Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
If you have just come from the bibliography of Amazon Nation, or take a quick look at it now, it is obvious that it is extensive. It contains a total of 204 sources, primarily books plus a selection of academic papers, websites, and even compact disc liner notes. One of the great joys as well as one of the great frustrations of research is that almost anything you read can include a kernel of useful information. For not a few of these two hundred sources, from my perspective at least, there truly was only a kernel, and I would not recommend reading it. While what you decide is interesting or information rich will depend on your own interests, I have set out my top picks here in terms of what I found most useful and information rich for my own writing. For the purposes of this essay, I will be focussing on books as they are often accessible even when they are no longer in print. This decision is not intended to privilege books over other sources, and before going on it is worth taking a brief look at the context of the other materials.
If you go through the access years (nowadays I would be much more specific and give a full date) for the websites in the Amazon Nation bibliography, you will will notice that no access year is later than 2003. This reflects when my research began in the late nineties, still in the early days of the web, when it was simply too early to expect solid data sources of any permanence. There weren't enough people outside of pornographers, mailing-lists, and still gestating text-based fora yet. So I got started the old fashioned way to lay the foundations of my research: at the library. By the time websites that could serve this purpose were available, I simply didn't need them anymore. Once you have your basics worked out, the next step is to pursue deeper and more challenging detail, especially if you working on a book rather than an article of less than five pages. Web-based sources are still a bit thin on the ground for that stage of research.
On what might be considered the other extreme, there is a smattering of academic papers, those published as part of anthologies, in journals, or in science magazines like Discover or Archaeology. I have gone on with my writing in what can be called my 'Amazon project' since the on-line draft of Amazon Nation was prepared, and my stock of referenced papers is now much larger. Yet since the information I weave together intersects with the venerable fields of Feminism, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern studies, there is more material available in books than ever, and these books are being brought into both the public and university library systems. So the collection of books remains bigger all the same. Journal articles are still not as accessible to people who may not be living in university towns or former denizens of university campuses, but access is actually improving thanks to the growing availability of journals electronically. Electronic versions of paper journals can be offered at lower prices that public libraries can seriously consider. The web has also contributed to a much more extensive and affordable interlibrary loan system.
Having provided a bit more context for the overall list of sources, it remains to be explained how I decided to feature the books listed here. Basically, I applied two criteria:
- Do I have a copy of the book on my shelf? If I do, that means I took extensive notes from it, thoroughly trawled the bibliography, and still found it worth reading again. And of course, I found a copy I could afford.
- Do I have extensive notes from the book in my writing notebooks, even if the book isn't on my shelf? In this case, I may have done everything with the book that I did in the previous case, but I haven't been able to find a copy I could afford.
These criteria gave me a list of thirty-five books on topics running from Feminism to philosophy to archaeology to literature which just goes to show that what I said before is true. Almost anything you read can include a kernel of useful information, and that does include things you may generally disagree with.
- Caputi, Jane 'Gossips, Gorgons, and Crones: The Fates of the Earth': The title of this book seems deceptive at first glance, because Caputi does not discuss Gossips, Gorgons, and Crones in the 'ancient mythology' compendium mode. Instead, she applies those archetypes to modern circumstances in a series of essays that take a hard look at the nuclear family, environmental degradation, and the status of women.
- Sappho 'If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho': Even if you aren't that interested in Ancient Greek, it is well worth reading this book alongside one of the more common approaches to representing Sappho's work. Translator Anne Carson lays the Greek on one page and the English opposite, which is not necessarily uncommon. What is less common is that in the Greek, rather than fill in all the places where chance has destroyed letters, or putting together something longer from various shorter fragments, Carson represents them in as close to their state on the original preserved papyrus as she can. Under those circumstances, Sappho's poetry reads much differently.
