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Divine Femininity and Women Throughout History

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

In contemplating the great questions of life or witnessing the miracle of birth, one inevitably may wonder where the idea of a male creator God came from, and why females seem to be largely missing from the major divine equations. For instance, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the Christian trinity to illustrate the Godhead with no room for any other variables. The beautiful and pious Mary enjoys a bit of Sainthood, but also embodies a logistical riddle no earthly woman alive could hope to emulate: Virgin Motherhood. To add insult to injury, Eve gets the blame for the downfall of man. To further illustrate the inequity, the social order of religion is also very male dominated. In modern day Catholicism, Islam or Judaism, as well as many other religions, women are not allowed in many positions of spiritual leadership. It doesn’t really seem very logical, given that every human that ever lived came from the body of a woman, and with few exceptions, everyone has gotten their most crucial psychological matrix and early learning from their mother. The word matrix itself is defined as “womb or uterus”, “a source origin” "place or medium where something is developed" or an "array of possible combinations of truth-values". It is curious indeed to find that although most of the earliest religions seem to have incorporated both male and females deities, the major religions have long ago dispensed with the sacred feminine almost entirely. It is well known that some of the very earliest artifacts ever to be crafted by early humans do represent what look to us to be fertility goddesses. Nobody can ever be certain as to what significance they held in those times, and all theories that place them at the center of an actual religion is speculative. What can be inferred, however, is that there was a definite importance of the female figure in motherly capacities, by the fact that the carvings were made in the first place as fertile looking females with emphasized breasts, bellies, and vulva, and that they have lasted for millennia. Almost all of the earliest sculptures or figures found are female, and because of this, much speculative theory surrounds societies where fertility goddesses were likely worshipped. Many goddess-like art and artifacts were found in Sumeria, India, Europe, Africa, South America and Egypt from later periods that most historians agree were indeed religious or sacred. No historian to date, however, can tell us exactly what happened in between the prehistoric times of theoretical Goddess worship and now, or when exactly the male principle became the only one worshipped in the major religions of the world. There are theories that the earliest hunter cultures tended to be male oriented, and that those became invading tribes who spread patriarchy to the earliest gathering or agriculture-based Goddess worshipers. Now, the androcentric leanings of the world’s great monotheistic religions are so pervasive and readily visible there is no need to illustrate them in detail here. The intended inquiry of interest to follow will rather focus on the area between the established lines, and look to where the feminine divine is found throughout history, and how her representation and visibility may or may not relate to the roles of women in different societies. If a culture is able to embrace, revere, and celebrate the Divine Feminine or Goddess, will they then be able to honor the mortal women among them in positions of equality and leadership?

There are some that say yes, the ability to worship a female deity directly translates to a reverence for nature and women in daily life. Since the second wave of feminism, there have been many theories abound that speak of early matriarchies that were harmonious with the earth and with each other. Most of these theories place the date of a great shift to patriarchy and male-centered spirituality about 5000 years ago. Whether the idea of utopian matriarchy in many early human societies is true or not, since nobody can vouch for exactly what was happening between the sexes thirty thousand years ago on up, it is just as valid a theory as any other, and any further uneducated speculation on the subject would be futile. It is a nice idea to think that once upon a time the mother creator was honored and so were women.

