Cultures of the Goddess: A Discussion.


Abstract: Heide Gottner-Abendroth is a pioneer of matriarchal studies in Germany and author of 'The Goddess and Her Heros' and 'The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic.' She has developed a unified theory of matriarchy that is applicable to many different cultures, describing the way matriarchal cultures function and their historical development. Matriarchal societies are matrilineal, matrilocal and accord economic power to women. The classical matriarchal period occurred during the Neolithic era.

Joan Marler: For nearly two decades you have been known in Germany as a pioneer in "matriarchal" studies. It is fortunate that two of your books are available in English: The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic (1991) and your first book, The Goddess and Her Heros (1996), originally published in German in 1980. How did you come to devote yourself to this controversial subject?

Heide Gottner-Abendroth: I am a philosopher, trained in the theory and analysis of science. My interest in researching matriarchal cultures began when I was still a student. After teaching philosophy at Munich University for ten years, I moved to a rural area of Germany to establish an independent women's academy, HAGIA, and to devote myself to more systematic research.

During the past twenty years, I have focused on reconstructing the worldview of matriarchal cultures throughout the world. In The Goddess and Her Heros I present an analysis of the earliest mythological systems found in India, Egypt, the Near East, the eastern Mediterranean region, and middle Europe. These mythological systems have levels that can be seen as analogous to the stratigraphic layers found in archaeology. In my view, mythology is a very rich source of historical and political information, and I don't agree with those who interpret mythology simply as fiction or who view myths only in modern psychoanalytical terms.

After completing my first book, I needed more evidence to expand this work, and I couldn't simply rely on a study of mythology. My subsequent research includes an exhaustive study of the history of cultures and archaeology that enlarges my interdisciplinary, comparative method. My approach seems close to Marija Gimbutas's concept of archaeomythology, although our work developed independently.

JM: In other words, you have developed what could be called a universal theory.

Yes, that's correct. I think this theory is necessary in order to understand how matriarchy works and how it has developed through history in many places of the world.

JM: How are you adapting your theory of matriarchal cultures to so many different regions? The more specific a theory is, the more possibility there is for error in applying it to specific situations.

Naturally, I'm always refining my conclusions. To understand the worldwide development of these cultures is a very complicated task. I depend upon the research of excellent specialists in various fields. The study of ethnology, for instance, is extremely important to search for traces of matriarchal societies that are still living or have been described within the last two hundred years.

JM: It has often been stated that matriarchal cultures never existed. How do you find evidence of these cultures from research that denies their existence?

My Ph.D. dissertation was written on the logic of interpretation. I am trained to see how theoretical structures are used and how theories are constructed. By logical means I analyze the arguments that support various descriptions and interpretations of cultures to understand the hidden biases and determine the validity of each ethnographic study. I am often able to see indirectly evidence that the researcher was unable to recognize.

JM: Many scholars, including Marija Gimbutas, refuse to use the term matriarchy because it implies a system of domination ruled by women. Why do you insist upon using this term?

I am often asked why I use the word matriarchy to refer to these egalitarian societies that were free of domination and hierarchy. I know that Marija Gimbutas called them matristic or matrifocal and sometimes used the term gylanic, coined by Riane Eisler. I have two reasons, Joan. The first is a bit political. I've often heard the argument that matriarchy means domination by women and that no such society ever existed.

The word matriarchy is well known, whereas, in my view, matristic or gylanic are not well known and seem artificial or too scientific for most people. I prefer to use this loaded word and give it a new definition. Many scholars who argue that there has never been a society that was created by women don't want to consider the terms matristic or gylanic either. With the word matriarchy I provoke them. I want them to hear that whole societies were created and led by women.

My second argument is that in Germany we have a long tradition with this word. It was introduced by Bachofen and other scholars, many in ethnology, who used the German words matriarchal or matriarchalish. The philosopher Engels used this term correctly, I think, without the association that women were the rulers. My last reason is that within matriarchy is the Greek word arkhe, which first means "beginning" and only secondly means "rule." Therefore, we can translate matriarchy as "in the beginning the mothers," and I think that's quite correct.

JM: By insisting upon using this word, you are provoking the idea in many people's minds of domination by women. If you were to contrast the meaning of matristic that Marija Gimbutas prefers with your use of matriarchy, is there a difference?

You are right, I provoke all these prejudices, but sometimes I like to provoke. It's a political struggle. Nevertheless, my definition of matriarchy is quite close to Marija Gimbutas's description of Old Europe. These were egalitarian societies with no domination of the sexes, no domination of the old over the young. A sophisticated and harmonious exchange took place between humans and nature. We are really on the same ground. I think it's only a question of terminology and, maybe, political motives.

JM: What constitutes a matriarchal society, as you define it?

