Fashions to Slaves

Howard Thurman was a theologian who held saintly status in my days at Boston University. As an African-American he’d experienced episodes while growing up that nobody should have to face. I remember him writing about being stuck with a pin in the hand by a caucasian girl who declared, “you don’t feel pain.” That image has stayed with me for decades. Unfortunately, that image hasn’t remained alone. I’ve been reading about slavery in the ancient world. No matter your race, slavery was considered a kind of ontological state. The color of your skin didn’t matter; your social status did. Slaves, you see, were less than human. When the slave trade began its hideous trans-Atlantic business ventures, essentially an entire race was classed as subhuman, because it is easier to feel good about mistreating a subhuman than it is a fellow being with a soul just like yours, if only purer.

This is not to deny the very real and troubling, criminal mistreatment that African-Americans experienced during the colonial period. The deeper problem with slaves was that of social status. If you look closely enough, you can always make someone “the other.” Heck, we’ve done it for millennia with those of the female gender. Something that has always bothered me has been how sociologists, political scientists, and historians constantly overlook the concomitant issue of class. In the new world we like to image we’re a classless society, but we’re not. The plight of many African-Americans today is economic. If you prevent people from having access to education and good jobs, they become much more easy to repress. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, just someone with the will to look. Those who write the history are those comfortably ensconced in offices and with research assistants, and people who empty the departmental garbage for them after hours.

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

How easy it is to suppose that the other is not the same as me! Most people do not like to challenge their preconceived notions. This is one of the real values of an education in religious studies. Take that intimate belief and put it under a microscope. Many would leave the lab screaming. Those who remain, patiently probing, learn uncomfortable truths. If the biologists are right—and there seems to be no reason to doubt it—all people evolved from common ancestors and we have more in common than we have that separates us. Skin color is only skin deep. Gender differentiation is merely in the service of species reproduction. What really makes us different is culture. And culture always requires classes. As even the ancients knew, some tasks are odious, and it is far more pleasant if we can compel someone else to do them. First, however, we must use our religion to explain why they can be made our slaves. If anyone doubts this, read Howard Thurman and see if he can’t change your mind.

Almost Human?

Last week the New York Times ran a story on the efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to have chimpanzees declared “legal persons.” Naturally this has set many legal persons at arms, given the unstated, biblical origin of the concept of human superiority. Without the biblical mandate we simply have to admit that we rule over animals on the basis of “might makes right,” a philosophical concept that never makes it far either in the classroom or the courtroom. We hold animals captive and experiment on them because we can. They can’t speak, can’t register protest, so we assume their silence as complicity and carry on. Research over the past several years, however, has pushed the human-separatists harder and harder. Animals are more like us than we are willing to admit. We acknowledge that we’ve evolved from them, but we suppose that at some point—probably the vocal cords—we surpassed them and therefore if they can’t speak they can’t think and they can’t feel. Even today many people still hold to the biblical orthodoxy that animals are merely here for our enjoyment and exploitation.

Considering how we treat other human beings, this is probably, sadly, no great surprise. In a world where many nations still allow women to be treated as property, putting a chimp in a cage and labeling it “mine” doesn’t appear so odd. Only the most crass of chauvinists would dare say that women are not human, but far too many, based mostly on religious biases, have no problem stating that women are inferior humans. Again, “the Bible tells me so.” This kind of thinking, prevalent even up until the 1950s in “civilized” countries like the United States, has yet to die out fully. What is it about the male psyche that insists on its own superiority? The Bible, it seems, has much for which to answer when found in the hands of men.

What makes us think that we are all evolving toward the “high point” of white males? Some of us in that class know that it is long past time that this glass “ceiling” should have been irreparably shattered. Nonsense, however, has staying power. Some of us even feel inferior just knowing such distinctions were ever made. Not that long ago Africans were said, by some, to be closer to apes than Caucasians. Women were said to be closer to snakes than men. What has been lacking is a sense of balance. Common sense. Genders and races equal but variable. Until that minimum bar is reached, how can it be hoped that fair treatment of nonhuman persons can ever be achieved? Some animals have been taught to read, at least in basic, symbolic ways. They understand that certain symbols stand in for defined rewards. Given time it might even be that this most human of inventions could be shared among nonhuman persons. If they do not learn to read the Bible with more sense than some human persons, however, we face a future of many other layers of distressing oppression.

