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Gendered Pantheons or My goddess doesn’t want to beat up your god

I’ve been reading the novel Phaedra by June Rachuy Brindel (St. Martin’s Press, 1985) about the story of Phaedra and thinking more about the transition of the worship of Gaia, the earth goddess, to the Olympian pantheon that I talked about in my first and second posts on Delphi.  Brindel sets up the action of the novel, the confrontation between Phaedra and Theseus, as a confrontation between the life-giving power of the earth goddess and the kind of world that worshipped the earth goddess to the war mongering of those who keep the cult of the Olympians.  Even Zeus must keep justice with violence.  

I’ve been reading the Greeks for a long time, but I never realized before how much of a break or a shift occurs from the worship of the earth mother goddess to the Olympians, even though the earth mother goddess never entirely disappears — at Delphi and on the Athenian Acropolis, there is still the memory of a previous cult.  At Delphi, there is still even the Rock of Sybil that was said to be the sanctuary of the earth goddess and her priests.  (I imagine the question of the severity of this shift is in dispute.  Are the Olympians really a break from the earlier model or are they many manifestations of the earth goddess?)  Brindel’s novel suggests that the shift is a cultural one from a more peace-loving world to a world of war and heroes that we find in the Homeric epics and the violent gods that we find in Hesiod’s Theogony.  I have always thought that one needed to just accept the violence of the epics as the background of war in which human beings showed who they were because war just was the way things were.  This idea that there was an earlier civilization not obsessed with war opens up the possibility of criticizing the civilization whose mythology grows out of war culture, even to the extent that what it meant to be good, agathos, was to be successful in war.  Brindel’s novel makes the case that this is a masculine replacement of the life-giving earth goddess.  To those who might argue, yes, but nature shows itself to be violent and so Hesiod’s account of the gods, if this is the account to which we turn to find the violent war account, is just describing nature, we could respond that indeed nature brings into being as things pass out of being, but does it seek death for the sake of its own ambition?  Perhaps this is the complicated part, since the partisan of the Olympians might argue that indeed, nature’s ambition is to continue to bring forth and the way must be cleared for more bringing forth, and in this way, nature reflects war.  This view makes nature  an active shooter clearing the space for his own power.

Reading this novel and reflecting on the conflict between the maternal goddess and the masculine war gods that replace them puts me in mind of two feminist theorists who both draw on this idea, Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Luce Irigaray.  Anzaldúa attended the University of Texas, Pan American (soon to be the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley) where I taught for five years before coming to Wabash College and I learned from her how even the way we think can betray a masculine warlike desire to eliminate the other instead of to join together in a fruitful mingling of ideas.  Anzaldúa argues in Borderlands / La Frontera that when the earth goddess of the Aztec tradition, who holds both  masculine and feminine powers within herself like the mita y mita, half and half, is overcome by masculine gods who drive apart the masculine and the feminine a repression of the feminine occurs for the sake of the masculine and a age of war is ushered in.  Sidenote: Anzaldúa associates herself with the goddess, Coatlalopeuh, the serpent goddess, which interestingly connects to the earth goddess at Delphi whose son was Pytho, the snake that Apollo overcomes to set up his own cult at Delphi. Another side note: the tenth year anniversary celebration of Anzaldúa’s death was just held at her grave in Hargill, Texas in mid-May.  The altar set up at the grave with its mixture of gods and traditions and the ritual dance at the grave point to Anzaldúa’s work on the connection between life-giving blood and life-taking blood and the clash between the feminine and masculine gods.

The other thinker this novel recalls for me is Luce Irigaray, the French poststructuralist and deconstructivist feminist thinker, argues in Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference that we have lost our capacity to have relations between women, true relations between women, relations not mediated by the phallic signifier of masculinity, because we have annihilated the feminine goddess.  I’m especially struck by the connection between Irigaray’s notion that true relation between women requires unmediated relations between daughters and mothers and Brindel’s conclusion of the novel that leaves us searching for Phaedra’s daughter in Eleusis.  Brindel thus seems to be making this case that what is at stake in the possibility for daughters to be joined to mothers is a renewal of a sense of a mythology and cult that has a place for the feminine.

Irigaray, Brindel and Anzaldua together are making a case about the cultural shifts that occur because people replace their sense of significance and reality in the world as growing from the earth to one where people consider their significance and reality in terms of overcoming others (overcoming others to establish one’s own sense of self being at the heart of Freud’s maturity-invoking castration and Oedipus complexes).  In these fertile lands, one could see a time before a sense of scarcity when people didn’t think they needed to overcome others in order to exist.  That there was excess and the capacity for it seems evident extending back to the Mesolithic around 7000 BCE.  Just today, we saw at the Nafplion Archaeological Museum that large communal storage spaces were signs that people were able to cultivate the land to excess, and Aristotle reminds us in Politics I that the capacity for excess distracts us from living well and leads us to rather live large.  I’m sure that more research has been done on what led to war cultures, and I know there is some work on how sacrifice seems to follow from the structure of the hunt (Eg. Rene Girard, The Violence of the Sacred, though Jean-Pierre Vernant challenges that view)  But you could have a hunt in which there was the sacrifice of the hunted animal in a way that does not lead to and produce excessive violence just for the sake of manifesting the power of one group over another.  My point is that warrior culture is not just another extension of a natural world that can be violent.  (I’ve been skimming Bruce Lincoln’s Death, War and Sacrifice and I can see that the weakness of this argument would be if one could not find evidence of a culture without war playing a large role in its rituals – my brief skimming makes me think that there is some dispute about this).

