Imagine a country where both gods and goddesses are worshipped. Although some of the goddesses represent tidy domestic virtues, one of them is the fiercest creature in the entire divine panoply. And in large parts of this imaginary land, this savage goddess is considered supreme. Indeed, one of the country’s largest cities is named for her. Surely in such a country, the status of human females would be higher than in nations that worship Jesus, Allah, or Buddha.

Actually, the goddess-worshipping land is not a fiction. It’s called India, and it is no paradise for women and girls. Even in Calcutta—the city named for the terrifying Kali—most wives are little more than slaves to their husbands, who can oppress and in some cases even kill them with impunity. Men may fear Kali, but not her human counterpart.

The low status of contemporary women in India and elsewhere—including parts of Europe where Mary is more enthusiastically venerated than Jesus—is enough to cast doubt on the theory expounded by such books as Marija Gimbutas’ The Civilization of the Goddess, Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, and Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman: that humanity once lived in a blessed era of goddess worship and matriarchal rule (and thus peace, prosperity, and harmony with nature). It’s clear that goddess worship and matriarchy don’t necessarily coincide. Cynthia Eller, however, goes further. Her The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future systematically disassembles the case for a pre-patriarchal golden age.

On one level, the matriarchal myth parallels others that have become popular in recent years. Afrocentrists teach that all human civilization is derived—or even “stolen”—from ancient Africa. Other authors make the case for golden ages dominated by Celts, Jews, or other peoples whose contemporary descendants frequent Barnes & Noble. (Don’t expect Thomas Cahill to waste his time writing a book in praise of Zoroastrianism.) Eller is sympathetic toward such efforts to proclaim ennobling (if not strictly true) legends of primeval utopias. After all, she previously wrote a book called Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America, which would surely have been a dreary undertaking for someone hostile to either feminism or spirituality.

Eller, an associate professor of women and religion at Montclair State University, seems willing to accept Feminist Spirituality and the Feminine Divine author Anne Carson’s approach: “Whether the Golden Age of Matriarchy ever existed in history is not important: what is important is that the myth exists now.” She’s alarmed, however, that both academics and popularizers are spreading the word that the world truly was once run by women—and very well, too. She’s inspected the evidence and finds it lacking. She also has doubts about the psychological and sociological assumptions of some of matriarchy’s mythmakers.

As Eller notes, contemporary feminists did not invent the notion of matriarchal prehistory. Johann Jakob Bachofen proposed the existence of ancient “mother right” in 1861, although he and his followers considered the rise of patriarchy a positive development for civilization. Later, such writers as James George Frazer and Robert Graves gave the idea a more poetic spin. Karl Marx, Wilhelm Reich, and the Nazis—whose mock-anthropological “Aryan” nonsense has passed into general usage—also dug the great goddess.

Earth-mother boosters have a narrow definition of the ancient world. Although they often claim that matriarchy was once universal, they take their examples mostly from the Mediterranean and the Near East. (Some also believe that matriarchy flourished on “the lost continent of Mu.”) The hot spots of goddess-oriented archaeology—and tourism—are Turkey (specifically Catalhöyük), Crete, Malta, and Ireland, along with India. Supposedly, women once ruled in these places because they gave birth—which was both sacred and a mystery to men—and because they invented agriculture. Their authority was benign, of course, so men were satisfied, too. In a poem that invokes a conversation with Gimbutas, Starr Goode reveals that our ancestors “were like us, only happy.”

By most accounts, matriarchy was overturned about 5,000 years ago—around the beginning of recorded history—which is perhaps no coincidence. Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess claims that it was the development of writing itself that knocked the earth mother off her pedestal. Others blame animal husbandry for destroying the matriarchal paradise; it led to a culture in which physical strength became more important, and the domestication of horses made possible the mobile war parties that spread the horrors of patriarchy. But why did these boys become so bad in a world where people were “happy”? It turns out that men didn’t necessarily like the matriarchal arrangement all that much. They felt “empty” and “marginal,” and envied women’s ability to menstruate and give birth.

