Have you ever wondered why in modern religions, the designated creative, super power of the universe is invariably classed as invisible yet is always conceived as being male? Do you, like me, wonder how such a gender specific fact could be definatively known if this imagined entity (as is also always asserted) is not only invisible but unknowable? Also, has it ever crossed your mind that it may be more than just a coincidence that most, if not all, modern religions asserting a male god are dominated by a heirarchy of men with males at the pinnicle of the religious hierarchy? If any of this has occurred to you, then like me you are in an undoubted minority. If it hasn’t, then perhaps it should, because the patriarchal imagination has not always been dominant within religion. As we shall see from evidence retrieved by archeology and anthropology, the creative principle in life and religion has not always been imagined as exclusively or even predominantly male. In terms of the existence of the human species and it’s evolving consciousness (several million years), male centredness and male domination are relatively recent developments. Would it really surprise you to learn that before the emergence of a patrifocal/patriarchal obsession a few thousand years ago, the dominant creative principle of life was usually imagined to be feminine?
Spirits and Goddesses.
There is clear evidence that many ancient human communities thought that everything (animals, rivers, plants, mountains, along with climatic conditions) was endowed with an animating spirit. It is also clear from the Sumarian and Babylonian religious myths that in many places goddesses were imagined to exist who were equal or even more powerful than gods. Indeed, in one of the imaginative creation myths of this ancient period the Great Earth Mother, ‘Tiamat’ is savagely killed by the god Merodach and cut up into pieces which he uses to form the earth and the heavens. Already in this part of the myth we witness an ideological construction in which the previously imagined female creative principle has been partially preserved by the use of her body to create the sky and the earth. However, her future as the preferred Createrix deity is also violently destroyed by being killed by the imagined male principle in the guise of the god Merodach. In yet another part of the Sumerian myth the god of mischief, Enki, is imagined to have said the following to Anshar, his forefather;
“See how the mother who created us is now rejecting us? And see, father, how the traitorous gods whom you produced are fighting beside her.” (Sumarian Mythology. Adrian Ambrose. Chapter 1. Emphasis added RR.)
‘The mother who created us’ – indeed! So goddesses created gods! Since all women and men emerged as babies from the bodies of women and then were nursed and nourished by the female body as were the animals around them, there was an obvious conclusion to be drawn. For these reasons early human communities invariably concluded that the female reality and principle was the creative one. Since the earth and sea produced the roots, fruits and fish upon which hunter-gatherer communities lived, it was a logical double step to imagine that the earth was a mother and thus a mother goddess was the creative force ensuring the fertility of nature and everything living on it. Before she was brutally murdered and dismembered by Enki, Tiamat, according to the same mythical sources, was also considered to be a sea goddess, whose domain provided an abundant supply of sea food protein. Mother Hubar was another imagined goddess who also created many things. The Babylonian goddess, Bau was also considered to be a Great Mother goddess. Furthermore, in the Gilgamesh Epic, Aruru was conceptualised as a goddess of creation and Inanna was the imagined goddess of love, beauty and warfare. The latter anticipating the Greek and Roman female goddess equivalents of Artemis and Diana or Hera and Juno. It appears the religious imagination of the ancient world was bursting at the seams with goddesses. These early peoples who settled in the Tigress and Euphrates valleys were agriculturalists and;
“Like other agricultural communities they were worshippers of the ‘World Mother’ , the Createrix, who was the giver of all good things, the Preserver and also the Destroyer – the goddess whose moods were reflected by natural phenomena, and whose lovers were the spirits of the seasons.” (Myths of Babylonia and Assyria. Donald Mackenzie.)
