Female Aspects of Deity: Searching for Lady Wisdom
Title and structure:
Who is the biblical Wisdom- Hochma, Sophia?: weaving the threads together.
i Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible
ii Wisdom and her sisters in the Hellenistic world
iii in New Testament
iv in “Gnostic Gospels”.
v Wisdom goddesses of the Ancient Near East
vi Ancient Hebrew goddesses
vii The special cases of the Virgin Mary and of the Shekinah
viii Goddesses of West Africa
ix Wisdom, Nature and the sacrality of the planet.
x Wisdom, the bible and the present day.
Today more and more women – and men – are questioning traditional biblical teaching about deity. Although many people will assert that God is beyond gender, yet long centuries of referring to “Him” as masculine and addressing Him as Lord, King, Father etc have been a strong conditioning factor in our lives, whether we are “religious” or not. Sacred duties and religious rituals have been largely in the hands of men, and a hierarchy has been put firmly in place, constructed on the base that only men in themselves portray the image of God. It has appeared that this view has been the only one available and is “natural” and enshrined in both Holy Writ and religious tradition.
This course aims to show that this assumption is mistaken. Modern feminist scholarship and research in many different areas has brought to the fore a vast amount of material concerning ancient goddesses worshipped before the advent of monotheism; but even more strikingly, it is now becoming clear that such deities, or aspects of deity, flourished in Judaism until quite a late date, and were known in Christianity – both of which religions took steps to divert attention from them. (A similar situation, which may have existed in Islam, will not be examined in this course).
We will explore material in biblical and near biblical texts concentrating on the strand of tradition concerning the divine Wisdom figure, called Lady Wisdom (Hochma in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek). We will read the accounts of Lady Wisdom stretching from the Hebrew scriptures through the New Testament and the “Gnostic Gospels” to Her hidden presence in Jewish and Christian tradition. We will discuss the Wisdom Goddesses in several cultures, including Africa, in the background of biblical monotheism, and read related texts. (This course is not able to extend to looking at other goddess religions, e.g. those in the Indian sub-continent or of the indigenous First Americans).
Our work will not be only a question of academic research. We are particularly interested in its implications today in our lives, our attitudes to ourselves, our relationships and behaviour in the world around us, even its effect on the planet itself. It is a task which is very difficult. We are not only facing a reversal of normative teaching, but have to contend with our own feelings as we do so. We have to try and combine a scholarly approach with an appreciation of the emotions the material raises.
Throughout the course, we shall not use the phrase “Judaeo-Christian”. This is now recognised as offensive to Jews, and historically inaccurate (von Kellenbach 1994: 124). The so-called “Old Testament” is more properly referred to as the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Scriptures, or First Testament; the New Testament may be called by that name or the Second Testament. The term BCE (before Christian era) will be used in place of B.C., and C.E. (Christian era) in place of A.D. These terms do not imply an acceptance of a particular faith. A similar issue arise with the widely held assumption, of ‘C’ (in BCE and CE) standing for ‘common’. Many religions do not accept this dating as common as they have their own calendars.
Some students may not be familiar with using the bible as a study text. This hesitation will soon pass! Remember that the Hebrew bible was written in Hebrew during a period from about 800BCE-400BCE (all dates are subject to controversy; where religious faith demands the belief that the Torah, first five books, were dictated by God to Moses, that is outside the scope of this course.) The New Testament was written in Greek from about 45CE to up to 200CE (again the dates are subject to question). The books of the Apocrypha, first composed in either language, are found in some Protestant bibles immediately before the New Testament or issued separately. They are however included within Roman Catholic bibles. There are many different translations of the bible, and it is a source of much interest to compare versions – especially where so-called “perplexing” texts concerning goddesses or female power are concerned. The use of a bible Concordance, which helps find specific names and themes, is helpful. Where quotations are given in this study text they will be from the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
Each unit will give a short reading guide and may suggest other references. Details of all books mentioned, together with others of interest to the course will be found in the Reading List at the end of this Course Outline. It is suggested that students browse through as many of these books as they can locate, without it being necessary to worry about obtaining them all.
Unit 1: Biblical Lady Wisdom – who is She?
In entering the field of feminist bible study, we shall be guided by the method suggested by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (1984) who created the idea of the “hermeneutics of suspicion and of celebration”: that is, interpretation by means of suspecting all the male centred and created texts of androcentrism, of seeking the female, and of celebrating her. In applying this to Wisdom, we find a large amount of material, which needs careful sorting out.
Much of the Hebrew bible contains what is called Wisdom literature. However, do not start by reading all this in one go! We shall be concentrating in this unit on picking out one strand of the mass of material – the strand that is unbroken and that shows Wisdom, always in the feminine gender, as divine. We go further than saying that She is (merely) an attribute of God- which is the conventional approach.
” Wisdom is not just an idea, a mere abstraction, or only the underlying substance of an attitude to God. She is rather a spiritual being, that exists independently, next to God”. (H. Leisegang, Der Heilige Geist, 1919, p. 73). This is one point of view from a conventional scholar. Others have pointed to texts which show that she is eternal, teacher of humankind, and particularly is concerned with the creation, understanding and sustenance of the world.
Here is an account of Her written more recently: all the descriptions are to be found in the Bible or the Apocrypha. (Wisdom Literature is generally held to include the Books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and a number of Psalms. To these must be added from the Apocrypha the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), The Book of Baruch, and the Book of Enoch.)
“Everything to do with her is mysterious and paradoxical. In the Bible she is always female… She is continually being sought and found, lost and found; she ascends and descends; she finds her place in Israel, she can find no place in Israel. She is the divine female companion of God, eternal with Him before creation, and is herself involved in the cosmos as creator, nurturer, teacher and artificer. She acts as intermediary between God and humans and is willing to share herself with them and with the world. She may be married to God or to selected men, and she may be the mother of the created world. Human beings must follow her rules if they are to succeed in this life and also possibly partake in an afterlife with God. It was she who helped God create the universe and she knows all its secrets. She moves through it and orders it well”. (A. P. Long. in: Pirani. A. (ed.) The Absent Mother (1991:46))
Gradually, Wisdom, who starts as a cosmic law, moves to becoming a repository of all information about the created world. She teaches that humans must look to nature for understanding and must praise and treat it with respect. Gradually a picture emerges of Wisdom as artificer of the world, responsible and knowledgeable about its workings.
From there, the picture becomes confused, changing her divine function to that of a woman whom men must possess in order to further their own interests, although at this stage there is still a spiritual context. In the Book of Proverbs, (9:13-18) Lady Wisdom is compared with Dame Folly who has every appearance of a prostitute, but also of an ancient Canaanite goddess. “Good Wisdom” is compared with “Bad Folly”, (both female), but this androcentric bias is contradicted by other indications that Wisdom shares many characteristics with sister divinities of the ancient world (discussed in Unit 2). In Herself she provides a bridge between the creator and the created; she can be a role model for women to follow; she is the repository of all knowledge and is the active agent in the ordering of the world. She is identified with Nature whose ways humans would do well to follow.
