After speaking in Washington, DC this weekend at a religious ceremony where folks talked a lot about “Spirit” and there was constant reference to “Mother-Father God,” on the plane back home a biblical passage came to mind as I sat processing the experience:
“We will not listen to what you say in the name of the LORD. Rather will we continue doing what we had proposed; we will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour out libations to her, as we and our fathers, our kings and princes have done in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. Then we had enough food to eat and we were well off; we suffered no misfortune. But since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out libations to her, we are in need of everything and are being destroyed by the sword and by hunger” (Jeremiah 44:18-19).
Evidently the women of Jerusalem had minds of their own. They disagreed with Jeremiah and other prophets and had their own explanations for why Jerusalem, the city of David, the dwelling place of the Most High, had been invaded by the Babylonians and was now in ruins. Enough with belief in this one, male god, YHWH. The world was out of balance. The goddess will not be ignored. There are times when a female god, a goddess, is what’s needed.
I never gave much thought to goddesses until a few years ago. Correction: I gave lots of thought to goddesses when I was working on a doctorate and had to study and write about them in order to understand the history of ancient Near Eastern religions in general, and the history of biblical religion in particular. I studied the literature on goddesses, but I didn’t think about them, if that makes sense. Did the ancient Hebrews once include one or more goddesses in official or unofficial worship? Probably. Did the move toward a monotheistic religion by the Hebrews around the 8th century b.c.e, with its belief in one, supreme, male deity lead to a rejection of the feminine divine? Most likely.
And then one summer I picked up Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and read it. The scales fell off. I understood what the fuss was all about. Mists is a retelling of the King Arthur legend(s) from the point of view of the women characters, most notably Morgaine who has to defend her indigenous matriarchal religious heritage against impossible odds. Bradley’s novel managed to do what volumes of scholarly tomes could not. I understood what was missing in my faith and what had been lost in centuries of attempts by Judeo-Christian tradition to stamp out all vestiges of any belief in the feminine divine. I understood why in lots of societies, then and now, goddesses are often connected with agricultural societies – where the earth, Mother Earth, is a very strong focus.
After Mists came Anita Diamant’s fictional retelling of Genesis 34, the story of Dinah the daughter of Jacob in her book The Red Tent. Diamant breathed life into the religious traditions of the women back in the biblical past, showing how and why a pantheon of goddesses like Gula, goddess of healing, Taweret, goddess of maternity and childbirth, and Innana, the Great Mother and the Queen of Heaven brought comfort and strength to everyday women. Who else but a goddess could understand and empathize with the prayer of a woman in hard labor when she prays to make it through alive and with a healthy baby?
Even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened and deep, and do not believe in a literally masculine God, who are quick to say that God is Spirit and is neither male nor female, there can still be lots of internal fears and struggles around celebrating the female side of the divine. Somehow even for those of us who are quick to speak up for the equality of men and women, there’s inner turmoil over fully accepting goddess images, because our culture is so steeped in the concept of the one male God.
We say that our god is neither male nor female, but then we proceed to speak of God as male. What we mean when we say that God is neither male nor female is that God is definitely not female.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…Jeremiah and the other prophets made a big fuss about goddess and polytheistic worship. But the women of Jeremiah’s day had a point. The pain of childbirth, the mystery of sexuality, the ambiguity of gender roles – there’s just some things you wanna talk over with your mother and trust her to understand.