- Daly, Mary 'Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism': One of a corpus of classic Feminist works, Gyn/Ecology was to some degree Daly's literary coming out party. It is famous for its analysis of violence against women, as well as infamous for Audre Lorde's critique of it and the following series of mishaps and misunderstandings that followed her open letter to Daly. Being a woman of colour myself, I have to admit I found Lorde's critique mystifying as it seems to ask the book to be something it isn't and doesn't claim to be, while not actually critiquing what is troubling. Best to read it yourself, and then if you read no other example of Daly's later work, read the Wickedary, to see how Daly has deepened her analysis.
Since I originally wrote this entry, I have had the opportunity to read two papers in Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly edited by Marilyn Frye and Sarah Lucia Hoagland. The papers make up chapters 10 and 11, and are titled "A Too Early Morning": Audre Lorde's "An Open Letter to Mary Daly" and Daly's Decision Not to Reply in Kind and "(Re)reading Mary Daly as a Sister Insider," both by Amber L. Katherine. They provide excellent historical background to the controversy, and at least for me have removed the bafflement factor, although I actually still disagree with aspects of Lorde's critique.
- Daly, Mary 'Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy': In Gyn/Ecology Daly laid out what the state of patriarchy is, and the structures and methods used to reproduce it and extend its tentacles, which it has to keep doing again and again because resistance is perennial. In this book Daly gets into what to do about what she explained in Gyn/Ecology, and effectively a counter-philosophy to the oppressive philosophy at the centre of patriarchy. This is an important step, because you can't just toss out what is currently in place without having something to replace it with, since otherwise people understandably get scared to death and may even revert to the old system because it is familiar.
- Daly, Mary 'Quintessence... Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Feminist Manifesto': So far, although Daly had developed a new writing style making creative use of word play, puns, and alliteration to help readers break out of their accustomed patterns of thinking, she retained a more conventional narrative line. In this book Daly also breaks away from a conventional narrative line, and mixes what would usually be labelled 'fiction' with non-fiction chapters.
- Daly, Mary and Caputi, Jane 'Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language': I have an abiding fondness for Feminist riffs on patriarchal style dictionaries, although I found Kramarae and Treichler's Feminist Dictionary unsatisfactory, not least because it was effectively an old-style dictionary, with all the baggage the invention of dictionaries as an attempt to control speech and therefore thought that implies. The Wickedary, using Daly's previous body of work as a framework, lays out how Daly has defined a whole range of terms, and adds other terms, unpacking their meanings and showing how they have changed over time. It is one of the first books written that begged for being made into a hypertext, and indeed an early project carried out by Madrid Tenant at New York University did just that. Tenant explained that she "...created this project to investigate the potential of hypermedia as a medium for feminist argumentation and rhetoric. I also want to make Mary Daly's work more widely accessible. Please enjoy your explorations and let me know what you think." Based on the description of her implementation's structure and how to use it, Tenant created a database of from the Wickedary, and worked with a programmer named Lisa Mackie to write CGI scripts to use it. Tenant's original intention was to add additional words and cross-references, but I am not sure how far this effort actually went. All of this hard work made up the last chapter of Tenant's master's thesis, which is an extraordinary thought. Luckily this project was archived by the internet archive, with the very latest working capture being that of june 13-15 of 2007. Based on my testing, the form with the terms listed in it does not work, you have to use the linked terms to actually get into the text.
- duBois, Page 'Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics From Conservatives': It has been awhile since I read this book, so I made the dubious decision to have a quick look for a synopsis to refresh my memory, only to find, of course, 'reviews' that spend all sorts of time complaining because duBois is passionate about her subject and supposedly no longer timely. In fact, the book provides an excellent critique of how bodies of knowledge are appropriated from other cultures by 'westerners' and rendered into oversimplified and hackneyed pap and it's a much easier read than Edward Said's Orientalism (but then read Edward Said's classic anyway). Her retellings of myths and contextualization of them in their home cultures shows how 'Classics' should be taught if they are going to be relevant. I found her myth retellings especially useful for writing about Amazons. One thing she doesn't necessarily discuss is how what has been called 'Classics' has become delegitimized since people who were not rich white males have been able to study it.
