by Vicki Noble
The sexual conditioning to which we have been subjected in our culture has been evolving for five thousand years and has been through numerous shifts. Marija Gimbutas’s books give us a view into the most ancient strata — that of the Neolithic period of early agriculture and the beginnings of city life. Our early female ancestors in the town of Catal Huyuk had a good life. They built shrines to the Goddess, where female priestesses facilitated rituals of initiation, with music, dance and meditation, in rooms adorned with breasts and bulls’ heads and horns. Gimbutas has pointed out that the shape of the bull’s head is exactly the same anatomically as a woman’s uterus and fallopian tubes and that the ancient women clearly knew this.
One pottery vessel from this site contains the figures of a man and woman and a slightly larger female figure standing between them as if facilitating a sacred marriage. This may be one of the earliest Tantric images we have, since in India old women (priestesses of the Snake Goddess) teach the young couple about the sexual mysteries. In Catal Huyuk the women and children were buried inside the city walls, beneath the houses. Men were buried outside. In one temple model excavated from this site, a group of women sit in a circle with larger female figures circled around them. It looks like a council of women, whose higher selves are coaching them in their work of self-government or community leadership. In another ceramic grouping, the women are dancing and playing musical instruments and drums. The dating on Catal Huyuk has been traditionally put at about 7000 B.C.E., but recent information from Merlin Stone suggests a much earlier radiocarbon date, going back as far as 11,000 B.C.E. This peaceful, egalitarian city existed in essentially the same form until the sixth millennium, when the patriarchal hordes began to overrun the place.
Modern Western women can date our sacred sexual beginnings at least to the communities of Catal Huyuk and Jericho. We can read about the downfall of the Goddess cultures and the sexuality that they embodied in the horrendous stories of the Old Testament. “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho. . .” is a historic tale told by the victors about the vanquished ancient, sacred women who had kept the rites of the Goddess since time immemorial. As the Old Testament makes vividly clear, the overthrow of the ancient Goddess religion and the “Whore of Babylon” was not easy or quick but went on for many millennia with a vengeance. The patriarchs would no sooner get rid of all the “harlots” of the Old Religion than one of their own men would marry one of them and start up the old worship again. Over and over, the massacres would take place, glorified as the divine justice of a vengeful Jehovah who will have “no other gods before me.” The making of idols or images of deity became one of the central sacrileges of the new Judeo-Christian religions, and the beautiful figures of the Divine Female that had been fashioned wince the early Paleolithic era were destroyed, forbidden, and demonized.
During the transition period between the beginnings of this destruction and the completing of it (from about 4000 B.C.E. to about the beginning of Christianity), the sacred women found themselves in the position of being harnessed into service by the new governmental hierarchies. They were allowed to keep their sacred sexual practices in the temples but became distorted and degraded into prostitutes. Once “virgin” (belonging to now man) and married to the Goddess, serving her energies and purpose, now they were officially in the service of the men in the community. In many cases and for many centuries, they still practiced their rites in the name of the Goddess, but now male priests officiated and ruled over them. Money was exchanged in the temples for their services, and women were even forced to give themselves at least once in their lives as an offering to the Divine. Even the famous story of Inanna tells about this process of change. Her new husband, Dummuzi, builds her a sacred bed from the old hulupa tree that grew in her garden. Dummuzi is a shepherd, replacing her older husband, who was a farmer. (The invading nomads replaced the earlier farming males by killing them and marrying their women.) Dummuzi fells the sacred Tree of Life with his ax, casing the bird, the snake, and Lilith to flee into exile. Lilith’s life on the shores of the red sea (menstruation) is described as “unbridled promiscuity,” in the service of demons, with demon children as the offspring. Inanna’s permission for the act that exiled her earlier sister, Lilth, is the necessary compromise for her retention of the sacred office of temple priestess in the new regime. Sarah, the Priestess is Savina Teubal’s excellent research on this transition and the difficulties it presented for the sacred women who were attempting to keep their temple offices, while necessarily capitulating to colonization, marriage with the invading males, and exile from their homelands.
