In the 1990s, a new generation of young, less ideologically-driven, often female anthropologists and scholars made it their business to investigate prehistoric European religious cultures and, when they did, they made an astonishing discovery: the religion of the Great Goddess was all made up out of whole cloth.
“The evidence is overwhelming that Wicca is a distinctly new religion, a 1950s concoction influenced by such things as Masonic ritual and a late-nineteenth-century fascination with the esoteric and the occult, and that various assumptions informing the Wiccan view of history are deeply flawed,” wrote Charlotte Allen in The Atlantic. “Furthermore, scholars generally agree that there is no indication, either archaeological or in the written record, that any ancient people ever worshipped a single, archetypal goddess…”
In fact, according to Phillip G. Davis, professor of religion at the University of Prince Edward Island and author of The Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality, much of what passes for “feminist spirituality” today is largely the creation of just one man (not one woman), an eccentric British bureaucrat named Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964).
An avid Rosicrucian and occasional nudist, Gardner claimed to have learned the “Old Religion” from an ancient “coven” near his home in Highcliffe, Dorset, but Davis and other scholars who examined his unpublished papers now conclude that no such group ever existed. Rather, Gardner synthesized the Romantic musings of such 19th and early 20th century cranks as Charles G. Leland (author of Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches), Margaret Murray (author of Witch-Cult in Western Europe), Robert Graves (author of The White Goddess) and the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley.
What’s more, when women scholars began searching the records and relics of ancient societies for the peaceful religion of the “Great Goddess,” they discovered (to their dismay) that ancient pagans were a far cry from the feminist encounter groups they encountered at Harvard Divinity School, lighting incense to “the Divine Sophia.”
“Searching for female images of the Divine, [religious feminists] inevitably turned to ancient pagan goddesses such as Isis of Egypt and Ishtar of Babylonia, and, in the process, adopted the romantic notion that the societies that worshipped them held women, sexuality, and nature in high regard,” writes Judith Antonelli, a religiously observant Jew and feminist author in Boston. “There’s just one problem: The fairy tale isn’t accurate. It whitewashes the male supremacy and militarism of ancient paganism, falsely attributing the origin of these phenomena to ‘the Hebrews.’ In the new goddess myth, Egypt and Babylonia are portrayed as benevolent, peaceful, and matriarchal societies, despite the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation, ritual castration, phallus worship, and even human sacrifice were all integral aspects of their religious traditions. Do women who are enchanted by Isis, for instance, know that worship of her involved the annual drowning of a young virgin girl in the Nile to assure a plentiful harvest? Do devotees of Ishtar realize that many of her priestesses were simply temple slaves who were branded with a star (Ishtar’s symbol) just like the animals that were dedicated to her?”
Actually, it gets worse.
Mainstream anthropologists now concede that there is no historical or archaeological evidence whatsoever that a true matriarchal society – one in which political power lay primarily in the hands of women – ever existed anywhere on earth, even among goddess-worshiping pagans.
There have been matrilineal societies, of course – such as traditional Judaism, ironically enough – in which children are identified primarily from the mother’s line. But even in matrilineal societies such as traditional Judaism, males have dominated.
In fact, it was only after Christianity was introduced in Western Europe – with its egalitarian ethos and pervasive cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary – that women first gained the respect and dignity which, Christian theologians insisted, God ordained from the beginning of creation.
“One of feminism’s irritating reflexes is its fashionable disdain for patriarchal society, to which nothing good is ever attributed,” writes the iconoclastic feminist scholar and lesbian intellectual Camille Paglia in her now-classic text, Sexual Personae. “But it is patriarchal society that has freed me as a woman. It is capitalism that has given me the leisure to sit at this desk writing this book. Let us stop being small minded about men and freely acknowledge the treasures their obsessiveness has poured into culture… we could make an epic catalog of male achievements, from paved roads, indoor plumbing, and washing machines to eyeglasses, antibiotics and disposable diapers… If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”
Sentiments such as these are, of course, heresy among today’s aging gender feminists for whom “patriarchy” is the original, if not the only, sin.
It is certainly debatable whether testosterone-driven male “obsessiveness” was a necessary stage in the development of human civilization, but what is not debatable is that the status of women significantly improved (and almost exclusively in western Europe) as Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. The reason for this was the example set by both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
The Rights of Women in the Ancient World
The truth that many contemporary feminists don’t want to face is that, with a few rare exceptions, women never had anything close to equal rights with men throughout the long history of the ancient world.
