30 December, 2006

Sisters of Aphrodite: Radio 3 Sunday Feature

The Christmas Eve Sunday Feature on Radio 3 (available on Listen Again) was an interesting 45-minute documentary on female deities and their worshippers in prehistory. I found the overtly feminist tone rather irritating, and in places I got confused over dates, but there were plenty of noteworthy nuggets of information and ideas embedded in the narrative.

The presenter, historian Bettany Hughes, started with the prehistoric female figurines such as the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf. These figurines turn up over a wide area of Europe and Asia from France to Siberia and are dated at anything up to 25,000 years ago. I didn’t get a clear date for when they went out of use, but had the impression from the programme that the date range might run up to about 4,000 BC. The figurines are conventionally interpreted as representing a Mother Earth Goddess, hence the title ‘Venus’ applied to many of them by the excavators who discovered them. Their wide distribution has been interpreted to mean that the Goddess cult was universal, or at least very widespread. The programme suggested that the figurines might represent real women, rather than a universal goddess. Which is an interesting hypothesis, although I’m not sure how one would go about testing it – how could we tell whether an artefact represents a real woman, an idealised woman, an earthly incarnation or representative of a deity (e.g. a priestess) or a goddess, or indeed a combination of all of them? (This is touched on in an interesting web article, which is well worth reading - though I wonder if his contention that Stone Age women resembled Raquel Welch in the film One Million Years BC may contain an element of wishful thinking).

One suggestion made in the programme was that the preponderance of female figurines (apparently something like 95% of Stone Age figurines for which the sex can be identified are female and only 5% male) indicates that women held high social status. One contributor suggested that this might be connected with the development of farming and a settled lifestyle. The argument suggested that home-based activities such as raising crops in a garden, tending livestock in a yard, making pottery, weaving textiles, etc can be readily done by women, and that when people became sedentary and such activities became at least as important as hunting, women’s power and social status increased. There’s some logic to this, and I think I remember some anthropology survey that claimed that women have higher status in agrarian societies (e.g. peasant farmers where the staple crop is rice) than in hunting communities (e.g. the Inuit). (But I can’t find the reference, so don’t quote me on that, I may have mis-remembered it). Unfortunately, I don’t see how that hypothesis squares with the age of the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf, which is dated to around 24,000 years ago. As farming is supposed to have started around 10,000 BC in the Near East and taken several thousand years to spread across Europe, this would suggest to me that the ‘Venus’of Willendorf was carved in a hunter-gatherer society, in which case the postulated connection with the development of farming rather falls apart.

Another suggestion was that some of the female figurines represent a sort of childbirth manual. This suggestion was, I think, based on statuettes found on Cyprus near the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paphos. The contributor argued that there are no temples associated with Goddess worship at the right date, and the figurines bear no insignia suggesting they represent a deity. But his excavations showed a high level of infant mortality and a number of women buried with neonates who had presumably died in or shortly after childbirth, which he interpreted as indicating that infant mortality was a problem of great importance to the society at the time. The figurines are shown seated with their knees apart, a recommended position for childbirth, which may indicate they were used to demonstrate a way to bear a child that might maximise the survival chances of both mother and baby. Though I don’t know how one could tell the difference between this and a good-luck charm or an invocation to a goddess who was thought to protect women in labour?

The programme then went on to look at female figures in art and artefact from the Bronze Age up to the Classical period in Greece, arguing that at least some of them represent women worshippers rather than goddesses – e.g. the lady carrying a tray of cakes. (Did you know that cake-baking moulds turn up in temple deposits from classical Greece? Now that gives a whole new meaning to How to be a Domestic Goddess, doesn’t it?) One of the titles quoted for a goddess of this approximate period (I got lost in the dates here, so I don’t know if it’s Bronze Age or Classical or both) was ‘Queen of Heaven’, a title that could be readily applied to numerous goddesses from numerous religions (ox-eyed Hera comes to mind, as does Frigg from Norse mythology). The parallel with the Virgin Mary was drawn, and there is a Christian church dedicated to Mary built on the site of the sanctuary of Aphrodite, suggesting that whoever built the church either saw a connection between two powerful female figures or thought it was worthwhile trying to make one. Apparently Mary’s title in some remote Cypriot villages is ‘The Most Blessed Aphrodite’, making the connection explicit. And a monastery high in the Troodos mountains owns an embroidered girdle which is reputed to have belonged to the Virgin Mary and is reputed to have the power to help infertile couples conceive – as evidenced by the many women who come to the monastery to wear the girdle and pray, and then write grateful letters to the monks when they later become new parents. Homer tells a story of Aphrodite lending her embroidered magic girdle to Hera. In that case the girdle had the power to make men and gods fall hopelessly in love with the wearer, which is not quite the same as aiding conception (though obviously connected) – perhaps Aphrodite’s girdle was a little risque for the Virgin Mary and was adapted to a new role, or perhaps it always had several attributes and different aspects dominated in different circumstances.

