Max Dashu, the Suppressed Histories Archives

Goddess Heresies: the legacies of stigma in academia

The controversy over goddess figurines, and whether they should be so called, illustrates the chasm between spiritual feminists and most of academia. We especially need to look at the conflicting values and agendas that come into play when we discuss what “goddess” meant in historical context. Saying “goddess” causes nervous discomfort, whether out of fears of superstitious fantasy or political threat or cultural illegitimacy or out-and-out blasphemy. The interpretations offered by scientistic positivists, Marxists, orthodox theologians, post-structuralists have many differences, but in one respect they are similar. They don’t like to hear goddess talk, and especially don’t want to hear that it has any political significance.

I would like to turn the lens around to face this aversion, and trace the Western academic allergy to anything “goddess” back to its historical origins in the Catholic Church. The first professors were doctors of the Church, whose doctrine shaped all fields of study, and governed what could be said and thought.

The genealogy of this doctrine starts with the early clergy who regarded all pagan deities as demonic, idolatrous abominations — and also as serious competitors of their own religion. The priesthood fought a relentless war to stamp out the old ethnic religions. They enlisted the state to use force, and they also waged a cultural offensive through sermons and canon law and penitential books. In the process, they inadvertently became the first recorders of pagan European tradition, including goddess reverence.

What they wrote was distorted by their bias. They saw the old stories as ignorant, deluded, and blasphemous. To them it was all devilish superstitio, a word which comes from the Latin for “that which remains” of ancient observances. So they resorted to editorial revisions and spin. For example, the monastics who wrote down the rich orature of ancient Ireland transformed folk goddesses and land spirits into sinful women who repented. Or they added revisionist endings to kill off these female divinities. But the Irish scribes, like the Icelandic ones, allowed much to slip through, because they could yet not bring themselves to let the old pagan stories go entirely. We can see here two major strategies of contending with goddess tradition: ban it outright, or reconfigure and assimilate it.

In the early middle ages, the priestly goal of overhauling folk religion was an uphill climb. European cultures remained saturated with pagan festivals, deities, shrines, rituals, charms and proverbs. The priestly doctrine on pagan folk goddesses in this period was summarized by the Canon Episcopii (literally, “the bishop’s rod”). It acknowledged that witches worshipped a goddess, but cast her as the devil, and portrayed them as deluded women who had lost their grip on reality. (Sounds familiar.) Witches are not wise women but fools, said the church doctors, and it is heresy to believe that they really commune with pagan goddesses. Whoever believed that was “beyond doubt an infidel and a pagan.”

By the clergy’s own admission, plenty of people still fit into that category. In the late 900s, bishop Raterius of Verona deplored popular veneration of a goddess he calls Diana. He observed that “one third of the world is subject to her,” especially “credulous little women.” Other writings by churchmen also condemn a folk belief in women who go by night with a goddess, riding like shamans on the backs of spirit animals. A demonized version of these shamanic traditions later became the central myth of the diabolist witch hunts.

The cathedral schools, like the priesthood itself, barred female participation. The first medieval universities grew out of these all-male schools. Their ranks soon swelled with monastics from the new Dominican and Franciscan orders. Scholasticism developed in these early universities, with theologians bending Aristotelian rationalism to the service of Catholic doctrine. As oxymoronic as that may sound, these two systems shared a strong belief in female inferiority and male supremacy. Albertus Magnus found congenial Aristotle’s belief that women were misbegotten men, with “a faulty and defective nature.” Or as Aquinas put it, a woman is “subject to the man on account of the weakness of her nature,” a mere vessel for incubating the “divine” sperm.

The scholastics and university doctors became leading promoters of church doctrine, with misogynist and racist demonology on the academic menu. These obsessions spilled over into the diabolist witch persecutions that gathered steam in the 1300s. The learned doctors of the Sorbonne led the charge, issuing a proclamation in 1398 that witchcraft was a rapidly spreading revival of ancient pagan ways and a threat to society. As H. C. Lea wrote, “The University then proceeded to declare that there was an implied contract with Satan in every superstitious observance…” [Lea, Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, 464. It’s important to note that secular witch persecutions had been going on for much longer. Here we are looking at how hunts driven by diabolist theology developed, and the role of church doctors in leading the charge. The poisons they cooked up eventually spilled over into the secular hunts as well.]

Scholasticism bore fruit in the reign of the demonologists. The folk goddesses were pursued through the pages of witch trial transcripts and transformed into a sadistic male devil in the torture chambers. Witch hunts raged through the Renaissance and the baroque era into the 1700s. Women were terrorized and beaten down, the denaturalization of European folk culture advanced, and a mechanistic view of the universe took hold. Dark peoples were demonized and the colonization of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and the Islands went forward, with the help of doctrines that they too were “devil-worshippers.”