The fertile minds of these religious representatives of ancient peoples imagined that unseasonal droughts or floods negatively effecting crop production were the results of the Great Mother having a bad mood. In Pharaohonic Egypt, in the period when it was also another ancient agriculturalist based mode of production, the Great Mother of the universe and source of the food supply, was imagined to be Isis, ‘She who has given birth to the fruits of the earth’ as an early Greek inscription asserted. And;
“In the Egyptian legend, Osiris recieved the corn seeds from Isis, which suggests that among Great Mother worshiping peoples, it was believed that agricultural civilisation had a female origin.”(Myths of Babylonia and Assyria. Donald Mackenzie.)
Across the Mediterranean in Greece the goddess Demeter (also believed to be the giver of laws) was imagined to play essentially the same role. These early civilisations were not backward in intellect or practical skills. Quite the contrary. They studied astronomy, invented writing, developed calenders, built complex water management and irrigation systems along with huge temples and city complexes. So they must have had very good reason to continue to acknowledge and celebrate – at least within myth – the undeniable outstanding contributions women made to communities. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, some communities he had evidence of, still reckoned peoples lineage by the female line – ie matrilineality. This was a practice replicated in many places of the ancient world. From all this evidence we can conclude that for millions of years of human evolution, women were not always second class citizens in everyday life and the supernatural entities communities imagined were not always male.
From goddesses to gods.
So strong was this emphasis on the centrality of the female principle in life that the imagined Queens of Heaven and other such goddesses even had ancient cities named after them. This is a fact which has emphatically preserved some of their names for posterity. The city of Athens was named after the imaginary goddess Athena, and it is suggested that the extinct city of Nineveh on the banks of the river Tigris, was named after the imagined goddess Ninsun or Nina. So in the history of religeous forms of imagination it becomes apparent that to get from goddesses and gods to a single male god a two stage transition needed to take place within some important and influential communities. It was a transition which first moved from an emphasis on female creation deities to one with an emphasis on male creation deities and then later to imagine a single male creation deity.
In the above noted Sumerian myth we can witness this first ideological stage of overthrowing the female principle in religion in favour of the male, when Enki butchers Tiamat and uses her body parts to create the planetary structure on which humans live. The original female pro-creative principle embodied in the imaginary Tiamat is not only downgraded, but symbolically killed off by a male god. The Gilgamesh myth also has Inanna, the goddess of love, beauty and warfare practically begging to become the wife of Gilgamesh. Later after visiting her sister goddess of the underworld, Ereshkigal, Inanna is executed and her body callously hung on a hook. Another goddess bites the dust! In this transitional religious system many imaginary gods and goddesses are still considered to exist, but the male gods have been re-imagined as more powerful than female goddeses and with licence to kill some of them off. Where they survive goddesses have been relegated to the wives, mothers and consorts of the dominant male gods. This was essentially the same religious ideological template (with further polytheistic complexity added) as was adopted across parts of India and by the ancient Greek imagination with its male dominated pantheon situated on mount Olympus. Yet even in this first transitional phase, goddesses are still imagined to play a crucial role. For example;
“The idea that a goddess should take part with a god in man’s creation is already a familiar feature of Babylonian mythology. Thus the goddess Aruru, in cooperation with Marduk, might be credited with the creation of the human race, as she might also be pictured creating on her own initiative an individual hero such as Enkidu of the Gilgamesh Epic. The role of mother of mankind was also shared, as we have seen, by the Semitic Ishtar. (‘Legends of Babylonia and Egypt…’ LW King Paletine Press. lecture 3.)
This basic polytheistic, gender-divided, but male dominated divine framework of religeous imagination continued within the Roman Empire, albeit with additions adopted from the numerous conquered peoples as the empire expanded. But by the time of the Roman Empire, the second transitional stage had already emerged. For elsewhere, the religious imagination had developed ideas of one multi-tasking super powerful male god (monotheism) who replaced all the other job specific gods and rendered them redundant. A short-lived trial of a form of monotheism was attempted in Egypt under the Pharaoh Akhenaton, but this proved unpopular and was soon abandoned. But the idea was not. A male form of monotheism was adopted by some members of a tribe within the middle east. According to their oral and written traditions (Torah) conducted an intense and bloody internal sectarian struggle to persuade the tribe and its confederacy to abandon the worship of golden calves, Baal, Tammuz, the Queen of Heaven and numerous other local gods and goddesses.
