The myth of the goddess : evolution of an image

by Anne Baring

Other authorsJules Cashford
Book, 1991



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London : BCA, 1991.

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In the tradition of Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas, a grand synthesis of art, mythology, literature, psychology--even post-Einsteinian physics--certain to become a classic text of the new spirituality. An encyclopedic and vastly readable work.
"An indispensable source work for anyone interested in this very important development of religious ideas."—Marija Gimbutas. Ranges from the Paleolithic Age to the present-day Gaia Hypothesis.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tole_lege
Fascinating, and look at the date - things have moved on in the field, but still well worth reading. But not on its own, it needs to be supplemented by more current work.
(Most of which is not listed here because it's in journals...).
LibraryThing member Lukerik
A history of religion in Europe and the Middle East from the Palaeolithic to the present day. Their focus is on Goddesses. Their special weapon is the analysis of religious art. It’s a rich, fascinating and thought provoking book. With major issues.

In chapter one Baring and Cashford discuss the Venus figurines of the Stone Age. They twice warn against back-projecting our own cultural concepts onto people long dead, but then proceed to do exactly that, describing these figurines as images of a Goddess. They aren’t necessarily a Goddess. They could be a kind of sympathetic magic. As it happens, I agree with with them, but the matter is up for debate. They carefully note the size of each of them until we come to figure 6 (the book is superbly illustrated), an object they describe as “ivory rod with breasts”, a stylised images of the Goddess. I was immediately suspicious because to me it looks like a dildo with a cleft clitoral stimulator at the base of the shaft. I looked it up online. 8.5cm. So not a dildo then. It’s either a cock and balls, or a penis onto which some pervert has carved a pair of breasts. Not a Goddess.

The book is well referenced, but every so often they make a statement of what can only be a historical fact and these statements are unreferenced. Have the authors made these facts up? Have they imagined them? I suggest that they have. This from page 678:

“...we cannot remember [how to think symbolically] if the Imagination is not valued as a mode of perception that brings knowledge.”

Imagination brings knowledge? Really? Does it bring knowledge even of what you have imagined? Surely it would be memory that brings that knowledge. How can if bring knowledge of the beliefs of a dead person?

Looking at the references themselves I notice a definite reliance of secondary sources. I developed rather an obsession with checking each reference. Most of these sources are fine. For example they reference S H Hooke. I’ve read several of this chap’s books and he knows what he’s talking about. When he gives a reference I check it to find out where he’s found that little gem of information. With this book I was checking that I wasn’t being lied to. I had developed some trust issues with the authors. You may well say that this is non-fiction and I should be checking references. You’d be right. Fail to check a reference on Monday and by Tuesday night you’re burning down a 5G phone mast. Twice in the body of the text they give the opinion of dowsers as support for their arguments. I find this appalling. Listen to a dowser on Wednesday and by Thursday afternoon you’ll be wobbling around the WI hall aerating your wombspace.

Baring and Cashford are doing a little mythmaking of their own. They posit a Golden Age in Europe where only a feminine deity was worshipped and women ruled society. War was unknown. Thereafter followed a Fall caused by warlike Asians who invaded and brought their male Gods with them. (This is a Kurgan hypothesis. A perfectly respectable hypothesis. I’m not suggesting the authors are racist. They would of course be descended from these invaders). Over time these male Gods entirely replaced the female in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

As it happens, I agree with the replacement theory and I’ll come back to that in a mo. But I have issues with this Golden Age. They are using the prevalence of female images to infer that the societies were matriarchal. Yet look at the prevalence of images of the Virgin Mary. Does that mean women were dominant in Mediaeval Europe? Does the prevalence of images of women in advertising mean they are dominant today? Furthermore, does the fact that only female images have survived mean that male Gods were not worshipped? Here we can use they own arguments against them. They argue for system of ‘zoë’ and ‘bios’: “Zoë is eternal and infinite life; bios is finite and individual life.” A divine example would be the Mother Goddess and her Son-Lover. One could easily argue that images of Goddesses were carved from stone as representative of something eternal. Images of Gods could have been carved only from wood as repesentative of something that is cyclically reborn. The wood would not survive.

These sort of problems span the whole book but are particularly prevalent in the first chapter. The authors are on firmer ground when we reach the historical period and writings can tell us what the images mean. You may well wonder why I’m giving four stars to a book with this many issues. Well, I enjoyed it. And there is so so much in this nearly 800 page book where they are bang on the money. Several times I checked in disbelief something fantastical that they said only to find it widely confirmed by respectable scholars. I could fill page after page with the good stuff, but I’ll restrict myself to one example. They discuss the Tiamat/Marduk controversy. I find this subject fascinating and have read several books which discuss its repurposing in Genesis 1. These authors were interested in it as evidence for the development of monotheism. Baring and Cashford are interested in it as evidence for the supplanting of a male God for a female. It’s worth noting that those other authors were Protestant men. I shall be forever grateful that they have helped me see they subject in a whole new light.
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