Posts Tagged ‘Steiner’

Hildegard didn't have to fly to get a bird's-eye view of the cosmos.  Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

Hildegard didn’t have to fly to get a bird’s-eye view of the cosmos. Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

A word to the wise: in case you haven’t been following the thread of this series on Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval visionary nun, you should check out my first and second posts (first one on her life and times, second one on her Big Idea).  It will make the following much easier, well, to follow.

God as Verb

When last I left you, we had examined Hildegard’s use of the term viriditas, a word she is often described as using to denote God’s generative, or “greening” power.  However, I’d taken the step of expanding the interpretation of viriditas slightly.  I’d related it to other words and images she uses frequently–fiery power, Reason, life, wind-tossed flame.  And I’d suggested that Hildegard uses viriditas (among other words and images) not to describe the actions or power of God as a Person (that is, as a noun), but rather, to situate God Him/Herself in that in-between area of matter and energy.  In other words, Hildegard experiences God as verb.

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the seas of theological conundrums. (Source)

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the theological waters. (Source)

Now, once we start talking about God as noun vs. God as verb, we’re treading into fairly deep theological waters.   Luckily for us, there are others who have gone before to part the seas, and they’ve made it relatively easy to understand.  So hang in there.

In order to explain myself (and Hildegard), I’m going to borrow here for a moment from David A. Cooper, who has written about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah in his aptly entitle book, aptly God is a Verb:

“The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being.  We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun.  Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God.  We might call It God-ing…. a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other….Moreover, creation should not be treated as a noun.  It too is an interactive verb; it is constantly creation-ing.  And, dear reader, you should not treat yourself as a noun–Joan, or Bill, or Barbara, or John.  With regard to God as an interactive verb, you are also verbs; you are Joan-ing, Bill-ing, Barbara-ing, or John-ing in relation to God-ing.” (1)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

This understanding of God seems, to me, to shed light on Hildegard’s often baffling array of metaphors.  In each of her terms (fiery power, viriditas, Reason), she is fundamentally pointing to the living activity inherent in them.  And this is where we need to be very careful in understanding her.  She is NOT saying that nature (stones, plants, humans, etc.) exists as fundamentally dead or inert matter that is animated by some sort of ubiquitous life energy (á la the Jedi “Force”).  That would actually be relatively easy for us to grasp.  We’re all very familiar with the idea of matter (inert) and energy (animate).

But that’s a fundamentally dualistic way of looking at things. Hildegard takes us a step further.  She is inviting us to step from duality to unity–to see creation itself as “creation-ing” (to steal Cooper’s word) and God as “God-ing.”  Let’s look again the first passage I quoted in my last post:

“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm.  And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)

You see what she’s doing here?  The herbs “suck” viriditas from the air; they “cook” viriditas so it’s available to produce fruit.  So, yes, God’s viriditas is filling and animating them, but the plants themselves are also playing an active role in “drawing” the viriditas down.  In other words, viriditas seems to somehow encapsulate the exchange between God and creation–a moment-by-moment “God-ing” that brings the universe (herbs, earth, lambs, fruit) into being.   Viriditas is not a thing, it’s a movement. (3)

Back to the Word

Apparently dualism generates its own internet memes.  (Source.)

Apparently the problem of dualism is widely-enough known to generate internet memes. (Source.)

But it’s important to watch your step, here.  We have to constantly guard against our tendency to see the world in dualistic terms, matter and energy.  It would be easy to fall back into a pattern of seeing God (noun) and creation (noun) with some sort of action (verb) between them.  Hildegard’s insight is to continually invite us to see them as parts of one and the same process–the process of the Word, which she associates with Reason (and sometimes with Wisdom). (4)  Taking a moment to look at how she uses the term “Reason,” can give us an extra window into what she’s trying to tell us.

So…Let’s take a second look at part of the longer passage I had quoted in my second post, where Hildegard speaks with the voice of the divine being she saw in a vision:

“I am life.  I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made.  I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species.  For I am life.  I am life, whole and entire [vita integra]…all life has its roots in me.  Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it.” (5)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

For Hildegard, then, Reason is the link between God (here, represented as the Word) and creation.  (6) Reason is the root of life–the life that lives in and flows out of God, and the life that lives in and flows through creation.  Reason is not opposed to matter (á la Cartesian dualism); rather, it is the basis of it all, a fiery life flow that is constantly “God-ing” and “creation-ing” our whole universe into being.

A Reasonable Question

So, you might wonder, does Hildegard’s divine Reason have anything to do with our own capacity as humans to reason?

So glad you asked.

For Hildegard, human reason is not only the link between humans and God, but actually an aspect of the very lifeblood of divinity itself, flowing in and through us, bringing us into being moment by moment.  As such, it is an essential part of our nature:

“This life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action, and yet this life is manifest in a threefold power. For eternity is called the ‘Father,’ the Word is called the ‘Son,’ and the breath that binds both of them together is called the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And God has likewise marked humanity; in human beings there are body, soul, and reason.” (7)

“Every human soul endowed with reason exists as a soul that emerges from the true God….This same God is that living fire by which souls live and breathe.” (8)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas--for Hildegard, it's all good. (Source)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas–for Hildegard, it’s all good. (Source)

For Hildegard, then, humans possess a threefold nature modeled on the activity of God Him/Herself, with one of those parts made up of the very Reason that is the root of the Godhead itself.  The soul’s rational activity is therefore not so much modeled on God’s divine Reason (as we see in later Enlightenment notions of reason); it is divine Reason.  Our rational activity is God Him/Herself at work in us. (9)

Making over our Minds: Hildegard and Steiner

Once we’ve looked closely at Hildegard’s understanding of Reason, it’s clear that for her, Reason wasn’t just a tool her intellect deployed.  Rather, she felt, lived, and experienced her own thinking as a communion with the spiritual realm.  Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising to us–after all, she was a visionary, and we expect such extraordinary experiences from mystics.  However, what’s interesting is that she clearly expects her audience, to some degree, to be able to follow her.  She expects them to experience, in some real sense, their own Reason as an active, living, “flow” of God.  She expects them to actually participate in divine Reason. (10)


For Steiner, the death of God was not irreversible. He believed we could develop our capacity to experience phenomena directly, overcoming the subject/object dichotomy that is built into post-Enlightenment modes of consciousness. (Source.)

