Service. Brighton Unitarian Church. 2nd March 1997
We are meeting today in the first week of March, here a time of early spring. Centuries ago it was celebrated as the New Year, and also as the Roman Matronalia, when women renewed their vows with their love and life partners. It still represents for us a time of new beginnings. Our theme today is concerned with renewal - of the life within nature, and particularly renewal within our hearts and spirits.
We will try and recover a sense of sacred within the body and within nature. This is based on a renewal of the veneration of the ancient and long dispossessed female in deity. As we see the black branches of winter trees re-awaken into leaf and blossom, drawing upon dark underground waters, as well as upon the daily lengthening new light, so we may reawaken deeply forgotten sources of life, of wisdom, of love and of spirituality. In looking at some of the past celebration of the goddesses of nature, we renew our roots, nourish our hearts and reset the balance that has been away for so long.
TASTE & SEE
Oh taste, taste and see
Taste the sun, stored in the skin
Taste the rain soaked through the flesh
(from the cassette In My Two Hands by Betsy Rose. © 1988 Paper Crane Music)
Today as we contemplate new beginnings, we have heard and meditated on hymns to goddesses of the past. We have also heard of someone who is using the internet to help her address deity in the feminine gender. There is an extraordinary connection here: the very old and the very new being joined together in the contemporary quest for a new spirituality where women's contribution and being is valued as normative.
That enquirer is one of a growing number of people worldwide, and particularly women, who are seeking to restore women's connection with divinity and to redress the current unequal balance between female and male. They are challenging a culture in which bible translations and religious tradition have combined to put women into a subordinate position and to raise in men a need to assert a superiority that seems, without real foundation, to have been wished on to them. Our new beginning can be expressed as reclaiming and remaking the imago dei of Genesis 1:27 which tells us that human beings, both female and male, are created in the image of Deity. And this also means that in so doing, we are struggling not so much for our personal salvation, in whatever sense it can be understood, but to bring about a change for the better in the way we all relate to each other and to the world, the planet itself. We seek the ancient veneration of the female divine to restore the sacrality of our dealings with nature. At the same time we put forward a new idea termed "the Goddess". This is not necessarily to mean a single monotheistic female equivalent of God, (though some adherents might find it so) but rather we see the Goddess as a symbol of women's selfworth: women can now cry out: "I too am in the image of the divine, I am acknowledged; I am not - and never was - inferior or subordinate." We can acknowledge our own empowerment.
But recognising the Goddess within us is not all: divinity is universal, perceived in many ways, recognised in various forms and by many names. It is only in relatively recent times that it has been confined to a masculine image. Of course people will say that God is beyond gender and in the individual spiritual life this might indeed be the case; but the tradition of addressing God as Lord, Father, Son, King and so on and always using the masculine pronoun has produced a near universal perception of deity as male. There is a gathering quest today to liberate the divine from this prison and to recognise the consequences for us in the world of such liberation. This is not an anti-male crusade: it is a search for justice, balancing the spiritual gender scales more equably.
Descriptions of this activity include feminist theology, thealogy, spiritual feminism, women's spirituality. While there is no doctrine or credo and each person works out for herself what she believes, there are certain major themes that appear to be held in common and I will spend a little time with each of these.
The first I will choose because it is the one that has most captivated me. It involves radical re-assessment of biblical texts, using scholarly material available from theology, archaeology and other appropriate disciplines to seek out and celebrate the forgotten or obscured female elements within them.
The next is the question that thealogian Carol Christ famously asked some twenty years ago: Is "the Goddess" as a symbol of life, death and rebirth only within ourselves or is She also "out there"? Is She a divine female personification who can be invoked in prayer and ritual? In this context I will add the question, Is She One or Many?
The third theme, encapsulated by the term ecofeminism, has been described by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. She writes:" we must question the hierarchy of human over non-human nature: challenge the right of the human to treat the non-human as private property and material wealth to be exploited: and we must unmask and question the structure of social domination male over female,... we must question the model of the hierarchy that starts with non-material spirit - God - as the source of the chain of being and continues down to non spiritual matter as the bottom ad the most inferior."
These three subjects are mighty in themselves and form the basis of this new and compelling quest that is gaining so much power. We cannot do more to day than glance at each.