From the heyday of the Inquisition to the Reformation and beyond, university professors were involved in witch trials, making binding pronouncements on their legal and theological issues. Physician oversight of witch trials was common in Catholic and Protestant regions, as well as in hunts run by inquisitors or by state magistrates. Even the few who protested against the torture trials, like Dr. Johan Weyer, believed that the diabolist stories were “the follies of old women,” the “deluded confession of demoniacally possessed old hags,” and “silly and miserable” women suffering from the uterine disease of melancholy. Weyer explained it all by citing Augustine, Chrysostom and Paul “concerning the credulity and frailty of the female sex,” which he called “inconstant” and “wicked.” [Weyer, Johan, De Præstigiis demonum, in Witches Devils and Doctors in the Renaissance, ed. Mora, George, Renaissance Texts and Studies, Binghamton, NY. 1991, p 181; Levack, Brian, The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe, Longman, NY 1987, pp 56, 137] Exceptions like Cornelius Agrippa, who denounced the whole process and expressed compassion for its victims, were rare indeed.

It was only later in the witch craze that some learned professors began to take a more skeptical or critical stance on the hunts. The inertia of doctrine was tremendous, and the risk of losing reputation (or much more) was real. And those who did finally condemn the embarrassing disgrace of the witch hunts often blamed delusional women for the whole mess, looking past the machinery of torture. Not a few modern writers about the witch craze have continued this tack. (Let’s pause again to note the resemblance of this idea of delusional women to the non-credibility attached to spiritual feminists.)

Goddesses who could no longer be named as such survived in folk observance, hiding out as faeries and apocryphal saints. Then, after so many centuries of being condemned by the Church, folk tradition lost again, in the Enlightenment rejection of peasant “superstition.” The Age of Reason had no place for harvest goddesses or megalithic gran’mères or for faery healers. The universe was all a great machine, and everything could be named (preferably in Latin or Greek) and catalogued into a hierarchy. What ethnic peasants thought no longer counted—and what they believed was changing too, although much more slowly.

Only after all this did the Romantic and evolutionary modern schools emerge, the ones that so many writers insist on pointing to as the fount of “utopian” feminist theories. (No. There really are other ways of looking at gender history than what 19th century white men thought up.) However, academicians who are fond of railing against mother-right discourse as a throwback to outmoded scholarly fads would do well to avoid the example of other precursors: the scholastics who thundered against the dangers of heresy, and would brook no discussion of ideas that threatened the prevailing doctrine.

The Modern University

Scientism triumphed, and though much upheaval accompanied the sag in Christian doctrinal supremacy in the universities, the shift was almost seamless when it came to the deeply-embedded codes of female inferiority. Secular science carried these over into its new rationalist model of patriarchy. It simply replaced the religious justification of male supremacy with medical and biological explanations for it. Masculist bias easily passed for science, though today Darwin’s opinion on the natural submission of females reads clearly as naked belief, and so do Freud’s theories of penis envy and female masochism.

Only a very few Renaissance women had managed to breach the ramparts of the men-only universities, nearly all of them daughters of Italian scholars. Women from wealthy families were often educated by private tutors, but their access to broader participation was conditional on their admission to elite male circles. A few women passed for male in order to study at university; a female student disguised as a man was ousted from the Kraków Academy while Copernicus was attending.

In the 1600s occasional prodigies breached the walls, like Anna Maria van Schurmann who taught at the University of Utrecht. But they were a mere handful, and they faced tremendous prejudice. Not for nothing did so many female scholars pen impassioned defenses of female rights and learning: van Schurmann, Christine de Pisane, Lucrezia Marinella, Sor Juana de la Cruz. It took a royal decree to get Dorothea Erxleben into a German university, enabling her to become the first woman M.D. in 1754.

It was not until the 1800s that women began to open up the universities. They came as lone females, or as tiny minorities for whom the necessity of assimilating to the all-male culture was paramount. To do otherwise was to fail. They faced ridicule, and the constant threat of ridicule. They did not have the option to frame the terms of debate. That process of female entry began only about 150 years ago. Much has changed since then — but not as much as some would like to think.

Although the number of female students reached parity in the late 20th century, female professors have not, especially not in tenured positions or department chairs. (Most of these are men, while most adjuncts and migrant contract teachers are women.) Feminist scholars began Women’s Studies, which many treated as a joke, and it remains a field under siege. In ideas, too, what passes for rigor is often weighed down with long-established cultural biases, ranking and prestige behaviors. Oppositional styles of debate that mischaracterize other positions for the sake of “winning” remain common. Sometimes this misrepresentation descends to the level of name-calling, as I discuss below.

