on 3 October 2012
Rosemary Ruether, herself a doyenne of feminism, took up the search for the Goddess in response to the theme's very natural adoption by feminists, notably the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994). The story Ruether tells is a tangled one, which weaves together the story of modern anthropology (gyneology?) and the Goddess's manifestations in the world's cultures and religions.
I think it is fair to say that she looks for, and does not find, a continuity in the Goddess theme; as (to take a quite influential example, at least on me) Robert Graves did find in 'The White Goddess'. Rather, the Goddess is made manifest - or suppressed - according to the priorities of each culture's religion. The Sumerian Inanna, the Babylonian Ishtar and the Egyptian Isis perform similar roles, important but bounded, in helping to validate their respective monarchical setups. The Hebrew Asherah, a local variation on Ishtar known from figurines and an inscription ("Yahweh and his Asherah"), fades out.
One huge red herring is the "original matriarchy" of Johann Bachofen (1815-1887). From this descend a good many pre-conceptions the unwary student might fall prey to - not to mention Xena and Gabrielle. Actually Amazonianism turns out to be a particularly fanciful part of a theory which was devised to portray the rule of women as a primitive, undeveloped form of society. Whereas, in Ruether's words but Bachofen's thought: "the completion of the triumph of mind over body took place only with the assertion of patriarchy over matriarchy." The influence can be traced, via Frazer's 'Golden Bough', to Graves and even Tolkien. (JRRT at one point mulls the question of whether Gollum's grandmother, whom he calls a "matriarch", actually presided over such a society - but concludes that Gollum's tribe had regressed, but not that far - Letter 214).
Ruether is eminently fair-minded, giving space to views she does not agree with while making her own position clear. Her book is one of the few of which I can say "it changed my mind". I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in Goddess matters, if for no other reason than the information it contains.