A Conversation with Craig Barnes
In Search of the Lost Feminine
The testimonials say this book presents history in a whole new light. What can that mean?
Ever since the earliest tales of western literature we have thought that heroes and war, suppression of women and their sexuality, disdain for ecstasy, and the agony of death were givens of civilization. War, we have thought, was inevitable, heroes lived forever, time was linear and immortality reserved to only a special few. In very recent times, however, we have uncovered evidence that these concepts are not necessarily bedrock at all, women have not always been dishonored, nor war always the foundation of progress, nor sexuality the stuff of seduction, enchantment and disgrace. An earlier civilization existed before the stories of ancient Greece and before Biblical times in which quite the reverse was true. The new information is extensive and explicit and suddenly produces new questions: How was the story of that earlier civilization buried? What happened to destroy our memory of those times? Where did they go? Did they really exist? This book addresses those questions. It describes how ancient story tellers, among them Homer and the authors of Genesis, systematically, and intentionally, erased the clues of the cultures which had preceded them. It explains that the Trojan War was a watershed in western civilization, and how classic figures like Heracles, Jason and Medea, Odysseus, and Oedipus emerged thereafter as figures enlisted to assist in a dramatic cultural shift that changed our lives in the west. Prompted by these stories, aided by commercial expansion and catastrophic natural disasters, these early writers set out to, and did, establish patriarchal property, and accordingly, the complete subordination of women. When the stories and the new archaeological evidence uncovered only recently are combined, as they are here for perhaps the first time, the revelations require us to re-evaluate our view of what always has been, our view of human nature, and therefore what must be in our future.
Why do you say you are decoding the myths of ancient times?
Scholars have forever struggled to interpret the stories, or myths, that we still read in schools today. What was the intention of the bards of ancient times who described Aphrodite, the seductress, or why Medea, the evil enchantress from the edge of civilization? Why did Persephone go away to be married to Hades for only four months every year? Why did the Furies, descendants of Mother Earth, kill Oedipus, the lost son? Is the Odyssey about a hero's journey, as so many have thought, or could there be more sinister implications to the confinement of Penelope and the killing of the suitors? The questions are endless and answers usually said by scholars to be beyond the reach of the modern mind. I believe, however, that the mystery of the myths exists only because we have not laid the right theory across the evidence, and when this is done, the meanings of these stories leap out with dramatic intention. Tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the voyage of Jason and the adventures of Heracles, stories of the goddess of the dawn and the sacrifice of beautiful daughters of kings of Athens, are all, for example, intended to assist the establishment of new and substantially different values than those of the civilization before Athens, before the Trojan war, before the new religion of the Exodus. The Greeks and Hebrews took over by force of arms; we know that there was great resistance, and, under the lens of this new theory, gradually it becomes clear that the Trojan war itself was among those battles of historic significance upon which the very fate of patriarchy turned. It was for that reason that Homer made that war glorious. When it was over, women had become chattel and daughters were turned to sacrificial purpose rather than vessels of hope for continuation of the family, or the village, or, more grandly, for all humankind (and therefore as instruments of immortality). After a great explosion of the volcano on the island of Santorini, an event horrible and catastrophic, unearned, and undeserved, the earth, wind and sky suddenly had become feared as dangerous, erratic and undependable. Gods then became fearful rather than benign, Mother Earth herself discredited. Since none of the myths, however, says all this explicitly in modern terminology, (all are obviously encoded with symbols well understood in those times, if not in ours), we must now decode them again and piece together the meanings appropriate for those earliest of times. We take evidence from modern excavations in Crete and Santorini, add to these artifacts what we know of ceremonials among women in the mountains, add the phenomenon of the growth of Dionysian theater, and then to these the clues in the great stories of the Odyssey or Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and we come at last to see now how these all were substantially related to one great and history-changing struggle. It was a struggle which has not, until now, been adequately acknowledged, nor ever understood. That understanding, therefore, is the purpose of this book.
What is the relevance of the book for us today?
The consequences of the struggle in pre-history to establish patriarchy and a culture of war have been huge. It was in those times that we laid the foundations of our belief that men could subdue the earth, women, sexuality, and ecstasy, and at the same time, established the view that time is linear, life is short, death forever. The essence of the feminine is the opposite: that birth and re-birth are predictable; that fertility of the soil forever follows the harvest and that death is not terminal; that winter precedes spring when the grain will inevitably emerge again. The wars of today, the discriminations against women today, the exploitation of our natural environment, our confusions about sexuality and fear of death are all embedded in that culture we inherited from those early patriarchal story tellers. Many would say that the masculine has now run amuck, that the divine feminine has been displaced or forgotten, and that we are in danger of nuclear destruction or greenhouse warming because of our attitudes of dominion spread to every aspect of our culture. And many will say that there is nothing to be done about these excesses. But if, to the contrary, we can see where we came from, and that our ancestors included not only patriarchs and kings, not only Heracles the hero and Odysseus the crafty, but also, before them, men and women who lived closer and more in reverence to the earth and to life; if we can see that modern civilization in its excesses is not a given, but a choice, and if we can see that we have something to learn from ancestors other than the patriarchs, we might have a chance to revive a more benign, temperate and compassionate culture of our own.
