Easter and the Feminine Divine

Mary and the Midwives, by Lynde Mott. A modern re-imaging of the Mother of God attended by two personas, one who carries burdens and the other who gives unconditional service. This tripartite aspect of motherhood  culminates in the central image of the divine principle of creation: Mary gives birth to the salvation of the world.

Mary and the Midwives, by Lynde Mott. A modern re-imaging of the Mother of God attended by two personas, one who carries burdens and the other who gives unconditional service. This tripartite aspect of motherhood culminates in the central image of the divine principle of creation: Mary gives birth to the salvation of the world.

This week comes the celebration of Easter. This Christian holy day is the archetypal summit of the year, where rebirth and resurrection are venerated in the mystery of Jesus Christ’s awakening from the tomb. In Christian orthodoxy, Easter is known as pascha, the Greek and Latin term referring to the Jewish Passover. The Apostle Paul uses this word as a title for Christ, “For Christ our Passover lamb [pascha], has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5.7). By the end of the first century CE early Christians had reinterpreted the Exodus story and the Passover ritual as a prototype for the sacrifice of Christ.

The word “Easter” itself, however, is Old English, from Ēastre or Ēostre, a title derived from an old English month now known as April. Christian Easter is celebrated on the first Sabbath after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. This holy-specific day most often occurs in April and is representative of the most fertile time of the year, when Sun, Moon, and Earth are all in their phases of rebirth and awakening.

Easter is therefore the day of resurrection, in heaven and on earth. And this heaven-earth relationship is only an archetypal symbol for the heaven-earth awakening that occurs in the soul of God, or in the spirit and breath of each mortal man and woman. In Christian rite and belief, every soul will arise like the Sun, Moon, and Earth, to a new immortal dwelling.

Despite this traditional context, historically, Easter had feminine roots. Significantly, the old English month of Ēostre was itself named after a goddess whose rites of rebirth were celebrated at the same time among the early inhabitants of Britain and Northern Europe. Ēostre was a Germanic goddess whose name is cognate with the Proto-Germanic austrōn, meaning dawn or to shine. This deity belongs to a long line of female divinities who are goddesses of the dawn, and are found in various forms throughout Indo-European cultures as beings who bring light and life to the world.

The Germanic Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn and of Life. Source for our word "Easter."

The Germanic Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn and of Life. Source for our word “Easter.”

For thousands of years before Christianity the divine being who brought forth resurrection was represented as a goddess. Inanna, Isis, Cybele, and Demeter are beings with the divine stewardship over rebirth. The Japanese Amaterasu is a goddess of the dawn who also brings light and life to the world. While these deities were seen as the powers behind the fertility of all things on earth, they also held stewardship over the mysterious cosmic principle of heavenly life. In the Greco-Roman mystery religions, the resurrection of the initiate was promised via the gifts and boons of the goddess.

This should make sense as in fact it is only woman who can bring forth life from her womb. In many respects, the rites of rebirth analogized the tomb with the womb, so that those going into the beyond could be reborn by a Heavenly Mother whose womb was the cosmic precinct of immortality.

Egyptian Mysteries

This was certainly the case in ancient Egypt. It is often assumed that the process of resurrection in the Egyptian scheme was overseen by Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. The mysteries of Osiris place this god center stage, for his death and rebirth are the main theme of the mystery play. The truth is, however, the entire drama of rebirth is not overseen by the god but by the goddess, whose womb is the deus ex machina which saves the climactic action from complete oblivion. Repeatedly in the funerary texts and vignettes the major characters of the liturgical pageant show up performing all their prescribed duties: Osiris is killed and rises, Anubis guides, Thoth records, Horus aids and fights, Atum, Re, or some other version of the solar god breathes new life into the dead, etc. Never far away from all these scenes, however, is a representation of the Mother Goddess who oversees the entire operation from beginning to end and is the key to cosmic rebirth.

It is actually Isis and Nephthys who always appear by the lion couch where Osiris lies, and it is their power which helps raise him from the state of death. In Egyptian myth, Isis and Nephthys are really dual personifications of the Mother Goddess, one representing the heavenly mother and the other the earthly one (Nibley, Message 163). Meanwhile, in the twelve divisions contained in the book That Which is in the Underworld the solar god is always accompanied by a figure called “lady of the boat” who is the true guide through the darkness leading the envoy past each obstacle and gate which inhibits progress (Budge, The Gods 207). Each boat in the underworld is adorned with symbols of the various manifestations of the Mother Goddess, including symbols representing Hathor, Maat, and Isis, all who are absolutely essential for the journey’s success.

