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Goddesses and the Divine Feminine

Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History

Rosemary Radford Ruether
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 390
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  • Book Info
    Goddesses and the Divine Feminine
    Book Description:

    This landmark work presents the most illuminating portrait we have to date of goddesses and sacred female imagery in Western culture—from prehistory to contemporary goddess movements. Beautifully written, lucidly conceived, and far-ranging in its implications, this work will help readers gain a better appreciation of the complexity of the social forces— mostly androcentric—that have shaped the symbolism of the sacred feminine. At the same time, it charts a new direction for finding a truly egalitarian vision of God and human relations through a feminist-ecological spirituality. Rosemary Radford Ruether begins her exploration of the divine feminine with an analysis of prehistoric archaeology that challenges the popular idea that, until their overthrow by male-dominated monotheism, many ancient societies were matriarchal in structure, governed by a feminine divinity and existing in harmony with nature. For Ruether, the historical evidence suggests the reality about these societies is much more complex. She goes on to consider key myths and rituals from Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Anatolian cultures; to examine the relationships among gender, deity, and nature in the Hebrew religion; and to discuss the development of Mariology and female mysticism in medieval Catholicism, and the continuation of Wisdom mysticism in Protestanism. She also gives a provocative analysis of the meeting of Aztec and Christian female symbols in Mexico and of today's neo-pagan movements in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94041-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-12)

    My interest in goddesses of the ancient Near East and Greece goes back to 1954, when I began studying the religious worldviews of these societies.¹ In a course on Greek tragedy with Robert Palmer (translator of Walter Otto’s work on Dionysus), I read writers such as Jane Harrison and was introduced to the theory that a matriarchal society had preceded the rise of patriarchy in ancient Greek and Mediterranean societies.² As I continued to pursue these interests at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate School, I focused on the classics and early Christianity. In particular, I studied the Greek and...

  6. ONE Gender and the Problem of Prehistory
    (pp. 13-40)

    To examine the contested issue of gender in ancient Near Eastern prehistory, I begin with a definition of the period. Prehistory is the time before the invention of writing (which took place around 3500 BCE in the ancient Near East). This period is divided into several major eras of human development in eastern Europe and the ancient Near East: late Paleolithic (c. 30,000–9000 BCE), proto-Neolithic and Neolithic (c. 9000–5600 BCE), and Calcolithic (5600–3500 BCE). In the European late Paleolithic, we begin to have some evidence of human creative consciousness in the form of cave paintings, figurines, and...

  7. TWO Goddesses and World Renewal in the Ancient Mediterranean
    (pp. 41-72)

    This chapter focuses on particular patterns of mythic thought in the ancient cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece in which goddesses play a central role in world renewal. It looks specifically at the figure of Innana/Ishtar of the Sumero-Akkadian traditions of the third and second millennia BCE and makes some comparisons with three other goddesses: Anat in Canaanite Ugaritic myth, Isis in Egypt, and Demeter in Greece. All of these goddesses are closely related to a beloved—a male lover or husband in the first three cases, a daughter in the fourth—who is connected with food production...

  8. THREE The Hebrew God and Gender
    (pp. 73-97)

    The traditional understanding of deity in Hebrew scripture has assumed that Yahwism was always monotheistic, that the Hebrews had a unique religious perspective totally different from and opposed to that of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. This view holds that they worshipped one god, male and transcendent, and rejected the validity of all other gods. The disappearance of goddesses, then, is seen as a result of the male monotheism of Hebrew religion. New interpretations of Hebrew scripture, however, informed through recent archaeological finds from both Hebrew society and the religions of the ancient Near East, have drawn a much more...

  9. FOUR Savior Goddesses in the Mystery Religions and Gnosticism
    (pp. 98-126)

    In 333 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, the great rival of the Greeks, and two years later extended his power to Egypt. At his death, the ancient kingdoms of the Near East and Egypt were integrated into Hellenistic empires. Greek became the lingua franca of the educated elite. The religions of the ancient Near East were hellenized, and symbols of those religions were assimilated into the Greek deities. Two and a half centuries later, the Romans would sweep across the area, conquering Egypt and the Near East and appropriating this hellenized culture as they brought the region under their...