It doesn’t seem to me very surprising that religions/mythologies/cults (call them what you will) should pick up ideas and rituals from their environment, building on and adapting what has gone before. Pope Gregory the Great advised Abbott Mellitus to do just that when trying to convert the pagan English to Christianity, to make the transition to a new religion more acceptable by doing it in small steps (the letter is in Bede, Book I, Chapter XXX). Perhaps the practice has a long history. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post as always Carla.
Re belts. St Margaret's belt was supposed to help women in childbirth achieve a safe delivery. Don't quote me on this but I remember reading that one of England's queens sent to Reading Abbey to borrow it for her confinement.
I have a book called The Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects by Barbara Walker. It needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but even so doing, there are many interesting citations and also plenty of food for thought. There's a suggestion made that in the early days, biological fatherhood was unknown and the creative power in the oldest traditions is all female.


Rick said...

I have to chuckle at Bettany Hughes as the presenter - I saw a TV show about Helen of Troy with her as presenter, and could hardly keep my eyes off her. TV producers are no fools! Not that it matters for radio, I suppose.

A lot of the claims from this show sound awfully stretchy, especially as you say the connection with agriculture, since most of the figurines predate it by thousands of years.

On hunting-gathering v agriculture, the impression I've gotten - from purely casual reading, to be sure - is that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be more egalitarian all around than agrarian societies.

Agree that it is hard to distinguish between a "goddess" figurine and a simple good-luck charm in the absence of other evidence.

Riffing off a bit on the feminist overtones of the show, there's a tendency to idealize societies that are on the fringes of our historical knowledge - the prehistoric Celts and Minoan Crete are big in this department. It strikes me as risky - remember the "peaceful Maya?"

Gabriele C. said...

The reason for those female figurines is simple - it's a lot easier to carve boobies than that little dingle dangle. :)

On a serious note, we can't be sure if not some of those figurines were androgyonous in the sense that they represented both genders. Or that male gods/spirits/powers were represented by animals - I think animals figures have been found, haven't they? The point is that all poyltheistic religions have female and male deities and in most cases the 'lead' god is male; it's the monotheistic - and comparatively modern ones - that came up with only one male god. So there's nor reason to assume the existence of a purely female relgion; at best one can imagine one with a female 'lead' godess.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - remind me who St Margaret was - is she the 11th-C St Margaret of Scotland, or is there another? That tradition sounds as if a magic girdle for helping with childbirth might have been quite widespread, and applied to various female saints as opportunity arose (it's perhaps not unlikely for a female garment to be associated with a female power who could be called on to help with specifically female things).
I remember seeing a TV programme a year or so ago about the ancient Egyptian religion, and they argued that in that tradition the creative power was male ("an act of divine masturbation" was the phrase used) - the primeval god "made love to his fist" and his seed was the source of all life. I wondered at the time if that was because Egypt's economy was so crucially tied to the annual Nile flood, which perhaps made the idea of a divine fluid seem logical.

Rick - indeed, Bettany Hughes is stunning, and the TV producers make the most of that. Her speaking voice on the radio has something of the same quality, too. One wonders if teenage boys are suddenly applying for history degrees in droves?

I remember reading something along the same lines, I think on the basis that hunter-gatherer societies have to be mobile to follow the game and so there's limited ability to acquire wealth. Whereas a settled agrarian society can accumulate as much in the way of material goods as can be stuffed into a hut - and can then build a bigger hut :-) I don't know if there's any truth in that. One of the problems, it seems to me, is that surviving hunter-gatherer societies are often on marginal land (the richest land having been long since turned over to agriculture) and so may be atypical. This is where a time machine would be seriously useful!

Agreed, the idea of a lost Golden Age that's always just beyond the reach of memory is a very popular one. I guess because you can remake an unknown society in any idealised image you choose with less risk of having one's beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact. Until someone comes along with new evidence (e.g. the Maya!), but by then the theory has sometimes got lodged in popular consciousness and is immune to facts anyway.