Isis and Nephtys are twin aspects of the Mother Goddess and were central to the drama of Egyptian rebirth.

Isis and Nephtys are twin aspects of the Mother Goddess and were central to the drama of Egyptian rebirth.

Isis remains central to the resurrection drama. When the Egyptian boat is at its darkest, deepest, and most treacherous juncture in the netherworld only Isis can tow it across the dry sand and to safety (Nibley, Message 416). It is Isis “whose mouth is the breath of life, whose sentence drives out evil, and whose very word revives him who no longer breathes” (de Lubicz, Temples 39). A papyrus dating from the time of Khufu speaks of Isis as the true ruler of the Pyramids (Adams 30). She is the “Mother of God” who raises the dead to the celestial heights: “The Divine Sothis, the Star, the Queen of Heaven” (Adams 30).

“To be reborn in resurrection, the king must enter again into his mother’s womb,” writes Hugh Nibley. “The sarcophagus in which he lay was called mw.t, which also means ‘mother,’ and was designed to represent the embracing arms and wings of the starry sky-mother [Nut]” (Message 119). As the deceased lies in his coffin he is swallowed by the mouth of Nut in the west and reborn from the womb of Nut in the East; the entire gestation cycle is celestial.

The essential role of the Mother Goddess in the process of Egyptian rebirth explains the essential difference between her imagery as Nut, the Sky Mother, and the imagery found in other mythologies where the mother goddess is terrestrial, such as Gaia, the Earth Mother. In the latter example the mother goddess is analogized with the fertile ground which receives the solar semen and whose womb swells with the pregnant produce of nature. As all material forms, however, are only reflections of celestial archetypes, the true womb of the universe must remain heavenward.

Nut was the Heavenly Mother in whose womb the dead were reborn. The sarcophagus was a symbol of Nut.

Nut was the Heavenly Mother in whose womb the dead were reborn. The sarcophagus was a symbol of Nut.

 Greco-Roman Mysteries

What is true of Egyptian myth and rite in this regard is also true for the later Greco-Roman mystery cults, as Jane Ellen Harrison makes clear: “The mysteries of Greece never center round Zeus the Father, but rather round the Mother and the subordinate son” (Mythology 49). While Olympian gods are approached with prayer, praise, and presents, the Mother Goddess “is approached by means that are magical and mysterious” because she possesses the mysteries (Mythology 49).

Further, Hera, Demeter, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis represent different aspects of the one Mother Goddess (Mythology 49). In the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, the Mother Goddess is identified by many names, including: Mother of the Gods, Minerva, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, Ceres, Juno, Bellona, Hecate, and others (Vermaseren 10). Whatever her title, name, or station, she is always understood to be both queen of heaven and the underworld, of life and death and of the mystery of rebirth (Vermaseren 10). In Roman times “the performance of her rites remained in the charge of orientals, not Romans, a dispensation carefully maintained by the Roman Senate throughout the Republic; under the direct control of the State the cult of the Goddess was to be kept in the proper channels” (Vermaseren 11).

The oracle at Delphi was dedicated to Apollo only in later times; the oracle center first belonged to the goddess Themis (Vermaseren 14) who was the steward of the gate of heaven. At Delphi there was a sacred rock known as the omphalos, or navel of the world, as well as a mysterious cleft descending into the earth which represented the nexus between worlds. Here the seekers of knowledge from the other world descended into the cave of the Goddess, for she kept the ultimate secrets and possessed the navel and nexus of creation.

The Oracle at Delphi has an interesting parallel to the school of Parmenides. Parmenides is the father of Greek philosophy. He declared his authority to teach via a vision he had in which he ascended to heaven and was met by aids and stewards of the heavenly word, all of who were  female. At the apex of the world, Parmenides himself is taught by the Goddess (Kingsley 49).

Meanwhile, all the mystery cults held the divine Mother as central to the mystery of rebirth. Cybele was the Heavenly Mother of the Attis cult. She was not only the Queen of Heaven but also the Queen of the Underworld and the wife of Hades (Vermaseren 129). Demeter and Persephone fulfill the same role at Eleusis, while Harmonia fills in at Samothrace. Mother-Goddess imagery is absent in Mithraism, an all-boys club, but the Attis Mysteries were utilized by priests of Mithraism for the initiation of women so they too might receive their afterlife rewards (Weston 159). Demonstrably, in the Greco-Roman mysteries, female priestesses were stewards of the matriarchal rites and always attended the mystai performing various roles as they aided the initiate on his quest.  This fact also parallels the sister/daughters of Osiris who lift him out of the clutches of death and the sister/daughters of Oedipus who guide him to the mystery grove at Colonus.

