Monday, May 09, 2011

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory

A while back I read The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, by Cynthia Eller (Chapter One excerpt:  I keep referencing it, and I realized I hadn't blogged about it much.

The basic gist of The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is that the prehistoric record is such that no one can say with certainty anything about prehistoric people other than things like, "they left behind these ruins," or "they buried people this way," or "they produced these sculptures and drawings." Eller then goes on a point-by-point argument against the story of a golden, pre-historic age (roughly 5000 to 2500 BCE) where society was centered on women, in which women were revered for their mysterious life-giving powers and honored as incarnations of the great goddess, and which was subsequently somehow transformed into what is called "patriarchy."

Eller concludes that the story of a golden age of woman-centered society (especially a pan-European one spanning over 2000 years) is a myth which should not be treated as historical fact.  As a myth, Eller argues that it is neither helpful as a guide for how women and men conceptualize their self-perceptions of gender and how the genders relate (her view is that the myth engenders sexism by heightening the differences between male and female), nor is the myth of prehistoric matriarchy required as a template from which to model a future society that has reached feminist goals (since it's a myth, it's not a history we're doomed to repeat; let's move on to equality).  She concludes, however, that adherents of the story of a golden age of prehistoric matriarchy are unlikely to abandon their "passionate hope and religious faith" in the story.

Eller's tone is sarcastic in places, and I found myself saying "ouch!" after reading several passages.  I did wonder at times if she was using particularly silly sources (ala Philip Davis in Goddess Unmasked).  However, I would recommend The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory and I found it useful for generating the following questions:

  • Does Harry Hay's story of the Qeddishim count as a "Golden Age of Male 'Homo-archy'?"
  • Golden Age stories seem to feed into 'apocalyptic end-times,' 'after the revolution' or to 'boosting self-esteem' thinking; is there another way to incorporate them into a world view?
  • As someone who is seeking the Divine Queer, is there such a thing as a "divine queer way of knowing?"  How would a story help to weave together our erotic, the spiritual, and mental lives -- and how would my story as a gay man be different from someone with a different gender and orientation?   Or, to put it another way, is a book like "Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-sex Love" (in the Eugene Library, 0974638838) going to be useful?
In applying The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory to my own experiences and observations as a gay man, I came up with the following:

In my experience, gay men have tried to seek myths of how gay men have functioned in various other cultures (for example, Greek, Japanese, First Nations).  The rational behind using other cultures as material for gay myths has been to bolster gay self-esteem by providing modern U.S. gay men with prototype gay ways of being.

These myths are unsatisfying to me because I am neither an aristocratic warrior nor an indigenous pre-industrial native.  And instead of synthesizing new cultural solutions to the question of what it means to be a gay man, it seems to me that there are many "Indian-wanna-bes" trying to heal their self-esteem issues by being something they aren't.

This is not to say that the myth of a prehistoric matriarchy would motivate women the same way that my gay male examples seem to motivate gay men.

There is also a "Golden Age" in American Gay Culture, which would have been around 1980 in New York City (post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS).  This golden age helps support the stereo-type of the urban gay male (think Will and Jack from Will and Grace and the Bravo TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy).  As evidence for my supposition that the gay golden age promotes stereotypes, I'd present the movie, Jeffry; and the novels An Arrow's Flight, by  Mark Merlis and Like People in History by Felice Picano.  These are mostly literary sources, and could be biased.

But - like the myths borrowed from other cultures - this golden age (at least as it is represented in cultural and literary sources) is not helpful to me because I am not a Castro Clone nor a Greenwich Village Artist.  The internal push-and-pull about personal identity and big city gay social expectations can be seen in the book Life Outside by Michaelangelo Signorile -- which basically blames Wall Street for seducing gay men into restrictive roles about what is "masculine" and "gay" -- think Tom of Finland. (Unfortunately, Signorile seems to have not read Starhawk, Niomi Wolf, nor an introductory statistics text.)  Signorile's solution was to suggest that gay men move to small cites and find mentors.

I should point out that I'm very lucky - I've never been institutionalized or beat-up physically for my orientation (although 1976 through 1983 were very rough years to be a nerd and perceived queer) .  And I'm very lucky to be maintaining a household with a loving partner.

So, to bring this back to  The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, I can empathize with Eller's written preferences for a history grounded in archeological evidence (as opposed to imagined or intuited myths), although I don't know how easily applicable an archeological history of people can be mapped onto today's culture.  Rather than fetishizing a place (such as Stonehenge or Isreal or Canterbury Cathedral or the Parthanon), focusing on prehistoric cultures seems to fetishize a particular time.

Eller argues that the story of a prehistoric matriarchy comes with strong expectations about what it means to be a woman (and by inference, a man) which set up restrictive gender roles. Given my experiences with the Golden Age of Gay New York City, I would have to agree with her.

But maybe I'm stuck in a pre-Hegelian modality - or perhaps I need to re-read a copy of Godel Escher Bach and practice writing "mu." 

Others have not been so amused as I have been with The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory and here are their reviews and critiques:

Review by Kristy Coleman:

 Eller's response to Coleman:

 Review by Joan Marler:

 Comentary by Marguerite Rigoglioso:

 Eller's response to Marler and Rigoglioso:

 Review by Max Dashu:

 Eller's response to Dashu:
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