Robert Graves wrote a collection of Greek myths. It is one of the most thorough and complete collections there is, very well sourced, and contains a commentary on the historical origins of the myths. Neat, right? But as you may have surmised from the title, Robert Graves’ interpretations are not super accurate. Note that we’re talking about myths, not history, so this is not simply a matter of more discoveries having been made since the 50s when Graves was writing. It is a matter of Graves flat-out lying about the contents of his sources. And all of those lies seem to be told in service to what I assume is a fetishistic desire to live in a particularly brutal matriarchy.
Here’s a sample quote from the myth of how Athena and Poseidon quarreled over who would be patron of Athens:
Greatly vexed, Poseidon sent huge waves to flood the Thriasian Plain, where Athene’s city of Athenae stood, whereupon she took up her abode in Athens instead, and called that too after herself. However, to appease Poseidon’s wrath, the women of Athens were deprived of their vote, andt he men forbidden to ebar their mothers’ names as hitherto.
This, according to Graves, was part of a transition away from a matriarchal society where fatherhood was not recognized and consort-kings to tribal matriarchs were ritually sacrificed on an annual basis. On first principles, the idea that a society would kill its most high status men is barely within the bounds of credulity. It’s the kind of maximum status gap that exists mainly in the realm of fetishism. Fictional snuff images and stories are a rare kink, but you can find porn for that. People actually killing their partners is considerably more rare (excluding killings committed in retaliation for adultery, which are relatively common in lawless regions the world over and throughout history – but that’s a very different story than ritually sacrificing your husband on an annual basis not just as the personal tradition of a specific psychopathic ruler, but as a society-wide religious practice).
On top of that, it’s difficult to imagine how any human society as late in the game as pre-historic Greece – well over a hundred thousand years after modern humans with our modern human intelligence evolved – could still be in the dark as to how pregnancy works. Sure, the connection between sex and pregnancy is not immediately obvious, but cavemen weren’t stupid, they just had a sparse population that made communication of ideas slow. Technology was badly inhibited by the lack of roads, horseback messengers, and internets connecting innovators together, but basic reasoning was unaffected. Given a hundred thousand years to figure it out, it’s difficult to see how any culture could’ve failed to do so (certainly most primitive cultures still extant today know what causes childbirth).
So Graves’ claim that Greece used to be a brutal matriarchy which then transitioned to a patriarchal society, with the transition reflected in myths of male figures triumphing in various ways over female ones, is already straining credibility on two counts. Neither ritual sacrifice of high status members of a society nor a culture not knowing about the connection between sex and childbirth is completely impossible, but they’re both very unlikely.
Of course, Robert Graves has a little footnote on that paragraph, leading to his sources, and given that it is possible, we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that amongst his five sources, at least one will report that the women of Athens were indeed deprived of the vote and forced to adopt patriarchal lineage (i.e. the mother is considered to have joined the father’s family, not the other way around) as a result of an attempt to appease Poseidon.
But while you, gentle reader, can probably appreciate how you would expect that to be the case upon seeing that he’s got five listed sources without my commentary, you can probably also guess that I wouldn’t have phrased the setup that way if it were actually true. And as it happens, no, three of Graves’ five sources just refers to the story of Poseidon and Athena giving the city of Athens different gifts and subsequently quarreling over whose gift was better and therefore who deserved the city, and the fourth and fifth I couldn’t find but was from a Roman and medieval scholar (respectively) who A) probably aren’t adding any gender politics to the story and B) were not even remotely contemporaneous to the alleged changeover from matriarchy to patriarchy that Graves is claiming had to be mythically explained by this story. Sources disagree as to who exactly settled the dispute in favor of Athena (though Poseidon is never judged the winner), but Graves’ claim that the male gods all voted one way and the female goddesses voted the other, with only Zeus abstaining, leaving the goddesses ahead by one vote, that is also totally absent in all of Graves’ alleged sources I could verify (and no such gender war angle is mentioned in secondary discussions of the other two that I found while looking for a translation, when you’d think such a controversial retelling would draw attention).
When Graves claims that the myth of Athena and Poseidon’s gifts to Athens explains the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, he’s not just giving a sketchy interpretation, he’s flat out lying about the contents of the myth.