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Sacred Herstory

NunsBehavingBadlyHave you ever read a book thinking the author was a woman, but later learned that it was written by a man? Or vice-versa? This creates a disturbing kind of cognitive dissonance, and I suspect that it is hardwired to our communal instincts. We want to know whether it is a man or a woman who is talking to us. Expectations of gender are deeply embedded in all societies, and they become problematic when they ossify into rules. Gender roles, in earliest societies, were a matter of biological necessities. In a modern, urban context such roles are obsolete, and certainly damaging—especially to women. Craig A. Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy raised this issue to a conscious level once again. Christianity, always very sensitive to issues of sexuality, had developed in a social context of women as property. In the Middle Ages, where dowries were expected, families couldn’t afford to marry off all their daughters, and convents provided an easy, if not always spiritual, solution. Monson’s book, although not filled with salacious tales, illustrates the point well. In a society where wage-earning was limited to males, females had few options.

Monson narrates the stories of five different convents where a nun (or sometimes groups of nuns) refused to play by the rules established by the male hierarchy. The infractions, viewed from the twenty-first century, seem minor: playing with magic, singing, producing art work, wanting to go outside the cloister walls, visiting (gasp!) an opera! (There are a few more complex issues too, such as arson and the love that dare not Ave Maria its name.) In each case, the masculine authorities were called in to investigate, punish, and restore order. The end result is, although fascinating, somewhat melancholy. These willful women were often acting against boredom. Their lives had no impact beyond the convent wall, and, ironically, I learned, even their enclosures had prisons. A nun could be moved from her cell to the cell. And sometimes the only crime was wanting to hear a professional singer perform.

Nuns Behaving Badly is a clever title for a book. As I read the histories, however, I became increasingly convinced that those behaving poorly were not the nuns. A society fabricated on the premise that men are the divinely ordained masters of their universe is no stellar example of men behaving well. Even the occasional bishop, archbishop, or cardinal who sided with the accused had to bow to the will of the Holy Inquisition. The victims, although not physically tortured, were women who had thrown their entire futures into the service of the church, in one of the few roles allowed females in an era already pressing into the early modern age. The nuns were not behaving badly. They were simply being human. The truly bad behavior came in the form of a male hierarchy that brooked no dissent.

Happy Mother’s Day

Women’s voices raised in prayer. What could be the objection to that? Religion, of course. A story from the Los Angeles Times reports that chaos broke out in Judaism’s most sacred site, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, as women prayed in a newly won, court-authorized action. The ultra-orthodox flooded in to block the sacrilege. No doubt religions have come a long way in trying to redress the wrongs perpetrated against women in their holy names, but true equality remains a distant dream. I’m not picking on Judaism here—nearly all religions contain knots, sometimes Gordian in stature, of males who hold their mythology close to their genitals. God made men first, gave them a few extra inches of flesh in a precisely designated region, showing that they are superior. Penis frenzy. Yes, manliness is more than next to godliness, it is divine. So we are taught.

Religions like to make universal claims. How is it that they cannot see that, at least on this planet, universal is half female? It certainly doesn’t make me feel secure knowing there’s an omnipotent guy with an almighty packet hovering in the sky above me. For five thousand years of human religions we’ve yet to see any solid evidence that such is the case. There are even places in the Hebrew Bible where God is referred to as female. Hosea has God say, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them,” (11.4) a translation nearly obliterated by the good old King James. Those who bent down to feed children, in the days before Playtex, were mothers.

