Moon Base

Late last year scientists announced that a tunnel they’d found on the moon (remotely, of course) would make an ideal location for a human colony. The moon, you see, is quite cold and, lacking an atmosphere, constantly exposed to naked solar radiation. It’s a tough sell, even for first-time buyers. Still, with a little hole to crawl into, and some homey touches, this might be the future of humanity. Of course, offshore relocation has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning. Technically encumbered by the whole speed of light thing, we’re left with neighboring planets and moons that are either too hot or too cold, our species having evolved on the Goldilocks of solar system real estate. Moving to the moon might sound like a good idea right about now, but it’s going to take more than Two Guys and a Truck to get us there.

Fantasies of moving abroad come in two varieties—those of optimism and those of pessimism. Either things are going so well that we want to spread the evangel of our soaring success to the universe or things are looking so terribly Republican that even the dark side of the moon seems enlightened. There’s no question which phase we’re in at the moment. The moon is relatively close after all. It has been a fairly quiet neighbor over the millennia. We’ll want some good insulation, however, and despite the Weir version of Martians, we’ll depend on those back earth-side to send us some grub every now and again.

In ancient times the moon was frequently a goddess. Some ancient cultures pegged our satellite as masculine, but many saw her gentle light as more befitting a powerful female. Heading outside in the predawn hours with a full moon overhead is a pleasant, if chilly, reminder of just how bright our constant companion can be. Light without heat. Ancient desert-dwellers found the moon more benevolent than the sun, for night was relief from the fierce heat of day. Still, moving to the moon would meaning making a new world in our own image. Nothing, I suspect, would defile a goddess quicker. Our costly detritus already litters the once untouched face of Luna, and our size-nine-and-a-half prints are permanently left behind there. Heaven has always been that undiscovered country somewhere over our heads. The discovery of tunnels on the moon where we might snuggle down and be free may sound great. But we need to get things settled out on the ground first, otherwise our one and only satellite will merely become our next victim to exploit.

Good Goddess

This past week Asherah has been on my mind. Some of my readers will know that I wrote a book on Asherah, based on my doctoral dissertation. Those who’ve read it (admittedly few) will know that in it I lament the easy association of generic goddesses with a mythological figure with a distinct background and character. The complication has a number of sources, but became particularly acute when inscriptions reading “I bless you by Yahweh… and his asherah” were discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud a few decades back. Since then it has become neo-orthodoxy that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife and she represented trees, lions, goats, fertility, water, wisdom, and any number of other phenomena. Those who question this are called “conservatives” and evidence deniers. Those who write popular books on this assumption end up on news programs and some start appearing at conferences in very nice clothes.

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

So why am I thinking of Asherah? A friend sent me the news story of a female figurine discovered in an accidental find at Tel Rehov in Israel. Upon seeing the story, I was awaiting the inevitable equation with Asherah, but was surprised to read that Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist consulted, suggested it might be Astarte, or someone else. You see, figurines of naked females were quite common in ancient Israel. No consensus has arisen as to which goddess is represented, if any. They don’t have names inscribed, and they may have been like, ahem, action figures for the woman hoping for a child, or for the safe delivery of a child. We simply don’t know. The other reason I’m thinking of Asherah is that I recently read a book where it was simply assumed that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to see Yahweh as happily married as any other god. In fact, I think it would be odd if nobody thought he was. There is a difference, however, between thinking this makes sense and grasping at minimal evidence to declare it a fact. If someone were to discover an unambiguous inscription reading, for instance, “Asherah and Yahweh sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” then I’d be the first to say mazel tov. I have no theological bias against it. The problem is we simply do not know enough about the goddesses of antiquity. We know there were many. And we know there were women who didn’t claim divinity as well. Who these figurines represent, we just don’t know. Perhaps Yahweh, even now out on a date with Asherah, is smiling down knowingly. If so, I wish them well. Until I see some unambiguous evidence, however, I will be a doubter.

Let It Be

CultOfTheVirginMaryWhy do people pray to Mary? The question is a complex one and answers range from a desire to find some feminine compassion in an angry masculine god to the distinctly Freudian. Michael P. Carroll, in The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins, falls into the latter category. Yes, the book was written in the 1980s, but even then Oedipal complexes and penis envy were deeply suspect. Still, at various points along the way Carroll had me scratching my head and muttering “there may be something to this.” For a few pages, anyway. The problem begins much further back than Mary. To start with, we can’t all agree on what religion is. From there we move to the stage where ancient religions had as many goddesses as gods—even the divine don’t like to be lonely. The heads of most pantheons were male, which likely matched most earthly political systems. Powerful females still existed, at least in mythical realms. Monotheism effectively put an end to that, but before too terribly long, Mary emerged and eventually became almost a goddess.