This is not, to say the least, how we usually experience our own intellectual activity on a day-to-day basis in the 21st century.  As Nietzsche famously announced, God is dead and we killed him.  It’s hard for any of us these days to think of our own thinking activity as something that connects us to God, much less as God him/herself at work in us.

As always, the philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, had something to say about this matter.  (Is there anything the man didn’t weigh in on?) In effect, Steiner took Nietzsche’s observation one step further, pointing out that the way in which our minds now work, the very way we cognate, no longer allows us to participate in this living, spiritual flow unless we take extra steps to overcome the subject/object divide that is built into our current mode of cognition.

That’s a tad dense, so let me unpack it for you a bit.  Steiner’s idea was that the way the modern post-enlightenment mind thinks presupposes a divide between observer and observed; this, he held, has not always been the case for all humans in all times and places.  I would point out that Hildegard’s work is one of those places where we can see the rift between earlier modes of consciousness and our own.  Her expectation that her audience will be able to experience their own cognition as an inflowing of the Divine is fundamentally foreign to our own experience of our thinking activity.

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner.  (Source)

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner. (Source)

What Steiner offers us, though, is a little glimmer of hope.  Rather than throwing up his hands and bewailing the fact that we can no longer experience our own thinking as a Divine inflowing, he, first of all, notes a few places where we DO have access to forms of non-dualistic thinking–poetic and artistic inspiration being paramount among them.  He then also offers us the insight that all our thinking is, when you get down to it, non-dualistic.  We cannot understand ourselves as a separate subject without thinking; in order to even perceive ourselves as the subject who is thinking about that object (or idea) over there, we already have to be thinking.  So thinking, in effect, gives rise to both subject and object.  It exists prior to or outside of the dualistic realm.  As such, Steiner argues, it can therefore can be understood to be a fundamentally spiritual activity. (11)

Even Homer Simpson's thinking connects him to the spiritual realm.  (Source)

Even Homer Simpson’s thinking connects him to the spiritual realm. (Source)

And this is where I think Steiner and Hildegard would find themselves in agreement: it is not so much the ideas (nouns) that result from thinking that bring us closer to the Divine; it is the act of thinking (verb) itself that is an experience of the Divine.  Whether you are thinking about God or thinking about those delicious donuts sitting on the table in front of you, your act of thinking is what connects you to the spiritual realm, not the content of your thoughts.  (12)

The question, to my mind, that both of them raise for us is this: once we see how the very activity of our thinking connects us to the Divine, how do we choose to use or develop our cognition?  Should we continue to go around as usual, thinking about ourselves (nouns) and the stuff or people around us (nouns), as though the dualistic mirage is the truth?  Or do we choose to develop that side of ourselves that can always remain alert to the fact that what is transpiring at any moment is, in fact, a verb? A you-ing and me-ing and God-ing (and even donut-ing) that is fundamentally beyond subject and object.

Hot off the presses--the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl!

Hot off the presses–the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl! (Source for background photo.)

Steiner, of course, had an answer.  He said that we should engage in those activities–art, poetry, music, meditation, close observation of nature–that are most likely to help us surmount that subject/object divide.  With practice, he held, the type of intuitive thinking that characterizes those activities will become more habitual, and in fact, may lead us to higher forms of cognition that we normally plaster over with all our dualistic nonsense.  (Well, he didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that’s what he meant.)  And if we look at Hildegard’s own life, we can see that she spent it doing precisely those things Steiner identifies as exemplary of non-dualistic intuitive thinking:  composing breathtakingly beautiful music, writing poetry and dramas, illustrating her visions, meditating and praying, examining the herbs and natural remedies around her and writing extensive treatises on them.   In fact, you couldn’t really imagine a better poster-child for Steiner’s program–not even Steiner himself.

And that, my Waldorf-inspired friends, is why it behooves each and every one of us to learn about and teach Hildegard every chance we get.  ‘Nuff said.



(1) Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. pp.69-70.  I should note here that in using Cooper’s work, I’m not suggesting that there’s a direct link between Hildegard and Kabbala (though the thought is interesting, given the time period she’s writing and the possible theological works to which she might have been exposed).  Rather, I’m using Cooper because I’ve found his description of God as verb the easiest to understand and most clearly written.  I think his discussion of Kabbalist understandings of the Divine helps illuminate both Hildegard’s work and Steiner’s.
 For more on Hildegard von Bingen, other medieval Christian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux (with whom we know she corresponded), and Kabbalah, see Peter Shäfer, Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to Early Kabbalah.  New York: Princeton University Press, 2004.  
And of course, I can’t end this note without mentioning that the original statement “God is a verb” seems to have been made by Buckminster Fuller in 1963, in his book No More Secondhand God.  I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with Kabbalah and/or other forms of medieval mysticism, though the fact that he was a Unitarian and the grandson of the major transcendentalist figure Margaret Fuller opens up the possibility that he might have been familiar with these or other similar ideas.

2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164.  You can find it online here.