All of this is related to the colossal stigma in academia on feminists who challenge the unexamined heretical nature of “goddess.” Academicians have been highly resistant, speaking generally, to seeing ancient female iconography as goddesses or having any sacral value. Most insist that goddess veneration has no historical or gender-political significance. They seem unwilling to entertain the idea that it undergoes cultural shifts as patriarchy advances, or to look at complex patterns of cultural stratification. They loudly demand “proof” for the sacred character of neolithic figurines, but do not raise objections to assumptions that patriarchy is a universal and panhistorical condition. Feminists who call the figurines “goddesses” are seen as being ideological, but not their opponents—even when their books bear titles like Goddess Unmasked.

Stigma in Academia

The social sciences carried over the old doctrinal prejudices against goddess reverence and witchcraft. There was never a moment when this bias was widely acknowledged and examined, where these ideas were released from their assigned heretical status. This stigma, like the disdain for feminism itself, has shaped orthodox academic reactions to feminist spiritual discourses. They are easily dismissed as unacceptable and delusional wishful thinking.

One way of accomplishing this is through reductionism. A diversity of perspectives are batched together, collapsed into a single stereotypical cariacature, and assigned a definition that can easily be dismissed, such as essentialism or utopianism. Once painted into such a corner, the targets can easily be dismissed as outsiders who don’t know what they’re talking about. This has nothing to do with really considering what is being said. Ideas that cannot be made to fit the cariacature are simply ignored, dropped, out of the discussion.

One of the most-used dismissals is the stereotype of Goddess monotheism. It ignores the diversity of perspectives, and misrepresents their complexity. It sidetracks analysis of cultural shifts toward patriarchy, and discussion of history bearing on gender politics, toward (usually inaccurate) assessments of a scholar’s personal beliefs. Of course, such a charge only works against spiritual feminists. There is no question of attacking adherents of the Abrahamic religions for being god monotheists. Their religion is irrelevant and it would be in bad taste to bring it up. Their credibility is not in question.

Another weapon in the arsenal is ridicule. An ad feminam slur is repeated over and over, taking on a life of its own and drowning out the voices that contradict its assumptions. Some of the most-used slurs are “New Age,” “golden-age,” “feminist ideologue,” “without evidence,” and that old favorite, “cult.”

The latest bizarre development in this name-calling is that male scholars whose research findings support the existence of goddess culture are attempting to escape its stigma by preemptively attacking Goddess feminists. Judith Laura shines a light on this phenomenon in her blog Medusa Coils. In her review of Did God Have a Wife? (April 10, 2007), she refutes William Dever’s references to the “foolishness perpetuated by the ‘Goddess movement’.” The excerpts she quotes from his book are illustrative in their tone, and almost a catalog of the pejoratives hurled at Goddess feminists:

“Some doctrinaire feminists have gone to extremes, of course, arguing without any evidence that originally there was only one Great Mother who … was dethroned by upstart male deities in later historical times and was thereafter suppressed. This was most forcibly argued by the European archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in books like Language of the Goddess (1989). Such pseudo- scholarship has been embraced by various New Age Goddess cults and “Neopagan” religions…. Some of these groups want to adopt me when I give public lectures, but the portrait I am painting here should give them no comfort.” [emphasis added]

Oh, that will show them. Dever is really holding the line against those heretics, that is doctrinaire feminists, who are extreme by definition. (Nothing is more doctrinaire than bald anti-feminist rhetoric.) In her detailed examination of Dever’s allegations, Judith Laura lays bare his misrepresentations and self-contradictions. She concludes, and I have to agree, that he is “jumping on the Goddess feminist-bashing bandwagon” out of fears for his own credibility. [See also her earlier piece on the appropriation of Goddess feminists' ideas without crediting them, and even disparaging them: "Article Double-Whammies Goddess.]

The silencing of women’s interpretation by intimidation, stigma and name-calling reproduces the religious legacy of silencing female speech and authority to teach—all the more so when those female voices come from outside the academy. These patterns must be recognized and named if we are to move forward.

On “Authoritarian Attitudes”

In Ancient Goddesses: the Myths and the Evidence, Goddess perspectives are called “problematic,” even “dangerous.” (And again, treated as a single point of view.) Editors Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris are critical of “this strong cultural offensive” which, they say, is based on a feminist reversal of 19th century cultural evolutionary theories. (No, it is not, no matter how many times this charge is repeated.) They go on to say that “the attempt to reconstruct a literal past has appealed to authoritarian attitudes and fundamentalist principles which we find deeply troubling.” [12-3]

What do they mean by “a literal past?” Maybe it is a postmodernist thumbs-down to the idea that anything can be known about history. If so, I can’t go there, and neither will most historians. There is no point to studying any of this material if no interpretation can be meaningful. Our grasp of the past is provisional, shifting as we learn more, and it will always have gaps, but the new things being uncovered are giving us a clearer picture all the time—and smashing old verities in the process.

