Sunday, 15 April 2012

When God Was a Girl

I was watching Bettany Hughes on "Divine Women" (NNC1, part 1), which was subtitled "When God was  Girl", which is surely the most inept subtitle for any programme about the role of the goddess or goddesses in religion. Goddess figurines are voluptuous, with large breasts, often pregnant, and most definitely not girls. Try "When God was a boy" to see how strange it sounds!

Hughes started with small figurines, her "little women" and mentioned but didn't fall into the trap of assuming they were goddess figures. Instead, she suggests they were more like talismans, representations of the ideal women, but based on experience of real women, of fertility, and links to life and death. Plausibly (I thought) she suggested that out of this seed came the later - and very large - goddess representations.

The Goddess was doing fine (as Gaia) until the Greek culture brought in Zeus as the macho-man God, ruler of the Gods. Apollo also displaced the female in the Temple of Delphi. There was a touch of lightly skimming here, I thought, as the Greek Pantheon included some powerful Goddesses, such as Aphrodite and Athena (and she was the wisest of the pantheon). Moreover, to say Zeus with his thunderbolts like Jehovah also represented a force of justice, victory in battle, and the power of morality doesn't quite ring true. Didn't he turn into a swan to commit rape? So the Greek material was perhaps a little superficial.

The material was also superficial over placing Gaia at the centre before the Olympic pantheon, and making her a goddess. It is not exactly sure whether she was a goddess; it is not clear in Hesiod (and why doesn't she give sources?). The account of the primal pre-Olympus story is actually quite different, and doesn't have Gaia on her own:

"There were four primal realities, Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros and Eros [ seen as male!], which apparently entered existence independently of one another; and the two that were of genealogical significance, Chaos and Gaia, prepared for the foundation of the three great families of Hesiod's system by generating children from themselves, Chaos a daughter who would found a family through parthenogenesis, and Gaia two sons with whom she would mate to found two families by the normal processes of generation."(1)
The archeology confirms that there was worship of Gaia, but not as widespread as Hughes makes out, or that she figured as large in their worship:

Shrines are recorded for her in various parts of Greece, including one on the south slope of the Athenian acropolis, where she was honoured as Ge Kourotrophos (rearer of children), and a joint temple with Zeus Agoraios in Sparta. She had no festivals, however, and seems to have been honoured most frequently in conjunction with other deities. The Greeks liked to invoke her in oaths for much the same reason that they would invoke the sun-god Helios, because no one could break an oath in any part of the world without her being aware of it; in a scene in the Iliad, two lambs are fetched for sacrifice when a solemn oath is due to be sworn, a black female lamb for Gaia and a white male for Helios (1)
On to Rome, and the Sibils, and also the cult of Magna Mater, taken over by Rome, where the priests ceremonially castrated themselves. She thought this was curious because it a way it was at odds with Rome as a society of macho men. (after all Roman orator Quintilian described, "The plucked body, the broken walk, the female attire," as "signs of one who is soft [mollis] and not a real man."). And she mentions Augustus going to get the blessing and favour of the goddess, after the assassination of Caesar. It was the combination of death and birth, of victory in bloody battle, and mother nurturing, that made the difference between the goddess and the gods, who were just warring types.

She describes how the ceremonies would involve the slaughter of bulls in the temples, and the castrated priest would be beneath the altar being drenched in bulls blood. This came to an end when Christianity began a purge of the Pagan Temples in the 4th century, and there are actually the remains of the shattered temple beneath parts of the Vatican. Christianity both drove out the goddess in favour of a male deity, and also ended the sacrifices for good.

All well and good, but the cult of Attis also came to Rome and had temples and blood sacrifice and eunuchs self-castrated in a ritual frenzy. And the evidence may not be as good as Hughes makes out. Another historian Mary Beard in a review of Mystery Cults in the Ancient World by Hugh Bowden (2010), Beard writes that Bowden

