(continuing “Goddess Mary” series)
As there are various names for God, there were, in times when Goddess reigned, many names for Her. I repeat: God and Goddess are simply two different ways to imagine and personify the mysterious Power within all experienced by all in human history.
In remote antiquity the Great Goddess was supreme, with many names and various titles given Her in diverse places. In Babylon She was known as Ishtar. Among the Hebrews, ancestors of the Jews, She was Asherah (see my Goddess in the Bible). In Egypt the Goddess Isis reigned supreme, more important than her brother/husband God Osiris. In Sumer, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, She was Inanna, and Her women priests determined who would be kings. An eminent Sumeriologist quoted by Merlin Stone tells us,
The kings of Sumer are known as the “beloved husbands” of Inanna throughout the Sumerian documents.In a comparable practice but with a twist, Catholic religious sisters took their religious vows in wedding gowns and became “brides of Christ.” The communities of sisters discontinued this practice a few decades ago as it became distasteful to many.
Archaeological finds show the status of women declining in a worldwide turn to patriarchy, a phenomenon still not fully understood. In Europe the change came after 5000 and before 1000 BCE, when Kurgans, also known as Aryans or Indo-Europeans, penetrated the settlements of Old Europe. Aggressively they invaded the area we know as the Middle East, bringing with them new war technology and replacing female deities with their male deities, Sky and Warrior Gods—Joseph Campbell calls them “thunderbolt hurlers like Zeus, or Yahweh.” Their conquests brought a new order of violence and domination by gender.
Our Bible tells one chapter in this story, the Hebrew prophets unsuccessfully trying to stamp out the worship of Asherah and replacing Her with worship of Yahweh, “the Lord” who commands genocide in many Bible passages. Abram's call (Gen 12:1), dated about 1800 BCE, marks a decisive shift in consciousness.
Power shifted from female centrality (but not domination) to male domination. Massive evidence exists, but here I’ll cite only a few details from Merlin Stone’s research illustrating the shift in Egypt. The word “pharaoh” comes from par-o, meaning “great house” where woman ruled. Thus, the pharaohs received their titles through their mothers. In the earliest records beginning in 3000 BCE, the Goddess was served by 61 women priests and 18 male priests. In the period from 1570-1300 BCE, the temple clergy no longer had any women.
Myths also changed. In India the male Indra, Lord of Mountains who overthrows cities, killed the Goddess Danu and Her son. In Greece, the Supreme Goddess Hera became the subordinate, frustrated, and shrewish wife of Lord Zeus. The oracle at Delphi and the priests passing on Her counsel were female; later they were male. In Babylonia (Iraq) the male deity Marduk murdered the Creator Goddess Tiamat. In his informal conversations with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell tells this story.
The characteristic of an imperialistic people is to try to have its own local god dubbed big boy of the whole universe, you see. No other divinity counts. And the way to bring this about is by annihilating the god or goddess who was there before. Well, the one that was here before the Babylonian god Marduk was the all-Mother Goddess.Besides showing the transfer of female to male power, this myth reinforces the idea that the Gods of the Christian Trinity proceed out of a female Source. We do not have to read these myths literally to see that their very existence supports a maternal Origin or Source.
So the story begins with a great council of the male gods up in the sky, each god a star, and they have heard that the Grandma is coming, old Tiamat, the Abyss, the inexhaustible Source. She arrives in the form of a great fish or dragon--and what god will have the courage to go against Grandma and do her in? And the one who has the courage is, of course, the god of our present great city. He's the big one.
So when Tiamat opens her mouth, the young god Marduk of Babylon sends winds into her throat and belly that blow her to pieces, and he then dismembers her and fashions the earth and heavens out of the parts of her body. This motif of dismembering a primordial being and turning its body into the universe appears in many mythologies in many forms. . . .
There was no need for him to cut her up and make the universe out of her, because she was already the universe. But the male-oriented myth takes over, and he becomes--apparently--the creator. (The Power of Myth)
Where is Christ in all this?
We have to distinguish Christ the myth from Christ, Higher Power or Higher Self. In ancient myths, the Son of the Goddess becomes Her consort and is a God (forerunners of Mary and Jesus), but She is primary, the more powerful, the important personage. The Son is known variously as Damuzi, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Baal, and finally, Christ—it is the same archetype.