Men during the period from biblical Moses to the so-called birth of Christ donned women’s robes, wore false breasts, and began officiating in the place of women in the sacred ceremonies. During this time they invented the concept of kingship and instituted dynasties (around 3000 B.C.E. all over the world). Men became kings by sitting on the lap of the Goddess (Ishtar, Isis, etc.) and by lying with the priestess in the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage. The male priests replaced the female menstrual blood offerings with sacrificed animals, and in some cases, humans. They even castrated themselves and served as eunuch priests in the service of the Distorted Feminine. Barbara Walker maintains that the Apostle Paul himself, fanatical on the subject of celibacy, was a castrated eunuch priest. Men’s relationship to sex in general became deeply tied to their sense of ownership of women and children, and in Egypt the newly invented word that meant “slave” also meant “wife.” Men began seeing themselves in the image of the Father God, defining themselves as divine sons of that authority, with unlimited sovereignty over women and children (as parent to child). Sex was gradually taken out of the temple and separated from religion. Prostitution became a secular “profession” into which certain women (often slave women captured in wars) were forced. The Reign of the Phallus, by classics professor Eva Keuls, is a graphic testimony of hierarchical life for women in Olympian Greece, where married women lived cloistered, indoors, while their husband’s practices sexual acts in public with young male partners and female hetairae hired or owned for that purpose.
When the Greek city-states were invented, Greek vase painting rose to an elevated status (around 500 B.C.E.), and stories of Greek heroes killing Amazons became the main myth portrayed in all the artwork. They Olympian Gods and Goddesses came into being, fragmenting the old creatrix Earth Goddess, Gaia, into sex-role-stereotyped pieces of her ancient self. Aphrodite became the wanton sweetheart, Hera became a hysterical and jealous wife of a philandering sky god, Artemis was relegated to the wilderness (like Lilith before her), and Athene was re-created as her father’s daughter. Women of Western cultural descent have had to make do with these remnants of an earlier feminine wholeness that was eradicated almost five thousand years ago. What kind of sexuality can we have, segmented off into prostitution (Aphrodite) or motherhood (Demeter) or frustration (Hera) or separation (Artemis) or cerebral expression (Athene)?
The earliest threads of Christianity appear to be more benign than the later orthodox tradition. The Gnostic gospels show us rites and ceremonies that recall Indian Tantric practices, with their male-female groups and menstrual blood as a sacrament. The Magdalene was a sacred name for the office of the priestess, linking Mary Magdalene and Jesus to these earlier female roots. But by the time Christianity was officially anchored in the Western world, there were no more sacred women. Sexuality was officially banned, except for the purpose of procreation, and only then practiced in distaste. By 400 C.E. the Church Council had formally declared cyclic reality (female, lunar, menstrual reality) a heresy, including the doctrine of reincarnation. Whatever role Mary Magdalene had played in the origins of early Gnostic Christianity had been rescinded and her name blackened by the usual stamp of disapproval: whore, harlot, prostitute. Eve, Adam’s second wife and Lilith’s replacement, was presented as the archetypal woman, the root of all evil, with an untempered lust for the fruit of knowledge in the Garden. The Apostle Paul’s books in the New Testament are the foundational texts for contemporary Christianity, and the celibate priesthood walks in Paul’s, rather than Jesus’, footsteps.
Even so the old practices continued in all of Europe and the Mediterranean area well into the Middle Ages through the Dianic religion of the peasant people. At that point the virulence of the enforced celibacy erupted as a rather active shadow from the unconscious of the practitioners. The burning of nine million women in Europe by the Catholic priests of the Inquisition cannot be logically separated from the malicious and repressive beginnings a thousand years earlier. The invention of the printing press in the Middle Ages led to the widespread distribution of the world’s worst book, the Malleus Maleficarum, all over Europe. This book charged women, in the lewd details that sprang from the repressed minds of the Catholic clergy, with all manner of lust and fornication. But most prominently the book declared in no uncertain terms that any woman who was successful at healing was by definition a witch and would be burned. Children were forced to watch their mothers burn at the stake, and women were routinely raped, violated and tortured until they confessed to anything the Inquisitors accused them of. The Catholic church confiscated all property of the women they murdered and became rich as a result of this plunder. Records tell of whole villages in which all the women were wiped out.
Contemporary Western women healers must contend with our racial and genetic fears not only in regard to healing but also in direct relationship to our sexuality. Women were accused of being “carnal” at the core and of being the source of every evil temptation for men. Our psychic powers and healing practices were linked with evil, sin, and degradation, leading the whole Western world in the centuries that followed to fear women’s unconscious power. “Uppity women” everywhere have reason to fear for our lives. Although many of the accusations and descriptions of what the “witches” were doing are clearly fabricated from the minds of the murderers, some of the behaviors and attitudes described in the official records point to shamanic practices of healing and empowerment and to the worship of the Goddess of the Old Religion from the ancient past. Herbal knowledge was very deep before the witch burnings, and midwife-healers were the main practitioners in European villages and towns. In those days women controlled their own fertility. When peasants met in the sacred groves for their earth-based ceremonies in honor of Diana and Nature, they undoubtedly practiced the forbidden arts of magic and shamanism. They covered themselves with hallucinogenic herbal ointments that endowed them with the ability to “fly,” that is, to leave their physical bodies like a shaman and travel in their soul-bodies. They certainly must have still practiced the ancient sexual rites, as they had always done, in spite of the new Christian dogmas. It is for these actual “heretical acts” that the witches were burned, as well as for their healing practices, which were quickly appropriated by the new male doctors.
