The Rise and Fall of the Goddess and the Descent of Woman
The Rise and Fall of the Goddess and the Descent of Woman
In the beginning the word of the law was with the women, but the male elders were unhappy because the women loved to dance naked around the campfire. So one day the male elders called a tribal meeting to confront the women about their behaviour. They said that it was not fitting for those who made the law to dance naked and demanded an end to it, the women, however, refused to change their ways. Eventually, the male elders armed all the men and staged a coup to seize power, telling the women that until they stopped dancing naked, the word of the law would remain with the men. But everyone knows that women will never stop dancing naked.
It must be reasonable to assume that at some point in our past, people did not realise the sexual act led to conception. One example of this is provided by the people of the Trobriand Islands (Kiriwina Islands) off the eastern coast of New Guinea. Women are believed to be impregnated by ancestral spirits, not their husbands. Antonie Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), dubbed ‘the Father of Microbiology’, was the first to provide a scientific explanation for conception.
As men simply spread their seed according to instinctive urges, and women are much more aware of how menstruation and gestation affects their bodies, it must be also reasonable to assume that women were the first to link sex with pregnancy. That women would have been eager to share such a realisation with their men should not be assumed, as keeping this knowledge to themselves would have allowed them spiritual, and therefore, political power. At the dawn of human society, women's ability to inexplicably bring forth life no doubt instilled a numinous awe in men. This situation would have led to the earliest priestesses becoming the first spiritual leaders, and in these relatively simple societies, religion and politics would have been indistinct from one another. The point would have eventually arrived when men became privy to their own role in the procreative process, but by then the prioritisation of the feminine aspect of creation had been well-established and the idea of Mother Nature and Mother Earth become firmly embedded in the human psyche.
Parthenogenesis, in scientific terminology, refers to asexual reproduction, but in mythology and religion it equates with virgin birth or 'Immaculate Conception'. In British tradition, the prophet Merlin was considered to have been the product of such a magical conception. Medieval tales of witches jumping naked over fires no doubt refer to rituals based on parthenogenesis, as Christopher Lee's Lord Summer Isle states in the film The Wicker Man 'What young woman wouldn't prefer the child of a god to that of some acne scarred artisan?' Even today, some Kikuyu women still visit a sacred site on Mount Kenya in the hope of being impregnated by the spirit of the mountain - this ritual retains a memory of the time when pregnancy was considered a mystical phenomenon.
In Palaeolithic hunting societies, the specialised hunting of big game was perhaps, if not an exclusively male preoccupation, predominantly male-orientated, while the far more generalized skills of gathering, fishing and hunting of small animals was mainly the domain of young women, older children and ‘third gender’ men. Gathering provided an estimated 80% of the Palaeolithic staple diet. The role of the elders (people in their thirties), and adults who had been crippled due to the rigours of such a life, would have been to baby sit. I hope it is not sexist to suggest that among earlier hominids, the term handy 'man' is probably accurate, regarding the innovation and working of tools, but again, it should not be presumed that such skills belonged exclusively in the male domain. Contemporary scholars are undoubtedly correct in regarding past interpretations of Palaeolithic mega fauna hunting as having been vastly exaggerated, yet to deny the existence of specialised big game hunting cultures, when such game was available, fails to account for the testosterone-fuelled male penchant for totem cults, initially based on hunting, but later adopted to warrior culture. Private boy's clubs have no doubt existed as long as human culture has.
As archaic and modern human males practiced a highly specialised occupation, their mental processes would have been concentrated on such pastimes as tool and weapon-making, including artistic decoration, practicing the use of such implements, passing on their skills to youngsters, telling tall stories about hunting exploits, and no doubt, seeking to understand the nature of their prey, along with emulating the cunning of the carnivores they admired. These considerations would have eventually led to the development of sympathetic hunting magic, requiring a shaman to devise and preside over the relevant rituals. Possibly, at this early stage and for some time to come, the shaman remained politically subservient to the priestess. Whereas Venus figurines are common throughout the period of Palaeolithic art, the first and only shamanistic representation dates from the end of the artistic phase (the ‘sorcerer’ from Les Trois Frères).
Comparisons with modern day hunter gatherers and pastoralist societies must be made with caution, but although human societies are based on numerous cultural possibilities, probabilities sill exist. The male-oriented Palaeolithic hunting culture probably involved the alpha male types living a separate existence from the rest of the group much of the time, not only in relation to travelling in search of game but also regarding the domestic situation. As women may have dominated such societies politically, we should perhaps imagine an opposite scenario to the club-wielding cave man dragging the woman into his cave by the hair, sexual relations may have been rather formalised with women making the men feel grateful for anything they got.