In looking at the particular texts outlined below) we will see that all sorts of questions can be raised. They can be to do with textual criticism, but, more closely for us, they can also be to do with the effect on our own lives of dis-covering this female Divine being in the Bible.
Try and get hold of as many bible versions as possible. When looking up texts try to use at least two, and preferably more versions and compare results. Wisdom texts we shall be using include: Proverbs 8:22-31; Proverbs 9:1-6; Proverbs 3:19-20; Job 38:28-29;Job 28:27-28 Book of Wisdom of Solomon [BWS] (Apoc.) 7:7-12; 7:17-8:1; 8:2-18.
- Long A.P. In A chariot Drawn by Lions (which will be, from now, referred to as Chariot) chapters 1,2 & 3.
- Pirani A. The Absent Mother pp 48-53
- Conzelmann H. The Mother of Wisdom. in: Robinson J.M. (ed.)The Future of our Religious Past.
Suggested assignments and essays:
- Who is the biblical Lady Wisdom? Did she have a role in the Church? What was her pre-Christian role?
- What happened to Lady Wisdom, and how does her story affect us as women today?
- In Prov.8: 1-12, 9:1-6; 9:13-18 and 2:16-19 descriptions are given of Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly. Compare the two figures;
- what can we deduce from the way they are described and what messages are we given about the differences between them?
- In Prov. 31: 10-31 we find a description of a “good woman”. Does she bear any relation to Wisdom? What can we learn about the position and duties of women of biblical times from this?
- What do you think makes a “good woman”? Write your own description of her.
- Wisdom is called the Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18). What do you think is meant by the Tree of Life? If you wish, include examples from other sources as well as the bible.
- Write your own Tree of Life story.
Unit 2: Wisdom and her sisters in the Hellenistic world.
Between the time the books of the Hebrew bible were written and the emergence of the New Testament – a period of some 300/400years – the world that created them had undergone immense changes. The Babylonian and Persian empires had been conquered by Alexander who brought the whole of the ancient near east under Hellenistic (Greek) rule, and after him by the Romans, creating the Roman Empire. The area stretched from Spain in the West to Northern India in the East; Britain in the North to North Africa in the South. Within this territory many peoples and lands joined each other; old religions became conflated with each other, new ones were superimposed. The names of the deities changed, or the divinities themselves took on new attributes.
Common to all, in the various pantheons of deities, were the goddesses of creation and wisdom, sometimes also called Mother Goddesses. These divine beings gave birth to the universe, often without a male influence; they sustain life, and are worshipped as goddesses who are Nature themselves. Their chief characteristics, apart from the gift of life, and sometimes of immortality, are this identification with Nature. It is not something inert, or just “there”, but a powerful force which interacts with humans: Wisdom, under whatever name, is available to help humans, to inspire and instruct them, certainly in this world, and perhaps in another.
By proper application of this knowledge and an appreciation of the sacrality of Nature, human beings are helped to survive and renew themselves physically and spiritually. The practical arts that enhance life – agriculture, medicine, domestication of animals, handicrafts, architecture, building, and astronomy, among many others – are personified in Wisdom, who is also source of the fine and spiritual arts that are more usually associated with the divine.
In the period we are looking at in this Unit, say 300BCE-100 CE, we first of all meet Sophia in the Book of Wisdom of Solomon. In Her, we find all the attributes listed above, together with reflections of Egyptian Ma’at and Isis, of Greek Athena and Demeter, of the ancient Anatolian Great Mother of the Gods, Kubaba (Kybele) whose worship extended from Asia Minor to Rome, as well as of Astarte, herself with a lineage back to ancient times. We see in the Hellenistic Orphic Hymns to Nature, to the Great Mother, to Demeter, descriptions and praises of these female divinities that match those of Sophia. At the same time the work of the Greek philosophers and scientists whether of those who were atheists or believers, fits into this picture, along with an understanding of magic and healing that continued into New Testament times.
An example of the worship of such a goddess is to be found in the story of The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, and available to us in English translation by Robert Graves. Lucius praises Isis throughout the book, and there are memorable passages. Here are two.
He addresses the goddess Isis:
” Thee the gods above adore, the gods below worship. It is thou that whirlest the sphere of heaven, that givest light to the sun, thou governest the universe… to thee the stars respond, for thee the seasons return…thy nods the winds blow, the clouds nourish (the earth), the seeds sprout, the buds swell…”
Isis speaks to Lucius:
“You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses there are.. though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me”. (Graves 1950: 271-272)
Sister Egyptian goddess to Isis is Ma’at, goddess of truth, right and order. She links order and justice in this world with the soul’s judgement in the next. She asks the soul to defend itself in terms that have much in common with the Ten Commandments but adds to them a demand that the deceased should not in their lifetime have “made anyone to weep”. Here great compassion is shown to be linked to the Goddess’ justice. While Ma’at was Goddess of the Underworld as well as of right and order in this, and Isis was source of immortality as well as of life and ethics. Wisdom, Sophia in BWS, combines all these functions. She is artificer of Nature and also the spirit within each human being.
As we begin to understand how powerful was the appreciation and worship, by whichever peoples, of Wisdom goddesses, we have to explore, what happened to them, how they became lost, and the effect it has upon us all, on our self-esteem as women, and of humanity’s relationship with the planet that nourishes it. We may also ask ourselves what changes could come about as we regain knowledge of and intimacy with these female aspects of the divine.
- Chariot: ch. 4 and pp 81-87.
- Caitlin Matthews. Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom.
- Robert Graves.The Golden Ass. Penguin 1950.
Sample essays and assignments:
- “I am all that was, is and ever will be…” – inscription on a temple to Isis, in Sais, Egypt. What do you know about the Isis religion and how, if at all, are any of its concepts relevant today?
- Isis, as well as being believed to be the transcendent creator of the universe and teacher of humankind, is also described as “the mud of the Nile”. How can these two apparently contradictory ideas about divinity be reconciled?
- Discover and write about sister goddesses to biblical Wisdom. Say if you think we need these goddesses, and if so, why.
- The description of Wisdom in Book of Wisdom of Solomon (BWS) 7:17- 22a shows her as understanding all science and technology; how does this relate to traditional views about women’s intellectual competence and potentialities?
- Can or should Wisdom be a role model for women today?
- Are their intellectual powers important to women? Should they rather rely on intuition and perception? Is there a case for claiming both?
- The Great Mother (Magna Mater) was widely worshipped in the Hellenistic world, being for a time contemporaneous with early Christianity. Set out what seem to be some essential similarities and differences between these two religions.
Unit 3:Wisdom in the New Testament
We have seen that Wisdom, acknowledged and worshipped as a female divinity was part of the background of people in the world into which Jesus was born. Obscured in Judaism and translated into texts, becoming the Holy Torah, She also moved underground into the Shekinah (see Unit.7). With the advent of Christianity, the notion of female Wisdom was subsumed into Jesus Christ, then for a period into the Third Person of the Trinity and eventually into Mother Church – although in the latter men were totally in control and formed the hierarchy and the priesthood.