The doctrine of an unknowable past has a corollary: that no analysis of the cultural genesis and historical patterns of male domination is possible. This is the really entrenched fundamentalism: the one that asserts that masculine supremacy is universal and an inalterable given of human society. That is biological determinism. And that is where the authoritarian attitude is entrenched, in an unwillingness to entertain and explore another possibility. I hear from students tussling with these rigidities all the time. We who have undertaken to analyze the historical trend toward patriarchy are bucking a long-standing dogma that has prevailed in anthropology, archaeology and history since the 1960s (in the latest round) and longer.

I’m all for avoiding fundamentalism, wherever it rears its head, but these denunciations of authoritarianism seem curiously one-sided. Goddess thinkers are not the ones sitting in the endowed chairs, and we are well aware of our outsider status. Some assume a defensive stance in the face of the contempt of certain archaeologists and classicists, but that is hardly authoritarian! It is rather a reaction to authoritarianism.

Let’s be clear. I don’t insist that all feminists must agree with Goddess perspectives. They do not, and that is fine. Some feminist scholars are critics of Goddess interpretations, many of them oriented to post-structuralist theory, some Marxists or queer theorists. However, it does not seem too much to ask for them not to misrepresent our perspectives (plural, not singular) or attack them as illegitimate, especially in the same language as manifest anti-feminists are using. Don’t close the gates on us. Let’s have the dialogue! But it has to get into specifics, not just theory.

Under the prevailing model, to be open about your standpoint is taken as a negative. Feminists have made it a scholarly practice to disclose standpoint. For their pains, they are frequently treated as lacking credibility. The institutional norm is still to claim a stance of objectivity. This is the privilege of the dominant school of thought, which needs no other authentication than its analytical rationalism purporting to see all as if from above. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

Understandably, we are skeptical. We’ve seen too many books labeling a female-breasted statue a “god,” too little documentation provided and too much slant, too many omissions of relevant information about female artifacts. These experiences have engendered a healthy suspicion about the vaunted “objectivity” of academic sources. Our challenge to this claim has not gone over well.

In their essay in Ancient Goddesses, “Rethinking Figurines,” Ruth Tringham and Meg Conkey accuse spiritual feminists of creating “an authoritative and totalizing account of ‘the past’.” Again the vexed question of authority rears its head—not for Lord Renfrew, but for spiritual feminists. For their part, Goodison and Morris do concede some value to opening spiritual questions but nevertheless perceive that a search for “authority” and “a new orthodoxy, leads to intolerance.” [13] They are worried about “monopolizing of ‘truth’.”

Well, so are we (though we aren’t talking about the same culprits!) but the above does not sound like a tolerant discourse to me. It looks like the viewpoint of a low-prestige group is being denied a hearing and castigated for asserting its right to speak. For groups that have historically been denied authority (women, feminists, pagans, non-academics) to interpret the cultural record, it is beyond ironic to be accused of authoritarianism. For us to claim any authority whatsoever is to overstep.

We make easy targets, while colleagues in high places are let off the hook. For example, Goodison and Morris criticize Goddess theorists for failing to address the context of finds [13-15], but this critique should rightly be leveled at archaeologists, who typically failed to provide that very information until quite recently. In fact, most of them deemphasize the female figurines. In my experience reading countless archaeological reports and summary literature, it is difficult to identify even the site provenance for a figurine, to say nothing of whether it was found in a house or shrine or burial, or what was found with it.

Of figurines and rubbish

Tringham and Conkey view ritual as a means for groups to establish dominance over others, by “household, senior members, senior males.” Or, they propose, the figurines could be part of male-female competition, or female resistance in the form of “sexual insults” to males. [42ff] Here they invoke the anthropological concept of … pussy- whipping. This is quite a negative take on the most widespread cultural artifact of the neolithic: that creating images of women is an attack on men. Not a single parallel example from living societies is offered for this theory. (I can’t think of one either.) There are many examples of sacral uses for female figurines, ritual dolls, and so on. Why exactly is this possibility rejected out of hand? More to the point, why assume female subordination or gender competition in the neolithic? Nothing about the figurines, or in the neolithic finds, suggests male dominance. Yet this seems to be the only assumption that is considered admissible.