Virgin Mary_005

Demeter and Persephone were the central deities in the Elysian Mysteries. They provided the path and the power for rebirth in the next world.

Christian Mysteries

Rebirth was also symbolized by the male principle. Human life requires both semen and an egg. Osiris, Dumuzi, Attis, Dionysus, and Orpheus are all male deities of rebirth. In the Christian mythos, the male principle dominated to the exclusion of the goddess who had filled the role of salvation and rebirth for centuries.

But this exclusion of the female presence for salvation took many centuries to fulfill. From the earliest days of Catholicism the form of the Mother Goddess was kept alive within the cult of the Virgin Mary. Jesus was God and was to be worshiped. But Mary was the Mother of God and was to be venerated. As Joseph Campbell makes clear: “The Virgin Mary has been called a co-savior in her anguish and suffering, which was as great as the suffering of her son. She also brought him into the world, and her submission to the Annunciation amounts to an act of salvation, because she acquiesced to this saviorhood” (Campbell, Goddesses 187).

The Virgin Mary took the role of the Mother Goddess in Catholic Christianity.

The Virgin Mary took the role of the Mother Goddess in Catholic Christianity.

The centrality of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity was not a Catholic invention. This was a hold over from many centuries of worshiping a goddess who was key to the cycle of rebirth. Speaking of the role of the ancient goddess, Joseph Campbell writes:

She gives birth to us physically, but She is the mother too of our second birth—our birth as spiritual entities. This is the basic meaning of the motif of the virgin birth, that our bodies are born naturally, but at a certain time there awakens in us our spiritual nature, which is the higher human nature, not that which simply duplicates the world of the animal urges, of erotic and power drives and sleep. Instead there awakens in us the notion of a spiritual aim, a spiritual life: an essentially human, mystical life to be lived above the level of food, of sex, of economics, politics, and sociology. In this sphere of the mystery dimension the woman represents the awakener, the giver of birth in that sense. (Goddesses 6)

It is easy to see how the veneration of the Virgin Mary was a natural byproduct of the religiosity from the public at large. For numerous generations, oral peoples recognized the essential presence of the feminine divine in the birth of both deity and dignity. Christians often forget the close affinity the early Church had with the feminine principle. There is a reason for this lack of memory, as again Joseph Campbell hints, “Orphic imagery is the foreground to Christian imagery, and the mythology of Christianity is far more firmly rooted in this classical [Greco-Roman] mystery religion that it is in the Old Testament” (Campbell, Goddesses 185).

If Christianity were solely a product of Judaism, than the veneration of Mary must be seen as idolatrous; as indeed it is by Protestants. Yet, while the earliest Christians were all Jews, the expansion of Christianity was due to the converts from the Greco-Roman world at large. In the Greco-Roman mysteries the initiate was given a ritual endowment learning the secrets for the next world. He was often accompanied by female priestesses who would guide him to a garden reprieve after his terrible initiatory ordeal. The whole process was indicative of death and rebirth as overseen by the goddess.

We do not find any of this imagery in the Old Testament. Indeed, while uncomfortable for many Christians to hear, the Old Testament is empty of any reference to resurrection or rebirth until perhaps the very late book of Daniel, where the dead turn into stars: “Those who are wise [the knowledgeable ones] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, [will be] like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12.3). Hardly orthodox Judaism. However, this is the exact teaching of the Greco-Roman mysteries.

Problematically, such a vision may have also come from Judaism. If there was a doctrine of rebirth in early Israelite religion, then perhaps the closest one may come to such a teaching would be within the cult precinct of the goddess or the grove. There is strong evidence that in first temple Judaism fertility was venerated, not under the auspices of Yahweh, but with his consort Asherah, the goddess of rebirth. By the time of the Babylonian exile she had been exiled from the religion and dropped from all the texts. Egyptian Jews, however, maintained a temple to the Queen of Heaven, and early Christian Jews, according to Margaret Barker, may have imported this tradition into the new faith, flowering in the cult of the Virgin Mary.

Asherah, West Semitic goddess, wife of El, also identified as wife of Baal, and in southern Palestine, also the wife of Yahweh. There is strong evidence for a female deity venerated in first temple Judaism.

Asherah, West Semitic goddess, wife of El, also identified as wife of Baal, and in southern Palestine, also the wife of Yahweh. There is strong evidence for a female deity venerated in first temple Judaism.

Whatever the complexities of the divine feminine among the Old Testament Jews, the imagery does show up among the New Testament Christians. Remarkably, at the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus is only attended by females. It is only Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (Matthew 27.56) who, after his crucifixion, anoint him on the day of his resurrection (Mark 16.1) and are thus the first to see him rise from the sepulcher, which also happens to be in a garden (John 19.41).