- Ehrenreich, Barbara 'Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Politics of War': Ehenreich is a fascinating writer, and even if you find yourself going, 'hmm, not sure about that point' chances are good you'll find her overall thesis makes excellent sense. She brings tremendous experience and Feminist background to the question of just how we wound up with the warfare complex that has so warped so many societies since it was initiated. Her main argument is that the whole thing begins back when humans were prey, and came to worship predators as deities, and obsessing with becoming predators themselves. Unfortunately, her analysis is marred by an almost total acceptance of the caricatures masquerading as anthropological fact about Indigenous peoples, as well as the fact that in fact her thesis about the origins of human concepts of deity doesn't seem to correspond with what we find in the archaeological record. Those caveats aside, it is well worth reading.
- Eisler, Riane 'The Chalice and the Blade': Another classic Feminist text, and actually one of the key texts that inspired Amazon Nation. Eisler was one of the first scholars to realize the full implications of Marija Gimbutas' work, and one of the first to repopularize the knowledge that patriarchy is neither inevitable nor something that has always existed. Her family was forced to flee from Austria by the anti-semitic policies of the nazis, and the experience left her with an abiding determination to understand how the nazi edifice could have developed and how to prevent it from developing again. Instead of taking refuge in abstract notions of 'evil' or something funny about Germans, Eisler considered the problem more deeply, and realized the nazis were not some sort of strange anomaly, but one more manifestation of what she calls 'dominator culture.' Effectively, Eisler dismantles the 'random manifestation of evil' argument, which renders us powerless to change or prevent oppressive social structures, and builds an explanation that shows how oppressive social structures are built and maintained and therefore how to disrupt and dismantle them.
- Eisler, Riane 'Sacred Pleasure': In 'The Chalice and the Blade' Eisler deconstructed patriarchal notions of power; to some extent the book is really about creating patriarchy in the mind. But patriarchy couldn't persist as it has without being carved into the body, and the carving is carried out primarily through the manipulation of human sexuality. Eisler takes up this aspect of patriarchal culture, again dismantling received notions such as essentialism and biological determinism in order to lay out ways to undermine and replace patriarchy with something better. (I have read the third book in Eisler's 'trilogy' on culture, sex, and power, and I'm afraid it didn't impress me. For one thing, it was featherweighted compared to the other two books.)
- Farnell, Lewis Richard 'The Cults of the Greek States': I have an abiding dislike of the disrespectful habit of referring to non-judaeo-christian religious and spiritual systems as 'cults.' That said, Farnell is worth working through, not for his analysis because there really isn't any, but for what is effectively a twelve-volume catalogue of titles, temples, festivals, and ceremonies. It's a great starting point for developing an understanding of Greek religious ritual, but it's best not to stop there, since contrary to popular belief, the Greeks didn't absolutely separate 'the religious' from 'the secular' in ancient times any more than they, or anybody else for that matter, does now. Do note however, that Farnell provides few to no illustrations. The photographs are a dreadful tease, not least because there are too few of them, and in the editions I have access to they have reproduced poorly.
- Fontenrose, Joseph 'The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Questions': Some of the most maligned and misrepresented religious officials in history are the priestesses of Delphi. On one hand this is no surprise if you subscribe to a Feminist analysis or have any familiarity with christian writings. On the other, this is a surprise, because accurate information showing that the Pythia did not sit around stoned and raving in a cave has been around for literally thousands of years. Fontenrose provides a compendium of information taken from the most primary sources he could manage, so the book is an excellent reality check.
- Gimbutas, Dr. Marija 'Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe': When first published, the editors refused to accept the original title of the book and insisted on putting 'gods' first, even though this made the title contradict what the book actually demonstrates. It is Gimbutas' first popular text on her rediscovery of cultures throughout what is now called Europe that far from being warlike and patriarchal, were peaceful and not shoehorned into hierarchies in every possible way imaginable she is not arguing that these societies were utopias or under the squashing thumb of the 'Great Mother' either. Her argument is far more complex than that. The book spent some time out of print, but has come back in at least two editions that I know of with its original title.
