Among some modern pagan groups the idea of a primitive feminine monotheism is widely spread, that is the idea of a primitive belief in one only goddess, who can be represented under different guises. Let's state that anyone is free to build the philosophical basis of his/her own paganism as he/she likes, so if anyone likes the idea of a divine feminine archetype beyond all the ancient polytheistic goddesses, he/she is free to practice their paganism in this way. But is actually possible to state that this idea belongs to ancient religions as they were conceived and practiced before the arrival of that kind of monotheism we know nowadays?
The thesis of a female monotheism became popular in the 70s in some wiccan and neopagan groups; at that time, the discovery of the importance women had in ancient religions was in its turn important to turn down the repressive, monotheistic education. Nevertheless, the use of this thesis had soon become exaggerated and not only several archaeological findings have been interpreted in this way, but also there has been the risk of constructing a feminine monotheism based on stereotypes of femininity that were actually imposed by Christianity. The fact that anthropologists and archaeologists called "Mother Goddess worship" some religious manifestations doesn't mean that there was everywhere practiced the cult of one, single, precise and only mother goddess, but instead that every population recognized that the birth has a divine aspect and, since women only can give birth and breastfeed, the deity of birth was naturally represented as a goddess.
What we actually have are only representations, figures that we think may be related to fertility, but we can't say whether they were all representations of one same Goddess for all cultures, or many Goddesses for one culture because in this one was common to represent a Goddess, whoever she may be, in that way. For what concerns the so-called primitive populations, we don't have any source allowing us to understand their way of thinking; trying to do this with comparisons with African and Australasian cultures is a nonsense, because we're dealing with different times and places and also because those cultures are often reported through adaptations for a modern mentality. Many scholars who grew up in a monotheistic environment have to make a big effort to conceive deities as inside the world to whom people can address in a non-superstitious manner. In some studies there's a clear inconsistency: these 'primitive' people are credited both with a superstitious, childish and fearful behavior in front of natural phenomena and, at the same time, with a great ability of abstract thinking, since they are believed to have considered all those frightening natural phenomena a manifestation of one single god or goddess. It's true that in ancient religions every aspect of life was related to all others, but it's also true that these religions didn't ignore the multiplicity of life, reflected in an assortment of deities.
Cecile Boelle, in her book po-ti-ni-ja (see below for references), demonstrated the existence of a feminine polytheism in Mycenaean religion through the analysis of the kings' registers of donations to temples. Even in cultures for which we don't know any form of writing we can find a variety of feminine representations: who can ensure that the nurse Goddess of the Sardinian pre-Nuragic civilization was the same thing of the Goddess called "Goddess with Eyes" by archaeologists? Skipping to more well-known cultures, like the Greek and the Roman ones, we can find a variety of Goddesses that is difficult to reduce to a unique principle and origin. According to some theories, polytheism should be born from the initial prehistoric monotheism when a hierarchy was born in society and therefore a gods' hierarchy was born to reflect the earthly one; this theory openly shows its weaknesses when we look at Goddesses.
After discarding the hypothesis of a feminine monotheism, another theory was proposed both by scholars and pagans: the trifunctionality of the Goddesses, which unlike Dumezil's trifunctionality is founded on the idea of fertility only: all the Goddess can be 'catalogued' in one of the three aspects of maiden, mother and crone.
But ancient pagan Goddesses can't be trapped in the stereotype related to the reproductive function of women, which is the only one passed down through Christian times: much has been told about the virginity of some Goddesses (in ancient cultures this was meant much as spinsterhood, than in the gynecological sense), but less about their essence, about Athena as strategy and intelligent thinking, Artemis as feminine unbound, Hestia as the hearth with everything this may imply. Fertility as a category has been defined later, by religion studies, and not by those civilization which, in ancient times, used to perceive the deities in the world. Just because the deities were first perceived and then described through attributes, it's easier to think that ancient populations were polytheistic at the beginning and lately began to bring deities together in one figure or category. This happens with colours: first we see different tones, and then we can decide that cream, ivory, eggshell and snow… can be called 'white', while lawn, emerald, olive, can be called 'green'.
As pagans, we must choose, think, construct a philosophy of our own, without blindly believe in a feminine monotheism of ancient times just because someone told us it was so, especially if this reveals to be a forced construction: it's a pity here in Italy we don't have many translations of recent updating on this kind of research and therefore many pagans are forced to rely only on Murray's, Bachofen's and Gimbutas' works, very important ones, but sometimes antiquated.
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