The evidence for prehistory is mixed. Certainly, small tribal groups may well have exhibited a more easy-going familiarity between the sexes and consequent quasi-equality. Then again, there is also evidence that some prehistoric societies were, like gorilla societies, brutally patriarchal, dominated by the strongest (alpha) males who simply took what they wanted – food, women, the best cave — with nary a please nor thank you.
Once we arrive in the period when records were kept, however, the status of women was definitely more limited.
In the Homeric epics, there are numerous powerful female figures – the goddesses and characters such as Circe and even the long-suffering, eternally chaste Penelope. But in Greek society itself, women had few if any rights. In the famous democracies of classical Greece, women had no vote. They could not sue in law courts. They couldn’t own property. They were rarely seen in public. As in ancient Japan, the Greeks expected their wives to be seen and not heard… although they did appreciate the company of prostitutes (hetaira) and concubines (pallakai) who appear to have had some influence.
As we saw in another essay, male children were more highly valued throughout the ancient world than female children who were frequently killed through the widespread practice of infanticide – a grim sociological reality that gender feminist, through their grim advocacy of abortion-on-demand, have unintentionally brought back. Strangely enough, ancient Egypt — with its powerful queens — seems to have granted women more equality. Late Egyptian marriage contracts give women more rights.
In Rome, women had more rights than in ancient Greece, including the right to divorce; but very little political power. There were no female Roman senators or emperors. Not until the legalization of Christianity in Byzantium did true empresses appear — Irene (A.D. 752-803), Zoe (978-1050) and, of course, the formidable Theodora (984-1056). (The wife of Augustus, Livia Drusilla, functioned as “co-empress” in a sense and was an adviser to her son, Tiberius, but was not a true emperor.)
Women in the Hebrew Bible
Women were generally treated better in ancient Israel and in early Judaism than in most pagan societies but patriarchy still reigned supreme. There are passages in the Hebrew Bible in which women are portrayed as seductresses (Delilah in Judges 16, Pharaoh’s wife Potiphar in Genesis 39), or as inherently untrustworthy.
Many feminists insist that the story of Adam and Eve places most of the blame on Eve… even though it’s clear from the text, and from their mutual punishment, that the blame lies on both equally. Part of the punishment for disobeying God is that the man will “rule” or “dominate” his wife – although this also makes clear that such male domination was not what God willed in the beginning but is a consequence of sin. Certainly, the Mosaic Law contains many provisions that strike modern people as unjust and discriminatory against women… such as the provision that a bride (but not a groom) discovered not to be a virgin be stoned to death (Deut. 22: 13-21)… the fact that men (but not women) were allowed to have multiple spouses… the rule that property be passed on to male heirs but not to female ones (Numbers 27: 8-11)… the provision that an oath by a man is legally binding but not that of a woman if it is contradicted by her father or husband (Numbers 30)… and so on.
On the other hand, however, there are many passages in the Hebrew Bible that emphasize the fundamental equality of women with men – as well as their ingenuity, compassion and courage.
In the Hebrew Bible, women routinely outsmart the men and take the initiative. You have to be a singularly ideological feminist not to see the humor and pathos in the story of Abraham and his beautiful, powerful, rich and determined wife Sarah. She is a woman of such beauty that, when Abraham and she flee to Egypt, Abraham tells the Egyptians that she is his sister, not his wife, because he fears the Egyptians will simply kill him and take her for themselves – and indeed, Sarah attracts the attention of none other than the Pharaoh himself. Yet Sarah remains childless into her old age – and so she, and not Abraham, proposes that her tired old husband Abraham sleep with the young Egyptian servant-girl Hagar (the first recorded act of surrogate motherhood) so Abraham will have an heir and all their property not be deeded to their bondservant. Inevitably, the nubile Hagar begins to act haughtily towards her old mistress – and Sarah is not a happy woman. “You are responsible for this outrage!” the Bible records Sarah screaming at Abraham. “I myself gave my maid to your embrace; but ever since she became aware of her pregnancy, she has been looking on me with disdain. May the Lord decide between you and me!”
Hardly a docile wife.
Finally, when Abraham informs his wife that God will perform a miracle and that she will conceive a son after menopause, she laughs – a bit at her old husband’s expense. Sarah says, “Now that I am so withered and my husband is so old, am I still to have pleasure (edna)?”
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