essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
In the beginning was the Goddess.
As far as we know (and apparently we don’t know much) the first widely spread religion was an adoration of the life giving force that manifested itself in the crops and fruits of the earth. The earth was female, and produced plant and vegetable offspring that supported human life, so it is likely this primal religion dates from the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. It is probable that the large brained Neanderthal species of man, who perhaps discovered the art of using fire and may have invented the wheel, also had a religion, but little trace remains of this. The Goddess worship survives only in widely distributed votary figures which probably served a magical purpose of which we know nothing.
By the time identifiable cultures began to emerge in the Near East four or five thousand years ago the Goddess had a name, one of which was Astarte. In ancient religions the transcendence of god was often expressed by depicting gods and goddesses as having several aspects. Thus Astarte was virgin, because fertility is powerful and needs to be controlled; she was changeable, waxing and waning like the moon or the seasons; sexual, alluring the active forces of procreation to make her fertile, and was associated with rites such as temple prostitution; destructive, and associated with war and death, because where there is life there must also be death; and bountiful, represented in statuary with a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. One of her titles under this aspect is Pandora, a Greek word meaning all-giving.
Adoration of the Goddess was necessary because of the many aspects she possessed. She both took and gave, harvest and drought, fruit and pestilence, and had to be reminded of her own abundance by worship under her all giving aspect.
Polytheism has had a bad press since early Christian times. The first Christians were Jews, and believed any adoration other than of the one god was breaking Yahweh’s covenant with Moses. The votaries of earlier religions were more flexible: they had no code, no book, no law, and so no heresy, no defined practices. They could believe simultaneously in one god, many gods, and many aspects of one god. They had no system. The rite was the important thing, not the theology. There was no special relationship with one people, and worship easily spread over racial and national boundaries. The process of conversion was unknown.
The rites were originally practised by people who both sowed and harvested and who knew how important it was to placate the Goddess, knew also that they themselves were the fruit of the earth. Worship was originally a practical matter of ensuring survival. Myth was an aspect of ritual and not a story as it later became.
Later moralists, constrained by logical processes foreign to the early religion, tried to explain just why there should be abundance and scarcity. By the first century a more sophisticated society had bought specialisation, and those who thought of such matters were different people to those who worked in the fields. Thought grew more abstract. Scarcity and abundance were generalised into good and evil, and the question was asked, as it was by Job, why is there evil. And there was an ancient fable, no longer believed in by anyone, which was used to explain why. The story of Pandora’s box dates from the seventh or eighth century. The box itself is a 19th century addition; it was originally a horn, then a krater. In the new version of the tale the good and evil were there in Pandora’s box, as they had originally been in the cornucopia. But now they had been trapped there by Zeus (so Hesiod says), and released by Pandora, the first woman, who becomes the cause of evil in the world.
Just as in the Book of Genesis, the Goddess Astarte/Pandora, like the Goddess Eve, originally giver of good and evil to mankind, now brings only evil. So over the centuries adoration of the luminous femininity of the earth has been transmuted into misogyny. The numinous power of both fertility and dearth had been transformed into an object of blame. I wanted to illustrate this observation with a picture which showed a woman whose sexual organ was visible, as the early votary figures of the Goddess did: but all there was was pornography. It seems we are not yet ready to adore the Goddess in our society.
Followers of Hinduism are probably the only people today who can appreciate the multiple aspect of the Goddess. Just as there is Devi, Parvati and Durga, there is Kali (Time). Just as there is Vishnu the preserver, there is Shiva the destroyer. In the ancient Near East the Goddess took many forms in each culture where she was adored, and it is not possible to know what her aspect was to each of the peoples where her worship has left a trace. In Canaan Athirat was the wife of Yahweh, Astoreth was the alluring goddess of love. In the Book of Jeremiah the Hebrews worship Astarte, the Queen of Heaven. In Egypt Isis the Mother preserved the life of her slain son Horus so he could return to his father in heaven. Astarte was worshipped at a great cult centre in Cyprus, and was merged with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who likewise had many aspects: porne, sex, from where we get the word pornography; passion or Eros; the evening star that we call Venus; the foam, original source of life; lover of the dying god of vegetation. These aspects, of Aphrodite and Isis, Hathor and Inanna and the many other manifestations of the Goddess, were all cultic. That is, they were not designed to describe the Goddess, but were ways in which she was worshipped. Later mythographers, with their family trees and lists of attributes, have obscured this.
In the movie Sunset Boulevarde the character played by Gloria Swanson says “I’m still big: it’s the pictures that have got small”. In talking about gods and goddesses, as distinct to adoring them, it is noticeable that human beings tend to think small. God in any form must be greater than we can conceive. In Christianity evil has become a god called Devil, and this explains nothing, it merely limits our knowledge of god. A Sufi saying puts this well: “there are 10,000 names of god: all of them are wrong”.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.