As a woman’s occupation was more varied and perhaps often casual, if not leisurely, it provided opportunities for greater social complexity, reflection and eclectic conversation. The tendency to gossip possibly provided the motivation for the development of more complex verbal descriptiveness. Women, and also third gender males, were perhaps the first comediennes, with the macho hunters providing the inspiration for much of their humour. In general the women and elders would have conspired with the priestess in maintaining their position of political authority, this situation necessitating the invention of thought provoking ideologies and theism in order to impress the simple-minded men folk. It is far from difficult to imagine that, while men had instigated human culture through the invention of tool-working, this matriarchal phase provided the intellectual impetus crucial in realising the potentiality of our sophisticated brains. As women specialised in gathering herbs, they would also have been the first doctors, in addition to being the earliest spiritual leaders and politicians. Similarly, the ritual use of hallucinogens would have been instigated by the priestesses, the Eleusinian Mysteries of Attica, in Ancient Greece, representing a survival of such rituals.
The unusual cave art of Pergouset, in France, dating from the Magdalenian period of somewhere between 15,000-12,000 years ago, has been meticulously studied by Michel Lorblanchet. His interpretation of the cave's ritual significance is based on its yonic imagery, including engravings of vulvas. The cave would appear to be symbolic of the womb, three chambers having been decorated to represent the early stages of gestation, along with realistic images of the local fauna. The fourth and innermost chamber is decorated with composite images of creatures constructed from the disparate parts of various animals, which have been described as fantastical chimeras. From this incipient or embryonic inner womb, where individual species have yet to be formed out of the wholeness of nature, the visitor passes through the smaller wombs to emerge into the light, reliving, in a sense, one’s own birth. Out of such chaos the world, animals and humans emerged in this earliest example of a creation myth. This interpretation has a fascinating parallel in recent history, among the Hohokan, Hopi and Zuni peoples of the American south-west, these matriarchal societies held their religious rituals in underground caves and their creation myth centred on emergence from the four wombs of Mother Earth. That these ceremonies were mostly the responsibility of male devotees proves that men are not necessarily resistant to matriarchy by nature.
Arguments will be made that the Venus cults and the cave art of Stone Age Europe, with their lack of continuity, could have had no bearing on the people of the Middle East. However, just because other populations of the time had no comparable material culture, at least not on the same scale, doesn’t mean they were not subject to similar spiritual influences. Both mythology and archaeology reveal the universal distribution of pre-eminent Mother Goddess worship across Europe and also the Middle East, where female-oriented serpent cults became highly influential. The loathing of serpents would come to symbolize patriarchy’s resentment of matriarchal rule.
Within a few thousand years of the cave art period coming to an end in Europe, the seeds of civilization as we know it were sprouting further to the east. It would be an oversimplification of the issue to claim that women were wholly responsible for instigating the Agricultural Revolution, and yet it stands to reason that incipient agricultural practices would have been developed by the female-led gathering groups. At what point matriarchal political power began to be usurped is unclear, but the process would have been temporally staggered, according to the various regions where the city state system came into being, and not fully completed until the witch hunts of Europe finally excluded women from contributing any meaningful role in the practice of religion.
The most obvious catalyst for the origin of this usurpation would be the militarization arising as a result of conflicts between sedentary agriculturalists and the nomadic pastoralists who attempted to prey on them. While feminine fertility deities were easily adapted and made relevant to an agricultural subsistence, the pastoralists' social and belief systems veered off on a different trajectory. Relations between nomadic and sedentary societies would have varied between symbiotic and parasitic, the latter consideration leading to the appearance of walled settlements, such as Jericho. As pastoralist clans developed a culture of stealing women and livestock from one another, hunting cults became warrior cults. The agriculturalists, having abandoned such macho rituals, were forced to develop professional soldiery. Generals became the consorts of the priestesses, and eventually, their military power allowed them to seize political control.
Another possibility is that during the pastoralist transition between hunter gathering and sedentary agrarianism, priests eclipsed the priestesses politically, as seems to have been the case in Ancient Mesopotamia. As yet, early settled societies had no concept of kingship and would have been governed by the priesthood, this appears to have been the situation in the Fertile Crescent, particularly among the cities along the southern plane of Sumner. The Sumerians were resistant to kingship, especially divine kingship, but eventually, they would succumb to hereditary dynastic rule. At least in a linguistic sense, the Sumerians had been fully assimilated by their Semitic neighbours by around 1800 BC.
The Sumerian Mother Goddess was Ninhursag, 'the mother of all living things'. She created the 'Land of the Living', in Dilmun, or in biblical tradition, the Garden of Eden. The goddess caused eight special plants to grow in the garden of the gods, but her greedy brother, Enki, ate them all. Enki became ill and hovered on the verge of death, yet his sister showed no sympathy for his gluttony and cursed him: 'Until he is dead I shall not look upon him with the eye of life.' Enki finally managed to persuade Ninhursag to help him, which she did by creating eight special gods, one to cure each of his ailing organs. She gave birth to the goddess Ninti, who was charged with curing Enki's rib. Ninti's name can be translated as 'she of the rib' or 'she who makes live.' The name of the biblical Eve also means 'she who makes live.' The writers of the Bible took this original Sumerian myth and gave it a patriarchal twist, although men are born of women, Eve was created from Adam’s rib.
