Liz Williams

 Jane Ellen Harrison and the Cambridge Ritualists

Jane Ellen Harrison, who read Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, in the mid 1870s, was a celebrity in her day: 1600 people came to one of her talks in Glasgow. Theatrical and craggily glamorous, with a compelling personality, she was one of the first women in England to have a professional academic career. Herself an atheist, she was nonetheless a member of the Ritualists group at Cambridge: a gathering of academics who sought to explain myths and Classical drama as having their origins in ritual. She was also a pacifist and a feminist – attitudes which made her unpopular, but which led her to adopt a particular slant towards the Classical world. Harrison believed that her research bore out the presence of an ancient matrifocal society, one in which women were predominant and which formed an alternative to the notion that the ancient world was violent, war-like and overall dominated by men. This concept was not original to Harrison, but came from ideas voiced among male academics in the last decades of the 19th century: Sir Arthur Evans, for instance, initially skeptical, converted to the notion that a single great goddess had been worshipped in Crete during his excavation of Knossos in 1901.

Harrison also subscribed to the idea both of a single great goddess, an Earth mother, and to the triple goddess concept – the latter deities being aspects of the great goddess. She named Maiden and Mother, but didn’t expand on what the third entity might be. By 1910, fuelled by the work of people like James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, the idea of a single great goddess, from the Near East or the Balkans, had become an orthodoxy in archaeological circles.

Harrison’s book Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912) hypothesized that the social group had projected a spirit, the ‘year god’ who dies and who is reborn every year. Taking ideas from The Golden Bough, from Freud, and from new anthropological theories, Harrison suggested that the year god is the son of the great Earth Goddess and that pre-Greek religion was matrilinear. According to this theory, the goddess Hera is a holdover from that early religion; her husband Zeus representing the patriarchal takeover of the earlier matriarchal society. Zeus is an ‘archpatriarchal bourgeois,’ Harrison claimed, seemingly firmly on the side of Hera.

Harrison’s male colleagues were often uneasy with this early feminism, claiming that it marred her scholarship and that it was overtly subjective. She, in turn, accused them of clinging to patriarchal notions as a result of ‘emotion.’ This is a difficult issue to address because, whilst many of Harrison’s critics were clearly motivated by old fashioned sexism, at the same time, some of her theories do lack a sound evidential basis, and the notion of an ancient matriarchy is one of them.

However, Harrison’s big idea of an ancient matriarch did not go away. Robert Graves took up the notion, explicitly influenced by Harrison, and ran with it in the course of his influential work The White Goddess.


Liz Williams

Liz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. Liz has a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. She has had 16 novels published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), also Night Shade Press and others, and her short fiction appears regularly in Asimov's and other magazines. Liz is also a lecturer in Creative Writing at a local college for Further Education. She is currently writing a non-fictional history of British Paganism and magical practice for Reaktion Books, based on a series of articles commissioned by the Guardian newspaper on contemporary Paganism. With her partner, she heads the steering committee for the annual Occult Conference in Glastonbury.