Before the sages of the first Diaspora of Hebrews into
Babylon invented the idea of monotheism to accommodate the necessity of making their
Yahweh portable, Judaism was a polytheistic religion, which borrowed much of its mythology
from the surrounding cultures, including ancient Sumer and Greece. The pantheons of all of
these ancient cultures, Sumer, Israel and Greece, included Goddesses in all of their
cyclical aspects, birth, life and death. The cultures and religions of Sumer and ancient
Greece are gone; however, Judaism and Christianity flourish as the cultural and religious
underpinning of much of the western world. Its monotheistic metaphors have evolved in a
way that exclude all but male deity as supreme, and where remnants of female deity are
extant, they are diminished in importance (the Virgin Mary, in New Testament Christianity)
and their dark aspects are demonized (Lilith, in Old Testament Judaism.)
To survey all of the Goddess or even just the three aspects of
a limited number of Goddesses in the ancient world would take volumes. An attempt to
handle any more of the many dark Goddesses, for instance Kali of the Indian pantheon or
any of the many dark Goddesses of the pre-Islamic world, China, Japan, Hawaii, or the
pre-conquest Americas, would take us beyond the boundaries of a discussion of
"Western Civilization from Ancient Sumer to the Renaissance;" therefore, I will
limit my exploration to three of the many dark goddesses: Ereshkigal of ancient Sumer,
Lilith of ancient Israel, and Hecate of ancient Greece.
Who are these Goddesses, how are they alike and in what ways
do they differ? In what ways do they reflect the cultural metaphors of their own time and
how can these metaphors be appropriated toward the re-empowerment of women today?
In the cosmology of ancient Sumer, the primeval sea (abzu)
existed before anything else, and within that, the heaven (an) and the earth (ki) were
formed. Ki is likely to be the original name of the earth goddess, whose name more often
appears as Ninhursag (queen of the mountains,) Ninmah (the exalted lady,) or Nintu (the
lady who gave birth.) It seems likely that she and An (god of heaven) were the progenitors
of most of the gods. Ninhursag, as the mother goddess, assisted in the creation of man by
offering constructive criticism to the god as he shaped several versions from clay. Here
we see the goddess as co-creator and counselor.
Sumerian divine laws, the "me," were guarded
by Enki (lord of the watery abyss.) Inanna (goddess of love and war) objected to being
given too little power from Enki's decrees so she got him drunk and he granted her
dominion over arts and crafts, as well, for a total of ninety four me. By the time Enki
sobered up and tried to retrieve the me, Inanna had already safely delivered them to her
cult center at Erech. Here we see the goddess able to negotiate on her own behalf and able
to oversee divine law.
The city leaders of ancient Sumer had a duty to please the
town's patron deity, not only for the good will of that god or goddess, but also for the
good will of the other deities in the council of gods. Many secular kings claimed divine
right; Sargon of Argade, for example, claimed to have been chosen by Inanna. If goddesses
could confer power on mortal kings, we can assume that they held great personal power
separate from that of the gods. The temple was staffed by both priests and priestesses.
While we do not know if the priestesses were dominant or even co-equal with the priests,
we do know that they were present and had autonomous authority. During the annual New Year
celebrations, the king, in a symbolic representation of the resurrected fertility god,
Dumuzi, would be ritually married to Inanna's earthly representative. If the king's
marriage to a goddess was necessary to assure fertility of the crops, we can presume that
the importance of the female in Sumerian society was primal.
Ereshkigal, variously considered Inanna's sister or
sister-in-law, was supreme goddess of the underworld. When angered, Ereshkigal's face grew
livid and her lips grew black. She did not know why Inanna would visit her, but she
allowed her in, and then instructed Namtar, her messenger and vizier, the Fate-Cutter, the
herald of death, to release his diseases upon Inanna. Ereshkigal had a palace in the
underworld and was due a visit by those entering. When Inanna trespassed on her domain,
Ereshkigal "...fastened on Inanna the eye of death. She spoke against her the word of
wrath. She uttered against her the cry of guilt. She struck her. Inanna was turned into a
corpse,...And was hung from a hook on the wall."
When Nergal, the unsparing god of the underworld, arrived to
give Ereshkigal a throne upon which to sit and give judgement, she offered him food,
drink, a footbath, and enticed him with her body. Eventually he succumbed and they slept
with each other for seven days. Enraged when he wished to leave her, she sent Namtar to
heaven to request that the gods send Nergal to her to be punished as one of the few favors
she had ever received. If they would not, she threatened to raise the dead who would then
eat and outnumber the living. Nergal was brought back. In some versions of the myth,
Nergal took control of Namtar's attendant demons, grabbed Ereshkigal from her throne by
the hair, and threatened to decapitate her. In this position she proposed marriage to him.
