Great Goddess hypothesis  

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The Great Goddess hypothesis was a theory, now widely disputed by archaeologists and historians, that in Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and/or Neolithic Europe and Western Asia, a singular, monotheistic female deity was worshipped prior to the development of the polytheistic pagan religions of the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Having first been proposed as an idea relating to ancient Greek religion in 1849, it subsequently achieved some support amongst classicists. In the early 20th century, various historians began to postulate about the theory applying across Europe, and it was widely propagated by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in the 1980s. It has since been adopted by various feminist religious groups such as Dianic Wicca as a part of the mythology of their faith.


Development of the theory

Pioneering ideas

The theory had been first proposed by the German Classicist Eduard Gerhard in 1849, when he speculated that the various goddesses found in ancient Greek paganism had been representations of a singular goddess who had been worshipped far further back into prehistory. He associated this deity with the concept of Mother Earth, which itself had only been developed in the 18th century by members of the Romanticist Movement. Soon after, this theory began to be adopted by other classicists in France and Germany, such as Ernst Kroker, Fr. Lenormant and M.J. Menant, who further brought in the idea that the ancient peoples of Anatolia and Mesopotamia had influenced the Greek religion, and that therefore they also had once venerated a great goddess. These ideas amongst various classicists echoed those of the Swiss judge J.J. Bachofen, who put forward the idea that the earliest human societies were matriarchal, but had converted to a patriarchal form in later prehistory. Commenting on this idea, the historian Ronald Hutton (1999) remarked that in the eyes of many at the time, it would have been an obvious conclusion that "what was true in a secular sphere should also, logically, have been so in the religious one."

In 1901, the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans - who in a 1895 work had dismissed the Great Goddess theory - changed his mind and accepted the idea whilst excavating at Knossos on Crete, the site of the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation. After unearthing a number of female figurines, he came to believe that they all represented a singular goddess, who was the Minoan's chief deity, and that all the male figurines found on the site represented a subordinate male god who was both her son and consort, an idea that he based partially upon the later classical myth of Rhea and Zeus. In later writings in ensuing decades he went on to associate these Neolithic and Bronze Age images with other goddesses around the Near East. As Hutton pointed out, "his influence made this the orthodoxy of Minoan archaeology, although there was always a few colleagues who pointed out that it placed a strain upon the evidence."

In 1903, Sir Edmund Chambers, a respected amateur historian of the mediaeval period, published The Medieval Stage, in which he diverted from his main theme to state how he believed that in prehistory, humans had worshipped a Great Earth Mother as a twofold deity who was both the creator and the destroyer. That same year, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison espoused a similar idea, but claimed that this prehistoric Great Goddess had been divided into three forms - she theorised this based upon the fact that in various recorded polytheistic European religions, there were a set of three goddesses, such as the Fates and the Graces. Harrison identified two of these as the Maiden, who ruled over the living, and the Mother, who ruled the underworld, and like Evans believed that a male god who was both her lover and son was also worshipped.

Discrediting the theory

See Peter Ucko

See also

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