3)  Indeed, you do sometimes see viriditas translated simply as “greening,” though most translators put another word like, “power” or “force” on the end, in order to be consistent with the original Latin form.  However, I think that it’s precisely this impulse to make viriditas into a “thing” (i.e. a noun) that makes it so difficult to grapple with what Hildegard trying to say.  If we were to translate viriditas as a gerund (that funny grammatical construction that hovers in the realm between verb and noun, as in “I enjoy playing football”), it might be easier to get at what she’s trying to describe.

4) By “The Word,” of course, Hildegard is referring back to the beginning of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”).  The history of the complex theological relationship between the Word, Wisdom, and the other parts of the Trinity is way too complicated to go into here, since attempting to relate Wisdom (usually, for linguistic reasons, depicted as feminine) to the Godhead has always been a potentially incendiary topic.  One brief example will have to suffice:  my former professor (and Syriac scholar) Susan Ashbrook Harvey once told me that the original Syriac feminine ending for “Holy Spirit” had been expunged at a certain point in late antiquity, thereby complicating further efforts to relate this aspect of the Trinity to Wisdom (which is feminine in both the Greek and Latin, as well as the Syriac).  Apparently, a wise, female Holy Ghost was just too much for the Syriac fathers to take.

In Hildegard’s case, she seems to move between the Son/Word, the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom rather fluidly, a fact that has made her somewhat of a darling of contemporary feminist theologians.  Hildegard plays pretty fast and loose with her terminology, though, sometimes even seeming to equate the Holy Spirit and Wisdom with the Virgin, thereby opening up some interesting theological possibilities for how the Virgin participates in the life of the Trinity.  For instance, compare these three brief passages from her songs: Hildegard on Wisdom in O Virtus Sapientiae: “O moving force of Wisdom, encircling the wheel of the cosmos/ Encompassing all that is, all that has life, in one vast circle….” Hildegard on the Holy Spirit in her song O Spiritu Sancto: “Holy Spirit, making life alive, moving in all things, root of all creating being…”.  And then, to Mary in De Sancta Maria: “Hail to you, O greenest (viridissima) branch!  You budded forth amidst breezes and winds in search of the knowledge of all that is holy…Because of you, the heavens give dew to the grass, the whole Earth rejoices, Abundance of grain comes from Earth’s womb….”  I’d argue that Hildegard is not trying to be systematic here in the way modern theologians (feminist or otherwise) might want her to be: rather, she is trying to capture something that inheres in all these different understandings of God–namely, the flow of divinity that is constantly creating and sustaining the universe.

5) Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, Vision 1:2.  p. 10.  ed. Matthew Fox.  trans. Richard Cunningham.  Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987.

6) In formulating her theology, Hildegard probably drew on ideas of Reason popularized by the late Roman Christian philosopher Boethius, whose work On the Consolations of Philosophy was beginning to be circulated more widely in her time.  Boethius was very influential among later mystical writers, who used his differentiation of intellect (intellectus) and reason (ratio) in order to better explain their experiences.  She may be leading the pack here, though.  Other great thinkers who took up Boethius’ ideas about Reason during this time were mostly associated with the (heavily neo-Platonist) cathedral school at Chartres–Gilbert of La Porrée, Thierry of Chartres, and Richard of Saint-Victor.  The latter wrote extensively on mystical experience and reason, and he was writing at the same time as Hildegard.  This is a rare case where the work of a female writer is much better known and explicated than that of her male contemporaries–probably precisely because her writings were not nearly as (let’s face it, boys) mind-numbingly dull.  For more on twelfth century notions of reason, M-D Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Tweltfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. pp. 75ff.  Chenu also has a fascinating account of the Hermetic and Muslim sources of neo-Platonism–raising a whole other set of questions about the various streams that flow together to inform Hildegard’s work.

7) Divine Works, Vision 1:2.  Fox, p. 11.

8) Divine Works, Vision 10:2.  Fox, p. 224.

9) It’s important, as I hinted above, to differentiate Hildegard’s view of Reason from Enlightenment understandings of reason as a critical intellectual tool.  Back in Hildegard’s time, we’re not only pre-Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), but over 100 years prior to Thomas Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelian philosophy.  The Deists and other Enlightenment fans of reason are a good 600 years later.  Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers tend to deploy reason as a tool that “I” (the subject/noun) can use for determining whether or not God (another noun) exists, Hildegard experiences Reason as a flow of “God-ing.”  This shift from an imminent spiritual Presence to the centrality of a separate human “self” is one of the defining moments in the evolution of consciousness.

The Inklings (clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Lewis, and Owen Barfield) (Source)

Barfield was a member of the famous Oxford literary group The Inklings, who met every Tuesday to drink beer and discuss their latest works. Clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. (Source)

(10) Anyone familiar with the work of Owen Barfield can see here that I’m plainly and unabashedly stealing his language to describe Hildegard’s experience.  Barfield coined the incredibly illuminating and helpful term “participation” to describe the state of consciousness in which “self and non-self are identified in the same moment of existence.” (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965. p 32, note 1.)  Barfield argues that for modern humans, this form of perception that is “nearer to unity than dichotomy” is fairly rare–he gives the examples of “semi-subjective” realms such as intuition, panic, or irresistible semi-conscious urges (e.g. sexual drive) as the few places in which we still experience ourselves to be under the influence of some power external to ourselves, and yet simultaneously wholly a part of us.  On the other hand, he notes that linguistic and cultural evidence reveals that humans in earlier eras experienced this feeling of unity with the exterior world on a regular basis–indeed, for much of history, humanity seems to have experienced the world with precisely this form of monistic consciousness.  If you’re interested in delving further into Barfield’s insights, his seminal work Saving the Appearances is probably the best place to start.  The Owen Barfield Society also provides helpful links to many resources on Barfield’s work.

