The Price of Monotheism

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.

Our Mother Who Aren’t in Heaven

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.

Smiling Goddess

One of the enduring myths of the Victorian Age is that of the benevolent “mother goddess.” Amorphous, unnamed, this protective goddess of archaeological imagination was used to explain unlabeled figurines and frescos of the peaceful feminine archetype. As real goddesses were discovered and catalogued, they were frequently discovered to have a violent and fierce aspect, one feared and revered by ancient worshipers. Even today, however, some persist in this blissful pre-conflict image of the mother goddess.

This morning I was sorry I even glanced at the paper. The reality of the violence in the name of religion was everywhere. In Kabul a mob of angry protesters, fueled on by rumors that American troops had desecrated the Quran, burned an effigy of the President Obama. In Jerusalem Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount to subdue angry mobs in tensions over one of the world’s great holy cities. Even in England, metaphorically, Pope Benedict XVI “has parked his tanks on the Church of England’s lawn” in the words of A. N. Wilson in the New York Times. Three clashes: Muslim on Christian, Jewish on Muslim, and Christian on Christian. Where is Mother Mary speaking her famed words of wisdom?

As even the ancients knew, religion was prone to violent outbreaks. In a polytheistic world the accounting was perhaps simpler: one god or goddess was upset. Here in the monotheistic world, we have either an angry God or a bevy of intolerant interpreters of that single God. There is no mother goddess whispering words of calm to the world’s religions. When opening the papers brings such a jolt to weary, Monday-morning eyes, the appeal of a smiling mother goddess is all too apparent.

The myth of the smiling mother

The myth of the smiling mother