The New Testament gives us three major and contrasting points of view on Wisdom. The first concerns Jesus’ own words. He does not refer to himself as divine Wisdom, but rather uses Wisdom motifs and apparently sees himself as a Wisdom teacher. (see Matt. 13:54-55, Mk. 6:2-3; Matt.12: 42, Lk. 11; 31; Matt.23: 1 & 37,Lk. 13:34; Matt.11: 19, Lk 7:35.) In these texts, there is a female element connecting Jesus to Wisdom; in the first he is identified as part of a family in which, unusually, his sisters are mentioned, and it appears that Wisdom is something extra to himself; in the second, we have the mysterious reference to the Queen of the South, who is seeking Wisdom, but who can sit in judgement on humanity; the third picks up a traditional Jewish reference to wisdom as a hen picking up food and gathering her children under her wings, while the fourth contrasts the Son of Man with Wisdom. Every reference so far to Jesus and Wisdom has contained a female element but it is arguable that Jesus certainly did not identify himself with the Wisdom figure.
A second viewpoint comes when Paul and later writers in his tradition set out his concept of Wisdom, e.g. Col.1: 15-20. This text specifically identifies Jesus with Wisdom, and by calling Him ‘the firstborn of all creation’ picks up Proverbs 8:22 where the term is applied to Hochma. Many theologians have mulled over this text, and if you are interested, it can be the source of good research and discussion.
From our feminist viewpoint, we see two marked changes; the female nature of Wisdom is denied, and reference to Nature is omitted. Rather the text makes the point strongly that Jesus, as Wisdom, is the head of the Church, and that salvation comes through his sacrifice on the Cross. Wisdom no longer directs us to the sacrality of the natural world, but rather away from it, towards the idea of salvation in the hereafter. The theme of Jesus as the head of the church and its relationship to women is further made clear in Ephes. 5:23-4 which tells us that as the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church so let wives be subject in everything to their husbands. The concept of divine female Wisdom calling everyone to her table, (Prov. 9:1) equally and without discrimination has been lost.
The third point of view emphasises major identification of Jesus with Wisdom, and occurs in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1-18). This is the New Testament’s great and moving account of the creation of the world through the Logos, the Word, who is Jesus. As has already been pointed out, much of the language duplicates that describing Hochma in the Proverbs text (8:22-30) that we have discussed in Unit 1.
Many textual references in the language also link the Logos -Jesus – with Wisdom, with the Shekinah and with Egyptian Isis. Yet in referring to Jesus as Logos – a masculine term, meaning Word, but also with a long history in Hellenistic philosophy of referring to the order and reason of the universe – the author is able to use Wisdom language and tradition and set it out as exclusively male. Writing, probably late in the 1st century CE he can appeal to Jews who are familiar with Hochma, and other peoples of the Mediterranean who will be likely to recognise references to their goddesses – Demeter, Persephone, Isis.
Wisdom has not only changed gender but also her character as artificer of nature who can teach her secrets to humanity. Attention is diverted from care and understanding of the natural universe towards salvation in the after-life. Nature is devalued in comparison with salvation, and because theologians identified women with nature, a tradition arose in which men, the spiritual and the “higher”, controlled women who were seen as nature, the body, and the “lower”. It is only today that we are emerging from this interpretation. It is interesting that a concept of Jesus-Sophia is taking root widely, and also that some Christian congregations are worshipping Sophia as divinity. There is much interest in reclaiming the Wisdom material and seeing how it applies to our lives now.
- Chariot ch. 8: Wisdom and Christianity.
- Robt. Wilken (ed). Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, especially ch. 1 Jesus as Sophos and Sophia: (James M. Robinson).
Sample assignments and essays:
- Jesus and Wisdom are identical. Discuss
- Salvation in the next world or a belief in the sacredness of Nature in this? Are these mutually incompatible?
- Is “female to male as nature is to culture?” Discuss.
- Did the identification of Wisdom with Jesus Christ help or hinder women?
- What is the Christian attitude to Nature? Is Wisdom a part of it?
- We have been taught that the spiritual is superior to the material. Is that your opinion? Discuss the pros and cons of the concept.
Unit 4:Wisdom and the “Gnostic Gospels”
When Elaine Pagels’ book “The Gnostic Gospels ” was published in 1979 it introduced a new dimension to spiritual feminism. Her work was based on documents dating from about 200BCE to 200 CE, found in the sand at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, which only became available to scholars in their entirety some thirty years later. (All these texts are now to be found in the collection edited by James M. Robinson and titled “The Nag Hammadi Library”.)
Gnosticism is a system of beliefs, rather than any particular doctrine, and it encapsulates sometimes contradictory concepts. But throughout the four hundred years or so of the texts, divine female Wisdom emerges as a common theme.
Pagels’ work made particular impact because she elucidated the presence of Sophia and / or the Divine Mother in these documents, and showed that in the works, contemporary with and immediately preceding and succeeding the life of Jesus, the notion of female divinity was part of the culture, even if disputed in various ways. Playing a major part are the divine female figures of Sophia, Epinoia, Protennoia and Barbelo. All these names except Barbelo are words to do with Wisdom. In addition there is an amazing poem written in the feminine gender called “Thunder Perfect Mind”. This, composed in the “I am” form, brings together in one Person all the opposites of life. She says, for example (and some of this will be familiar from another source):
I am the first and the last
I am the honoured one and the scorned one
I am the whore and the holy one
I am the wife and the virgin
I am the mother and the daughter….
I am the one whom they call Life and you call Death”.
The whole poem is intensely moving, and shows that the lives of women are made up of contradictions. Yet within us – and within Her, there is the Whole and the All.
She is immanence and transcendence: one quotation says:
I am perception and knowledge, uttering a voice by means of thought
I am the real Voice. I cry out in everyone.
When we read this today we may reflect that for so long women’s voices were silenced and women have been unable to hear their “real voice within”.
The downward trajectory of the idea of female Wisdom is to be perceived sharply in the story of Sophia in the text “The Apocryphon of John”. This tells how she desired and conceived a child without the male principle (rather on the lines of Mother Goddesses of old). For this she was demoted from her position in the highest realm, she is called upon to weep and repent and eventually is allowed to dwell, weeping, in the lowest aeon. Her son is “imperfect” and he creates the world which is, because of this, “deficient”. The evil of the world is put down to Sophia’s sin of autonomy and independence.
Rose Arthur (1984) has examined the contrast between the early texts about Wisdom and the later ones. She comes to the conclusion that “the [later] Christianised erring Sophia…appears to be a…. devaluation of the creative female principle of the universal goddess of the Hellenistic world” (p 96). She also remarks:” in the documents in which Sophia is a personage within Jewish or Gnostic myth she is not a tragic figure in need of male redemption; rather the fallen Sophia appears to be a specifically Christian soteriological motif”(p4).