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, moreover, there is a peculiar band of women who always stand witness of the crucifixion, while in the Gospel of John this band of female attendants is replaced by three Marys: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and her sister, also named Mary (John 19.25); a unique picture as the Mother Goddess is not only represented by two sisters but also by three women who represent youth, motherhood, and old age. At Eleusis, the Mother Goddess was represented by Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate (Freke and Gandy 58). Dionysus was also represented by three female attendants; when a new sanctuary of Dionysus was founded “three priestesses called maenads would go there to establish the cult. Each one of them would assemble one of the three women choirs that helped celebrate the Mysteries” (Freke and Gandy 58).

It is a supreme curiosity that at the crucifixion of the Savior none of the twelve apostles are present, and the whole affair is overseen by a retinue of female attendants. There is one obscure reference in John 19.26 where the mother of Jesus is at the cross, attended by a “disciple, standing by, whom [Jesus] loved.” Christian tradition believes this “beloved disciple” to be John the apostle, but this conclusion is circumstantial. This unidentified disciple remains unspecified, and belongs in the background with the soldiers and priests. It is only Mary and the women who attend to the crucified Jesus. Even so, at the resurrection none of the apostles are present, and the first to witness the true day of Easter was a woman or group of women to whom the knowledge of life after death was first given.

In the Gospels, it is only Women who aid and witness the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In early Catholic iconography, they are often portrayed as co-participants in the drama of rebirth.

In the Gospels, it is only Women who are in the foreground and who aid and witness the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In early Catholic iconography, they are often portrayed as co-participants in the drama of rebirth.

The Gospels are a far cry away from modern Protestantism, who would crowd these scenes with popes, priests, apostles, and kings. Protestantism lost something essential when it exiled Mary from all of its iconography and symbolism. This male dominated ethos was never part of the original revelation that is Christ, and in the Gospels we are poignantly reminded that it is the Mother who stands as the central image around the dying and resurrecting Jesus.

However these roles, images, and models have changed over the centuries, the essential principle of rebirth lies within the womb. The closest thing to deity on earth is motherhood. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the God that Christians worship. Perhaps on this day Christians should also remember the divine hand of womanhood, for in this mortal realm, this is the closest thing we have to the celebration of life.

 

 

 

 

2 comments to Easter and the Feminine Divine

  1. John Lundwall says:

    5. Margaret Barker blames the Deutoronomists for purging the texts of the earlier religious traditions. The Old Testament itself lists several times when Israelite kings burned down the groves, from the days of Moses down to Josiah. From at least the times of the Judges the Israelite people worshiped in the groves, and probably did so since the time they entered Palestine from the Exodus.

    It is difficult to sort out what the text is telling us. On the one hand Judaism is monotheistic, and so a strict enforcement of the Mosaic law would require the burning of the groves. On the other hand, Deborah is a chief judge of Israel, she is head of a religious order (she is a prophetess) and she dwells under the palm tree, i.e. in a grove (Judg. 4.4-5).

    When Josiah reforms temple worship after they find a book of the law in the temple during its remodel, he has his priests take this book to the prophetess Huldah for interpretation (2 Ki 22.14). The great temple reforms of Josiah, therefore, seem to be done under the tutelage of a woman priestess. It seems highly doubtful that the goddess would be removed from the temple props within this priestly order.

    All we can say for sure is that after the Babylonian exile the cannon was firmly established and Judaism became completely monotheistic and there is not another mention of a prophetess in the Old Testament again (Isaiah bears a son with a prophetess after all). The Jews had just gone through a terrible ordeal, much of the population was killed. They appear to have strictly adhered to a religious form that we recognize as the Judaism of today.

    The Jews in the diaspora, on the other hand, appear to have still worshiped a female deity, such as the Egyptian Jews. Even so, there is a Jewish woman priestess mentioned in the New Testament, Luke 2.36-8. Additionally, the early Christians definitely had woman leaders, though their relation to a “goddess” or a “priesthood” is not explicit (see Romans 16.1-7 and Acts 21.9 for examples). These various women are called “apostles” or “servants,” but in the Greek the word for servant refers to an ecclesiastical leader and implies a form of priesthood.

    6. One more comment to muddle things up. All oral peoples have a pantheon. Polytheism and orality are wed. For memory purposes alone, the functions of nature are divided up among male and female principles identified as different male and female gods and goddesses.

