The Paradise Papers by Merlin Stone
Merlin Stone’s The Paradise Papers was a revelation to me. As a knowledge-hungry twenty-something with a strong suspicion that men were the problem not the answer, I wanted to know more about events of 5,000 years ago, when patriarchy and patriarchal religions had their origin. Merlin Stone’s book, though opinions on it varied, seemed a good place to begin. Now considered a classic of feminist theory, the book remains as relevant and compelling as it was when it was published in the ‘70s.
Ten years of preparation went into the writing of the book. Stone, an art historian and sculptor, was particularly interested in the suppression and destruction of sacred images of women as well as their rites. On the back cover of my original 1976 Virago/Quartet edition of the book is the question: In the beginning God was… a woman? Three years later the American edition of the book would be titled When God Was A Woman.
Stone’s thesis is that patriarchy deliberately and systematically destroyed images, tales and rites of a Neolithic age when women were perceived as more important than men. Some people have decided that this was a matriarchy (presumably on the basis that male dominance is patriarchy, therefore the other gender must have been dominant before), but a more realistic interpretation would be that such times were matrilineal. Pulling together evidence from archaeology – including the variously interpreted work of James Mellaart at Çatalhöyük – and from ancient scriptures, the Bible, and the various histories of the tribes of the Near East, Stone tells a tale of late Neolithic cultures slowly but forcefully being re-imagined as created by male deities and the agency of the word. The last two chapters re-interpret the myth of Adam and Eve.
All this was fascinating to me. At the time I read the book I was putting together the second and third versions of the novel that became my debut Memory Seed. The third version had an almost entirely female cast, and this decision was greatly influenced by my reading of The Paradise Papers, as was the use of fig-related material, eg the name of Ficus Street. As somebody appalled by the atrocities created by men, any book which explained how such grim circumstances had arisen was of great importance to me.
Since publication, the book has attracted a few critiques. Stone’s interpretation of one dominant mode taking over and crushing another is usually seen as flawed, as are related interpretations of Neolithic times being entirely peaceful and wholesome. There was violence and strife before 3000BC, if not large-scale war. But the overall drive of the work, showing how women’s symbols, ideas, images and rites were systematically destroyed by patriarchy remains strong today. If some of Stone’s references were poorly used or even inadequate, her overall message is worthy and very important, not least because of the inevitable tendency to myopia of those enamoured of the patriarchal religions.
It’s still a great book, which retains its capacity to surprise, inform and, hopefully, change a few male minds.