A Thought Adventure

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

12. The Fertility Festival

Probably because eating and begetting are necessary for life to go on, magical rituals to ensure the continued renewal of plants, animals and humans are common in farming villages everywhere. From the agricultural revolution on (c 9500--6500 BCE) solemnly celebrated fertility rites arise in the ancient Near East (and later throughout the world). Representing the yearly cycle of death and revival of vegetable life, they revolve around a god who dies and is resurrected. Included in the festivals are bounteous meals accompanied by sexual license, music and dancing.

The sacred marriage
In these rites the Great Mother Goddess is represented by the queen or priestess (often the same person) and the god by the young king (her son or brother and always a young man). Known as Dumuzi in Sumer, Tammuz in Babylon, Osiris or Geb in Egypt, Baa'l in Canaan and Adonis or Attis in Greece, he plays the role of the goddess's consort in the annual sacred marriage ceremony (hieros gamos). After consummating the sexual union, he is killed (and often also ritually eaten) but then resurrects and becomes immortal thanks to his association with the goddess

Images of the ritual marriage between the god and the goddess are common on the Mesopotamian cylinder seals, because in the city-states the marriage between the king and Inanna (goddess of Love and Procreation, Queen of Heaven and Earth) becomes a religious credo. It not only brings about the fertility of every living thing but also the prosperity and well-being of the land. And in all myths the death of the consort is considered an indispensable part of his marriage to the Great Goddess.

In Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Barbara G. Walker writes that marriage with the earthly representative of the Goddess "was essential to the position of kingships; this was the original meaning of holy matrimony."

The goddess who cuts off the head of her consort "appears in certain Tamil texts (which may underlie the Sanskrit)" according to the anthropologist Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty in Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts. (Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken in parts of southeast Asia and one of the world's oldest classical languages.) India's Rig Veda collection of sacred Sanskrit texts (1200 BCE) contains several stories of very powerful goddesses (although by then there was a shift from female to male dominance).

In Hindu mythology one recurrent motif is death as an erotic release. Another is portraying the consort of the goddess as her son (images abound of copulation with a small male), which is a concept common also in other Indo-European myths and rituals--Irish, Greek, Welsh, Gallic, Roman. Everywhere in the goddess worship slaughter and blood offerings are seen as magical guarantees of earthly fertility.

In the words of Mircea Eliade, scholar of myth and religion and author of A History of Religious Ideas, "Carnage and cannibalism are characteristic features of archaic fertility goddesses."

Ritual regicide
No one knows where these strange and cruel rites originate. But, as reflected in historical and anthropological records, archeological findings and innumerable myths recounting it, the custom of male sacrifice, or ritual regicide, can be found in every corner of the world--including the high civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and the Maya-Aztecs. It's practiced by the Celts and the Etruscans, and Vesta's temple in Rome holds symbolic rites of regicide. Scholars agree that women's participation in this cult is extensive: they serve as priestesses, oracles, prophets, diviners and later as temple scribes, judges and witnesses of legal documents.

Ritual regicide spreads over the entire Near East. Historian Diodorus Siculus (=from Sicily) records it in Egypt as late as 60--67 CE and Campbell reports that the custom has survived up to our days among the Shilluk people of the White Nile (in Sudan). Sometimes the king's son is sacrificed instead, but also criminals are known to have been substituted. Later only mock executions survive.

Why aren't we more aware of goddess cults that extended over the entire world and went as far back as the latter part of the Old Stone Age? Partly, no doubt, because archeology as a systematic and interdisciplinary inquiry into the life, thought, technology and social organization of the past came into its own only after WW II. And only then did it have access to technologies like C14 radiocarbon dating and tree ring counting (dendrochronology), which led to dramaitc reassessments of time sequences.

Female despotism
The presence of male sacrifice in matrilineal cultures everywhere is what got me started on my hypothesis of a female autocracy. As I see it, the idea to create a goddess cult springs from a consciously and carefully constructed ideology that sees in the Great Mother Goddess a symbol of Womanhood, and in Woman the model for Human Being. The bizarre idea that the fertilizing male must be sacrificed to guarantee the fruitfulness of the goddess (and of all living things) is therefore the brainchild of powerful female rulers who refuse to relinquish their power.

For some thoughts on why the murder of the Goddess's bridegroom became the central event in female religion, see next post.

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