Another text of great interest to us is the account of the relationship of Mary Magdalene with Jesus which is to be found in the Gospel of Mary. It is shown here that Jesus assigns her a leading role among the apostles although this position is disputed by Peter.
There is enormous richness of material in these texts and in feminist comments upon them. They have direct input to our feelings today. They change our inbuilt concepts about the place and influence of women in the spirituality that is our heritage.
- Chariot. pp 87-100.
Pirani (1991) pp 53-57 [“The Gnostic Dimension“, A.P. Long]
- Rose H. Arthur. The Wisdom Goddess: Feminine Motifs in Eight Nag Hammadi Documents.
- Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels, especially: ch. 3: God the Father, God the Mother.
Sample essays and assignments:
- The ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind’ is a poem based on contradictions. Is it a positive or negative account of the female writer?
- What does “Thunder” tell us about the writer’s view of the female divine? And of our own emotional life?
- Protennoia exclaims ” I am the real Voice. I cry out in everyone”. To what extent have women been able to listen to this voice and to speak out. What is your personal experience of this?
- Were women prophets and apostles?
- Why are the ‘Gnostic Gospels’ valuable to us?
Unit 5: Wisdom Goddesses of the Ancient Near East.
The goddesses that show themselves or are reflected in the bible and in the Gnostic and other inter-testamental material have a very ancient lineage. We cannot really understand why they appear in these texts, or even why they are so often treated negatively, without first meeting some of their fore -sisters.
It is not part of this course to go back to the earliest human societies, although archaeology shows us many examples of the special importance of the female within them. We will confine our period to an era where there are actual texts concerning goddesses – that is starting at around 3000BCE. From that time we have several sets of documents which are readily available in translation.
The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of a hero’s journey to discover the meaning of life and to try and obtain immortality. He finds the Paradise Garden (which in many ways appears to be similar to the later biblical Garden of Eden). In this Garden, to which he is admitted only because of his divine blood inherited through his mother, he finds the Goddess of Life and Wisdom, Siduri-Sabatu. She is seated “by the throne of the sea” underneath a vine. The garden is of “dazzling beauty” and she is called “Keeper of the Fruit of Life”. Scholars hostile to the idea of goddesses have made much of her association with the vine, to the extent of calling her a “barmaid” or “alewife”, although the significance of the vine as a symbol of God’s creation in the bible is universally acknowledged – (see e.g. Jn 15:1.) However such an inimical attitude to female divinities was quite usual until recently.
All sorts of echoes with biblical Eden can be traced in this story; important for us is to remember that this Goddess is associated with the “Fruit of Life”; remembering too that she is Goddess of Wisdom, we can make connections with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which was to be denied to Eve and Adam. This is a path of enquiry that indeed can be “fruitful”.
Another Babylonian document of great interest to us is the Enuma Elish- the Epic of Creation. Here, again, we will find links with the Garden of Eden story, this time particularly with the snake. Creation in this epic, starts with Tiamat, called chaos, formless Goddess of the bitter salt sea holding within herself all the elements of creation; and with her partner Apsu, god of the fresh waters. Tiamat also holds the Tablets of Destiny of the universe. She is depicted as a great snake or dragon, who is killed by her male descendant Marduk and his friends because they want to control creation, and obtain the Tablets. This they succeed in doing in a horrific way. Tiamat is dismembered and the various parts of her body go to make up the universe under the control of Marduk and his friends.
As a dragon, Tiamat symbolises the whole: she lives in the sea, can walk on land, can breathe air and fire. The sea, her home, is the element that contains all life. Her name is very similar to the biblical Hebrew word Tehom which is translated as “the deep” and there are several references in the bible to God overcoming the dragon and various sea monsters. Above all, we have the negative reference to the snake in the Eden story. Again we may draw conclusions about the motives of the writers of these texts in relation to the Goddess figures in their background.
Other Wisdom goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia (which includes Babylonia, today modern Iraq), can be seen in texts concerning Nisaba (sometimes written Nidaba) who was goddess of the reeds; and Gula the Great Physician. From the reeds, people made pipes and flutes to create music, pens to write poetry, and work out mathematical and astronomical problems, to draw plans for buildings, and create formulae for medicines. Thus she became a Wisdom goddess and an example of how a Nature goddess is also able to be closely linked with the arts and sciences.
Gula is called “The Great Physician”. She is known for her temples, which are laid out and functioned as hospitals. She was chief of the healing deities; one of her symbols is the Ningizzida, a staff round which are entwined two serpents. This symbol was later associated with Mercury and even today is used by physicians to signify their profession.
These are a few only of the many wisdom goddesses in this tradition. You may wish to look further at their texts, and also to become acquainted with the great goddesses, Inanna/Ishtar/Astarte who wielded enormous influence in the ancient Near East for something like three millennia. It is also important to look at the (1500BCE) material from Ras Shamra in Northern Syria, which tells us the stories of the Lady Asherah and the Lady Anat and their divine consorts and male relations. All the texts are easily available (see reading list below). Wisdom goddesses were believed to create, sustain and enhance the universe and human life.
- Chariot: ch. 6.
- J. B. Pritchard. The Ancient Near East. (This, a classic source of authentic texts is in paperback and is available at almost all libraries) See the appropriate texts for deities mentioned in this Unit.
- D. Winton Thomas. Documents from Old Testament Times. (treat in the same way as Pritchard)
- Diane Wolkstein & S.N. Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth.
Sample essays and assignments:
- Do you think that Eve’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a sin?
- Paradise was believed to be a garden where divinity and humans met. Give an account of any such Paradise gardens and their occupants that you know about.
- Is the snake in the Garden of Eden evil?
- It is said that Marduk imposed form on the universe by dismembering Tiamat’s body. Would you agree with this? What would the world be like if it had not happened?
- The goddess Gula was called the “Great Physician”. How have both goddesses and women been involved in medicine and healing?
- Give an account of any wisdom goddess in the ancient Near East. Can we learn anything from her today?
- Inanna says; “I observe the setting and rising of the stars, and I dispense justice.” What connections can we perceive in the story of Inanna between abstract concepts, the material universe and the individual person?
Unit 6: Ancient Hebrew Goddesses and their biblical echoes.
To prise out the stories of the Hebrew goddesses from the material created by biblical writers who were concerned to establish a very different kind of worship, is a difficult task. However, today we are able to use the work of many scholars, who have shown and continue to show that the traditional view of the religion of the Hebrew peoples – that they believed in the one God to be addressed only in the masculine gender – is mistaken. Whether it is to depict the female nature of God in the Hebrew bible, (Trible 1978), or to assess information about the actual female divinities there, we are presented with a mass of material that asserts a contrary opinion. It becomes clear that the popular religion of the people in the land of Israel in biblical and possibly post-biblical times contained acknowledgement and worship of female deities, or at the very least, saw God (Jahweh) in terms of the female or as having a female consort. The work of the prophets and biblical leaders was apparently concerned to abolish this “abomination” as they termed it; but it is interesting that while the whole weight of the Hebrew bible is thrown into accomplishing this, the people of Israel from start to finish are continually accused of “backsliding” into such goddess worship.