Some of the shamanic practices, although taboo, are apparently still known today in France and Britain and probably other places, where they are practiced in secret by some of the older women. Marija Gimbutas chronicles many customs from Lithuania that demonstrate this unbroken thread from the past, including the use of saunas for birthing right up into the twentieth century. I would imagine this might include sexual mysteries as well as healing rituals. The seasonal festivals celebrated until recently by the peasants in Europe marked the points of power in the old calendar and were originally celebrated, at least in part, through sexual expression. The cross-quarter holidays were feasts of fire, meaning the female sexual fire, the kundalini. It was understood that sexuality kept the community healthy, that the union of the male and female in ecstatic embrace raised energy that made for a fertile agricultural year. Rumors and legends about how our ancestors used to run naked in the fields on Beltane and practice total sexual license during the festivals, such as Bacchanalia, are remnants of what was once Goddess worship. And Beltane is the May Day holiday when the church burned the most “witches,” in direct response to the practice of sexual customs that had prevailed. Through out the entire five-thousand-year history of transition away from the Goddess to God, there has been uninterrupted suppression and hatred of female sexuality, which is said to be the work of the devil.
Five thousand years of denigration and massacre have been enacted against the female, whose crime is that she loves and produces life. The biological base of our fundamental power has become the root of our now-universal oppression. As women have become more liberated since the late 1960’s, the rise in rape (four times the rise in other crimes) has kept up with whatever small gains we might have made. Ancient images of women giving birth have been replaced by the specter of a male doctor “delivering” the woman of her child, and C-section has become a norm in birthing practices in this country. We also have the highest young unwed mother count of any country in the world due to our absurd insistence that young people abstain from sexuality, while it is pushed on them from an extremely early age and from every direction. Our refusal to provide them with safe, simple birth control information and materials is equally geared toward the inevitable out come we are experiencing.
One of the important differences between our lifestyles and the way our ancestors lived in Catal Huyuk or ancient India is that a woman didn’t live in an isolated unit with a man and her children. The women in these ancient communal societies lived together, practicing their religion together as a fundamental way of life. They cooked, made art, raised children, gathered food, healed the sick, and birthed the next generation together. Men hunted and practiced the arts of commerce, traveling from place to place, returning home to the women and children regularly. There is no evidence to show that women and men got along with one another in any other way but harmoniously, but no one woman was dependent on a single man for her survival. And no one woman was locked in a cage with her male partner, whose frustration might at any moment be the source of harm to her and her children. Our contemporary social form of organization is quite insane and is rapidly breaking down. The death of the nuclear family, although uncomfortable in the present moment, as women become en mass the lower caste in our culture, may ultimately prove to be our freedom. As we are abandoned by the individual men in our lives, hopefully we will begin once more to turn to one another and rely on the group form that women can create together.
There are two poles of experience, two avenues to source energy, the male and the female. In the Old Religion the Goddess had a male counterpart who was not a father but a sexual partner. He was imagined in the image of an earth-based, lunar male energy, named Shiva, Dionysus, Adonis, and finally Jesus. The female had a direct link with the Goddess, and with female source energy. She did not search for truth through the mediation of the male but danced a dance of opposites in relation to him. The garden within is the deep sacred sanctuary where we reconnect with the Goddess, the deep Feminine, the underground source of female empowerment and expression. We were once deeply rotted in that place, expressing power and sexuality from there without any splitting. That’s the unambiguous wholeness we see in the ancient female figurines. We were snake and bird, earth and sky, body and spirit. We could invite the male into that place for an encounter, and he came. And even now, from that sacred enclosure, as a priestess, when I perform the magical rites of the ancient deep Feminine, I can initiate and heal the male though his simple encounter with he there.
Excerpt from Shakti Woman, Feeling Our Fire, Healing our World by Vicki Noble, (pgs. 187-94, 197-98). Published by permission of the author Order from Powells!
Subscribe to our free e-newsletter!
For more about Vicki Noble, visit her website at www.motherpeace.com
Recovering the Ancient Deep Feminine
July 25, 2001