First the bible and the search for the lost female:
I have written elsewhere that we can see the bible as a magnificent garden of brilliant plants, with trees of age-old luxurious growth. Yet in the very soil that gives it life, the poison of misogyny, of woman-hating has been inserted. There are some today who say the heritage within it of what has been called masculism - the idea of male supremacy - is so great that they will close the book forever. But others - and I am among them - see our task as trying to help free the garden from this toxin. As we do so, certain surprising even startling material emerges and it is some of this I want now to share with you.
If the bible you use is the King James, or Authorised Version, you will not have seen the name Asherah, and you will not find it in Cruden's Concordance. All the same there are forty references to Asherah in the Hebrew bible, and are translated as such in the more modern versions such as Revised Standard (though older versions translate the word as 'groves'), Moffatt, Jerusalem, and many others. Usually couched in hostile terms, these texts are describing a female divinity who has been termed the Hebrew Goddess. Recent scholarship has brought to light surprising but very convincing material that shows that the Hebrew people worshipped throughout the biblical period not Jahweh alone as has always been thought, but a duo of Jahweh and Asherah: where Asherah was understood as the wife of Jahweh and worshipped with sexual celebrations, often as the bible tells us, "on every green hill and under every green tree."
This was the popular religion that the prophets scribes and leaders wanted to destroy; but certainly until the time of the New Testament were unable so to do. There is another important aspect of Asherah (or in the plural asherim); and it is currently one of the most exciting themes in biblical archaeological research. This is the uncovering of evidence that the goddess Asherah was perceived as interchangeable with a sacred or cosmic tree, and particularly with the Tree of Life. You will remember that this stood in the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis and that when the couple were expelled an angel guarded the way back to the tree with a flaming sword. A totally unexpected new reading of the Genesis story is being proposed in the light of this new information: rather than the expulsion from Eden being a consequence of sin, whether of disobedience or of sexuality, we find the surprising suggestion current among the most distinguished of modern biblical scholars: that the setting up of a flaming sword to guard the access to the Tree of life is a way the writers of Genesis used to deny the people access to the goddess, in particular the goddess Asherah.
It is suggested that the whole story including the trees and the serpent was recast from mythic material to discredit this background nature religion which worshipped trees as female and indeed respected the serpent as a symbol of Wisdom. In particular the aim was to divert the people's traditional veneration of the goddess Asherah through sexual celebration.
There is no doubt that the redactors - the writers and editors of the Hebrew bible - disliked everything to do with this divine figure of Asherah. In particular they rejected one of the ways in which she was worshipped - which included sacred sexual activity, not only among the original inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, but also among the Hebrew people. The Tree of Life in particular was understood as the Goddess herself, giver of life, and the means whereby life on this earth is nourished and protected; because of its sacred power of life the Tree was also thought to be the entrance to immortality, and this too became an attribute of the Goddess.
If we look at the Eden story from this viewpoint, then all the blame shame and guilt which has been laid on women can be seen to be a construct which can be totally discarded. The part that Church tradition played in building up misogyny based on the Eden story can now be understood as historical policy rather than religious doctrine. We need no longer carry the blame laid on us all these centuries.
Before I move on to my next themes, I want just to draw attention to a text which partially contradicts Genesis 3: 24, the Tree of Life verse. It is not by accident that in the book of Proverbs, chapter 3 verse 8, the text, speaking of Lady Wisdom, Hochma/Sophia, says "she shall be a Tree of Life to all who lay hold on her". The connection of goddess and tree is there, an echo of the serpent wisdom is heard; the Tree of Life is again made available to humanity. All I can say here, on this theme, is that we are introduced to two aspects of the female divine who are connected with the Tree of Life - Asherah and Wisdom: Asherah is a celebration of physicality and bodily joy, Wisdom encapsulates all the intellectual understanding of the universe as well as entry to the life of the spirit; Wisdom was subsumed first into the Torah, the sacred book of the law, then into the person of Jesus Christ; Asherah, for two millennia was considered as an abomination. Continuous attempts were made to drive her out of human history; for a long time they seemed successful, but now after so long, she is re-emerging. I believe that this will cause our understanding of the story of Eden and the so-called Fall drastically to be revised.
