Mother/Nature

Judging from the continued cultural resistance to both feminism and environmentalism, I think we can safely say that both woman and nature have an image problem. As an ecofeminist, I would maintain that these image problems are related — that the degradation of the environment and the oppression of women arise from a single source — that woman, nature and the earth are tarred with the same brush — a brush which is wielded by all religions of the Abrahamic traditions, but specifically Christianity.

Therefore, if we are successfully to oppose and cure this syndrome, we must understand the logic (the mytho-log-ic and the ana-log-ic) behind the seemingly illogical association of unrelated ideas (woman and the environment). To discover why woman is an analog for nature and vice-versa, and why both woman and nature are devalued in Christian culture, means taking a look at the mythological landscape out of which our value system grew.

Along the lines of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, one could make the argument that just as the human infant, whose first and most significant encounter is its mother, first becomes conscious of its mother and her importance in its life, an infant humanity, whose first and most significant encounter is with nature, first develops a cultural consciousness — a religion and value system– organized around its dependence on nature, which it understands as an analog for the human mother. Let me explain.

One can imagine a time when we saw ourselves as dependent on Mother Nature for our care and feeding, and her sister Mother Earth for our home — just as infants are dependent on their human mothers. A time when an abundance of grains, fruits, and vegetables were imaged as emerging from the womb of Earth — a time when game, fish, fowl, and eggs were provided by Nature through her representatives — the females of all species. One can imagine a time when we looked to Earth and Nature to provide us with the timber, stone and skins to shelter and clothe us. One can imagine a time when crystal clear springs flowed from Earth�s center, forming rivers and lakes, giving us water to drink, water to bathe in, water to cool us in the heat of the day.

Looked at this way, one can understand how a religion could arise within which Woman could be understood as an analog for Nature, and Nature an expression of the Feminine — when the womb of Woman, from which new human life emerged, became emblematic of Life-giving Nature, when the breasts of Woman, which nourished the new human life, became emblematic of Life-sustaining Earth, and when both Nature and Earth were understood as our Mother.

One can also imagine a time when the human species was trying to get a foothold on this planet — when at least some part of the human species recognized woman and women’s work as key to human survival; when woman was recognized as making the primary human contribution to human life — to the survival of the species and not just individual humans (although, of course, she was responsible for that too). One can imagine a time early in human history when men recognized the value of woman’s contribution to survival and when every member of the human species, male and female alike, recognized that they had their human mother as well as their mother nature to thank for their lives.

To take this one step further, one can imagine a time early in human history when humans were not aware of the relationship between intercourse and pregnancy with the result that humans not only viewed the female of the species as the primary contributor to the Life Project, and, as such, the possessor of skills and powers critical to survival, but also regarded her as the Sole Source of life — and valued her accordingly.

During this stage in the evolution of our cultural psyche, one can imagine that early humanity understood its role vis-�-vis the Feminine (Nature and Woman) as one of gratitude and dependence, rather than domination and control — a time when humanity�s goal vis-�-vis the Feminine was not to differentiate itself and assert its independence from Her, but to recognize our utter dependence on Her and to feel a profound gratitude for her generosity and service to us, whether Nature or Woman, and value Her accordingly. And during this stage in the evolution of western values, one can imagine that humans developed a religious system to support these beliefs — a religious system or mythology that conflated ideas of nature and woman into a single concept — a Mother-goddess who functioned as a dominant religious symbol. However, we don�t really have to rely on our imaginations.

Thousands of years ago in the area known as the Ancient Near East where myths and statues abounded in which Creation was seen as emerging from the body of a goddess or being made from the body of a goddess, the ability to bring forth and sustain new life was recognized as critical to the survival of the species — whether on the part of Woman or Nature. Procreation became a symbol for creation. At that time, human procreation and the creation of all life were understood as primarily �a woman thing.� Nature and Earth were understood as the Source of All Life, while Woman was understood as the source of human life. Nature and Earth were often imaged as Woman in her reproductive capacity (Mother Nature, Mother Earth), while Woman, as Mother, was understood as an instrument of Nature and the Earth. Nature, Earth, and Woman, a feminine trinity, if you will, comprised the Feminine Principle, which was often symbolized by a statue of a naked woman, pregnant or lactating or later as a Goddess or multiple Goddesses.