Assyro-Babylonian mythology begins with the defeat of Tiamat, the Universal Mother Goddess, by the god Marduk. Her death is described in The Epic of the Creation:
"They marched to war; they drew near to give battle.
The Lord spread out his net and caught her in it.
The evil wind which followed him, he loosed it in her face.
She opened her mouth, Tiamat, to swallow him.
He drove in the evil wind so that she could not close her lips.
The terrible wind filled her belly. Her heart was seized,
She held her mouth wide open.
He let fly an arrow, it pierced her belly.
Her inner parts he clove, he split her heart.
He rendered her powerless and destroyed her life.
He felled her body and stood upright on it."
Another goddess would become important to the Assyro-Babylonians, Ishtar (Sumerian Innana), daughter of the god Sin, her association with the planet Venus making the Greek goddess Aphrodite her Aegean equivalent. However, the priestesses of Ishtar were relegated to the position of temple harlots. From representing the miracle of life, the goddess had become a sex object in male-dominated society.
Although such mythological examples of male chauvinism cannot be claimed as unequivocal evidence for the idea that women had ruled many prehistoric societies, it shows a recurring theme indicative of the politico-religious descent and sexual objectification of women. It is clear from the study of all the world's major mythologies and religions that the further back in time we venture, the more the spiritual realm was dominated by women. Admittedly, this is all highly speculative, as with all theories about prehistory, it is simply the most sense that ‘I’ have been able to make of the issue, based on the circumstantial evidence available. An objection to the idea of female political dominance would be that it is not the nature of men to have been so subservient, but such a view could be open to the criticism of representing modern male prejudice. Today, many men willingly pay to be dominated by women and alpha males represent a minority in the overall population, (many who appear to fit the bill are merely imitating those who are naturals). Still, I am not suggesting that Palaeolithic men lived a slavish existence, on the contrary, such a society would have been more or less egalitarian, with the exception that people accepted the albeit perceived wisdom of the priestess. Each individual would have been able to fulfil a role suited to their mental and physical condition, without the kind of bigotry endemic in modern society. Although Palaeolithic people’s minds could not have differed fundamentally from our own, other than their possessing a comparatively limited vocabulary, we must accept that for them, the forces of nature remained a tremendous mystery. Accordingly, they would have been superstitious to the point of obsession. As humans adapted to their higher self-awareness and struggled with understanding their natural place in the world, they would have lacked the self-belief and confidence of their descendants. Given the prevalent circumstances envisioned, the male psyche may have proven vulnerable to manipulation by wily female cunning, and the situation would have seemed only natural to all concerned.
Ancient Egypt is unusual in that its creation myth is male-centric, the Mother Goddess role of Isis having developed later in its history. At face value we could assume that the Egyptians had always been patriarchal, but closer analysis of the myths indicates otherwise. The main pantheon or Ennead is derived from the priesthood of Heliopolis. Atum emerged from the primordial ocean to become Ra, the sun god. Ra created the first couple, the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut, without need of a female consort, but he was later given the goddess Rat as a companion. Shu and Tefnut produced Geb and Nut - contrary to most mythological traditions, Geb was considered to be an earth god while Nut represented the sky. Geb and Nut conceived Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. Tefnut, however, appears to belong to an earlier tradition and was formerly paired with a god named Tefen, about whom little is known, presumably in the former matriarchal society, Tefen was merely the male reflection of Tefnut, as Rat would come to mirror Ra in the patriarchal era. Ra forced Tefnut to marry Geb, against her will. Osiris is accredited with having civilized Egypt, a tradition perhaps representing a major political transformation in the region.
Although women must have played a role in the domestic cults, which were of the greatest relevance to the average Egyptian, priestesses played no role in the state religion promoted by the aristocracy and its politically motivated priesthood. Egyptian state religion remained exceptionally open to modification, according to the needs and eccentricities of the Pharaohs ruling at any given time. This so-called religion appears to have provided no moral guidance or theism relevant to the average citizen (with the exception of the rituals of death and rebirth practiced in The Book of the Dead) but seems designed purely to endorse the rule of the aristocracy, similar in essence to the state religions of Central and South American civilizations. Even so, Egypt retained a peculiarity that had been lost by other Mediterranean regions after the end of the Bronze Age, in that women were allowed to inherit and own property, being citizens in their own right.
Perhaps we have a glimpse of the original Nile Valley matriarchy in the snake goddess cults, which remained popular locally throughout Egypt, goddesses such as Buto, Meretseger, Renenutet and Taweret. Interestingly, while the influence of these serpent goddesses was considered benign and positive, the male serpent deity, Apophis was evil and the enemy of the gods, as was Set, this vilification is reminiscent of Satan's role in the mythology of the Middle East. Perhaps we have here examples of the suppression of male deities who had formerly supported the matriarchal system, while the goddesses themselves were facilitated through compromise. Lucifer's association with serpents may hint at such cults having been widespread in the past, until patriarchal conquerors suppressed them. More recently the rainbow serpent remained central to the mother cults of Australia.