Christ's descent to hell followed the path of female deities to the netherworld, and it illustrates the shift from female power to male power. In the earliest versions, the Goddess—Inanna or Ishtar—is a mature queen who travels to the underworld to visit Her sister-ruler. She acts with independence and dignity. But in a later version, Persephone is a young girl abducted against Her will by Her uncle Hades. Finally the descending deity becomes a male hero, Christ. The symbolism of death to life is no longer represented by a female, but by a male.
Mother right, August 3
(continuing “Goddess Mary” series)
The first human social structures were matrilineal or based on mother-kinship. Woman was perceived to be the sole parent, and it followed that children took the name of their mother's clan. Lines of descent went through her, as did titles, possessions, and territorial rights. J.J. Bachofen (Myth, Religion, and Mother Right) quoted the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who was writing about the Lycians from Crete:
They have a strange custom which no other people has: they take their names from their mother, not from their father. For when one asks a Lycian who he is, he will indicate his descent on his mother's side, and list his mother's mothers, and when a woman citizen marries a slave, the children are regarded as nobly born; but if a male citizen, even the noblest, takes a foreign woman or a concubine, the children are dishonorable.Bachofen corrected Herodotus' assumption that no other people had this custom. Mother right was not confined to any particular people but marks a cultural stage, a period when names and possessions followed the most obvious parent—mother. As it obviously applies to humans universally, this cultural stage was not restricted to any particular ethnic family but preceded the patriarchal system globally.
He described what he called matriarchy but is really matriliny:
Its outward expression is to be found in the naming of the child after its mother, But its significance, is manifested in several other points.Mother right in property and inheritance lasted down to Roman times, according to anthropologist James Frazer. But today there is evidence that such social arrangements still prevail in parts of Australia, Africa, and Asia where, for instance, the husband moves to his wife's tribe.
First, in the status of the children, which is taken from the mother, not the father; secondly, in the inheritance of property, which is handed down not to the sons but to the daughters; thirdly, in the government of the family, which falls not to the father but to the mother, and by a consequent extension of this last principle, government of the state was also entrusted to the women.
Thus we have not an outward peculiarity of nomenclature but a thoroughgoing system; it is bound up with a religious intuition and belongs to an older period of human development than father right.
In North America, the Iroquois provide an example. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, principles in the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that launched the women’s movement, knew Iroquois women who, unlike white women, had equal responsibilities with men in family, religion, government, and commerce.
They watched the Seneca nation, near Seneca Falls in upper New York State, govern with women holding political power. Clan mothers, for instance, nominated male chiefs, one requirement being not to have sexually assaulted a woman.
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas found that matrilineal passing on of possessions survived in mountainous regions around Sarajevo into the twentieth century. Even our patriarchal Bible shows traces of mother-centered cultures from pre-biblical times. In the Book of Ruth, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law after the deaths of their husbands, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's house" (Ruth 1:8).
Merlin Stone in When God Was a Woman supplies more historical information to upset common notions of how things have to be. Herodotus wrote that in Egypt,
Women go in the marketplace, transact affairs and occupy themselves with business, while the husbands stay home and weave.Sophocles wrote:
Their thoughts and actions all are modelled on Egyptian ways, for there the men sit at the loom indoors while the wives work abroad for their daily bread.A professor Cyrus Gordon wrote in 1953:
In family life, women had a peculiarly important position for inheritance passed through the mother rather than through the father.According to S.W. Baron, Egyptian papyri reveal that
many women appear as parties in civil litigations and independent business transactions even with their own husbands and fathers.Archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie wrote,
In Egypt all property went in the female line, the woman was the mistress of the house, and in early tales she is represented as having entire control of herself and the place.Theologian and archaeologist Roland de Vaux wrote,
In Egypt the wife was often the head of the family, with all the rights such a position entailed.The precepts of Ptah-Hotep advised husbands to obey their wives. An E. Meyer wrote that until the fourth century BCE a wife in Egypt chose her husband and
could divorce him on payment of compensation. In Egypt the wife was often the head of the family, with all the rights such a position entailed.Love poems from Egyptian tombs suggest that women did the courting, even using intoxicants to help them woo the men.
More data to upset preconceptions about male/female roles come from the animal world, which for years was misinterpreted as following patriarchal patterns of male domination and female submission. Herds of elephants and schools of whales are led by females, and the praying mantis female eats the male during copulation. Among large cats the females do most or all of the hunting.
Animal behavior also overturns the notion that females naturally must win the attention of males. In most species, males put on a display to win the favor of females, either combating rivals or strutting their beauty. Most birds have more attractively colored males than females. The adornment of males in some animal species, similar to that of human females, impedes their freedom of movement but they put up with it for the sake of sexual allure.
