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.

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