Review: The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe: Goddesses, Sacred Women, and the Origins of Western Culture

Even though I don’t consider myself a “Goddessian” anymore, I’m always interested in books about goddesses and the role of women in religion. Last year, I reviewed Celtic Myth and Religion by Sharon Paice MacLeod and liked it despite its flaws, so when I saw she had written a book on Goddesses and women in European history, I was very interested in it.

As the title of the book suggests, this is a book about goddesses, priestesses, and other important women in European religious history. Each chapter covers a specific time period from prehistory (starting from the Paleolithic) to the early Medieval period. Each chapter begins with a short narrative based on sources about daily life in that period to set the stage for the chapter before delving into archaeological finds of interest and speculating as to what these artifacts may have meant to the people who created them by looking at practices and beliefs of present day indigenous cultures, as well as textual evidence where available. The topics she covers range from how humans impacted the environment in the Mesolithic area to our genetic ancestry to ritual art and music. The author argues that European cultures are influenced not solely–or even chiefly–by Greek and Roman culture, but by a rich tapestry of many different traditions.

For the most part, I feel the author tried to remain objective when discussing prehistoric artifacts. She dismisses the popular “Golden Age Matriarchy” theory that we’ve all heard before right off the bat, citing evidence of interpersonal violence in Neolithic settlements. She also attacks the notion that are prehistoric Images depict mother goddesses (assuming they depict goddesses in the first place) or fertility deities, also noting that this tendency erases other roles that women in these communities may have held that aren’t necessarily related to motherhood, such as priestesses or leaders of their communities.

Since I’m not familiar with current research on life in prehistoric times, I found those chapters interesting. A lot of Pagan 101 texts seem to treat prehistory as if it was one continuous line of “goddess worship” until The Patriarchy came. The picture that this book paints, however, is a fascinating one where changes in the environment during the Mesolithic brought significant changes to the way people lived and the artwork they created (the author notes that there is a lack of female figurines from this period when compared to Paleolithic or Neolithic artifacts, for instance).

I’m a bit more familiar with Celtic traditions and Norse things, which are also covered in the book, although I found the chapters on Celtic traditions to basically be a rehashing of the material in Celtic Myth and Religion (which she cites constantly). The section on Norse traditions wasn’t anything I already knew. I did notice that she spent a lot of time talking about how Roman writers viewed these cultures instead of looking at their material culture.

As for things I didn’t like about this book, I found the narratives at the beginning of each chapter more cheesy than mood-setting. A consistent annoyance for me was how the author would frequently segue into discussing the evils of technology and the need for people of European descent to reclaim their spiritual roots. Unfortunately, the message comes across as very “noble savage”=y, as she constantly talks about indigenous traditions and their connection to nature and knowledge that Westerners of European descent have lost. She also begins each chapter with a quote from an indigenous speaker or activist in order to set the “theme” for the chapter. I would understand if this was a book about indigenous traditions around the world, but since it is a book specifically about European traditions it struck me as inappropriate. I found it particularly jarring because her previous book wasn’t feel preachy at all (probably because it was written explicitly for students). I also found it kind of funny that she scoffs at modern druid orders while claiming to be a “Western neoshamanic practitioner” (paraphrased).

Honestly, i think this book could have benefited from a more academic tone and less preaching about how Westerners have “lost their way”. I can’t even really say who I would recommend this to, perhaps someone who is interested in the divine feminine (I hate this term, btw) whose only exposure to writings on prehistory is a Llewellyn Pagan 101 book, but for the price of this book you could buy one by someone who really knows their stuff. Celtic Myth and Religion is, in my opinion, a far better book if you’re looking for info on those traditions specifically. But honestly, between the noble savage schtick, the preaching, and the price (cheap for an academic book, expensive for a non-academic book), I can’t see a lot of people clamoring to pick this one up. It’s not a terrible book, but it definitely could have been much better.

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