Gabriele - that's as good an explanation as any :-)
The cave paintings certainly have a lot of animals. I don't know the proportions for figurines, but it would seem entirely logical that spirits could be thought of as taking animal shape. Many of the Egyptian gods are half-and-half, and the Greek Classical gods happily shape-shift into animals when it suits them (as do the Norse gods and goddesses). I wonder if the Goddess Cult idea might be a sort of reaction to the monotheistic male god religions, projecting them back into the distant past and postulating a sort of equal and opposite monotheistic female goddess religion. We can't know (until someone comes up with a time machine), and I certainly agree with you there doesn't seem to be an obvious reason to assume a single god(dess) of either sex. They did say on the programme that not all the figurines are identifiably one sex or the other, though that was in one of the bits where I got lost in the dates, so I don't know which period they were referring to. I wonder if any of them are hermaphrodite?

Rick said...

Carla - as you say, surviving hunter-gatherer societies aren't necessarily typical of prehistoric ones. Did paleolithic people even have "gods" in the anthropomorphic sense that the word connotes to us?

For that matter, we inevitably view the very concept of "god(s)" through a cultural lens - first and foremost the LORD OF HOSTS, with the contrasting reference point being the Greek pantheon.

Another thing I wonder about is the interpretation of iconography. As a thought experiment, suppose that future archeologists had to interpret Roman Catholicism entirely through its physical remains.

Wouldn't it look an awful lot like a Goddess religion? All those images of the Mother and Her sacrificial son! True, the crucifix is the most common cult figure of all, but sandwiched so to speak between the Mother and Child and the Pieta. If, somehow, the archeologists discovered that it had a celebate priesthood, that would only reinforce the impression of a female-centric religion. Only a pretty small fraction of Catholic imagery even hints at the LORD OF HOSTS.

So, when it comes to religion and its iconography, what you see isn't necessarily what you get.

Bernita said...

Guess I screwed up my comment, yet again.

No loss, however.
Makes perfect and natural sense to me for a new religion or idea to explain and relate itself in terms of the existing context.

Carla said...

Rick - we don't have much of a clue, really, short of inventing the time machine and going back to ask them. Objects might survive to be discovered thousands of years later - though probably not a representative sample - but you can't dig up ideas. Your Catholic iconography is a good example of the difficulties of interpretation (and I think I've heard a similar argument borrowed to claim that a Goddess cult was so universal and so powerful that the Christian church had to copy it in order to succeed).
I think it's Colleen McCullough who has a character say in one of her Roman novels that the Greeks could conceive of nothing more complex than a human and therefore cast all their gods in human form, whereas the oldest Roman gods were spirits or forces without corporeal form, an example being the Bona Dea (which I think translates roughly as the Good Goddess). As usual, I doubt the cultural distinction was that absolute - the Radio 3 programme mentioned in passing that Tacitus describes the image of Aphrodite at Paphos as being not a female statue but a truncated cone, with the wry comment "the reason for this is obscure". Which, if an accurate quote, would imply that some of the Greek gods could be thought of as non-anthropomorphic too. But I'm getting out of my depth here - comparative religion and classical mythology both being areas I know very little about.

On the subject of images of Aphrodite, click over to Tony Keen's blog and give yourself a treat :-)

Bernita - thank you. It seems entirely logical to me, too, if only because a new idea must be easier to explain if it can be connected to something familiar.

Anonymous said...

Carla - I think I've heard a similar argument borrowed to claim that a Goddess cult was so universal and so powerful that the Christian church had to copy it in order to succeed

Well, the flip side of my comments is that the central place of Mary, not only in iconography but Catholic devotion, seems much larger than you'd guess from the Gospels or Augustine. (Disclaimer: I am not of Catholic background, so this is not based on first-hand experience.)

There's also the popular tradition that churchgoing in countries like Italy is primarily female, men only going to be baptized, married, and planted. For that matter, I've more than once heard the suggestion that Christianity, even Protestant, is markedly more female-oriented than the other two major Abrahamic faiths.

So it's quite plausible that as Christianity spread westward along the Mediterranean it absorbed traditional popular devotion, the theologians only catching up afterwards.

Thanks for the treat! ;)

As bonus points for me, a page on my mostly-dormant website


transcribes a text including the word callipygian, which I helpfully glossed for the reader as "having a nice ass."

-- Rick

Rick said...