The second theme in our renewal quest is the question posed by Carol Christ: is the Goddess as a symbol of life, death and rebirth only within ourselves, or is she also a reality "out there" to which I added my own question: Is She One or Many.
Many women and men today believe that deity can be understood as an aspect of the ancient mother goddess who in various forms and by various names was worshipped by humans through a huge span of time. Only a few weeks ago I heard a lecture at the British Museum describing the finds at Catal Hoyuk in Turkey dated to about 6000BCE. They included shrines to a royal female figure seated on a throne guarded by leopards and lions, and placed under a frieze of bulls' horns. While the speaker was reluctant to make extravagant claims about the figure (which was one of several) or about the large settlement of about 10,000 closely built houses in which it was found, he maintained that all the evidence showed that the society was non-hierarchical in organisation, that religious practice was part of its everyday life, and that religion itself appeared to be related to impressive female figures and to animals of majestic character. She is not the earliest female figure found - elsewhere some go back a further 20,000 years: but she is perhaps the first to be found in a situation which can be seen to be part of a living society and its religion.
Some writers believe that such an entity, a mother goddess was worshipped from those very early times throughout prehistory and ancient history to the establishment of monotheism. She is the one whom Homer invoked when he wrote: "I sing of the well founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings, she feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the sea, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store." In our own times the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has described the Goddess of Old Europe as incarnating the creative principle as source and giver of all. Gimbutas postulated an early society that was matrifocal agricultural and sedentary egalitarian and peaceful. This was conquered and broken up by male-dominated war oriented invaders. This scholar appears to suggest that deity was understood as the one Goddess who was worshipped - perhaps in many forms and guises.
Other visions of female divinity point to a profusion of goddesses, of aspects, and of deities representing the cultures and societies in which they were worshipped. But in all cases where the female divine is sought and renewed today, certain constants are upheld. She asserts the sacrality of nature, and combines spirituality with physicality as well as matters of the soul and the intellect. She is part of the dark as well as the light - just as seeds need the dark to germinate, and plants need the light to grow; she is often depicted in animal form, or part human, part animal, or manifests like Asherah, as a tree or tree branches of tree or a tree trunk, showing the one-ness of all nature; It is important to remember that there was no concept of original sin, and sexuality respected as sacred was not confined to heterosexual marriage.
For women the new empowerment associated with all these aspects of female divinity releases the chains of guilt and fear laid on them by patriarchal religion. Sometimes the very first breakthrough is the shout: "the goddess is within me, I have her divinity within myself, I myself can be creatrix, I need no longer go in silence". We echo the female speaker in the Gnostic gospels, who says "I am the Voice... who speaks within every creature. I am the real Voice, I cry out in everyone and they know a seed dwells within." Once that voice is heard and recognised, life changes for us all.
I want to say here, it can change for men as well as for women. Men often say they feel ousted, pushed out of what they fear to be a vision of a totally woman-oriented world. But if we, in the present and the future, look back to the past for some of our inspiration, we can see a different picture within it. Some of the hymns and poems we have heard today were written to goddess figures by men; and in many pictures throughout the ancient world we see men as well as women celebrating and bringing offerings. Men, as well as women, are children of the goddess, and they can bring their strength and their talents to her service, which is the service of the world we live in and particularly of the natural world.
And this brings me to the third of our themes: the world we live in has been brought to the brink of total destruction. Male supremacist society has continuously used nature as a resource, literally forcing out of her all her wealth and riches, putting nothing back, poisoning and colonising, destroying animals, trees, rivers and huge areas of fertile land and sea. The philosophy of hierarchy and domination has viewed nature, like women, and indigenous peoples as being somehow there to serve the interests of the dominator.
In fact, it has become obvious that this behaviour is not in men's interests and many have realised this. I pay tribute to the men and the women who are trying to save the trees on projected motorway development land: to young people who climb into the trees, and make tunnel, to old people who come out to observe and record, and help prevent human rights abuse.
These are among the thousands who are protesting at the rape of nature: here in this church there may be some who went last year to Shoreham to prevent the cruel export of calves; certainly many will be supporting the various societies and groups who are fighting exploitation of nature in all its aspects. It is becoming clear to increasing numbers of us that we must oppose what has been called the linear hierarchical mindset in which nature is rated lower than man and man is rated higher than woman. Added to that is the neo-colonial viewpoint that downgrades indigenous peoples, rapes their land, denies them their culture.