Who were these Goddesses? The clues we have indicate that at least three names can be recovered: The Queen of Heaven, the Lady Asherah, and the Lady Ashtaroth. We do not yet know – and there is much scope for research – whether these are the only ones, whether these names duplicate each other, or whether they also can be identified with or are similar to other ancient Near Eastern goddesses. What is clear is that they were not “pagan” only, and therefore outside the Hebrew sphere as is commonly asserted: they were actual divinities within the Hebrew religion.
The story of the Queen of Heaven (Jeremiah 7:17-18; 44:15-25) describes the ritual of making cakes for this deity. While the prophet declares that this is the cause of the disaster that has struck them, the women answer that when they burned incense to the Queen of Heaven, made cakes for her and poured libations to her no evil came upon them: they point out that everyone joined in the ritual: the children gathered sticks, the men lit the fires, the women made cakes in the image of the goddess and shared them in a holy meal. Many many echoes of this in the world’s cultures can be discerned and discussed.
It is important to recognise that it is the women who answer the prophet’s attack and take the major role in the ceremonies.
Various suggestions as to the identity of the Queen of Heaven include Babylonian Ishtar to whom cakes were also offered by her worshippers, and the Lady Anat who appears in the Canaanite Ras Shamra chronicles, and who is able to restore life to the dead. She was also called the Virgin Anat and was said to renew her virginity each springtime. Her name is linked to Jahweh’s in a fourth century BCE document, which suggests that at least one Jewish community worshipped them together in the same temple.
Asherah is the name of the Goddess closest to Jahweh in the Hebrew bible, and the name that early translators were most concerned to expunge. If you use the Authorised Version of the Bible (King James) you will not find her mentioned; instead the writers use the word “grove”. Asherah was worshipped on high hills in green groves which sadly the prophets and some “good” kings ordered to be cut down and their dust scattered on the graves of the common people (2 Kings 23:1-14). She is always associated with trees or parts of trees, and may even have been the original Tree of Life and/or Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In the latter case, Eve’s action in taking her fruit assumes a whole new significance, as does the response of the writer of the Eden story in Genesis 3.
It is well worth while to note all the references to Asherah in the Hebrew bible; most later Versions use her name, but if you have a Cruden’s concordance you will need to look her up under “grove”. Remember all the stories will appear to be hostile to her and it is useful both to discuss why this might be the case, and what is the actual occurrence described.
There is a good deal of archaeological evidence emerging to suggest that Asherah was worshipped as the Consort or wife of Jahweh. She is also sometimes twinned with the goddess Ashtaroth, mentioned frequently in the bible, as an “abomination”. We know that Asherah/ Ashtaroth had her own priests/esses (1 Kings: 18-19). In the Hebrew texts they are usually called “holy women /holy men” which are often translated as harlots/ prostitutes and even, for the men – “dogs”. Such holy people in serving the goddess included sexual celebration and the texts make it clear that same-sex and heterosexual activities were equally sacred. Such material was found particularly offensive by the bible writers and later commentators, and until this century, little effort was made to investigate the sacrality of these rituals.
Although today there is still controversy on the role of the priestesses and priests, we can see that an entirely different attitude to the so-called traditional religions was part of their early history. In particular, the holy women in the temple service seem to have been held in high esteem and to have able to lead more autonomous lives than later was the case for most women.
There is one other name of great importance to us, though it occurs only once in the bible. This is Lilith. The Hebrew bible refers to her by name in Isaiah 34:14. Various translations include night hag, night monster, nightjar. Legends about Lilith show her as a demon, particularly as an enemy to women in childbirth; others identify her as Adam’s first wife, who refused to be subordinate to him and escaped to the desert, there to be cursed. In fact, modern scholarship indicates that her name, which used to be thought of as to do with “night” can equally be seen to relate to wind or spirit – cf. the Latin anima or Greek pneuma. She can just as well be viewed as the Spirit of God who in Gen.1: 1 hovered over the face of creation in the beginning, rather than the terrible destroying demon of legend. Certainly the stories of her independence have inspired many feminists today.
Study of this material gives us a completely different slant on bible times and the lives of our foremothers. It can be very exciting, but we also need to take on the research carefully, testing each step as we go.
- Chariot. ch. 7
- Raphael Patai. The Hebrew Goddess
- Alix Pirani (ed) The Absent Mother: Restoring the Goddesses to Judaism and Christianity.
Sample assignments and essays:
- Discuss ritual activities related to female divinities.
- What was the significance of goddesses to the ancient Hebrew peoples?
- Temple prostitutes or holy women and holy men? Discuss.
- Some feminists have declared that the Cakes for the Queen of Heaven story could be used to keep women ‘down in the kitchen’. Do you agree?
- What other cases do you know of where sacred ceremonies involve cakes? Do you think, for example, that the Christmas cake is an example of this?
- Lilith has been seen as women’s wild side or dark side. Do you think this is a valuable concept for us?
- Who is Lilith?
- Write your own Lilith story.
Unit 7: The Special Cases of the Shekinah and of the Virgin Mary.
It might appear that the goddesses of the bible and its background have been totally lost to the consciousness of Jews and Christians. No mention of such deities, no appreciation of their influence is part of the normative traditions of these religions. Yet in both there is a numinous female figure, approaching the divine, and to many minds, actually divine Herself.
The Shekinah, in the everyday tradition of Judaism, denotes the presence of God – the name is derived from the Hebrew word meaning ‘to dwell’. She is the dwelling place of God, his presence, and she shines in glory. Although her name is feminine, most mainstream rabbis did not stress this but often identified the community of Israel with her. Sometimes she was understood as God’s Holy Spirit. However, in the strong mystical – and for a very long time, secret – tradition within Judaism, named the Kabbalah, the Shekinah assumes her divine female form. She is the central presence in the Tree of Life, she is partner to God, and is the channel of His glory; Patai (1990) believes that she is in direct line with ancient Hebrew goddesses. She was understood to be a personified female, she accompanied the dispossessed Jews and mourned with them in their troubles and persecutions, and she is believed to be an intermediary between God and the world. There are many similarities between her and descriptions of Wisdom.
Jewish women today are able to reclaim the Shekinah who was hidden from them by male scholars and religious leaders for nearly 2000 years. They can study the previously hidden religious texts, and are able to identify her within their own tradition as the female presence of God. Those who want to go further may compare her with the ancient goddesses already discussed. In whatever way that is right for them, women are entitled to claim a divine female within Judaism, to relate to her and worship her.
