Debunking the Goddess Myth

The "golden age" of female divinities was a bad time for women

| November-December 1997

Once upon a time there was a Great Mother Goddess who was worshipped all over the world. Under Her benevolent care, humans lived in peace with each other and in harmony with nature. Women were honored as Her earthly representatives and served as Her priestesses, enacting Her sacred sexual rites in groves and temples as seasonal festivals. One day a band of male warriors with a violent male god invaded this utopia, destroying the Goddess and installing their god as the "one and only" deity. From that day forward, women were subjugated, nature was exploited, militarism was glorified, and sexual repression became the law. This new order is described in the Hebrew Bible.

The feminist spirituality movement was born two decades ago when women who had rejected the sexist teachings of their traditional religious upbringings discovered they needed some form of spirituality to nourish their souls. A kind, nurturing mother Goddess seemed to fill the void.

Searching for female images of the Divine, they inevitably turned to ancient pagan goddesses such as Isis of Egypt and Ishtar of Babylonia, and, in the process, adopted the romantic notion that the societies that worshipped them held women, sexuality, and nature in high regard. Thus the feminist fairy tale above came into being. Twenty years later, now widely accepted as historical fact, the tale continues to fuel the imaginations of thousands of women looking for an alternative to male-dominated religion.

There's just one problem: The fairy tale isn't accurate. It whitewashes the male supremacy and militarism of ancient paganism, falsely attributing the origin of these phenomena to "the Hebrews." In the new goddess myth, Egypt and Babylonia are portrayed as benevolent, peaceful, and matriarchal societies, despite the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation, ritual castration, phallus worship, and even human sacrifice were all integral aspects of their religious traditions. Do women who are enchanted by Isis, for instance, know that worship of her involved the annual drowning of a young virgin girl in the Nile to assure a plentiful harvest? Do devotees of Ishtar realize that many of her priestesses were simply temple slaves who were branded with a star (Ishtar's symbol) just like the animals that were dedicated to her?

In her book The Battered Woman, domestic abuse counselor Lenore Walker claims that "prior to the creation of the Bible, women . . . were worshipped as the Goddesses of Life" and, even though she never uses the word Jew, implies that the Hebrews invented wife beating. Would she really have us believe that in the older Egyptian and Babylonian societies, men never beat their wives? Ironically, we must turn to a male author, Pierre Montet, and his book Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt, to learn that, in fact, an Egyptian husband had the right to beat his wife, and a brother to beat his sister.

Versions of the feminist fairy tale can be found in magazine articles, best-selling books, and television documentaries on the history of Western religion—a piece of revisionist history that's now believed simply because it's been so often repeated.