    In many polytheistic systems, however, what we really see is henotheism, or a pantheon that emerges from the “one.” So polytheism merges into henotheism which merges into monotheism. By the time there is a fully literate consciousness, monotheism has become firmly established. This just so happens at the time the Jews establish their cannon. In Greece, there is an explosion of schools that are now replacing the old temple precincts. The birth of classical Greece and philosophy is really the Greek literate revolution. And while most people still cannot read or write, literate culture changes many patterns in thinking and religious practice.

    So I would caution a strict misogynistic interpretation of the expulsion of the goddess from ancient forms of worship. There are several issues at play. From about the 6th cent. BCE on there is a slow collapse of older forms of worship. Further, the older forms of worship were no longer serving their purposes. Egypt had thousands of male and female deities, and the country converted to Christianity in just over a century. This tells me that there were many people who flocked to the new monotheistic faith because the older forms had been exhausted.

    The transference from orality to literacy and from polytheism to monotheism was uneven and it took many centuries to unfold. There are many people writing about how Christianity won out through a forceful take over. This simply is not true, and every example of such a forceful exchange can be met by five examples from polytheistic faiths.

    In our modern era, however, there is a rising tension of the lack of the divine feminine in our monotheistic faiths. I think this is natural, as the human psyche demands it, and whenever a belief system is out of psychic harmony there will be all kinds of social consequences. Again, the transference from modern, male dominated, monotheism into something more balanced may take a very long time. And history has shown that often the “more balanced” is not met; the older intolerance is simply replaced with a newer intolerance wearing a different dress. And it might not be just the men who introduce such intolerance.

    In other words, history is messy. And so are people. However we get through, I suggest love and support might be the first step.

  2. John Lundwall says:

    I will use the comments for a few footnotes.

    1. On the etymology of Eostre, look up the arguments listed on Wikipedia under “Easter.” They are pretty extensive. As all etymologies can have many counter-arguments, one of the chief pieces of verification for Eostre as the female deity of April and of Dawn comes from over 150 votive offerings found in Germany with a version of her name inscribed upon them and whose German name is linked with “light.”

    The rites of Eostre (and related goddesses) are connected with fertility and nature, per the literature. But the fertility goddess was often associated with the rites of death. Demeter is a goddess of the grain, and would only be called a “nature” deity if we did not have so many depictions of her as an underworld goddess. Dionysus is the god of wine, but he is also a savior (Jesus is a god of wine too, for that matter).

    The various “fertility” explanations of the gods and goddesses in many textbooks follows a long and dated tradition of scholarship starting in the 19th century that believed the entire “pagan” world was entranced with nature theology. Little did these scholars understand the nature of oral cosmology and the essence and secrecy of oral rites.

    Our view on the matter, therefore, can only be a caricature of the real thing.

    2. The exact nature of a divine feminine presence in Judaism and early Christianity is unknown. Again, Asherah is a fertility goddess. Thanks so much for that. An excellent exploration into this subject is a book entitled “The Mother of the Lord: The Lady in the Temple” by Margaret Barker. This dense tomb follows many scattered clues across several sources to reconstruct a female deity in early Judaism and its influence in early Christianity. The clues are scattered, but they are also numerous.

    The monotheism of Judaism of which Christians are familiar really does not begin until the post-Exilic period. The Israelite people were polytheists for most of their history; a close reading of the Old Testament proves this beyond dispute. As such, there would be gods and goddesses throughout the religion, with a supreme god and his consort.

    3. Clement of Alexandria writes, “the secret things of deity are entrusted to speech and not to writing.” Christians for generations have not believed that there were any secret rituals in early Christianity because there are none recorded in the Bible. This is an errant view, for in fact they would never be recorded in the Bible simply because they would never be written down.

    There are many clues that there were similar “mystery rituals” in early Christianity, spread like puzzle pieces throughout the literature. Morton Smith’s highly controversial “Secret Gospel of Mark” identifies Jesus as a mystagogue, and Christianity as a mystery religion. The writings of Margaret Barker also reconstruct temple imagery and rite in early Christian belief. Frekes and Gandy’s “The Jesus Mystery” asserts that Christianity was a reworking of the Greco-Roman mysteries. Arguments fall along ideological lines. If there were secret rites in early Christianity the introduction of the Virgin Mary cult would naturally follow.

    4. I believe the close affinity between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the woman of the the New Testament is impossible to explain using modern a Judeo-Christian lens, especially a Protestant one. The woman are often treated as props or perhaps even as primary players of the narrative. Actually, in the Gospels, it is the apostles who are the props and primary players. The three Mary’s and the band of mourning woman are absolutely essential for the death and rebirth scenes. This is not happenstance, and something essential has been lost in translation from oral tradition to written account, and from early Christian culture to a post-modern one.

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