Many birds and animals will torture one of their own to death if it happens to be different or deformed. And one of the most striking features of our not too distinguished history as a people is the constant victimization of one category of the human race by some other. The standard reasons all reduce to an inability to tolerate differences, and the familiar bases for discrimination have remained relatively constant down the years: color, race, creed and class. But the most ancient, persistent, and widespread and apparently the most difficult of all to dislodge, has been discrimination on grounds of gender. Sadly the world’s great religions are the ones who have played the central role in fostering this particular enslavement, which has left half of the human race disenfranchised for most of its history, and many of the major historical religious documents have to be classified as texts of gender oppression.
Years ago I was intrigued to discover that Aristotle didn’t accept that women were a legitimate human gender. He believed they were just “failed men,” due to some mishap that occurred in the womb during the conception process. (It’s very close to the view of the Muslim Koran that regards women as “half men”).
Not only was this man the tutor of Alexander the Great, but he was also the greatest of the Greek philosophers and the one who exercised an influence without parallel on a millennium of later Christian and Islamic thought.
The other giant who dominated the first thousand years of Christian thinking was Augustine. His biology was a slight improvement on Aristotle’s, but the highest status he could manage for women was to say they were “a necessary evil.”
Given that Jewish males in their daily prayer used never to cease giving thanks to God that they were “not born a heathen, a slave or a woman,” and that in Hinduism being born a woman was regarded as a sign of particularly bad karma, it should come as no surprise to us that the feminine has consistently fared so badly at the hands of all the great religions of the world, both in the East and West. The real wonder is not that many women no longer listen to what the leaders of their religions say, or indeed don’t care what they say, but that it has taken so long for that to happen.
Yet it is not surprising that so much overt sexism exists in religious texts, given the traditions on which they are based. One of the greatest libraries that ever existed in the ancient world was established at Nineveh by King Assurbanipal, (died 627 BC), a figure very familiar to readers of the Old Testament. A treasure trove of well over one thousand ancient documents, written on clay tablets, was discovered in the ruins of that Library in 1875. They are the earliest detailed documents that have survived in human history and the collection is now in the possession of the Iraq Department of Antiquities and the British Museum.
Most scholars today will admit that these documents from Nineveh were the precursors of seminal documents of the Jewish-Christian tradition, in particular the Book of Genesis. The Nineveh documents in their reflections show us that a strong prejudice against the female as the cause of all our woes existed right from the very start of our recorded history.
Evil and the God of Love
Most profound reflections on the human condition that have ever been written agree that the world we know, with more than its fair share of disease, old age, betrayal, disappointments, frailty and death, is not as it ought to be. If God is a good God, then he could not have created the world as we know it since it has so much evil in it. God must have created the world as good and perfect and then something went wrong. So each of these ancient documents tries to isolate the blame for the collapse or fall from that primitive paradise state we once enjoyed as a race down to the much more dismal condition with which we are all too familiar. It’s no great surprise that the blame for this disaster is without exception always laid at the feet of women as far back as our records go. According to these texts, it is women who caused the loss of humanity’s greatest gifts, such as freedom from misfortune, disease and death.
If you look at what historical sources we have it is hard to escape the conclusion that wherever any of the world’s great religions took root, the status of women started to decline because the burden of causing the misfortunes of the world is always laid fairly, squarely and irrationally, on their shoulders. This prejudice has become an integral part of our cultures and history right across the board of all the main civilizations, and as expressing the will of God, the avoidance of women inevitably became a central religious duty, and the badge of holiness in the West.
What is it that has caused such animosity against the female right from the beginnings of recorded history? Obviously we are no longer here operating at the level of rational discourse, but are into the shady realms of taboo, the unconscious, and the subliminal. The fear is rooted in the mysterious aspects of women, their closeness to the facts of birth and renewal of life, the unavoidable attraction men feel for them, which undermines male power, and the aspects of the female that provoked cries of ritual uncleanness in every culture from which we have any information. Once we understand all that, we will have forged a great insight into the operation of religion and its reasons for the subjugation of women over the past four thousand years.