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Women have, informally, been the keepers of religious teaching, in the home. Father might be the authority figure, but mother knew the facts of the faith. Even today, especially in the western world, active members of most religions are female. Men, however, reserve the right to make the rules. They say it is God. Our projections on the divine are reflections of our own wills, much of the time. Even patriarchal Paul would claim that in Christianity there is no male and female. But in fact there are. Since Paul’s day, and even before, there always have been. The three major monotheistic traditions agree that Adam was the first created, and Eve came tumbling after. Let the women pray at the Wailing Wall. They are the ones who have, in the name of religion, most cause to wail. Until men can learn the meaning of true equality, it is the least we can ask of common decency.

International Women’s Day

So it’s International Women’s Day, and I’m thinking about what various religions might do to celebrate it. How about equality? True equality. With rare exceptions religions have been spawned and gestated in masculine wombs. Increasing the asperity, monotheism had to, by definition, introduce a single-gendered god to match at least half of the human race’s expectations. No surprise he is a deity with a Y chromosome. For whatever reason, religions nearly always promote male experience as normative and female experience as supportive. If you disagree, well, talk to the man upstairs.

In those few precious moments when I’m allowed the luxury of a daydream, I wonder how differently the world would’ve developed without the mythology of the alpha male god. If god had been conceived as feminine in the beginning, would it have made a difference? Would the rules be more or less stringent? More humane?

Lange-MigrantMother02

Polarities are a funny way to view the world. As evolved, gender-differentiated animals, we easily slip woman and man into that category of natural polarities. Over time, however, it has become clear that reality is more complex than X or O (or I and O, or X and Y—where the male is missing something the female secretly possesses). What if the overall category were simply “human?” As we’ve evolved, we’ve learned to keep many animalistic tendencies in check. Our vast and complex societies, unique only in degree, have demonstrated that it is possible. To judge half of the human race as less able to provide spiritual leadership is an exploitation well past due for extinction. With all eyes on the Vatican over the past couple of weeks, the largest Christian denomination in the world doesn’t seem ready to shift even a nanometer on this one. Mother Mary, pray for us.

In a world where conception was a mystery (which it still is, to a point), women were the sole life givers. Men had the role of sustainers, the help-meets who brought home the meats. Somewhere along the sociological lines the order somehow switched. Might it have been religion itself that led to the subordination of the god-like ability to give life that only women possessed? By attributing the origin of life to a being, generally male, outside the realm of normal reality, religion bestowed a foreign primacy upon the human race. We became the victims of our own longing for transcendence. So celebrate International Women’s Day. If it weren’t for a woman, a goddess in her own right, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Mrs. Jesus

First we learned that Yahweh was married. Then we hear, “like father, like son.” A Galilean tempest in a Wonderland teapot. A papyrus fragment from centuries after the fact implies Jesus might have been married and the media smells blood. The scholars who translated the materials tried very hard to demonstrate that their efforts indicated nothing about the historical Jesus, but that doesn’t sell newspapers, magazines, and website hits. Jesus being married does. Spying an article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, I pondered why this might be. Why the great fuss over Jesus’ potential marriage? This is not an easy fabric to unweave. Americans have been routinely taught to idealize Jesus in order to underscore his divinity. A man without warts, no faults, perfect hygiene, completely symmetrical. His unwed nature is silent testimony to male superiority—when God chose to incarnate, he picked a masculine template. And for a man to need anything is a sign of weakness. If some Coptic Gnostic suggests that maybe Jesus had a weakness after all, well, that’s scandal enough to sell a million copies right there.

Theologians are quick to say that God is really beyond gender, but we sexual beings are so, well, focused on our biological packaging that we just can’t conceive a deity any other way. American culture thrives on the concept of a personal relationship with God. It is difficult to have a relationship without assessing the sexual roles. More than reproduction, our sexuality defines how we interact with others. By recasting Jesus as a married man, the whole dynamic is thrown off. Girls who are taught to uphold the virginal Jesus as an ideal man would now have to create room for the other woman. Boys would no longer have to consider the monastery. Overestimating the impact of marrying off Jesus in this country might well prove impossible.

