And “His” Servants
By Corey Gilkes
February 09, 2011
Yes, that’s what I said. As if the articles on monogamy and extramarital relationships weren’t scandalous enough, I gone now and dive cross the line into blasphemy with talk about the sex of god. In our society – which for the most part retains a romantic, anti-intellectual attachment to the bible and things religious – merely asking questions such as why “god” is referred to in gender-specific terms is in many people’s minds as heretical as challenging the authenticity of the bible. Maybe we’ll argue THAT some other time but for now, examining god’s sex is bacchanal enough.
Whenever the subject is brought up, responses range from outright anger to derision to uncomfortable attempts to change the subject. There are the few occasions in which genuine interest may be displayed but generally, it is dismissed. Viewed with confusion too: how you could even get that in yuh mind to ask that question breds? From the time yuh small yuh know that god is god, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, etc and that’s that. It eh open to no question. “God” is above such carnal concerns as race and sex. But both men and women unconsciously defer to gender-specific (read masculine) definitions of the Divine when they refer to the creator using a variety of titles almost all of which reinforce the idea that the Divine is exclusively male: god, Lord, the Creator, the Father, the Master, the Boss, Papa God, the “Man above” and so on. And they often do so without stopping to ask in any detailed manner why this is so. Such is the extent to which it has been ingrained into our consciousness that gender-specific terms and titles can speak on behalf of all humanity. So much have people come to accept, in spite of the view they themselves express that the Almighty they revere is without form in the physical, carnal sense, that there can be no thinking of expressing that divine being other than in exclusively masculine terms.
So, was god “female”? Well the short answer – since many people today find reading anything over two paragraphs is too much hard wuk – is yes….and male. The historical record shows very clearly the existence of female deities and divine concepts alongside male deities even in Western thought. In many cases the deities were depicted in androgynous forms supposedly to convey the idea of completeness. I personally have not conclusively ascertained exactly when titles and ideas associated with divinity became exclusively male and I don’t think it is even possible or fair to do so since that, like the rise of patriarchy itself, did not happen at the same time in all cultures or was something universal. However, it is very important for the reader to understand that what we are discussing here, the removal or submerging of divine femininity in Western thought began even before the very existence of what we call Western thought so that by the time the ideas that form the fundamentals of Greek, Roman and Christian worldview came into existence anti-female attitudes had already been firmly embedded in human consciousness in Eurasia.
The use of the title “god” – a gender-specific term – comes out of a very long, gradual de-feminising of every important aspect of life because of very ancient, deep-seated insecurities certain men (a minute, influential few, actually) harboured towards women. Much of this took place long before many words and terms we use today were even created. By erasing or co-opting anything identifiable as female in religious and spiritual expressions into patricentric concepts, it was felt that this effectively dealt with the problems they had contending with women, nature and sexuality. From the rise of patriarchal ideologies women’s sexuality was considered untameable, corruptible, and could only be brought to heel by repressing it through the creation and imposition of rigid rules with harsh punishments – real and imagined. The purging and masking of feminine divine concepts were part of the lengthy process of imposing exclusively masculine-driven ideas and values upon human consciousness in order to create a patricentric structuring of the world. By this I mean a society where the ideas, activities and concepts of morality were in keeping with what men determined they should be. The reasons had nothing to do with any god or “heavenly” directive but had to do with political, economic and psychological concerns harboured by men existing in what was nothing more than a small, specific part of the world. One of the aims of this essay – which ideally should be read along with the two essays on monogamy – is to highlight how the placing of the Divine into a specific gender box – itself an example of the arrogance of the same men who preach about the awesome power of the Almighty – was motivated by a desire to suppress women’s voices, their assertiveness and influence in the political, economic and social arenas in the civilisations that ultimately spawned ours in the Caribbean.
But of what importance is challenging this anyway? How could this possibly be of any relevance to modern society? We live in a liberalised society now, it is sometimes argued; the “bottom line” is more determined by empiricism, “markets,” profit margins and the like. We have crossed the old sexist, classist and racial barriers (I heard on a radio talk show recently someone calling to berate people like Khafra Kambon and pointing out that figures like Obama are living proof that “that battle has been fought and won” and now it’s time to move on). Many who advance such views further argue that religion and/or spirituality are personal, private matters and have no place in public intellectual discourse which is supposedly above culture, race, religion and perhaps class. Sceptical questions and comments like these should be familiar to some: for instance, anyone who has ever attempted to discuss whether Jesus or Adam and Eve were black people – and treated with the same derision or indifference. Whether any of these characters were real, historical figures is not so much of importance here (they’re not, by the way); what is important is their relevance, their psychological impact.
The point is that given the influence the supernatural – Divine/religion/etc – had on the minds of people in ancient societies, “god” was corralled into justifying masculine-oriented customs that served the interests of these ancient patriarchists. In so doing they ensured – or hoped for – unquestioned conformity. In Eurasian cultures and the civilisations that stemmed from them, a significant part of this process involved projecting masculine insecurities and feelings of inadequacy onto women and people considered less than “human” or the “citizen.” By skilfully manipulating ideas of guilt, shame and sin – hinged on the idea that sex was a corrupting force – they made it easier to keep them subordinate and to muzzle ideas that would have challenged the created system. Patriarchists did so because they understood what the implications were for the society they were trying to bring about if certain matricentric concepts were allowed to remain. Put another way: the removal and denial of female deities and divine concepts is inextricably linked to the removal and denial of feminine authority and influence in the economic, political and social spheres. That influence still holds to a great extent today notwithstanding the fact that there are now as many if not sometimes more women in many industries once held to the domain of men. Indeed, as we seen with the monogamous sexual model, it is often the women who are the staunchest upholders of these patricentric ideas and institutions.
Therefore, it is my view that even now – especially now – questions concerning the “sex” of “god” are very important, very pertinent and should be given more attention than they are presently. In fact, those who argue that such issues are separate from and should have no bearing upon secular society unknowingly are arguing from a Western European cultural standpoint. That worldview separated things that are secular and things that are sacred into two entities or spaces and advanced ideas that these two spheres were and are mutually exclusive. Traditional Afric- and Indic-Caribbean concepts, however, still retain vestiges of the traditional worldviews of these two regions and as such see the secular and the spiritual as complementary to each other. But more than that, in spite of this so-called separation of religion and state, it is not fully appreciated how much secular laws and ideas were influenced by Western Christianity. European cultural ideas about gender, sex and divinity may sometimes be unspoken, but nevertheless remain important threads interwoven into any and every discussion of race, politics, economics and social systems regardless of the worldview.
In fact, I have often asked, if the issue is so trivial, then how come the framers of these ideas didn’t see it fit to (openly) factor in clearly feminine aspects into their ideas of the Almighty even self is “fuh manners”? It would not have affected anything, right? Setting aside the semi-literate bible-wavers (and Qur’an-wavers too for that matter) who remain firm in their assumptions that all this came through men “inspired by god” and so never give it any thought, we need to see that this was something that had an historical beginning and something that has far reaching implications. Therefore, from that understanding we can better undo some threads of the tapestry we are better off without.
But again, why? Why should this be so crucial? It can be argued that for hundreds of years women have taken heart and inspiration from that supposedly masculine image of god and used that image to live pure, righteous lives anyway; shining examples to others. This is true, when viewed from a particular angle. But those who argue this forget that words have power, words have influence. Words can convey thoughts, ideas and expectations that can inspire a person to accomplish tremendous things – or very little at all. In much the same way that a people of colour worshipping a white, blonde mythical figure can unconsciously defer authority to actual people who look like that – to their detriment – so too people, regardless of their sex, worshipping a deity with masculine features and masculine traits have been unconsciously conducting themselves in keeping with the cultural ideals of a predominantly masculinist culture. This is one of the main points of my argument: that even in this supposedly enlightened time, the principal barrier preventing women from being even more assertive and self-confident (than they already are) in the political and economic arenas, while at the same time doing so with the qualities and outlook normally identified exclusively with femininity, is largely psychological. In this context, the psychological barrier comes from a deep-seated acceptance of “god” as being exclusively male – with all the behaviours associated therewith. Doing so consciously and unconsciously makes it difficult for one half of humanity – women – to truly see themselves or be seen as “godly” in their natural feminine selves. It is no accident that many women who did ascend the political and corporate halls of power found that they had to adopt the mannerisms and ideals of aggressive patricentric models in order to get there or even be considered suitable. Therefore, by extension, it becomes that much more challenging for women and men to see as “godly” ideas, mannerisms, behaviours, interests and values that are more associated with femininity.