A full matriarchal society is a complete social and political system, and there are three main criteria: It must be matrilineal, matrilocal, and women must have the power to manage the economy. This is often combined with the old beliefs in goddesses and in the cosmos and Earth as female. Remnants of these societies still exist in modern times in peoples who have continued their old customs under the cover of formally adopted religions, such as Islam or Christianity.

The most developed matriarchal societies, which I call Classical Matriarchal, are found in the Neolithic period. The development of Classical Matriarchal societies and their religious systems began in Mesolithic times, although there is imagery that can be found from as early as the Upper Paleolithic. I refer to the Paleolithic period as Proto-Matriarchal.

Some of these cultures came to an end during the late Neolithicum, at the beginning of the Bronze Age. In middle and eastern Europe they stopped rather early, but in some regions, like the Mediterranean, they continued and developed further, integrating Bronze Age material. Therefore I call some, but not all, Bronze Age cultures Late Matriarchal.

In some places patriarchy began during the Bronze Age, while in other regions it began later. By the beginning of the Iron Age, patriarchal patterns had spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean area. From that time on we can say that in most of the regions of the Near East and Europe the Early Patriarchal period had begun. One of my books will focus on the development of patriarchy throughout the world.

During the Classical Matriarchal period, the basic imagery of the Great Goddess is found with her consort, whom I call, according to the Greek word, heros. This term must not to be confused with the hero who is a patriarchal warrior. Heros is the matriarchal son of his mother who is integrated within the matriclan.

At this early stage, the Goddess is pictured as a complete and infinite being, Mother Earth. She is also imagined as the Cosmos--abundant, complete, and infinite. Very often she is shown as both female and male at once because she includes all polarities. She has a daughter, her younger image, and a son, who also becomes the heros of the daughter. I see this triple figure of mother, daughter, and son as Classical Matriarchal because it is indicated in the oldest mythical layers.

The daughter represents, like her mother, the cosmos and the Earth, the infinite world, whereas the son represents the mortal world of humans, which has limits. I call this the Classical Matriarchal mythological and sociological triad. In concrete myths, we often find symbols that indicate a special polarity. For instance, if the daughter represents the Earth, then the son represents vegetation. If she also represents vegetation, he represents the atmosphere and rain. If she represents the moon, then he may represent the sun. There is a big variety.

For example, Demeter, the great Earth Goddess, has Kore as her daughter and Dionysos as her son. Kore was later raped by Hades, as you know, and Dionysos was made the son of Zeus, but that was a patriarchal distortion. I was astonished to discover that this very old pattern can also be found in many other places of the world in the earliest mythological levels. This triangle actually represents the core of the matriarchal clan: the mother, the daughter, and the son. Sometimes he functions as the representative for exterior affairs, as a kind of ambassador for the matriarchal women--a delegate for the matriclan. This is a Classical Matriarchal pattern of society.

In the Bronze Age, this pattern goes on, but the stress is laid upon the sacred queen and her priest king. The Mother Goddess is still present, but her very old and complete image has become the background where she is not often seen.

During the Bronze Age, even in matriarchal cultures, there are indications that the male has become more important. He is sometimes wearing weapons to protect the matriclan against new invaders. Eventually, these cultures broke down because of the early patriarchal intruders that brought the transformation of matriarchal mythology and social structure.

As the old system of matriarchal religion was transformed into the patriarchal worldview, certain patterns can clearly be seen. For example, the old Mother Goddess is transformed into the Father God. I call this the masculization of the: Goddess. When this takes place, the daughters and sons are of the father. This, too, is found all over the world. Another common motif is that the daughter is made to defend the ideology of the father, as with Athena. Or the daughter becomes a very weak, shadowy woman.

Sometimes the Mother Goddess, or a very important daughter goddess like Hera, loses her rights and becomes the wife of the Father God. The son, the former heros, is either killed or is made a vassal, is made, with all his magical skills, to serve the Father God. These general mythological patterns reflect the transformation of society in history. Discovering these systematic patterns has made it possible to recognize similar motifs in other mythologies of the world.

In The Goddess and Her Heros, I show that the very old matriarchal patterns continued underground, mostly in folk traditions. They also continued in medieval literature, for example, in the romances, novels, and epics about Arthur and his Round Table.

JM: I'd like to return to your term heros. In English, as you have indicated, heros can easily be confused with the appearance of the patriarchal hero who is often in opposition to the Mother. The earliest example is the Sumerian hero Marduk who kills the great dragon Goddess Tiamat, then cuts her up and creates the world out of her dead body.

In German, the word for hero is Held, so there is not the same confusion as in English. Etymologically, hero must have been derived from heros, which originally came from Hera, the Great Goddess. She is all, and her consort is the heros, nothing more. But in the development of the English language, hero now has a patriarchal meaning: the one with the weapons.

