About five thousand years ago, urban civilization began to develop. Prior to that, much of the world’s population lived on small farms or in villages. It was in these small farms and villages that humankind began to cultivate crops and develop agriculture. However, these early ideas of agriculture were very different from the science of agriculture that we understand today. Life on these small farms and villages was often organized around the health and fertility of the crops, the domesticated animals, and the villagers themselves.
Many anthropologists believe that women were central figures in these early civilizations and that the spiritual life of those living in these small farms and villages revolved around the worship of goddesses. Merlin Stone, an artist and scholar in the 1970’s, wrote a book called When God Was A Woman. The central idea of Stone’s book is essentially this:
The ancient peoples of these civilizations had no understanding of basic biology. They could not comprehend where babies came from. Therefore, women were considered magical because they could “create life.” Consequently, in early spirituality, the worship of a “mother goddess” developed. These fertility goddesses were seen as being the creators of the world and the givers of life because these ancient people saw women “giving life” in their everyday lives. In addition to the “fertility” of women, the “fertility” of the domesticated crops and animals was seen as being an extension of this “fertility” and also fell under the purview of the mother goddess. Drawing upon the work of anthropologists Margaret Murray and Robert Graves, Stone illustrates the matriarchy of prehistory and explains how this matriarchy was later destroyed by the patriarchal Indo-Europeans who invaded these prehistoric civilizations about five thousand years ago. The female sovereignty that Stone writes about in When God Was A Woman, is thought to have ended when mankind learned how to use metals to make weapons (The Bronze Age and The Iron Age).
One of the oldest of these prehistoric civilizations is Catal Hoyuk. The ruins of Catal Hoyuk were first discovered in 1958 and were subsequently excavated by James Mellaart between 1961 and 1965. Evidence from Mellaart’s excavations suggest that this settlement in southern Anatolia was very large in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods and thrived as a civilization between 7500 BC and 5700 BC. Excavations show that a channel of the Carsamba River once flowed between two mounds in southern Anatolia and that Catal Hoyuk was built on an alluvial plain of clay that would have been favorable for early agriculture. Catal Hoyuk is the largest and best preserved Neolithic site found to date and is believed to have been the center of an advanced culture in the Neolithic period.
The City of Jericho, near what is now called The Dead Sea, is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. While Catal Hoyuk was a city that had been erased from the modern world, people can still go to Jericho and see a thriving city today. In the Judeo-Christian metanarrative, the city of Jericho is well known. According to the Book of Joshua in the Pentateuch, Jericho is the first city captured by Joshua, the successor to Moses, after the Israelites leave Egypt during their Exodus and return to the land of Canaan. Some scholars claim that the word Jericho (Yareah) is derived from the Canaanite and Hebrew word for “moon” and that the city was one of the early centers of worship. Prior to the advances of astronomy, the moon was how these ancient civilizations marked time and is also most often associated with the mother goddess. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of over twenty different settlements in Jericho, the first of which dates back to 9000 BC.
Creation myths, which are often the earliest forms of literature in ancient civilizations, were written to express what scholars call a “cosmogony” that answered questions like “How did the world come into being?”, “Who operates the universe and runs the world?”, and “How does humankind participate in this world?”. One example of this kind of writing can be found in ancient Sumer. The story of the descent of the goddess, Inanna, into the underworld reflects the cycle of vegetation and fertility. It explains how the plants came into being, why they die, and why, each spring, the plants begin to reappear again.
Because the women of these ancient civilizations bore the children, nurtured them, and domesticated the plants and animals, there was a great emphasis on fertility and the worship of the “mother goddess” reflected the cultural context in which these religious practices occurred. Because these ancient people used the supernatural to explain natural phenomena in their cosmogony, all fertility was seen as being connected – the livestock reproduced, children were conceived and born, and the crops grew – and this connection was a cycle that revolved exclusively around the “mother goddess.” Because of the emphasis on “fertility,” the ancient people in these villages and farm communities developed religious practices that reflected their concerns with fertility. In order to ensure the fertility of the community, the religious order employed temple prostitutes. The sexual encounters of these temple prostitutes were seen by these ancient peoples as being religious ceremonies (a contemporary example of this kind of ritualistic practice would be Tantra, which is primarily practiced in India). This is important information to contemporary readers because when the word “prostitute” is seen in these ancient texts, the word “priestess” would be a more appropriate word in the context of religious practices involving the worship of the mother goddess.
Sources: When God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone (Mariner Books. 1978).
The Humanities: Culture, Continuity, and Change by Henry M. Sayre (Pearson, 2008).