It is perhaps unusual to stop and think about who you are. From the moment consciousness kicks in, our lives are a non-stop progression of stimuli and response and taking the time to stop and think what someone else must be feeling is, I sometimes fear, a dying art. Although I can’t accept the goddess hypothesis, purely on historical grounds, I am utterly at sympathy with it. I sensed that when Merlin Stone took the time to introduce herself to me at an American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting some years back. She was one of the few who knew and appreciated my book on Asherah, and I in turn knew of her work both as a feminist and creative theological thinker. It was an honor to shake her hand. The heart of work such as that of Stone and Marija Gimbutas was that women deserve, and have always deserved, to be treated equally with men.
Watching Girl Rising, I was forcefully reminded of this once again. A 2013 documentary film telling the story of nine girls from “third world” countries, the movie is quite sobering. In many parts of the world women are still treated as property, although slavery has been considered a violation of human rights for well over a century. Hearing what young girls have to face in much of the world is heartrending. Hearing what certain unnamed presidential candidates have to say in this country is downright terrifying. Why is it that so many men never stop to consider what it would have been like for them, had they been born female? Would they have accepted that their lives would consist of lower pay and their healthcare would teeter in the balance every four years when a new crop of neo-cons puts the White House in its sights? And this is called the “first world.”
Having been raised by a woman who had, for many years, no support of a husband, I have been sensitive to the plight of women my entire life. I could see no reason that my mother shouldn’t be given the opportunity that other people had. Courageous, strong, and self-abnegating, she did what it took to raise her sons in a safe and loving environment. In my own experience of adulthood, full of struggles and turmoil as it has been, I wonder what life would have been like had I been a girl in similar circumstances. What if I had been born a girl in another country where my active mind would be grounds for beatings, or being shot? It is unconscionable. There may not have been an egalitarian society that centered on the worship of a goddess, but there is no reason we shouldn’t try to make such a peaceful, fair, and just society nevertheless. If only men would stop to think about how distorted a one-sided view of life inevitably becomes, perhaps the entire world would be able to claim to be “first.” It is only when women and men share rights that the world can start to be considered a just place.
Merlin Stone was a sculptor and an artist. I met her only once, a few years back when I was still recognized as an “authority” on ancient goddesses. At one of the many Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings I attended, she came and introduced herself to me, thanking me for my work. Of course I knew who she was—the author of When God Was a Woman, one of the books that was most influential in the revived goddess movement of the 1980s. I have always appreciated those women who have dared to take on the often amorphous patriarchal power structures of society to raise the necessary questions of fairness and justice. Stone was one of those women. Her book, while based on sometimes questionable historiography, nevertheless highlights some of the issues that many male scholars have chosen simply to ignore.
One of the biggest problems faced by authors like Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas has been the shifting sands of history. I recently had a deep conversation with a couple of feminist friends of mine where the issue of truth emerged. Truth, as I came to realize, may be a temporary phenomenon. What is true today (the earth is the center of the universe) may not be true tomorrow. It is always contingent. Historians reconstruct a past to which they do not have direct access, and further discoveries will often detail the errors made along the way. When God Was a Woman was originally published in 1978. Some of the historical constructs that Stone uses have since crumbled, but the main point of the book remains firm—women have as real a claim on the divine as do men. (I can’t help but wonder if there is some connection between this and the recent trend towards prominent male thinkers declaring themselves atheists.)
Although I can’t agree with everything Stone wrote, one of her ideas dropped a hook in my brain. In describing the sexuality that apparently attended worship of “the goddess,” she notes how male scholars came to refer, always derisively, to the such religions as “fertility cults.” Turning this phrase about, Stone wonders whether far distant future analysts will look at monotheistic religions that decry sexuality as “sterility cults.” Not that the goddess is all about sex. Religions, however, always weigh in when such spiritually significant activities as sex take place. Men, who are often eager participants, are the ones to construct religions condemning what should be a most obviously sacred human activity.
Merlin Stone may have died just over two years ago, but her book will stand as a yad vashem to half of the human race who have been religiously subjected to the other half. And perhaps there is a goddess out there yet who will bring about liberty and justice for all.