Many of the early male names in mythology are simple derivations of Goddess names. For example, in Egypt, Horus is the consort of Hat-Hor, but later, Horus was patriarchalized too. The heros of Eva, the Great Goddess of Old Palestine, was called Abdiheba, which means "he who comes from Eva." Later he became Adam.

JM: Naturally, the male comes forth from the body of woman. The biblical notion that Eve was born from Adam is a deliberate reversal. The idea of the son as the consort of the mother can be problematic because it gives the impression of incest, which is difficult to accept. However, if the Mother Goddess represents the life force of the earth, then we are all her sons and daughters. The son/consort would be the male who is faithful to Nature--the Earth Husband.

I agree completely, Joan. The Mother Goddess is the Source, and the daughter and son come from her. The yin/yang sign with an outer circle is a fine expression of this. The outer circle is the Mother who includes and comprehends all. And in her wholeness, she has two polarities: the daughter and the son. In the Bronze Age, the hero takes on the attributes of the sun and eclipses the Mother and daughter.

JM: Numerous sculptures that incorporate both female and male attributes have been found in Europe from the Upper Paleolithic period, through the Neolithic period, and into the Bronze Age. Many times the phallus is rendered as the pivotal center of the female body (see Reis 1997, 578-586). Perhaps this represents a form of wholeness and dynamic balance between female and male.

Yes. I think that masculinity in the early times didn't mean that the male was a dominator; he was part of the life-giving powers.

JM: The image of the male who nurtures the life force is totally different from the one who must separate himself from nature or "kill the mother" in order to find his maturity. One common belief is that males who live in societies where women are powerful remain adolescent and cannot reach their full masculinity.

This depends upon the definition of masculinity. When I give lectures I always try to explain that we must not think in terms of women and men but in terms of the effects of social structure: matriarchal women and matriarchal men act very differently from patriarchal men and patriarchal women. The images of the heros found in mythology suggest a picture of matriarchal man. I think it's very important for both sexes to find life-supporting images of themselves.

JM: In the myth of Marduk and Tiamat, her son/consort was also brutally killed. So, within patriarchy, the male who is the nurturer, who is the Earth Husband, who respects the powers of the Great Mother, is often badly treated. During the Burning Times in Europe, for instance, a man who dared to stand up for an accused woman was also condemned.

I think you are quite right. The peaceful and integrating attitude of men in matriarchy was abolished, and the new ideal of masculinity was superimposed. Therefore, the ideal of the man who supports life has been obscured, and that has caused great damage to humankind throughout history.

JM: If we consider the anthropomorphic image of the Great Goddess, I think it's important not to concretize her. It's easy to forget that what she represents can never be completely contained within any specific image.

I think that Neolithic people saw the earth as an infinite manifestation of her powers, and they chose concrete symbols to represent this wholeness. They used visible symbols to express the invisible. For example, the egg. You can hold the egg in your hand, but the egg can also represent the moon that cannot be touched. The moon, which is finite, can in turn become pars pro toto for the whole universe. Therefore, the veneration of an egg can represent veneration of the whole cosmos.

Here is another example. The triple Moon Goddess represents the entire world with the sky, the region of earth and sea, and the underworld. She is also represented as the maiden, who may be the germinating seed, like Kote; the mother, or the mature grain, like Demeter; and the grain buried in the soil waiting to be awakened, like Hecate in the underworld. There are many other concrete symbols with this triple organization.

JM: The Great Goddess encompasses a multiplicity of meanings.

Yes, she does.

JM: This term, however, is sometimes thought to represent a form of monotheism--equivalent to God in a skirt.

It's important to understand that the monotheistic God is not of the world; he rules from outside. He created the world like a craftsman, but he is always pure spirit, pure power, or pure light. From a monotheistic point of view, the world is composed of impure matter and can do nothing without him. Here we find the typical patriarchal split between spirit and nature, God and the world. I am sometimes accused by theologians of replacing the Father God with the Mother Goddess as though the basic structure is the same. This is a confusion. The Goddess is not outside the world or outside the cosmos; she is the entire cosmos and the world. Therefore, any natural form can represent her, for she is all.

Her symbols, however, are very concretely structured. For example, in terms of the triple structure of heaven, Earth, and the underworld, a specific system of symbols belong to heaven, another system belongs to earth and sea, and another to the underworld. Therefore, I have been able to find which symbols relate to each region and to each aspect of the Goddess. Without understanding the intrinsic structure, the mass of symbols that exist in various cultures can be very confusing. These symbols are related to the structure of the Goddess herself.

These are complete religious ideas. In this system, the whole world is considered sacred, which is a completely different worldview from monotheistic religions. If the Goddess is the world, this has real consequences for people's lives because everyone represents an aspect of the sacred. She is not invisible or remote, and a hierarchy of priests is not needed to interpret her. For instance, if a person lives at the sea and sees the Goddess in the water, this person cannot go to the mountains and tell the people, "Oh the Goddess is only the sea, you cannot see her in the mountains." It is impossible. There is a great range of beliefs and flexibility, which I sometimes call matriarchal tolerance.

