When 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.
Merlin 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.