Roman Catholic Christians have long been devotees of the Virgin Mary. While doctrine does not allow her to be divine – she is the Mother of God, but never God the Mother, the intercessor but not the deity – popular feeling has often transcended doctrine and adored her as equal Godhead. But despite this, the contradictions of her biblical story remove her both from any identification with previous goddesses, and from the ordinary world of women. Mary’s combined virginity and motherhood sets her apart from women’s experience. The concept of Mary redeeming Eve’s “sin” has led to difficult questions concerning women’s sexuality. Unlike earlier goddesses she does not seem to be concerned with the natural world; although many of her titles resemble those of Wisdom, her functions are to intercede with the deity on the humans behalf, rather than to teach, and help them understand Nature. Yet she has been and is consolation to suffering humanity, particularly to mothers, and inspiration to millions. Her miracles, her tears, her healing continue to be attested and adored. One of her devotees, (Horrocks 1991:133) writes:
Despite the…. impossible ethereal quality of Mary, many people have been thankful that she was there for them. She has embodied love, mercy compassion, receptivity…she has connected us with the ancient procession of goddesses, she has opened peoples hearts and souls”.
Women today find in the Virgin Mary paradoxes that are difficult to solve, particularly in relation to our bodies and sexuality, to our autonomy and independence. But she continues to claim many thoughts and hearts and connects clearly with ideas of the female Divine.
- Chariot ch.9.
- Geoffrey Ashe: The Virgin
- Roger Horrocks: The Divine Woman in Christianity. in: Pirani A. (ed): The Absent Mother.
- Raphael Pata. The Hebrew Goddess.
Sample Essays and Assignments:
- To what extent can we discern connections between the Shekinah who seemed to dwell both in heaven and on earth and mediate between the two, and any goddesses?
- The Shekinah is said to stay with her people and mourn with them in their troubles. God was believed by many Jews to be with them in the Holocaust. What do you think about the relationship of Deity or Deities to evil in the world; is there any difference to be discerned on this matter between Goddess and God-centred religions?
- Is the Virgin Mary the last in a long line of Goddesses? How does she compare or contrast with any of them?
- Can the Virgin Mary act as a role model for women? Doe she help or hinder women’s self esteem?
- Does the Virgin Mary set a good example for mothers?
Unit 8: Goddesses of West Africa
So far we have discussed female divinities of Wisdom closely associated with the biblical tradition and have concentrated on these deities and those in their immediate background. But it is also important to understand that the traditional religions within Africa, particularly those of the North and West have had a massive influence on Western thought. Martin Bernal (1987, 1991) has produced magisterial scholarly evidence to indicate that the famous 5th and 6th century BCE Greek culture, said to be the mainspring of European civilisation, in fact owed much to African, particularly Egyptian influence. Another influential writer is Eva Meyerowitz, an anthropologist who, after the Second World War of this century, lived for forty years in the Bono-Tekyiman State of Ghana, where, in 1950 she was made Queen Mother. Her books make positive links between the traditional religion she then observed, with its emphasis on the worship of the Great Moon Mother Goddess and that of the Great Mother of the ancient near east. Other scholars have pointed to the two-way effect of the Phoenician occupation, in the 2nd millennium BCE, of much of the North African coast; while the invaders took their own religion with them, they also brought back to the Northern Mediterranean lands concepts of the sacred and of deities from Africa.
This Unit will look particularly at some of the religious ideas from West Africa to do with goddesses, which were current right up until the beginning of the present century. This can only be a birdseye view, but it suggests that there is enormous scope for research and for better understanding of the debt the West owes to Africa.
While it is not clear that the goddesses below are actually called Wisdom deities, they have Wisdom’s characteristics of the gift of life, of immortality and of judgement, of interacting with the world, teaching, informing, and setting the moral framework for their societies. Today Christianity in its various forms and Islam are predominant there, but it may be that the older religions are kept alive or entwine themselves with the new ones. Certainly many women in the African diaspora throughout the Western world are eager to reclaim and renew their traditional Goddess cultures.
Among the Akan peoples of Ghana three goddesses seem to stand out. They are Nyame, Asaase Afia and Asaase Yaa.
Nyame is seen as the female originator, containing the male within herself. She is selfbegotten (cf. Orphic Hymn to Nature (Long 1992:67-69). As Nyame creates the universe female and male forces are separated. Her emblem is the Crux Decussata, the cross with equal arms pointing to the solstices and the equinoxes.
Asaase Yaa is Goddess of the fertile earth. Everything that grows on earth is in her care. Her sacred day is Friday, her sacred number is 8, and the animal which is her symbol is the goat. She is sister to or an aspect of Asaase Yaa, Queen and Creator of the Underworld who is also called Aberewa, Old Mother Earth, and Asaase Yaa Bo No Se – Mother Earth, Creator of the World. She is Mother of the Dead who are “buried in her pocket”
In the religion of the neighbouring Ashanti peoples, Assase Yaa is both mother goddess of the fertile earth and of the underworld. She is Guardian of the Dead. Her sacred day is Thursday when it is forbidden to till the earth or to procreate, but libations are poured for her on that day.
Among the Ibo peoples, Ala, Ale or Ane is the most important deity. She is spirit of the earth and Queen of the Underworld. She rules the ancestors who are in the earth. She is also Lady of the Law – lawmaking and law keeping. Again here we may see resemblances to Egyptian Maat, goddess of justice in this world and the next.
For the Dahomey, their goddess is Mawu, or Mawu-Lisa. Mawu is the mother of all creation. Her children include the gods and natural forces. Mawu-Lisa is shown as a two-sided figure, one side female, the other male. Her eyes are the moon and the sun. In Central Dahomey and Togo, Nana Buluku is the creator deity and mother of all beings.
The Ga people’s major deity is Na Yu, Grandmother Goddess of Birth, linked with Na Afiye, Na Bake, Na DedeOyeadu. Wooden “dolls” are made as images of these goddesses and presented to pregnant women, or those wishing to become pregnant. These dolls are called Aku Ba and resemble the Egyptian Ankh (which may well be derived from them) and which is the symbol of life and immortality.
The Yoruba peoples worship Oya and Yernoya, river deities. Oya is known in many forms. Gleason (1987, 1992) explains that she may be a part of nature – wind, or fire; or an animal such as the African buffalo. She is “patron of feminine leadership”(1992:2). Olosa is a lagoon goddess while Osun is Goddess of the peoples of the river that bears her name. She heals the sick and is the goddess of childbirth.
There are many more goddesses in West Africa alone, and space does not permit a full list. One that must be mentioned is Dugbo, who for the Kono peoples is the Spirit of the Earth. She gives birth to vegetation, sustains animals and human beings and produces abundance. Her worshippers believe that social behaviour affects the earth and that moral codes have as their basis a right relationship with the land itself. This theme is not confined to one place or people, but is to be found in many traditional religions throughout Africa. Another goddess within this theme is Akonadi. She is not only an ancient goddess of justice but is worshipped today in a U.S. temple in Philadelphia.
It will be seen that the African goddesses are wholly connected with nature and also are closely linked the lives and moralities of their people. Social justice relates to appreciation and care for the earth; and people’s behaviour in this respect even affects the world of the life to come. The sacrality of the earth, of the world that gives us our nourishment is an all-important feature of African goddess religions.
