Before Christianity (I’m not convinced by Marija Gimbutas’ matriarchy hypothesis, as much as I like it) many cultures recognized mother goddesses. No disrespect to Gimbutas, but our knowledge of early culture, particularly pre-literate varieties, is sketchy. There is evidence and we build cases, but we only see part of the picture. One thing we clearly see is they venerated women. Early people recognized the divine power in females. Women gave life and nurture in an otherwise hard and uncertain world. The earliest art, as far as we can reconstruct, is representation of women. While we can’t know it, it’s reasonably inferred that such artworks are goddesses. We do know that by the time the earliest religions appear in writing goddesses were as fully present as gods. The two “halves” (at the risk of being accused of being a binaryist) of the human experience were fundamental.
Patriarchy casts a ominous hue over the monotheistic enterprise. In a world where only one deity reigns, it must be thought of as gendered. This is the human condition, right Xenophanes? While it didn’t take monotheism to move society in that direction—that seems to be the fault of testosterone—over time male gods dominated. We’ve been stuck in that world ever since. I was reminded of this while reading about Danu, the Celtic “earth goddess.” Danu gave her name to the Danube River, in the Celtic homeland. She was venerated as the mother of the gods and the mother, in a sense, of us all.
The point is that Danu wasn’t unique. Many cultures had similar figures. Although monotheism didn’t start the decline of mother goddesses, it pretty much spelled their end. Human religious imagination can only go so far, and gods will always reflect what we think about ourselves. Monotheistic religions all present themselves as revealed, which is to say they seem to be aware that logic regarding their claims breaks down at some point and then they can invoke the mystery of limited human minds in a landscape with divine knowledge which the cognoscenti claim they alone possess. Over time these religions inevitably become masculine in orientation. They may declare their god sexless, but males will always benefit from the legislation. Claims about the goddess will be branded heresy and offensive to the sexless male true god. Analysts of religion, generally male, used to claim that, of course monotheism is superior. This system must be protected with laws and theology. Others secretly know there is a better way, equally revealed.
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