It should be recognised, however, that one of the major challenges in confronting this issue lies in the very language we use. In many pre-colonial African societies and indeed many other civilisations in the ancient world the words for the Almighty were genderless. The Nnobi people of Nigeria, for instance, worship a deity called Idemili. Although Idemili is principally a goddess, the name itself is genderless. On the other hand, most of the words, terms and expressions of things divine in English – and for that matter French and Spanish – are masculine. The patri-centred influence runs deep in Western thought and is all-encompassing so to speak; most of us think absolutely nothing of using terms like “he” and “man” to describe both men and women. If there is a specific area where the invisibility of women and femininity is all but complete it is in the terms used to explain divinity. Ironically, the same does not necessarily hold for the Hebrew language. Here, the subject’s gender plays a much greater role in sentence construction than in English and this is reflected in the fact that both the adjective and the verb have separate male and female forms. Therefore, whereas in English a person can read “Sean sat down” without being aware of Sean’s sex, in Semitic, even the verb would take feminine form and thus the fact that Sean was female would be kept in the reader’s consciousness.
Therefore, it is very important that we do not see calls for expressing divinity in gender-neutral terms as just another exercise in “political correctness” (I often wonder how many people ever picked up on the implicit condescension in this term). This issue goes at the heart of assumptions both men and women have come to accept regarding power, authority, how these things are expressed and most importantly who should control it. Examining the question forces one to rethink certain imposed ideas of masculinity and femininity; it may force people to seriously examine certain valuated ideas that are grounded in aggression and a destructive competitiveness. The society of Trinidad and Tobago, profoundly shaped and influenced by patriarchal European values, interests and concepts, equate power with masculinity. Reconceptualising “god” or the Divine to incorporate aspects associated with femininity will ultimately lead to ideas that women, feminine values and behaviours can also be equated with power and are no less suitable than men to control power. Wrestling with the question of the “sex” of the Almighty and by extension female authority even in the divine sphere may very well be the last hurdle in bringing about a more balanced society. Small wonder why such ideas have been suppressed in Europe and the US for so many centuries and will remain suppressed for quite a while. We in the Caribbean, however, cannot afford to maintain that prejudice.
Spiritual concepts of the older “Old” World and Matricentry in “Old” Europe
From the earliest human societies to the earliest civilisations (high-cultures) – both of which were found in Africa before they were found anywhere else – people were creating myths and images that expressed how they viewed divinity. Gerald Massey argued that the myths and images depicting half-human, half-animals in Ancient Egypt point to much earlier divine concepts in which animals and aspects of nature were employed because doing so expressed the ancients’ belief of the existence of higher, more powerful forces than ordinary humans. What is noteworthy, however, is that most – in fact practically all – of these images and myths possessed female attributes. Additionally, the phenomenon of pregnancy followed by the giving birth to new life evoked feelings of profound wonder and awe. Images as the cow and the hippopotamus, for instance, were employed for their obese appearances evoked notions of fertility: highly revered in the ancient world. Merlin Stone may not have been correct in her assertion that “God” was a woman, but the predominant expressions of the divine certainly were female. Scholars like Massey and Finch point out that creatures like serpents were chosen because of the way the females curled around their eggs in a protective, nurturing way, appealing to the psychological need in most people for a comforting, nurturing protector.
In Part I of the essay The Myth of Monogamous Morality we saw that the main roots of the chauvinist ideas that inform so much of our social, legal and religious customs lie in the militaristic ideas and customs of ancient Eurasian nomadic tribes. These ideas gradually grew in stature eventually displacing ideas and customs that venerated women and femininity. The main point here, however, is that even in Europe powerful goddess figures existed and abounded. From as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period of about 25,000 BCE, overwhelming evidence point to the presence of powerful concepts of the Sacred Feminine in Crete, Anatolia, Czechoslovakia, Malta, Gaul, the Germanic regions and all the way up to the British Isles (the very word “Easter” comes from a title of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring: Eostre). All along the Mediterranean the African Isis and localised variations of her such as Astarte, Ishtar, Athene/Athena and Cybele, to name but a few were highly revered so the presence of powerful, benevolent – and sometimes destructive – concepts of the Sacred Feminine was by no means an anomaly or some radical idea.
These goddess figures answered a psychological need for a motherly, compassionate, nurturing protector who could also be strict and firm as well as sexual and loving. Raphael Patai gives us an interesting explanation for the popularity and persistence of goddess figures even as the encroaching patriarchy got stronger and stiflingly stronger. If his explanation is plausible it shows that the ambivalence of humankind – especially the ambivalence of men towards women – is by no means unique to our own times. The fact that almost every ancient goddess figure shared four main qualities – the innocent virginal maiden, the sexually unfettered vixen, the loving, caring mother and the vengeful, bloodthirsty destroyer – suggests that since very ancient times people, particularly men, were looking for an all-round woman to fulfil their every need as they moved through the various stages of his life. The man who idealises this woman seeks one who upon his birth comforts and cares for him and protects him as he begins to grow. As he gets older and begins to become aware of women in a sexual way, he seeks one who exudes purity. During the routine of regulated marital sexuality, she provides for him the metaphysical and even cosmic significance of the sex act. And yet, when that domestic life becomes monotonously stale she is there in a sexually adventurous and varied form. Finally, as death approaches he returns to the maternally figure who cradles him on his final journey.
Sumerian cosmology was replete with goddess figures including Nummu, identified with the primordial sea from which emerged heaven and earth – Ki, another goddess. Also figuring prominently in the pantheon were Inanna, Nidaba, who was associated with learning, writing and astrology and Nenlil, the goddess of the air, to name but a few deities. Although the extent to which goddess concepts expressed or reflected what was observed sociologically is still keenly debated, there is ample evidence that ancient women had certain liberties and autonomies that some people today believe was fought for only within the last hundred-odd years – and which some women today still do not have. Sumer, sometimes regarded as the cultural bridge linking Africa – with Egypt as the mouthpiece, to borrow Massey’s expression – with Asia and Eurasia, may be a good place to look for a starting point for the decline in women’s status, particularly around 2000 BCE. However, it also a good place to look for examples of women’s power and influence even in Northern Cradle societies. The naditum, the priestesses we encountered in Part II, were examined in depth by Rivkah Harris in 1962 who found that independently of men, they held land and property in their names, could seek redress in law courts, transact businesses and maintain the economic functions of the temple. Legal documents from Elam dating to around 2000 BCE show that often women were the sole heirs of estates. One married woman insisted on passing on her inheritance to her daughter and refused to enter into a joint inheritance with her husband. In another tablet both son and daughter were to share equally in an inheritance but the daughter’s name was mentioned first. Harris also found accounts of women scribes – indicating that literacy was by no means confined to men alone. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes the scribe of heaven as a woman. It should also be noted that in Sumerian hymns the females preceded the males.
The Babylonian civilisation, which succeeded Sumer, contributed much to the reduction of women’s high status. Even so, women still were able to maintain aspects of independence. In Babylon women could still acquire property, take legal action and be party to contracts. A young bride was given certain possessions by her father of which her husband could only use; they reverted to her upon death or divorce. In the time of Hammurabi women were still able to request divorce and at least one Babylonian law declared that a wife could state – albeit with a note from her husband – she was not responsible for her husband’s premarital debts. In northern Mesopotamia, evidence dating back to the 8th century BCE show that even with women’s status already on the decline there were still women magistrates dispensing justice. Priestesses still enjoyed influence often functioning in oracles providing military and political advice to monarchs and other prominent persons. Goddesses like Ishtar, although now being slowly marginalised, still held immense sway in the consciousness of many people, men and women.
God the Father becomes omnipresent
The intellectual giant Cheikh Anta Diop argued that the shift to exclusively masculine customs and behaviours grew out of a need, perhaps innocently, to face the harsh, precarious ecological challenges to life in Eurasia following the last Ice Age. Climactic conditions, of course, became less hostile over time. However, by then, horticultural and agricultural activities, which were originally created and controlled by women, may have become forgotten or had otherwise no longer held the importance it once did. Be that as it may, Eurasian myths and ideologies began to shift more and more to embrace traits favouring aggression and militarism – traits associated with masculinity. If Diop’s argument is valid – and considerable evidence indicates that it is – the attitudes and ideas the Greeks and Romans held of what “good” women did or didn’t do were shaped by hostile ecological realities and military interests hundreds and hundreds of years before either civilisation even existed. In fact, while the harsh, barren landscape that was the Eurasian steppes at the end of the last Ice Age had long since become more fertile by 900BCE, the besieged, fatalistic mindset that was ingrained into the worldview of those who lived in that region remained. Nomadic and military activities were highly favoured in Greek and Roman cultures while domestic activities – along with the deities and lifestyles associated with it – were looked upon with disdain as we saw in the excerpt from Edward Gibbon in Part II. It is that aggressive, fatalistic mindset that continues to influence the thinking of what is considered “morally right,” what is sexually proper and whether the Almighty, the Supreme Being can be expressed in any way other than with masculine labels and traits – to this day.