Who were the villains who paved paradise and put up a patriarchal temple? Gimbutas calls them the “Kurgans” and says they roared out of the Russian steppes around 4500 B.C.E. This means that these invaders (named after their style of burial, not their language or culture) are cut from the same mythic cloth as the warrior-civilizers the Nazis hailed as Aryans, who some linguists believe spread the Indo-European proto-language—and whom the original Nation of Islam identified as “white devils” created in genetic experiments. Some matriarchalists identify a less vaporous enemy: the ancient Israelites, whom The First Sex author Elizabeth Gould Davis finds guilty of “dethroning the ancient goddess and enthroning male strife in the form of Yahweh.” Other explanations, which at least have the benefit of not being anti-Semitic, attribute the rise of patriarchal males to astrology, extraterrestrials, or genetic mutations.

Eller has two responses, one of which is simply to examine the archaeological data. She discovers that matriarchalists have committed the first sin of the scientific method: finding what they were looking for. It’s true that prehistoric art depicts women more often than men, but that doesn’t prove that the female figures represent goddesses. Eller is not a particularly witty writer, but she can hardly help but have fun with the arguments of matriarchalists who find vulva imagery in just about any arrangement of etched lines, surmise that Minoan depictions of bulls’ heads actually represent human uteruses, and identify penis-shaped objects as “phallic goddesses.” If ancient women identified even penises as totems of womanhood, it’s no wonder the Kurgans blew their cool.

There is good reason, in fact, to believe that people understood the male role in conception well before 3000 B.C.E., that humans were violent before the supposed rise of patriarchy, and that women and men shared equally in the development of agriculture. Eller notes that some ancient historically documented cultures worshipped goddesses but oppressed women: Male Athenians, for example, named their city for Athena but kept women in virtual imprisonment. She even brings up some observers’ suggestion that some “goddess” art may be pornography. Such objects may have made our male ancestors happy, but overall, the author concludes, life before 3000 B.C.E. was “nasty, brutish, short, and male-dominated.”

Those are the facts as best they can be discerned from the hard stuff: stone, tile, pottery, and other artifacts from the pre-literate world. Eller makes just as strong a case, however, with the soft stuff of matriarchalist attitudes. Many of the arguments for female primacy in the good old days are based on obvious biological and presumed psychological differences between women and men; such a surmise gives matriarchalism a Victorian odor. If childbirth is the source of women’s elemental power, after all, then childless women are incomplete or inadequate—which is just the sort of attitude feminists have long battled.

“The first thing one notices about the matriarchalist vision of femininity,” Eller notes, “is how familiar it is: nurturance, relationality, embodiedness, and links to earth and nature are hardly new connotations for femaleness.” Indeed, patriarchy (and its female allies) has long accepted these qualities as essentially female—and used them as reasons to keep the little woman at home. Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews might be offended by the proposition that god used to be a woman, but they certainly wouldn’t object to matriarchalist Maureen Murdock’s claim that women who work too hard to succeed in the male realm are “injuring their feminine nature” and should take up gardening or ceramics. Matriarchalists, the author notes, portray women as “naturally good, kind, loving human beings.”

Eller is not a savage polemicist, but she’s not so kind and loving as to sidestep the weaknesses of this and other matriarchalist assertions. Though less than dazzling in both style and analysis, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory is an intelligent and lucid book, largely free of jargon (save for that of the writers she critiques).

It would have benefited, however, from a more imaginative summation. Faced with a matriarchalist who states, “I need to have an Eden,” Eller argues that such myths are less important than the fact that “we need to decide what we want and set about getting it.” Perhaps so, but her book would be more useful if she had at least attempted to explain why, at a time when things seem to have improved for women and many other historically oppressed groups, so many subcultural sages would rather look to an impossible past than a possible future. CP