The Chronicle takes a bemused look at the issue, as befits a disaffected, intellectual publication. For most Americans the relationship can never be so diffident. Scholars may find it funny, but we are vastly outnumbered. Like a divine paternity test, ink analysis of the papyrus fragment is out at the lab. If it’s just another forgery, life goes on much as before. The fact is, as has been stressed all along, all that can be potentially proven is that some people in the fourth century thought Jesus had a main squeeze. People have wondered that for centuries, with or without a papyrus to spark discussion. We are sexual beings, and like Xenophanes’s horses, our gods must look like us or become like the shadow over Innsmouth.

“And I think the couch should go over there!”

Same Sex Sanity

When the people speak, sometimes it’s just nonsense. So the people of North Carolina believe in the exclusive rights of dysfunctional heterosexuals over committed homosexuals. And President Obama makes a powerful statement. As Americans we are reared to respect personal freedom. And what freedom could be more personal than the open expression of love? The reasons given for exclusivity of heterosexual marriage are spurious—certainly the Bible considers marriage in purely pragmatic, not sacred, terms. As citizens of their own time they were as much programmed by their environment as are people today. Marriages were arranged and the concept of sexual orientation simply did not exist. It is not that I castigate marriage—having been married nearly a quarter of a century myself I would be a fool to do so—but I in no way feel threatened by anybody falling in love with anybody else. Nor is it the right of any loving Christian to stand in anyone else’s way.

A God who created gender-changing fish to fry in Hell (particularly on Fridays) seems unnecessarily cruel. (Yes, such fish do exist.) A God who created other animals that exhibit homosexual behavior (bonobos, penguins, elephants, lizards—at least 450 animal species have been caught in the act) and then condemns it is surely working at cross-purposes with the nature he (always he) created. It has become quite clear from nature that sexuality is far more than procreational activity. If your kit is for kid making only, why do so many good, Christian couples have trouble conceiving? And don’t say “God only knows” because Fundies have no monopoly on questions that demand a verdict. What is God playing at here?

Intelligence and sexual behavior seldom go together. Religions, however, have a hard time keeping themselves out of the bedroom. Loving, committed relationships hurt no one. For a religion claiming to be based on love, declaring various expressions of love wrong is diminishing the good in the world. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality. Good, Bible-believing Christians often turn blind eyes to the many more stringent passages about divorce and remarriage, but single out the very few that mention specific same-sex acts. Do they not see how such cherry-picking makes a mockery of calling anything holy? With all the excised bits, it might be more appropriately called the Holey Bible. For me, it seems they might find it more instructive to observe the moray eels rather than trying to cover their wrasses.

Genesis Gender-Bender

“Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam,” so reads Genesis 5.2 (5.2a, for those sticklers among the crowd). Long ago I lost track of how many times I’d read Genesis. It has a privileged place in the Bible partially because of our modern method of reading books. We assume that the beginning should be read first and that it should lay the groundwork for what follows. The Bible, however, was compiled over centuries and the story may begin at Genesis, but not all that follows is in agreement with it. “Called their name Adam” sent me scurrying back to dust off my Hebrew of the Bible. The King James Version, after all, was translated from manuscripts that are sometimes inferior to many that have been discovered since then, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe this was one of those strange Elizabethan passages, for after all, Queen Elizabeth I did have a bit of a reputation. To my surprise, however, “their name” remains plainly in the Hebrew, suggesting that the first couple were both Adam.

Since just a verse later Adam and Adam have a son called Seth (and since the genealogies seldom mention their women at all), presumably Adam here means Eve. Literalists beware! The creation story in Genesis 1, as opposed to Genesis 2.4b, pictures the genders created simultaneously. Women and men together are humanity. The second creation story offers Adam a generous dollop of primacy; he gets to be first and even gets to name the animals and the wife; he is the lord and master of his domain. And people refer to eating the fruit as a fall! Now at Genesis 5 we have humanity reunited in the person of Adam, the bi-gendered representation of humanity.

Of course Adam is a play on words. The Bible begins with humanity as a joke. Adam is just one syllable short of the word for “ground” (adamah), and so Adam is the original groundling, or earthling. Yet Adam is never given as a proper name until Eve appears. It is only with the creation of woman that man becomes man. I suspect that may be the underlying of logic (if it is even right to call it such) of the plural, “their name Adam.” It might be easier just to recognize that the Bible doesn’t give us the endpoint of the discussion of human nature, but the starting point. There are those who insist that the Bible has all the answers. In my experience it is primarily full of questions. And the questions require both female and male to answer them. Otherwise, humanity is indeed a joke.

“Adam, I’m Adam”

Ezekiel’s Equinox Paradox

Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.

This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.

When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.

Roman Women

This week’s Life section of Time magazine features an issue that yet again raises the questions of definitions and who decides on correct religion. The feature by Tim Padgett entitled “Robes for Women” demonstrates the conflicted nature of religious authority. With the Vatican claiming women have never been priests, but historians questioning the assertion, the salient point is who has the right to decide. And what is lost, if such a change were to take place. Tradition is not threatened by change – it always stands sentinel over the past, but no religion remains unchanged for any length of time. It is not biblical authority that is lost either. Any religious body whose scriptures state, “call no man on earth your father,” yet which addresses its clergy by the title “Father” clearly possesses the casuistry to get around other biblical injunctions. What is lost is male power.

No matter how vociferous theologians may be concerning the genderlessness of God, the default male image seems deeply embedded in the human psyche. One of the most ancient and pervasive of mythological themes is the search for the father. The loving mother is the one who stays near and raises the child while the father leaves to make provision, or for reasons less wholesome. At some level we know that the deity portrayed by Scripture and tradition is male, a father who is difficult to find at times, particularly times of need. This archetypal image is not an excuse not to re-envision a genderless deity, but it underscores what generations of human experience has taught us. Referring to God as father and mother only complicates the matter by throwing into the mix all aspects of gender complications. Can humans even truly worship a god without gender?

If the Womenpriests movement succeeds, as no doubt it should, there will always remain a group who will not accept their authority. My experience at Nashotah House taught me that some prejudices are so deeply rooted that they are no longer even recognized by those who hold them. Wild examples of theological gymnastics were paraded before me as to why women should not hold priestly office. And like Nashotah House reveals, if women are finally accepted by Rome, others will split away and both sides will lay claim to the true faith. There will be no convincing either that the other is correct. The history of Christianity has taught us this sad truth. Current estimates suggest there are some 38,000 different Christian denominations. This is the common fate of all religions who claim to have exclusive access to the single, unambiguous truth.

The secret of the catacombs

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

The world is a topsy-turvy place. In times of turmoil people turn to the old, the familiar, the classic, for assurance of continuity and stability. Ah, those halcyon days! Perhaps the newspaper is not a place to seek solace, but as I was flipping through the Friday edition, usually a little lighter after the dread of another week, I noticed a story about Leonardo da Vinci (before the code made him famous).

Self portrait or mirror?

For many centuries people have pondered the understated smile on the Mona Lisa’s placid yet knowing face. Recent forensic-type investigations are now strengthening the old suggestion that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of the artist as a woman. Some will, no doubt, find such news distressing – a masculine artist portraying himself as feminine? (Surely such a thing has never been done before!) Most concerned of all would be the Religious Right, a group that seeks a god excelling in sharp distinctions. Either male or female, no intersexuals need apply!

Over the past several months I have been reading Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book that can’t really be called “enjoyable,” although it has been eye-opening and informative. One of the recurrent themes throughout the book has been the fear of the liminal being conjoined with our growing understanding that sharp distinctions are rare. Ever since Freud it has been known (at least subconsciously) that people participate in aspects of both genders with social constructs determining which role is to be filled, feminine or masculine. Those who look honestly at the aggregate of the human race realize that we are all points on a continuum rather than simply members of one or the other gender. As Asma points out, however, we prefer distinctions.

In painting himself as a woman perhaps Leonardo once again proved himself ahead of his time. Perhaps the Mona Lisa is a mirror we should long gaze into before judging others on the basis of artificial distinctions.

Live and Let Love

The vote on homosexual marriage comes up in New Jersey today, and headlines are tense with anticipation. The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s assonant alliteration announces “Same-sex showdown” on page one. Protesters for and against are both shown in photo-ops as the sides line up for this epic battle of morality. Or is it?