Dr Yosef ben-Jochannan never tired of telling us that “god” is the deification of a culture – that is, the everyday customs and ideas, hopes and expectations of a people. Pearl Eintou-Springer argued that it is man who made “god” in his image and likeness rather than the other way around. With the arguments of Drs Ben and Diop and Ms Eintou-Springer in mind we can better understand how things evolved to what it is today. Many patricentric ideas start out from positions of insecurity and from coping, rationalising measures designed to dampen those insecurities. The patricentric ideas of ancient Greece are no exception. I mention Greece here because although the shift to patriarchy occurred in Sumer and Babylon at a much earlier time, modern Western and Western-influenced societies such as ours consciously and unconsciously attempt to emulate the much elevated ideals of ancient Greece. Much of the attitudes discussed in this essay were codified and expanded on by ancient Greek thinkers who had preserved in writing oral traditions from the Bronze Age which in turn was influenced by the customs and patricentric ideas of very ancient Eurasian cultures including Sumer and Babylon. Cultural notions of female inferiority and passivity passed down through folklore, customs and attitudes influenced their ideas of cosmology; if on earth females were inherently sinful, physically weaker and thus inferior while males were physically stronger, more aggressive and thus fit to take charge in a society where such traits ensured survival, then they were just reflecting the realities of heaven. In short, Greek thinkers did much more than their forbears to rationalise and codify misogynist ideas. As such, the de-feminising of the Divine in Jewish and Christian traditions was arguably boosted more by Greek philosophical thought than any other culture although Levite influence cannot be discounted.
It is important to note that the de-feminising of divine concepts did not happen overnight, so to speak. Judging by the legendary myths masculine deities first gained greater importance alongside the goddesses and were gradually made to overshadow or conquer them. This explains, for instance, the defeat of the Goddess Tiamat by her own son, the more aggressive Marduk, in the Babylonian mythology as that civilisation succeeded the Sumerian. It also explains how the very important reproductive aspects of the Goddess were transferred to male deities hence the appearance of myths of gods like Zeus giving birth to their own offspring.
The Hebrews and the Divine Feminine
For those of us who had the stories of the Old Testament and Jehovah rammed down our throats since Sunday School, it may come as a great surprise to learn that goddess worship even existed among the Hebrews much less exert profound influence. In fact, when we read about such “accursed” deities as Ashtoreth, because of the way the feminine presence has been written out, few would know that Ashtoreth the “god” was in fact Astarte, a Goddess who was highly venerated by many Hebrew tribes and who was a form of Inanna, Ishtar and this ultimately Isis/Auset. The Hebrews were not (even today) a homogenous ethnic group or tribe. There were, in fact, many tribes and the worship of Yahweh was by no means universal among these various tribes. For about 6 centuries, that is, down to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE many Hebrews worshipped the Divine Feminine as well as Divine Male principles. We will only examine the principal feminine ones: Asherah , Astarte/Anath, the Shekhina and the goddess Matronit.
As we progress the reader must always keep in mind that most if not all of the biblical accounts in the Old and New Testament were not eyewitness accounts. Neither were they necessarily historical accounts. Rather, they were told from certain cultural perspectives which in this case means that they were told by writers who held strong biases against the non-monotheistic (in the narrow sense of the term) forms of worship that were very popular among the people, in favour of the more authoritarian Yahweh worship favoured by Levite Judaism. Therefore, all references to the older forms of worship were considered offensive and were toned down, disguised and usually retold in very condemnatory terms – which is how they came down to us.
Asherah was the principal goddess in the Canaanite pantheon. She figured prominently as the wife of El, the chief male deity. Asherah was a motherly goddess and with her daughter Anath served as the wet-nurse of the lesser gods and even some humans who were deemed exceptionally deserving. Like most feminine deities, Asherah was associated with the sea and water – possibly in reference to the amniotic fluid that surrounds a baby when in the womb – and thus ties in to the “blood mysteries” Finch spoke about in his study. The Canaanite El was Her consort and She was the Mother of all the other lesser deities. Many seaports along the coast were named in Her honour and a king in the land of the Amorites was called Abdu-Ashirta – “Slave of Asherah” – clearly identified him as a devotee. The immense popularity, influence and devotion to worship of Asherah diffused to Hebrew religious practices and cultural life. Not long after they settled in the Canaanite hill country, Hebrews began intermarrying with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Family and religious ties went hand-in-hand and as was the custom of the time, when a man took a wife, the deities she was devoted to were incorporated into the new household. Asherah worship was both a communal and domestic affair; now it is difficult to say with certainty how Asherah was physically represented but piecing together biblical references gives us a carved wooden image with its base firmly planted into the ground usually standing next to altars dedicated to Baal. Due to the annual heavy rains in Palestine, wooden objects do not last long and so none of these images are known to have survived. Clay figurines on the other hand, are a different matter. Archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous small figurines all over Palestine that have been conclusively dated to around the Israelite period. Patai informs us of something very interesting: the numbers of clay female figurines were not matched by a similar large number of male sacred figurines. This is a very strong suggestion of the immense popularity Asherah worship enjoyed among the Hebrews.
One reason Asherah was so popular was because She promoted women’s fertility and facilitated childbirth. A 7th century Hebrew incantation text sought help from Asherah for a woman in delivery. Such an invocation of Her may have been in the original form of Genesis 30:10-13 where an exclamation was made by Leah at the birth of the sons of Zilpah. Patai gives us an interesting story here. He points out that there appears to be some association with the two sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaiden, and Canaanite male deities. When the first son was born Leah exclaimed “baGad!” and called his name Gad which was the name of a Canaanite deity; the prefix b- is the one used when swearing by the name of a god. When the second child was born she exclaimed “b’Oshri!” and named him, which was her right. Patai tells us that there is no deity with the name Oshri and that some scholars believe that this passage was edited and that the original tradition had he exclaim b’asherah – “by Asherah!” The masculine Asher may have been derived from Asherah.
The biblical story of Solomon appears to be an account of another devotee. The name “Solomon” itself (Sel-Mer – “Peaceful”) was a generic kingly title and the biblical Solomon was for the most part as mythical as the biblical Jesus. However, the story offers up some important clues pointing to the worship of the Sacred Feminine – in this case, Asherah – among the Hebrews. As is well known the famous temple in Jerusalem was built to accommodate a syncretistic form of worship. In other words, various faiths and religious rituals could be celebrated in the precincts of the Temple. The biblical writings indicate that Solomon and his son Rehoboam, introduced Asherah worship in the Jerusalem temple around 928BCE. Such a move was not at all looked favourably by the Yahwist chronicler of 1 Kings 3: 2-3; the Yahweh cult, influenced as it was by the militaristic Persian deity Marduk, was the quintessential authoritarian belief system that tolerated little, if any, diversity. Devotion to Yahweh/Jehovah meant total devotion and deference, even if the very title and rituals were derived from earlier “pagan” faiths. Nevertheless, Solomon was obliged to follow the prevailing customs of the time: specifically, the marriage customs. Marriages were principally political and economic arrangements; therefore, Solomon, upon marrying a foreign princess, had to admit her deities into his household. Among the deities Solomon worshipped was the “goddess of the Sidonians” – Asherah.
The worship of Asherah was immensely popular; so strong was Her hold over the people that when Elijah and later Jehu carried out their murderous anti-Baal, pro-Yahweh campaigns, the worship of Asherah was left alone and her worship survived down to the end of Israelite monarchy. Her statue is believed to have been first placed in the Temple circa 928 BCE; it remained there for thirty-five years until King Asa had it removed around 893BCE. It was restored by King Joash in 825 BCE where it remained until King Hezekiah removed it in 725BCE. It was restored yet again and was moved back and forth until the Temple’s destruction in 568BCE. Thus, of the 370 years the Solomonic Temple stood in Jerusalem, for 236 of those years a statue of Asherah was present in the Temple. Her worship was a part of the legitimate religion, approved and led by kings, the courts and especially the people with only a few Yahwistic priests and prophets raising their voices in opposition.
A few years ago, in north-eastern Sinai, two large storage jars were discovered. On one of them was an inscription, part of which read “…..may you be blessed by Yahweh and by his Asherah….” Here we see that in the popular religion, Asherah was paired with Yahweh/Jehovah as his wife or consort.
