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Modern Muse
Adriana Lima in Elle Magazine

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Femininity Throughout The Ages

Egyptian culture seemed to have a healthy respect for the feminine principle. Isis was one of the most revered deities, and also had an influence on later cultures. Several pharaohs were woman, and queens such as Nefertiti have been sufficiently revered that their names and images are with us today. Women appear as more than just slave girls in Egyptian art. Some woman even portrayed themselves with (and wore false) facial hair, which was not to deny their femininity, but rather to symbolize wisdom.
Socially, Minoan women had the same status as men, and ate with men. Many sculptures from Minoan sites portray fierce and beautiful goddesses that were fertile and strong.
Greek culture seemed to have contradictory ideas about women. Socially, women were treated as second class, with few exceptions like Asphasia and Sappho. (It should be noted however that Sappho was from Lesbos, a Greek Island that had slightly more progressive views.) Yet when one reads Greek literature, strong women abound. Lysistrata, Clytemnestra, Antigone, Medea-whatever one may think of their actions, these characters are certainly powerful. And what of the goddesses? A veritable pantheon of women. Yet one notes an interesting pattern. Excluding Persephone, the women fall into three categories: Mother (Demeter and Hestia), Sexual (Hera and Aphrodite), and Virginal (Athena and Artemis). This almost anticipates the “Madonna-Whore” Complex. We have goddesses of the hearth and earth who are necessary, kind, but have few of their own stories. Demeter’s story shows her as the ultimate good mother, who is so distraught at the loss of a child, the whole world is plunged into winter. Hera and Aphrodite use sex to get what they want, and Artemis and Athena are sometimes androgynous.
Judaism, which also has many noble female characters and even had relative protection of women’s rights when it came to divorce, failed to bring these stories to their full feminine power. There are elusive references to prophetesses in the Bible; the story of Esther is one of heroism. The flaw in Judaism is not that they completely ignored the feminine, but just that in most communities it was played down as secondary to the masculine.
Gnostic Christianity had an incredibly progressive view of gender equality. Jesus’ disciples preached that God is “no respecter of persons”, but rather sees all humanity regardless of sex, ethnicity, etc. as equal. In the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, which Gnostics adhered to, Jesus advocated a balance of masculine and feminine power and even showed a special admiration for Mary Magdalene.
These gospels have been (and still are) rejected by mainstream Christianity. The codifying of “official” Christian scripture instead favored other writings, such as Paul’s ambiguous writings about marriage. The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has been played down, denied, or scandalized by many people depending on their motives and respect for Christianity in general. One Christian writer, namely this one, thinks that the denial of this relationship is unnecessary, and that whatever the extent of this friendship (or more) it is largely irrelevant to the basic theology of Christianity.
As early medieval priests in the mainstream decided to remain celibate, the role of woman again became relegated to one of sex: women are a vehicle of childbirth or of sexual pleasure, and this pleasure was deemed carnal and evil. This was supported by the two basic female archetypes that existed in early medieval Europe: Ma Donna Mary, or Eve, portrayed as a sinner and a whore. It became accepted that the “Forbidden Fruit” Eve and Adam tasted was actually sex, and that because Eve “tasted” it first, she seduced Adam beyond his ability to resist. The account in Genesis merely states that the fruit was knowledge, which may be sexual or not. This view further simplifies women as only having to do with sex, makes villainy of sex, and over simplifies characters in a book that is incredibly complex.
In the High Middle Ages, this began to shift in other realms, though the church still tried to keep a short leash on things. Eleanor of Aquitaine provided a strong female role model and supported old Celtic stories that celebrated “natural” impulses like sex and curiosity and fused them with Christian ideals of service, mercy, and sanctity. The cult of the virgin arose, honoring Mary not just in the simplified role as mother of God, but also as a strong woman who agreed to an enormous task that included supporting her son’s controversial doctrine and watching him be martyred under the brutal Roman system of capital punishment. This holistic synthesis paved the way for women’s rights up to the present, not only in the sense of community respect, but self-respect.


