My friend and I started a book club at the beginning of the year, and it has enjoyed the success of having three meetings, all attended by the same three people. (We are small but mighty.) At our last meeting, we discussed Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman over pasta and artichokes, blue cheese and crackers, zinfandel and red wine, chocolate cake and pistachio rosewater cupcakes, and red velvet smoothies.
We all had to confess that we had not finished the whole book. Though interesting, it was a slow, dense read, especially in comparison to our first two selections, which were fast-paced, engaging novels (Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat). Stone’s nonfiction book, about pre-Judeo-Christian religions that centered on the worship of a female deity, felt more like an academic textbook. (I have now finished reading the book, but it took a while.)
The hardest parts for us to get through were the sections that listed fact after fact, date after date, theory after theory using piece of archaeological evidence after piece of archaeological evidence. Stone, an art historian, made heavy use of information inferred from religious objects from millennia ago, many of which can be found in museums today.
Although the highly detailed descriptions of civilizations and their artifacts made for heavy reading, compiling this evidence was crucial to Stone making her case. As I read, I was struck by two ideas – how much we can learn from statues and tablets unearthed, and how much our biases can shape the inferences we make. By looking at temples long buried, scholars piece together stories of ancient societies – their means of survival, customs, politics, and religion.
Yet, Stone argues the way that scholars have written about ancient religion betrays their biases. She notes that goddess-centered religions tended to be dismissed by authors as “fertility cults” (pp. xix-xx) (What, my book club wondered, is the difference between a religion and a cult? Is it like the difference between a language and a dialect – “a language is a dialect with an army”? The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance offer a page that respectfully addresses this question and looks at the many definitions and connotations surrounding the word cult.)
Further bias can be seen in this statement about the secondary sources Stone read:
Within descriptions of long-buried cities and temples, academic authors wrote of the sexually active Goddess as “improper,” “unbearably aggressive,” or “embarrassingly void of morals,” while male deities who raped or seduced legendary women or nymphs were described as “playful,” even admirably “virile.” (p. xx)
In many cases, Stone delves deeper into what other writers had summarized about “fertility cults.” She also describes objects themselves in great detail, sometimes noting possible new interpretations. In describing a statue in a museum in Ankara, she writes, “There is the possibility that this is an older child being held close, but it appears more likely to be an adolescent youth, perhaps intended to portray the son/lover of the female deity some eight thousand years ago” (p. 25). Reexamining assumptions about the past gives us access to new knowledge and new potential explanations, as does the continual discovery of “new” old objects. Indeed, Stone writes, “Over the last two centuries scholars of religion, archaeology, history and even science have had to revise many of the ideas that were held as fact prior to the advent of each archaeological discovery” (p. 127).
When God Was a Woman was published in 1976 after a decade of research. Future researchers and writers will continue to provide new information and necessitate reexamination of previously held assumptions.
June’s blog theme is Learning from Objects: Primary and Secondary Sources.