“In the beginning…God was a woman. Do you remember?” Feminist foremother and author of these words Merlin Stone died in Feburary 2011.
I can still remember reading the hardback copy of When God Was a Woman while lying on the bed in my bedroom overlooking the river in New York City early in 1977. The fact that I remember this viscerally underscores the impact that When God Was a Woman had on my mind and my body. Stone’s words had the quality of revelation: “In the beginning…God was a woman. Do you remember?” As I type this phrase more than thirty-five years after first reading it, my body again reacts with chills of recognition of a knowledge that was stolen from me, a knowledge that I remembered in my body, a knowledge that re-membered my body. My copy of When God was a Woman is copiously underlined in red and blue ink, testimony to many readings.
Though I could then and can now criticize details in the book, the amassing of information and the comprehensive perspective When God Was a Woman provided was news to me when I first read it. Despite having earned a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale, I did not “know” that Goddesses were worshipped at the very dawn of religion. I had not heard of the theories of Indo-European invasions of warlike patriarchal peoples into areas already settled by peaceful matrilineal, matrifocal cultures in Europe and India. I had written my undergraduate thesis on the prophets, studying their words in the original Hebrew, but I did not understand that their constant references to the Hebrew people “whoring” after “idols” and worshipping “on every high hill and under every green tree” referred to the fact that many of the Hebrew people were choosing to worship Goddesses in sacred places in nature. Nor did I understand that the Genesis story which I had studied and taught took the sacred symbols of Goddess religion– the snake, the tree and the fruit of the tree, the female body—and turned them upside down.
Stone’s decoding of the way in which the Genesis story transformed the sacred symbols of Goddess religion into symbols of evil may be much ignored by scholars of the Bible to this day, but it cannot be refuted, because it is based on the “gestalt” of the story, not the interpretation of the subtleties of the meanings of its words. Once the story of Adam and Eve is understood as a polemical (and largely successful) “tale with a point of view” intended to discredit Goddess religion, any and all exegetical attempts to rescue the story from sexist interpretations by later scholars and theologians seem doomed to failure. When we remember that “in the beginning…God was a woman,” we can no longer hear or read the Genesis story as an innocent but flawed attempt on the part of “early man” to understand “his” origins. We are forced to see the story as a part of a widespread rewriting of history that dethroned the Goddesses and the understanding of matrifocal cultures that female creativity and the female body are the origin of many things good and beautiful.
Stone’s focus on the Hebrew Bible in the second half of her book led some to conclude wrongly that she “blamed the Jews” for the origins of patriarchy. Yet even a cursory reading of the first half of her book reveals that she understood that the transformation of matrilineal, matrifocal, Goddess-worshipping cultures into patriarchal cultures and religions was a worldwide event. Stone spent more time discussing the rise of patriarchy in the Hebrew Bible than in the literatures of other cultures because the Hebrew Bible has had a far greater influence on Western culture than the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Vedic texts. She understood that Biblical texts were (and are) understood as sacred by many of the women she addressed in her book. It clearly was far more upsetting to Stone–as it was to me–to realize that the disempowering of female creativity, our minds, and the demonizing of the female body, our bodies, through religion was not something that existed only in the distant past, but that it was (and is) being re-enacted in churches and synagogues and in university classes in the present day.
I remember meeting Stone at a coffee shop somewhere in Greenwich Village; I remember her at the Great Goddess Re-emerging Conference in Santa Cruz in 1978; and I remember standing outside in the cold with her at a conference where smoking was prohibited inside. Merlin Stone’s white hair was hennaed a bright red that my mother would have considered vulgar, long before this was fashionable; she wore dark sweaters and slacks and leather jackets; she usually had a cigarette in her hand. She was striking; her voice was deep and confident; her eyes were piercing; her laughter was infectious; and she changed the world.