Historically some of the worst atrocities in religion have come when the seal of divine approval is used to validate some of our worst phobias, fears and hatreds, and the oppression of the female constitutes one of the most outstanding examples of this. Its highlight came in the medieval persecution of those accused of the practice of witchcraft by the Church. Several hundred thousand people were killed in those pogroms, about three quarters of them female.
Veneration or Subjugation?
In fact I have often noticed that in regions of the world where the veneration of the Virgin Mary is most prominent, paradoxically the rights of women always seem to be at their lowest ebb. And I suspect that the image of Mary the Mother of Jesus that is presented to us today is not how she was, but much more how a celibate and male clergy, who were able to call the shots, wished her to be.
It is often stated by the Christian Church that it has established a pre-eminent place for women in the status it accords to the Virgin Mary. But what kind of womanhood is held up for veneration here? Her entire power is gauged by the ability she has to intercede with a judgmental God in our favor, or to intervene with her divine Son Jesus to avoid us getting our just desserts for having offended him.
But she herself is accorded no power and her principal characteristics are to be ethereal, pure and gentle. Does this accord with how the mother of Jesus really was as a living person, or has her magnificence been obscured just as effectively as also happened in the case of her son?
When custom began to ordain that the male Christian priesthood would be only open to the unmarried and celibate, presumably a permanent virgin was the perfect model that would never threaten the way of life the clergy had taken on. But whatever the reason, the message soon became clear that anything to do with the female body, and especially with sexuality, was, if not actually bad, at least very close to it: “a necessary evil” as Augustine put it so well.
|Aristotle||St. Augustine||St. Paul||King Assurbanipal|
The transformation of Mary over the centuries is actually a great barometer of how the main western religions have viewed the lot of women. St. Paul was the first of the New Testament writers to put pen to paper, long before the emergence of the New Testament Gospels. Over a period of about 15 years, more than half of the New Testament as we know it came from his hand, and that was more than 20 years after the death of Jesus - whom he had never met during his ministry - having made all due allowances for that meeting on the road to Damascus! Given that he established the basis of the New Testament witness to Jesus, and was the author of more than half of it personally, his views should be taken seriously.
Paul never mentions Mary in his writings at all; rather strange if she was someone who had been visited by an angel and told she was going to be the mother of the Son of God through an entirely remarkable process! (Very similar by the way to the accounts of several other god/men who were also said to have been born of a virginal conception such as Osiris, Dionysius (Greece), Attis (Asia Minor), Adonis (Syria), and Bacchus (in Persia)).
Not only does Paul never mention Mary, neither does he describe any divine origin of her son, saying simply that “according to the flesh” he was of the House of David. So from the New Testament’s first author, who in fact wrote most of it, there is not even a hint of any miraculous birth and therefore obviously no mention of a virgin either. Far from that, in direct contradiction to the virgin mother view, Paul refers without any fanfare to James, a brother of Jesus, whom he met and stayed with in Jerusalem for two weeks. Surely if there were such remarkable things about the early years of James’s family they must have come up in conversation during that long visit when Paul was thirsting with new convert zeal to learn everything he could about Jesus of Nazareth?
The earliest Gospel was written by Mark in the early 70’s AD. There is no reference to any miraculous birth here either, and in fact to our way of thinking Mary is referred to in rather unfortunate terms. She thinks Jesus has lost it and she persuaded her four other sons James, Joses, Jude Thomas and Simon, as well as his two sisters, to come and try to take him away for his own protection. That’s how the Gospel of Mark tells it. Not what you’d expect from a woman who had an angel visit her to herald the birth of this particular son. And it has to be conceded that having not just one son but seven children in all, is quite an accomplishment for a virgin!