Locally, in Egypt, goddesses often remained the principal deity. The goddess Hathor, protectress of women, remained the sovereign deity whose worship was centred at Dendera. Nekhebet, the vulture-headed goddess, who presided over childbirth, had a centre of worship at Nekheb (El Kab), capital of the oldest kingdom in Southern Egypt, symbolized by the white crown. Along with the Uraeus (serpent goddesses) Nekhebet sometimes symbolically validated the rule of the Pharaoh, whom she is often depicted suckling. Buto, Mother Goddess of the north, is depicted wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. Seshat, (Sesheta) wife of Thoth, was the goddess of literature, the recording of history and was known as the mistress of the scribes.
Along with Tefnut, a strong contender for the role of original Mother Goddess has to be Neith (Neit), an exceptionally ancient deity with origins in prehistory; amongst Egypt's First Dynasty were two queens who took her name. Neith's epitaph Tehenut, 'the Libyan', implies a western origin and strengthens the prehistoric assumption of her conception. Like Buto, Neith is depicted wearing Net, the red crown of the north. Neith was both warrior-goddess and patron of domestic skills, like Athena, who is probably derived from her. She is credited with giving birth to the sky and the gods, including Ra himself. Unfortunately, Neith's temple at Sais did not survive, but Plutarch recorded the following inscription:
"I am all that has been, that is, and that will be. No mortal has yet been able to lift the veil which covers me."
Anyone who has studied Egyptian mythology knows how complex the subject is, with its numerous deities, aspects of tribal animistic beliefs, suppressed matriarchal undertones and the dominating patriarchal religion of the state-sponsored priesthood. All this indicates a cultural fusion of various ethnic groups, compromise and consolation of many disparate belief systems. If Egyptian civilization arose purely locally, without any diffusional influence, it is difficult to see why its state mythology and creation myth differs so much from its neighbours. Unlike Sumner, there is no evidence for a gradual transition from government by a priesthood to hereditary kingship and eventually divine kingship. Surely, Ancient Egypt, in its formative period leading to the development of state systems, was subject to the same diffusional influence as Ancient Greece.
The most informative mythological tradition in relation to the descent of the female politico-religious role comes from Greece, which derived its belief systems predominantly from the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, rather than from the patriarchal Indo-Europeans who colonized it. The pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Greece seem to have comprised of a mixture of natives descended from the Palaeolithic Europeans, along with colonists from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, who supplied the basis for what we call Greek mythology. These people would come to be called Pelasgians by historians and they clung to the coastal plains, developing the basics of the city states we are familiar with in the Classical period. Although these states would not have been physically part of a Minoan Empire, they probably paid tribute to the aristocracy on Crete, who in return, provided naval power to suppress piracy in Aegean waters. The Minoan Empire would have been based on the control of commerce rather than conquest and colonization.
Minoan civilization, based around the palaces of Crete, such as that at Knossos, arguably represents the most enigmatic and mysterious example of highly sophisticated early culture. Consequently, it is tempting to interpret the Minoan Period as representing a Golden Age of Mediterranean civilization. It cannot be claimed that Minoan society was politically dominated by matriarchal rule; men had obviously attained political power while retaining the pre-eminent worship of the Mother Goddess. Perhaps a state of equilibrium between the sexes had been achieved, placing Minoan society somewhere between the extremes of Pharaohnic Egypt and pre-Indo-European Greece. Frescoes from Cretan palaces reveal that the Minoans possessed a war-like nature, yet such artistic depictions of martial prowess represent a small percentage of palace decoration, particularly in comparison with the state art of other warrior aristocracies.
The myth of a carnivorous Minotaur living in a maze below the palace at Knossos cannot be taken literally, but the tradition hints at a Minoan custom of hostage-taking, the hostages being pressured into taking part in the bull-leaping rituals. It is unclear as to whether this custom applied to Aegean states in general or just the Athenian state. Perhaps Athens was singled out because, even before the arrival of the Achaians, she was considered the greatest rival to Cretan power. Somewhere around 1450 BC, a series of natural disasters struck Crete and the Minoan colony on the island of Thera. The settlement on Thera was destroyed by volcanic eruptions, while Crete was subject to violent earthquakes and hit by a tidal wave caused by Thera's volcanic activity. These disasters allowed the Achaians to occupy Crete and usurp Minoan influence throughout the Aegean. Still, the earliest Achaian king of Crete retained the title of Minos.
Very few Greek deities can be shown to be Indo-European in origin, although the triad of the brothers Zeus, Poseidon and Hades can be loosely equated with Indra, Mitra and Varuna, only Hades seems to be a foreign god. Hades usurped Hecate, the ancient Thracian goddess, as ruler of the underworld and, as though to emphasise Hellenic dominance, he abducted Persephone, daughter of Demeter, to make her his wife. Demeter and Persephone played crucial roles in the Eleusinian Mysteries, being the fertility goddesses of the Pelasgians, although the pastoralist Hellenes came to militarily dominate the indigenous people, they seem to have been culturally and religiously assimilated, to a large extent.
