Lawrence Durdin Robertson - Maternal Source
Cover art by Anna Durdin-Robertson
Cover, "God the Mother, The Creatress and Giver of Life", published November 9, 1984
God the Mother
The Creatress and Giver of Life
By Lawrence Durdin-Robertson
THE MATERNAL SOURCE
In his History of Women published about two hundred years ago, Dr. William Alexander makes this statement: “Whenever female deities have obtained a place in the religion of a people, it is a sign that women are of some consequence, for we find in those modern nations, where the women are held in the most despicable light that even their deities are all of the masculine gender.” (cit. Rel. of Gdss. 5).
This assessment recognized the basic difference between matriarchal and patriarchal religions. Both are inextricably tied to the social attitude to women. But whereas the former develops where the role of women is understood and appreciated, the latter where it is devalued. The one is fundamentally affirmative, the other negative.
Matriarchal religion is based on personal experience, the experience resulting from the impacts which the female makes on our lives. These impacts are classified by Jung under three headings. Writing on the maternal archetype he describes “the three essential aspects of the mother, her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality and her Stygian depths”. (Four Archetypes, 16). Those who will allow themselves to accept these as divine revelations have the basis of a natural theology.
Patriarchal religion has no such basis. While the impact of the male may be stronger than that of the female in such secular fields as politics, economics and technology, his positive religious impact is weaker. In proof of this one has only to take the three female attributes listed by Jung to see that the male’s religious role is entirely sub ordinate to that of the female.
Patriarchal religions, therefore, having no basis of their own, have adopted the expedient of arrogating to themselves those power which are the property of the female. Even a cursory reading of the scriptures, creeds and dogmas of such religions will demonstrate the extent to which they have gone. Claims are made, for instance, by the male godhead both to create and to give life, neither of which he can do.
The practical effects of this artificial basis of patriarchal religions are seen throughout history. While the male based religions have often played a valuable role in initiating and in maintaining advances in certain fields of social ethics, these have often been vitiated by an invidious discrimination against women. In fact, like other authoritarian regimes based on usurped powers, whose main preoccupation is the removal of the true claimant, male monotheistic religions are characterized by a consistent policy of suppressing the female, at least in her peculiarly religious aspect. For instance, the draconian taboos connected with menstruation, the repressive measure directed particularly against women’s sexual freedom and the reluctance to admit women to religious offices, all these are indications that male monotheism, consciously or subconsciously, is aware of its insecure foundation.
But there is always a limit to the extent to which the artificial can impose upon the natural. In the religious survey of Dr. Alexander of two hundred years ago, maternally based religions seem to have been superseded. Female deities appear only as a nostalgic memory from the past. Where they were still worshipped were in areas remote from western Civilization; and there, too, they seemed no more than a vanishing anachronism. Patriarchal religion, usually in the form of male monotheism, appeared dominant. And even though many people were already ceasing to believe in it, it was generally regarded as the only acceptable religion for the world.
A different picture is presented in a religious survey recently published. Margot Adler, in her book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers and other Pagans in America Today, writes: “In the last ten years, alongside the often noted resurgence of ‘occult’ and ‘magical’ groups, a diverse and decentralized religious movement has sprung up …” (p. 3). It is significant that this movement is not confined to some remote region left behind by western civilization, but to a country which is in the forefront.
While at first sight it may not seem that this resurgence is in a particularly matriarchal direction, yet a closer examination shows that in fact it is so. Most of the religions described in that survey are polytheistic; and in nearly all polytheistic religions there is a numerical equality of gods and goddesses. But in view of the fact that the goddess is, from a religious point of view, more potent than the god, these religions have a resultant matriarchal emphasis. This can be seen in the syncretic polytheism of the later Roman Empire. In the course of time it was Isis who emerged as the supreme deity of the Pantheon. As Dr. Witt writes of her: “She could assume the eagle of Zeus, the lyre of Apollo and tongs of Hephaestus, the wand of Hermes, the thyrsus of Bacchus and the club of Heracles. (see Vandebeek, 139). She came as the champion of poly theism. Yet even more strongly she asserted she was herself the True and Living God.” (Isis in Graeco-Roman World, 129). Similarly Larson describes the flowering of the worship of Isis: “In short, without Isis there would have been … no mystery and no hope of an after-life. She became the universal and infinite benefactress of humanity, the eternal protective mother, the queen of earth and heaven.” (Rel. of Occident, 9). And when to this is added “Isis can embrace Venus/Aphrodite as she did Hathor in Egypt, regarded as Io she could be said to make ‘many women what she was to Jupiter:’ (Ovid. Ars Amator, I. 78)” (Witt, 85), we see in her the full expression of the three female attributes described by Jung.
The same ultimate supremacy of the Goddess in polytheism is seen in Eastern religions. Professor Norman Brown writes as follows of the Indian goddess Devi (Parvati): “The final word in Parvati’s history was reached when she was identified by followers with the all-powerful feminine principle considered to be the fundamental and dominant element in the universe. Devi’s supreme position among the gods as the first principle of the universe is forcefully affirmed in the Shakta texts … She is mind and the five material elements … She is also the supreme and unseconded intelligence and pure Bliss … She embodies the whole power of creative love, from which everything springs … To her devotee she is all grace and motherly concern”. (Kramer, Myth. Ancient World, 312-3).
Polytheism, though emphasizing the goddesses, does not suppress the gods. While the former are sources of creation and originators of life, the latter are given an important role as ministers of the goddesses. Thus, in the later Graeco-Roman polytheism, while the goddesses hold control over the attributes of the gods, the gods assist them in the administration of their gifts. Jupiter is still required to assist Juno in government, Apollo to assist the Muses in the arts, Vulcan to assist Minerva in technology, and so on. The positive role played by the god in the male monotheistic religions continues undiminished. Each god, called on to use the special gifts entrusted to him, has his honored place in the Pantheon. As Margot Adler writes: “There is a place for the god, but the female as Creatrix is primary.” (p. 120).
The current search for matriarchal theologies is proceeding along several lines. Some people are looking for them in the religion of their own upbringing; while retaining the familiar names, iconography, buildings and even certain forms of worship, the theology is feminized. Others, more radical, change to an entirely different religion, either already being practiced or in the process of formation. Others prefer to select or to synthesize from the matriarchal elements of all religions.
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