Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

How God Became Male

GodsDoodleWhat is gender? Okay, we all know about the mechanics of the thing, but gender is more than just sex. Indeed, it is a psycho-social construct that is difficult to pin down. Sexual reproduction is very common in nature, but we don’t really speak of gender among our fellow animals. Perhaps the decisive factor, in the human realm, is religion. Clearly religion is not the only element, but I often wonder if gender-based commandments didn’t lead many cultures into their current arrangements. The thought occurred to me as I read Tom Hickman’s God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. As I informed students in my classes, religion has always shown an interest in sexuality, particularly on providing limitations for it. A recent issue of Christian Century has a cover story about marriage, noting that the widespread prohibitions about homosexual matrimony come from a religion that forbids it. When your stakes are eternal, many people won’t argue.

But I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Gender roles have traditionally been regulated by societies, often on the basis of their religious outlook. Meanwhile, biology, as Hickman reminds his readers, is somewhat more ambiguous. The line between the genders is somewhat of a line in the sand, easily erased. Humans come in a continuum of orientations and biological equipage. Those who don’t match the defined parameters have difficult questions to ponder with a male deity who could think of only two genders. What is a male without a female? Can a male deity exist without a goddess? What, otherwise, is the purpose of a deity’s gender? Wouldn’t a inter-sexual creator may more sense?

Male social behavior has often drawn its entitlement from a bad theology. When feminists first began to raise questions, the orthodox were quick to point out that Jesus was clearly male. As Hickman notes, however, representing him naked on the cross (as crucifixions were historically done) is still rare. Sounds like an effort at keeping the status quo tipped in the favor of one gender that doesn’t want to admit that it slowly morphs into another. We all begin life female, as biologists now understand. Some retain their original gender while males evolve into something different. And with that evolution they tend to make many unsubstantiated claims about the right to make decisions for the other half of the human race. Gender is a lot more complex than many religions would have us believe. Until we learn to treat all people as people, we will still have to ask, and will never adequately answer, how God became male.

The Fate of Goddesses

The goddesses Asherah and Astarte are sometimes confused, even by experts. Astarte, also known as Ashtart, Ashtarte, Athtart, and Astaroth, among other names, is the lesser attested of the two among the Ugaritic texts. Indeed, to read some accounts of the latter goddess, she becomes dangerously close to being labelled generic, the sort of all-purpose female deity embodying love and war, and sometimes horses. In the Bible Astarte lived on to become the bad-girl of Canaanite goddesses. Her corrupting ways were a conscious danger to the orthodox (as much as that is read back into the texts). She became, over time, literally demonized. It seems that originally she, like most goddesses, had a soft spot for humans. Since she wasn’t the one true (male) God, however, she had to be made evil. It is an unfortunate pattern as old as monotheism. One of my original interests in studying Asherah (not Astarte) was precisely that—the obviously benevolent divine female seems to have been chucked wholesale when the divine masculine walked into the room. Why? Well, many explanations and excuses have been given, but whatever the ultimate cause, Astarte lingered on.

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In a local pharmacy the other day, I was looking over the Halloween tchotchkes. Amid the usual assortment of pumpkins, skeletons, and ghosts, I found bottle labels reading “Ashtaroth Demon Essence.” Although I’ve spent a good deal of my life cloistered in academia, I was not surprised by this. I know that in popular culture the goddesses of antiquity live on as supernatural powers, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Astarte, once depicted as the friend to at least some of the humans devoted to her, is now commonly a demonic force. The image on the bottle label, however, was most unflattering. I know, this is just kid’s stuff. Still, as I stood there among last-minute costume seekers and distracted parents, I knew that I was witnessing the influence of ancient religions in an unexpected way. Did any of the goddesses survive as a force for good? How could they when the only god was male?

We know very little about ancient Astarte beyond the fact that she took away some of the luster of the omnipotent (as now conceived) deity of the Bible. A jealous God, as Holy Writ readily admits, visiting iniquity down to the third and fourth generation. (That might explain a lot.) Prior to monotheism benevolence and malevolence could arise from goddesses as well as gods. Compassion, it was believed, was largely a feminine trait. Monotheism decided for the jealous male instead. We won’t find a bottle label for the Almighty, although the accouterment of the arch-enemy are everywhere evident this time of year. And speaking of the diabolical, the Ashtaroth Demon Essence, I noted, was available at a steep discount.

Empire State

Hegemony is a funny word. In studies of antiquity it is commonly found since it denotes the “Leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Today it has a vaguely imperialist taint, although it doesn’t necessarily require that one nation actually pillage another’s wealth or resources. The idea that people are, and should be, free is pretty much assumed in developed nations. Or so at least our rhetoric dictates. The word hegemony came to mind, however, as I saw an interview with a corporate leader. He was discussing how his company had budgeted for technology development on an increasing scale, to catch up with current developments, and then leveled the tech expenses off after that so that the business could move into its prime objectives. The reality was vastly different, however. Each year’s budget saw increasing technology costs and it shows no signs of slowing down. Every industry, it seems, will have to keep devoting larger and larger shares of its budget to technology. Hegemony.