The myth of Theseus symbolizes the Hellenic overthrow of both Minoan political and cultural influence, as well as Pelasgian autonomy. The stories of Attica’s invasion by Amazons from the Crimea could just as easily be interpreted as the Hellenic suppression of a warrior-priestess cult guarding the sacred sanctuary at Eleusis, a cult based on the tradition of Pallas and Athena, two initiates who fought to the death to become high priestess, a tradition originating in North Africa. The Eleusinian Mysteries, as described by Herodotus, had been compromised by the Hellenic overthrow of matriarchy and we can only guess at the detailed nature of the original festivals. The Greater Panathenaea was celebrated every four years, when an ancient statue of Athena was given a new robe. Demeter and Persephone were honoured every summer in the Lesser and Greater Mysteries. The autumnal festival of Demeter (Thesmophoria) reflects the ancient role of women in agrarian fertility rites designed to ensure the success of the next season’s crops - this was the only festival reserved strictly for women in historical times, possibly, in the early Bronze Age, all the Mysteries had excluded men.
The Oracle at Delphi remained the most sacred site in Greece, but despite becoming a temple of the Hellenic god Apollo, the Oracle retained the services of the Pythia (pythoness), a prophetess associated with a pre-Indo European serpent cult, which had been popular in Minoan Crete. Apollo replaced the serpent deities Delphyne and Python in bestowing the gift of prophecy on mortals, as when the Trojan twins Cassandra and Helenus were licked by serpents in his temple. The reason why Classical Greece retained the worship of Pelasgian goddesses can perhaps be explained by the fact that a predominantly pastoralist people inherited rule over a specialist agrarian society, to which fertility deities were of paramount importance, also, we must consider that the barbarian invaders, or at least the chiefs come would be kings, aspired to higher cultural pretensions. The constant animosity between Hera and Zeus seems to underline this awkward marriage of convenience. As with the Achaian, Dorian and Classical Greeks, the pre-Indo-European cities of Greece were largely independent of each other, there being no notion of nationhood, each city had its own pre-eminent deities and it was not until the classical period that the Olympian pantheon became relatively standardised. The Achains seem to have abandoned whichever Jupiter-like equivalent of the universal sky god they brought with them, in name at least, accepting and Hellenizing the Cretan Zeus. Interestingly, the citadel of Mycenae, built by the Achaians amongst the older settlements of the Argolid, reveals little evidence of religious priority in its construction, perhaps an implication that the newcomers simply hijacked the local religion for the purpose of political control.One could be forgiven for wondering if the Achaian aristocracy was actually religious at all.
Rather than interpreting the Achaian rise to power as a simple military conquest, maybe we should think of a scenario where one aristocracy gradually took over another. Moving down from the Balkans, the Achaians seemed initially content with grazing their herds in the interior of Attica and the Peloponnese, but they would eventually possess enough military bargaining power to force arranged marriages on the Pelasgian aristocracy. During the Bronze Age, a compromise was maintained whereby, through matrilocal marriage arrangements, Pelasgian princesses (priestesses) were able to remain in their cities of birth, ruling alongside their Achaian husbands. This arrangement suited the Achaian chiefs, who were only concerned with enhancing the royal lineage of their dynasty (did Caesar really marry Cleopatra because she was beautiful, or was it because she was related to Alexander the Great, allowing Caesar’s heirs to claim descent from Achilles and Herakles?) The Aegean tradition of kidnapping royal women could be interpreted in this light, princes desiring to marry priestesses who were considered to be descended from the Pelasgian goddesses they represented – as with Spartan Helen, the priestess and namesake of the Lakonian goddess of the moon. This compromise was brought to an end by the Dorian takeover, following an attempted Achaian expansion in Asia Minor, at the expense of the Hittites (another Indo-European people encroaching on the Aegean, from Anatolia), although some aspect of compromise remained in Attica. Many Achaian-Pelasgian people took to the sea to avoid enslavement, as was the fate of the Helots in Sparta. These refugees seem to have become affiliated with other so-called 'Sea Peoples', who were eventually defeated by Rameses ll of Egypt.
The myth of Pandora unleashing all the woes of mankind, like the tradition of Eve instigating the fall from grace, should perhaps be interpreted as male propaganda designed to invalidate the moral authority of matriarchal rule. Elsewhere, goddesses retained their life-giving qualities whilst simultaneously representing cruelty and negativity, such as Coatlicue, the Toltec Mother Goddess of Mexico. Hesiod summed up the patriarchal attitude towards women:
"From her has sprung the race of womankind.
The deadly race and tribes of womankind."