“Same-sex” is a phrase I find offensive. One of the uncontested realities of life is that gender is much more complex than is usually supposed. Intersexual individuals (sometimes still called hermaphrodites) make up a larger part of the population than most citizens are consciously aware; studies suggest that in the United States the number may range from 50,000 to 5,000,000. Worldwide the number is likely higher. If the big guy in the sky wants to make gender straight and clear, we are receiving mixed messages.

If we are honest about this, we need to admit that what is on the docket is not morality but power. Apart from a few purists who have no choice on what to say in the matter, people are now widely aware that sex is not just for procreation. Studies of animal populations demonstrate this, and any number of people who use birth control, for whatever reason, also know it. Once sex is released from its procreation-only bounds, then where is the moral qualm within committed, loving relationships? The Bible says much, much more about adultery than it does about homosexuality (but don’t tell that to televangelists or Republican elected officials). Both are eligible for the death penalty.

One of the groups shown protesting in the paper is Torah Jews for Morality. They hold a sign reading, “Gay Union A Rebellion Against the Almighty.” One wonders what they are afraid of. The Torah is only binding on those who adhere to Judaism, no matter what Christian groups say. This is one point on which Paul and Jesus actually agree.

If we follow logic rather than emotion on this issue it is clear that all that is preserved by refusing marriage to homosexual couples is the privileged status of heterosexual couples, whether they engage in adultery or not. Society turns a blind eye to infidelity while going ballistic over committed homosexual union. So pick that gnat out of your teeth and get ready for swallowing a camel.

Anat, Kali and the Violent Femmes

“Women and men,” runs the chorus of the They Might Be Giants song of that same title, “… everywhere they go love will grow.” Women and men. Thus it has always been. The Sumerians seem to have speculated, on a broken tablet concerning the creation of humanity, that some six varieties of gender had been ordained by the gods. This story reminds me of just how dicey gender definition can be. Despite the howls of protestation from man + woman = marriage crowd, the concept of gender is actually complex and diverse. The lowly slime mold of the genus Physarum has a combination of multiple sex-controling genes mixed with several different types of sex-cells, leading to a bewildering 500 different sexes. You’ve got to wonder what the Physarum bar-scene is like! So the whole women and men combination seems a little tame by comparison.

The ancients did, however, toy with standard gender role concepts. The Ugaritic goddess Anat, sometimes described as a “tomboy,” was perceived as a literal femme fatale, joining her in the company of Ishtar and Kali as warrior women-goddesses. She was a proto-Amazon (before they laid aside their male-bashing and set up a very lucrative web-site). Anat wears the severed heads and hands of slain warriors and stomps in blood-puddles, laughing all the while. Where did the ancients derive such violent feminine images as Anat and Kali? Some sociologists suggest that these myths were intended to solidify gender roles, although they seem to confuse the violent male with the shy and retiring female stereotypes. Perhaps the Ugaritians and other ancient folk knew deep down that gender is only a vague attempt to classify something that is really far more complex than it seems. Just when gender is nailed down you find yourself in a bloody mess as Anat swats at you again and again.

Anat ready to smite Egyptians who just don't understand the Violent Femmes

Anat ready to smite Egyptians who just don\’t understand the Violent Femmes

Nashotah is not far from Milwaukee where the folk-punk, genre-defining band the Violent Femmes started out. In college many of my overtly Christian radical friends told tales of how the Violent Femmes were a closet Christian rock group, based on some of the religious themes in Gordon Gano’s lyrics. When I listen to their CDs, however, I hear the same old angst that has plagued humankind for ages — what does a guy have to do to impress a girl (the same question may be reversed, turned upside-down, or dis-and-re-articulated, depending on whether you are female, male, or slime mold). At Ugarit they would have understood the Violent Femmes — listen to “to the kill” and tell me it’s not so! I would suggest that Gordon and the guys aren’t as much closet Christians as closet Ugaritians, struggling with the Anats and other violent femmes of their world and trying to make sense of it all.