Response from Cynthia Eller
I'd like to take the opportunity to correct a few mistaken notions about myself and my work
that are posted on your website on the "debates" page.
I have never been a "goddess feminist" or a "spiritual feminist," or any sort of neopagan. I
did not identify myself with the feminist spirituality movement before, during, or after writing
Living in the Lap of the Goddess. I'm not hostile to those spiritual movements, but I never saw
myself as a participant in them. The reason that Living in the Lap of the Goddess read (to most
people) as a sympathetic account of the feminist spirituality movement is because I'm largely
sympathetic to the movement. I have some very specific issues with the feminist spirituality
movement-and if you've read The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, you know exactly what they are.
But I also think feminist spirituality is an important and interesting movement in both feminist
and religious terms. That's why I've taken it so seriously in my academic work (and you must
know that it is not taken seriously by many academics).
My greatest regret pertaining to The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is that I didn't make my (critical)
sympathy and admiration for feminist spirituality clearer. I tried to distinguish between "feminist
matriarchalism" and "feminist spirituality," because I don't think they're the same thing. Obviously
I didn't do a good enough job of this, because the book has been interpreted by some as an
attack not only on feminist spirituality, but on the entire Wiccan community.
I know it's hard to understand this when it comes to matters close to your heart, but it's possible
for me to like and admire individual women who advocate matriarchal myth-to even be glad that
they're contributing to the public debate-while not agreeing that matriarchal myth is either accurate
or helpful. It's possible for me to believe-and I do-that the feminist spirituality movement is
engaged in some very important theological work. Carol Christ is exactly right when she says that
Christian feminists borrow freely from goddess feminists and then turn around and diss them.
Christian feminists often try to make themselves look more sensible and moderate by pointing to a
group that is even more "extreme" than they are: in this case, goddess feminists. It's a very familiar
political tactic, but it's patently unfair and disrespectful to goddess feminists.
I'd also like to correct the rumor that I wrote MMP (The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory) in a calculated
manner, in hopes of getting an academic job. It's true that I didn't have an academic job when I
wrote the book, and I do now. And for all I know, it's the critical tone of MMP that got me that job.
But it's ludicrous to suggest that I wrote this book in an effort to be accepted into the academy. In
fact, when I was working on the book, many academics urged me to be less controversial, suggesting
that I would be hurting my chances for academic success. "What academic success?" I always
responded. "I don't have a job, and while that's bad in terms of income, the great thing about it is
that I can say whatever I want: I never have to censor myself based on what the dean may be thinking."
That's the spirit in which I wrote MMP; not in an effort to curry favor with the patriarchal establishment.
Maybe these were my unconscious motivations (though I don't think they were), but I can tell you that
it has never been my conscious intent to strengthen some male conspiracy against freethinking women
trying to liberate themselves from their internalized oppression.
In her article, Joan Marler asks what the alternative is to reifying women's traditional associations with
nature and motherhood: "What's the alternative? Not to honor motherhood? To deny women's nurturing
capacities and resonance with nature in order to escape a patriarchal trap?" I do have an answer for that:
the alternative is to honor and uplift men's nurturing capacities and their relationship to nature, and not
regard these traits as somehow innately "feminine." They're excellent traits, for everyone, and frankly,
men need more help and encouragement in cultivating them than women do.
Several critics have remarked on my "snide" and "derisive" tone. It's true: I do not write in a "feminine"
way. I have a rather acerbic writing voice. I don't think this makes me less of a woman, or less of a feminist.
I don't see myself "criticizing feminists"; I see myself contributing to a more self-critical feminism. I don't
apologize for that, especially given that my critics, who object to my "snide" and "derisive" tone, have no
trouble launching nasty assaults on my work, my motivations, and my character. I don't think anyone gets
to claim the niceness award here.
Finally, I wanted to respond to Marguerite Rigoglioso's remarks on my address at the Gender and Archaeology
conference at Sonoma State in the fall of 2002. She didn't note how my paper ended, which for me was the
whole point. I assumed that my audience would be made up of feminist archaeologists. I knew they would
find my presentation funny, and would enjoy having a laugh at the expense of goddess feminists. But I was
consciously working with that so that at the end of the paper I could turn around and make a plea for religious
freedom. I'd like to quote the end of my address:
Is there anything wrong, in principle, with finding spiritual inspiration or solace in ancient images? We rewrite
the meaning of images all the time. Even important religious symbols, like the Christian cross, undergo
changes in meaning across different populations and down through time. No one suggests that we should
stop displaying crosses because what they meant to the first generation of Christians is not what they mean
to us now. And it hardly seems fair to me to suggest that prehistoric images belong only to "scientists," to
those who use the images to try to accurately reconstruct prehistory. They belong to all of us. Obviously the
original Venus of Willendorf cannot be passed hand-to-hand so that every living human can partake of a
tactile interaction with this piece of our shared human past. But neither should archaeologists have the
uncontested corner on the market when it comes to speculating about what prehistoric artifacts mean, let
alone deciding how reproductions of them can be used. Take it to the next step, then: should goddess
worshippers be able to conduct their own archaeological digs? Well, it wouldn't be the first time that an
untrained amateur put her spade in the ground with her conclusions about what she'll find there already
]unshakeably seated in her mind. No prehistorian is entirely without bias, completely free of prejudice
regarding human history . . . . Not everyone can have equal access to the process of recovering our prehistoric
past. Not everyone wants to. But when it comes to displaying, enjoying, or revering prehistoric images whose
original meaning is unknown, that's everyone's game. We may legitimately quarrel with the particular religious
worldview of someone who spins out their own spiritually significant stories about an ancient object. But the fact
that they want to tell such stories, to enshrine such objects on their altars and in their hearts, is their prerogative.
And if and when their stories entice me, I may begin to embrace them too; not as history, but as religious myth.
I hope this makes my position more clear.
-- Cynthia Eller
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