In both versions he accepted, they were married, and he became her consort.
Belit-tseri, the female tablet-scribe, knelt before Ereshkigal
and Sumuquan, the cattle god resided in her underworld court. Heroes and priests resided
there, as well, and mighty kings served others food. So we can see that Ereshkigal had
actual, not referred, power. She ruled death as an equal portion of the span from creation
to destruction. She judged and commanded both men and women. She had sexual autonomy and
authentic agency. She acknowledged and displayed her rage without apology. She had genuine
bargaining power and was able to use it even under extreme duress.
Traces of the Sumerian religion survive today and are
reflected in writings of the Bible. As late as Ezekiel, there is mention of a Sumerian
deity. In Ezekiel 8:14, the prophet sees women of Israel weeping for Tammuz (Damuzi)
during a drought. The bulk of parallels, however, can be found much earlier in the book of
Genesis. The second chapter of Genesis introduces the paradise, Eden, a place which is
similar to the Sumerian Dilmun, described in The Myth of Enki and Ninhursag. Eden,
"in the East" (Gen. 2:8) has a river which also "rises" or overflows,
to form four rivers including the Tigris and Euphrates. It too is lush and has fruit
bearing trees. (Gen. 2:9-14) The prologue of The Epic of Gilgamesh may contain the
predecessor to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This tree not only contains a
crafty serpent, but also Lilith, the legendary first wife of Adam. The huluppa tree is
transplanted by Inanna from the banks of the Euphrates to her garden in Uruk, where she
finds that "...a serpent who could not be charmed made its nest in the roots of the
tree. The Anzu bird set his young in the branches of the tree, and the dark maid Lilith
built her home in the trunk."
In the introduction to his book, Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales
of the Supernatural, Howard Schwartz says that of all the myths with biblical origins and
rabbinical popular embellishments, none has had more sway than that of Lilith. Schwartz
contends that much of the demonic realm in Jewish folklore grew out of this multifaceted
legend, which came into being as a commentary on one passage of the Bible, "Male and
Female He created them." (Gen 1:27) This passage was interpreted by the rabbis to
mean that the creation of man and woman was simultaneous, whereas the later accounts of
the creations of Adam and Eve appeared to be sequential. Working on the assumption that
every word in the Bible was literally true, say Schwartz, the rabbis interpreted this
contradiction to mean that the first passage referred to the creation of Adam's first
wife, whom they named Lilith, and the other referred to the creation of Eve. Lilith, whose
name actually appears in the Bible only once, in the passage from Isaiah, "Yea,
Lilith shall repose there," (Isa 34:14) refers, Schwartz feels, to a Babylonian night
Schwartz goes on to say that of the post-biblical texts, a few
references to Lilith are found in the Talmud, where she is described as a demoness with
long black hair, and a demoness with identical characteristics is found in the apocryphal
text The Testament of Solomon, but the earliest version of the legend that portrays all of
the essential aspects of Lilith is The Alphabet of Ben Sira, of Persian or Arabic origin,
in the eleventh century.
This legend tells how God created a companion for Adam and
named her Lilith, but Lilith and Adam argued over everything, with Lilith refusing to let
Adam dominate her in any way. Instead, she insisted that they were equal. Eventually
Lilith pronounced the ineffable name of God and flew out of the Garden of Eden to the
shore of the Red Sea, where she made her home in a cave. She took as lovers all the demons
who lived there, giving birth to a great multitude, which explains the proliferation of
demons in the world. In citations to other works, Schwartz goes on to relate the tale of
Lilith being threatened by angels and her growth into a "negative female archetype
who is assertive, seductive, and ultimately destructive."
Many Feminist scholars, unhappy with this reduction of Lilith,
have gone back over the texts and come to a new understanding. One such is Khephera in her
article, "Lilith." In a discussion of the historical origins of Lilith, she
points out that the biblical Lilith was not originally found in the pantheon of ancient
Sumer, but her roots extend back that far. In the Sumerian lexicon, "Lil" means
"Air, " and the oldest known term relating to Lilith is the Sumerian
"Lili," (pl. Lilitu) which means "breath" or "spirit."
Therefore, the Lilitu were either a specific type of demon or were simply spirits in
general. Khephera goes on to point out that Lilith is thought to have been a Sumerian
succubus, and there was such a creature in Sumer-Babylonia known as the "Ardat
Lili." An Ardat (pl. Ardatu) was a young woman of marriage age; hence, the Ardat Lili
was a young female spirit, a succubus, the demoness known as the "night hag,"
who was thought to cause erotic dreams and rob males of their semen and spiritual
Khephera dismisses the two instances that are generally seen
as proof of the biblical Lilith's existence in Sumer. One is the myth in which a female
demon takes up residence within Inanna's sacred Tree of Life, thus stunting the tree's
growth and reproduction; and the famous plaque depicting a woman with owl talons and wings
standing on two lions and flanked by two owls. She credits the errors to mistranslations
of the Sumerian language by Samuel Noah Kramer. She also discredits, as a Quabalistic
mistranslation, the biblical reference in Isaiah which makes the name "Lilith"
synonymous with "Screech Owl."
In giving a post-biblical overview of the various myths of
Lilith's defiance, Khephera concludes that In his attempt to mate with Lilith, Adam
demanded that he be on top, however, Lilith refused, asserting their equality. Adam,
feeling himself to be made in the image of God, and therefore superior to Lilith, who he
felt was merely created by God as his helpmeet, would not allow it. Lilith went to God and
seduced Him. God, because of his soft heart, was finally lulled into revealing his sacred
name, whereupon Lilith pronounced the name and flew away from the garden and Adam forever.
She took up residence in a cave on the shore of the Red Sea, where she remains until
today. Within, she accepted the demons of the world, and their king, Asmodeus, as her
lovers and spawned many thousands of demon children. This is how Lilith became known as
the Wife of Asmodeus--Mother of Demons.
Adam, meanwhile, missed Lilith and went to God, who agreed
that his creatures should not so easily depart his realm. God dispatched three enforcer
angels to retrieve her, but when they found her and demanded her return, she refused. They
threatened to slay one hundred of her demon children each day until she obeyed, but she
exclaimed that even that fate was better than returning to Eden and submission to Adam. As
the enforcers carried out their threat, Lilith made a terrible proclamation: in return for
the pain delivered upon her, she would slay the children of Adam, and even their mothers
during labor. Additionally, she vowed to attack men in their sleep, steal their semen, and
give birth to more demon children to replace the ones she would lose each day. In her
anguish, she made one concession: whenever she saw displayed, the names of the three
angels who opposed her, no one in that place would be in danger.
Khephera, in giving the Qabalistic interpretation, notes that
while these concepts developed well after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD,
the Temple destruction and the carrying of its treasures and most of the Israelites into
Babylonia played a pivotal role in the mythos. With this first Diaspora it was thought
that the perfect union between the Lord (Adonai) and his Kingdom was in danger, so he
withdrew from the world and refused to meet with his feminine side, the Shekhinah (Heb.:
Presence) in an impure fashion. The Shekhinah, herself, was thought to have been taken
into captivity and raped there continuously. Lilith symbolized the very people who held
the Shekhinah captive; she was the harlot, the Whore of Babylon, but because it was
thought that God could not be without a Goddess, he was forced to mate with Lilith in
order to sustain balance in the world. Thus, Lilith made the transition from mere demoness
to Dark Goddess, the Wife of God.
The Qabalists felt it was their duty to reunite the Shekhinah
with Adonai. It was felt that on the Sabbath, Lilith had no power because of the holiness
of the day; on that day Lilith was forced to retreat into the desert where she screamed
until sundown. Khephera notes that in the New Testament Book of Revelation this symbolism
is remembered in the passages where the Whore of Babylon is supplanted in power by the
Bride, the wife of the Lamb.
It is clear to many Feminists that, In whichever way we choose
to interpret the mytho-historic Lilith, there are certain of her characteristics which can
not be overlooked and which are virtually never disputed. Lilith, like Ereshkigal, had
actual, not referred, power. She ruled death as an equal portion of the lifespan from
creation to destruction. She, like Ereshkigal, judged men and while she did not command
them, she challenged their authority when they attempted to command her. She, like
Ereshkigal, had sexual autonomy and authentic agency. She, like Ereshkigal, acknowledged
and displayed her rage without apology. She, like Ereshkigal, had genuine bargaining power
and was able to use it even under outrageous coercion. Additionally, she was compassionate
to those women and children who acknowledged and honored her.
With Greek thought, we see the worldview of life becoming
cyclical, rather than linear. Hecate (Gr: Hekate), according to the Wisdom of the Earth:
Encyclopedia of The Goddess, was the Death Goddess, Crone Mother, and known "Queen of
Witches" in Christian myth and legend. She descended from the Egyptian Heqit, Heket,
or Hekat: a wisewoman, priestess who held the sacred "Mother's Word of Power,"
the hakau, in trust. Like all other forms of the Triple Goddess, she was associated with
the moon: she was associated with Selene (Moon;) Artemis (Huntress, Lady of Wild Beasts;)
and Persephone (Queen of the Dead.) Among Greeks she was Queen of Ghosts and the
Crossroads, where many midnight rituals took place. She was the destroyer; newborn
children and animals were sacrificed to her.
She was the giver of rain as well as harvest storms. Her major
festival was celebrated on August 13th. But as Moon Goddess she is best known: the dark of
the moon symbolizes divination, illumination, the powers of healing. Darkness is the time
of tactility and of the voice, so this Dark Goddess presides over love-magic,
metamorphosis, wonder-working, and medicinal healing. Often depicted as a Hag, the popular
image of Hecate as an ugly old witch is false. In ancient societies she was considered a
"Holy Woman," or "Wisewoman;" a female shaman of pre-Christian Europe,
or tribal matriarch who knew the wise ways of nature, healing, divination, civilized arts,
and the traditions of the Goddess.
In his article "Hekate in Early Greek Religion,"
Robert Von Rudolph notes that the traditional view of Hecate in most popular and academic
books is that She is benefactor of malevolent sorceresses and queen of restless ghosts and
other nasty creatures of the night; in short, a Goddess of "Witches" in the
pejorative sense. Recent books written by and for modern Pagans, on the other hand, tend
to portray Her as a beneficent, grandmotherly Goddess of the Moon, magic, and Witches in
the positive sense. Supporters of both of these viewpoints site seemingly contradictory
evidence, an example of which is the difference between the writings of Hesiod of Archaic
Greece, who honors Hekate for Her powers over Sky, Earth and Sea, but not the Underworld,
with status second only to Zeus, and Horace of Imperial Rome who presents Her as the
object of debased worship of grotesque, supernatural, fairytale women who work necromancy
Von Rudolph feels that neither is true and that an underlying
problem is that it is wrong to assume that there was a single manifestation of Hecate;
that evidence shows a much greater diversity than historical researchers usually allow
for. He points out that no Greek deity was conceived of in the same way by everyone at any
single time or place in antiquity.
In his study, Von Rudolph found that the limited record
indicates that in early times Hekate was a secondary figure who could serve one or more
specific functions, none of which were unique to Her. These can be categorized under the
ancient titles Propylaia, literally "the one before the gate;" Propolos,
"the attendant who leads;" Phosphoros, "the light bringer;"
Kourotrophos, "child's nurse;" and Chthonia, which translates simply as "of
the Earth," but implies Goddess of the Earth. According to Von Rudolph, there is no
doubt that by 400BCE the image existed of female followers of Hekate working magic, alone
at night in remote places. And, while they were intended as evil figures, there is also
evidence throughout antiquity that shows public displays of devotion to Hekate, often for
the common good of the community.
Is Hecate, then, wisewoman or sorceress, shamanic diviner or
Crone Mother, healer or necromancer, priestess or hag, holy woman or Queen of ghosts,
illuminator or Goddess of Midnight, Moon Goddess or Death Goddess, Goddess of love or
Goddess of storm, Goddess of metamorphosis or Goddess of the Crossroads, matriarchal
tribal grandmother or Queen of Witches? Rather than haggle over the bones, as it were,
many Feminists would simply say "yes, Hecate is all of these!" Hecate is a
Destroyer Goddess and destruction is part of the cycle of life. But, how does She measure
up to Ereshkigal and Lilith?
Hecate,like her earlier counterparts in Israel and Sumer, had
real, not referred, power. She ruled death as an equal portion of the lifecycle from
creation through destruction through creation again. While we hear nothing of Her judging,
commanding or challenging men, neither do we hear of any attempt by men to rule over Her.
She, like Ereshkigal and Lilith, had sexual autonomy and authentic agency. She, like
Ereshkigal and Lilith, acknowledged and displayed her fury without defense. She, like
Ereshkigal and Lilith, had genuine power and was able to use it. And, like Ereshkigal and
Lilith, Hecate was benevolent to those women who honored Her.
Many Feminists today are returning to the ancient Pagan
religion of the Great Goddess in all Her aspects: Maiden, Mother, Crone; life-giver,
life-sustainer, life-destroyer. In Her Crone/ Destroyer manifestation she is a model for
the re-empowerment of women who reclaim their right to command and to challenge authority,
their prerogative to exercise agency in their own lives and to negotiate on their own
behalf, their license to sexual autonomy, the accuracy of their judgement, the validity of
their anguish, the authenticity of their rage, indeed, the majesty of their own power when
looking on Her awe-full face.