How Did the Goddess Get Disempowered?
Last weekend, I was pondering on the question of women and disempowerment.
I quickly realized that the theme of disempowerment in our lives is not about our relationship with men, but about our relationship with ourselves and our own power. The central questions are: How did we lose our power? And how can we regain it?
Essentially, what the hell has happened?
So, let me share my reflections and observations here, not necessarily in a systematic way, but organically and intuitively, as I look at some of my beloved spiritual and cultural traditions: Tantra, Ancient Greek mythology, Christianity and Gnosticism, in particular.
Even after many years, I still remember the moment when, about 15 or so years ago, I was attending a private study group lead by a Sanskrit and Tantric Scholar, a swami and a Tibetan Buddhist monk. I was the only woman in the group, and I was honored also as such.
As we were delving into chapter 29 of the 10th century Tantric text describing the use of women in sexual ritual for spiritual attainment, I asked the translator of the work, “What happened to the women after the ritual? And what if they got pregnant?” The man threw his arms in the air with a Who knows? expression. This was the first sign for me that something was amiss.
The book that we were discussing sensually depicted the women invited to the ritual as slim-waisted, with breasts like the fruit of bimba trees, and ideally from low societal strata. The reason for the last requirement was that the men performing the ritual wanted to attain enlightenment by breaking the rigid rules of Hindu dogma and all its restrictions.
The rebellious part of the Tantra appealed to the heretic and rebel in me to such a degree that I did not even notice that I was identifying with the rebellious spirit of the men and up to that point had not considered the women! That is, until I asked the crucial question What happens to them and what if they got pregnant? to which nobody had an answer.
To be fair, the women in the ritual were worshipped as the personification of the Goddess Shakti, and the ritual itself was beautiful and sensual and, I have no doubt, was sexually enjoyable. At the end, the Brahmins (men from the highest caste, and priests) said a prayer to their sexual partners, “I worship you, oh Goddess.”
The purpose of the ritual was for male and female to merge not only sexually, but also psychologically and spiritually, and attain spiritual enlightenment or at least gain a deep spiritual experience. In itself, this was a revolutionary idea, and appealed to my interest in sexuality as a spiritual experience. That part was a great discovery for me.
However, it does not take much research or observation to notice that Tantra, which was initially intended as a worship of the Goddess, in this case had become a tool for the upper-class Brahmins, while the female participants, after being worshiped for a couple of hours, were discarded in the name of non-attachment.
Let me rephrase this: the Brahmins got their spiritual experience by breaking all the rules, and the women were tools which were disposed of (also in the name of some spiritual virtue of non-attachment).
Do you see my point?
To make the story even stranger, historically the Tantra came to life as a rebellious response to the traditional Hinduism and all its prohibitions. Tantra was intended to include all and everything (including women).
Indeed, one the prominent mothers of this tradition was Ardha-Tryambaka, a woman. In scholarly terms, her tradition was called adhyusta-pitha or the ‘three-and-a-half tradition’ (after her name). The whole Kula tradition comes from her. And yet, somehow within a few generations the tradition had become again about the attainment of the upper-class men (the Brahmins) and not the women.
I truly doubt that this was the original intention of Ardha-Tryambaka, a woman.
In my opinion, this use of Tantra still disadvantages, rather than empowers, women because it has a long history of doing so. Somewhere along the way, it was appropriated to serve the needs of the privileged, although its initial intention was to include and liberate the rejected (including women).
Before I had even heard about Tantra (in its original or corrupted versions), I had been enamored with the Ancient Greek myths.
As a young girl, I loved reading about the Greek Goddesses and fantasizing about which one I would like to be. It usually came down to some unorthodox mix between Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, and Artemis, the Goddess of the Woods (who was very independent and adventurous).
Although my first choice was always Athena, I also loved the sensuality of Aphrodite and the independence of Artemis.
And this is where the problem lies — in the strict delineation in Greek mythology between wisdom, feminine beauty and sexuality, and feminine independence. Somehow, they could not exist in the one entity which I created for myself: a woman/Goddess who is wise, sexy and independent.
This changed a little when I read my favourite book of all time, The Odyssey. But even that reading was riddled with complications.
First of all, I did not give a hoot about the faithful Penelope who waited for Odysseus for 20 years. Secondly, for me the main characters of the Odyssey were the gorgeous, sexy and cunning nymphs, such as Calypso and Circe. Thirdly, I too wanted to have adventures like Odysseus, and I thought that Penelope, his wife, should have her own, instead of waiting for him. I thought then, and still think, she is a bore!
So, as a young girl, I quickly decided I wanted to be a nymph. Why not? As a nymph, you are independent, you live on a private island which is under your rule, and you are free to go on adventures. However, I was quickly told, in voices intended to shush me, how inappropriate my ideas were about being a nymph. Nymphs… well… were nymphomaniacs, and had a very negative connotation.
I could not comprehend for the life of me how these intelligent, independent Goddesses of nature could be portrayed as being constantly sexually starved, stupid and ridiculous.
Only many years later, after I began to study Mary Magdalene did I notice that the same happened to her. The wise, beautiful and sensual companion of Jesus has been demeaned as a whore in mainstream Christianity, and conveniently replaced by the other, virginal, Mary.
The same has happened with other empowered Goddesses of the past, be they Inanna, Ishtar, or Hathor.
Do you see the pattern?
Very recently, Celene Lillie, the author of The Rape of Eve: The Transformation of Roman Ideology in Three Early Christian Retellings of Genesis, touches on the same topic but in a radical way. In her book, Lillie draws our attention to the themes of sexual violence in Ancient Rome and in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.
For me, however, the most interesting part of the book is her insights into three Gnostic sources discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi: On the Origin of the World, The Reality of the Rulers, and the Secret Revelation of John. Although, in these sources, Eve (symbolizing the feminine) is also portrayed as abused and humiliated by cosmic powers. She, however, recovers with Adam by her side.
And even though this is not exactly a story of empowerment, it is a brave attempt at retelling the story of Eve, acknowledging her trials, and giving her hope. Another element of this retelling I like is the placement of Adam by her side, as he too is victimized, not by Eve’s deception as the orthodox traditions would have it but by the villainous powers of the world.
And together they rise.
The reason I like this interpretation is that it creates a space for gender reconciliation. But this reconciliation can be made possible only by creating and embracing new archetypes of the Feminine and new archetypes of the Masculine. Just as I felt when a young girl reading the Ancient Greek myths. The old myths were a bad first draft.
The appropriation of the Feminine to serve old religious systems has to change. The portrayal of the Masculine as abusive patriarchs who somehow are still called men of God has to change. Otherwise, all the inter-religious ‘dialogues’ steeped in the old religious traditions with long histories of abuse are just another face of the old system.
Dr. Joanna Kujawa is the author of ‘Journaling to Manifest the Lost Goddess in Your Life’ and ‘Jerusalem Diary: Searching for the Tomb and House of Jesus’, and many short stories, essays and academic pieces. She sees herself as a Spiritual Detective who asks difficult questions about spirituality, such as ‘Can spirituality and sexuality be experienced as one?’, ‘Who was the real Mary Magdalene?’, ‘How can we include eco-spirituality in our belief systems?’ and ‘How can we bring back the Divine Feminine to create a more balanced and interconnected world?’ Her goal is to create and participate in the shift in consciousness about spirituality, our connection to nature, and our place in the Universe. She has PhD from Monash University, and MA and BA from the University of Toronto. She is immoderately passionate about her Goddess News blog. You could connect with her via her website, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.