Co-opting of the Goddess: acquire, adapt and subjugate
Christianity is based on belief. There was a striking dichotomy in the early Christian church —the beliefs of the elite and the beliefs of the general population that made up the congregations. These congregations were still steeped in the nature-based rites of the old Goddess religion. For a thousand years, the peasants and those who lived close to the land practiced the old nature religion in various, disguised forms.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the church hierarchy executed a plan to co-opt pagan goddesses as Christian Saints. Pagan holy places were used as building sites for Christian Churches. Acquire, adapt and subjugate was the state strategy for the eradication of Goddess worship. Mary became the Christian Goddess figure. She was venerated under many names, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, and Lady of the World. Many of the first churches were dedicated to Mary. To this day Catholic Churches are most often dedicated to the one of the many names of Mary. This adaptation was not inclusive enough to include a leadership role for women in the Church. By 1220, Church intolerance grew until Pope Gregory IX established the Dominican Inquisition to hunt down the heretical Cathars — dualists who accorded women equal status with men, as well as Gnostics, Manichees, and Templars…all who viewed women’s role in worship in a different light than the Catholic Church.
In thirteenth century, Europe women were mystics, prophets and healers with a real connection to nature. They had direct authority in the eyes of the peasants and villagers, authority even greater then the church. The institutional, patriarchal hierarchical felt individual inspiration and mystic belief were in direct opposition to their authority. Such individual inspiration negated the theological authority of the male-dominated church.
The word witch was derived from the Anglo Saxon word Wicce, which means to bend or shape. Though out Europe, old Goddess religion was called Wicca. The Church hierarchy purposefully subverted the meaning of witch. Midwives, wise women, traditional herbalists, natural healers were persecuted as witchdoctors. By the time of Joan of Arc, The Maid of Orléans, (1412 –1431) The Church was getting more on the defensive. They felt they must crush the descent in order to survive. The Maid of Orléans did not survive the charges of heresy.
By the fifteenth century the Church was changing the traditional village life. Women had been the healers and midwives. Women had been the folk physicians; they understood the basics of anatomy and nutrition. However, ill-educated, ambitious priests were often covetous of the honor and gratitude the people placed with the village wise women. They felt such status was due the Church of God, and not so incidentally God’s male reprehensive— the priest.
In this new world order the HOLY “MOTHER” CHURCH controlled the information. Knowledge and learning was perceived as a serious threat to the domination of the Catholic Church.
Feminist historian, Joan Kelly-Gadol in her book, Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Houghton Mifflin Co. 1977) stated that, “developments affected women adversely, so much, so that there was no “renaissance for women.” It was a fearsome time for all women, but terrifying for those known as ‘Wise Women’. Their ritual, healing knowledge was falsely linked to witchcraft, the black arts, evil and death. Holy days of the old Goddess religion became associated with darkness, evil and fear.
Excerpted with permission:
Goddess of Wonder, Goddess of Light, by Leslie C. Botha and H. Sandra Chevalier-Batik, 2004 Pleiades Publishing, ISBN 0-9716968-1-0