  10. FIVE The Spiritual Feminine in New Testament and Patristic Christianity
    (pp. 127-158)

    The Christianity that grew to be the dominant, or orthodox, churches, whose scriptures were canonized in the New Testament, developed parallel to and often intertwined with the gnostic forms of Christianity discussed in the previous chapter.¹ The anti-gnostic church fathers of the late second century, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian, made a forceful effort to separate from and eject gnostic Christians. They also worked to canonize, as the original and true “deposit of faith,” those early Christian writings that enshrined the views of what was then becoming the established church. The feminine aspects of God, as well as the leadership...

  11. SIX Feminine Symbols in Medieval Religious Literature
    (pp. 159-189)

    The Middle Ages would see a great flowering of devotion to Mary. Her feast days proliferated, hundreds of churches were dedicated to her, and the Mary altar became a standard part of every church. Relics of her hair, milk, clothing, and house multiplied in numerous shrines. Private devotions, such as the rosary, were created so that worshippers could pray to her daily. Contemplative men and women saw her in visions and dedicated their lives to her service. Hymns, paintings, and sculpture celebrated all aspects of her life, from her own conception and the birth of Jesus to her Assumption and...

  12. SEVEN Tonantzin-Guadalupe: The Meeting of Aztec and Christian Female Symbols in Mexico
    (pp. 190-219)

    In 1492, the expansion of western European powers began with the voyage of Cristobal Colón, whose last name suggests the word “colonialism” (fromcolonia). The first wave of Western colonialism came from Catholic Spain and Portugal. Both countries saw the task of converting the natives to Christianity as integral to their self-justification for conquering hitherto unknown peoples and lands. The Spanish conquered in the name of Christ and the king of Spain, as a nation that saw itself chosen by God to counteract infidels and spread the true faith. They also carried with them the veneration of the Virgin Mary,...

  13. EIGHT Mary and Wisdom in Protestant Mystical Millennialism
    (pp. 220-248)

    Paul Tillich, a leading twentieth-century Protestant theologian, declared, in the first volume of hisSystematic Theology: “Just as Apollo has no revelatory significance for Christians, the Virgin Mary reveals nothing to Protestants.”¹ This statement epitomizes the view that Mariology is simply a closed book for the Protestant tradition, a heretical growth to be excised by responsible New Testament exegesis. Yet this is not quite the last word for Reformation theology’s response to Catholic Mariology. The Reformers themselves reveal a more nuanced view: not a total rejection but a refocusing of Mariology on its Christological core.

    Martin Luther himself admitted to...

  14. NINE Contested Gender Status and Imagining Ancient Matriarchy
    (pp. 249-273)

    As industrialization developed, nineteenth-century western Europe and North America saw a gradual loss of family-based economic production. Although poor women were drawn into factory work, especially in textiles, and domestic service continued as a sphere of low-paid female labor, it became increasingly difficult for middle-class women to make a “respectable” living. The overwhelming view of the male intellectual elite was that a woman’s only acceptable role was that of wife and mother, as determined by her biological nature, which also fixed her mental and psychological capacities. Male and female roles were governed by the notion of a rigid complementarity of...

  15. TEN The Return of the Goddess
    (pp. 274-298)

    In the early 1970s, sectors of the new women’s movement, seeking a feminist spirituality, began to reclaim the ideas of original matriarchy and the primacy of a female deity. Nineteenth-and early twentieth-century anthropologists such as Bachofen and Briffault, who had written about an original matriarchy, were rediscovered. Their work was received with surprise and joy and was seen as proof of the “truth” of human history that had been kept from women by a patriarchal conspiracy. For these new feminists, however, such ideas were not simply theories about original female power that might buttress a new equality; they were also...

    (pp. 299-308)

    In light of the long history traced in this volume, the question I wish to address here is this: what conclusions can we draw from this complex story of how gender has functioned symbolically in ancient Near Eastern, Mediterranean, and western European religious systems? I do not have any final answer to this question. I find this history puzzling in many ways and will continue to mull over its implications long after this book is published.

    In the dominant story line that comes from thealogians such as those discussed in chapter 10, the implications are clear. There was once a...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 309-358)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 359-381)