- Gimbutas, Dr. Marija 'The Civilization of the Goddess': A veritable coffee table book laying out detailed information on the geography, culture, and interactions of what Gimbutas called 'Old Europe.' It has extensive illustrations and maps although few colour plates, in a somewhat unusual square format about 9 inches on a side. This makes the book, tragically awkward and heavy to handle, even in its paperback edition. That said, it is a fascinating read, and well worth propping up on your desk with a good light because Gimbutas was a stickler for integrating her maps and figures into the text.
- Gimbutas, Dr. Marija 'The Language of the Goddess': This book has managed to remain in print, and has had at least two paperback editions since its original hardcover release. In the course of studying museum collections from Old European sites and excavating such sites herself, Gimbutas noticed that there was a specific corpus of symbols used throughout the region. In effect, she identified what is arguably a protoscript, and many of its forms are actually familiar to us from common chemical symbols and Latin and Greek script. It's only a matter of time before someone applies her analysis to the still undeciphered Linear A script of Crete. (That she could find a protoscript should in fact be no surprise, especially if you have read Reading In The Brain by Stanislaus Dehaene, which explains some of the neurological bases for why particular letterforms are so common.)
- Gimbutas, Dr. Marija 'The Living Goddesses': Gimbutas passed away after a long battle with cancer before this book was completed. The text was essentially done, but she did not have a chance to bring together all of the illustrations, so at first glance the book may seem a bit stark compared to its predecessors. Don't let this fool you; Gimbutas is still on form, even though she was literally working on this book on her deathbed. After giving a very brief précis of the major points in her previous books, Gimbutas traces their threads into patriarchalized Europe down to the present.
- Goodrich, Norma Lorre 'Priestesses': Probably best known for her iconoclastic theories of the origins of Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot, Goodrich pursued a few other literary and historical interests, among them priestesses and their role in society. Goodrich approached her material in a way that made most of her mainstream colleagues itch, and for my part I wished more than once for better footnotes so that I can follow up more of the details in her analysis. Of particular interest is Goodrich's argument that a society that drives out and prevents the training of priestesses becomes a stagnant and hollow one. This is one of the earliest formulations in the modern period of the use of the status of women as a marker of societal health (it did not originate with Goodrich). Being a professor of comparative literature and writing, Goodrich illustrates her arguments by retelling stories of priestesses, including a retelling of the story of Psyche and Cupid that is not only intriguing, it makes more sense.
- Grahn, Judy 'Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds': I stumbled over this book by accident, and finally found my own copy by sheer dumb luck in a second-hand bookstore that seemed to almost immediately go out of business. In this book Grahn sets out to begin the construction of a coherent picture of non-heterosexual history and culture, starting from a list of terms and her own observations of rituals and rites of passage. It is both scholarly and poetic in a style that is Grahn's prose signature, and neatly skewers claims that 'homosexuals' have never had defined and valued social roles. Even more importantly, it illustrates still more ways people have resisted oppression, as well as where they sometimes got caught up in it anyway.
- Grahn, Judy 'Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World': How did humans finally become aware that they were not the same as other animals, not least because they had somehow lost the ability to talk directly to them? This is actually quite a puzzle. How did humans end up creating material cultures that effectively allowed us to survive without sharp teeth, claws, fur, or the capacity to digest most foods raw? Yes, evolution, but evolution is a response to stresses we experience in our environment. Something had to help start the ball rolling, and Grahn's hypothesis is that ultimately it was menstruation and the similarity in its cycle length to that of the Moon. Hard copies of this book are rare nowadays, but luckily it is also available to read online from the Women's Studies Resources page at the University of Iowa.