Ignore the link above - it didn't come out right, and I can't even delete and replace the reply!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, meant to get back sooner, but life intervened as usual.
St Margaret - appears to have been apocryphal but it didn't stop her from being very popular in the Middle Ages. She was Margaret of Antioch and Pope Gelasious I declared her story apocryphal in 494. She was supposed to be the Christian daughter of a pagan priest. When she refused to marry a non Christian she was subjected to various ordeals including being swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon. Finally she was beheaded. Before she died she promised she would ensure the safe delivery of infants of women who prayed to her before giving birth. She also said that anyone founding a church in her honour or burning lights to her would obtain what they desired - so this made her cult very popular indeed, whatever its origins. No mention of the belt in the text I looked at, but I'm sure I remember reading about it elsewhere.

Carla said...

Rick - what an interesting point! I've heard the same comment about churchgoing as a primarily female activity applied to the Border Reiver communities in 16th-C England/Scotland. I had a vague idea that it perhaps related to the generally greater tendency of women to form and maintain local social networks, but maybe there's more to it than that. Here is where I wish I knew a lot more about the other two faiths and their attitude to women in practice (which may not necessarily reflect theory, as you comment on the theologians). It's certainly striking that there seem to be more or less as many female saints as male ones, and I've thought before that that feature must have helped people adapt from polytheistic religions with numerous gods and goddesses to the new one. I don't suppose someone praying for a decent crop or a cure for illness or a baby is going to bother too much about the theology of whether a supernatural female figure with the power to help is a saint, a goddess or whatever. Early Christianity seems to have been rather a grass roots sort of religion, doesn't it? - it would happily accept anyone who was prepared to be converted, regardless of social status or ethnic origin. Maybe that picked up all sorts of diversity that was accommodated in local saints. Certainly in Britain some saints seem to have very distinct regional distributions - St Helen is concentrated in Yorkshire, for example - not counting all the Cornish and Welsh saints with one church named after them.

Elizabeth - thanks for your reply. I hadn't heard of St Margaret of Antioch. No wonder she was popular if she promised your heart's desire! Is being declared aprocryphal the approximate equivalent of being struck off? I seem to remember St Christopher being declassified in some way recently - is it the same thing, do you know? Not that it's likely to stop anyone wearing a St Christopher medallion for luck when they travel; superstition is notoriously resistant to logic :-)

Hazel-rah said...

"I think I remember some anthropology survey that claimed that women have higher status in agrarian societies..."

From the far east:

Japan before the 5th century AD is poorly understood but it is thought that the ancestor of what we understand to be Japanese civilisation was a confederacy of tribes ruled by women, of whom Himiko is the most famous. Chinese systems of government and other challenges to native religion overthrew this.

But China was also an agrarian society.
Perhaps there is something about the abstraction of bureaucracy, or a government founded upon an abstract philosophy, that predisposes a society to patriarchy.

Sci Fi writer Frank Herbert made the observation that patriarchal societies are matriarchal on the inside, and visa versa.
That's an interesting thought.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - thanks for that interesting perspective. Why is it thought that Japanese society was ruled by women? - is it based on traditions/legends, or contemporary records, or what?

What do you suppose that Frank Herbert meant - that each system has some characteristics of the other, maybe?

Hazel-rah said...

Both Chinese and Korean written accounts dating to the 3rd Century AD mention Himiko, who is said to have taken power in 189.
So it's based on written sources.

Japan and Korea at this time are geographical areas, not states. There appears to have been a web of relationships between many countries existing side by side across that area and the islands around it.

The Wei Chih book of Wei China mentions trade with Wa (Japan), sometimes called the Queen Country, which was ruled by a woman who controlled 28 uji (tribe/clan), based on her power of kido, meaning mastery of demons. This last bit refers to her shamanistic role. Her confederacy was at war with another country (in Japan) called Kona or Kunu, about which we know almost nothing. When Himiko died there was an attempt to replace her with a male leader, Himiko's brother, but this was overturned by the ascension of a woman called Iyo.

Himiko ruled a country called Yamataikoku, which means to say the written characters are read as Yamataikoku. This has been challenged recently based on the phonetic system of early Japanese which would indicate that this should be read simply as Yamato, which is written another way usually, and is the ancient name of Japan - not to be confused with province of the same name. Until then Yamataikoku and Yamato had thought to have been more distinct political entities.

The Imperial family is directly descended from the Yamato line, which itself is divinely descended from the ultimate Japanese deity, the Sun Goddess (Goddess, not God) Amaterasu Omikami. This line could also have been an uji that displaced Himiko.

