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The Unseating of the Goddess

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This is an essay written for my Literature class at Melbourne Uni. I was however using the essay to investigate Joseph Campbell’s theory that the early mythologies of the world’s high civilisations were matriarchal in outlook before the rise of patriarchy. I discovered, as I often do with Campbell, that modern scholarship does not agree in detail but that this hardly affects the sense of Campbell’s argument – a more egalitarian mythology is certainly more matriarchal than a patriarchal one and this was Campbell’s point in essence.

The portrayal of women in classic texts can be seen as reflecting important developments in a culture’s relationship to maternity, kingship, the chthonic other, the social order, and the actual treatment and position of women, largely because these are the ideas that the dominant masculine hierarchy projected upon female characters in their literature. The portrayal of women will be explored through an examination of the characters of Tiamat in the Epic of Creation and Eve in Genesis[1] from the Bible. I argue that despite the portrayal of the feminine through a repressive or at least contrary patriarchal masculine mindset, the modern reader can still detect traces of a deeper wisdom hidden behind the text, a wisdom, if not of a matriarchal goddess, at least of a more egalitarian, and so spiritually-centred, cultural ethos.

Feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that most early Near Eastern goddesses and female mythic characters were primarily “invented by men to serve male interests” (303). We must bear this in mind when considering a convincing reading for the contemporary audience of these texts. The forthright and domineering aspect of some Near Eastern goddesses, such as Ishtar or Anat, has lead scholars such as Marija Gimbutas and Jane Ellen Harrison to suggest that these characters were vestiges of an early matriarchal culture preceding the rise of authoritarian patriarchy. However, Ruether convincingly argues that, while this idea is an important inspiration for modern feminism (274-298), it is an over-simplification of history (20-40). The development was probably a less dramatic shift from a more egalitarian society, with the divine pantheon structured using metaphors of the family, to a more overt patriarchy, with mythology more blatantly promoting the new political hierarchy (Ruether 46-47). As the masculine ethos came to overpower and unbalance the earlier more egalitarian dynamics, feminine powers were sidelined, distorted by male interests or, in some cases, such as that of the Old Testament, virtually eliminated altogether.

The Epic of Creation uniquely appears to reflect such a moment of transition, the suppression and unseating of a goddess. Tiamat is initially portrayed as a benign primal mother, who not only “bore them all” (233),[2] that is, all of the pantheon, both male and female, but also bears with them all: “However bad their ways,” we are told, “she would indulge them” (233). Crucially, unlike in the later text of the Bible, a goddess here gives birth to all the gods and initially acts as a mother in the natural way, that is, reflecting natural human patterns of childbirth and motherhood. Furthermore, as the primal mother, she is an immensely powerful and important figure.

Yet, as Ruether states, the primary purpose of the Epic is to “herald the ascendency of the God Marduk, patron of Babylonia, over the more ancient deities” (48), and Marduk cannot come second to anyone. Even the earlier masculine deities are portrayed as weaklings, presumably to enhance the prestige of Marduk – Apsu is treacherous and easily dispatched (234-235); Anshar and Ea are cowardly and impotent in the face of threat (241-242). Tiamat is no weakling of course, yet a weakness must be found; we see what Bettina L. Knapp terms “a certain passivity” (31) in her attitude, a certain “unwillingness to act aggressively to bring order to an evidently chaotic condition” (31). Tiamat is unable to act even when her consort Apsu is murdered: “You did not go to his side,” the gods complain, “but sat mute” (236). When she does finally rise up against the rebelling gods, her powers are still as potent as ever, but have been transformed from life-giving maternal powers to chthonic powers of darkness; she becomes a kind of vicious dragon, bearing forth venomous snakes and mutant animal creatures (Daley 237). Joseph Campbell defines this as a type of mythological defamation, which, “consists simply in terming the gods of other peoples demons, [and] enlarging one’s own counterparts to hegemony over the universe” (80). Indeed, these strangely gruesome and threatening offspring justify Marduk’s violent attack upon Tiamat; he appears as the shining hero-warrior against her image as an impulsive, devouring dragon. He tears her apart and fashions the world from her dismembered body, effectively appropriating her maternal world-creative powers.

This usurpation or appropriation of female powers has apparently progressed much further in Genesis (Campbell 85). Here there is no goddess at all. God creates the world from the word, by simply performing ‘creation’ (1:3).[3] He even, in chapter 2, causes a woman to be born from a man (22), a particularly jarring biological incongruity (Katz 45). Eve, a mortal woman (definitely not to be interpreted as a goddess in this emphatically patriarchal monotheistic text), then sets in motion humankind’s expulsion from the blissful Garden of Eden by listening to the serpent, eating of the tree of knowledge, and sharing this fruit with Adam, the first man (3:1-24). The contemporary audience of this text would undoubtedly view the whole incident of the expulsion as negative. In the Christian tradition, this becomes the Fall of Man, the basis of Christ’s saving mission. In the Jewish tradition, the event was less far-reaching – Rabbi Hertz (qtd. in Campbell 115) attests that Eve’s sin was more than remedied by the handing down of the Law of God from Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). All the same, Eve, and womankind throughout history, has incurred blame for this disaster; as Paul writes, “It was Adam that was created first, and Eve later, nor was it Adam that went astray; woman was led astray, and was involved in transgression” (1 Timothy 2:13-14).