- Gunn Allen, Paula 'The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions': The depictions of Indigenous cultures in most writing even today are among some of the most appalling and destructive caricatures ever devised. Thanks to unquestioned ethnocentrism, preconceptions about what Indigenous people are supposed to be like, and a very specific definition of wealth as opposed to poverty, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike are convinced that Indigenous cultures were poverty-stricken, violent, bankrupt, and ruthlessly patriarchal before Europeans came along and smartened everyone up. As Gunn Allen shows, this is far from the truth in the case of Native American cultures, demonstrating that in fact patriarchy was primarily a European import.
- Gunn Allen, Paula 'Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook': Gunn Allen's follow up to 'The Sacred Hoop.' In this book she brings together and retells stories that stand at the root of women's sacred traditions in a range of North American Indigenous cultures. As Gunn Allen is careful to point out, these stories are drawn from materials that have already been published, and she is retelling them as she understands them. These are teaching stories, but not in the European mode of adding a smarmy moral at the end; they reward rereading.
- Johnston, Sarah Iles 'Hekate Soteira': Since one of my abiding ambitions is to live long enough to be a Crone someday and enjoy it, I love collecting information about Crone Goddesses and their priestesses. However, as a rule men are scared of old women, and don't like to say or learn much about them or their divine counterparts, so this can be a challenge. Johnston's book is the only text focussed specifically on Hekate I have found so far. It gives a detailed description of Hekate and her role, as well as some information about her reputed and potential origins, and then traces understandings of her from ancient times down to the medieval period.
- McCrickard, Janet 'Eclipse of the Sun: An Investigation Into Sun and Moon Myths': If you can't easily get at primary sources, in-depth studies like McCrickard's are well worth studying. She is one of the first scholars to show unambiguously that there are Goddesses of both the Sun and the Moon, and takes care of a number of popularly repeated misunderstandings. Her analysis of pre-islamic Arabic Goddesses is especially interesting, not least because information on pre-islamic Arabic culture period is thin on the ground in english. She also provides a number of important corrections to commonly repeated mistranslations that have propagated through secondary sources.
- Monaghan, Patricia 'O Mother Sun: A New Look at the Cosmic Feminine': Monaghan cites McCrickard's book in her own study of Sun Goddesses across cultures. Her coverage is weighted toward cultures in Europe and the Mediterranean, with a solid foothold in North American and Asian cultures. The book was published well after Gimbutas had published her first three books, but her findings are not much in evidence. This is a shame, because it would be interesting to learn Monaghan's view on whether this changes her hypothesis on the potential role of incest in stories of Sun Goddesses. The hypothesis rides very close to the early racist anthropological insistence that Indigenous people were so 'animal-like' that incest was rampant until Europeans came along and enforced morals. (And in fact, "incest" is not common among other animals.)
- Monaghan, Patricia 'The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines': One of several foundation sources for Amazon Nation, because it provided all-important names and short descriptions of many Amazons and their Goddesses. It is laid out in an encyclopedia-type format, with numerous cross-references and a predisposition to brevity. All of these features make it possible for Monaghan to do something powerful: provide as many Goddess stories as possible in one place, from many more cultures than those of the Greeks and Romans.
- O'Brien, Joan V. 'The Transformation of Hera: A Study of Ritual, Hero, and the Goddess in the Iliad': Not many authors contest the most common modern image of Hera as a vicious, jealous wife either directly or indirectly. In this study of the Goddess, O'Brien does both, following up a whole range of interesting facts. For example, in the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Zeus is nowhere to be found. Hera is the hero's patron deity. Hera's origins are pre-Greek, with religious rituals that were embraced by earlier groups of invading Greeks, and then partially suppressed by later ones. And while the familiar depiction of Hera was certainly known in ancient Greece, it was far from widely accepted.
- Spretnak, Christine 'Lost Goddesses of Early Greece': One of the first books showing that I was far from the only one not too impressed with the usual versions of Greek and myths retold in so many mythology books. Better yet, Spretnak writes alternative versions based on additional versions, interpretations, and details she found during her research. The book is relatively short and printed in large type, reflecting her purpose in creating it: providing stories that she could tell to her young daughter in good conscience. I believe there is a newer 2006/2007 edition.