11)  Steiner’s views on cognition are pretty heavy philosophical stuff.  If you’d like to delve deeper into his understanding of thinking as a fundamentally non-dualistic, spiritual experience, his very dense, but extremely enlightening book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path is the best place to start.  If you’d prefer something a little less, shall we say, abstruse, Owen Barfield’s book Romanticism Comes of Age picks up many of the same ideas, but is a much easier read.

12) Interestingly, Steiner only mentions Hildegard explicitly once, as far as I can tell–in his fourth lecture on “Man in the Light of Occultism, Philosophy, and Theology,” (given in 1912) where he gives an account of the different types of mystics.  He doesn’t really describe the content of any of her work (though it’s obvious he must have read her in order to be able to place her within a continuum of different types of mysticism).  What little he says is not terribly flattering: he says she has “good and beautiful impulses but…also a considerable measure of ordinary earthly instinct and desire, and this taints [her] mystical feelings and perceptions.”  (Access the online version of the lecture here.) He then goes on to compare Hildegard unfavorably to Mechthild of Magdeburg, a later female mystic, whom Steiner believes “expresses herself always with a certain touch of humor.”  The irony of this criticism is that it comes from a man who, though apparently jovial enough in person, left a body of scholarship which is rather heavy and often difficult to read, to put it mildly.  Steiner wrote that at least some of his own works were meant to be difficult to penetrate, the idea being that the individual had to wrestle with the ideas in such a way as to spur them beyond usual categories of thought.  As I’ve said in previous posts, I wonder if Hildegard’s shifting vocabulary and enormous body of work are attempts to do much the same thing.

I should mention, though, that there is one other place where some people believe Steiner was referencing Hildegard–in a passage from 1924 where he links an unnamed medieval female “visionary…who unfolded truly wonderful insight into the spiritual world.”  He notes that this unnamed nun had no outward conflicts with orthodox Christianity, but that later, her brand of “deeply personal Christianity” found no place in received Catholic tradition.   He then links this female mystic’s oeuvre with that of Vladimir Solovyov, a late nineteenth-century Russian mystic who experienced profound visions of Sophia (Divine Wisdom).  Given the very brief description provided by Steiner in the text, his unnamed nun certainly could be Hildegard; but then again, his words could also apply to any number of other medieval female mystics, not the least of whom is Julian of Norwich.  I think it is therefore difficult to say for certain whether he was revising his earlier assessment of Hildegard or whether he had in mind a different medieval visionary entirely.  In any case, I think that once you read both Steiner and Hildegard closely, it’s obvious that there is a true affinity between them–not only in the content of their thought, but in the way in which they lived their lives as mystic polymaths whose spiritual experiences in no way excluded them from a full immersion in all the problems and activities of this world.

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Eeek! This definition of matriarchy can’t be anyone’s idea of utopia. (Source)

OK, so the title of this post is a bit of a trick question, because the answer depends on how you define “matriarchy.” (1)

In popular culture, talk of matriarchy almost always refers back to an alleged ancient woman-centered, goddess-worshiping culture that preceded most of our written historical records.  Waldorf folk sometimes repeat this idea, based in part on some of Steiner’s work, which does indeed mention women playing important roles in very ancient societies.  In the last few decades, though, there has been an enormous amount of ink spilled over whether this supposed prehistoric matriarchy ever really existed.  So what is the evidence for a paleolithic/neolithic matriarchy anyway?  And what does the debate have to do with Steiner’s views and how we as Waldorf teachers teach ancient history?

So…All aboard the matriarchy train!  First stop: backwards into prehistory.

The famous Venus of Willendorf statue (c. 25000 BCE) has become an icon of the supposed matriarchal, goddess-worshipping cultures of European prehistory. (Source)

The Myth of Prehistoric Matriarchy 

Let me preface this now by saying that others have debunked the story of a prehistoric matriarchy very thoroughly. (2)  I’m just going to summarize their work here.  And also, one other caveat: I’m not a hater.  Really.  I actually DO think that matriarchal societies exist, if we define matriarchy in the more limited way most contemporary anthropologists do.  I’ll get to that below, so if you’re a pro-matriarchy fan, hang in there.  I’m with you, sisters.

In a nutshell, the popular story about pre-historic matriarchies can generally be characterized in the following way:  since the dawn of time, humans lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative groups (some settled, some wandering).  People worshipped goddesses (or the Great Goddess), and women were seen as embodying the Goddess’ miraculous powers of birth, fertility, and regeneration.  Bloodlines were traced through the mother, and women held high positions in society as priestesses and possibly even political chiefs.  Most decisions were made by consensus, and warfare was practically unknown.  Men worked alongside women and sometimes formed hunting parties, but left major community decisions up to their better halves.   This idyllic life came to a shattering halt sometime around 5000 BCE, when patriarchal, war-like Indo-European invaders rushed in from the Russian steppes and conquered the pacific, woman-centered earlier cultures, who lacked the means to defend themselves.  The conquerors imposed their patriarchal male gods and social forms on the matriarchs, and the rest is history (and God) as we know it. (3)

“Venus” with breasts or phallic “baton”? You decide. (Source)

