Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: When God Was a Woman, Part I

I will begin this book review with a question Merlin Stone asks in the Preface to her book When God Was a Woman:

"What... might we expect in a society that for centuries has taught young children, both female and male, that a MALE deity created the universe and all that is in it, produced MAN in his own divine image- and then, as an afterthought, created woman, to obediently help man in his endeavors?"

When God Was a Woman sets out to explore this question, as well as to explore what Goddess-worshiping societies looked like. Using archaeological evidence, Stone argues that when much of humanity practiced the religion of the Goddess, the status of women was much higher that in male-deity worshiping Judeo-Christian societies. Accordingly, the rise of the Judeo-Christian religion, she argues, coincided with the decline of the the status of women in society.

Personally, (and this does bear mentioning before I'm accused of wanting to take down The Man and institute a Goddess religion because I read this book), I do not believe that there is a Supreme Deity. If there is any sort of transcendent being, I believe that it is beyond gender, race, ethnicity, or any other label humans choose to categorize themselves by. I do not believe it is appropriate to label "god" as either a male or a female.

The study of comparative religion is beneficial in that it allows us to observe how religious beliefs are "coincidentally" related to who holds power in a society. Unlike some religious folk, I do not believe that humans have arrived at a particularly special spiritual time in which our religious beliefs just happen to be the correct ones in the course of human history. The more I read about various religions, "primitive" or not, the more I am convinced that who is worshiped and what religious rules the devout are expected to live by are inextricably related to society's power structures. Eric Wolf explores this concept in an intriguing case study of Aztec gods and rituals in his book Envisioning Power.

(All quotes from When God Was a Woman, unless otherwise indicated).

1. The Goddess and Matrilineal Descent

Merlin Stone begins by noting that a religion of the Goddess existed "in the Middle East for thousands of years before the arrival of the patriarchal Abraham, first prophet of the male deity Yahweh" (9). The worship of the Goddess spanned over 25,000 to 7,000 years and over "miles of land, cutting across national boundaries and vast expanses of sea" (23). Although She was called a variety of names, "resulting from diverse languages and dialects" people were worshiping "a most similar deity" (22). Throughout the book, Stone sets out to explore the causes, influence, and significance of worshiping this female deity.

One of the most fascinating theories explaining the origin of Goddess worship relies on the observance, in pre-Judeo-Christian societies, of matrilineal descent patterns in which one "belongs" to one's mother's lineage, as opposed to the (now) more common patrilineal descent patterns. Some anthropologists have established that before these societies understood the connection between sex and conception, "the female was revered as the giver of life" (11). Because the contribution of men was not yet understood in relation to human reproduction, "the mother would have been seen as the singular parent of her family, the lone producer of the next generation" (Ibid.). What this means is that "descent in the family would be kept through the female line, going from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son, as is the customary practice in western societies today" (11-12).

Stone presents studies of various past Goddess-worshiping societies and recounts the status of women in these matrilineal societies. Delving into all of the specifics is beyond the scope of this book review, and I urge you to check it out if you're interested. However, the themes apparent in societies that worship a female deity were that women were "remarkably free" (37), had "extremely independent social and economic position" (Ibid.), had inheritance rights, had legal agency, could be clergy, could take multiple husbands, and generally had a much higher status than during later male-worshiping Judeo-Christian times. Because these societies were matrilineal, and thus did not require knowledge of a child's paternity, the concept of sexual "morality" for women especially was much different, much more sex positive, than during later Judeo-Christian periods.

In fact, Stone eventually suggests that it was the knowledge of paternity that resulted in the development of the concept of "sexual 'morality'" for women with an emphasis on "premarital virginity for women, marital fidelity for women" the end goal being "total control over the knowledge of paternity" (161). When the Hebrews invaded Goddess-worshiping societies, they brought with them the knowledge of paternity and their rules regarding women's sexuality. Their biblical rules imposed severe restrictions on women's sexuality and these are apparent in the Old Testament today. For instance, when women broke certain rules regarding their sexual behavior, the male God in the Old Testament commands that they be stoned and burned. Restricting who women could have sex with (ie- only within the confines of monogamous marriage to one man) ensured that paternity could be established and, most importantly, ensured that property and land could be passed down through patrilineal descent.

Despite their violent conquering of the "pagan" Goddess-worshiping societies, the Hebrews were unable to quickly wipe out the Goddess religion. And because of this, due to influences of the Goddess religion, "Hebrew women had to be taught to accept the idea that for a woman to sleep with more than one man was evil.... while it was simultaneously acceptable for their husbands to have sexual relationships with two, three or fifty women" (182). Even though a woman could have only one husband, a man could have multiple wives because his fatherhood could still be established with respect to each of his wives' children as long as his wives had sex with him only. Essentially, women and children became the property of men. And, for a woman to not follow biblical sexual mores regarding monogamy and fidelity was for her to be "pagan," "sinful, and "immoral" (Ibid.). Even today, these labels are thrown around by the pious in order to shame women into "behaving." These labels kept women in line and ensured the preservation of patrilineal descent and male privilege in society.

To conclude this portion of the book review, I think it bears mentioning that Stone does not go into great detail exploring the status of men in the Goddess-worshiping societies. She mentions that these societies were ruled by male and female elders, so we at least know that men were not excluded from leadership positions. It would be very interesting to know more details. I would argue that strict rules were probably not imposed on men in matrilineal societies unlike the strict rules imposed on women in later Judeo-Christian societies. Unlike the case of paternity, knowledge of motherhood is obvious. And if knowledge of maternity was what was important with respect to property and land distribution, men would not have to be kept "in line" in order to preserve the knowledge of who a child's mother was.

Yet, even though her book is an exploration of the role of women in Goddess-worshiping as compared to God-worshiping societies, I think it would be erroneous to assume that Stone is suggesting that we revert back to a Goddess-worshiping religion. In fact, Stone ends her book by suggesting that not until humans are able to "regard the world and its riches as a place that belongs to every living being on it, can we begin to say we have become a truly civilized species" (241).

Tomorrow, I will post Part II of this book review and explore Stone's observations regarding the Adam and Eve Myth.

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