Robert Graves believed that an essential component of the Mysteries involved the preparation of the Sacred King’s sacrifice. In his book The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer explores the theme of sacrificial kings through related mythological traditions, such as Ishtar and Tammuz, Aphrodite and Adonis, Cybele and Attis. The male fertility deities represent the god of vegetation, who was fated to die and be resurrected annually. This has been interpreted as alluding to a custom involving male sacrifice in matriarchal societies. As humanity set out on the road to civilization, the priestess of a community took a male consort, who was in no way regarded as an equal. After several years ruling by her side, the consort became the embodiment of the sacrificial fertility god and suffered the same fate, all in the interest of ensuring the crops were successful. Obviously, the ulterior motive of such a sacrifice would have been to prevent men from attaining political power - as the threat of male usurpation increased, the measures used to counter it became more extreme. Consorts eventually became generals and achieved military power, enabling them to avoid sacrifice and stage a political coup. Alternatively, such cults were oppressed from without by patriarchal invaders. This hypothesis has been discredited on the grounds that it is based on misinterpretations of Sumero-Akkadian and Phoenician tablets. Even so, there are aspects of mythological tradition indicating that religiously motivated violence against men has been considered acceptable in the past.
A purification ritual aimed at countering the threat of disease survived in Russia, at least until the advent of the First World War. At midnight the elder women of a village would select nine virgins and three widows for a ceremony kept secret from the men. Clad only in shifts, a rite would be performed in a field, involving scythes and animal skulls. A furrow was ploughed by the widows, and then the Earth spirits were evoked to disinfect the evil germs threatening the village. Any unfortunate male, who happened to inadvertently witness the ritual, would be attacked by the scythe-wielding virgins. This Slavonic tradition is reminiscent of the behaviour accredited to the Maenads in Aegean myth. Such traditions possibly date from the early Bronze Age, when women guarded the Mysteries jealously, and under matriarchal law, any men who observed the secret rituals could be legally murdered, even relatives would have received no mercy. Pentheus, who 'looked upon the Mysteries with uninitiated eyes', was torn to pieces by Theban Maenads, who included his mother and aunt; Hippasus was sacrificed by his mother and aunts, the three daughters of Minyas; Orpheus, the great poet and musician, was torn to pieces by the Ciconian Maenads of Thrace.
The result of male usurpation, for the women of Greece and Rome during classical antiquity, can best be described in a nutshell by the title of Sarah B. Pomeroy's book, 'Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves'. Ironically, the exception to the rule was Dorian Sparta. Spartan women earned an infamous reputation among other Greek states on account of speaking their minds and enjoying the freedoms made possible by their men often being absent on military campaigns. Many Greek writers, such as Aristotle and Plutarch, blamed the corrupting influence of women for the decline of the Spartan state. The relative freedom of Spartan women seems more in keeping with an Indo-European people related to the Celtic branch. Perhaps the early Hellenes had been less chauvinistic when they entered Greece, the misogyny that developed later being the result of an extremely adverse reaction to the matriarchal systems of the Pelasgians.
Little is known about the origins of the Etruscans of Italy, other than that they spoke a non-Indo-European language. It seems most likely that, like the Pelasgians, they were colonists from the Eastern Mediterranean, who had assimilated the pre-Indo-European natives related to the Basque speakers of today, only at a much later date. The Latins probably arrived in Italy before the Etruscans but were dominated by them, up until some time after 500 BC. There is strong circumstantial evidence, from Etruscan art and burials, to indicate that the social status of women was much more elevated than in Latin and most Hellenic societies, at least in the case of the aristocracy. This shocked the Romans and is corroborated by Greek historians such as Timaeus and Theopompus, although they concerned themselves mostly with alleged promiscuity.
The Romans were obviously not culturally and religiously assimilated to the extent that the Achaians had been in Greece, but they were certainly influenced by the goddess cults of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, along with their indigenous counterparts. Diana is generally recognised as an important member of the Roman pantheon, belonging like Minerva (Athena) and Vesta, to a virgin cult (patriarchal societies prefer their goddesses to be virgins). Diana can be equated with the Pelasgian Artemis, but also Phrygian Cybele, Cretan Britomaris, the Gallic Artio, and many others. As they are goddesses of the wild and hunting, in origin, they are perhaps representative of a feminine equivalent of the Palaeolithic god of the hunt, whose worship was once universal. Whether or not she was required to be a virgin before the patriarchal era is debatable. No doubt it was the virgin status and pre-eminent worship of Artemis at Ephesus, in Turkey, that would allow the smooth transition to the worship of the Virgin Mary, where her first church was built.
Another possible remnant of matriarchal tradition in Rome, reminiscent of the Mysteries at Eleusis, was the cult of the Vestal Virgins, who were tasked with keeping the sacred fire of Vesta burning. The price paid by a virgin for allowing her purity to be corrupted proved extremely high in a patriarchal society. After the disastrous defeat of two consular armies by Hannibal Barca, at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, it was suspected that one of the six virgins had taken a lover; consequently, both the virgin and her alleged paramour were buried alive in an attempt to appease the gods. There are sources suggesting that Greek priestesses introduced the Mysteries to Rome, but we should avoid thinking of such cults as necessarily Hellenic Greek in origin. Despite the existence of Graecia Minor on the east coast of Italy, the Hellenization of Roman culture cannot be said to have occurred until after the sack of Syracuse in 212 BC. Such feminine-oriented cults could have originated in any region bordering the Mediterranean Sea, or even have indigenous precedents, and may pre-date the Bronze Age. Roman mythology is not simply Greek mythology with different names.
