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Craig K. Comstock

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A Feminist Treasure

Posted: 01/11/2012 3:00 pm

An unpublished treasure of feminist scholarship has come to light after years in a drawer in Rome. Written by an American expatriate, the book-length typescript is called "The Serpent And The Storm God." The author is Julienne Travers.

A copy found its way to my wife, who used to work in the Italian cinema and who long ago met the author there. Together with an early circle of Italian feminists in 1970, they arranged an exhibition in the famous Piazza Navona, featuring magazine ads that showed women subordinate to men. Written comments made clear what was going on in the popular culture. Under Bernini's famous "fountain of the four rivers" they thus staged what might have been one of the first outdoor feminist protests at a time when even divorce was still illegal in Italy.

The Piazza Navona exhibition (or what Italians call a "mostra") involved a bit of benign misdirection. To get the necessary permit, Travers put on a sexy dress plus a wedding ring (she was no longer living in a marriage) and told an official that she and her friends wanted to celebrate women on mothers' day. The city official, swayed by the performance, signed the necessary permit. It was then legal for the feminists to use the famous pizza to show an alternative view of women, a view that Travers elaborates in her valuable book.

Travers was both an activist and, after work at the London School of Economics, a private scholar. Her typescript has 20 pages of references, but the writing is not academic in the sense of dry; it is well-documented but vigorous and, in places, tart.

Her theme is somewhat similar to Riane Eisler's landmark 1987 book, "The Chalice and the Blade." Indeed, Travers' image of the serpent refers not to the Christian devil in the garden of Eden, but to a pagan icon of feminine power. Likewise, Travers' storm god may call to mind the warrior energy that Eisler depicts as the "blade." Like Eisler, Travers portrays an admirable egalitarian civilization that was conquered and replaced by a hierarchical society brought by invaders from the steppes. Why does this matter? They both argue that what once existed can be constructed again.

But in large part Travers' work is much more than just a historical curiosity preempted by others. She not only covers the transition from an egalitarian civilization to storm gods in more detail than other accounts intended for a general audience, but also, for example, deals in a special way with the goddess theme.

Some writers have played up the theme of women as goddesses: if men can promote gods, women, too, will have had divinities in their own image. Travers, instead, envisions not the deification of women in a prehistoric civilization, but a social structure in which no one is made into a divinity; there are only the symbols of the importance of a a life-force whose nature is female.

Travers portrays the concept of a "goddess" as an invention of invaders from the steppes, who understood only a hierarchical social order and thus assumed that the spiritual symbols of women in prehistory were symbols of great aggressive power -- as they believed their totem, the eagle or storm spirit, to be. The invaders eventually projected on women's symbols the form of a supernatural female Chief.

The egalitarian society's respect for horizontal social relations is found, in the present, in much of the Occupy movement, which makes that movement so puzzling to those who have grown up in (and in some cases who depend on) vertical or hierarchical power-over.