According to Joseph Campbell –

In the Neolithic village …, the focal figure of all mythology and worship was the bountiful goddess Earth, as the mother and nourished of life and receiver of the dead for rebirth …. (perhaps 7500-3500 BC in the Levant)….[I}n the temples even of the first of the higher civilizations (Sumer 3500-3550 B.C.), the Great Goddess … was….the arch personification of the power of Space, Time, and Matter, within whose bound all beings arise and die: the substance of their bodies, configurator of their lives and thoughts, and receiver of their dead. And everything having form or name…was her child, within her womb.

Toward the close of the Age of Bronze and, more strongly, with the dawn of the Age of Iron (c. 1250 B.C. in the Levant), the old cosmology and mythologies of the goddess mother were radically transformed, reinterpreted, and in large measure even suppressed, by those suddenly intrusive patriarchal warrior tribesmen whose traditions have come down to us chiefly in the Old and New Testaments and in the myths of Greece. (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Penguin Books, 1964, p. 7)

She was the central religious symbol of polytheistic earth-centered or pagan religious traditions which arose in the Ancient Near East. So powerful was she that her image covertly lives on even in patriarchal Christianity. The dyad of mother and child which became such a powerful image in Christianity as the Madonna and Christ was a religious symbol which long predated Christianity and which symbolized the creatrix and her creation. Other Christian themes which have pagan origins are the many depictions of Mary offering her breast to the infant Christ; in pagan times this image was emblematic of the Earth feeding humanity. The many-breasted Artemis is an example of an image of Earth�s largesse.

From archaeological finds and mythological literature we know that pagan societies of the Ancient Near East worshipped the Feminine Principle — whether Ishtar, Asheroth, Astarte or Artemis — as the source of life and as critical to the survival of the human species, and had developed religions and value systems based on this belief. In addition, we can construe the existence and importance of goddess-centered paganism by looking at the religious system which developed out of and in reaction to paganism — the religion of God the Father — which dawned along with the Iron Age around 1200 BCE and which was, as Campbell points out, largely responsible for transforming, reinterpreting, and suppressing the worldview based on worship of the mother-goddess. In seizing every opportunity to profane the Sacred Feminine and everything associated with her, patriarchal monotheism testifies to her power and her role in the survival of our species.

During the two thousand years which preceded the appearance of the Hebrew God the Father (ca. 3500-1500 B.C.E.) in the Ancient Near East, the natural, social, political, economic and intellectual factors which had given birth to and sustained the pagan worldview over many thousands of years changed dramatically.

In the epoch of the hieratic city state (3500-2500 B.C.), the basic cultural traits of all the high [sic] civilizations that have flourished since (writing, the wheel, the calendar, mathematics, royalty, priestcraft, a system of taxation, bookkeeping, etc.) suddenly appear, prehistory ends and the literate era dawns. (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1969, p.404)

Over this two thousand year period, Sumerians and Akkadians, Assyrians, and Egyptians swept over the Ancient Near East, destroying the hunter-gatherer cultures and their nature-centered religious practices and establishing empires ruled by tyrants who arrogated to themselves the power of life and death. Increasingly, the Bronze Age worldview became �There is one law, one king, one state�(Campbell, p. 404. Humanity in this part of the world began to understand that their lives no longer depended on nature but on the state and the king, who had taken control of the resources to support the needs of an urban populace and the military needed to defend it.

Psychologically, this meant that because humanity no longer saw itself as dependent on Nature for life, but as dependent on the state and the king, Nature was no longer sacred in their eyes, no longer viewed as a power to be grateful to and revered, but instead was viewed merely an entity to be exploited. Although the Goddess continued to be a force to be reckoned with, these new ways of thinking about survival sank deep into the unconscious of the people and began to eat away at the roots of Goddess belief.

In addition, a stubborn resistance to the power of the city states led a small group of independent-minded nomads who we know as the Hebrews to envision a transcendent God who combined the characteristics of �one law, one king, one state� and who competed directly with the real kings who were threatening them. They saw this God as their champion — and their only chance — against the marauding armies. In God, they had created a tyrant and a law and a state of their very own whose power was superior to any earthly king they might come up against. These people in their zeal for their new lord completely disavowed the Mother Goddess. In fact, for them, she became synonymous with evil. Sticking with her and the beliefs surrounding her meant death and destruction in this new world order. In this new world order, the key to survival and success lay with the warrior not the mother — the taker of life, not the giver of life.