But, much as the foregoing account would make a wonderful movie (and indeed, there has been at least one novel written using this storyline), there are a number of problems with the narrative.  First, and perhaps most importantly, most scholars in the field of pre- and proto-Indo-European studies do not support it.  Based on lots of archeological evidence (some of it relatively recent, and therefore not available to the scholar who first forwarded the invasion theory), it’s become clear that there’s not much to support the idea that women were power-holders in pacifist paleolithic societies, much less that they were overthrown in a violent tussle with nasty, patriarchal Russians.  I won’t go over all of it here, but suffice it to say, for example, that they have unearthed mass graves with bodies containing in spear points that pre-date the alleged Indo-European invasion by several thousand years.  And a number of examples of what were originally described as “female” figures have turned out to be equivocally gendered, or perhaps even male.  (For example, some that were originally positioned upright and described as a “Venus” or “neck and breasts,” look remarkably like male genitalia when held horizontally.) (4)

And then there’s the whole goddess thing.  It is clear that many prehistoric cultures must have worshiped goddesses (though whether they ever worshiped a single Great Goddess is much more debatable).  But repeat after me: Goddesses are not women.  That is to say, just because a culture has powerful goddesses does not mean the women are in power.  This goddess/woman disconnect may seem obvious to anyone familiar with places like modern India (or for that matter, Ancient Greece, or the Roman Catholic church).  But popular ideas of matriarchy often seem to leap blithely from the prevalence of goddesses to the status of actual women.  You can find as many statues of plump, naked ladies as you want, but all that tells you is that a culture had a lot of plump, naked lady statues.   Depending on where you find them, you might be able to guess if they were temple images, household protector deities, or forms of paleo-porn; but often the exact position of the find is either unknown (in the case of many early excavations) or inconclusive (what does it mean if you find them in a garbage pit, for instance?).  And even if we know for sure that certain statues were goddesses, they don’t tell us anything about actual women in the community.  For that, we’d have to collect other types of evidence–DNA/skeleton analysis, examination of burial patterns, etc.  And so far, most of that material has favored interpretations that are much more nuanced in their descriptions of possible gender roles.

Whither Matriarchy?

You know a subject has hit the big time when it has it’s own Samuel Jackson meme.  (Source)

So, if we can’t definitively locate matriarchy in the distant, idyllic past, has there ever been a matriarchal culture?  The answer seems to be “yes,” though we need to nuance our definitions of matriarchy a bit.  To my mind, one of the most helpful discussions of the issue is found in the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who spent a number of years studying the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia. (5) The Minangkabau are matrilineal (with land and property handed down through the mother), though political decision-making is the province of men, and the official religion is Islam.  Most importantly for us, they (even the men) refer to themselves as “matriarchal” (matriarchaat).  At first, Sanday was puzzled by this designation, because it was clear that though women controlled property and many religious rites, men still retained important positions of political and community authority.  However, after studying the Minangkabau for many years, Sanday came to believe that it was her own notion of power that prevented her from viewing the Minangkabau as matriarchal.

Behind the Matriarchy: Power as a Shared Life-Force

Traditional Indonesian concepts of power are very different than Western, post-enlightenment views of it.  We generally think about power as something you have (and wield).  There’s someone “with” power, and someone “without” power.  There’s a finite amount of it, and somebody’s gotta be on top.  At best, we imagine a type of power-sharing in which this limited supply of power is doled out equally.  (It’s called communism, and one reason it makes so many people nervous is the assumption that there’s only a limited amount of power available, so giving you more means that I have less.)

For many people in many places and times (including galaxies long ago and far away), power has been less something you “have” and more something you tap into.

However, many other cultures (including, perhaps, the pre-Enlightenment West) see power not as something to be possessed, but as an energetic force that is manifest in both animate and inanimate objects.  Think, perhaps, of Chinese ideas about “chi” (as in chi-gong or tai-chi).  Or for you Steiner-folk, the etheric body: a life force that flows through everything.  If we switch caps and think about power as a life energy that’s available for everyone to tap into, then a couple things become clear:

1. Wherever “life” is, power is too.  That means that the people/places we as 21st century Westerners might look to as wielding the greatest power (e.g. the male political realm) might not be the people/places that another society feels teem with the greatest life-force.  For example, there may be other things or beings–natural features (rocks, streams, etc.), certain ceremonial locations, ritual words and phrases, or human bodies themselves–that are felt to be particularly potent bearers of life-power.

2. Since life is abundant and ever-present, there’s not a finite amount of power that I have to hoard for myself.  We can all tap into it, albeit perhaps, in different spheres or roles.  Nature can provide us with useful metaphors here–a web or a tree being two of the most-often used.  Each person, place, or thing in the web depends on the other parts for support.  This does not mean that we are all equal in the sense of all being the same; but it means that without each person’s role, the whole web of power (or, to use another image, tree of life) would fall apart. (6)

After considering this very different understanding of power, Sanday decided that she wasn’t finding women “in power” because she was looking in the wrong place for the wrong type of power.  Instead of defining matriarchy as “the control of political power by women,” she decided, we should look for “partnership cultures” in which there is an emphasis on “the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance.” (7)  In other words, we should think of matriarchy as a culture where authority is shared between women and men, and where imagery of motherhood and nurture gives meaning to the society’s overarching structure.

Anthropologists tell us that this is not really an accurate depiction of matriarchy.

In the case of the Minangkabau, their proverb “Growth in nature is our teacher” provides the foundational reference point for all their social interactions.  Whether speaking of new life in agriculture and animal husbandry or relations among human beings, maternal nurture, not “power over” is the dominant model.  So, for instance, they believe the community as a whole needs to be tended as a mother tends her child; so do animals, plant life, the relations between the community and the Indonesian state, and the relationship between the community and the spirit world.  (The Minangkabau are Muslim, but also believe in maintaining good ties with certain ancestral spirits.) Not surprisingly, given their emphasis on motherhood, they see their practice of matriliny (tracing property and land rights through the mother’s side) as the best way to nurture families and the community as a whole.