While I was home watching Bruce Almighty, my wife was attending a local screening of the documentary Girl Rising. (There was a good reason for this discrepancy; you’ll need to trust me on this one.) Chances are that many readers haven’t heard of Girl Rising; I know that if I weren’t the husband and father of Girl Scouts, I’d likely have missed it myself. Isn’t that part of the problem? Why does our society make females invisible, unless sex objects? Tabby Biddle has a thoughtful observation about this in the Huffington Post. She notes the importance of the film, but laments that the only way to make it through to the masculine mind is to pose the argument that educating girls will increase the GDP of less fortunate nations. Girls should be educated for their very humanness, Biddle suggests, but our view of a masculine God often prevents this from happening. While Biddle may have fallen a little under the spell of Marija Gimbutas, she makes a very valid point: there is no human reason that girls should not receive equal opportunities with boys. The fact that I even have to write that in the twenty-first century saddens me. It is not just “Third World” girls that have to struggle to gain what is rightfully theirs.
In my career I have been passed over more than once so that a woman might take the advertised position. (I have even been informed of this fact by friends on search committees.) Somehow I can’t find any injustice in this situation, as much as it has personally disappointed my hopes and dreams. Men have been frustrating female hopes and dreams for millennia. Maybe the matriarchy that Gimbutas envisioned never really existed, but the concept is sound: women and men both contribute to this thing we call civilization. Our religions, as they developed in our societies, have held the mirror up to the might-makes-right paradigm from the very beginning. Wouldn’t a male god with a more muscular upper body shove a fair, and giving goddess out of the way every time? Just ask Zeus. Or Odin. Or El. Divine civilization is only human projection, and we just can’t relate to a genderless God. So he becomes the excuse for female repression.
The face of divinity?
We’ve firmly entered a new millennium, and, looking at our treatment of half of our species, we still have an incredibly long way to go. In much of the western world, traditional religion has lost its grip, but I’m a little frightened by what I see taking its place. There are a few pockets of female-friendly religions awaking, but there are many more backlashes from the traditional male preserves of conservatism, patriarchy, and free enterprise. It is time for all men to consider that none of us would be here without our real-life goddesses. Some may rail against unorthodoxy, but unfair structures must be imploded for a new, and true, orthodoxy to be established. Women and men—not women for men, not women for profit—that is the only right teaching. So we should promote Girl Rising, and we should seek to move beyond the mere financial benefits for a free market to find the divine spark that masculine interest seems to have lost.
In the course of preparing to teach a course on Classical Mythology, I have been reading up on the Minoan culture of ancient Crete. This fascinating civilization is obviously related to many others in the Ancient Near East, but it has such a distinctive ethos that it always gives me pause. The Minoans had a religion that was apparently dominated by a great mother-goddess. Decades ago astute archaeologists and historians demonstrated that the amorphous “mother goddess” of antiquity was a modern construct rather than an ancient reality, but the evidence still stands that at least the Minoans revered the sacred feminine.
The work of Marija Gimbutas had overstated the case for a matriarchal society in antiquity, but she had touched on a truth sometimes obscured by the patriarchal world of yesteryear — some cultures did venerate the divine mother. Among the cruel ironies of history the name of this goddess has been lost, but images of a secure island with its chthonian female divinities remain. Among the artifacts discovered among the various Philistine sites in the Levant was an inscription, apparently dedicated to Asherah. Asherah is a thoroughly Semitic deity, first appearing in Mesopotamian contexts further to the east. The Philistines, however, likely settled their region after migrating from Crete a few centuries after the collapse of the Minoan culture. Could they have brought with them a remembrance of the divine mother?
I am not convinced by arguments that suggest a polymorphous “mother goddess” reigned in antiquity, as much as I might wish it had been so. What a different world might have emerged if monotheism had been based on a divine mother! Minoan culture appears to have been strong but relatively peaceful. In one of the androcentric twists of history “Cretan” and “Philistine” have come into modern usage as derogatory slurs against good taste and refinement. History demonstrates, however, that apart from foreign biases those hailing from ancient Crete may have developed the superior civilization of antiquity.