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Charlene Spretnak's Lost Goddesses of Early Greece is a retelling of several very famous stories from Greco-Roman mythology: the myths of Gaia, Pandora, Themis, Aphrodite, the triad of the Moon (Artemis, Selene, and Hecate), Hera, Athena, and Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Spretnak also presents the research that allowed her to draw these conclusions and create her reinterpretations of the ancient stories.

Spretnak's analysis of the Greek myths is based partly on the idea that many of the first deities worshipped by humans were female Goddesses (more on this hypothesis later). She claims that the Greek pantheon we know today is the merging of the mythology of several cultures: that of the original matrifocal inhabitants of Greece, and that of the invading Ionians, Achaeans, and Dorians, who brought with them male gods, patriarchal religion and culture. Greek mythology was transformed as a result of these invasions: the native goddesses were turned into the wives and daughters of the invaders' gods, forgotten, or otherwise subordinated. This latter hybrid mythology is that of Homer and other classical writers; it was first described as a merging of two traditions by the mythologist Jane Ellen Harrison. To my knowledge, Spretnak is the first writer to recreate the actual stories of the pre-Hellenic goddesses from history and classical writing. She takes full responsibility for her interpretations of the myths, and acknowledges that there is no way to truly reconstruct an ancient, unrecorded oral tradition. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece is a quick, fun read, a nice mix of story and analysis.

I picked up Lost Goddesses of Early Greece as part of my research in preparation for National Novel Writing Month. Some of my very favorite fiction is mythological in nature: it either retells a familiar story from an unexpected perspective, or invents myth of its own and explores its consequences. Spretnak has this to say about what Joseph Campbell so aptly termed The Power of Myth:

The telling of myth is a ritual creation of sacred space. Reading a myth to oneself or hearing it spoken in a ritual setting draws one's consciousness into a field of relationship that places all participants --- the engaged witness, the narrator, the principals of the sacred story --- in deep accord with the life processes of the unfolding universe. Myth is sacred narrative evoked by a totemic presence, a manifestation or empowered bearer of cosmic energies. The more a narrative evolves in elaborations distant from the totemic presence, the more it loses vitality and may fade in time to formulaic allegory. The sacred stories of the Goddess are replete with such totemic animals --- bears, owls, serpents, deer, and spiders --- but clearly the remarkable allure of Goddess myths in disparate eras and cultures results from the fact that the body of the Goddess is itself a totemic presence. (xiii)

This passage leads nicely into an idea alluded to earlier: the idea that all religion was originally Goddess-centered, which is often tied to theories that human culture was originally matriarchal. While the abundance of female figurines found in paleolithic and neolithic archaeology suggests that Goddess-worship may have played an important role in many cultures, I'm not willing to jump to the conclusion that it was universal, and neither are a lot of people who've studied the subject a lot more intensely than I have. The "ancient matriarchies" hypothesis is even more controversial, although it was very popular in historical, paleontological, and anthropological academic work for a time. Still, I like to imagine more egalitarian and even woman-centric societies as much as the next person of gender pissed off by contemporary patriarchy, even if they never happened before. And that's what these myths are good for (but I'll save that for my happy optimistic conclusion). Speaking of patriarchy, Spretnak (who, as I mentioned before, does believe in universal neolithic goddess-worship) notes:

...a culturally imposed bias among many Victorian and contemporary scholars prevented them from accepting the evidence that deity was originally perceived as female in most areas of the world. In the literature, one never reads of "the religion of Artemis" and "the cult of Jesus"; it is always the other way around.1 One of the most renowned living mythologists wrote a few years ago that although "paleolithic deposits in Asia and Europe have yielded a great many bone statuettes representing a nude Goddess... we cannot deduce from the presence of the paleolithic female statuettes, the non-existence of the worship of a divine masculine Being" [his italics]. Similarly, another scholar theorized that the reason numerous Goddess statues are the sole trace of deity during the early Neolithic period on Crete is that the actual supreme deity was probably a male God whose representation was forbidden! If these researchers had dug up numerous statues of male Gods on a remote island, it is extremely unlikely that they would deduce the existence of an unrepresented, supreme "divine feminine Being." (22)

Sigh. Fortunately for us, not all mythologists, historians, and classicists are so unimaginative. Because whatever else you say about myths, true or false, they capture the human imagination in powerful and transformative ways. Spretnak writes that the goal of her work, and that of other artists who draw inspiration from ancient myths, "is not the reinstatement of prehistoric cultural structures, but rather the transmission of possibilities" (38). I don't know if I believe in any of Spretnak's goddesses, let alone ancient matriarchies and Goddess-cults, but they inspire me. Even if nothing else about these stories "works" for me in any sense (and this is certainly not the case), I have to respect that power. As I mentioned before, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece is a good read as well as a source of inspiring "what if"s.


All quotes taken from:
Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths. With a new Preface. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. ISBN: 0-8070-1343-9


Notes:

  1. Cletus the Foetus wisely points out that early Christianity was in fact a cult of Jesus in the non-pejorative, religious studies terminology sense of the word: worshippers focus on a particular personalized incarnation of (a) divinity, perhaps part of a broader pantheon, rather than the entire pantheon or a more generalized conception of the sacred. The ancient worship of Artemis in what are now Greece and Turkey probably still counts as religion by this definition (see Temple of Artemis), and I'll try to post an appropriate link about the mystery religion status of early Christianity if I can dig one up. Part of the problem with Spretnak's discussion/analysis is that her original work was written in 1978, and it's unclear how much comparative religion reading she'd done, although she'd read up on the classical Greek myths quite a bit.


2002.10.27 at 20:50 ideath says re Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: ha ha, you said "person of gender".

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