The British Museum’s recently opened exhibition on female ‘spiritual beings’ – goddesses, demons and entities in between – revels in the diversity of such figures, whether in the form of ancient clay statues or a modern icon of the goddess Kali. If the museum had hosted a similar exhibition in the middle decades of the 20th century, the exhibition catalogue would probably have explained that many of these artefacts were representations of a single female deity who was worshipped in prehistoric matriarchies around the world.
From the later years of the 19th century, claims about this Neolithic mother deity, a lost ur-goddess associated with fertility and the earth, became more and more expansive. At the same time, the idea that pagan religion had survived into Europe’s Christian epoch began to captivate historians, folklorists and anthropologists. They interpreted foliate heads and erotic grotesques carved into churches as the semi-hidden remnants of forgotten deities and discovered timeless fertility rites in rural seasonal festivities. As industrialisation and urbanisation transformed rural life, folklorists flocked to the countryside to document the oral traditions of people they considered ‘living fossils’. Through the study of songs, stories and customs, they believed, they could reconstruct the lost foundations of ancient religion. They even began to ‘correct’ May Day celebrations and mummers’ plays to restore them to their supposed former glories.
In the later years of the 20th century, the bold claims made for the survival of paganism unravelled. Local studies undermined ideas about ancient origins. There is no record, for example, of the existence of the enormous phallic figure known as the Cerne Abbas Giant or of the supposedly