Matriarchal religion

Matriarchal religion

The concept of a Matriarchal religion is a concept forwarded in second-wave feminism since the 1970s, based on the notion of a historical matriarchy first developed in the 19th century by J. J. Bachofen. A "matriarchal religion" is supposedly centered around Goddess worship, fertility rites, and sacred traits attributed to female sexuality.

While Matriarchal religion has the focus of prehistoric religion and ancient civilizations, the field of feminist theology is mostly associated with the introduction of feminist ideology into Christianity or Judaism.



The Minoan "Snake Goddess" features frequently in literature postulating Matriarchal religion


J. J. Bachofen (1861) postulated that the historical patriarchates were a comparatively recent development, having replaced an earlier state of primeval matriarchy, and postulated a "chthonic-maternal" prehistoric religion.[1].

Bachofen presents a model where matriarchal society and chthonic mystery cults are the second of four stages of the historical development of religion. The first stage he called "Hetaerism", characterized as a paleolithic hunter-and-gatherer society practicing a polyamorous and communistic lifestyle. The second stage is the Neolithic, a matriarchal "lunar" stage of agriculture with an early form of Demeter the dominant deity. This was followed by a "Dionysian" stage of emerging patriarchy, finally succeeded by the "Apollonian" stage of patriarchy and the appearance of civilization in classical antiquity.

Robert Graves

Robert Graves postulated a prehistoric matriarchal religion in the 1950s, in his The Greek Myths and The White Goddess, and gave a detailed depiction of a future society with a matriarchal religion in his novel Seven Days in New Crete.

Second-wave feminism

The ideas of Bachofen and Graves were taken up in 1970s feminism, by authors such as Merlin Stone, who took the Paleolithic Venus figurines as evidence of prehistorical matriachal religion.[2]

Merlin Stone, from When God Was a Woman, Marija Gimbutas introduced the field of feminist archaeology in the 1970s. Her The Civilization of the Goddess (1989) became a standard work for the theory that partiarchic or "androcratic" culture originated in the Bronze Age, replacing a Neolithic Goddess-centered worldview.

Merlin Stone presents matriarchal religions as involving a "cult of serpents" as a major symbol of spiritual wisdom , ferility, life, strength.[3].

These theories were presented as scholarly hypotheses, albeit ostensibly from an ideological feminist viewpoint, in the 1970s, but they also influenced feminist spirituality and especially feminist branches of Neopaganism that also arose during the 1970s (see Dianic Wicca), so that Matriarchal religion is also a contemporary new religious movement within the larger field of Neopaganism, generally known as the Goddess movement.


While the Mother Goddess is a widely recognized archetype in psychoanalysis,[4] and worship of Mother or Earth goddesses is known from numerous traditions of historical polytheism, even in classical patriarchic societies, the scholarly merit of the concept of the "Matriarchal religion" hypothesis has been de-emphasized since the 1990s[clarification needed], and the detrimental effect of using questionable scholarship to support political aims of feminism has been discussed in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000).

American scholar Camille Paglia[5] has argued that "Not a shred of evidence supports the existence of matriarchy anywhere in the world at any time," and further that "The moral ambivalence of the great mother goddesses has been conveniently forgotten by those American feminists who have resurrected them."


  1. ^ J.J. Bachofen, Myth religion and motherhood
  2. ^ Merlin Stone (1976) When God Was a Woman
  3. ^ When God Was a Woman p. 201, 204 210 211
  4. ^ Erich Neumann The Great Mother
  5. ^ Paglia, Camille (1990). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson NY: Vintage, pp. 42 & 8.

See also

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