Was there ever a Goddess? (And what was She like?)


Carol P. Christ, author of (most recently) She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World and (most famously) Womanspirit Rising, has been blogging over at Women and Spirituality for some time now and I think she’s great. Over the past month or so she’s written a series of posts (1, 2, and 3 with promises of more) on the dismissal of the Goddesses of prehistory that I think ought to be extremely relevant to those who makes their way to Paleothea.com. Although her posts inspired this one, I’m not going to attempt to summarize her; I strongly recommend reading at least one of her entries yourself (those who took part in the Dualism synchroblog might be particularly interested in the second part).

Demeter, by Vasilis ZikosIt makes a great deal of sense to me personally that separating one’s worship from oneself physically – either by worshiping an utterly non-corporal deity, or locating the deity far from one’s experience of the world (e.g. in Heaven), or theologically denying physical experience (such as death) – might put the feminine divine at a disadvantage. As a woman, I root a number of my conceptions of my own gender in my body’s (hypothetical) ability to produce life. I am extremely aware that this has been a crucial definition for my foremothers. Thus it seems “only natural” that feminine deities – particularly the Great Ones – should include as a crucial element of their identity the creation (and potentially destruction) of physical life.

However, I cannot escape nagging doubts on a couple of points: 1) menstruating and having a uterus are cool and all, but they are not all that is required to give life any more than sperm is (as those ancient Greek doctors I mentioned last week seemed to suggest), 2) the relegation to the principal role of Mother and only secondarily anything else (if at all) feels like something feminists should be rejecting, and 3) different cultures have vastly different ways of connecting things like birth, death, and eternity with their spirituality. The final point is the most important. Although it is obvious to me (again, personally, feel free to see things differently) that conceptions of the divine in religions such as most branches of Christianity reject both the Feminine and the Physical as one, that does not mean that embracing one (such as having a Great Goddess) inherently requires the celebration of the other (the physical body, birth, etc.).

Ironically, my last entry was all about how the two concepts are inextricably caught up in each other in ancient Greek mythology, particularly for women and goddesses. But here I want to take a step back and think about what a Great Goddess, or simply a non-patriarchal goddess, might have looked like or felt like to the women and men who worshiped her.  And though I am pretty convinced that some experience of Athena was as I described it in the last post, I am equally sure that there were others who experienced her utterly differently.

This was a tough post for me to write and I’m afraid I finish with more questions than answers. I am interested in any thoughts anyone else might have on this or a related topic and hope I’ll get a couple of comments on this one.


2 responses to “Was there ever a Goddess? (And what was She like?)”

  1. To imagine how Goddess was imagined by pre-patriarchal peoples we have to go to the furthest reaches of history . . . and beyond. History, as it is now written, is a patriarchal endeavour. Therefore, all mentions of Goddess will be skewed. The beginnings of history see the beginnings of patriarchy, and so we have the beginnings of the war against the Feminine. Keeping that in mind, and recognizing it when we read it in the old legends can help us imagine how it was before . . . before his-story.

    The Greek myths don’t go far enough back — we’ve lost too much of their history. Go to the earliest myths of Tiamat (aka Leviathan) to find The Great Mother. As well, the Sumerian myth of Inanna is the story of the patriarchy conquering the matriarchy.

    Realize also that the matriarchy was not simply a reversal of the patriarchy, but a wholly different way of life. The matriarchy seems to have been a collective community (a type of communism) wherein equality was the rule — herein we have the opposite of patriarchy wherein heirarchy is the rule.

    Anyway, that’s my take on it.

  2. That sounds a lot like the perspective I used to have, but now I’ve got too many questions. Can we really apply the term “patriarchal” that broadly? Social systems – even ones that share the fact that men have more public power than women – are so varying that it doesn’t make sense to me to lump them all together anymore. The reason I continue to apply the term to ancient Greece is because it seems to virtually define the term for me.

    The second point I have is the “don’t go far enough back” part. The story of Inana isn’t really that much different from the ones about Ouranos, Cronos, and Zeus (or the Oresteia, for that matter). They all tell us MYTHS about the patriarchal conquering the matriarchal. Robert Graves, and others, would have us believe that we should take that at least partially historically, proof that pre-history was not patriarchal. But I’m not so sure. Why would it be any different than the myths of the Amazons, told more to reaffirm and explain the status quo than as actual proof of a warrior-woman society that always lost to the Greeks in war.

    And finally, your explanation of a communistic matriarchy is indeed very appealing, but I still have trouble believing in it on so little evidence (thus “PRE-history”).

    I’m hoping that my views will swing back a little more from my depressing perspective once I’ve read the Peggy Reeves Sanday book, Female Power and Male Dominance: On The Origins of Sexual Inequality, recommended to me by my hero (I’ve decided that’s a gender-neutral term), Carol P. Christ.

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