There is much more evidence to play with in the early civilizations of Sumeria, India, Egypt, China, West Africa and Europe, as well as in the traditions and folklore of early indigenous cultures in the Americas and elsewhere. Here we see a plethora of goddesses and goddess figures, and also some instances of reverence for female leadership and honorable roles in society, but sadly not much, and not in a direct ratio to the feminine deities. Interestingly enough, the legends surrounding these deities seem to be recycled time and time again, and show up in the mythology and dogma of all the religions today with the gender of the roles often reversed. The Sumerian goddess Inanna was the Queen of Heaven who descended to the underworld, was hung up on a hook for three days only to return to life but have to sacrifice her husband Dumuzi in her place. In Egypt, Nut was represented as the sky or cosmos, which has traditionally been assigned as male while earth being female, yet she was still the mother of all the gods and goddesses. Isis, given the attributes of most love goddesses around the world, was mother of Horus and wife of Osiris, and many believe became the original archetype for Mother Mary in Christianity, as can be seen in almost identical depictions of them nursing Horus or Jesus. Egypt was rich with goddess lore, some of the most memorable being Ma’at, goddess of truth and justice, Bastet, goddess of joy, the arts, and healing, Hathor, goddess of pregnancy, love and celebration, Sekmet who ruled war and destruction as well as many others. In India, there is a Nut-like cosmic mother Durga or Shakti, Sarasvati of writing and knowledge, Lakshmi the bringer and protector of wealth, and the infamous black or blue Kali, the tongue waggling goddess of death and destruction. The goddesses of India have survived to this day and Hinduism remains one of the richest polytheist religions the world has to offer. In West Africa, some of the Yoruba people still celebrate Nana as the moon related skymother, Oshun as the fertile love goddess who rules over rivers and the arts as well, and a mother goddess of the sea called Iemaja or Yemaya. Due to the slave trade, the Ifa religion of Nigeria spread throughout the West Indies and all the way to Brazil, and many people far and wide worship the goddesses with roots in that region. Chinese and Japanese shamanic and Shinto lore includes many goddesses and divine feminine attributes, seen in Amerastsu, Ukemochi, Izanami, Kaminari, Cannon, and many more. Celtic and Nordic people have a long tradition of nature worshipping pagan spirituality, which included much reverence to a great Goddess with many names. Freya, Saga, Frigg, Atla, Sjofn, and the Valkyries are a few from the Nordic regions. Morrigan, Epona, and Brigit from the beautiful Druidic traditions are still honored to this day across the world. Native Americans, Islanders, and Aboriginal people all had a sacred place for the feminine principle woven into their spiritual life and culture. One must only ask the question and the hundreds of names of the Goddess from the beginning of time, all across the earth come streaming in, and it is easy to recognize that the feminine divine is not a new or unusual concept in any way.

With all of the richness that the history of the goddess-loving people of the world have to offer, it is no wonder that in the last century as the women’s liberation movement has finally been able to articulate itself, that women are looking back to earlier times to nourish the feminist spirit. In the last thirty or forty years, there has been a bonafide return to the Goddess movement, and with it much more room for the sacred feminine to be honored. In 1972 feminist icon Gloria Steinem herself told the story of a utopian era in which the world was matriarchal and living peacefully for thousands of years, during what she called the gynocratic age. “Once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought ... that women bore fruit like trees—when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it.... Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life… Gynocracy also suffered from the periodic invasions of nomadic tribes.... The conflict between the hunters and the growers was really the conflict between male-dominated and female-dominated cultures... women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed.”

The premise of this quote by Steinem has had far reaching implications. Feminists and goddess seekers grabbed the torch lit by this idea and spread it like wildfire. To this day it is a popular mythology for what early life was like on the earth. Mythology it will stay, however, until many of the ideas can be proven, which as this was purported to have happened before the written word, it will be difficult to do. In 2005 feminist and religious scholar Cynthia Eller published a book entitle The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory- Why an invented past won’t give women a future * which explores that inquiry in depth, debunking much of what many have dreamed was true. Because much of that theory on early matriarchy was reactionary to the current patriarchy, it fell into some of the ruts that can happen in that kind of backlash. Eller’s research does not discredit feminism, rather enforces the freedom of it by holding women and the theology around them to the same guidelines for historical accuracy as anyone else. It also does not deny the magnitude of love and reverence for feminine divinity in its many forms throughout history and across the world.

In looking back to prehistory up to the modern era, there does not seem to be a direct correlation to the existence of feminine deities and positions of equality, respect and power for the human women of the societies in question, for the most part. Much of the grey area is highly romanticized and although inspiring, cannot be factually documented. The few documentable instances in recent time where there has been a more idyllic scene of harmonious male/female relations to each other in society and toward the environment, we see a bit different style in the reverential dealings with spirit. It may not be in the actual existence of a female divine presence, but rather the way it is portrayed and articulated that translates to honoring women and the earth. Certainly the absence of feminine divine in Western culture cannot possibly have a positive impact. As the saying “If you cannot see it, you cannot be it” illustrates, human beings psychologically need visible examples and mentors for their self-realization and evolvement. Girls growing up in modern day culture where the only worship they see is to pop stars, and teen idols as sex symbols will only strive to attain the superficial things those message claim is valuable. It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time, to lose the immeasurable awesome power of women’s potentially life changing contributions be lost to the demons of vanity and sexual objectification.

Sculpture is the love I haven't yet gotten a chance to explore- this mama never made it to casting but I love her

Works Cited:

Eller, Cynthia. The Myth of a Matriarchal . William Morrow & Company. 1932. Print

Malloy, Guy. Experiencing the World’s Religions St. Martins Press. New York. 1988 Print

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance. Harper San Francisco. NY, NY. 1989 Print

Zimmer-Bradley, Marion. The Lady of Avalon Penguin Group. NY,NY. 1997 Print

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