Evening, Pups. So in my previous post, I mentioned that I’d done a little Hard Time in Divinity School. Tonight, I’d like to talk a bit about religions that aren’t so well known or popular these days, but some of which are making a comeback.
Forgive me if this is a tad sloppy, this is “niece and nephew” weekend for me, and as they are both under three, they are rather insistent that I continue to play “flying tractor pirates” with them as I attempt to write this post.
Anyway, I love to discuss individual journeys down the path of religious and spiritual belief. It’s true: I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I hate spirituality or religion. My “faith” is in the human spirit; I don’t find this inconsistent with atheism, as I define the human “spirit” as something that science will one day be able to quantify, and once understood, will eventually replace the need for belief in the human-created mythological superbeing-substitute. Simply put, to me what people call “god” today is actually the limitless potential of the human intellect and creative ability.
Also, I believe that the universe is filled with unending wonder, more than enough to inspire a sense of awe and amazement in people and sentient beings, for all time. When I contemplate the range of human ability, and contextualize that within an endless, boundless universe, I don’t have any need at all for an ancient myth that informs my understanding of reality. There is so much to learn, to know, to appreciate- why limit myself to those questions that concerned a bunch of ancient tent dwellers without the simplest understanding of science? Science and what it has uncovered itself is awesome, and I grok why some fundies call it a “false religion.”
But still, there is much to appreciate when it comes to the mythology with which humanity has long concerned itself. One essential question that has consumed me for no small amount of time: the endless and eternal battle between the male and female elements of the divine.
Academic books and papers on this topic, of which I have read many, are quite boring. It’s a shame, but then again that is the Academe. So let me offer you some links via the eminently more accessible world of fiction and substandard “serious” writing. If you’re a Great Goddess fan in this age, there are two people you have to thank for your understanding of what that means. Bachofen and Gimbutas.
Both have been discredited in academic circles, for reasons that I more or less accept. But that doesn’t mean their work lacks value. The heart of the question: was there ever a time when goddess worship had a different value than it does today, and if so, what does that mean to patriarchal religions of today? Let’s back up for a minute and unpack that.
You are probably aware that “history” as we can understand it begins with the invention of writing. With writing, we can come closer to knowing what people of ancient times were thinking, where we can only guess for those periods of time before writing left a record. Writing began in the ancient Middle East, in Mesopotamia/Iraq, to be exact, and although it was later invented independently elsewhere, the “meme” of writing that spread from the cradle of civilization took hold in a way that has affected “history” ever since. The ancients understood, as our corporate masters do today: writing, and control of the written word, is Power.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the first writing was about…religion. Gods and mythology were everywhere in ancient writing, even those most early texts we have that are mostly about the accounting of sheep and grain. There is a lot of High Theorizing about this topic, but to me it’s pretty clear: the ancients understood that if you were to make something “permanent” by writing it (putting it onto a clay tablet), you had better be sure to give the immortals their due. So, from the earliest times of “civilization,” people understood that Someone was looking over their shoulders. And that Someone was a/some being(s) that Were Not to be Pissed Off.
Going before the invention of writing, we have all sorts of indications that people venerated superbeings that can be approximated with both sexes. Paleolithic “Venus” figures abound in the archaeological record, and to the modern eye, they are rather blunt and sexual. They have exaggerated hips and breasts, ubiquity in ancient sites, and there were giant shrines with female effigies. Many people theorize that in some way, the near universal Paleolithic veneration of the female form suggests that pre-literate humans worshipped the feminine ability to give birth. Without a clear understanding of how procreation works, I suppose that’s plausible. But I don’t buy it, because I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of the ancient human. Simply, if they could breed cattle or sheep or goats, they “got” how sex and reproduction worked. The people who were making these figures were also husbanding and herding, so I don’t think a primitive need to venerate the female mystery is the reason behind these figurines.
Still, it’s an interesting question. The ancient world is chock full of more female-friendly mythology than is found in religion today. That, I no longer dispute or doubt. But still, even in today’s “feminist” reality, there are many who don’t want to look at the archaeological evidence and understand that the ancients had a different way of viewing gender and divinity. This is important to me, because as an atheist, there is little difference between basing policy upon an all-powerful Father god and an all-powerful Mother lifegiver goddess- neither should have any role in public governance. But it’s “ridiculous” to talk about the latter, where today, ~90% of the American population subscribes to one or another form of the former.
Here are some fun books that I recommend, which will expand your mind about these concepts.
Wraeththu. Evolution towards a third gender, inspired by a Goddess who gives birth to her lover/son/self and recreates that process in the evolution of humanity.
The Firebrand. What if Cassandra wasn’t really crazy? What if she was the pivotal figure between Old Goddesses and New Gods? What if we completely misread the ancient world, and the coming of the Greeks in it?
What is the dystopian conclusion of patriarchy? It could be like this. At the same time: how do women who are denied everything that could give them agency and independence find those things in themselves, in the face of horrible oppression? This book will change the way you think about the Fundies, I promise.
And finally, what would a matriarchal religion look like if the Goddess were a harsh, realistic and highly cynical figure so distant from human reality as to offer little more than the comfort of death? What kind of society would that create? Can science and religion ever become one, and seek to change humanity for the better by a process as brutal as is found in raw nature? Very few people, IMHO, grok the power of this book. But there is still a chance some will.
I have gobs to say about matriarchy and religion, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. It’s Friday night, and the Goddess has put Her hand on Her daughter, Valerie, who lays poised to slay the ogre of Republican/Authoritarian government and oligarchy. Goddess worshippers should rejoice, right alongside us atheists. As a side note: is it just me, or does it seem like the people who “blow the whistle” on the Rove Republicans are frequently women? Perhaps I’m wrong, and the Divine hand of the Goddess moves within us all still…
Update: I went to school with the author of this review of a grammar book, and if you’re looking for a true ancient Mystery, read this and begin to find out about “Emesal.”
Damn, girl. I am so proud of you. Good job.
Update Update: I will get to this later. Come join the fun.