On the east coast of the Mediterranean there existed the worship of a goddess said to be the daughter of Asherah though She was often identified with and often substituted Her. The proper name for this deity was Anath but She was better known by the name Astarte (called Ashtoreth or the plural Ashtaroth in the bible). The original meaning of “Astarte” was “womb” which was not surprising given that She, like most goddesses, were associated with fertility and rejuvenation. Her brother/consort’s name Baal is derived from a Semitic term meaning “to take possession sexually.” Baal was the inducer and symbol of male fertility.
Biblical references to Astarte begin with the incursions by the Hebrews into Canaan. We read in Judges 2:13 that the Hebrews “forsook Yahweh and served the Baal and the Ashtaroth” and in Judges 10:6 that they “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh and served the Baalim and the Ashtaroth….the gods of Sidon and the gods of the Philistines and they forsook Yahweh and served him not.”
Although the bible specifically mentions Astarte only nine times (as against the forty times Asherah is mentioned), giving the impression that the worship of Astarte was not as prevalent, archaeological discoveries tell a different story. Hundreds of nude figurines clay figurines and plaques have been found. Some figurines were moulded grasping stalks or serpents while some were holding their breasts and/or covering their genitals and some were pregnant. They were found in every major excavation site in Palestine and their prevalence spans the Middle Bronze Age (c2000-1500 BCE) to the early Iron Age (c900-600 BCE). Interestingly, Anath in Ugaritic mythology is in one aspect the typical goddess of love: both innocently chaste and sexually open, but in another aspect is a goddess of the battlefield. Like many of her male counterparts She was portrayed as bloodthirsty, easily provoked to violence. It appears this bloodthirsty aspect diffused to Egypt sometime prior to the 13th century BCE.
The Goddess Anath is referred to in the Bible although cleverly concealed. In Judges 1:33 we hear of a Canaanite town in the territory of Naphtali called Beth-Anath – House of Anath; we also read in Isaiah 21:18, 2 Samuel 23:27, 1 Kings 2:26 and Jeremiah 1:1 of Anathoth, today called Anatha, said to be the birthplace of Jeremiah. It is likely, given the custom of the time of naming localities after deities, that the founders were devotees of Anath and named the towns after Her. In the Bible Anath was also called the Queen of Heaven: a title given to Astarte and Anath by Egyptian worshippers. This was the same Queen of Heaven who was the subject of a heated argument between the Yahwist Jeremiah and his fellow Judeans. He was convinced that the calamities that had befallen the people came about as a punishment from Yahweh because the people were practising “idolatry.” The people, on the other hand, insisted that their only religious sin was their turning to Yahweh and away from the Queen of Heaven. Rejecting his arguments they purportedly said:
(W)e shall burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and shall pour her libations as we used to do, we, our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty food, and we were all well and saw no evil. But since we ceased burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and to pour her libations, we have wanted everything and have been consumed by sword and famine.
The women rebuffed him further saying:
Is it that we alone burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour her libations? Is it without our husbands that we make her cakes in her image and that we pour her libations?
Certain things stand out in this interesting passage. The lighting of fires and pouring of libations are well-known rituals from the Jerusalem Temple. Of even greater interest is the baking of cakes which may have been taken from the Babylonian-Assyrian and especially Egyptian eucharistic rituals. The devotion to Anath and Astarte was prevalent up to the 5th century BCE; a temple dedicated to Her was mentioned side by side with other deities in an Aramaic papyrus from a community of Hebrews living in Egypt.
The Shekhina is a frequently used Talmudic term to denote the visible and audible presence of the Almighty on earth. The Shekhina concept stood for an independent feminine figure who served to intercede and argue with god on behalf of men. In that respect, then, she stood in the tradition of Asherah and Anath.
The name Shekhina does not occur in the Bible, however, in the late biblical period there was a trend to create mediating or intervening personages originally created by the masculine god. The most frequent was Hokhma or Wisdom, described in Job 28:13-28 as a personage whose way only god alone knows while in Proverbs 8:22-31 She is described as god’s earliest creations. In 8:3 of the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon it states that Wisdom is given to Her to live with god and the sovereign lord of all loved her (as a wife). Philo says this exact same thing unequivocally in his treatise “On the Cherubim.”
References to the Shekhina appeared in the 4th century CE Aramaic translation-paraphrasing of the Bible, the so-called Targum Onkelos. It came to mean that aspect of the deity which can be apprehended by the senses. Further, it is written that there were six individuals whom the Angel of Death could not overcome and who only died through a kiss of the Shekhina. These six individuals were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. In another passage god took Moses’ life but it was the Shekhina who carried him on her wings to his resting place. This passage suggests some very interesting parallels; the relationship between Moses and the Shekhina is similar to that in the Ugaritic myth of Anath carrying the body of Her brother/consort Baal to his burial place and the Egyptian Auset/Isis carrying the body of Yusir/Osiris to his burial place.
Into the Christian era the influence of patriarchal ideas had firmly taken hold in Judaism. The priestly elite had all but absorbed and stamped out the concepts of divine femininity standing in its own stead. The need the people felt for a motherly divine figure, however, was never extinguished and eventually returned to the fore. From the 15th to the 18th centuries saw the rise of the Kabbalistic movement among the Jews. This movement embraced a more mystical approach to worship. The Matronit was conceptualised as yet another aspect of the Supreme Being and yet was separate and distinct. Insofar as the Almighty was defined in masculine terms the Matronit was idealised as his wife the way Anath, Astarte and the Shekhina were before Her. In the popular mythological idealisation of Her the Matronit was identified with the Mother Mary in Catholicism where Mary was not simply the Jewish woman whose womb god chose to reincarnate himself – as official Catholic doctrine sees it – but was the Mother of god, a goddess in Her own right who performed miracles, was a mediator and thus one who was duly venerated. She supplied that psychologically important feminine divine figure in a Judaism whose elite kept submerging that element for hundreds of years.
In her virginal aspect the Matronit shared pretty much the same qualities as the many feminine goddess concepts before Her; She retained an air of purity – the verse in Numbers 19:2 of the woman who is “faultless, wherein there is no blemish and upon which never came yoke” was applied to Her. In one aspect the Matronit was identified with Israel and in this capacity She was never defiled or enjoyed by strangers. Thus the virginal trait of Matronit was employed in a way that spoke to the nationalistic feelings of a dispossessed Jewry.
Contrasting with this image is the insatiable sexual lover form of the Matronit and like the goddesses before her the constraining sexual rules created by men did not apply to Her. In some popular myths She had relations with Jacob and with Moses. Most kings were paired with Her and the ceremony commemorating the union – often called the hieros gamos – has been described as having much eroticism. Some say that as long as the Temple stood the king would come and seek his wife, the Matronit, and consummate their love. Another version held that the king and the Matronit made love only once a week, on the night between Friday and Saturday. This served as the model for, or the validation of, the weekly observed lovemaking between pious Jews and their wives. It is said that when such sexual unions occur the couple set in motion all the generative forces of the mythico-mystico universe.
The idealising of warrior qualities is nothing new to Judaism. However, while it may be challenging to directly connect the warrior qualities of the 13th century CE Matronit to the goddesses of the 3rd and 4th millennium BCE, there is an interesting point to note about the way in which warrior qualities were applied to the Cabbalistic Matronit. Traditionally, in keeping with the narrow interpretations of monotheism that were embraced (or imposed) by Judaic authorities, all warrior qualities were attributed to Yahweh. However by the 5th century CE, with several centuries of being dominated by foreign powers firmly behind them, such references had long since faded away into distant memories. But when it did resurface, it did so in the form of the Shekhina-Matronit in Cabbalistic literature as it had done so many hundreds of years before. In the Zohar, for instance, it is the Shekhina-Matronit to whom the King entrusts all his warrior activities – mainly against “pagans.” But this indicates just how powerful was the psychologically need for the feminine element in the minds of the people even though that aspect had been suppressed for so long.
From Greece to Christian Europe
Goddess figures were no less prominent in early Greek culture. Insofar as legends and myths are often poetic recordings of historical events, there is much that can be inferred from Greek mythologies. An examination of early and later Olympian Greek deities would reveal names of such goddess figures as Ge, the first reigning Earth goddess; Rhea, mother of Zeus; Pandora, Persephone, Diana the huntress, Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. Athena (the Roman Minerva) deserves special mention. She was perhaps the most complex of the ancient goddesses. Some have labelled Athena androgynous because although female in appearance she was given qualities the Greeks considered the sole prerogative of men. She was the patroness of wisdom, for instance, she was a warrior-goddess – often being depicted with a shield, spear and helmet – and as such was often a patroness of Greek heroes and warriors. Athena also served as the goddess of industry in Athens. This aspect, which involved practical knowledge rather than abstract thought, saw her interacting with both men and women.