But (and this is an important but) Minangkabau women are actually NOT “in charge” in a modern, Western sense.  They have certain areas of influence and responsibility (mostly religious and domestic), but the political realm remains the domain of the men.  (Interestingly, the men themselves are perceived as themselves having a “maternal” nurturing role with regard to community politics.)  So, if we set out to look for a culture in which women were the political leaders, the Minangkabau would fail the “matriarchy” test.  However, as Sanday defines it, in a true matriarchy, power is actually shared between the sexes, who are each perceived as taking on nurturing roles in their different spheres of influence. (8)  This is consistent with the concept of power we discussed above–in which power flows through everything, and is available to be tapped into by anyone.  Women tap into it (and even foster its growth) in ceremony and domestic matters; men tap into it (and foster its growth) in the political sphere.  The two are equally important nodes in the web of life, but the dominant imagery used is one of maternal nurture.

Back to Prehistory

A sampling of “Venus” figurines from Eastern Europe. (Source)

So what does this redefinition of matriarchy tell us about pre-history?  Well, to be honest, nothing definite.  We still are faced with all the problems of data interpretation that bedevil the popular ideas of goddess-centered matriarchy.  However, it does give us a new way to imagine what might have been the case in some of the societies we’ve unearthed.  For instance, we might take another look at the figurines associated with a specific time and place, and see if we can discern any patterns that might lead us to believe that maternal imagery and motifs of growth and nurture predominate.  If so, we might take another, closer look at the physical evidence for matriliny–for instance, if families tend to be buried with maternal relatives or not.  If we were then able to see that a culture apparently practiced both matriliny AND overwhelmingly used images of maternity and nurture in their art and physical culture, then we might be able to conjecture that such a group showed signs of being matriarchal in Sanday’s more narrowly defined way.

Of course, that’s not something that I, a lowly blogger, can do.  That work rests with archaeological specialists and paleo-anthropologists.  But looking at contemporary matriarchal cultures can give us a vivid image of what may have been the case in some prehistoric settlements, and in the end, it may not look so different from what some of the milder prehistoric matriarchy proponents have been saying all along–shared power, emphasis on maternal imagery, matrilineal property lines.  But we’ll probably have to jettison the idea that any such culture was a radical feminist Garden of Eden, or that such narrowly defined matriarchal societies were in place for thousands of years across wide swaths of the paleolithic world (as opposed to being specific to certain cultures/sites and not others).

Steiner and Prehistoric Women

Here’s one idea of prehistoric women that we can probably dismiss. (Source)

Circling back to Steiner’s thoughts on women in prehistoric times, I find it interesting what he does and doesn’t say about women’s roles.  It’s not exactly clear what sources lie behind his depiction of long-ago cultures: certainly some of it draws on his contemporaries’ ideas about what geological formations might have looked like in the distant past (including land bridges and the positions of earlier continental systems).  And, given Steiner’s voracious intellect, we can probably assume that he knew of the seminal work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the Swiss scholar whose 1861 book Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World was the first to put forward the idea that there had been a matriarchal, goddess-centered ur-religion that held sway in prehistoric times.

Given these two probable influences on Steiner’s thought, I actually think it’s interesting what Steiner didn’t say.  For instance, he doesn’t talk about women as political leaders and he also doesn’t mention anything about goddesses.  Rather, he talks about how women took the lead in religious ceremonies and helped “order and arrange the little groups” (of nomadic clans)–something that sounds, perhaps, like matriliny.  He also speaks of the power of nature that flowed in and through the consciousness of both men and women, and how women took the lead in interpreting the “voices” that seemed to speak to them from the natural elements.  The men’s leadership, he postulates, came about as a result of the work the women did in the religious/natural sphere.  All of which, to me, sounds remarkably like the type of society Sanday describes in her work.  While we can’t be sure what prehistoric societies actually looked like (or how well they correlate with Steiner’s picture), I do think it’s interesting that he doesn’t give an image that goes whole-hog into the matriarchal ur-myth espoused by either Bachofen or 20th century pre-historic matriarchy enthusiasts.

How to Teach Matriarchy

So, to get back to the title of the post: to the question, “Matriarchy–fact or fiction?”,  we can give the unequivocal answer “Yes!”  It is both/and–a fabulously successful (but untrue) fiction, and a less well-known, more narrowly defined, but ultimately (at least to me) more satisfying fact.  But how to teach something this complex to high school students?

The debates on prehistoric matriarchy offer us a fabulous chance to stretch our students’ imaginations regarding the limits of patriarchy and matriarchy, and to teach them the ways in which raw data can lead to multiple interpretations.   I like the idea, for instance, of presenting the students with some of the relatively raw archeological data–figurine images, a few archeological site maps (found in the Goodison and Morris book cited in note 2), perhaps a little bit of info regarding evidence for hunting/gathering vs. sedentary agriculture at a given site over time.  Then, with that data, conduct a small-group exercise that has them try to make sense of the information they have–how were the communities structured?  who led the groups? what gods did they worship?  what led to the community’s demise?  Then finally (perhaps in the next session) after the kids report back briefly their group’s theories, present 2-3 interpretations of the same data by different scholars.  (9)  Then sit back and watch the opinions fly about “Matriarchy: fact or fiction?”

See?  Our proto-Indo-European foremothers did have a far-reaching impact, even if it turns out they didn’t rule the world in quite the way we might have hoped.



