Jane Ellen Harrison

Jane Ellen Harrison as Euripides' Alcestis

Jane Ellen Harrison as Euripides’ Alcestis

The Neo-Pagan Goddess and God were derived from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Graves, in turn, derived his god from James Frazer’s Golden Bough and his goddess from Jane Ellen Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. While Frazer himself did mention goddesses, in his pursuit of the dying god, he failed to realize that at the heart of the fertility cults stood the Mother Goddess. Martha Carpentier explains: “Frazer’s primary interest was in the male archetype of Dying God, which could be said to be the unifying theme of the entire Golden Bough. But this male archetype is invariable in the service of a more powerful goddess; he is ritually slain in order to engender her fertility.”

The writing of Jane Ellen Harrison, Britain’s first female career academic, was to have a profound impact on Neo-Paganism. Harrison posited the existence of a “chthonic” matriarchal religion which predated the “Olympian” patriarchal cult. According to Harrison, the goddesses in matriarchal religion were husband-less. They were accompanied by a son (sometime lover), but this male figure was always subordinate to the goddess. He was defined by his relation to the Goddess, not vice versa. It is this relationship which is taken up later by Robert Graves and then adopted by Neo-Paganism. With the coming of Olympian theology, the relationship was reversed, and the goddesses were “sequestered to servile domesticity” and became abject and amorous”. As Harrison describes it,

“Zeus the Father will have no great Earth-goddess , Mother and Maid in one, in his man-fashioned Olympus, but her figure is from the beginning, so he re-makes it; woman, who was the inspirer, becomes the temptress; she who made all things, gods and mortals alike, is become their plaything, their slave, dowered only with physical beauty.”

One area where Harrison’s influence on Neo-Paganism may be slightly overstated is with regard to the Triple Goddess motif. Harrison is often wrongly credited with being the first to describe the modern Triple Goddess. Harrison never identified a true Triple Goddess. She was exclusively interested in the Maiden and Mother archetypes (likely influenced by the Christian virgin-mother Mary) and never explored the Crone aspect at all. While she does note the existence of triplicate goddesses in Greek iconography, she explicitly observes that these goddesses “are always regarded as maiden goddesses, not as mothers,” in other words, a triplicity of three maidens, not triunity of a Maiden, Mother, and Crone. In fact, she saw the triplicity itself as merely an extension of the duality, “not really three but one + two”. While Robert Graves was undoubtedly influenced by Harrison, the modern Triple Goddess was his own creation.

Related Pages:

Chthonian Religion


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