Indeed, early on in his book Carroll discusses how Mary differs from the goddesses of antiquity, drawing parallels with only Cybele. Mary is the virgin mother completely dissociated from sexuality. Deeper study would reveal some mistakes in Carroll’s reasoning—there were virgin mother goddesses, such as Anat, who might in some ways fill in the gaps. Indeed, arguing for the uniqueness of Mary is kind of a goddesses-of-the-gaps theology. The more we learn the less unique any deity becomes. Still, looking to the psyche to explain Mary is a logical step. Tracing Marian devotion to the ineffective-father family, where a machoism hides a longing for the protective mother, Carroll offers us a Freudian feast of options here. Still, in the light of developments in psychology over the past quarter century, his premise is a bit dated.

We simply don’t know why Mary became such a strong devotional interest in a religion with a masculine Trinity. It would seem that women might be the motive force behind it. Given that half of Christendom was displaced, by default, from the male savior, why would Mary not emerge as the mother all people crave and whom, women know, often soften the harsh decrees of martial law? Delving into the apparitions of Mary from Our Lady of Guadalupe to Fatima and Medjugorje, Carroll finds illusions and hallucinations based on strong females behind each one. Rational inquiry into the deeply spiritual. This, however, remains the proximate cause only. What is really seen can’t be known, except to the seer. And it seems that seers tend to find, amid a religion with an omnipotent man at the top, that it is the mother who appears in times of need. Unless, of course, it is a matter of healthcare where, as government shows, father knows best.

Co-opting Hecate

Students in my mythology class had to research and write about a deity from the ancient world. I was pleased that one of them chose Hecate, a misunderstood goddess of obscure origins. Hecate overlaps with other deities in her spheres of influence and her many roles, a sign that she was an early goddess adopted into the Greek pantheon at a stage before Artemis, Selene, and Persephone took over her connections with the moon and underworld. She was a guardian of crossroads, a task later attributed to Hermes – a god who also became a psychopomp. Hecate was left to languish in Hades where she became associated with gloom and magic and baleful spells.

What the Hecate?

It is likely the latter developments that have brought Hecate into the status of patron goddess of many Wiccans. She is chthonian – a right jolly old Goth – and she takes on a bad-girl image that would not have been recognized by the ancient Greeks. Even Shakespeare contributed to her witchy-woman image when he associated her with the weird sisters in Macbeth. Revitalized as a symbol of feminine power, Hecate enjoys such popularity today that it is difficult to find reliable information on the goddess.

I find it instructive that ancient goddesses are so embellished to make them tasteful to modern explorers. Perhaps because of the persistent patriarchality of ancient society, we have been deprived of deep knowledge of the goddesses. For those who originally worshiped them, however, the goddesses needed no blandishments. They were the personification of divine power manifested through the feminine. Ancients believed that all people were touched by supernatural forces, no matter what their gender. In a brash demonization of the powerful feminine, Hecate has become the goddess of witches and seekers after a female image that simply never existed. Why not accept goddesses for who they were – constant reminders that life is not possible without the divine feminine?

Here Comes the Sun, and Is She Ever Hot!

As I enjoy my Kellogg’s Raisin Bran at breakfast, a benevolent sun smiles down on me from the box. I know from social conditioning as a child (courtesy of television), that the smiling solar disc converted the healthful grapes into equally healthful raisins so that I could grow up to be big and strong. While there is no doubt some truth to this solar myth, it does demonstrate how pervasive solar personification is.

A persistent myth to minds conditioned by trinitarian concepts of early Christianity is that the ancients recognized three major goddesses. Although their names are distinct in the original languages, in English three of them begin with A and form a delightful Trinitiess: Asherah, Anat, and Astarte. So this feminine triune godhead is considered to represent the female power triangle of the ancient Ugaritic world. (Ugaritic, I know, is a far too limited term for what was a widespread idea. On the other hand, “Aramean” and “Canaanite” are inherently problematic!) It has been my contention for years that this construct is A) modern, and B) false.

Throughout the ancient world the sun was considered a major deity. And although deities frequently overlapped in their spheres of interest, the principle Ugaritic deity in charge of the sun is Shapash. (With apologies to Nicolas Wyatt, I simply can not find Asherah in her.) In the surviving Ugaritic mythology, which we know for sure is only a portion of a larger corpus, Shapash appears frequently to enlighten both gods and humans. She guides the dead to their repose in the underworld and provides them with some kind of light while the world sleeps unknowingly above. She even seems to have the ability to cure snake bites. Now in the heat of summer, there is no question of Shapash’s ability to turn our grapes into raisins. She even kept many indoors in India last week as the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century crossed that country (chalk one up for Yarikh). Let’s give the sun her due!