(1)  Before we even start, we need some sort of brief “disambiguation” (to use a wiki-word) of the word “matriarchy” itself, since the whole issue can be very confusing.  Very quickly: matriarchy refers to a society where women rule.  Different people have different ideas about what “ruling” means–control of political structures, control of food production and how it’s distributed, etc.  Popularly, though, “matriarchy” is usually used to mean a situation where women are in positions of authority and dominance, with men taking the back seat (sort of the flip-side of patriarchy, which we all know too well).   Matriliny, on the other hand, means a society where descent (or sometimes property) passes through the mother’s line.  But please beware:  cultures can be matrilineal while still being patriarchal.  Just because you trace bloodlines, or even property, through women does not mean that women rule the roost.  Case in point:  the American South imposed a matrilineal system on slaves so that children born of female slaves would also be unfree.  However, despite the ambitions of Scarlet O’Hara, at no time was the South in any sense a “matriarchy.”    For a great discussion of this whole matriliny vs. matriarchy issue, see the Jonathan Jarrett’s blog entry on this topic.

Interpreting paleolithic images is difficult–is this a goddess, an early pornographic image, or both (or neither)? (Source)

(2) The best, most readable resource on matriarchal pre-history myths is Cynthia Eller’s book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.  You can read the first chapter online here, and access a book review that contains an excellent summary of the whole debate here.  If you’re specifically interested in the issue of interpreting so-called “Goddess” figurines, then there is an excellent essay by Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey entitled, “Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the ‘Goddess’ and Popular Culture.”  in Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, eds.  Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. pp 22-45.

(3) Eller covers all of this in great detail in her book.  I should mention, though, that even the theory of an armed invasion by chariot-driving Indo-Europeans is just that–a theory (that was most forcefully put forward by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the “mother” of the contemporary matriarchy movement).  No one denies that Indo-Europeans had chariots (or arms), but there are several different scholarly opinions about how that technology made its way to the different corners of the world.  Other theories involve the spread of farming and the transmission of technological advances (like chariots) through non-military means.  Also, even folks who do support the armed invasion theory do not necessarily believe that the displaced societies were pacifist matriarchies.  There seems to be a good deal of evidence that armed conflict existed way before the supposed Indo-European invasion.  But again, if you want more detail, read Eller’s book or the first two chapters of Goodison and Morris (see note 2 for full references).

A neolithic figurine with hermaphrodite forms. (Source)

(4)  Another important point made by Tringham and Conkey (see note 2) is that these statues don’t even tell us, for instance, if the societies thought of gender in the same way we did.  For instance, there are a number of sites where non-gendered statues far outnumber both male and females statues, or (in at least several instances) where there are statues of a third sex.  In other words, we don’t even know whether these cultures thought of gender as binary or not, much less what they thought of women.

(5) Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

(6)  Sanday, 231-235.  Her work on power draws heavily on ideas put forth by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who also studies Indonesia (albeit the island of Java).

(7) Sanday describes matriarchies as belonging to one of three possible  types of “partnership societies” (i.e. cultures that are relatively non-hierarchical): egalitarian (in which gender differences are not symbolically marked), diarchic (which have a “pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms”), and matriarchic (which are based on a maternal model).  In other words, you can have power-sharing societies without matriarchy per se–an interesting point to consider when we think about paleolithic/neolithic cultures. While this idea of “power as life-force” may be common to many cultures, it does not, in and of itself, mean that women are necessarily dominant, or even particularly valued.  There are plenty of indigenous and/or non-Western cultures all over the world which think of power along these lines but still have social structures that oppress women.  I’m thinking, for instance, of the Amazonian Mundurucú tribe or certain Australian aboriginal groups, both of which have customary laws that punish women by beating or gang rape if they overstep “female” bounds.

(8) Also, I should note that there are other anthropologists out there studying equally interesting matrilineal modern cultures, some of which may fit Sanday’s more narrow definition of a matriarchy.  Some interesting societies to check out are the Mosuo/Na people of Western China, the Khasi of Northeastern India, and the Qiang of the Tibetan plateau.  There is an organization that studies modern matriarchies, but in my personal opinion, they seem too interested in making sweeping generalizations.  However, they are an interesting source of material as long as you double-check their facts against more scholarly resources.

(9) To my knowledge, there are no lesson plans available online that cover prehistoric matriarchy.  There are, however, some very good resources for prehistory in general.  Using them, plus the ideas contained here, one could probably put together a good 2-4 day portion of a main lesson that would cover paleolithic/neolithic times.

Here are some of the better prehistory lesson plans available online:

  • Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has an excellent site about North American prehistory.  It’s activities are really hands-on and perfect for a Waldorf classroom–many can be adapted to prehistory of any kind, not just North America.
  • A second resource is the NY Times lesson plan on recent archeological discoveries in Africa (covering early hominids).
  • Then there’s also the NIH lesson plans about paleolithic cave art that could provide a great complement to a lesson on prehistory.

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Malala Yousafzai (Source)

So just in case you were wondering if gender inclusion in the classroom is still an issue, let’s take a moment to keep in our hearts (and if you’re the praying type, prayers) the 14 year old girl just shot today by the Taliban because she had the audacity to advocate for girls’ education.

Malala Yousafzai was on a bus filled with fellow schoolgirls when the vehicle was stopped and a man asked for her by name, pulled out a gun, and shot her in the head twice.  Apparently, she’s been on the Taliban hit list for some time and the group has made clear that if they she survives this attack, they’ll try again.

Malala was targeted because she has become a visible symbol of girls education in an area (the Swat valley in Pakistan) where the Taliban have put women and girls under fire.  She has been featured in a documentary about female education (be warned: the doc has some very disturbing scenes), written a diary for BBC about her struggle to attend school, and has received a number of prizes for child activists, both in her own country and internationally.

