Very little evidence for prehistoric religion has survived into the 21st century. What there is consists mostly of small figurines, assumed to be votive offerings, and of these many are too worn to ascertain the gender, but where we can they are invariably female. Nevertheless, this is hardly enough evidence to be confident that we are interpreting it correctly.
There is, however, another source, as Graves pointed out. There are the myths.
It is unfortunate that in modern usage the word myth has become acquainted with falsehood. In reality it doesn’t mean that at all. Myth is, broadly speaking, the history of the tribe.
Most bodies of myth contain a creation myth, usually wildly imaginative, some rules for living and some explanations for why things are as they are. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is easy to suppose that stories passed down by word of mouth in illiterate societies must inevitably be changed beyond all recognition through a process of ‘Chinese Whispers’. Not so. Illiterate societies have strategies for remembering which we have lost, the main one being to put the story in poetry or song. It is no coincidence that the Greek myths are in rhyme.
There have been many studies demonstrating the effectiveness of this, but one proof familiar to most of us is that of Schliemann's discovery of the ancient site of Troy through following the ‘directions’ in Homer’s Iliad, itself a rendition of an ancient myth.
Graves’ comprehensive study of Greek myth concluded that prehistoric Greek society was not only matrilineal but matriarchal. Helen was abducted not because she was the most beautiful woman in the world, but because she was the queen of Sparta. Paris was attempting to lay claim to her kingdom.
Graves postulated a system where the queen, priestess to the Earth Mother, rules the tribe with her consort, the sacred king. He points out how often in Greek myth the king is killed. He is slain accidently by a discus, he is torn apart by hounds, he throws himself off the cliff, he is murdered by his own son or his wife’s lover. Graves believed this represents an annual ritual sacrifice of the old king and his replacement with a new king, chosen by foot race. This new king undergoes a rite of rebirth, which involves him appearing as if newborn, from under the skirts of the queen. Sometimes the new king is himself responsible for the sacrifice of the old king. Thus Oedipus is the epitome of the sacred king in that he kills his father and marries his mother.
For a demonstration that the sovereignty lies with the queen and not the king, we need only refer to the myth of Odysseus, who returns home after the battle of Troy to find his wife besieged by suitors. If this were a patriarchal society, there is no sensible reason for them to want to marry the queen. We know she and Odysseus have an adult son, Telemachus, who would naturally inherit the throne. In a patriarchal society she would have no wealth of her own, nor would she have much worth as a wife, since she must surely be past child-bearing age. Therefore we must deduce that her value lies in the fact that she is the queen. The next king will not be her son, but her consort.
So here we have a picture of prehistoric Greek society. It is a society ruled by women and presided over by a Goddess, the great Earth Mother. Women make all the decisions. Women perform the magic rites. Women speak to the all-powerful goddess.
So what happened?
The general consensus of opinion is that for thousands of years women were believed to be magical because they brought forth life and nobody knew how they did it! We think that mankind’s discovery that there was a connection between sex and the creation of children (not that obvious when you think about it) changed everything. The knowledge a man was also essential to the creation of a child meant woman was stripped of her magic. It also meant that if a man was to be certain that his children were his own, he had to strictly control his woman’s sexuality. She must be prevented at all costs from having sex with any man but him. And so the subjugation of women began.
The Dorian Greeks ruthlessly suppressed the cult of the Earth Mother, supplanting her with their own Sky gods, the Olympians. They went to such lengths as to make the priestesses wear beards or the new priests wear women’s clothing in an attempt to smooth the transition. The Earth Mother, however, refused to die.