Recent primate research indicates that pure aggression is less the biological drive than formerly thought. Primatologist Frans B.M. de Waal found that the more feminine traits of cooperation and the search for harmony are woven into aggressive moves of animals. Socially successful apes have the ability to make friends. Today's observers of the animal world realize that past observations were colored by incorrect patriarchal assumptions. Male dominance and aggression are not biologically determined but historical phenomena, the causes of which are still debated.
Conclusion: Sexist/patriarchal marginalizing of women is not only unfair; it contravenes Nature.
PS. Don’t miss this devastating portrait. In his NCR essay, Eugene Kennedy analyzes with devastating accuracy some psychologically underdeveloped men now becoming priests, calling them set decorators trying to reconstruct the hierarchical system of the early 20th century Church.
Canaanite woman & General Lee, August 16
The gospel and homily Sunday morning in Sacred Heart Chapel relate to my recent blogposts. Both promote an opening-up, a radical shift to a new perspective. In the gospel story (Matthew 15: 21-28), Jesus rebuffs a Canaanite woman asking him for help, saying his mission is exclusively to the “house of Israel,” that is, to fellow Jews. “It is not right to take the food of sons and daughters and throw it to the dogs.”
To this insult from Jesus the woman sends a clever rejoinder, “Even the dogs eat the leavings that fall from their masters’ tables.” It brings a compliment from Jesus and having her wish granted. The woman has successfully converted Jesus from an exclusive, closed-circle stance to a new, open and broader view of things—including non-Jews.
Our homilist told another story promoting this theme. In 1865 the congregation in a Richmond, Virginia, church witnessed a shocking scene. At communion time, a black man rose up and strode to the front of church from the back, where Blacks belonged, before anyone else had a chance to get up to receive communion. A terrible breach of custom, of manners, of what everyone knew was the way things had to be. Whites waiting to see who would put the insolent black man in his place were astounded when, instead, a white man got up and joined the black man to receive communion alongside him. The white man was General Robert E. Lee.
Lee and the Canaanite woman opened doors and windows of perception to include the excluded—Blacks and Gentiles. I invite Christians to open doors and windows of perception to include the formerly unthinkable thought—that Goddess is as good an image of Divinity as God.
I invite readers to Jesus as Goddess Advocate , a guest post by Karen Tate, who tells why she left Catholicism but went back to Jesus, reclaiming him as the Sacred Masculine. Also scroll down and review my brief outline of historical material at the beginning of this “Goddess Mary” series.
It is quite likely that some readers will refuse to accept it since it upsets so drastically the view to which we have been trained. The very idea of a Goddess is distasteful to people. Reactions when I refer to Goddess with respect include shock, indignation, outrage, fear, ridicule, scorn, embarrassment, and confusion.
The problem is not lack of evidence but conditioning. Overturning my own training took years of effort and dozens of books. I suggest the same for readers afraid to step out of the familiar frame of reality. While reading Goddess materials you may notice what I did—the damage done by patriarchy to our sense of womanhood. Menstrual bleeding, for instance, signified power in prehistoric times.
Male envy of blood power is indicated by a strange practice anthropologists have uncovered in diverse locations. Judy Grahn explains in The Politics of Women's Spirituality:
Men have developed blood mimic rites in which they slit the underside of the penis to make an imitation of the female genital. The idea is that when the split penis is held upright against the man's abdomen it resembles a menstruating vaginaThis practice, called "man's menstruation," occurs in New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, and Africa.
Juxtapose it with Thomas Aquinas saying woman is
defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the male sex; while the production of women comes from defect.Augustine taught men to hate women and sex.
Until recent decades, Catholic women had to be purified after giving birth. Christians blamed women and sex for passing on the evil of sin and in effect defined women as naturally subservient because they bear children. Moderns have not gotten over the association of menstruation with shame and femininity with weak subservience. Goddess spirituality can turn the tables on this male-centered view by declaring that, because they have the power to bear children, it is natural and appropriate for women to have power in other areas.
We cannot know to what extent egalitarian societies existed or to what extent Goddess cultures gave power to women. But there is no basis for denying that pre-patriarchal societies revered the power of woman's body, that women played a central role in them, and that power in many primal cultures was not understood to be domination.
Coming up: Does it matter whether we imagine the Ultimate Value of all reality to be male or female? I say YES.