Saturday, 28 July 2012

Review of "Goddess Unmasked" by Philip G. Davis

This book is Triumph of the Moon's evil twin.  It is a work in roughly the same genre - a well-researched academic inquiry into the historical and cultural roots of contemporary neopaganism.  The difference is that, while Triumph (published in 1999) was written from a broadly neutral perspective by an author who was sympathetic to neopagans, this book (published in 1998) is a hostile critique written by a conservative Christian.

The book's agenda is clear enough, and at times it is put forward a little too strongly.  Nevertheless, Davis does provide a serviceable survey of the history of the ideas that contributed to the development and growth of modern paganism and Goddess spirituality.  He even quotes Hutton's pre-Triumph work.

Davis takes on the archaeological theory of primitive matriarchy, as espoused in books like Gertrude Rachel Levy's The Gate of Horn (1948) and the writings of scholars like Glyn Daniel, O.G.S.Crawford and Jacquetta Hawkes.  He notes that a watershed came in 1969 with the publication of Andrew Fleming's article "The Myth of the Mother Goddess", and that the theory has since lapsed into disfavour among mainstream archaeologists (with the notable exception of Marija Gimbutas).  Davis provides a useful survey of the palaeolithic evidence from Europe, noting that it is simply not possible to read a consistent system of goddess-worship, let alone of matriarchal social organisation, into the scattered and enigmatic remains of these impossibly ancient preliterate cultures.  Something similar can be said of the usual candidates for neolithic goddess-worshipping communities - Çatal Höyük, Malta, Britain, the Balkans and the Indus Valley - and the later but still imperfectly understood society of Minoan Crete.  The matriarchal interpretations of such cultures turn out to have been reverse-engineered.

Like Hutton, Davis identifies the Romantic movement as the wellspring of the Goddess movement and the pagan revival.  He surveys various figures ranging from Goethe, the Saint-Simonianists and Jules Michelet, and discerns in them a typically Romantic and pagan reverence for immanent divinity, organicism and the divine feminine.  His literary sights are somewhat less broad than Hutton's: he doesn't spend much time on Shelley, and he doesn't even mention Keats or Swinburne.  As for the notion of primitive matriarchy, he finds its origins in the historical theories of the conservative Swiss judge J.J.Bachofen, whose Mutterrecht was published in 1861.  He shows how such ideas were enthusiastically taken forward not only by archaeologists but also by text-based scholars like Jane Ellen Harrison and popular writers like Robert Graves.

The other great influence on modern paganism was esotericism.  Davis provides a reasonable overview of the Western esoteric tradition, from its origins in ancient Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, via its 19th century revival led by Eliphas Lévi, Madame Blavatsky and the Golden Dawn, to its 20th century manifestations in the shape of such figures as Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune and Carl Jung.  He notes that the most influential modern English translation of Bachofen's Mutterrecht was published by a Jungian institute in the United States.

Finally, Davis provides a history of the idea that ancient paganism survived into modern times in the form of the practices condemned by the Christian churches as "witchcraft".  He traces the idea back to 1820s Germany, and identifies the radical French writer Jules Michelet as its populariser, through his 1862 book La Sorcière.  The theory was subsequently applied to Italy by C.G.Leland in his book Aradia (1899) and to Britain by Margaret Murray, and it is from these authors that it appears to have been taken by Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca.

This book is useful as an intellectual history and as a work of reference, even if the author's partisan agenda is somewhat offputting.