Thus to a contemporary audience of these texts, female characters were looked on with suspicion; both these texts suggest that woman should submit to man and that she may harbor powers that are chthonic or sinful which men should be wary of. To a modern audience, these are clearly sexist portrayals of women, but it is striking how modern readers can detect more complex readings in small details of the text which the contemporary audience would have glossed over or considered unimportant.

For instance, Claire Elise Katz considers Eve’s transgression as an “act of defiance” which “demonstrates will, autonomy, and thoughtfulness”, qualities decidedly lacking in Adam who “blindly obeyed Eve’s suggestion to eat the fruit” (45). Furthermore, she argues that since Adam was asleep at the time of Eve’s creation from his rib, he played no role in her creation, thus “he did not have any control over Eve” (45). Campbell similarly considers Eve to have essentially created the world of time and knowledge by eating of the tree and releasing us from the unconscious passive dreamtime of the Garden. Viewed this way, “it was not God but Adam and Eve to whom we owe the great world of the realities of life” (110). Indeed, Katz points out that in Hebrew, Eve’s name, Chava, means ‘life’ (45).

Furthermore, much has been made of the similarity between the words ‘Tiamat’ in the Epic and ‘tehom’, ‘the deep’, in Genesis (Heidel 98; Lambert 287; Campbell 85). The ferocious winds summoned by the dominating Marduk against Tiamat in the Epic (251) are here compared and equated with the breath of God which stirred the waters of “the deep” on the first day (Genesis 1:2). Such a reading reveals the goddess still present throughout Genesis – she has merely been de-anthropomorphized, reduced to elemental form as “the deep”, and as “the earth”, out of which man and woman were made by God (Campbell 29), much as the world was formed out of her substance by Marduk.

Today, one is tempted to feel sorry for Tiamat as she is sliced to pieces by Marduk in a manner which the modern reader cannot help registering as excessively violent and brutal. The entire story can be read at cross-purposes: Tiamat’s initial reluctance to act aggressively against her rowdy progeny could easily be seen not as impotent passivity but as “extreme understanding of the energetic needs of youth” (Knapp 31). Furthermore, Campbell notes that Marduk has brought about by violence what Tiamat as the primal goddess would have brought about of her own accord – the creation of the world. From her point of view, Marduk is “actually nothing but her agent, seeming to bring to pass what is coming to pass. But she lets him feel he is doing it himself, building his fine house of blocks with his own strength; and so is a good mother, indeed” (Campbell 86). Campbell hastens to add, however, that this is certainly not the contemporary purpose and sense of the Epic.

Finally, we should note that the unseating and repression of the female is not merely an incidental rearrangement of existing mythology, nor do only women feel its negative ramifications. The goddess represented a life-giving, maternal force, a power associated with unconditional care, love and compassion, that is not easily assumed by masculine symbolic imagery often already carrying contradictory associations, with, for example, political power, warfare, and the unyielding office of law. With the repression and subversion of the goddess, her largely peaceful maternal aspects are hidden underground, between the lines of the text, often unrealized, unnoticed and unfelt. In fact, one wonders if this was not the true intention of the authors all along.

To conclude, we can use these texts to theorise about the thematic development of certain ideas in these early civilisations. As the scale of these societies increased, with amplified political power and more violent military conflict, it seems that a deliberate and concerted effort was made to repress feelings of compassion, of unconditional love for humankind, and to focus upon exclusionary ideas of devotion to the one state (or one God) who had to be seen as tough, heroic and forceful in order to rally troops and marshal clan-loyalty. I have demonstrated how two examples of feminine mythic characters, no doubt representing these undesirable maternal qualities in early mythology, were unseated and displaced. These literary developments may help explain the relative brutality and phlegmaticism of later patriarchal societies, particularly those inheriting these myths. In a way, the suppression of actual females may be regarded as a tragic side effect of unfavourable literary associations particularly when these myths were taken literally or used as precedent.

Word Count: 1647 (not including in-text references).

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. 1991. New York: Penguin, 1964.

Dalley, Stephanie, ed. Myths from Mesopotamia. Revised edition. 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Heidel, Alexander. The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation. 2nd edition. 1963. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Holy Bible, The. Knox edition. London: Burns & Oates, 1963.

Katz, Claire Elise. Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Knapp, Bettina L. Women in Myth. New York: University of New York Press, 1997.

Lambert, W. G. “A new look at the Babylonian background of Genesis.” Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1965): 287-300.

Lyons, Deborah. Gender and Immortality. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Rae, Eleanor. Women, the Earth, the Divine. New York: Orbis, 1994.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Goddesses and the Divine Feminine. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

[1] Whereas it is usual to italicize the names of books, the books of the Bible and the Bible itself often seems to escape this convention. As a result I will italicize The Holy Bible but refer to individual books and the colloquial name, ‘The Bible’, without italicization despite the inconsistency this involves.

[2] Quotations from the Epic of Creation are taken from Dalley 233-274. Since this edition does not have line numbers, the numbers in parentheses are page numbers where the relevant section can be located.

[3] Quotations from the Bible are taken from The Holy Bible,Knox edition 1-21. References are in the traditional ‘chapter:line’ format.

Written by tomtomrant

14 October 2012 at 3:15 pm