It wasn’t until half a century after the death of Jesus that the Virgin account began to figure in the Christian writings – in the Gospel of Matthew. It came again close to the turn of the century in the Gospel of Luke, and then faded out in the Gospel of John which now focused on the pre-existence of Jesus.
But it was in the second century the Virgin Mother idea really took off. Apparently you can’t have too much of a good thing, so it was no longer enough to say she was still a virgin after she conceived Jesus; she now had to become a permanent virgin, so the awkward fact of the four other brothers and two sisters had to be got rid of; they were cousins of an extended family or children of Joseph by a previous marriage! Then the church fathers wanted to assert that she had remained a virgin not just in not having conceived Jesus in the normal manner, but even during the birth of Jesus, as well as afterwards (“ante partem, in partu, and post partem” – “before, during and after the birth,” as the old Latin textbooks used to express it). So it was asserted that Jesus was born without the hymen of Mary being broken during the birth. Stories even began to circulate that Jesus was born out of his mother’s ear, to accommodate that form of virginity.
In 1854 the Catholic Church defined as a dogma that the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived. In 1950 it was defined that she had ascended bodily into Heaven, a fact remembered in the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is celebrated on 15th August, and centuries before it had replaced the pagan Midsummer Festival which had also centered on the female, and which the Christian religions greatly opposed.
All of these titles down through history were presumably lavished on Mary the Mother of Jesus with the very best of intentions. But what is the net result of them all? Do they really honor Mary or in effect do they actually demean her? What we have in the apparently exalted state of the Virgin Mary in the Christian Church is a de-humanized person who must bear little if any relationship to the magnificent person who was the Mother of the Christ.
What is even more important is how difficult a woman living today would find it to discover anything that resonated with her life and situation in this ethereal version of the person of the Mother of Jesus as it is currently presented. The obvious message behind all of this process of altering Mary through history is that the body of woman and sexuality is evil and suspect, and when this version of Mary is pronounced to be the ideal woman it is obvious that the implication is to treat all other women as second class citizens since no one could match or emulate what Mary is taught to have been. The ideal being presented to women today in this image is to be obedient, compliant, passive and reverential, more or less the sort of thing they would credit with having got them into this subjugation in the first place. It seems to them this was obviously the creation of a maledominated world.
Unfortunately then the claimed exaltation of the place and status of women through this version of Mary is in fact nothing more than a very skillfully contrived program of subjugation which in essence has not moved in any significance away from the position of the Nineveh documents and the Book of Genesis, nor indeed from the position of St. Jerome who justified marriage only because it “produced more virgins.”
So sad to say it has been religion that shaped and maintained the stereotypes with which women have had to struggle so relentlessly in order to escape. At every stage the evidence is that the various religious agencies were in the main totally opposed to their journey. But in that it has only been totally in harmony with the general development of the western mind and intellectual tradition. The fundamental perspective that has driven not just religious, but also scientific and philosophical views in the West, has been a totally masculine phenomenon from Plato and Aristotle all the way down through Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Newton, Darwin, Marx and Freud. This masculine predisposition in the western mind affects how every facet of the human being and its role in the world is formulated, so that one can say the entire progression of the Western mind has been based on the repression of the feminine and all that goes with it in the scheme of thought, ambiguity, mystery, emotion, imagination, unitary consciousness and a sense of one-ness with nature.
The complexity and enormity of this problem and the difficulty of the journey is then much greater than it first seems. But on the journey, nevertheless, countless numbers of women around the world now are. And what should give them great hope is that the long separation engendered by the overwhelming masculinity of the Western mind has in itself served to awaken a new longing for reunion with all that has been lost in our tradition, the sense of unity with nature in all its forms, reaction against the exploitation of the environment, seeing beyond the religious and political ideologies that separate the world’s peoples, appreciating of the values of indigenous cultures, the need for pluralism and complementary perspectives, the attractions of mysticism, and the soaring interest in disciplines long dismissed as esoteric.
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