The Romans readily adopted deities to the extent that their pantheon could contain two goddesses of a similar tradition, such as Diana and Cybele. As with the Pythia in Greece, the Sibyl presided as prophetess in Rome. Cybele required her priests to emasculate themselves, perhaps a reminder of the dark days when the goddess dominated men to ensure female political control. Evidently, respect for, or fear of the goddess, was so deeply embedded in the European male psyche, that even patriarchal warrior societies struggled to completely abandon goddess cults, unlike their Middle Eastern counterparts. The Romans adopted and discarded deities like fashions, accepting the worship of Isis and the cult of Mithras, before Constantine encouraged the embracement of Christianity through political expedience. Despite all the macho militarization of the Hellenes and Latins, it would be left to Christianity to finally eradicate all residual traces of female religious dominance.
Amongst the Celtic-speaking peoples, with whom both Hellenes and Latins shared a relatively recent ancestry, women seem to have been equal in council, fought invaders as enthusiastically, played a major role in religion, and had a right to the family property, should the man decide to trade them in for a younger model. Of course, Celtic-related people represented a highly varied and widely distributed group of peoples who shared similar language and religious practices, but with diverse aspects of culture, but the equality of women appears to have been common to most, some of the Gaels and Picts may have even practiced matrilineal succession. Tacitus, in Agricola, states that 'Women were by no means excluded from positions of authority'.
Although the Hellenes were no doubt misogynistic, their women did not differ essentially from their Celtic sisters, if Aristophanes’ 'Lysistrata' is anything to go by (a brilliant comedy and a must read, for anyone with a sense of humour). And yet, any attempt to offer wise council by the women would have been ruled invalid by the men, on account of the women’s wanton sexual nature:
“Euripides is such a clever poet—
the man who says there's no wild animal 410
more shameless than a woman.”
The Upper Palaeolithic cave art period of Western Europe might be regarded as the first major milestone in the establishment of human culture since the appearance of ritual burial among the Neanderthals of the Middle East. The concept of living in towns appears to have arisen in the region of what is now Turkey, but it would be in the Fertile Crescent that, due to geographical and climatic factors, city state civilization would emerge to influence the West. Meanwhile, people in China and the Indus Valley were developing higher civilizations of their own. A repetition of what happened in Iraq would occur in the Nile Valley, although Egyptian civilization remained exceptionally insular. Much later, and without any diffusional influence from the Old World, a convergent development of the same kind of civilizations would arise in South America and Mexico – proving that all human societies were capable of advancement, given the right circumstances.
People in the Aegean were advancing themselves, while still subject to the influence of further ingenuity emanating, like ripples on a pond, out of the Middle East. Colin Renfrew provides us with an excellent model of how Aegean civilization emerged after the Ice Age, along with the wisdom of avoiding interpreting history as a series of military invasions resulting in cultural diffusion. The effects of numerous folk movements, colonization and the interactions between various ethnic groups would have undoubtedly been highly complex. Even so, as far as Europe is concerned, people who were peripheral to Middle Eastern influence were at a disadvantage, some of them struggling along until a ripple reached them, either through the diffusion of ideas or the arrival of colonists. Some migrants from the Eastern Mediterranean, such as the megalithic tomb builders, gravitated away from the centre of influence early, but still managed to awe the native hunter gatherers of Western Europe, along with the early Indo-European migrants, with their incredible engineering skills and knowledge of astronomy, creating a unique form of civilization – although it would lack continuity, in the long run.
As material culture spread, so did elements of the more sophisticated spiritual rituals, developed in the Middle East from the goddess worship of Palaeolithic peoples. Ironically, whereas goddess worship would be suppressed in the Middle East and neighbouring regions, by monotheistic pastoralists, it would cling on peripherally until further ripples reached Western Europe.
In the Middle East, the decline of feminine influence had begun with patriarchal pagans who adopted the local goddesses, but the process was completed by conversion to monotheism, or more accurately, the domination of the sky god worshipped by Semitic pastoralists. Even before the advent of monotheism, the Semites were inclined towards the de-feminization of goddesses – Elat to El, and so forth. It is possible that Satan (Shetain) himself originated as a goddess, who would have been the main rival to Yahweh, the Semitic sky god. After the suppression of the cult of Shetain, the deposed deity was fused with Lucifer and incorporated as the demi-urge or exaggerated antithesis of Yahweh, and used to intimidate people into fearing God. The vilification and suppression of goddess cults by patriarchal nomads is possibly hinted at in the biblical stories depicting the destruction of the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah, and we can only guess at the human cost involved in the forced transition from goddess-oriented paganism to monotheism.