From families of gods to a single male god.
Eventually, this middle eastern monotheistic versus polytheistic struggle was successful within these tribes and it became the religion now known as Judaism, whose charismatic leaders eventually named their one god Yahweh. They created their narratives and myths in the form of a series of oral narratives before these were copied onto scrolls and later transfered into books. Much later, a dissident group of Jews began to agitate for a change within Judaism but eventually broke away and called themselves Christians. They held onto the Judaic books (eventually known by Christians as the Old Testament) along with the concept of a male god and created a modified form of monotheism in their New Testament. The Christians introduced the concept of a son of God (Jesus) and also imagined the existence of a holy ghost – the three of which (two imaginary males and an imaginary spirit) became described as a Holy Trinity! This tiny group of Christians converted increasing numbers of people until eventually they became an accepted and then dominant religion within the declining Roman Empire and spread their influence across the western world.
Eventually a split occurred within Christianity, (the first of many) between what became known as the Catholic and Orthodox, or Western and Eastern versions. The trend toward a male form of monotheistic religion was clearly unstoppable. So much so that it eventually captured the imagination of some within the still multiple-god (polytheistic) pagans within the Arabian peninsular. After many battles and conversions, the eventual result was the third form of monotheism which is now known as Islam. This third version of male monotheism also spread to other areas of the world. Over time, this threefold patriarchal religious development, Judaism, Christianity and Islam led to the almost universal domination of the imaginary male supernatural entity, but in wildly competing forms or denominations. Henceforth, killing and torture in the name of a male God became an established and scripturaly authorised form of human interaction in major parts of the world.
It is clear from even this brief survey of religious ideology that over a period of two to three thousand years, the vast majority of religions underwent a definate gender transition. In the imagination of their priests, theologians and leading adherents, religious beliefs during that period went from being essentially matrifocal to definatively patrifocal. However, as we have seen, this transition was only achieved via a stage in which gods and goddesses were part of powerful but often disfunctional patriarchal families. This gender transformation itself is interesting and revealing, but it is equally interesting to consider what underpinned this change. What could have been the possible driving force behind this radically altered religious imagination? Perhaps a clue lies within the period of agricultural production noted above, where in the religious imagination female goddesses were still important but already subordinate to gods.
Gender and modes of production.
We know from Anthropology and Archaeology that prior to agriculture and animal husbandry, the hunter/gatherer form of food production had existed since the dawn of the human species. And of course it is still how the genders of most other life forms ensure their survival – either by hunting or gathering – or both. Prior to agriculture and animal herding, food and shelter production in non-coastal commuties was not gender specific because both male and female of all species, including the human species, could gather as well as hunt where it was safe to do so. Since gathering produced the bulk (estimated at 80%) of the nutritional requirements of early human communities, then women were for many purposes, (food production included) the equals of men and economically independent of them. Yet this was not all that determined female status. In the vitally important area of reproduction and nurture women were clearly more important than men.
Generations of being economically equal and independent, yet reproductively superior in real life, was a status for women which could hardly fail to be reflected in the thoughts and imaginations of those who found solace in spirituality and who had not yet fully understood the workings of the natural world around them. Any development of religious ideas could hardly avoid incorporating this real-world gender awareness into its ideological and imaginative framework. It is not only possible but highly probable that imaginary Goddesses and Mother Earth worship would flow naturally (or rather socially) from this fundamental hunter/gatherer base line as it merged with early agricultural production.