You sound like you are telling a new story. Who are the new heroes of your story?
Throughout the long course of western history, the flame of compassion, of the sense that the power of regeneration, or the feminine, was central to the survival of life has never been completely stamped out. There have been women and men, both, who through time have kept the lantern of hope alive, sometimes heroically, sometimes at great cost. The early patriarchs could not altogether stamp them out, as much as they tried, and women met in ceremonies on the mountains, in ancient Greece, to celebrate their strength and passion. The mysteries at Eleusis were celebrated by men and women every year, in secret, to maintain the essential story, that the grain and therefore that life and rebirth were constant truths underneath the crust of harsh Greek patriarchy. Later seers, like Jesus and the Gnostics, sought to revive the reverence for life, for the soil, the wheat, the wine, the seasons. These, too, were crushed by patriarchy, but never completely, and a whole series of brilliant men and women carried the light in early Europe, Irish priests, Cathars, knights of the Grail. They were the ones who kept faith in the power of life to regenerate, of love to overcome war, and in the equality of men and women before God. Over and over they were dismissed, or exiled or killed. And over and over they re-surfaced, in some new country, in some new village, in some new name, exulting their own ecstasy, their own voices, women like the Maid Joan, in France. There is something in the human spirit that is unquenchable, and that will press forward with the work of regeneration, without ever knowing who came before them, certainly without knowing about some civilization in pre-history before the Greeks. This long line of courageous men and women makes clear that something lives in the human heart, ineradicable, inextinguishable, that Homer and the authors of those myths glorifying killing and conquest, depreciating women and scourging the earth, did not understand. This long line of simple spirits for the most part have not been kings, or warriors, bishops or great property holders, so much as healers, cultivators of the life of the soul, unrecorded drummers and dancers, who all along have known the story without ever having to read a book or be told. Like Saint Joan, following their own voices, paying the price in a harsh patriarchal world, they have nevertheless gradually brought civilization to the place where their understanding might burst through and once again become dominant. They are the heroes of the new story.
Is this primarily an inspirational book, or is it scholarly, or to whom is it directed?
The book is intended for the general audience of persons concerned with the state of our current world and eager to address our excesses of pride and materialism, militarism and environmental destruction. Readers today are apt to want more than exhortation and feel-good assurances. The new story therefore is firmly rooted in archaeological evidence from earliest Minoan civilization, careful analysis of the details of patriarchal culture, the explosion of the volcano on Santorini, and a systematic de-construction of the myths which followed. It is not a comprehensive blaming of patriarchy, nor a white-wash for goddess followers, neither an exercise in sloganeering nor clichŽs about the feminine. It draws upon literature, poetry, archeology and history, so is a combination of both scholarship and because this is where the evidence inevitably leads, hope for our future.
What is your own background and qualification for writing such a book?
Years ago, as a trial lawyer in a case involving wage discrimination against nurses in Denver, a federal judge denied to us the right to prove the history of misogyny and the roots of the wage disparity. No evidence of Florence Nightingale or witch burnings would be allowed in his court. We therefore had no predicate upon which to base our case, and lost. Many years later, I determined that I myself did not really know the first causes of this problem and was led on a discovery of many years which eventually took me all the way back to ancient Greece and beyond. Then, to my amazement, I discovered that the package of values which had been dismissed in earliest history was not only about women but also about our relationship to the earth, to war, and to time, to sexuality and to ecstasy. All these had once been bound together in a package of values which were, as a whole, dismissed by the in-coming patriarchy of that time. That was the first millennium BC, and the dismissal had been ratified and promoted by such great lights as Homer and the authors of Genesis. Then I discovered that modern scholarship is often reluctant to engage in the kind of inductive reasoning that trial lawyers customarily use to prove circumstantial cases, or that is, that scholars might not ever go the distance to become advocate's, as I have been in most of my life. This book is therefore written from the advocate's perspective, from the point of view of one who would make this case to the jury of common opinion. I have tried to honor every bit of scholarship I could find, or that is, to do as one must do in court, attempt to tell the real truth and not make it up. Hundreds of books have been drawn upon in the research and I have been to the critical sites in Greece and Crete, or to the British Museum, etc., for many and repeated visits. But I have not felt bound by traditional explanations or customary interpretations and have enjoyed therefore a freedom that few others may experience. All that has led to most startling conclusions.