It is frequently claimed that the figurines could not have had sacral valence because they were found in “rubbish dumps.” Talk about projecting cultural values on the past. The dead are often buried in middens, and with offerings. We can safely assume that they were not regarded as garbage. In the case of the figurines, Johanna Stuckey of York University has pointed out that it makes more sense to look at some of these “refuse dumps” as ritual deposit sites. She notes that examples are known in ancient southwest Asia, and recent excavations on the island of Keros (where over half of all the famous Cycladic goddess statues have been found) have shown that they were deliberately broken and then brought to the site. [Asherah listserv, Jan 1 2007] Readers will be interested to know that Colin Renfrew and others excavating this site are recognizing it as an important religious center. (No word yet on whether they are using the G-word.) [Associated Press report, Dec. 31, 2006, via the Stone Pages Archeonews]

Quite a bit has been written by now about the practice of consecrating objects as vessels for sacred energy and then discarding them when the ritual is completed. In many cases such objects are deliberately broken, as has been observed for many of the smaller ceramic figurines. This is quite consistent with some living ritual cultures. As W.T. Elmore observed back in 1913, Telegu people made images of goddesses of earth or clay, and later discarded them: “In every case the worship is addressed to an outside spirit which has taken up its residence, temporary or otherwise, in the object. The Dravidian makes a god [sic] for the day and throws it away, or leaves it on the boundaries. After one day, it is nothing and the cattle may trample it underfoot.” [Elmore, Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 147, 19, 68. Although Elmore uses the word god, nearly all the deities described in his book are female.]

Of course, we know that many sacred images are clearly imbued with great power and cherished with reverence over centuries, like the holy stones of Kybele and the Arabian deity stones, and the emerald goddess that Ecuadorians hid from the Spanish conquistadores. Temple statues are generally regarded as holding accumulated spiritual energy from their consecration and ceremonial over long periods of time. But it’s clear that being discarded does not prove that an object lacked sacred meaning.

About Naming: Idols

In the past several decades, some of the more offensive descriptions of the female figurines, such as “dancing girls” or “concubines,” have fallen out of scholarly use. (Press reports, however, are still breathlessly describing finds of “an 8,000 year old sex goddess.”) But “fertility idol” is still very current and in fact has enjoyed a vigorous comeback, as using “goddess” became the scholarly equivalent of walking onto a target range, at least in Anglophone universities. “Fertility idol” became a handy substitute when some sacral meaning was clearly involved but it was considered undesirable to say so: in other words, to say “goddess.”

But it is hardly scientific to name the figurines as “idols,” especially given the negative cultural associations the term evokes. It throws us back to the biblical ban on “worshipping stocks and stones.” We need a word that does not reproduce an old religious bias against traditions long considered to be Other, “primitive” and “superstitious.” It might be argued that at least the term concedes a religious context, but in fact that is exactly what is being denied.

Many scholars seem determined to go to great lengths to avoid concluding that early female images were sacred. It has been proposed, for example, that the abstract marble sculptures of women from the ancient Cycladic islands were toys, in spite of their size and weight, or the fact they remain stylistically consistent over a period of eight centuries, or that they are found in concentrated deposits.

Another unlikely but common explanation treats the ancient figurines as pornography, without bothering to explain the frequency of their finds in burials, shrines, kitchen areas, or among ritual items. This idea really does bear the marks of modern assumptions. Along with the tiresome “fertility idol” stereotype, it keeps pounding out the idea that women are sex, or women are reproductive function: objects manipulated by and for men. There is no room here for embodied female expression of self, for women’s interpretation of their own experience, in ritual and through culture.

The semantic games get really convoluted. For example, what can Karel van der Toorn mean? in saying that the Israelite figurines are not goddesses but perhaps “cult images used for devotional or prophylactic purposes.” [Ancient Goddesses: the Myths and the Evidence, 94] Toward what are the devotional rites directed (the “cult”) and by what power is protection achieved? (Or, in materialist terms, by what power do people believe it is achieved?). Such cultural practices still imply religion or its residues (as in “magical” rites that have been denatured of nearly all religious content over long periods). The same questions arise for fertility, healing, and the other proposed uses of the figurines—what is the source of their power?—and these critiques are simply not addressing them.

Votive offerings—to whom?

These issues came up in January 2005 when Carol Myers of Duke University spoke at the Pacific School of Religion on “The Religious Culture of Israelites.” I appreciated much of what she had to say, particularly her concern to rescue women’s religious practices from obscurity and devaluation. She decried the dismissal of women's religious practices as unimportant “magic.” She gave evidence that they dealt with “life and death” matters such as childbirth, and drew some dramatic parallels to modern ethnographic accounts of women’s rituals in the region.