In contrast stood her sister Artemis, the goddess of chastity – which in Greek cultural thought was a virtue only in women. Like Athena she was a huntress who joined men in legendary expeditions. However, unlike the sociable Athena, Artemis preferred the company of wild beasts well away from men and gods. As the goddess of chastity she was always devising plans to avoid monogamous marriage although she eventually submits to a suitor. Both Artemis and Athena avoided marriage which led later on to misinterpretations that they were virgins in the narrow “conventional” sense of that term. This in turn contributed to the idea that loss of virginity was only with conventional marriage. Rather, like many mother goddesses, these figures enjoyed many male lovers/consorts. Either way, as virgin or as mother goddess, such deities can and have represented women’s independence; their retaining of control over themselves, their sexuality and their economic interests even in the face of rising patriarchy, as Greece was becoming.
The Homeric epics, composed around the 12th century BCE, although reflecting significant patriarchal values, did not contained as much of the misogynistic attitudes that tainted later Greek literature. Social life in early Greek history seems to show a region of scattered clans where women generally enjoyed greater liberties than in the later periods. Marriages appear to have been matrilocal and matrilineal – if the marriage of Helen and Menelaus in the Homeric epic is any indication. Pomeroy tells us that Helen’s running off with her lover appears to have had political implications in that Menelaus’s position as king was dependent on his marriage to her. Hence the Trojan War. It should be noted, though, that myths often reflected the desired – not necessarily the actual – ideals of the myths’ creators. Some writers did contend that the principal theme of the Odyssey is not the Trojan War but the desired ideal that women respect ancestral inheritance based on masculinist ideas of morality and lifetime loyalty and commitment. It is instructive that in the Homeric epics Penelope, who remained “faithful” to Odysseus, was spoken of more favourably than Helen and especially Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, who got rid of the herald he put to watch her while he was away and took another husband.
Bronze Age frescoes often depicted women with pale skin while their husbands were suntanned, suggesting that the women were kept indoors for extended periods. However, Pomeroy informs us that the epics, as opposed to the literature of the later periods, suggest that upper-class women were not necessarily as sequestered as women were in the later periods: women were expected to be “modest” but Helen and Andromache did walk through the streets of Troy although under escort. This point brings up something important; much of the history of ancient Greek, Roman and even later European civilisations looked at the social life of the elites; for the most part the social lives of peasants and working class peoples were given less attention if not ignored altogether. In many studies on women, the women who were chattels and property of their husbands were aristocratic or middle-class women. But while the elite middle-class women were for the most part the property of their masters – as were those who were enslaved – available evidence does suggest that the slaves and people of the lower classes often enjoyed much greater “freedom” of movement and sexual openness than their upper-class ladies, largely because the slave-owning class had lower expectations of them. Be that as it may, building upon the older militaristic cultures that sought to place women and things deemed feminine in a “controlled” environment, Greek thinkers maintained and further developed the ideas seeking to restrict women.
In this vein sex became the principal tool for pushing women and femininity out of ideas associated with divinity. As patricentric ideas assumed greater importance in the ancient Eurasian societies, sex was considered polluting. Whereas in the older matricentric belief systems sex was very much part and parcel of how mankind understood union could be achieved with the Divine, in the patricentric model sex was dangerous and corrupting. This may have come from such ancient superstitions like the belief that a woman sucked the energy from a man expended upon climaxing thus leaving him temporarily weak and thus vulnerable in the event of an attack by rival tribes. This was related to the beliefs that such unions took away from the “higher” pursuits of hunting and raiding which were the principal activities essential for survival in the frigid wastes.
This fed into the minds of Greek philosophers and lawmakers; it is by no accident that the Greek image of the ideal human, an image that would endure down through to our present times, was a male image who had achieved his “superiority” by “vanquishing” sex and sexual desires. Greek philosophical thought held that a person’s – men’s – true sign of sophistication was his embrace of reason over passion and impulse. Central to that idea was the person’s renunciation of sexuality. Men – i.e. males who proved themselves to be men through various artificial initiatory processes – idealised themselves as being disconnected from and above sex because in so doing they were no longer under the “spell” of women and nature. Yet, to note one of the bewildering arrays of contradictions inherent in Western ideologies, should he engage in sex, sexual interaction with a woman had to be yet another exercise in power relations; a “true” man was sexually aggressive – sex may be polluting, but once the idealised man could engage in sex in such a way as to “defeat” any emotional hold women had over him, he was still considered a man. Thus sex became viewed as another avenue to assert control – most likely stemming from masculine insecurities already dealt with in the essays on monogamy.
Of particular importance here is that with this ideology of “natural” male superiority taking root there was an obverse side positing that women were “naturally” inferior. Their “inferiority” was directly linked to the same reproductive functions (i.e. caring for bodily life) that prior to the elevating of militarism and hunting were what both men and women saw as sacred and powerful. Women, thus, by their inherent nature, were now inseparably linked to sex and sexuality and that link was the justification for their being systematically shut out from the core elements of power and divinity.
A perusal of the writings of the leading Greek thinkers and lawmakers show this very clearly. Perhaps most noteworthy of the Greek lawmakers was Solon, the Athenian-born lawgiver who did much to institutionalise distinctions between “good” women and “bad” women. As part of his extensive legislation covering many aspects of Athenian life, he regulated walks, feasts, food and drink and even mourning of citizen (i.e. “good”) women. According to Pomeroy his laws had more to do with strengthening the “newly created democracy” as she puts it. Overlooking the fact that the democratic principles had been in existence many centuries before the city-states of Greece came into being, one must still confront the rationale of Solon in settling conflicts among Greek men: women were a source of strife among the men so the solution was to keep the women out of sight and place limits on their influence. Sex, after all, was the chief means by which women asserted their “control” over men.
Sexuality also informed the dichotomy between public roles and private roles in Greco-Roman societies. Both Greek and Romans believed that public life was appropriate for men only. Therefore, notions of dignity and honour were patterned to reflect men’s arrogated retention of public functions and further subdivided according to whether one, as a man, was free (a citizen) or unfree (slave=less than a citizen=less than human=a woman). As we have seen for the man that took the form of public acts of bravery and competitiveness. Whether as a soldier on the field of battle or the political public speaker, the idealised honourable person was a man (literally) who displayed bravery, aggressiveness, rigid control of his household and by defending attacks against his reputation through debates or the more traditional use of arms.
By contrast women’s honour was built up around shame. Whereas for men honour was displayed through acts of bravery, competitions and debates, for women honour revolved around guarding and shielding herself – i.e. her innately sexual body and nature – from men (as a child growing up in the 1970s and 80s I often heard my mother and other women speak of their bodies, specifically their genitals, as their “shame”). Shame, that is timidity, passivity, vulnerability and discretion, was deemed the appropriate and natural expression of femininity. Public life and political authority were closely linked with men’s sexual freedom and aggressiveness. Therefore, any woman who pursued political office, engaged in public debates or took open position on issues were ultimately asserting control in the sexual realm. This of course triggered the ever present patricentric insecurities about women’s sexuality and its “corrupting” influence on the carefully crafted image of the super, transcendent man.
Because much of what was negative about womanhood had to do with sex chastity was considered the highest virtue in a woman. Chastity was gauged, proved (or disproved) by the extent to which a woman was silent, submissive and obedient to men’s authority. It became the means by which a woman was considered “good” or “bad” and had many dimensions. For instance it entailed modesty in how a woman dressed –which really meant how much of her body was hidden away – and how well she kept herself out of sight in the home (while at the same time busying herself with the running of it). A philosophical treatise on chastity posited that this virtue regulated how a woman moved throughout the city; she could only go out at midday – in the company of a female servant. She could attend public religious festivals but could not participate in the so-called mystery religious festivals that took place in private homes as they “encouraged drunkenness and ecstasy.” “Good” citizen women spent most of their time sequestered in their father’s – and then husband’s – homes which as we have seen, in the Greco-Roman model, had very limited value as a centre of economic production and almost no value in the way of women’s political power. By diminishing the home’s economic and political value, and then by sequestering women in it, women’s physical and visual presence was effectively taken care of.