It’s not that any one company is solely responsible for our obeisance to technology, so this hegemony has no head. It is the idea of progress gone wild. Last year as I set out for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, a notice popped up on my laptop that a software upgrade was available. Since I file that I required was no longer accessible unless I updated, I clicked through all the agreements and provisos that I can’t understand and began the upgrade. Download and installation time measured in hours rather than minutes and I soon had to interrupt the process to get to the conference. This had consequences that nearly led me to becoming utterly lost in a part of Baltimore I’d been warned to avoid. The gods of technology demand their due. Now, less than a year later, I can’t access certain files unless I upgrade again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a complete Luddite. I enjoy the instant gratification of finding information in seconds through a web search, but I’m not always sure that I can believe what I read. Technology means photos can be manipulated, sounds can be fabricated, facts can be created, all with no basis in reality. I used to have students ask me if such-and-such a fact they’d read online was true. Facts, it appears, are now negotiable. Nobody’s really in charge, it seems. Instead we are lead by the vague idea of progress, a new god with technology as its prophet. Even now I know people who think they never use computers but they drive without realizing their car is full of them, and turn on the television not realizing that the tech is no longer chip-free. Meanwhile those in the technology industry seem to have plenty of extra cash around, while those of us in the humanities ponder whether the ancient hegemonies have really changed at all. Let me look that up on the internet, once this upgrade is through.

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Retro Progress

LittleOrleyIn these days of high technology, remembering childhood might be seen as cowardly nostalgia. When driving my daughter back to college, however, sometimes I need a little nostalgia. So it was that we passed a pleasant couple of hours listening to Little Orley stories told by Uncle Lumpy. Having read ancient history for years, I don’t mind saying that I was a devoted fan of Captain Kangaroo as a child, and Mr. Green Jeans was one of the reasons. Before the Captain, Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) had recorded a set of radio stories about Little Orley, beginning in 1946. (Lest readers get too driven by nostalgia, I wasn’t around for the original broadcasts.) In the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, across the state from where Brannum died, our library had a record of some of the episodes from his radio show. As a child I listened to these tales so much that I still have parts of them memorized to the word. The web brought Little Orley back to me, and now anyone can purchase the tales that I had gone for decades without hearing. Driving through eastern Pennsylvania on an emotionally laden journey, Uncle Lumpy seemed the perfect fare.

A few facets of the program struck me anew. Little Orley stories, for those unfortunate enough never to have heard them, are tall tales about a farm boy that involve all manner of hypostatized natural phenomena. Animals, plants, the moon, clouds, and even pancakes talk and act like humans. Or gods. Orley encounters these all with no hint of surprise, and yet goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday night for prayer meeting. The God in these stories is anything but a jealous deity, sharing the stage with a king of the oceans, lakes and seas that can transform a person to a fish, or with mysterious voices that can make a boy a worm and a worm a boy. Leprechauns gambol through the woods, and snowmen amble about trying to help with farm chores. Stories like these in the Bible are now considered factual, right Balaam? In the 1940s they were standard fantasy for children.

Now we’ve come to an era of biblical literalism that fears and despises challenges to the single God of sacred writ. In Little Orley, however, a message of tolerance (with some notably politically incorrect caricatures) predominates. Orley is time and again in situations where those who are different should be, and inevitably are, treated as equals. Even God gets some help from talking bats who ring the bell to bring the faithful to church when the sexton breaks the bell-rope. Change, I know, is inevitable. As these miles disappear behind me, I can feel it keeping pace, eventually to eclipse me. Progress is good, but sometimes the way ahead is best found by looking back in wonder.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.

Write the Truth

XalliopePublication is a tricky business. Just ask my friend, K. Marvin Bruce. Marvin and I have known each other for years as he’s been trying to break into fiction publishing. I don’t envy him. His novel, Passion of the Titans, was under contract with an indie publisher who eventually reneged on their agreement. What can you do? As a supporter of publishers you don’t want to sue, so the novel is floating around again, looking for a home. Meanwhile, I was flattered to receive in my mailbox a copy of Calliope magazine. Calliope is published by the Writer’s Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. Marvin’s story, “Initiating an Apocalypse,” won third place in their fiction open. Not only am I pleased for my friend, but I was glad to see his story was about gods. Zoroastrianism doesn’t get much attention these days, but Marvin’s tale is about a hapless professor who wants to start an apocalypse by using Zoroastrian deities. I won’t give any spoilers since I’m sure few people have read the story.

His tale has me thinking of gods in fiction. I suppose mainstream literary fiction avoids deities, but fantasy, science fiction, and horror all make good use of them from time to time. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods made quite a splash, and although Marvin has no hope of becoming a widely recognized name, his novel also features gods. It is a literary incarnation. We like to see gods in some ways limited to human circumstances. Omnipotence rarely makes for a good plot. In many respects the Bible attests to this. If God is omnipotent (which is not a claim the Bible actually makes) why can’t the world be a happier place? Indeed, the solution most fondly groped by theologians is either free will or a version of the Zoroastrian solution: a god who is evil. Enter the Devil.

The Devil is also undergoing a kind of literary renaissance. We find a plethora of books and movies starring the prince of darkness. Despite the panegyrics of rationalism delivered by angry atheists, nothing salves the human soul like a good supernatural entity. Fiction writers have long recognized that. Gaiman was not the first to make the gods do his bidding in literature. There is a likelihood that even Homer knew the appeal. Many people can accept that gods might exist, and they certainly don’t object to stories in which they cavort. Fiction, as literary analysts know, teaches us about reality. The characters may not be literally true, but the fact is that in our minds there is still plenty of room for gods. And, if you one of the rare ones to read Marvin’s story, you’ll see that, true to human experience, deities don’t act as we expect them to. Savvy publishers, it seems to me, would do well to recognize the appeal of the gods.

Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.