Dr. Myers was adamant, however, that the pillar figurines did not, could not, represent Asherah or have any sacramental valence, being votive figurines only. No one has proven that they represent Asherah, and there are other possibilities. Maybe they represent ancestral mothers, like the teraphim of earlier centuries. Still, those who deny that they represent goddesses have yet to address to whom or what these votives were being offered. (That is the meaning of the word votive, a vow of offering.) They also must account for the fact that the pillar figurines were created at a time when the prophets were railing against popular veneration of deities other than YHWH, notably Asherah. Kings were destroying their shrines and knocking down pillars named for Asherah. This is the historical context of the clay pillar women.

Dr. Myers insisted on drawing a sharp distinction between the Israelite pillar figurines and other statuettes that she did acknowledge as goddesses, one Syrian and another a Hathor-coiffed Canaanite. Asked what was the difference, she said that she looked for how well they were made, whether they wore special garb or insignia, or were made of precious metals. (So much for the mud-sculpted Durgas and Nigerian mbari figures, or the straw-plaited rice goddesses of Indonesia…) However, in her Powerpoint presentation, both the acknowledged “goddesses” and the presumed “non-goddesses” displayed the same iconographic gesture: hands cupping the breasts, a sign that goes back deep into the neolithic, many thousands of years before we can identify any ethnicity in the region. The ritual culture of this era centers on these female icons, which remain the prototype for ritual art of the next 5000 years. They represent an unshaken cultural continuity, right up through the period when the prophets were denouncing goddess veneration.

Carol Meyers tried to staunch any suggestion that the figurines had to do with the sacred, even though the title of her lecture referenced women’s “religious culture.” She disparaged Elizabeth Fisher's “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” (a ground-breaking feminist spiritual practicum created for the Unitarian Church), saying essentially that it was legitimate to talk about the practices, but not about their religious content. But since the original passage in Jeremiah pointedly linked these practices with a female deity, there is no avoiding that discussion. And why would an objective scholar want to? Why is discussion of goddess reverence in historical context treated as radioactive, if not for the persistence of its ancient biblical derogation?

Meyers made a point of saying that archaeologists reject these goddess interpretations. This has been true of most British and American archaeologists, but not of all archaeologists, as I have pointed out elsewhere.  And this may be changing, as the previously cited report on Renfrew’s Keros excavation suggests. In the Judaic context, it has already changed. No discussion of this subject should fail to acknowledge the seismic shift in Biblical studies caused by the Hebrew inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el Qom, which invoke Asherah and pair her with the god of Judaism. And other lesser-known texts of this kind have been found, to say nothing of the iconic evidence. [Examples can be found in the works of Jenny Kien, Joanna Stuckey, Tilde Binger, and William Dever, to name a few.]

There is by now widespread recognition that a lively substratum of goddess-oriented belief and practice thrived in ancient Judah, and even more so in the northern kingdom of Israel. (An exhibit at the Pacific School of Religion where Meyers gave her lecture showed a refreshing openness to seeing the figurines as an expression of Asherah veneration.) In the end, it seemed to me that, although Myers was critical of the "magic" thesis, her interpretation of “votive” objects devoid of veneration ended up coming pretty close to it. She didn’t explain what she thought their religious content was.

I share her antipathy to the “magic” label. Centuries after the pillar goddesses, Talmudic writers feared and denounced such female rituals as witchcraft, pure and simple. See Meir Bar-Ilan’s wonderful online essay, “Witches in the Bible and in the Talmud”. We can agree this far: such accounts disparaged women’s spiritual practices, with a palpable fear in the mix.

It’s important to repeat that we are looking at a broader interpretation of “goddess” than the narrow defile to which orthodox theorists have relegated it. What spiritual feminists have been developing over the past 35 years sees women’s embodied experience in relation to their spiritual iconography, their ritual culture, and their expression—until this is interrupted through historical interventions—of the sacred in a female form. (I’ll return to this importance issue of embodiment—and “essentialism”—in Part III.)

On historical shifts and processes

The critics of “simplistic” goddess narratives themselves present a highly simplistic view. There could not have been a Great Mother “utopia,” so neolithic societies had to be patriarchal. If goddesses exist in patriarchal cultures, then it follows that they can possess no special significance for women or basis for female power and resistance within the cultural scheme. These polarized extremes illustrate a denial of patriarchy’s development as a historical process. It is not the unavoidable default state of humanity, but a set of political accretions that build up.

Why not consider that there may have been shifts toward patriarchy in different places, under different conditions? And look at successive intensifications of it in the same place, over time. This is the real study, a much richer picture than the cartoon descriptions. There is plenty of evidence for what we can call cultural stratification, in which older layers are retained, kept separate and even hidden by indigenous or common people, and appropriated, modified, transformed or superceded by newly dominant groups. We can track increasingly patriarchal adstrata created by these elite classes or ethnicities.