While the ecological movement is widespread, and to be supported, I feel it is a recognition of female divinity or the female in divinity that brings the sacredness of nature right home to us. The Indian writer Vandana Shiva has called for an appreciation of the feminine principle as well as the needs of ecology. She speaks of Aranyi, goddess of the forest, who is the primary source of life and fertility as well as inspiration to women managing their use of the forest and tree growth cycle, so that despoliation can be avoided. Their knowledge and techniques have been disregarded by the colonial and hierarchical powers, leading to de-forestation and desert. Nature, says Shiva, is the creator and source of wealth. The rural women who derive sustenance from her have a deep and systematic knowledge of her processes. This writer claims that in the developing countries it is only by looking to traditional women's ways of handling the earth around them that it can become fruitful again, and their lives less full of hardship. She believes that the work and example of Third World women should be recognised as laying the foundations for the recovery of the feminine principle in nature and society and through it the recovery of knowledge of the earth as sustainer and provider.
We have travelled over a vast distance: from ancient goddesses to women's self-empowerment, to a new way of understanding and action for both women and men, in the world in which we are privileged to live. We began by looking at renewal, at new beginnings: in any new beginning there is a root of the past, just as the tree roots nourish the bare branches in winter and provide the means of the return of the bud and the leaf. We look to the roots of ancient and traditional knowledge to help us as we grow into our new strengths, recognising our place in nature and putting our skills to her service.
The internet last week carried a plea from a woman poet who was searching for feminine names for the divine. She said something gender neutral won't do: it had to be personal and to do with a her being a woman. So to link the ultra-modern with the very ancient, I have gathered, from various scholarly translations, some of the names and titles of goddesses; let us ponder and meditate on them. Let us remember
Isis: Queen of the earth, Mother Goddess, Moon Goddess, Queen of Heaven, Mother of all things, Mother of all living, Lady of Life, Goddess of Life and Healing, Mistress of the Elements, Mother of the Seasons, Nature, The Lawgiver, Goddess of grains and grasses.
Hathor: the Powerful, Underworld Goddess, Protectress and Queen of the Underworld, Great Goddess, Goddess of Love and of joy, Mistress of Pleasure and of Merriment, Sovereign of the Song and Dance, Mistress of Music, Morning Star, Mother of Light, Light of the Sea.
Sekhmet: Goddess of Fire and Heat, Lioness Goddess, Mother in the Horizon of Heaven, the Gracious one, Goddess of the Bonesetters, Mighty one of Enchantments, Bearer of Wings.
Maat: Goddess of Truth and Justice, of the order of the universe, Breath of Divine Life, mistress of the universe, the unequalled eye, the beautiful.
From the land of Canaan: a prayer of the sun goddess Paghat:
She rises early in the morning, she wipes the dew from the grasses, she carries the clouds on her shoulder, she instructs the course of the stars.
And from Mesopotamia part of a hymn to Ishtar:
The goddess with her is counsel
at her glance there is created joy
she dwells in she pays heed to compassion and friendliness
Be it slave, unattached girl or mother, she preserves her.
one calls on Her, among women one names Her name.
Now, from a hymn to the grain and wisdom goddess Nidaba:
Thou art the creator of floods that make the water abundant,
Thou art she who makes plentiful makes prolific art thou.
And now, let us meditate on a hymn from 2000BCE to the goddess Beltia, in which you will perhaps hear familiar echoes.
She is mighty, she is divine, she is exalted among the gods.
She abases the rich, and vindicates the cause of the lowly.
She delivers the captive, she takes the hand of the fallen
From a Gaelic invocation to the Graces
(translated by Alexander Carmichael, and published in his collection Carmina Gadelica)
A shade art thou in the heat
A shelter art thou in the cold
Eyes art thou to the blind
An island art thou at sea
A well art thou in the desert
Health art thou to the ailing,
Thou art the joy of all joyous things
Thou art the light of the beams of the sun
Thou art the surpassing star of guidance
Thou art the step of the steed of the plain
Thou art the grace of the swan of swimming
The best hour of the day be thine
© Asphodel P. Long 1997