Over the last millennium or so we have become somewhat painfully aware of the inequalities between men and women in many societies. I think it would be fair to say that one of the historical roots of this inequality, which is gradually being addressed, lies in religion. My own belief is that the patriarchal dominance of the last 2000 or more years within Western culture is compounded, to a large degree, by the influence of the three religions, often referred to as Abrahamic, of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The root of the idea of the inferiority of women, enshrined within all three theologies, can be identified in the Hebrew creation myth found in The Book Of Genesis (Sefer Bereshit), itself thought to be derived from earlier creation mythologies. In chapter 2 God creates Adam and, from Adam’s rib, Eve. In the following chapter Eve, encouraged by the serpent, eats the fruit (not specified as an apple) from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, also giving some to Adam. It is this act which led to women being blamed for the fall of humanity, and their ejection from the paradise of the Garden Of Eden. Of course, this can be interpreted as the beginnings of human consciousness as we now know it, but it has mostly been interpreted as sinfulness on the part of women, which is to blame for the imperfections of humankind.
As we know, Christianity then inherited the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible), including Genesis, somewhat altered from the original Hebrew, but retaining the belief of Adam’s rib being progenitor of woman and also that men are superior because of the sin of Eve. The last of the Abrahamic group, Islam, arriving some 600 years after Christianity, shares this belief, but with a slightly different version of the myth from Genesis appearing in the Quran.
These three religions have now become widespread across the world, Judaism through dispersal of Jewish people and both Christianity and Islam through sometimes aggressive colonisation and forced conversion. From around the 3rd century CE onwards the theological idea of women being inferior to men was spread extensively through Christianity and (later) Islam, causing great change in social customs in cultures that had no previous knowledge of these religions.
Historical accounts confirm that many of the Pagan religions of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas included pantheons of both male and female gods, with them being of equal status and importance in many cases. Some of these religions gave rise to societies that were not patriarchal, where women had equal status to men. This is known to be the case in parts of pre-Christian Europe, parts of Africa and maybe also in cultures that we have no written or oral record of.
To a large extent, the more recent era of secularism has led to the emancipation of women, perhaps far more so than the re-emergence of Paganism in the last 70 or so years. With the increased understanding of history through archaeological and linguistic discovery, we now can be sure that patriarchal religion and culture was not always dominant everywhere: its position as such was once far from the norm.
There is evidence that some of the earliest religions venerated the divine feminine or both divine male and female. More recent analysis of Sumerian and (slightly later) Egyptian religion, for example, shows a precursor to patriarchal monotheism that was not only polytheistic but appeared to place the feminine in equality with the masculine. This is most demonstratively proven by the earliest creation mythology we know of, which comes from Sumer. It is from Sumer that both Egyptian and Semitic (Canaanite, Hittite, Judaic) peoples gained much of their own mythology.
The Oldest Creation Myth
Apart from the flood mythology, which is worth exploring on its own, the Sumer origin myth predated and clearly influenced those of later civilizations. The primordial deity of Sumer was not masculine but was in fact the Goddess Nammu. It was Nammu who gave birth to the universe out of the dark void, embodied by the God Anki (heaven and earth), who in turn created Enlil (God of air). Enlil separated heaven (An or Anu, God of the sky) and earth (Ki, Goddess of the earth). Enlil and his daughter Ki produced a child, Enki, who became God of water and ruler of the universe, creating the surface of the earth.
Enki took some primordial water from the Goddess Nammu and created the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, making the soil fertile and rich so that he could introduce animals to the area. Many other gods and goddesses would soon be born who built and lived in great cities in the land between the two rivers.
The Creation Of Humanity
While the gods of Sumer existed alone for quite some time this meant that they had to work, and lesser deities complained of the hardships they endured. According to the myths, it was to relieve the gods of their burden that humans were originally created. After 3,600 years of toil, the gods had complained and refused any further work until something was done to alleviate their plight. Enlil, in fear of a rebellion, consulted An and Enki, and together they decided to create a race of workers.
After sacrificing a God of great wisdom (Geshtu-e), the Goddess of birth (Ninmah) took up his flesh and blood and mixed it with clay and all the gods spat onto this mixture. Enki and the womb Goddess (Nintu) took the mixture into the ‘room of fate’ where Nintu made fourteen balls of clay from it – seven on the left and seven on the right. The pieces on the right became the first men and the seven on the left became the first women. From these 7 men and 7 women the whole human race was descended.
(In another later version there are 6 of each and the goddess places the clay into her womb to later give birth to each of them.)
Incidentally, the tree of life/knowledge also predates that of Judaism but appears in Sumerian myth as one tree rather than two separate trees, and does not feature in the myth of the creation of humankind, unlike in the story in Genesis.
Similar to some extent to the religion of Sumer, which is known to have had a huge influence over subsequent cultures, the Egyptians also had a pantheon full of both male and female deities. The preeminent God Ra/Re, also sometimes called Khephri, Atum and Amun-Ra, embodied both male and female genders, although they are now mostly regarded as a male God by those not fully familiar with Egyptian religion. Ra had four children, in masculine and feminine pairs: Shu (God of wind) with Tefnet (Goddess of water), Toth (God of wisdom) with Hathor (mother Goddess). Shu and Tefnet begat the gods of heaven and earth - Geb (God of earth) with Nut (Goddess of sky) - and it was this pair that begat the familiar gods of Egypt – Isis, Osiris, Nepthys and Set and their subsequent children.
Thus it appears that these older religions were neither monotheistic nor patriarchal - there is a well-defined balance between masculine and feminine, the two working in unison to create the universe and the earth. As with the Sumerian myth, the creation of humanity is not a solo effort by a male god, it is a team effort by the gods and goddesses, with both men and women created at the same time, in equal number and status. It is also interesting to note that Judaism in its earliest form had a male and female pair of deities – Yahweh and Asherah.
However, it is also worth noting that the existence of apparent parity between male and female deities cannot be taken as evidence that human men and women were treated in any way equally. Such societies could have still been patriarchal in practice. For examples of this we can look to the cultures of ancient Greece and of Hindu India, where the presence of female deities did not prevent women from being subjected to very patriarchal rule, at least within the later, recorded times. In the case of Hindu deities, the Gods derive their power from their Goddess consorts, but none-the-less, women have had a lower status Hindu society for most, or all of its recorded history.
The new Aeon
Personally, I think it fair to say that from a historical point of view the creation mythology inherited by modern Jews, Christians and Muslims is a distortion of an earlier mythology that originated in Sumer. The historical influence of Sumer on the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa is very clear, through both language and archaeology, plus the obvious remnants of earlier myth in the Pentateuch, the Bible and the Quran.
In this current time, where much of the previous order is being turned on its head, it is perhaps no accident that relatively recent discovery and analysis of cuneiform texts has demonstrated the genesis (excuse the pun) of Western creation mythology from the religious beliefs of Sumer. What many were taught was the divine word of God was in fact adapted or inherited from earlier cultures that did not place women below men and did not necessarily have a lone patriarch as creator of the universe, earth or humanity.
This knowledge can perhaps give hope to those seeking a fairer, more just and more balanced world. A world where men and women live in equality, balance and harmony is not a fantasy to aspire to, it is a reality that existed in some ancient cultures and in our concept of the gods and their acts of creation. Rather than creating a new paradigm, perhaps what we need to do is to reclaim one that was there all along, buried in the remains of our earliest civilizations. As we move into a new Aeon, the re-emergence of this ancient knowledge, and the divine partnership of masculine and feminine, into wider consciousness could not be more needed or welcome.