Ancient Iraqi literature shows numerous myths in which powerful goddesses are overthrown, eclipsed and replaced. The creatrix Nammu or Mother Hubur is supplanted by Enki. Tiamat is slain by Marduk. [see James Pritchard’s classic anthology Ancient Near Eastern Texts, or Tikvah Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddesses (which is however far more perceptive about patriarchal developments in the Iraqi literature than in the Biblical).] Priesthoods redefine goddesses and dynasties appropriate them for their own political purposes, as happened with Ishtar, who became a goddess of the empire. Even at this point, though, the goddesses retain some of their original meaning and potency for women and commoners. Village women continue to invoke them for blessing and protection in rites that may bear little resemblance to those practiced by the priestly elite. So for example the ceramic figurines of neolithic origin persist in Sumeria, and continue through imperial Akkadia, Babylonia, Assyria, and Chaldea, before finally disappearing in the Christian era.

Other cases are the appropriation of goddess powers by Zeus in the Greek world, and by Odin in Viking times. All these are part of a larger historical pattern of movement toward more patriarchal structures, a complex process not reducible to golden age narratives. It must be tracked through the disappearance of attested female spheres of power, such as female Arab chiefs and priestesses, in classical literature such as Pausanias, Strabo, the Mahabharata, as well as in living oratures.

This persistence of ancient religious imperatives often withstands ethnic and class hierarchy as well. I’ve noticed a pattern of commoners, male as well as female, upholding old forms of goddess veneration in the face of a patriarchal elite that controls the temples and other institutions. India offers especially dramatic instances of this dynamic. One example is discussed in a brilliant article by Frédérique Apffel Marglin and Purna Chandra Mishra, “Death and Regeneration: Brahmin and non-Brahmin Narratives.” They show how an aboriginal goddess known as Mangalaa is incorporated into a brahmanized superstory, while oppressed-caste groups maintain their own tradition of the goddess as a forest and river being who is venerated in the form of a pot. People from outcaste groups are not permitted to enter the temple but their rites nevertheless remain a central part of the festivals originated by their ancestors.

The researchers had considerable trouble getting the common people’s account, since the Brahmin priest angrily interrupted it when the low-caste teller said, “Mangalaa is the creator of Jagannaatha.” He was rebuked, that is, for asserting that the indigenous goddess is senior to the Vaishnava god, whose story reframes her myth in the brahmin narrative. [in Devotion Divine: Bhakti Traditions from the Regions of India, ed. Diana Eck and Francois Mallison, Paris: Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, 1991, pp 209-230. Thanks to Dr. Julia Jean for making this article available to me.]

Here the precedence of the aboriginal goddess is still being upheld. Other narratives show a goddess who, although the creatrix of everything, is eventually formally subordinated by one of her own male creations. A folk story of Andhra Pradesh tells how Adya (“original one”) was “born to herself” from the water. She quickly matured and desired a partner. She took the form of a bird, sat on a lotus and laid three eggs. The first spoiled, the second gave rise to the sun, moon, and stars, and the third produced the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. She nurtured them at her breast, and when they were matured, she asked them (!) for sex. Shiva agreed, on condition that she would give him her third eye. [Pattanaik, Devdutt, The Goddess in India, Rochester VT: Inner Traditions, 2000, pp 13-14]

So an original creatrix story is hybridized with a supremacist overlay, which makes the goddess lose her superior power to a male god on account of female sexuality. This type of reformulation is basic to the way sociopolitical transformations are wrought into mythic culture. It’s important to know that this story exists against a background of Shakta (goddess-oriented) traditions of Adya Shakti or Adi Parashakti, in which Goddess remains the “original supreme power.” It is this female conception of power which is being revised for the purposes of male dominion.

The theme of a female creation egg that bursts open and releases the sun, moon and stars also shows up in unrelated cultures. In Egypt the Egg and life emerging from it are formed according to the power of the goddess Maat. In Finland, the Egg becomes hot while resting on the body of Luonotar, daughter of Nature, as she floats on the primal waters. When everything bursts forth from the Egg, it is she who molds the land. (Is it Goddess monotheism to point out these similarities?)