Classicists have pointed out the many similarities between the Sky Goddess Athena and the Earth Mother, most telling being her affinity with snakes. Her cloak has snakes running inside the hem; and she is often depicted holding one of the snakes by the head as she goes into battle. She wears the head of Medusa, the snake-haired Goddess, on her shield, and many of her statues show a snake at her feet or coiled behind her shield. Furthermore, despite Zeus being supposedly Top God, Athena seems to hold far more interest for the myth makers. She has far more interaction with mankind and gives them many of the skills to promote civilisation. She has also taken to herself attributes that rightfully ought to belong to other, male, gods. She is the Goddess of War, despite there already being a God of War, Ares. Indeed, she has taken on so many functions that we would expect to be the province of the Top God that Zeus seems to be reduced to having no special function at all, apart from being able to wield a thunderbolt.
It is not difficult to imagine which deity was most revered by the people.
You could make a case for all the Sky goddesses being one or another aspect of the Mother. Hestia, in particular, Goddess of the Hearth, has many attributes of the Mother; as does Demeter, the giver of corn and presider over the cycle of life and death. But these are all really just aspects of the same goddess. The Earth Mother is often represented in triad – virgin, nymph and crone. Of the six Olympian goddesses, Athena and Artemis are virgins, Demeter and Aphrodite are nymphs and Hera and Hestia are crones.
And there is yet more evidence to link the beliefs of Classical Greece to those of the prehistoric era.
The oracles were the most magical of the human agencies in the classical world, prophesying what was to come and guiding the Greeks in all their affairs. You would imagine the Sky gods would have been keen to wrest control of the oracles from the Earth Mother. Yet the most important oracle, that of Delphi, was not a man, but a woman. The oracle was nominally dedicated to Apollo, but she herself was a woman, and she was called the Pythoness.
It seems the Earth Mother was not entirely dead.
But these days, surely, I hear you say, the Sky gods reign supreme with Jehovah and Allah dominating. Well, on the surface, yes. But you need only scratch the surface to find a different story. I live in Spain, a Catholic country. Ostensibly we believe in God the father; his son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost (a being of such little substance that I suspect it was invented just as a way of making up the triad). Not a female in sight.
Yet there is a holy figure of far more apparent importance than these. I know of no boys in Spain named Jehovah (although there are a few named Jesús). Yet more than half of the little girls born in Spain are called after the Virgin Mary. If they are not actually called Maria, then by one of her other titles. Dolores, for instance, comes from Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows; Carmen is from Nuestra Señora del Carmen; the name of my own friend and neighbour, Reme, is short for Remedios, Our Lady of the Remedies.
It is our tradition to carry holy statues through the streets as part of the celebrations for religious holidays.
Yet Jehovah, the supposed Top God, is noticeable by his absence. I have never seen a statue of him in any Spanish church. What about Jesus, then, so beloved of modern Christian cults? Well, he has a presence, but it is insignificant compared to the omnipresence of Mary. Even at Easter, the most important event of the whole ecclesiastical year, and one which is entirely dedicated to the sacrifice and rebirth of Christ, you would be forgiven for failing to notice Him. Visit any Spanish city during Holy Week and you will see umpteen statues of the Virgin paraded through the streets, with just the occasional statue of Jesus.
It is to Mary that the old ladies pray. They only pay lip service to the Sky God.
They pray to Mary, the Virgin, the Queen of Heaven; Mother Mary, the woman who brought forth a son without the benefit of man; Mary, whose son was sacrificed for the good of mankind and who was reborn as the immortal king. Surely Mary is none other than the Earth Mother, who survives despite thousands of years of suppression.
And perhaps it is no coincidence that the priests of the Christian church still put on women’s clothing to perform their sacred rituals.
The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen!
About Jenny Twist:
Jenny Twist left school at fifteen and went to work in an asbestos factory. After working in various jobs, including bacon-packer and an escapologist’s assistant, she returned to full-time education and did a BA in history at Manchester and post-graduate studies at Oxford.
In 2001 she and her husband moved to Southern Spain where they live with their rather eccentric dog and cat.
Her published novels are Domingo's Angel – a romance set in Spain, Take One At Bedtime – an anthology of short stories, All in the Mind – about an old woman getting younger and The Owl Goddess – a fantasy/SciFi about how the Greek gods were actually spacemen.