Chapter Three: Women – Where Woman Was Deified
The question most pressing – perhaps the one that has most insistently caused this book to come into being – is this: What effect did the worship of the female deity actually have upon the status of women in the cultures in which She was extolled? Hinz, Evans, Langdon and many others have referred to the ancient Goddess-worshipping societies as matriarchal. Exactly what does this imply?
It would be easy to enter into a see-saw type of reasoning here; that is to say, they worshiped a Goddess, therefore women must have held a high status, or because women held a high status, therefore a Goddess was worshipped; though these two factors, if we judge by the attitudes of the societies that worshipped the male deities of today, may have been closely related. Yet various views on the subject should be considered, even those in which cause and effect appear to be confused or simultaneous events are perceived as linear. What we want to achieve is as comprehensive an understanding as possible of the relationship of the female religions to the position of women.
In The Dominant Sex, M. and M. Vaerting, writing in
in 1923, asserted that the sex of the deity was determined by the sex of those
who were in power:
The ruling sex, having the power to diffuse its own outlooks, tends to generalize its specific ideology. Should the trends of the subordinate sex run counter, they are likely to be suppressed all the more forcibly in proportion as the dominant sex is more overwhelming. The result is that the hegemony of male deities is usually associated with the dominance of men and the hegemony of female deities with the dominance of women.
Sir James Frazer believed that the high status of women was initially responsible for the veneration and esteem of the female deity. He cited the Pelew clan of
where the women were considered to be socially and politically superior to the
men. "This preference for goddesses
over gods," he wrote, "in the clan of the Pelew Islanders have been
explained, no doubt rightly, by the high importance of women in the social
system of the people."
Robertson Smith connected the choice of the sex of the supreme deity to the position of the dominance of the male or female within the family. He suggested that, as a result of the kinship system, the sexual identity of the head of the family formulated the sexual identity of the supreme deity.
Each of these is an example of the theory that the sex of the deity is determined by a previously existing dominance of one sex over the other – in the case of the Goddess, the higher position of women in the family and in society. Alongside these theories there have been reams of pseudo-poetic material about the deification of the female as the symbol of fertility – by the male – the awe of the magic of her ability to produce a child supposedly making her the object of his worship.
As I just mentioned, Frazer suggested that the high status of women led to the worship of the Goddess as supreme being, basing his conclusions on years of study of "primitive" and classical societies. But as a result of his research, he also connected the worship of the female deity to a mother-kinship system and ancestor worship, explaining that, "wherever the goddess is superior to the god, and ancestresses more reverently worshipped than ancestors, there is nearly always a mother-kin structure." Robertson Smith also related the sexual identity of the supreme deity to the kinship system prevalent in each society.
-----------------------------------------------------Whatever the suggested order of cause and effect, one of the major factors which continually appears in the material concerned with the status and role of women in the ancient female religion in historic times is its close connection to female kinship, matrilineality, perhaps the very origins of its development. In examining the position of women, this mother or female kin structure, leading to matrilineal descent of name and property, should be carefully studied.
Matrilineality is generally defined as that societal structure in which inheritance takes place through the female line, sons, husbands or brothers gaining access to the title and property only as the result of their relationship to the woman who is the legal owner. Matrilineal descent does not mean matriarchy, which is defined as women in power, or more specifically the mother, as the head of the family, taking this position in community or state government as well. In some matrilineal societies, the brother of the woman who holds the rights to the name and property plays an important role. Yet we cannot ignore the probability that matrilineal and matrilocal customs would affect the status and position of women in various ways. The subtleties of the power and bargaining position that come with the ownership of house, property or title, or as in matrilocal societies, women residing in the village or home of their own parents rather than their in-law', should be considered.
The economics of the Neolithic and early historic agricultural societies were discussed by sociologist V. Klein in 1946. She suggested that, "In early society women wielded the main sources of wealth; they were the owners of the house, the producers of food, they provided shelter and security. Economically, therefore, man was dependent upon women."
