Jane Ellen Harrison

Jane Ellen Harrison as Euripides' Alcestis

Jane Ellen Harrison as Euripides’ Alcestis

The Neo-Pagan Goddess and her Consort were derived from Robert Graves’ White Goddess (1948). 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 the pursuit of his Dying and Reviving God archetype, he failed to realize that, at the heart of the fertility religions, stood a Great Mother God­dess. As Martha Carpentier explains, in Ritual, Myth and the Modern­ist Text: The Influence of Jane Ellen Harrison (1998),

“Frazer’s primary interest was in the male archetype of [the]Dying God, which could be said to be the unifying theme of the entire Golden Bough. But this male archetype is invariably 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 that predated the patriarchal Olympian cult. Accord­ing to Harrison, the goddesses in matriarchal religion were hus­band-less. They were accompanied by a son (sometimes lover), but this male figure was always subordinate to the Goddess. He was defined by his relation to the Goddess, not vice versa. It was this relationship that is taken up later by Robert Graves and then adopted by Neo-Pagans.

With the coming of the Olympians, Harrison explains, the relationship was reversed, and the goddesses were “sequestered to servile domesticity” and became abject and amorous.”

“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 archetype. Harrison is sometimes wrongly credited with being the first to describe the modern Triple Goddess. Harrison actually 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 states that these goddesses “are always regarded as maiden god­desses, not as mothers,” in other words, a triplicity of three maid­ens, not a trinity or tri-unity 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.

* “Chthonic” refers to deities of the earth and the underworld, as op­posed to the “ouranic” deities of the sky and heaven.

Updated 2019

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