During the next thousand years, the millennium which preceded the advent of Christianity and during which the God-centered religion of the Hebrews matured, more armies came and went in the Ancient Near East and more empires were established and fell apart. But the people of the land of Israel hung on to their God, and as various empires swept over and through their lands, their concept of God began to gain ground in the sphere of a developing western human consciousness. In addition, changes in science i.e., our latest and greatest understanding of how the world works, altered the way the intellectuals and opinion-makers (priests and philosophers) of the times looked at things, influencing both Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion. And because these new ideas contradicted assumptions about reality which had supported paganism, they gave credibility to patriarchal monotheism.

For example, around 400 BCE the Greek Aristarchus theorized that, instead of the Sun revolving around the Earth, the Earth revolved around the Sun. Psychologically, this meant that we no longer felt the same way about the earth as we had previously. She, who had been the center of our lives, became only an ancillary heavenly body. Instead the masculinized sun became the center of her universe and ours — present in all early religious paintings as the halo or solar disc which signified the sacred. He determined her course and her direction. She was only along for the ride.

Note: Although this view was not officially recognized until the renaissance when it was popularized by Galileo, it was �out there� among the intellectuals and was influencing the development of Western consciousness. The Catholic Church was trying to hold on to and stay grounded in the earthiness of an earth-centered worldview and incorporated this view into its religious belief through the offices of the Virgin Mary. It is not coincidence that the rejection of Ptolemaic geocentrism in favor of the Copernican heliocentrism dovetailed with the Protestant Church�s rejection of Mary.

About the same time, Aristotle put forth the idea that the male was solely responsible for the creation of life, i.e., that semen carried the seed of life, which he called the homunculus, which was injected into the female during sexual intercourse. The body of the woman, previously seen as the source of life, served merely as an incubator. Psychologically, this meant that just as the earth was subordinated to the sun, woman became subordinated to man.

Note: In contradistinction to the previous error vis-�-vis human reproduction which had given short shrift to the male role, the scientific theory that was put forward by the intellects of the Hebraic/Hellenic world, e.g., Aristotle, claimed that only the male, through his sperm, provided the seed of life, which was planted in the womb of woman. Woman was the empty vessel — the incubator — within which the new life grew and developed. To the procreative project, woman contributed corruptible matter, while the male contributed life itself.

This theory was wildly popular and universally taken up and enthusiastically subscribed to for 2000 years — until the scientific discovery of the ovum in the 19th century, made possible by the use of the microscope — a real ball breaker. God�s unilateral act of creation, in which the feminine role was totally emptied out, symbolizes this 2000-year misunderstanding. Since we now know the facts of life, isn�t it time to restore some balance?

No longer did we see Earth as the center of the universe. No longer did we believe that the Earth, unaided by Sun or Seed, was the sole source of natural life (did a prolonged cloud cover, perhaps the result of a volcanic eruption, show us that sunlight was also necessary for life?). And no longer did we believe that Woman, unaided by the male, was the sole source of human life. If anything, the new understanding of the nature of things was a complete reversal of what had gone before. Nature, Earth, Woman became the symbol for all that was dead and empty and lifeless without the vivifying influence of the Male and his analog the masculinized Sun.

Just as the sun�s rays came down from heaven and penetrated and enlivened the earth, just as the plow cut a furrow in the earth, just as the farmer sowed seeds in the earth, so the male sowed the seeds of life in the female — be it animal or human — or nature herself. With our new understanding of the natural order of things, the scales fell from our eyes and we discovered that Life came from the Sun and the Father, not Earth and the Mother, from Spirit not Matter. And, just like that, Earth and the Mother fell from grace.

In this new world, control of the resources, rather than the resources themselves, became the key to survival. Patriarchal monotheism, which pitted man against nature, mind over matter, and men against women, arose in contradistinction to matrifocal, polytheistic paganism and had as its #1 objective and survival strategy the eradication of the values associated with paganism through the installation of an opposing value system — a system based on the idea that males, and especially powerful males, had cornered the market on value. In our zeal to rectify the mistakes of previous generations, we went overboard and denied the value of the feminine and the earth altogether and we have been suffering the collective guilt of this original sin ever since.

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