(Swans - April 8, 2013) Cynthia Eller is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She is the author of five books, two of her most recent including The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future (Beacon Press, 2001), and Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900 (University of California Press, 2011). This interview was undertaken by email in February 2013.
Michael Barker (MB): Could you briefly explain how the myth of matriarchal origins arose in the nineteenth century?
Cynthia Eller (CE): People have experimented for a long time with the thought that there were societies either in the past or somewhere geographically apart from them where women held greater social power than men, where goddesses were worshiped in preference to gods, or both. In the modern era, it was Johann Jakob Bachofen who first set out this idea in a systematic way as a history of human social organization. In his 1861 book, Das Mutterrecht, Bachofen argued that in an earlier "Demetrian" stage, women were the head of the family, the line through which all power and property passed, and that women also held social and religious power. This stage ended when men forcibly took power over women, ushering in a patriarchal age. Essentially the same story was told by social anthropologists later in the nineteenth century, though they downplayed the rule of women and the worship of goddesses and emphasized the importance of inheritance and clan identity coming through the mother's line. Their theory was that there was a long prehistoric era during which the male role in conception was unknown, and so it was thought that children belonged only to their mothers. For awhile, anthropologists thought they could support this theory through field research, but in the end, they accepted that they could not, and the theory of matriarchal origins fell out of fashion in anthropology.
MB: In Gentlemen and Amazons you conclude that "feminist matriarchalists are influenced by Bachofen, having adopted many of his assumptions into their own reasoning." Which authors and practitioners were you talking about in this regard?
CE: First let me apologize for the use of the term "feminist matriarchalists." I use it only because I think that "feminists who adhere to theories about a universal woman-centered or goddess-worshipping prehistoric culture" is even worse. Many feminist authors and activists have upheld this theory. For the purposes of my work, their similarities outweigh their differences, so I treat them together. Some of the most prominent advocates I had in mind were Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, Monica Sjöö, Charlene Spretnak, Carol Christ, Joan Marler, Vicki Noble, and Heide Göttner-Abendroth. These women are often grouped together by others (and themselves) in anthologies and in documentary films on the topic.
MB: As a result of publishing your various books, what sort of opposition or support have you obtained from the academic, feminist, and Jungian communities?
CE: The greatest opposition I've had to my work has come from the spiritual feminist community. I know that a number of prominent figures in the movement were furious with me and considered me a traitor, since I had previously written a sympathetic ethnographic account of the feminist spirituality movement. These women disagree with my conclusion that the myth of matriarchal prehistory is not an accurate or evidence-based account of human prehistory, nor does it well serve feminist political purposes. That is to be expected, since many of them hold the theory of a universal female-centered, goddess-worshipping society as an article of faith, as well as a documented history. I honestly never thought I would change their minds, or even cause them much discomfort. I was correct in the first instance, but incorrect in the second . . . although at this point I think that storm may have blown over. Elsewhere I've encountered no great opposition. My work has been well-received in the academy and by many feminists. I don't know of any specifically Jungian reaction to my work, but I would expect that it would be similar to the reaction I've had from many (certainly not all!) neopagans: that ideas of former goddess-worship or woman-rule are metaphors, symbols, stories to provoke thought, and as such, they need not be historically true to be useful and powerful. Though many Jungians have been attracted to matriarchal myth, it's never been dogma for the Jungian community, if for no other reason than that Jung himself did not directly support it.
MB: You write that: "If there is anyone who has come close to taking on Bachofen's entire program, complete with its tensions, contradictions, philosophical orientation, and political agenda, it is Jung and his followers." You then add in a footnote that you will be discussing this relationship in a later work: can you tell me anything about your ongoing studies related to this?
CE: The assertion I make here is difficult to prove. Both the joy and difficulty of working on the intellectual history of matriarchal myth is that matriarchal myth has touched down in so many disciplines and political movements in so many countries (mostly in Europe and America, but also in Russia and China). It's a wonderful challenge to try to see how this story has been passed around from one group to another and from one era to another, but of course it is impossible to be fully versed in the history of each and every one of these groups. Any intellectual history this sweeping is going to end up being superficial, at least in places. Because of this, I think I will ultimately decide to leave the challenge of making the case for the connection between Bachofen and Jung to others who are more expert in the required fields.
I can say a few things on this topic though. Most people who have read and admired Bachofen, from his own time to the present, have fixated on certain aspects of Bachofen's work while rejecting others, claiming that Bachofen was either flat wrong on some points, or that he didn't properly understand the implications of his own work and drew some mistaken conclusions. So, for example, Friedrich Engels (Karl Marx's longtime collaborator) thought that Bachofen's account of prehistoric matriarchies was accurate, but that his account of religion was absurd. Contemporary feminist matriarchalists are also drawn to Bachofen's account of prehistoric matriarchies, but regard his sexual politics as regressive and patriarchal. On the other hand, German thinkers such as Ludwig Klages and Alfred Bäumler who created a "Bachofen Renaissance" in the early decades of the twentieth century regarded Bachofen's theory of religion and culture as brilliant, but his theory of prehistoric matriarchal rule as insubstantial and unimportant.
Jung and those who closely followed him are, I think, an exception to this rule. Jung said comparatively little about prehistoric matriarchy. But apart from this one very notable point, the two men had much in common. Both made extensive use of ideas about feminine and masculine without wishing to disrupt the gendered norms of their own society. They were politically conservative, fascinated with "the feminine," and completely enchanted with symbol and myth. Reading the two side by side, it is hard to conclude anything other than that Jung embraced Bachofen's intellectual, emotional, and political agenda and was able to move it down the field by psychologizing much of what Bachofen insisted on tying to actual events.
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)