Happy Equinox

Mar 20, 2008
From here on in there is more light than darkness. Until September. And unless it rains. You know what I mean. Yesterday I was starting to believe in Spring again -- actual belief, that is, instead of just a faint, vague hope.

So far today here in sunny Madison, Wisconsin we've gotten a good four to six inches, with another one or two overnight. And then maybe a little more on Sunday. Because really, we haven't had enough yet this year.

If you need me, I'll be in bed with a cup of hot tea, pretending this isn't happening again.

Book Review: Savage Breast

Mar 19, 2008
Savage Breast is a complicated book to describe, part personal revelation, part historical and archaeological description, part feminist theory and gender studies. It was a book that obviously took a lot of personal courage to write, and for that Tim Ward deserves praise; I couldn't write something like this on my Livejournal, much less publish it as a book. The book follows Ward and his girlfriend (later fiancee, still later wife) through a trip around the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, Greece and Minoa, Turkey, and even a bit up into Central Europe, while Ward attempts to relate to the Goddess in all her forms and try to understand just what's wrong with the way he relates to the human women in his life.

First off I want to apologise for the archaeology rant I had in my last post; while I stand by my theory, I don't really think it had anything to do with Savage Breast in the end. By the time I reached the end of the book, I realized Ward had repudiated most of the arguments I was disagreeing with so vehemently while I was reading the first half of it. That said, I do still think there's a problem with the structure of the book in that sense. Savage Breast is a story of personal revelation, but where that structure works brilliantly -- and very subtly -- for conveying opinions about gender, social status, and one's own shortcomings, it works less well when discussing scientific and historical theories.

Might as well get my issues with the science out of the way, then; I do still have some problems with the way the archaeology and history are treated in the book. Ward has, for one thing, an overwhelming tendency to universalize that I think does a disservice to the cultures he's writing about. Again, this isn't key to the book but it's a pet peeve of mine. People are always using the past to validate themselves and their ideas, but every time the past is simplified in order to make a point it makes understanding what *really* happened that much more difficult. It boils down to a philosophical question of science: would we rather be able to decipher the genuine past or just use it as a metaphor for contemporary life? As I said, this has hardly anything to do with the actual content of Savage Breast and isn't nearly as drastic as I'm making it out to be here, but it did distract me enough that it was practically all I could think about until I sat down and got the rant out of my system.

Now for the book itself. This was a hugely difficult book to read. It is fundamentally a very personal book. Ward isn't addressing just a generic male relationship to the Goddess, here; he's addressing, directly and sometimes with uncomfortable frankness, his own relationship with women in general, one woman in particular, and Goddesses both generic and specific. And sometimes that's just profoundly depressing. When he contemplates joining the monastery of Athos (so sacred to Mary that no females are allowed on the island) in order to escape the troubles of (sigh) women, I considered doing the same myself. I'll move into Macha's caves in the west of Ireland, I thought, and pray for the Curse of the men of Ulster to fall on the whole world. The book is written toward men, to a certain degree; particularly in the Hekate and Artemis chapters, there's a kind of boy's-club, conspiratorial sense of, "Aren't women weird and scary?" Well, no. But it's never meant meanly, and though there's real hostility there's also an understanding of the unfairness of it all that makes it bearable most of the time. As someone who's never come face-to-face with a lot of sexism in my own life, maybe it was exceptionally shocking -- not surprising, but really like feeling a physical blow -- to hear a man articulate some of these things. Maybe it would always hurt to hear ideas like that expressed. I don't know.

Because it's so personal, there are a lot of points of view missing from this book, and it can sometimes seem a bit gender-essentialist, but after all, two people (really, mostly one) can only give so many perspectives. That's not a failing of this book so much as a failing of the general lack of books like this in the world. And as I said, I still take serious issue with some of the historical and archaeological information. But despite and because of its failings, I do think this is an important book, although I shy away from actually recommending it on a Pagan blog. (Were this a feminism blog, I'd be bashing you all over the head with it telling you to read it.) If nothing else it provides some serious and occasionally profound food for thought.

Please, not that again

Mar 1, 2008
I'm trying to read Tim Ward's new book, Savage Breast. (I even got my library to buy a copy!) It sounded fascinating when I heard of it: a man with a personal history of mysticism and religious seeking tries to unpack the problems with his relationships with women through attempting to understand the Feminine Divine. And as far as that part of the book goes, it's great. Unfortunately, he's using as a basis of the book something that's driving me insane. Let me try to explain it without sounding like an anthro term paper.