Jak said...

Wow a lot to think about here. I love these types of discussions and issues even though I am easily annoyed by some people's "feminist" stance.
So, in our church we believe that Eve actually made a more concious decision about eating the fruit beyond just giving in to temptation (correct me if I'm wrong). She did this with some sort of knowledge or faith (?) that they must leave the garden in order to have seed and progress. My understanding is that we have this as part of our teachings through modern revelation. Do you by chance know of any other works or writings that would support this? When discussing this with someone of a different faith who, just to make this simple, sees Eve as a temptress and/or someone who simply gave in to temptation and got Adam to follow her, and they don't want to listen to our views because they are unfounded as far as they are concerned, do you have any good arguments?

The Damsel said...

I really have no idea. If there is others who think like we do, they probably are not religious and it would be a more literary/humanist interpretation. As a general rule, humanists and religion don't go hand in hand, which I think is strange since the purpose of most religion is somewhat humanist, particularly ours, and Christianity in general. I suppose the opposite is arguable as well. Sadly, few evangelists of any faith, ours included, have a very humanist sensibility or emphasis.
The motif of a woman breaking some rule or risking some paradise as a necessary step in individuation and growth is universal one-Eve's apple, Snow White's, Sleeping Beauty's spindle, Pandora's box. And that's just the west. I highly recommend Amor and Psyche by Apuleius with commentary by Erich Neumann. I own it, if you want to borrow.

fluxlife said...

it's interesting how feminism has a connection to sex and western religion's attempts to deal with it. i think most of the patriarchal priests have always tried to repress sexuality, and blame any outward expressions of it on women. that's the view i'm familiar with.

now hinduism, that religion does not repress sex and sexuality. just the opposite. in fact they say you can make love to god.

just thought i'd jot down two opposing views on the subject.

excellent post! i'll be back to reread it some more!

have a happy new year!

-steve @ fluxlife

Jak said...

I think fluxlife has a good point. There seems, to me in my limited education of it all, to be two extremes- which I think you expressed in your post. Sex and women are either forbidden and carnal and evil or it's the opposite. I remember discussing these types of issues and the relation to feminism in some class in college and thinking it was silly to make that leap. Now I feel I have a much better understanding. Women are so sexualized, one way or the other and it's a big part of our identity either by nature or nuture. Which actually goes back to the question about Eve.
I appreciate your comments (and your email!). I was hoping to discuss this some more. In this context, it almost seems silly to write her off as simply giving in to temptation. If God was starting a whole earth of people, why would he create someone so flakey to be the mother of us all? (Actually, that might be an interesting question- His purpose in creation). I'm glad you pointed out the humanist/literary views of it. Perhaps this is where we would find a more open view of her. Perhaps in an "argument" those opinions would hold more weight because they are not religious in nature.
I'd love to borrow your book!

The Damsel said...

I think this dichotomy is definitely apparent-even today, and even ironically, in some forms of feminism, in which any show of femininity is considered a regression. Steve hits it right on the head-make villainy of sex (as opposed to considering it important)and women suffer.
Hinduism, as far as I understand it, is very cool-and in my opinion contains a lot of truth. I love-and more or less believe-that we are pieces of God (or the Gods) themselves for example. And in light of our current conversation, this is bound to create a better self-concept. God's purpose in creation has to have a direct effect on that because if you believe you are pieces of or descendants of God, that's different from being only servants of God.

mudderbear said...

WOW You just get going and then you stop. Can you write a second chapter to all this? It's an important subject to discuss, especially in this day and age when women are finally being recognized as strong and able.

Jak said...

I completely agree with femininity looking like a regression as far as feminist principles are concerned. We have all these rights etc now but then if we want to be home with the baby or find true love or be pretty and frilly, that's like a bad thing?
And I love your thoughts on being pieces of God- I'm with mudder! We need a chapter two... start typing!