Societies that followed female or mother kinship customs have been known is the past and still appear in many areas of the world. The theory that most societies were originally matrilineal, matriarchal and even polyandrous (one woman with several husbands) was the subject of several extensive studiers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars such as Johann Bachofen, Robert Briffault and Edward Hartland accepted the idea of ancient matriarchy and polyandry, substantiating their theories with a great deal of evidence, but they regarded these systems as a specific stage in evolutionary development. They suggested that all societies had to pass through a matriarchal stage before becoming patriarchal and monogamous, which they appear to have regarded as a superior stage of civilization. But as Jacquetta Hawkes observes, "Today it is unfashionable to talk about former more matriarchal orders of society. Nevertheless, there is evidence from any parts of the world that the role of women has weakened since earlier times in several section of social structure."
Many of the studies of matriarchy were based upon anthropological analogy and the classical literature of
Greece and Rome. Since most of these works were researched in
the nineteenth and earliest part of the twentieth centuries, these writers did
not have access to much of the archaeological evidence that is available today. Despite specific misunderstandings, or biased
value judgments, we may yet find that these writers were prophetically ahead of
Today we have the use of a much greater body of material, produced by extensive archaeological excavation of the Near and Middle East throughout this century, as well as the material available to those earlier writers. It is true that the chance fortunes of archaeological finds – what remains undiscovered, what is found too damaged to read, what cannot be deciphered and what has perished as the result of nature of the original material – present limitations.
Hammurabi's law code of Babylon (about 1790 BC), long regarded as the oldest ever compiled, is now know to have been preceded by several others, more recently discovered. Still, only one of these dates back to about 2300 BC and the others to about 2000 BC or slightly later. So we must still rely on material that appears in written form only after the beginnings of the northern invasions. But carefully sifting through the available evidence and commentary, which differ according to the location and era, we may gain some insight into the status of women in Goddess-worshipping societies. The Goddess religion, though slowly declining, still existed.
Forty nine years before the birth of Christ, a man from Roman Sicily wrote of his travels in northern
and some of the Near Eastern countries, recording his observations of people
along the way. He was keenly interested
in cultural patterns and was certainly one of the forerunners of the field of
anthropology and sociology. This man
was known as Diodorus Siculus, Diodorus of Sicily. Many statements reporting the high or even
dominant status of women were included in his writings. We may question why he, more than any other
classical writer, recorded so much information about women warriors and
matriarchy in the nations all about him.
He did not belittle the men who lived in such social systems; that did
not appear to be his aim. Indeed he
seemed to be rather admiring and respectful of the women who wielded such
It was Diodorus who reported that the women of
carried arms, practiced communal marriage and raised their children so
communally that they often confused even themselves as to who the natural
mother had been. In parts of Libya, where
the Goddess Neith was highly esteemed, accounts of Amazon women still lingered
even in Roman times. Diodorus described
a nation in Libya
All authority was vested in the woman, who discharged every kind of public duty. The men looked after domestic affairs just as the women do among ourselves and did as they were told by their wives. They were not allowed to undertake war service or exercise any functions of government, or to fill any public office, such as might given them more spirit to set themselves up against the women. The children were handed over immediately after birth to the men, who reared them on milk and other foods suitable to their age.
Diodorus wrote of warrior women existing in
reporting that these women had formed into armies which had invaded other
lands. According to him, they revered
the Goddess as their major deity and set sanctuaries for Her worship. Though he gives no specific name, the accounts
probably refer to the Libyan warrior-Goddess know a Neith, who was also revered
under that name in Egypt.
the Goddess held supremacy in Upper Egypt (The
South) as Nekhebt, symbolized as a vulture.
The people of lower Egypt, which includes the northern delta region,
worshiped their supreme Goddess as a cobra, using the name Ua Zit (Great
Serpent). From about 3000 BC onwards the
Goddess, known as Nut, Net or Nit, probably derived from Nekhebt, was said to
have existed when nothing else had yet been created. She then created all that had come into
being. According to Egyptian mythology,
it was She who first placed Ra, the sun god, in the sky. Older texts of Egypt tell of the Goddess as Hathor
in this role of creator of existence, explaining that She took the form of a
serpent at that time.
the concept of the Goddess always remained vital. The introduction of male deities, just as the
dynastic period begin (about 3000 BC) will be more thoroughly discussed in
Chapter Four. This probably lessened Her
original supremacy as it was known in Neolithic societies. But Goddess worship continued and in conjunction
with this, the women of Egypt
appear to have benefited in many ways.
