return to utter conformity I’m afraid, and feminism being just bulldozed, while new generations of women have to reinvent the wheel yet again. It is very sad to watch all this.
    I actually see the situation as extremely dire for women in the U.S.

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    • AE —

      I hear what you’re saying. Life is hard for women under patriarchy. But it changes from era to era. At least today we’re not considered chattel or slaves as in Roman times, or executed as witches because we aren’t controlled by a husband or son as in the burning times, or raped in large numbers as during the latest wars in the Balkans.

      Today I live in the belly of the American patriarchal monster — Wisconsin, home of Scott Walker who would like to lord it over all of us in the U.S. Here, our abortion rights are about to be curtailed AGAIN; enforcement of equal pay for women has been repealed; the minimum wage — which affects women more than men — has not been increased above $7.25/hour. And this is in addition to Walker’s union-busting, “right-to-work” legislation, a law requiring drug testing for aid recipients (more of whom are women than men), and passing a law (still under appeal) that would require a photo ID to vote. I could see things very bleakly.

      But I’m 68 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in women’s lives during the past four and half decades. The trend has been more positive than negative. When I was 22, want ads were divided into male and female jobs, and women’s work was teaching, nursing, and being a secretary, maybe a social worker, various assistants to important men, and not much else. Unmarried women could not get credit cards and married women couldn’t have their own credit cards or bank accounts unless their husbands cosigned for them. Women made 60 cents to every man’s dollar. Stewardesses were terminated from working on their 32nd birthday for being too old. Abortion was completely illegal. And an unmarried woman could not legally obtain birth control. There was no such thing as marital rape. And, of course, a wife was considered her husband’s helpmate, was referred to Mrs. Husband’s Name, and was supposed to do all the housework, cooking, and cleaning as well as putting his needs before her own. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

      I think the thing you wrote that pushed a button for me was “new generations of women have to reinvent the wheel yet again.” This is less true than the last time around. After the first wave of the women’s movement, which resulted in the vote for women, much of what feminists understood about their lot as women disappeared into the dusty shelves of libraries. I discovered this while researching my dissertation. But this time around, we’ve institutionalized much of that knowledge in the form of Women and Gender Studies, programs and departments that have become integrated parts of universities and colleges. Saving that knowledge means we have access to feminist wisdom. It doesn’t mean that we have completely liberated women from the fetters of patriarchy that have hindered us for millenia in the West. But we have the tools to keep fighting for our liberation. So I’m mostly optimistic. Sometimes it’s good to take the long view.

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      • Nancy, thanks for the history lesson. I’m a little older than you and have similar memories of the “good old days when men were men and women were underneath” (as I heard it said somewhere).

        Thanks again to everyone who felt called by Merlin Stone’s work to comment on my review of the book about her. I hope you all buy When God Was a Woman. Buy two copies and give one to a man to read. Then discuss it with him!

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