Although Ward does admit that the actual evidence for ancient matriarchies -- that's societies ruled by women, not egalitarian ones or ones where women bestow lineage -- is scant to nonexistant, he nonetheless uses this theory as the dominant paradigm throughout the book. (Of course, he is focusing on the Hellenic pantheon, which is a great example of goddesses being shoved aside in favor of gods at a later date -- but that's not evidence of a matriarchy, just evidence of more patriarchy.)

What always annoys me about the matriarchy hypothesis, though, is that it feels like giving in. I mean -- rule by women is not inherently better than rule by men. (Look at Margaret Thatcher.) Matriarchy is just patriarchy in reverse; you're still keeping somebody down. Assuming that there must have been a matriarchy before there was a patriarchy, to somehow "balance things out," is dualistic and wrong-headed, and it sounds to me like a theory made up by people who can't think of any other reason for the patriarchy to exist: either men really are better than women, they seem to think, or there had to be a matriarchy first. Why else do all societies that exist today or that we have any evidence of at all tend to privelige men above women? (They do, unfortunately. Even in societies where there are practically no stable status differences, men have higher status than women as a general rule. Sad but true.)

Okay, so how does that make sense, if no one is inherently better than anyone and it's not a matter of men banding together to overthrow a vast feminine monopoly of power? Well, how about this -- In waaaay ancient times (possibly, based on recent evidence, going back as far as Neanderthals and early Homo erectus), there's no such thing as permanent status. If you're good at one thing, you become the Important Person for that one thing, say you're a good singer so you always lead prayers and dances and things. Doesn't make you a priest, just means you're the best at it so that's what you do. Similarly, there's no difference between men and women, so far as status; everyone does what they're best at.

Probably the women take care of childcare. After all, a child definitely belongs to its mother, but only maybe (or probably, if you're monogamous) belongs to its father, and besides, the bottle and formula hasn't been invented yet and Mom has a better shot at breastfeeding the kid. So women are handling the children. And one of the fundamental tasks in a society like this is to gather food; you need to eat. You're probably omnivores, you eat lots of plants and nuts and growing things but also some game. Gathering growing things, that's safe, predictable work, not necessarily physically easy, but not hugely dangerous either. Hunting, on the other hand, is high-stress, high-danger, relatively low-yield work -- it can involve staying away from camp for a long time, and you run the risk of being attacked by whatever you're hunting (or whatever else is hunting it). It makes sense for the women to gather plant food, which they can do while taking care of the children who depend on them, and for men to do the more dangerous stuff; after all, the men are slightly more expendable. Of course, some women might have been hunters because they were good at it, and some men might have been gatherers because they were good at that. But as a general rule.

But then, as the society grows more complex (for whatever reason, environmental change, population growth, charismatic leadership, there's a whole body of literature on the subject of why complexity happens) status becomes more sticky -- instead of just being the Important Person for what it is you do well, doing something well causes you to become an Important Person. And as previously mentioned, gathering work is predictable, varying little from one instance to another -- it has to be, otherwise you'll deplete all the resources and starve to death. So while one person might be better at gathering than another, there'll never be a huge difference between them. One hunter, though, might come back with a squirrel while another kills a mastodon that'll feed the clan through the whole winter. A hunter might kill a dangerous predator and save dozens of lives. The potential status differential in hunting is huge.

And over time, since the majority of hunters are men, the few high-status female hunters lose their importance, and then finally the direction status flows switches again: instead of men being high-status individuals because they're good hunters, hunting becomes a high-status job because men do it (and gathering becomes low-status because women do it). Ta-da! Patriarchy -- and we haven't even gotten to agricultural societies yet.

This status-flow switching, the change between what just is high-status and what bestows high status, isn't necessarily hugely logical -- but it is how our brains work. Language evolves in exactly the same way; we see a pattern and we continue it, and we don't much care whether we're extending it in the right direction or not. (Yargh, now I can't find the citation for the book I recently read that made this point. I'll get back to you on it.)

So patriarchy isn't about fairness, or about who's "better" than who; it's about uncertain parentage and who's more likely to get stepped on by a mastodon. I'm not necessarily attacking Ward specifically for espousing the ancient matriarchy theory, because it's been pretty popular, with everyone from Victorians fond of trying to prove that society is constantly improving to modern-day feminists who are more interested in politics than evidence. (I have nothing against feminism! I am a feminist! But like all other movements, some of its adherents are silly.) I do think that the ancient matriarchy theory is damaging, because it skews our view of both history and the future. Does one gender really have to rule over another? Is the only way we can manage rights for women to put them in charge of everything? Status, remember, is not a finite resource: you don't have to be stepping on someone else's neck to have status and power. If we're going to idealize any ancient practice (that may or may not have existed), let's go back to the free-floating status model, not one that's just what we have now only backwards.