Part of what is at stake in this is a view of nature and a question of whether human beings at war are just reflecting nature or whether they are perverting it.  This question itself opens up the problem with supposing that nature discloses itself as a ground to justify human actions: it is against this view of nature that people seem compelled to find whether things have always been a certain way as if that will become the justification for the way things are and thus, should continue to be.  I argue in my own work that nature as a ground is surely a moving one that doesn’t prescribe in advance.  And the question of whether human beings need to reflect or further the project of nature can’t itself be answered with a recourse to nature, at least not in any obvious way.  But if religious practices and conceptions of gods reflect human investments, a reminder of an earth mother goddess shows at the very least the historical contingency of the masculine investment in war as the place of character-development and meaning giving.

I recognize I’m doing some serious speculating in this piece.  My time in Greece has been most beneficial for me in introducing me to new and better-informed questions.  Thinking about the shift from Gaia to Zeus opens questions about the Minoans and their own war practices, questions about whether Homer was reflecting the gods of the time in which he was writing or the gods of the time he was writing about, questions about how archaeological evidence shows us what people worshipped, and questions about the way we defend practices with reference to history in an attempt to make history the slate for nature.  I am particularly interested in this last question.

I’ll leave you with several lines from Sophocles’ Antigone, the lines that Brindel uses to introduce the last section of the novel.

CREON: An enemy
can never be a friend, not even in death.
ANTIGONE: But my nature is to love. I cannot hate.
CREON: Then go down to the dead. If you must love,
love them. No woman’s going to govern me—
no, no—not while I’m still alive.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Marina #

    Interesting. Reminds me also of Socrates’ first city in the Republic, and the second city whose luxuries require going to war built on top of the first one.

    June 16, 2014
    • That’s a good point, Marina. And yet in the Republic, the gods are very much cleaned up. Do you think there is a gendering of the expanded city?

      June 16, 2014
  2. Anne Schultz #

    The dynamic you talk about with the older feminine goddess is present in pretty much every archaeological site I’ve been to. Great to see how much the trip is stimulating your thinking. There’s a good bit of literature on Homer and critique of war culture. I also see some of that in Plato with Socrates’ appropriation of the feminine in so many places.

    It is also interesting to think about this dynamic in terms of the landscape of contemporary philosophy as well.

    Anyway, loving the blog.

    June 16, 2014
    • Thanks Anne! I think I am especially interested in any evidence that the earlier feminine goddess was a part of a less war mongering culture. And too, if the masculine replacement of the feminine goddess brings war, what does the masculine replacement of the feminine voice in Plato bring? I want to avoid essentialism here, and I do wonder if Socrates himself doesn’t have a certain femininity to him, though of course he sends Xanthippe and the flute girls away, and co-opts Diotima’s story (I think this co-opting is related to my post about the European co-opting of Greek culture for its own sake, too). But one could argue that Socrates pushes the notion that there is no center, that the measure will always fail, that the good is beyond being, that we need to start again because our argument has failed — forget phalluses, human existence is one of castration – we’re all women now? I know some people would think that is too generous, but…

      June 16, 2014
  3. This makes nature an “active shooter”? Oh boy. As for this point, it is a little strange that you are opposing life and death to one another, as I think they seem interdependent in this manner. Also, doesn’t Nietzsche poses the camel and then the lion prior to the child–(the carrier-transmitter and) the destroyer before the creator.

    When I mentioned Phaedra, I was referring to Racine’s play. Reading this gave me pause to think how these points might be related to Racine’s plot. Phaedra is an interesting character in this novel because she has successfully sublimated her desires (for Hyppolitus) up to the point of Theseus’ purported death. She then indulges them, but without (although this is not at all explicit) sufficient time for mourning and it is this that is the cause of the tragedy.

    Interesting quote from Antigone

    June 17, 2014
    • What I am trying to think about is what the difference in conceptions of nature between the cult of Gaia and the cult of Olympians might be. I was suggesting a distinction between nature that lets die and nature that goes out to eliminate in order to allow the new things to live. We’ve been sitting on this little terrace in Greece becoming overwhelmed by cats and kittens. There is this one little kitten, we call her Tiny Cat, who can’t seem to get on the mommy cat’s teat because the other kittens push her away. She’s really small and I think she’s dying. The mommy cat seems now to be putting all her efforts in the bigger kittens. For me this is heartbreaking. And I keep trying to ignore it. But it keeps making me think. If the cult of Gaia is about excess, then why doesn’t this mommy cat appreciate the excess of this third life (there are two other kittens)? She seems to want to let it die so there can be more for the other cats. It makes you feel that if scarcity accompanies war cults or leads to war cults, the cats learned it too. But if on the other hand scarcity has always been a part of nature’s being, then the cult of Gaia (nature in its fullness) is actively letting things die too. So is the difference between the cult of Gaia and the cult of Olympia only something that can be understood from the perspective of human beings and how we think about the natural world? I’m not sure that is entirely the solution though it seems obvious, because I think there is a sense for the Greeks that these worlds–the political world, the natural world, the world of the gods–are all reflections of the same logic. Thanks for commenting.

      June 23, 2014

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