Likewise silence was considered another important facet of a “good” woman. Public speaking was a male prerogative and a symbol of masculine authority. “Good” women were demure and silent while “bad” women were vocal, loud, opinionated, and argumentative. Women displaying qualities even close to any of these traits were considered promiscuous and brought shame to themselves and their families. The virtue of silence for women was one more protective measure devised by patriarchists against women’s intrusion into the public (masculine) space. Because women’s speech became private, it was thus trivialised as is reflected in many Greek and Roman philosophical writings and in New Testament passages like the infamous injunctions to let women be silent in as it was “appropriate in the Lord” in such passages as 1Timothy 5:12-13, Ephesians 5-20 and 1Peter 3:1. The public man/private woman dichotomy would be employed over and over in a myriad of ways to drive home the message of the subordinate, hidden role the women were expected to adopt.
Greek theories about the universe and human biology abound with themes revolving around the central assumption of the supposed male superiority over females and reflected cultural beliefs of male rationality and female passive shame. Aristotle, for instance, in works like “On the Generation of Animals,” Hesiod, Socrates, Plato and other thinkers used or manipulated their understanding of science to provide justification of a male-dominant order of the universe. Their theories of the Divine were built up around the dichotomy between masculine honour – rationality, assertiveness, versus feminine shame – passivity, irrationality, fluidity, obedience, and physical weakness. In the older matricentric structure divine power was shared between male and female deities with female power residing in principally her sexual and reproductive capabilities. In the male-focussed system the masculine deities were given female reproductive powers while the feminine presence was diminished and subordinated to the male deity.
With the Greeks and Romans holding such condescending views of real women, it is little wonder that divine female images and concepts received the same diminished value. If the logic of patriarchal thinking held that women were inherently sinful and their bodies were corrupting in the physical world it follows that there could be very little associated with womanhood and things feminine in the sacred world. Likewise, as Judaism became more streamlined under Levite influence and rocked by the trauma of military defeat, loss of independence, colonisation and the diminishment of masculinity that brought, Jewish concepts of the almighty became more authoritarian and thus more masculine. Yahwist/Jehovistic priests waged a constant battle condemning and suppressing earlier sacred feminine images and ideas that had once been the focal point of Hebrew reverence. The new dispensation saw Yahweh/Jehovah as the singular, all encompassing father-figure; the Hebrews drew from the patriarchal secular and philosophical ideas of Babylon and Greece, and, like these other cultures, took many of the creative and reproductive aspects of the older feminine deities and assigned them to the masculine Yahweh. Even then they were never fully able to completely dispense with these powerful female avatars.
And then came Christianity.
Interestingly, in the very early stages of Christianity women occupied leadership roles. Christianity did not appear as a fully-formed religion with a hierarchical structure of priests and pastors or churches. There was no Bible and there was not even any kind of consensus as to what books were considered sacred. It began as little more than an informal social movement drawing from philosophical and sacred science teachings of Egypt, Sumer, India, Rome and Greece, to name but a few. The very stories surrounding the Jesus character were taken from allegorical mythical traditions of Heru/Horus, Yusir/Osiris, some of which came by way of Mithra, Krishna and Sol Invictus. Researchers like Massey and Kuhn inform us that even the name of the mother of Jesus, Mary – and the various versions of that name – came from ancient African titles that meant “of the sea” which referred to the amniotic fluid and water in general which was associated with divine femininity and motherhood.
Much of this syncretism was necessary in order to win over devotees of other faiths into this “new” dispensation. It certainly attracted many women who were drawn to the preaching (and practising) of an inclusiveness that was not found in Greek and Roman cultures. Of particular attraction was the ascetic lifestyle; many early Christian devotees such as the African Anthony the Hermit, had popularised the spurning of everyday, “worldly” living and comforts in favour of living in seclusion. Fasting, meditation and rejection of personal hygiene became hallmarks of the ascetic. But above all this was the rejection of sex and sensuality. Marriage in the Greek, Roman and Hebrew context had become quite restrictive and, with specific reference to Greece and Rome, an institution where the woman was a chattel and a baby-making vessel. Women saw asceticism, monasticism and virginity (in the narrow sense) as ways in which they could have some control over their bodies. It should be noted that the use or disuse of marriage and virginity/cloister comes up over and over in a very cyclic way throughout the Christian era and even during the pre-Christian years as women struggled to find ways to take charge of their own sexual selves on their own terms. Over and over in the early stages these were often supported by men. However, as many women were to find out, in spite of whatever male support there were, even in popular counter-culture movements, old patriarchal customs and ideas found ways to reassert themselves as the movements took more formalised structures and consolidated positions.
So it was with Christianity; in its formative years women rose to prominence holding authoritative positions including presbyters. Even the Pauline letters reflected an early Christian world in which women were prophets, leaders of congregations, apostles and evangelists. His writings make it clear that women held prominent positions in those early Christian communities. One of the more well-known women leaders was Theodora; her likeness can be found under an arch in a Roman basilica dedicated to two women saints: Prudentiana and Praxeus. In Paul’s well-known letters to the Romans one finds names like Phoebe, a minister or deacon in the church at Cenchrae; Prisca who along with her husband conducted missionary work among the Gentiles. There were also women who Paul called his “co-workers:” Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis. Most significantly was a woman whom he called “foremost among the apostles,” Junia. Later copiers of the scriptures changed her name to Junias, a man’s name, even though no such name existed at that time. It should not have been unusual for there to have been women apostles; in fact many a scholar and extra-biblical gospel pointed out that there were both men and women apostles and not only the twelve (in keeping with the zodiac by the way) men; that the ritual of the Seder – from where we got the Last Supper narrative – was a ritual supper that both men and women attended. In the opening scene in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary the despondent disciples, disheartened by the ascension of the Jesus character, were rallied by Mary Magdalene – who as some traditions have it is the wife of the Christ Jesus – because of her strong leadership role, the title apostle is usually paired with her name.
It should also be noted that in the early Christian period, vestiges of Mother Goddess veneration were very much present in many Christian and Gnostic sects. Even in the Roman Church Mary, mother of the Jesus character, is twinned almost down to the last detail of her being with the older benevolent Mothers like Auset/Isis, Ishtar, Cybele and the Hebrew goddesses already mentioned. In Catholicism the Holy Spirit represented the female element of the Divine Trinity. I myself am no Latin or Hebrew scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but if in Hebrew the feminine word “ruach” with its Greek equivalent “Sophia” is used to denote the Holy Spirit – upholding the pre-Christian and Judaic tradition of identifying sacred wisdom with the Divine Feminine – then it stands to reason that feminine principles still held considerable sway. In such biblical passages as Proverbs 8:14-17, 8:22-31, 8:35 and in the Wisdom of Solomon 10:18-19 references to the Divine Feminine can be found. Karen Jo Torjesen further informs us that for the author of Matthew, the Jesus character is Sophia incarnate while in the first chapter of John the famous phrase “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with god and the word was god (1 John 1), was taken from a hymn to Sophia and appended to the scripture to speak of the Jesus character.
At this point it is necessary to examine the Virgin Mary herself; no discussion of Goddess veneration and Christianity could be complete if there was no look at the figure of Mary. Needless to say the idea that Mary was considered a goddess is controversial; even many Catholics hasten to deny such a claim – often advanced with a false sense of superiority by people from the Protestant denominations. But much of that smugness, and that defensiveness, apart from the very narrow, myopic interpretations of monotheism and idolatry, stems from these deeply embedded ideas of the innate sinfulness and interiority of women.
However, Christianity inherited not only the misogynist attitudes of Greece, Rome and Levite Judaism, it also inherited – or had to adopt in order to win converts – the powerful Mother Goddess myths and avatars that mankind had always felt the need to hold on to so as to provide the kind of comfort, inspiration and reassurance that the authoritarian male principle could not provide. Many Catholics may be quick to deny that Mary should be seen as a goddess but the historical fact is that the exact same characteristics shared by the ancient goddesses – considered the Mother of god, bride of god, was a virgin (yet being ravished or impregnated by some divine force) and mourning the death of their son – were the ones Mary possessed. Mary was idealised as a source of salvation, the Queen of Heaven, a source of sustenance and the vessel through whom all life flowed. All these were the same titles and functions of the ancient Divine Mothers in pre-Christian/Judaic faiths. The very name “Mary” as was indicated earlier is more a title than a name referring to the amniotic fluid that surrounds a baby while in the womb and that name and its many variations were found in Egypt, Persia and India going back thousands of years before the Christian era. Many of the legends and myths appended to Mary show clear influence from the ancient “pagan” Great Mother principles. It is also very interesting that Mary is so closely linked to Ephesus which, to the average Christian Trini, is just another location that could be in Venezuela for all its significance. But for hundreds preceding the Christian era Ephesus was a centre of the worship of Goddess Artemis-Diana. We should also point out that it was no coincidence that it was in Ephesus that the Church, in the 7th century CE upheld the title theotokos (God-bearer or Mother of God) as descriptive of Mary. Extra-biblical sources such as the Apocryphal Gospels magnify the role of Mary. It is also instructive that one of the lines of the Te Deum Laudamus says of Mary “all the Earth doth worship thee, Spouse of the Eternal Father.” Even more interesting is that an 11th century cardinal, St Peter Damian, stated that when the Virgin Mary matured, she possessed such beauty and charm that God, filled with passion for her, sang the Canticles in her praise and she became the golden couch god lay down upon to rest when he grew tired from dealing with angels and man.