In another version of the reconfigured Indian story, it is Ammavaru whose egg creates the Hindu trinity. After she gives her spiritual eye to Shiva, he conquers her. This apparently means that he kills her: “From her body emerged all the village goddesses.” [Pattanaik, 152] Here we have yet another modification, in which the original goddess appears in new forms. The local goddesses emerge from Ammavaru, and they also partake fully of her essence. This essence is not a biological -ism, but a spiritual quality of being not reducible by rational analysis. Neither is the interplay between these forms: “When activated, each goddess is the Great Goddess,” writes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Or in the words of Anandamayi Ma, “How can the One be distinct from the infinite Multiplicity? The many exist in the One and the One in the many.” [Conway, Timothy, Women of Power and Grace, Santa Barbara, 1994, p 164]

What the patriarchs thought

In historical perspective, the fact that goddesses exist (or survive) in some patriarchal societies does not disprove the significance of cultural archetypes for human relations and values. They don’t only reflect them, but also condition them. We have to look at how the myths function and how they change, why they change.

Myth is a lens onto gender relations, values, norms and codes. The shift to male dominance is inevitably reflected in mythology over the course of time. We can see how priestly theological systems demote female deities, and also gradually displace priestesses over time. Another cultural overturning demands that female deity be discarded altogether, and masculine religious language adopted—and enforced—instead. This extreme is perfectly illustrated by the church patriarch Athanasius in a sermon raging against the worship of Isis and Aphrodite:

And would that their idolatrous madness had stopped short at males, and that they had not brought down the title of deity to females. For even women, whom it is not safe to admit to deliberation about public affairs, they worship and serve with the honor due to God… [“Against the Heathen ,” Fathers of the Church] (Link no longer active - November 2015)

A contemporary Christian writer Lactantius likewise concludes, with tortured reasoning I won’t go into, that the very belief in goddesses demonstrates that all pagan gods are false. Finally he declares that no deity could be female, because women are feeble and gods are powerful. [The Divine Institutes, Book I: The false worship of the gods]

Putting it another way, the church father Augustine wrote, “For woman is not the image of God, whereas the man alone is the image of God.” This is still the rationale the Catholic hierarchy uses to deny women priestly ordination: that females cannot model Christ, and maleness is the crucial qualification for priesthood. Even men who have had testicles removed are disqualified. We have seen the result; male exclusivity is preserved at all costs, even to the protection of priests who molest and rape children.

The story behind the so-called “Satanic Verses” also illustrates the sexual politics behind goddess suppression. The name refers to a Quranic passage that in its original form admitted the three principal goddesses of the Arabian pantheon into Islam. Abu Jafar al-Tabari (d. 923) reported that a revelation came to Muhammad in the Ka'aba: "Have you then considered Allat and al–Uzza/ And Manat, the third, the last?/ These are the exalted birds (gharaniq, or Numidian cranes)/ Whose intercession is approved." (Another translation renders it as “whose intercession is devoutly to be wished.”)

A-Kalbi attested that these verses were based on the traditional invocation that the Quraysh (Muhammad’s tribe) made while ritually walking around the Ka'aba. A hadith says that Gabriel later revealed that Satan had inspired these verses. Muhammad then removed them and replaced them with the present version:

"Have you then considered Allat and al–Uzza/ And Manat, the third, the last?/ What! for you the males and for Him the females! This indeed is an unjust division! They are nothing but names which you have named, you and your fathers; Allah has not sent for them any authority. They follow nothing but conjecture and their low desires." [Sura 53:19] In case there was any ambiguity about the sexual politics, this follows a few verses later: "Most surely they who do not believe in the hereafter/ name the angels with female names." [Sura 53:56]

It’s interesting that most of the controversy over the meanings of Goddess has fixated on proving or disproving that goddess reverence reflects or effects better status for women. But little has been said in the scholarly debate about the eagerness of masculine priesthoods to negate or do away with this cultural precedent for sovereign female power. This model mattered enough for them to feel it was important to displace, or to destroy.

There’s an intriging example in northern Iran where goddess veneration is connected with (relatively) improved status for women. The mountain village of Alasht is called “the town of women.” It also has a shrine called Dokhtar-e Pak (Immaculate Girl). “Locals believe that this shrine belongs to a grand lady and according to an old myth, men should not approach the shrine or they will be bitten by its guardian serpent.” But women and girls go there to pray every weekend. [“Alasht, the Town of Women,” Wikipedia, Accessed: Jan 31, 2007]

According to the scholar Parviz Varjavand, the Alasht sanctuary was originally dedicated to the goddess Nahid. She is a form of the Avestan goddess Anahita and Armenian Anahid. One of her titles in the Zoroastrian scriptures is “the Pure,” like the shrine’s name. The Wikipedia account concludes, “Walking in the streets of Alasht, men should remember that facing any woman they must lower their head and say hello, because this is the village of women.”


I just had to get that out of my system. And there are signs that a shift is taking place in the above-described situation, which in any case is not monolithic but a definite pattern. Stay tuned for Part III in the Samhain edition of Goddess Pages.

©Max Dashu