What does this mean for those of us who are lucky enough to live, teach, and attend school in areas where access to education is not restricted by gender?  To me, it’s pretty simple:  there are people (some of them actively organized into multinational armed gangs) who want to erase women.  From public spaces, from history books, from life-saving professions like the one Malala wants to pursue.  Real women and girls suffer every day from this attempt at active erasure.  It’s not a metaphor for them.

Our task, therefore, is to strive as hard as we can to keep women visible, in history, in the classroom, and in everyday life.  Our classrooms are our own very small, very subdued, but very real battleground.  With every child or teen we teach, we have an opportunity to transmit values of equality and peace.  And we have the chance to “bring back” some of the women who have been erased from many tellings of the story of humankind.  These invisible sisters of history are Malala’s predecessors.  Some of them were prominent and well-respected in their day and others, like Malala, were forcibly silenced, or even killed, for their acts of self-expression.

So while we may not have much direct impact on events in Swat, Pakistan, we do have a duty to make an intentional effort to address issues of gender in our own classrooms.  Malala Yousafzai would expect no less.

And lest you think this is all very noble, but not central to Waldorf education in particular, I’ll leave you with Steiner’s prescient words, written in his seminal work The Philosophy of Freedom way back in 1894:

So long as men debate whether woman, from her “natural disposition,” is fitted for this, that, or the other profession, the so-called Woman’s Question will never advance beyond the most elementary stage. What it lies in woman’s nature to strive for had better be left to woman herself to decide… To all who fear an upheaval of our social structure… we need only reply that a social structure in which the status of one-half of humanity is unworthy of a human being stands itself in great need of improvement.

Amen, brother.

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Rudolf Steiner, 1915

As I mentioned in my last post, in addition to the reasons espoused by mainstream educators in favor of including women in the canon, Waldorf teachers also need to consider inclusion from the standpoint of Rudolf Steiner’s writings and philosophy.  Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, had much to say about nearly everything (agriculture, spirituality, banking, architecture, art, sport, health… the list can seem nearly infinite).  It’s not my intention here to investigate or defend every aspect of Steiner’s thought.  Rather, I’d like to re-cap some of Steiner’s main observations about gender and muse upon what they might have to say about the issue of inclusion in the classroom.

First of all, it’s important to note that Steiner explicitly addressed what he called “The Women’s Question” in several different places, most notably, his lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage), given in November of 1906.  On that occasion he stated point blank that the question of women’s inclusion into hitherto unintegrated portions of society “is one of the greatest present questions of our culture,” and observed that the issue involved much more than simply the admission of women into higher education and the professions, or even the question of universal suffrage.  Rather, he noted, “the issue concerning women embraces an economic, a social, and a psychological side, and many other aspects as well.”  If these two statements alone aren’t an incentive for Waldorf teachers to be diligent about the inclusion of women in the canon, I don’t know what is!

As anyone who knows Steiner’s work will attest, the man often first takes the prevailing wisdom of the day to task by pointing out its own internal contradictions, then later, adds his own penetrating insight into the mix.   In this lecture, after laying out what was at stake, he considers a number of the prevailing theories concerning women, correctly observing that in most cases they directly contradict each other.  Moreover, he goes on, if we were to look at the scientists’ and psychologists’ conclusions about women (namely, at that time, that men were the active, creative ones and women the natural followers), we would find that they are severely limited by the narrow data they collect.

Female miners, WWII

Investigation of other times and cultures, he states, would reveal women who participate in what we define as “masculine” work.  This observation about the cultural and temporal context of gender roles might seem commonplace to us now.  However, at the time, it was  incredibly advanced.   It’s hard to imagine Havelock Ellis or any of the other contemporary luminaries he mentions accepting that their theories might be culturally limited.  Furthermore, he points out (and this is an especially important point for us historians), the concept of “Woman,” even within a given culture, is  itself “an unacceptable generalization.”  Which women?  Where?  In what contexts?  Are we talking lower- or upper-classes? Steiner insists we be specific.

And then even further, he argues:  if we investigate “influential” women and conclude there are very few of them out there, aren’t we being confined by our own cultural assumptions of what constitutes “influence?”  We need to examine our own inherent biases–towards privileging public spheres over private, political power/voting over other ways of exercising influence.  If we have only confronted the issue of women’s inclusion in these last hundred years or so, that is because our culture is itself both the creator and product of conditions in which it is possible to think about arenas such as “the political” or “the academic” as abstract entities, within which the equally abstract notion of “human rights” (applicable to both male and female) can be applied.

The three stooges cause a “Rumpus in the Harem”

Here, my mind immediately went to the somewhat dismissively-named “harem intrigues” that seem to be so frequently alluded to in historians’ discussions of both ancient and contemporary polygamous court cultures.  Quite honestly, I doubt that a ruler ousted by the mother or wife of a half-sibling or other potential rival felt much difference between a female-led “intrigue” and a male-led military coup.  In either case, at the end of the day, said ruler was out.

Michel Foucault, 1926-1984

I find it exhilarating to think that Steiner understood power itself to be culturally constructed–an observation that puts him in the best post-structuralist company.  He’d be right at home, for example, with Michel Foucault’s notion of power as “relations…interwoven with other kinds of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) for which they play at once a conditioning and a conditioned role).” (1)  I like to think of them, in an alternate universe, sitting at the Café de Flore (upstairs in the smoke-filled back room, of course), discussing relations of power and human subjectivity.

But, to return to the subject at hand…

Towards the end of the lecture, Steiner moves from considering the various culturally determined aspects of the “woman question” (class, time period, societal context, etc.) into what he considers the heart of the matter– the essential nature of the human being.

And that’s where I’ll leave you hanging, dear readers, until my next entry.


(1) Michel Foucault, “Power and Strategies” in Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, p. 142.

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