- Judith Gleason. Oya. In Praise of an African Goddess
- Luisah Teish Jambalaya
- Eva Meyerowitz. The Sacred State of the Akan;
—- Akan Traditions of Origin
—- The Akan of Ghana: their ancient beliefs (and other books by this author)
- E.B. Idowu. African Traditional Religion
- R.S. Rattray. Religion and art in Ashanti
- E.G. Parrinder. African Traditional Religion
Sample Questions and Essays:
- What similarities (if any) do you see between African goddesses and Wisdom?
- Some African goddesses including several from Egypt) are depicted in various animal forms. What do you think is being conveyed by this?
- It has been said that in Africa, magicians are mostly men who want to control nature, and witches are women who effortlessly are in synchronicity with nature and flow along with her. What are your views on this?
- African goddesses are closely connected with the earth, and are also seen as the source of justice and of right living in the society. Why are the two themes connected? Are they relevant today?
Unit 9 :Wisdom, Nature and the Sacrality of the Planet
Attention to the sacrality of nature and a view of her as universal guide and source of wisdom, as well as the concept of Nature Herself as deity, were lost with the rise of patriarchal monotheistic religions. Jewish thought saw humankind as having been given dominion over the natural world which they were urged to treat respectfully, but always with the human – in fact the man – in control. Christianity for most of its history has concentrated on the state of the soul and its salvation, consigning the material world to an inferior status. The notion thus took root that the earth and this world were of little importance compared with the hereafter; further, that the spiritual dimension which encompassed the individual soul’s journey in this life and the next was far superior to the material. This led to the view that man -the male human being – was aligned with the spiritual or the soul and must control woman, whose place was the “inferior” body or nature. Both Nature and woman must serve and act as a resource for ‘man’. Misogyny on a personal and societal basis, and total exploitation of Nature on a planetary scale leading to possible global disaster have been the presumably unintended results. Such patriarchal exploitation of Nature has also been shown by the Communist countries of Eastern Europe, particularly the ex-Soviet Union From a philosophy in opposition to religion, they took up in full the belief that man could, even should, wield power over nature, although this led to extremes of exploitation and desolation.
Today the Western ecology movement is trying to draw attention to this global situation, but is hampered by the general greed of its own society. The vast resources gap between North and South has meant that the rich, themselves not willing to give up their life styles, are calling upon the poor to forego amelioration of their hardship. They impose Western style development for profit, stripping the world of the South of its natural resources, and the people there of their natural heritage. Starker poverty for them is the result. It has fallen to the ecofeminists to remind us that women are traditionally the world’s guardians of the ecosystem. Their age-old methods which conserve the land may well be based on an appreciation of the divine sacred female presence there. Vandana Shiva (1988) writing of India asserts that an appreciation of the feminine principle must be part of an ecological analysis. She reminds us of the Goddess of the Forest, Aranyi, who is the primary source of life and fertility; the women who work in the forest both use it for their needs and know how to conserve it. Western technology strips it bare. Aranyi is part of the earth – our mother -and Nature is the creator and source of wealth which she will share with us. There are strong similarities with our Wisdom goddesses here.
Rosemary Ruether (in: Plant, 1989:145-150) has defined ecofeminism from a theological standpoint. She writes: ” an ecological-feminist theology of nature must rethink the whole Western theological tradition of the hierarchical chain of being and chain of command. The theology must question hierarchy of human over non-human….. it must unmask the structures of social domination…it must question the model of hierarchy that starts with the non-material spirit (God) as the source of the chain of being and continue down to non-spiritual ‘matter’ as the bottom of the chain…and the most inferior “. This is a revolutionary statement overturning the normative patriarchal viewpoints, and asking us to start thinking again from the very beginning.
Starhawk (Plant, 1989: 174-184) calls for earth-based spirituality that will see this world as the living body of the Goddess. Other ecofeminists draw attention to the hierarchy that besets patriarchal ecologists who while understanding that a problem is there, cannot see that exclusion of feminist forms of thinking and exclusion of a sense of the divine immanence in the earth itself negates the usefulness of their actions. There is some awareness that seeks to acknowledge the work and knowledge of women allied to the divinity in Nature but it is hampered by patriarchal philosophy in the ecology movement as elsewhere. However there are signs of a change.
A recent conference in Britain brought together leaders of eight religious faiths to examine the part that religion has played in the disruption of the planet’s ecosystems and how it can help repair and renew them. Creation Spirituality, originated by the Roman Catholic priest Matthew Fox sets out to revere Wisdom in creation and to concentrate on Gods gift of Nature, rather than on souls’ salvation. Other Christian groups are reclaiming Sophia and aligning her with the sacredness of this world as well as of the next.
The Jewish “Tikkun ” movement is based on a tradition that it is our duty to repair the world; and now sees fundamental change must be made in our attitude and behaviour in order to achieve this. Alongside those in the traditional biblical faiths, are those of us who reclaim the sacredness and divinity of Nature in forms of ancient goddesses or of biblical Wisdom and are fighting to retain the integrity of nature as well as justice for humanity and for the female human being.
- Chariot ch. 10.
- Judith Plant. Healing the Wounds
- Susan Griffin. Woman and Nature.
Sample assignments and essays:
- What would happen if we reversed traditional thinking and put “matter” first? Define what you mean, and what is normally meant by “matter”.
- Is there a connection between the ways that the earth, women and goddesses have been treated? Has there been an effect on the planet itself?
- Do you think the ecology movement is moving on the right lines, or should it change in any fundamental way?
- What do you understand by ecofeminism? How does it differ from straightforward ecology activity?
- Do you think Christians can adjust to an attitude that believes the earth is sacred, and retain their traditional religion?
- In what way can real steps be taken to halt degradation of the planet?
Unit 10: Wisdom, the bible and the present
This year, 1995, marks the centenary of The Women’s Bible created by American suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Concerned, at the end of the 19th century, at the androcentrism of the bible, and the lack of interpretation of the women’ s lives within it, Elizabeth and her colleague Frances Lord collected every text in both testaments concerning women, pasted them on to separate blank pages, and wrote their own commentaries. They were both feminists, as was a contemporary, Matilda Jocelyn Gage, whose vibrant and cutting denunciation of the misogyny in the Church’s tradition (Gage, 1893. repr.1980) had appeared two years earlier.
Another Elisabeth – Schussler Fiorenza, today has created and edited a massive two-volume work to celebrate The Women’s Bible (Searching the Scriptures, 1994,1995). At the same time its purpose is to bring forward current state of the art feminist interpretation of the bible. Cady Stanton argued that “it is important for women to interpret the bible because its scripture and authority have been and continue to be used against women struggling for emancipation”. (Fiorenza 1995:1) This new book focuses not only on texts concerning women but looks at the bible and its material in its entirety from a feminist viewpoint. The second volume, running to nearly 900 pages concentrates specifically on the figure of Sophia (Wisdom). Even so, space did not allow commentary on Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible or in the rabbinical literature. It is centred on Wisdom in the Book of Wisdom of Solomon, in the Gnostic material, and in echoes to be found in the New Testament.