Native Japanese histories make no mention of Himiko, although modern Japanese historians fully accept her historicality. That's very interesting.
The name Himiko could mean "child of the sun", and may mean that Himiko herself deified is Amaterasu Omikami.

In 366, according to Japanese histories, another Japanese female ruler called Jingu Kogo led an invasion, in person, of a country in Korea.
Korean histories acknowledge Jingu Kogo.... as a Korean queen who invaded Japan.
The Japanese chronicle puts this 200 years earlier but historians are certain it was in fact in the 4th century.
Had it been 200 years earlier, though, it would support the usually disregarded hypothesis that Jingu and Himiko are the same person.

Modern Korean-Japanese relations are a quagmire of over 1500 years of unpleasant history but a popular belief among Koreans is that the Japanese royal family are "Korean".

I think what Frank Herbert meant was that where there is a power structure dominated by one gender, members of the other gender will compete in a more shadowy structure of their own, that manipulates the one "in front". Kings are manipulated by their mothers, wives and concubines. Harem politics. Queens by their generals and ministers and priests, who compete with each other.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - that's fascinating, thank you very much. If the written accounts are dated to the 3rd century and refer to events in 189 AD, that's quite close to being contemporary with the events, isn't it? Also interesting that the Sun Goddess was female and the connection with Himiko's name. Could it have been the other way round, and the queen was thought of as the personification or incarnation of the goddess? There are parallels for that, though mostly with gods/kings, in pre-Christian European religions, I think. Was the Sun Goddess the chief deity, or is that not known?

(Also see Megumi's comment about Bettany Hughes' other history programmes on an earlier post).

Bernita said...

Carla, thank you for your concern and good wishes.

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you. They were, and are, sincerely meant.

Hazel-rah said...

There are different versions of the Amaterasu myth, but she is always the child of other gods and not herself the progenitor of the universe. Nonetheless, in Shinto, she is the supreme kami among kami who connect meaningfully with the mortal world. So in answer to your question.. yes she is the "chief deity" in most ways that matter, but not in the sense of being creator of all things.

By the way... everything I related above about Himiko is just a summary the most commonly accepted understanding of what early common era Japan was really like, politically. No-one is quite sure. Even the debate about the location of Himiko's country within Japan itself is almost a virtual industry among historians.

I need to read up on all this actually, as I've come to it backwards from later history, trying to work out how the military arts of Japan evolved.

If I may draw a very crude personal analogy (which often confuse more than enlighten), this period - before Confucianism, Buddhism and the broader cultural achievements of Asia came to Japan - is a bit like pre-Roman Britain in it's "otherness".
A world quite alien to what it would later be.
A civilisation not quite lost, but as mysterious as one that is.

Thanks for the referral to Megumi's comments too.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - that's a good analogy. I think I referred to Late pre-Roman Iron Age Scotland as a 'lost world' in my review of The White Mare. And see Rick's comment above about the tendency to idealize societies on the fringes of historical knowledge. At one level, the lack of facts can be one of the enduring attractions of a hazily recorded period - look no further than the continuing fascination with King Arthur! Himiko's period in Japan sounds very like the pre- and immediately post-Roman period in Britain - something must have happened, and it was probably very important, but it's not really known what.

Joe Jones said...

I used to have this programme on my MP3 player, but I've lost it! It was such a good exploration of the myth of 'the sacred feminine' that I wanted to keep a copy of it - I listened to it so many times, and found it was useful to send me to sleep (what with Bettany Hughes' sexy voice and the Josquin Desprez opening 'Ave Maria').

Any ideas where I might get another bite of this particularly excellent cherry ... ?

Carla said...

Hi Joe, and thanks for stopping by. It was an excellent programme, wasn't it? Unfortunately as it was classed as part of the Sunday Feature series, it's expired from the Listen Again page. The best I can suggest is that Radio 4 may repeat the programme, and if they do it will reappear on Listen Again. They often repeat factual features, e.g. they recently repeated her series 'Amongst the Medici' and that's still on Listen Again. It may be worth your while contacting the BBC desk, via the 'contact us' page of their website, and asking if there are plans for re-broadcasting the feature. You just might strike lucky :-)

Joe Jones said...

Hi Carla,

Thanks for your message to my e-mail address.

I've tried to reply twice but I'm getting 'Delivery failure' messages from your e-mail address, so I'll post the message here:

Thanks for taking the trouble to reply. I'll do as you suggest, and keep an eye on the schedules, as well as badgering Radio 3 to get them to rerun it, perhaps next Christmas.

Best wishes,,

Joe Jones