As Christianity spread into Western Europe, it came up against an ancient and well-established religion in which women played a crucial role. What we call the Wiccan religion (a name derived from the Anglo-Saxons), retained many aspects of the Celtic and Teutonic past and was probably originally centred on the Mother Goddess known as Don or Danu, named after the River Danube. In Britain, the worship of Don would later be supplemented or replaced by that of Frigg, the Teutonic Mother Goddess. Although Teutonic male deities were invoked before battles, and sacrificed to afterwards, goddesses remained of greater significance in everyday life. Of great importance to Teutonic warrior cults was the art of prophecy, derived from Mother Frigg and revealed by her priestesses, as recorded by Strabo:
“Their women accompanied them on their march and were attended by holy prophetesses with grey hair and white clothing. These had linen mantles fastened by a buckle, bronze girdles and bare feet.”
These goddess cults should not be confused with the druidic worship of Ba'al, introduced to Western Europe by the Phoenician-related megalithic tomb builders, but between them, these traditions contribute towards what is often referred to as the Old Religion.
Initially, being a newcomer, Christianity proved exceptionally tolerant of the Old Religion and the evangelists were content to build their churches on sacred lay sites, where people had always worshipped in the open - the tactic being that by building in such places the locals would continue to worship there, eventually adopting Christianity whole-heartedly. But as kings adopted the new belief system, Christianity became the state religion and abandoned its tolerance of other beliefs. In mid tenth century England, King Edgar vowed to totally extinguish heathenism.
It should also be noted that Europeans had no concept of the Judaeo-Christian Satan, despite Western Christianity using the name of Hel, the Teutonic goddess of the underworld, for its imaginary purgatory. To worship the Devil, you actually need to believe in Middle Eastern monotheism – obviously, you cannot have one without the other. As the Ice Age ended, and the great herds followed the retreating tundra north, people in the Aegean turned to the domestication of goats and the god Pan replaced the stag god of the hunters (Cernunnos). These horned deities were either mistakenly associated with Satan or simply used as an excuse for persecution.
Many women continued to reject the Christian theism, as it excluded them from equal participation. In an effort to counter this, somewhere around the beginning of the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III gave his blessing for the virgin Mary to be associated with the moon, allowing women to worship her as a moon goddess; like Brigid, who later became St. Brigit:
“Towards the moon it is that he who is buried in the shadow of sin should gaze. Having lost divine grace, the day disappears, the sun no longer shines for him, but the moon is still on the horizon. Let him speak to Mary; under her guidance many every day find their way to God.”
Before this, Mary had played little part in Christian worship, she was merely employed as a consolation prize for women, but for many it wasn’t enough. Before long, the persecutions began again in earnest and the atrocities continued throughout the Middle Ages, until the Old Religion was destroyed, except for in the minds of poets. Thus Middle Eastern patriarchy had managed to erode the long-standing natural appreciation of women's ability to contribute towards the progression of Western European society.
Any hypothesis regarding prehistory is difficult to prove, either way, but many people would argue that the reality of the pre-eminence of goddesses in early human societies, and the priestesses who represented them, is glaringly obvious – but unlike many similar presumptions that are readily accepted because they converge with what is wished to be true, it simply doesn’t conform to the extremely subjective, male-centric opinion perpetuated by established academic institutions and orthodox religion. If a truly objective alien being visited earth, it would be interesting to find out what their unbiased opinion on the subject would be. But why should it matter? Because it is often said that unless we know where we came from, we cannot be sure of where we are going.
From virgin to harlot and back to purity once more, the dual aspects of light and darkness reflect the dilemma that preoccupies the male psyche, should the goddess be placed on a pedestal and worshipped, or be made to serve our instinctive animal urges. Men are either awed, indifferent or intimidated by female sexuality and it can seem that nature has played a cruel trick on us: women do not necessarily think about sex all the time but are capable of doing it all the time, men think about sex all the time but are incapable of doing it all the time. The sexual disparity is made worse by a quirk of our physical evolution, in becoming bipedal, the female internal erogenous zones became less accessible to the male member, basically it curves the wrong way. The frustration and intimidation female sexual prowess engenders in many men is reflected in the fact that the majority of pornographic films are based on the degradation of women.
During the mediaeval period, the concept of romance and chivalry appeared among the aristocracy, though just how much the literary invention of Norman poets converges with the actual reality is debatable. Romance does not come naturally to most men, and like art, it is something that must be created, according to the individual skill of the artist concerned. Without resorting to over-romantic sentimentality, it could be said that a man and a woman are like two halves which together make a whole - the concept of Ying and Yang. Nature created us so dissimilar because asexual reproduction is less efficient in more complex multicellular organisms. At the foetal stage, we all start out the same, nature concentrating on creating a perfect human form, before a final boost of testosterone makes some of us XY and therefore male. This sexual differentiation leaves us incomplete, so that we require from one another that which differentiates us, thus promoting the proliferation of the species.
As we differ physically, so our natures are dissimilar, one balancing out the other to provide equilibrium. This balance has always been missing from human society, from what was perhaps, an extremely female-oriented beginning, we switched to the opposite extreme, and that has prevailed for most of our history.