"takes many scholars to task (myself included) for assuming that the cult of the Great Mother in Rome, based on the Palatine Hill, just next to the Roman imperial palace, was served by ecstatic eunuch priests who castrated themselves with a piece of flint. Some of us had already been a little more circumspect about this than Bowden allows: you only have to read accounts of pre-modern full castration (for the Great Mother was supposed to demand the removal of both penis and testicles) to recognize that few priests could have survived any such procedure. But he shows that, feasible or not, the practice is anyway much less clearly attested in Roman literature than we like to think. More often than not, in fact, the details of these cults may not be quite as they seem.. Hecites an intriguing second-century AD inscription from just outside Rome, listing the members of a Bacchic troupe (or thiasos), under a priestess called Agripinilla. It is anyone's guess whether we see here a group of respectable Roman men and women really imitating the mad Bacchants of Euripides' play, and taking to the mountains in religious fervour - or whether this was the ancient equivalent of modern Morris dancing (that is to say the Roman equivalent group of bank managers on their days off pretending to be lusty medieval rustics). My hunch, as Bowden almost suggests, is the latter."(2)
So off to a culture where goddesses are still revered, in Indian Hinduism, and she attends one festival celebrating the goddess Durga, who defeats the evil demon King. I think she is right that it does in many ways (apart from castrated priests!) reflect the ancient cults - it takes place in a temple, and a bull is sacrificed, its head held high, and peoples faces are stained with red dye to represent the blood (although I suspect they would have been stained with blood in the ancient rites). There is something very powerful, and Durga mutates into Kali in the stories when she has to fight many demon kings. The goddess is both "killer and giver of life". Finally, the effigy of the goddess is taken to be thrust into the Ganges, and the ceremony is over for another year.

It is a far cry from the Goddess of Wicca, it is more public, and it has the ancient elements of temple and animal sacrifice, and I found it fascinating. Bettany Hughes evidently found it a very empowering experience, and I can understand why. It is a world away from our somewhat sanitised society, where animals are slaughtered for food out of sight; whether you like it or not, this is full of a vibrant primeval power.

But what gets missed from this narrative? For a start, Hughes briefly describes how, unlike Christianity in its monotheist opposition to other deities, Hinduism was polytheistic, and the Brahmin priesthood could co-opt Durga into their Pantheon.  The result of this, which Hughes does not mention, was that the incorporation of goddess elements into a male dominated religion meant the status quo could be retained., The price of the sacrifice was the sacrifice of the people on the altar of the caste system, which had no serious challenge until the reform movement of Hinduism - Buddhism, which had no sacrifices and was founded by a man (not something too good for her thesis). Only in the last ten years, there have been cases of mass conversions of those untouchables at the bottom of the caste system converting to Buddhism for greater freedom, and not to be pilloried and treated as the bottom rung of a caste system even more inflexible than the British caste system - the caste system is genetic, while the British one, while apparently based on birth, changes over time.

There are, of course, other Hindu goddesses whose worship is quite different. As another review notes:

Hinduism reveres many female deities: Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Shakti. But only at Kali's temple in Calcutta are bulls still ritually sacrificed to appease the divine bloodlust. (3)
It seems that Bettany Hughes is working very much to a thesis, quoting unfounded statistics - "of all deities of wisdom across the globe and through known time, the massive majority - 97% - were (or are) female" - and picking and choosing the evidence that she does choose to present to back up her statements; these are often just that - statements without much in the way of proof. The blogger  Heresiarch points out some strangeness in her percentages, with two statements she has made on different TV shows:

Bettany Hughes: "Of all deities of wisdom across the globe and through known time, the massive majority - 97% - were (or are) female. Mankind, for the vast span of human experience, has worshipped at the shrine not of the god, but the goddess, of wisdom."

Bettany Hughes: "We love discoveries of forts and towns and baths, and we're lot less impressed by a nice British round house. Yet perhaps 97% of our ancestors would have been living in those roundhouses, many of them turning up their noses at Roman culture beyond the odd bit of bracelet or pottery."

And notes that "I haven't tracked any source for the 97% claim prior to recent publicity for Hughes' TV series.". I'm hoping next week sees an improvement, but I suspect, as it looks to early Christianity, it probably will be as selective as this one. Perhaps Mary Beard's series on the Ancient Romans will be better.
TV seems to bring out the worst in some historians. Adjectives such as "provocative", and the selective use of evidence to make a visual point often dumb down to the viewer, so that nuances are lost. I almost expect a revival of Margaret Murray's biased and selective "Witch Cult in Western Europe" coming soon; in its day, that was the printed equivalent of today's TV, and just as flawed.

Links(1) The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Based on H. J. Rose's. Robin Hard, 2004

No comments: