Of Gods and Fathers


In 1776 an enlightened group proclaimed that they held it to be self-evident that all men were created equal. That they saw fit to proclaim this implies that what had for them become self-evident might not always have been so, and might not yet be so for others. The history of slavery and subsequent civil war suggests this. More generally, it appears that what now seems self-evident to us was not always so. It depends on  our frames of thought and judgement. These frames evolve, and our understanding changes with them. It is remarkable now that as recently as 1776 it wasn’t self-evident that women also were created equal, or that even in European democracies they were without a vote until well into the twentieth century. These omissions are conspicuous in relation to what appears self-evident now. There is a deep and complex history behind them to which we must devote some attention, for they are indicative of a radical imbalance that characterises our modern way of being in the world.

Imagine that your head is pressed against a wall. All you can see close up is a grainy mess. Now imagine stepping back, noting ever more evidence of design until you see that you’ve been in the Alhambra all along. Expanding our frame of perception opens us to noticing what wasn’t apparent before. This principle doesn’t just apply to spatial environments. It applies equally to fixations in time. Thus, if we draw back from our preoccupation of a moment and consider the past that led to it, we will see evidence of pattern to inform our quest for healing and freedom. And yet philosophers argue that it is impossible for us, entrenched in our current frames of interpretation, to look back at other times and determine what they were really like, since the experiences of those who lived through them will have been shaped by their frames and not ours. But suppose we don’t care about this. What if we’re not concerned to establish the truth of the past, or ‘really’ know it. How liberating might this be?

My aim is to secure healing in our present. I propose to achieve this by applying a developmental method modelled on individual psychology to major transitional periods in the past, where cultures shift out of one framework of experience and interpretation into another. My assessment of these periods may not be universally agreed on but the patterns brought to light still speak for themselves. The first of them  concerns the shift from a foraging to an agricultural mode of production, with its attendant shift from a broadly matricentric to a patriarchal form of social organisation. The second concerns the shift from an agricultural to an industrial mode of production, with its attendant shift away from a religious to a scientific worldview. The third concerns the shift we’re currently facing from a modern worldview based on scientific rationality and industrial production into whatever our so-called postmodern world may prove to be.

In approaching each of these major transitional periods, we will look for evidence of pattern, both in terms of successful transformation from one era to the next and dissociation, which signals failure to conserve the accomplishments of our past. Evolution depends on effective integration of the new with the old as we move on. Developmentally, even as we pass through stages, we never have the option of not carrying something forward. A trauma we suffered at age five isn’t suddenly erased when we turn six, or forty. As long as it remains un-cleared, it conditions our behaviour and experience in the present. The only question is how aware we are of what we’re carrying from our past and how it continues to affect us in the present. We carry such traces from our collective as well as our personal histories. This is why we often need to step back from the walls of our present, to gain perspective and see what repressed issues from our past are ready to be admitted into consciousness for revaluation and possible release.

I propose to step back into prehistory. This is not an easy thing to do. It is necessary, however, since patterns of our current experience are still influenced by the fallout of ‘events’ that happened long ago and, in some ways, continue to happen. Each of the ‘events’ focused is preceded by a difficult transition and results in the emergence of a new form of social organisation. My account has no more hope of comprehensiveness than any other. I acknowledge it as cursory and provisional. Its aim is simply to articulate key patterns which will help us come more fully into our present. I will provide a more substantial rationale in due course.

Agriculture developed at different times in different parts of the world. It is associated with the transformation of foraging groups into settled communities. The area I shall focus on is the Middle East, where this transformation happened gradually between 7,000 and 3,000 B.C. The generic political form which it gave rise to is patriarchy – i.e., the rule of men or, more specifically, fathers. This has been so widespread for so long that we would still take it for granted were it not for the vigorous challenges of feminism in recent decades. I want to ask how men-fathers got themselves into such an entrenched position that it needed to be challenged in such a way in order for its apparently self-evident legitimacy to come into question. How did patriarchy get to be such a politically dominant form? For it appears that men weren’t always in such a privileged position. Why? Clearly, you can’t have a rule of fathers without knowing what a father is and it seems the male role in procreation was not widely appreciated before 3,000 B.C. It may not have been known at all as recently as eight thousand years ago. What was there before then? Feminist scholars propose a matricentric society in which mother-child units are central and ‘fathers’ evidently quite peripheral. (In such societies, the mother’s brother plays the role of social father to her child.) Patriarchy, they argue – far from being ‘natural’ – is only five thousand years old. This leaves at least fifty thousand years of human prehistory unaccounted for. How could such a situation come about?

The observable process of birthing makes clear to which mother a particular child belongs. Proof of paternity is not apparent in this way. Indeed, awareness of paternity seems not to have been established until opportunities arose to witness the breeding cycles of domesticated animals. This gave men an analogue of their fecundity, in terms of which they could understand their role. Prior to this, not understanding the nature of their involvement, breeding was assumed to be women’s prerogative. Their role was self-evident. Moreover, pregnancy and menstruation linked women to the periodicities of nature. We are conditioned to view such statements as reactionary. In pre-patriarchal societies, however, evidence from archaeology and mythology suggests a vibrant and pervasive sense of women-mothers at the heart of life, creativity and culture. This is the core image of ‘Goddess’ religions, in which the fecundity of women is assimilated to that of Nature and vice-versa, leaving men peculiarly marginalised and redundant before an awesome, mysterious power which they could neither experience nor comprehend.

It is likely that at least some women understood the nature of their pregnancies and also that they may have concealed this from men. This would go some way towards explaining vehement reaction following eventual clarification of the male role. Later it was proposed that men supply the vital genetic material and women are just as fallow fields. Thus woman is reduced from the role of creatrix to that of a passive vessel for men’s seed. This reversed an earlier imbalance by turning one form of subordination into its opposite, so that only new imbalance was achieved rather than a balanced sense of wholeness and sustainability. It is not the case that a new appreciation of men’s role was added to an already established appreciation of women’s. On the contrary, evidence suggests that the latter was repressed so that the ideal of balance was just as remote after the transition as it appears to have been before it.

But discovery of paternity isn’t the only change associated with the rise of agriculture. Agriculture generates surplus, population increase and a fear of expropriation by predatory groups.  The prospect of conflict thus induced creates a need for militarily coherent social units, capable of effective aggression. This warrants a revision of political structures and awareness. Condren, for instance, cites the elevation of Yahweh from a local god of place into a High God whose authority and jurisdiction exceeded that of particular tribal gods, thereby enabling the moulding of disparate groups into a single people, united under one God and, subsequently, King. Also, the atmosphere of recurring conflict warranted revaluation of fighting skills, which contributed further to giving men a cultural centrality they had lacked before. Such developments gradually eclipsed the relatively pacific values of matricentric societies. These were increasingly obliged to adapt or suffer conquest by invading nomads, warriors who had tamed the horse, or emerging patriarchal states which grew out of finding safety in numbers by the great fertile river valleys of the world.

Emerging patriarchal states bring with them emerging patriarchal hierarchies – kings, priests, warrior aristocracies and people – the basic structure of European feudal society up to our nineteenth century. As these patriarchal forms developed, the power of women was systematically reduced. Writing, like weaponry and the plough before it, was appropriated as a male technology by rulers anxious to legitimate their rule by reframing the past. New stories were required to represent the new order of society. Typically, this involved altering old myths to justify or conceal the diminishment of women. Not only were women removed from a position of cultural centrality they had previously enjoyed, their collective power was also broken by a radical shift away from a matrilineal, matrilocal mode of social organisation (in which descent is reckoned through the female line and ‘husbands’ go to live with their wives’ people) to the opposite – a patrilineal, patrilocal one, where descent is recknoed through the male line and women go to live with their husbands’ people. Once there was wealth to be protected and passed on, a new order of society was required, along with new measures to uphold it. These involved policing women’s sexuality to ensure paternity and correct succession.

A similar pattern is reflected in the gradual eclipse of Goddess religions by an emergent pantheon of increasingly powerful male gods, a trend which finally culminates in the institutionalisation of patriarchal monotheism. This process is typified in the emergence of the Hebrew Yahweh: a prototypical Father-God who transcends the world He creates. Men, formerly marginalised by their awe before the generative power of women, can now move to centre-stage by virtue of identifying with their new God. Thus they come to see themselves as being, like Him, super-natural: above nature. Women, by contrast, are relegated with a vehemence that suggests the overdue eruption of a deep, long-festering resentment. They are portrayed as bestial and tainted, incorrigibly steeped in what becomes the fallen natural world of Christian dogma. With the adoption of maleness as a norm, they are even seen as less than fully human.

Explicitly misogynistic legislation appears as patriarchy achieves institutional forms which are threatened by the survival of practices handed down from Goddess times. This locks women into increasingly restrictive specifications of a subordinate wife-mother role. Their fertility is derogated and taken to depend on men for its fulfilment through impregnation. They are viewed as instruments, vessels for bearing children as the earth bears fruit, out of necessity rather than discretion, and subject to men’s will as nature is to God’s. They are said to be driven by a rampant, instinctive sexuality, fearful and insatiable, warranting coercion and restraint. Thus, in early Greek, Roman and Judaeo-Christian law, women are consigned to the private realm of domestic management. Men command the more urgent public sphere of political decision-making. Even sequestered, women are said to remain dangerously unpredictable and in need of controlled if the male order of society is to be upheld. This has been accomplished by a range of physical and psychological means, from silencing, veiling and confinement to the application of rings, rods and plugs. Use of the latter clearly suggests an assimilation of women to the category of livestock and presupposes an astonishingly deep-seated misogyny, the origins and significance of which must be sought at an equally deep level.

We have seen how women were intimately identified with Nature due to their apparent capacity to bring forth life from within themselves, and also how this association was eventually turned against them. In Goddess times, Nature herself was venerated as a Great Mother. Human beings were attuned to her rhythms and immersed in her seasons. Thus, in so far as we were moved by religious impulses, these arose out of an experience of direct participation in the processes of the natural world. Hence our sense of sacredness was identified with all of Nature and experienced as integral to her. Thus, when we speak of deity in this context, this deity or God/dess-principle has to be acknowledged 1) as female and 2) as immanent – i.e., as indwelling in Nature rather than being external to or transcendent of her.

This situation alters dramatically with the advent of patriarchy, which is characterised by the emergence of a male priesthood and, eventually in the Western tradition, the postulate of a male God who transcends the natural world that He creates. This God confers His divinity on the world, which is no longer seen as divine on its own account. Thereafter, sacredness is no longer intrinsic to Nature. Rather our world expresses the creative largesse of a God who exists outside it, occupying a position ‘above’ Nature from which He surveys and comprehends the whole. Sacredness, or divinity, is now referred to and held to derive from this male, transcendent deity. Thus Nature is no longer intrinsically sacred nor identified with the Divine Feminine. It is seen as a fallen world, a place where – after Genesis – humankind must serve out a period of exile by way of atonement for the primordial sin which caused God to look on us with disfavour. And Eve, archetypal temptress whose weakness in the Garden led to our loss of that mythic Paradise, is still identified with this fallen state. She also introduces a new and lasting image of women as ‘occasions of sin’, whose seductive ways are said to deflect men from their properly supernatural calling and lure them into depredations of the flesh.

The outcome of this anti-female animus was a repression not just of actual women but also of ways of knowing and being associated with expressions of their former power. The Feminine per se was repressed, leading to drastic imbalance in all subsequent patriarchal societies, including cultural and political forms down to 1776 and beyond. Moreover, gender polarisation led to a widespread crippling of individual psychology from which we are only now recovering. Also, the institutionalisation of patriarchal religion brought about a polarisation of immanent and transcendent aspects of deity, whereby one was literally set against the other, with patriarchy’s Father-God triumphing over the Earth-Mother/Goddess in the context of their new oppositional relationship. Such chauvinistic fundamentalism obscured vital symbolic values that might otherwise have informed our awareness: specifically, esoteric tradition describes a dynamic interplay between a downward movement of spiritual descent into matter and a complementary upward movement of spiritual ascent. This is a mythic characterisation which draws on the teachings of ancient ‘mystery’ traditions. Originally, myths were teaching stories which sought to render in poetic form an account of core human potentials for those who would otherwise lack awareness of them. These ‘mysteries’ were also transmitted directly by experiential means in closed teaching communities. Myths are relatively accessible codifications of this special knowledge. They are not transparent, however, and literal interpretations invariably produce an impression that they are nonsense. Treating them as metaphorical systems leads to very different results (see ‘Mythos for Beginners’).

The picture is complicated because even myths were subject to patriarchal revision. Thus sexuality, already linked with women as occasions of sin, became tied to ‘fallen nature’ rather than ‘ascensionist’ spiritual cultures built by males who considered themselves closer to a new Sky God in whose image and likeness they were said to be made. Sexuality came to be viewed as a matter of ‘animal necessity’ while freedom was associated with its ‘opposite’, spiritual volition. Spiritual striving was said to elevate ‘men’ above the condition of fallen nature while true human fulfilment was said to be found through attainment of a literally super-natural condition, lifting us above Nature and closer to our exclusively transcendent God. Thus men were exhorted to rise above temptations of the flesh while women were reviled as sources of them, less able to exercise restraint due to their deeper immersion in the ways of animal nature. Freedom was seen as the opposite of necessity. Hence, both men and women were expected to exercise willpower to control instinctual tendencies in order that we might rise above the merely biological urges of our physical bodies. We were  taught to experience shame and guilt for failing to do so. Thus, instead of being balanced and whole, we were made to feel guilty and split. We were taught not to trust nature, including our own inner natures. We were taught to inhibit and control. Spontaneity was suspect and expression dangerous. Such a prescription was bound to lead to destructive overspills and, in time, it did. It also engendered a deeply divisive rift between properly complementary tendencies of our human spiritual impulse – i.e., properly complementary yin-yang tendencies and movements of spiritual ascent- descent noted previously. These have never been held in appropriately balanced relationship and experience in affected cultures has always been disordered as a result.

Within the symbolic frame of a coherent mythological account, however, it is realised that human beings live in a condition of dramatic tension between complementary motions of spiritual ascent and descent. When this backdrop is not appreciated, a necessary element of dynamic balance is lost and self-righteous, self-aggrandizing polarisations tends to follow. Powerful in-groups project repressed Shadow aspects on to ‘opposite’ out-groups and seek to contain or eradicate them there. In our example, one pole – the male, transcendent one – was elevated to a point of suppressing the female, immanent pole and allowed to dominate it. This created a dangerous imbalance and relegated awareness of our need to maintain a dynamic, mutually enriching relationship between these polarities, both within individuals and in cultures as a whole. What happened was that transcendence got divorced from and valued over immanence, as was male over female and masculine over feminine. Thus spirituality came to be associated exclusively with the ‘higher’ transcendent pole and sexuality with the ‘lower’ (feminine) one. This last split was especially disastrous, since it established the conditions for a long-lasting hatred of  the body in Western culture, along with a shame-based sense of human physicality and recurring waves of sexual neurosis which erupted periodically into chaos, as in the European ‘witch craze’.

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