- Stanley, Autumn 'Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes For a Revised History of Technology': Even if you don't think you could possibly have a reason to read this book, I recommend at least locating a copy and getting your hands physically on it if you can. Why? Because just how extraordinary a feat this book is, and how important it is can't really come through until you've held this 2.3 pound, 708 page opus in paperback in your hands. As Stanley says herself, it is a start on a history of women's inventions and technological breakthroughs. This is what she was able to do with a record that on average forgets women's achievements as quickly as possible and/or attributes them to men against all evidence. Thankfully I find it more encouraging than heartbreaking so much material has survived such adverse conditions.
- Stone, Merlin 'Ancient Mirrors of Womenhood': Another key source book in my own research, you could call Merlin Stone the grandmother of the practice of collecting and republishing Goddess myths. She was not inclined to do much rewriting, as her first order of business was getting the information available to more than a select group of scholars. The results were two illustrated volumes first published in 1979. The books have passed out of print since then, but the second edition, with both volumes combined into one book still turns up in public libraries and the odd second-hand bookstore. UPDATE: As of at least 2013, this book has been turning up in newer editions again in both north america and england.
- Tedlock, Barbara 'The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine': If you've done any reading about Central and South American Indigenous cultures, chances are good you have encountered references to or even interviews with Barbara Tedlock or her partner. This book does not focus exclusively on these stomping grounds, however. Tedlock has much bigger fish to fry: destroying the stereotype of the shaman as one part of an all-male fraternity. She shows how this image is based on misinterpretations and outright sexism, where an inspired state in a man is 'mere possession' in a woman.
- Walker, Barbara G. 'The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets': Another key source text, one I originally wrote that "I just know will be joined by a complimentary volume providing updates and new information soon." Apparently I was feeling a bit chippy when I wrote that, because, no, there hasn't been one yet as of 2019. First published in 1983, it has remained steadily in print since, with an index finally compiled in 2003 by Cheryl Brooks (it is currently available as a free download at the Goddess Gift website). Walker is not a traditional scholar, which has been used as an excuse for the patriarchal backlash against this book, which is one product of twenty years of research including literally hundreds of essays. Admittedly, her heavy reliance on secondary over primary sources made her more vulnerable to critique, and I would not recommend reading it for deeper details without tracking back through her sources or excellent studies like McCrickard's above. Its bibliography is a monument in its own right, providing an effective listing of books on Goddess religions and spirituality up to 1981 or so.
- Walker, Barbara G. 'The Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects': Arguably, this is at least one follow up to the WEM above; published five years later, this book is less dense than its predecessor, provides many more illustrations, and since it isn't over a thousand pages long, the Dictionary was permitted an index. 'Less dense' does not mean 'less rich', and the hundreds of entries are arranged in thematic categories making it easier to track down symbols that may have many different names.
- Walker, Barbara G. 'The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom and Power': I mentioned my Cronely ambitions a little earlier, and in the course of hunting up more books by Walker (practically every one of them is worth having, especially if you knit) I found this book. It deconstructs male fears of death and dying, with their ultimate symbolization in men's minds as the Crone, especially the death-dealing, pissed off one that men seem to particularly expect.
- Walker, Barbara G. 'Women's Rituals': This book has been republished with the more informative title The Essential Handbook of Women's Spirituality and Ritual. It is eminently practical, and is an excellent reminder that any woman is capable of creating culture and ritual, and in fact does so all the time. It is also a welcome source of starting points for what a non-patriarchal religion that speaks to the needs of women should include. From a practical standpoint, the most common edition I have seen is a square hard cover about 15 centimeters on a side.
- Walker, Barbara G. 'Feminist Fairy Tales': Walker's dry sense of humour and eye for the absurd are in fine form in these twenty-eight stories. Each one is a Feminist riff on familiar old chestnuts, and the book is a good companion for Ride On, Rapunzel! and Rapunzel's Revenge. For anyone looking to write their own Feminist fairy-tales, Walker's approach is well worth taking as an example.