Then there is a legend of a priest who only read Mass for Mary. He was dismissed by the Bishop who was then visited by Mary in a vision asking why he did this. In one version of the myth she appeared and threatened him which whispers an idealising of Mary in the tradition of identifying the Great Mother as a vengeful destructive force when roused to anger. The legend has it that the bishop repented, gave the priest back his job and himself became a devotee. In other legends Mary is figured as a merciful entity that saves sinners and criminals. Nicholas Fremont, a 14th century artist, depicted Her as the voice of god. In the Bible Moses is said to have had god speak to him in a burning thorn bush but does not say much more than that. Fremont placed Mary in that bush; in other words, She is a legitimate element of the godhead and the element in which Christianity had its origins. In other illustrations god the father is shown attacking people with arrows but Mary shields them under Her mantle implying that She, as mother, is superior. Yet here once again, we see that there was a need for a feminine figure to satisfy needs that a masculine deity could not. The merciful, protecting, interceding aspects of Mary were widely embraced by people in the 14th century as the Black Plague swept through Europe.
As an aside Mary Magdalene, another controversial figure, was mentioned several times in the New Testament. This figure is said to have come from Magdala, hence the name Magdalene. This may be significant in that Magdala or Migdal according to Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh, was yet another strong centre of Goddess veneration. They argue that it was the “City of Doves” which was a sacred bird to Astarte. Additionally, while there is no explicit biblical evidence that the Magdalene was a prostitute (that idea seems to come from Pope Gregory in 591CE) the fact that there is a tradition in which she is labelled as such – and yet still became immensely popular in Europe to the point of having a feast day in the Catholic calendar – stems in part from the ancient practice of separating the various aspects of the Divine Mother. If we incorporate the Magdalene and Martha characters – and there is a school of thought, also advanced by Gregory, positing that Martha and Mary are one and the same – then it is easy to see the pre-Christian idealising of the Great Mother – now identified with the Christian Mary – as the Virgin maiden, the dutiful wife and the sexually assertive woman.
Be that as it may the historical record shows that as the Christian movement became more settled and took shape as a religion and social movement, old patriarchal attitudes wormed their way into the faith and establish themselves as they had done so often before. From the 3rd century CE the Christian faith started to attract members of the municipal ruling elite who were well versed with in city politics. They were welcomed by many Christian communities and quickly moved into positions of leadership. Bit by bit the concepts of leadership in the clergy began to mirror political institutions in the cities of Rome – along with old ideas of what were proper places for women. Also, advocates of the newer concept of leadership in the clergy appealed to the Jewish Old Testament given that the early Church saw itself as the successors of Israel. The Hebrews were no less influenced by the patriarchal attitudes of Hellenistic Greek culture as they were by their own Levite priests. In the Mishnah, a 1st century compilation of rabbis’ theoretical discussions, there were passages where they debated whether a woman should study the Torah. One Rabbi Eliezer said “if a man gives his daughter knowledge of the Law, it is as though he has taught her lechery.” Philo, a 1st century Jewish philosopher, after explaining that women’s domain lay in household management, said:
“A woman, then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion. She should not show herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple, and even then she should take pains to go, not when the market is full, but when most people have gone home, and so like a freeborn lady worthy of the name, with everything quiet around her, make her oblations and offer her prayers to avert the evil and gain the good”
This assertion reflects the Greco-Roman notions of female acting in public roles being loose, promiscuous women. It was only by maintaining those qualities associated with shame and guarding against displaying herself could a woman demonstrate her virtue, maintain her “reputation”. Such misogynist views of women tied in to the Hebrew’s own assumptions that a woman was a man’s sexual property and any sexual independence she might display was considered deeply threatening.
The Church spent considerable time and energy to stress upon its devotees that the Virgin Mary, though the mother of the Jesus character, was nonetheless mortal and merely the vessel or receptacle for the Holy Spirit. The role of Mary was given token treatment in the New Testament; in Matthew and Luke the Virgin Birth is mentioned but elsewhere in those same two gospels Jesus is referred to as the son of Joseph thus negating the Virgin Birth. There is no mention of the doctrine in Acts or the Epistles and scholars like Bart Ehrman established that second and third century politics very likely played a significant part in this. To date there are no firsthand accounts of the Gospels and neither are there any existing copies of the said accounts or the copies of the copies of them, and so on. The earliest writings date from the 2nd or 3rd century at a time when ecclesiastical leaders were striving to have the faith recognised and accepted in Rome. Old patriarchal attitudes had already crept in so that many of the monks and scribes who were writing down scriptural texts had more than a little bit of prejudice. We can cite, for instance, two early theologians, Cerinthus and Marcion, who dismissed the Virgin Birth outright. Both their positions were later declared heretical and Mary’s virginity and motherhood became official Church doctrine, nevertheless there remained a line between recognising Mary’s role and elevating that role above that of Jesus – which is what happened anyhow during the Middle Ages – and which was why at the Council of Trent the protection pictures were banned as they gave Mary a god-like status which was intolerable.
In the midst of all this came a voice that called for Christianity, specifically his African Christian community, to return to the “golden age” characterised by “moral” rigour and discipline. Tertullian, a 3rd century theologian, was particularly hostile to women taking positions of leadership and any public office in the Church. That “golden age” he yearned for was one where Greco-Roman social restrictions on women’s roles were institutionalised. He was particularly riled up by the reality of women leaders in communities and congregations known to him who were preaching, baptising, exorcising and administering cures. Tertullian employed scriptural passages attributed to Paul to condemn women engaging in public debates arguing, echoing Pauline writings “it is not permitted to a woman to speak in church, but neither is it permitted her to teach, to baptise, nor to…..claim for herself a lot in any MANLY function…..” Tertullian saw the Church as a political and thus public institution and in keeping with Greco-Roman conservative ideas, the only proper roles for women lay in the private realm.
He was by no means singular in thinking this; other theologians and Church Fathers held this view and employed the guilt tactic by invoking the old belief that women engaged in public activities were sexually unrestrained. John of Seer, in protesting the authority of a woman leader of the church in Thyatira wrote:
(Y)ou tolerate that Jezebel, the woman who claims to be a prophetess, who by her teaching lures my students into fornication and into eating food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent , but she refuses to repent of her fornication. So I will throw her on a bed of pain, and her lovers into terrible suffering unless they forswear what she is doing; and her children I will strike dead
The advent of Augustine and Augustinian doctrine carried the renunciation of sex and women in the quest to understand the divine a stage further. Much of his book “Confessions” is devoted implicitly to sexuality and sexual relations. In his own youth he espoused the patricentric beliefs that manhood could only be achieved through sexual exploits. He considers his conversion to Christianity inseparable from his renunciation of sex. He used the Hebrew narrative of the “Fall” of man in the Garden of Eden to illustrate his ideas and develop his doctrine of sin. Adam and Eve’s first sin was the sin of pride which they committed by opting for self-rule. The punishment was the impotence of the rational mind through a desire – best described as lust – that rages out of control revolting against man’s higher rational nature. It was no accident that Adam and Eve hid themselves after eating the “forbidden fruit” because after the Fall “they felt a movement in their members of which they were ashamed.” In his view these movements were sexual stirrings not controlled by the rational mind. Where the narrative says “their eyes were opened,” Augustine asked “opened to what?” His answer: to lust for each other as punishment for sin.
Here again we see sexuality being demonised as the corrupting force behind the loss of man’s rational mind. Augustine projected his own inability to control his sexual urges onto sex itself and, by extension, women. In his speculation on the nature of sex in paradise before the Fall, he described the sex act as a passionless, rational experience. In keeping with the thinkers before him who were influenced by Greece, sex and sensual pleasures were sinful due to the passionate and irrational aspect of sex. Like the Greek and Christian thinkers before him he came to abhor sex as well as marriage. Yet, he was one of those who employed that very institution as the means by which sex could be curtailed. All sex, whether within the bonds of marriage or not, was sinful; yet through exclusive, closed monogamy sex could be kept contained. Whereas before monogamy was absolute for married women but relative for the men, Augustinian teachings sought to confine both sexes. By his reasoning limiting the sex act to only one partner limited the sin. It did not stop there; it was further restricted by employing that age-old tactic, guilt and fear, to stress that sexual intercourse should be engaged in solely for the purposes of procreation. Any form of sex that did not result in the bringing forth of an offspring was lustful. Augustine wrote: “true marital chastity avoids intercourse with a menstruating or pregnant woman; indeed it refrains from any marital encounter where there is no longer any prospect of conception, as with older people.”
