Friday, April 2, 2010

Reclaiming Goddess traditons in Judaism and Christianity

Or alternate title: Blow your mind with archaeological proof of polytheism in early Judaism and Christianity!

My friend's struggle with building an alter, concerned at breaking Christian rules about worshiping images, has stuck in my head these past few days. Then today, another friend through an online Christian/pagan support group, sent me some kick-butt articles on retrieving polytheistic and Goddess religion from Judaic history. As we enter the major holidays of both Christianity and Judaism, I offer both articles for everyone here.

The reality that multiple gods existed during Jewish and Christian histories is obvious: Do Not Have Any Other Gods Before Me. If that were not possible, no need for the commandment. It takes a good degree in mythology and archeology and history to sort out which deities were worshiped in Biblical times. There were so many! And teasing out the differing strands of theistic worship that come down to us in the Bible is yet another academic undertaking. We get some of them in the Bible, especially that Queen of Heaven with her cakes that so upset Jeremiah. Asherah presents all sorts of trouble for monotheistic Judaism throughout Exodus, Judges, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Micah.

Recent scholarship presents Asherah even more fully. Archaeologists can't ignore the physical evidence they are finding at excavations, and reputable historians are having to take note: "Can a history of Iron Age Jerusalem and Palestine be written? I do not think it can be done as long as our historical perspectives remain captive within a historicized Bible," writes Thomas L. Thompson in Jerusalem an Ancient History and Tradition. And in the same book Firas Sawah writes "The discovery of ever more of these archaeological finds has led conservative archaeologists. . . to reconsider the matter and take the worship of the Goddess Asherah more seriously than before."

These authors are hardly radical pagans nor are they feminist theologians reconstructing a feminine language for god. They are academics pointing out the physical record that brings far greater light to Jewish and later Christian polytheism, because when you go with physical fact, it is much harder to screen Goddess worship than in textual patriarchy.

So here are two great articles for blowing your minds, oh gentle readers. The first, by linguist Elizabeth Willet, explores the physical evidence of women's worship in Israelite homes. "Women and House Religion" explores the objects in everyday Israelite homes, and what they meant for the women working therein.

The everyday Israelite home was filled with religious artifacts to help women with their daily work: cooking, childrearing, and maintaining the homes spiritual base were all evidenced by archaeologists excavating homes from Lachish, Beer-Sheebah, Tell Masos and Tell Halif. Homes were filled with cultic figures, incense burners and shrines that women cared for along with daily chores. Archaeologists found beads, scarabs, Goddess figurines, cowrie shells, amulets, and incense holders that made up cooking and weaving and baking areas.

More importantly, Willet writes of specific worship areas in some homes:

"The structures and artifacts in several dwellings at Tell Masos suggest that early Israelites maintained household shrines. The presence in Room 307 of the four figurines typical of votives deposited in the Hathor temple at Timna demonstrates that the residents of House 314 depended on an established relationship with a personal protective goddess whom they worshiped in their home in addition to or instead of in a public sanctuary." It is impossible to use a Biblical interpretation of monotheism to explain these archaeological finds of women's daily lives.

Another attempt to maintain a Jewish identity, while exploring polytheism, comes in Judith Klein's "Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism." Klein writes knowingly:

"Because of this, I feel it is necessary to search for Jewish goddesses in the Tanach and to reinstate them in the mainstream religions based on this Book, rather than moving with them to the modern feminist spiritually movement and neo-Paganism. It is clear that such goddesses would be much more welcome there but, although neo-Paganism is the most rapidly growing religion in North American, it does not yet reach into the core of mainstream society. And this is where I feel that deep change must be effected for our society truly to transform itself into one that respects women."

Here writes a woman who holds on to Judaism as her religion, while moving to polytheism therein. So how cool is that?

I love these paragraphs from Klein:

"What can we find about women's disappearance from the Jewish cult? We need to be obstinate, since looking at our history is a way of honoring our foremothers, rather than writing them off or tossing them into oblivion. Searching for our history moves us away from passive acquiescence with patriarchal strategies of disinformation, and into active opposition. As active participants within Judaism, looking for women's history will make it clear to us that women were active in religion for a long time and that women's situation in this millennium, even in this century, is worse than in earlier millennia. Realizing this, and realizing that achieving women's rights in Judaism is nothing new, but rather a return, may encourage us to set out sights high and to be thankful for nothing less.

Looking to women's history also makes us comprehend more acutely what is missing form the historical books of the Tanach. We find that they tell about men's history but not women's. And this awareness is one step toward women achieving a critical distance necessary for formulating what we want and need in religion, what we want in religious teaching and interpretation of the Tanach, and even how much we want to use the Tanach. Looking at women's history is one means for women to find their way to creating what they want in their religion, instead of it being dictated to them by men who tell them they speak in women's name, but who speak at them and not for them."

What she says applies to Judaism and Christianity, to the Irish Lebor Gabala Erenn or the Welsh Mabinogian. Historical records, Biblical or other mythological canon, were written within historical and political contexts. Even when their contexts are fully understood, none of these texts can stand today to enforce oppression and inequity.

And both Klein and Willet point to fun ways to play with religion. I really have no concern, personally, for polytheism or monotheism. The monotheists write at length these days about how the trinity implies a theology of relaitonship, which, hey, is totally wicked. However, one could say polytheism encourages relationship, too, no? But whatever. . . as I have written here before, I don't consider the belief as important as what the belief does.

So, this holy weekend, whether polytheistic or mono, whether Jewish or Christian or Pagan or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Wiccan or atheist or agnostic. . . well you know what I mean, why not look at these two cool articles.

How can they add to your faith?

After all, if Israelite women had house shrines, well that is a major precedent. Wearing a bead for a prayer or a spell or a wish or to focus energy, well, is that so bad? In the context of puja, and with millennia of history behind you, alters, shrines, figurines, amulets and beads make up most of our human traditions.

Happy Ishtar and Passover everybody.

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