However, it is well established that the widespread development of agriculture and animal husbandry (as a revolutionary mode of production) also revolutionised social relations. This new mode ensured a more reliable and more abundant food supply, than the original hunter/gatherer mode. It also opened up the possibility of divisions of labour, the development of specialist skills, the accumulation of wealth and the creation of permanent religious and military elites. Conquest for regular tribute or pillage for periodic theft, became a way for elites to be ultra parasitic on the new agricultural mode of production. It can hardly be surprising if the ideas emanating from this revolutionary new reality were reflected within the realms of religious thought. If women’s access to this new mode of production was progressively reduced and their economic role gradually redefined (and it was) then sooner or later it is probable that the role of the goddesses in the imagined spiritual realm would also be redefined.
It would be strange indeed if in a male dominated economic system, male domination (patriarchy) did not also invade and conquer the religious mentality. The new mode of production also spawned civilisation with its reliance upon armed bodies of men for defence and territorial expansion. This development occurred in Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome, The invention of a divine Ashur, the god of a military state, using the human king as his earthly representative, was perhaps a typical example and one which was replicated by most, if not all, ruling elites during that period and later. The domination of elite men over production and as a consequence their domination within civil society and military institutions was sooner or later bound to be reflected in one way or another within religious institutions and religious imagination.
The subsequent empire building by Persia, Greece and Rome, with its single male King of Kings, (Xerxes’, Alexander the Greats’, Julius Ceasars’ et al,) governing the real world were perhaps the physical precursors of the imaginary divine male King of Kings governing the universe and all it contained. Can it be surprising therefore that a centuries old reality of a single male exercising life and death control over large expanses of land, cities and peoples would not influence how people thought the universe might be ruled or should be ruled? It was perhaps the next logical (or vested interest) step to begin to imagine a single male creator god who also had the power of life and death over his subjects together with the idea that everyone should obey his wishes or suffer the most devastating tortures or even death at his divine displeasure. In other words is it only a coincidence that religious monotheism was a fantasy mirror image of the then visible reality of the male dominated empires within which the idea was born?
It would seem therefore that there is a very definite link between the social status of women within modes of production and the form religious mysticism takes. When women had direct access to the dominant mode of production and control of the instruments of production, they were treated equally or even with deference. And it seems this was reflected within the sphere of religious imagination. When the later modes of production came to be controlled by men this gender revolution was accompanied by a revolutionary transformation within the realm of esoteric religious thought. How could it be otherwise? Imagination has always been absolutely necessary in order to sustain belief in an invisible and unknowable spirit, whether that belief has been animism, idol worship or the idea of an invisible, unknowable all powerful male god. Imagination and unquestioning faith just has to be the modus operandi for the asserted existence of something that cannot be proven and evaluated by means of the five human senses aided by the tools which enhance these senses. And of course if enough influential people argue that something exists, whether it exists or not, most ordinary people will find it difficult, if not impossible, to contradict this dominant view.
The transformed role of women within economic production and within the imagined religious realm serves to indicate that religious beliefs are plastic and subject to periodic change. It can also be seen from the above evidence that religious beliefs are derived ultimately from experiences gained from mundane everyday life but as modified by the power of imagination. It also suggests that real equality for women can only be achieved when once again they have direct access to, and equal control of the means and instruments of production. This alienation from direct social production and the resultant inequality, is something women share with the working classes under the capitalist mode of production but they also suffer from male gender prejudice as well. It was only 96 years ago (1920) that men in the USA allowed women there to vote and only 88 years ago (1928) that men in the UK allowed their women full voting rights. Yet then and now most men and most women still remain subordinate wage (or salary) slaves to capital. As Karl Marx, noted;
“The whole of human servitude is involved in the relationship of the worker to production, and every relation of servitude is but a modification and consequence of this relation. (Marx. Economic and Philosophic notebooks of 1844.)
So it is important for those who have realised that a post-capitalist mode of production is necessary that they should campaign for and where possible assist the achievement of women’s equality now not tell them they should wait until after a revolution.
Roy Ratcliffe (September 2016)