JM: Just as it is important not to concretize the Goddess, I think it's important not to romanticize her. She does not only represent the birth-giving and nurturing aspects. The death aspect is also there.

I tell my audiences that the Goddess of Death is inherent in every woman, but women fear this power. Women give birth but may also be givers of death, sometimes for the unborn child. Some people find it very provocative when I tell them that celebrations of death took place in autumn as part of the festival cycle of the year. This was to honor Mother Earth who gave fruits, grain, vegetables, animals, and humans all during the year. Offerings were made to keep the balance between giving and taking. Death was not considered the end but the other side of life, which leads inevitably to a return. Early people had a very different idea about death than we do.

JM: The Thesmophoria in ancient Greece is a prime example of this, in which piglets were sacrificed for the fertility of the Earth.

Rituals of death and rebirth are indicated over and over again in mythology. For the heros, it was an honor to go ritually to the underworld. For example, Adonis was the consort of the older Aphrodite, not the later patriarchalized one. He lived for half a year on the upper world in joy with his Goddess, and in the autumn he went down into the underworld. There he met Aphrodite again in the person of Persephone, who also loved him. Then in the spring he returned. We have a similar motif in the myth of Demeter and Kore, expressing cyclical change and renewal.

JM: It makes sense that the ritual lives of early agricultural peoples would be aligned with the seasons in terms of planting, harvesting, and preparing for winter. Everyone who gardens understands that death and rebirth are linked; one must prune and weed. Decay releases nutrients for new life, and spring follows winter. As you've indicated, there are many mythological analogies between the growth/death/regeneration cycles of the plant world and the journey of the heros into the underworld to be reborn.

I have grave doubts, however, that there was a concrete practice of male sacrifice in the pre-patriarchal societies of Europe. The physical evidence is just not there. In my view it would be more accurate to see such mythological references as metaphoric rather than actual. I don't consider mythology simply as fiction, but I am also not inclined to read myths, or historical texts for that matter, as reliable expressions of literal facts. Historians are notorious mythmakers.

When I put forward the idea of the actual death of the heros, it sometimes creates hysteria in modern men; in some women also. The patriarchal system has produced millions and millions of victims, male and female, but the hysteria about that fact is very low. But the possibility that one male may have willingly gone to the underworld once in a year or once in ten years, this is considered horrific. I find that very strange.

JM: Yes. Warfare that claims millions of lives is typically considered a glorified, heroic activity. It seems to me that the experience of merging one's consciousness with the Great Mother, whether or not it was concretized, became anathema to the Western mind.

Even for early patriarchal men, the idea of being born from women and returning to the womb of Mother Earth became difficult to accept. I imagine that for the matriarchal heros it must have been a joy to return to his source.

The Basques have maintained a custom that has endured into the twentieth century. Once a year in the city of Pamplona, near Madrid, wild bulls are allowed to run through the streets. Young men run before the bulls, and each year some young men are hurt, and sometimes die. People look at the flowing blood and consider that Fate has taken the young men's lives. Perhaps the original idea was that the Goddess took them for herself. There are many examples of this type, not only in Europe but in other regions of the world. Maybe in some cultures the heros suffered death, maybe in others it was only symbolic and was used as a metaphor. We have a great continuum of these things.


This discussion was distilled for ReVision from a much longer dialogue that took place before an audience at HAGIA Akademie, Winzer, Germany, 27-28 June 1997. The original event was part of a seminar presented by Joan Marler and Heide Gottner-Abendroth, 24-29 June 1997, entitled "Archaologie der Gottin. Zum Werk von Marija Gimbutas."

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--. 1991. The dancing Goddess: Principles of a matriarchal aesthetic. Translated by M. T. Krause. Boston: Beacon Press (1st ed. 1982, Munich: Frauenoffensive).
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- Heide Gottner-Abendroth earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1973 and was a professor of philosophy at the University of Munich for ten years. During that time she published articles and books on theories of science, especially theories of literature. In 1976 she was one of the founders of women's studies in West Germany and since then has published various books and articles on the subject of matriarchy. In 1986 she founded the Women's Academy HAGIA, Academy for Research on Matriarchy and Matriarchal Arts (situated near Passau in the Bavarian Forest) and has been its director ever since. In 1980 she was visiting professor at the University of Montreal, Canada, and in 1992 at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

- Joan Marler is the editor of The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), by Marija Gimbutas, and From the Realm of the Ancestors: An Anthology in Honor of Marija Gimbutas (1997). She teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies, New College, and Sonoma State University in northern California and is an executive editor of ReVision. ReVision, Winter 1998 v20 i3 p44(1)