Largely through Augustine’s influence the sexual self was transformed from a symbol of female shame to a symbol of virtually universal guilt. His view of sexuality still has a strong grip on not just Catholic theology – such as its strictures against birth control – but among Protestant Christian denominations as well. Although the Church reversed its position somewhat when it declared that the purpose of sexuality was to create affectionate bonds, that there is so much guilt still attached to non-marital sexual friendships (friends-with-benefits) and that many feel that “saving” themselves for marriage is right on the basis of god’s will, is due to that firmly embedded belief that sexual intercourse of any kind is sinful and corrupting because of its ties with the inherently sinful woman.
Augustine believed that the “sinlessness” of Jesus stemmed from his birth from a virgin – virginity of course being interpreted in the narrow physical sense. If Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, then irrational sexual passion played no part in the conception of Jesus. Many theologians before and after Augustine subscribed to this idea; in some apocryphal writings even Mary’s mother was born of a virgin (or as Dr Ben used to say, there was no screwing in the family for three generations). In is in this context that there were references to her as being a perpetual virgin – in spite of numerous passages referring to the brothers of Jesus, particularly James, supposedly his older brother. Such beliefs become somewhat interesting if one factors in biblical passages that say the angel Gabriel “came in unto her” which was an old euphemism for the sex act. Additionally, the very name Gabriel, Walker informs us, means “divine husband.”
Much of the artwork offers us further clues as to how Mary was figured at varying times in the Christian period. In the first five centuries portrayals of Mary in art showed her in a subordinate or lower position than Jesus and even the Magi; unlike them she is shown without a halo. However, by the 6th century she is depicted with a halo along with Jesus and the angels and also in a central position among a group of apostles. By the 9th century, the apses of two cathedrals built by Pope Paschal I show Mary in mosaics enthroned as the Queen of Heaven in the centre of the apses.
Carol Ochs tells us that the greatest threat to Christian doctrine as it was understood was that idea that Mary was a source of salvation. For not only was that supposed to be Christ Jesus’ role, it was the whole meaning of his incarnation and sacrifice. Yet, 14th century English theologian John Wycliffe wrote that it seemed impossible that “we should obtain the reward without the help of Mary.” In the 16th century that view was directly challenged by Berquin, one of the first Protestant martyrs in France. Protestantism, spearheaded by a very authoritarian Lutheranism, tried to further restrict the role and status of Mary. Luther himself did speak of Mary with some degree of reverence but by and large Protestant ideas posited that Mary was by no means sinless and since in the Bible it was written that all had sinned in the eyes of god, Mary was by no means exempt from this. Ideas like these served to make loyal Catholics cling to her more than ever. The concept of mater misericordiae – mother of mercy – was advanced partly in direct opposition to the character of Jesus who was being portrayed as the embodiment of god the father’s stern justice: an apocalyptic rider seated upon a white horse with a drawn sword. Luther warned that it was a dishonour to represent Jesus solely as judge without also referring to him as a redeemer. He may have reformed the doctrines and the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, but the chauvinistic ideas that existed before the existence of the Church was left largely untouched.
We may have made considerable advancements in terms of human development, technology, and communications and so on but many beliefs we still hold onto are testimony to the fact that the ancient ideas – to be more precise ancient superstitions and prejudices – transcend time and advancements making a mockery of both. In many parts of the world today there are attempts to scale back or reverse the destructive effects of industrialisation and embrace more environmentally friendly ways of producing and living. Politically, authoritarian, aggressively competitive styles of politics – which includes superficially democratic systems that exist in most parts of the Americas, Trinbago’s modified Crown Colony system being no exception to the rule – are gradually being challenged and altered to accommodate the concerns and wishes of the ordinary people. In other fields, new faces – feminine faces – are gradually occupying the political and economic corridors of what were once exclusively masculine domains. What is needed, however, is a different mindset that complements those feminine faces; a mindset that conceptualises ways of utilising nature, of interacting with each other, of determining progress and development, that balances the aggressive, dynamic aspects of patricentric behaviour with the more stable, analytical aspects of matricentric behaviour. That can only come about if, among other things, we learn to see “god” or the Almighty truly reflected in each other and the natural world instead of seeing potentially hostile, adversarial “Others.”
We in the Caribbean – possibly Trinidad in particular – have an advantage in accomplishing this over the North American and European societies. The traditional African and Indian influences were never completely stamped out by European schooling and churching; thus it is still possible to recover and re-inject into our collective consciousness cultural ideas that foster a deep respect for nature and each other as well as defining the Divine in ways that truly transcend sex and gender. At the same time, however, we in the Caribbean seem to be the least enlightened, the least likely to examining conservative teachings regarding religion and sex/gender roles because of our romanticised attachment to religion.
Within the last thirty years alone we have seen several attempts – some successful – to ordain women as priests in several faiths and denominations fiercely resisted by the hierarchy of those faiths. In some cases it has led to bitter schisms and conflicts. Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, stated unequivocally that there will be no women ordained as priests in the Catholic Church under his watch. His justification – bolstered by the Vatican’s 1976 Declaration on the Question of Admitting Women to the Priesthood – is an old one; the female body does not resemble the body of Christ and as such women cannot administer the sacramental functions of a priest. This reasoning supposedly dates back to the early period of the Christian Church’s existence as a formal institution. On the surface I suppose this argument might be plausible – assuming one gets around the biblical passages that state both men and women were created in the image of “god.” But a closer look at what that means in the Western context shows just how shallow such assertions are, how limiting Western religious thought really is and just how deep is the disdain for femininity. Modern Christian scholars and apologists who hold this view look to the ancient architects like Paul, Tertullian and Augustine for their guidance in such matters. They harbour assumptions that these ancient thinkers’ arguments against female leadership were theologically based – and so ultimately stemmed from “god” – which of course would make it unassailable. However, as I attempted to outline, they overlook the fact that in that formative period the early Christian thinkers heavily incorporated Greek and Roman social attitudes about the role and status of women into the ideas of the divine and of authority – which in turn stemmed from even more ancient cultural ideas and fears that saw sex, the natural world and chaos as one and the same; a deep, peculiar, obsessive fear of sex, women and any activity that could result in men coming under the influence or “spell” of women. In other words, the real rationale behind the Vatican’s argument stems from ancient pre-Christian misogynist ideas that set in motion the instinctive reflex that kicks in whenever the more erotic parts of a woman’s body are used in metaphorical references to the Divine.
Human beings have the most amazing ability to take even the most hostile, hateful, bias word or institution, adapt it to suit whatever purpose, even the opposite of what it was meant to project. For the last 2000-odd years women have managed to do just that with a deity imposed upon them that does not look like them even if “he” did possess qualities that formerly were possessed by the Mother. The time has long come to return that feminine principle to its position alongside the male principle. It is not about replacing but about balancing that masculine principle. This is especially important as the country, region and world faces various forms of violence including psychological and environmental violence as the ideas and displays of masculinity follow through to their logical conclusions. It is time for a redefinition of what power is and how it should be expressed. But to do that we must redefine what divine power is and how that can be expressed.
Sources and suggested reading:
- When God Was a Woman – Merlin Stone
- The Creation of Patriarchy – Gerda Lerner
- The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: Domains and Matriarchy and Patriarchy in classical Antiquity – Cheikh Anta Diop
- Civilisation or Barbarism? And Authentic Anthropology – Cheikh Anta Diop
- Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia – Rivkah Harris
- Jewish Women/Jewish Men: the Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life – Aviva Cantor
- The Woman with the Alabaster Jar – Margaret Starbird
- The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origin of Human culture – William Irwin Thompson
- Behind the Sex of God – Carol Ochs
- When Women Were Priests – Karen Jo Torjesen
- Confessions – Augustine
- City of God – Augustine
- Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets – Barbara G Walker
- Male Daughters, Female Husbands – Ifi Amadiume
- Reinventing Africa – Ifi Amadiume
- A History of their Own: Women in Europe From Prehistory to the Present – Bonnie Anderson, Judith Zinsser
- Holy Blood, Holy Grail – Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh
- Messianic Legacy – Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh
- Heavenly Sex – Ruth Westheimer
- The Hebrew Goddess – Raphael Patai
- The Black women in Antiquity – Ivan Van Sertima
- African Presence in Early Europe – Ivan Van Sertima