Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Goddess worship in Early Christian Community

Ok! Midterms are almost done, and time for a new post on archaeology and Goddess worship in early Christian community. Professor Arthur Segal first found images of Aphrodite in excavations in Israel in 2009. Excavations are at the roman village of Sussita, inhabited until an earthquake destroyed it in 749 c.e. Professor Segal was part of an American delegation uncovering the day to day homes of early Romans in the now Christianized empire. The discovery of Aphrodite figurines goes a long way to showing that early Christians maintained Goddess worship well into the Christian era.

Then this past September, archaeologists unearthed more Goddess worship evidence. In a wealthy home, Israeli and American archaeologists uncovered a wall painting of the city's patron deity, the Goddess Tyche. The same home held beautifully carved figures of Dionysus' companions, Maenads. The maenads appear to be dancing in the ecstatic dances associated with the cult to Dionysus.

Put together, these findings over several years offer modern women another model of Christianity, one that values female deity and completely different models of sexuality than often depicted in early Christian community. Maenads are about as far from religious celibacy as one can get! Yet here is Sussita, a Romano-Christian town with clear evidence of Goddess cult surviving alongside the established rule of the empire.

And how cool is that?

A lot of Christian effort has been put into creating Christian community in imitation of the early house churches of the Roman empire. From Puritan attempts to create a fortress to God to more modern feminist celebrations of egalitarian house church, Christian theologians, churches and community groups have found inspiration in learning about early Christian communities. Well, here we have another model, one that includes female deity - and Aphrodite and maenads at that.

For women who want to remain in the church, yet find new meanings to women's body/power, and new definitions of God that include women, the finding of Goddess worship all the way into the 8th century is a wonderful new path. Incorporating Aphrodite and maenads into modern Christian worship may seem far-fetched, but really it isn't. Aphrodite figures celebrate women's body, and in Roman eras were associated with Artemis at Ephesus as much as pure sexuality. Aphrodite, however, ruled the heaven and the earth, which is why so many of Aphrodite's temples include Gaia and Uranos around her skirts. It is sad that modern people see Aphrodite as purely sexual terms without realizing her powers extended over arts and learning, and in some histories she is associated with war and fortifications. Aphrodite has many faces, some historians tracing her back to Astarte. Aphrodite in Christian homes is exciting.

Tyche is equally exciting. Tyche presides over the wealth and prosperity of the city; most Roman cities had a temple to Tyche, to ask for her blessings over the town. The Emperor Julian closed her temples as idolotrous, yet here archaeologists find her worship persisting in a wealthy home in Sussita. Again, a strong image of female power continued despite attempts to force the Roman world into monotheism. That a wealthy home publicly displayed a Tyche wall painting is especially powerful. For day to day Romans, goddess worship and Christian identity were not incompatible. Tyche as a model of the importance of women in civic life is marvelous: the United Nation slogan "When women move forward the family moves forward" exemplifies this view. Tyche, goddess or archetype, demonstrates a new economic model.

And let's be honest. Worshiping a maenad? Well, how awesome is that? Christians can use some help learning to celebrate and empower women and sexuality, and if early Christians kept maenads about, well, that is another wonderful model for all to follow, goddess worshiping or not.

I urge everyone to check out the awesome research on early Byzantine/roman communities in the early Christian era. Just as archaeologists are showing the multiplicity of faiths in Jewish communities, archaeologists are finding awesome examples of multiple faiths in the Christian world. Such mew visions enhance all of our worship!


  1. I love learning about this kind of stuff. I've recently resumed a couple of the Celtic deities again myself.

  2. The cool thing is that the archaeological evidence is that early Christians as well as Jewish communities were profoundly multi-theistic. There is ample precedent for incorporating multiple visions into any of our worship, no matter how we identify.

    And I can't aruge with Celtic deities, having quite a few about my home!