Diodorus wrote at great length of the worship of the Goddess Isis (the Greek translation for Au Set), who had incorporated the aspects of both Ua Zit and Hathor. Isis was also closely associated with the Goddess as Nut, who was mythologically recorded as Her mother; in paintings
Isis wore the wings
of Nekhebt. Diodorus explained that,
according to Egyptian religions, Isis was
revered as the inventor of agriculture, as a great healer and physician and as
the one who first established the laws of justice in the land.
He then recorded what we today may from a most startling description of the laws of
explaining that they were the result of the reverence paid to this mighty
Goddess. He wrote, "It is for these
reasons, in fact, that it was ordained that the queen should have greater power
and honour than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy
authority over the husband, husbands agreeing in the marriage contract that
they will be obedient in all things to their wives."
Frazer commented on the relationship between the veneration of
Isis and the customs of female kinship and
stated that "In Egypt, the archaic system of mother-kin, with its
preference for women over men in matters of property and inheritance, lasted
down to Roman times…"
There is further evidence that
Egypt was a land where women had
great freedom and control of their own lives, and perhaps of their husbands' as
well. Herodotus of Greece, several
centuries before Diodorus, wrote that in Egypt, "Women go in the market-place,
transact affairs and occupy themselves with business, while the husbands stay
home and weave." His contemporary,
Sophocles, states that "Their thoughts and actions all are modelled on
Egyptian ways, for there the men sit at the loom indoors while the wives work
abroad for their daily bread."
Professor Cyrus Gordon wrote in 1953 of life in ancient
Egypt. He tells us that "In family life, women
had a peculiarly important position for inheritance passed through the mother
rather than through the father…This system may well hark back to prehistoric
time when the only obvious relationship between mother and child was
recognized, but not the less apparent relationship between father and
Dr Murray suggested that "Women's condition was high, due perhaps to their economic independence." S.W. Baron writes that in Egyptian papyri, "many women appear as parties in civil litigations and independent business transactions even with their own husbands and fathers." One of the earliest archaeologists of the pyramids of
Egypt, Sir William Flinders Petrie,
wrote in 1925 that "In Egypt all property went in the female line, the
woman was the mistress of the house; and in early tales she is represented as
having entire control of herself and the place."
Discussing the position of women in ancient
theologian and archaeologist Roland de Vaux wrote in 1965 that "In Egypt
the wife was often the head of the family, with all the rights such a position
entailed." Obedience was urged upon
husbands in the maxims of Ptah-Hotep.
Marriage contracts of all periods attested the extremely independent
social and economic position of women.
According to E. Meyer, who is quoted in the Vaertings' study,
"Among the Egyptians the women were remarkably free…as late as the fourth
century BC there existed side by side with patriarchal marriage, a form of
marriage in which the wife chose the husband and could divorce him on payment
Love poems, discovered in Egyptian tombs, strongly hint that it was the Egyptian women who did the courting, oftimes wooing the male by plying him with intoxicants to weaken his protestations. Robert Briffault wrote of an Egyptian woman clerk who later became a governor and eventually the commander-in-chief of an army.
A most enlightening and significant study on the social structure and position of women in
Egypt was done in 1949 by Dr.
Margaret Murray. Painstakingly tracing
the lineage of royal families in Egypt, she eventually proved that,
at the level of royalty, the Egyptian culture at most periods was
matrilineal. Royalty was studied because
records for these people were most available.
According to Murray
it was the daughters, not the sons, who were the actual inheritors of the royal
throne. She suggests that the custom of
brother/sister marriage then developed, allowing the son to gain access to the
royal privilege in this way. She writes
that the matrilineal right to the throne was the reason that Egyptian
princesses for so many centuries were married within the family and were not
available for international marriage alliances.
This may clarify why the Goddess Isis, who Frazer stated was a more
important deity than Her brother/husband Osiris, and whom Diodorus cited as the
origin of the generally high position of women in Egypt, was known as The Throne.