Wisdom calls out to everyone (Prov. 9:1). She does not limit herself to people of any one belief or race or gender. In Fiorenza’s huge work, readers will have the chance to appreciate both spiritual and textual significances concerning Wisdom’s divinity and the lives and work of New Testament women who themselves are “echoes of Sophia”.
It has been argued throughout this course, that Wisdom, Hochma, Sophia, is the Female Divine in the Jewish and Christian backgrounds, and that she is connected to Wisdom goddesses of the ancient world in Europe and Africa. We have assumed that the androcentrism and misogyny of biblical texts have exerted a major influence in producing and sustaining an unequal society that also through its desecration of Nature is leading to planetary disaster.
How does this picture affect us in our lives? We cannot just make these statements and leave them standing alone. What happens to us, and what can we do, what is open to us?
First, in reconsidering the bible, have we lost or gained? The bible is an integral part of our background whether or not we are “religious”. Many women find it an inspiration, a consolation and a help to them; others wish to discard it. Whatever our attitude, the bible cannot be ignored. It can be immensely exciting to some of us to find that something we had believed to be totally masculist contains versions of ancient female deities. But what are the changes that we may have to make in our lives when we discover all this?
While everyone’s answer may be different, there are some basic principles. Gender inequality is seen to be not a divine ordinance but a creation of men. The Divine can be understood as female, and women can assert their own equality within the Divine. They are not lesser or weaker or inferior; they too are the Image of God. Wisdom is an exemplar of how they can be: “intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, clear, unpolluted, loving the good… beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety…”(BWS 7:22-24) They can be knowledgeable, wise, efficient, and above all can be celebrated and celebrate themselves for being these things.
But where does that leave us in relation to men, and what is men’s answer? That they too must change their roles and their opinion of themselves and of us seems obvious, if difficult. Many, seeing themselves as in God’s image, have outgrown humanity, while women, seeing themselves less, have not celebrated their full humanity. This is changing; men will need to acknowledge that the historical conditioning is at fault, they have been misled as to their superiority and if the world is to change for the better, they will need to recognise both the equality of women and the sacrality of the earth and Nature.
An appreciation of the role of Wisdom in our culture may help them to do this. Wisdom has built her house, set her table and invited all to it. She calls out:
“Whoever is simple let him turn in here.
To him who is without sense, she says,
“Come, eat of my bread, drink of the wine I have mixed,
..come, walk in the ways of insight” (Prov. 9:1-6)
- Chariot. Ch. 11.
- E. Schussler Fiorenza. Searching the Scriptures. Vol 2.
Sample essays and assignments:
- Can the bible still be a source of inspiration for women?
- Comparison of different versions of biblical texts may appear to throw new light on lost women and lost goddesses. Give any example of this you have found.
- Do you know of any women who could be said to have “echoes of Sophia ” in their lives? Give any examples.
- Wisdom calls men as well as women to her table. What difference do you think it makes to the individual and to society when men are able to hear this call?
- Would anything happen to sexism if there were to be a general return of the concept of the Goddess.
- Reading List
- Arthur, Rose H. The Wisdom Goddess: feminine motifs in eight Nag Hammadi Documents. University Press of America. 1984.
- Ashe, Geoffrey. The Virgin. 1976
- Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of classical civilisation. vols 1 & 2. 1987/1991
- Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Goddesses of Chaldea, Syria and Egypt. Cesara Publications Eire. 1975
- Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Goddesses of Chaldea, Syria and Egypt. Cesara Publications Eire. 1975
- Engelsman, Joan C. (For translation of the Isis Hymn of Self- Praise): The Feminine Dimension of the Divine. 1979
- Fox, Matthew. Original Blessing: a primer in Creation Spirituality. 1987
- Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess. 1989
- Gage, Matilda J. Woman,Church and State. Persephone Press repr. 1980
- Gimbutas, Marija. Goddess and Gods of Old Europe. 1982 (and others by this author)
- Gleason, Judith. Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess. 1987
- Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. Faber. 1948. many reprints.
- Graves, Robert. (translator) The Golden Ass. (Lucius Apuleius) Penguin. 1950
- Grey, Mary. The Wisdom of Fools? Seeking Redemption for Today. 1989
- Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature. 1978
- Idowu, E.B. African Traditional Religion. SCM. 1973
- King, Ursula. Women and Spirituality. 1989,1993
- Long, A.P. In a Chariot Drawn by Lions. The Womens Press.1992
- Matthews, Caitlin. Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom: the divine feminine from black goddess to world soul. Mandala. 1991
- Meyerowitz Eva. Akan Traditions of Origin. 1952
- Meyerowitz Eva. And yet Women Once Ruled Supreme. Pamphlet Press. 1986
- Meyerowitz Eva. The Akan of Ghana, Their Ancient Beliefs. 1958
- Meyerowitz Eva. The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt. Faber. 1960
- Meyerowitz Eva. The Sacred State of the Akan. Faber. 1951
- Pagels Elaine. Adam, Eve and the Serpent .1988
- Pagels Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. 1979
- Parrinder, E.G. West African Religions. 1949/61
- Patai Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. 1967, 1978, 199O
- Pirani A. The Absent Mother: Restoring the Goddess to Judaism and Christianity. Mandala. 1991
- Plant, Judith (ed). Healing the Wounds: the promise of Eco- feminism. 1989
- Pritchard, J. B. The Ancient Near East. Vols 1 & 2. 1958
- Rattray R.S. Religion and Art in Ashanti. OUP. 1927/59.
- Robinson James (ed). The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 1977, 1988.
- Robinson, James. The Future of our Religious Past. SCM. 1964
- Sandars, Nancy (translator). Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia. Penguin. 1971.
- Sandars, Nancy (translator). The Epic of Gilgamesh. London. 1960.
- Scholem Gershom. Kabbalah. 1974
- Schussler Fiorenza Elisabeth. Bread Not Stone: the challenge of feminist biblical interpretation. 1984
- Schussler Fiorenza Elisabeth. Searching the Scriptures, vols 1 & 2. 1993 & 1995.
- Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: women, ecology and development. 1988
- Teish, Luisah. Jambalaya. 1987
- Trible, Phyllis God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. PA. 1978
- von Kellenbach, Katharina. Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings. Scholars Press. 1994.
- West. Martin L. The Orphic Hymns. Clarendon. 1984
- Wilken, Robert (ed). Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity. 1975
- Winton Thomas D. Documents from Old Testament Times. 1961
- Witt Reginald. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. Thames & Hudson London. 1971
- Wolkstein Diane & Kramer S.N. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. 1983
Course Outline © Asphodel P. Long 1995
The material below was a course outline provided for students taking the Certificate in Feminist Theology awarded by the Britain and Ireland School of Feminist Theology in association with Saint David’s University College, Lampeter during the years 1995-1996