The Great Goddess, worshipped by all of the many nations across the ancient European/Mediterranean/Asiatic world for thousands of years, gave birth to Christianity, in full awareness that her power would be eclipsed for the duration of an astrological age as the male gods took over the heavens. Her avatar, Jesus, knew this too, and spoke of her eventual return as the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom he said would ‘teach all things, shall bring all things to your remembrance’. We have been told to regard Christianity as an outgrowth from Judaism, but this is not the whole story.
Lost on the modern world but certainly obvious to everybody in ancient times, the significance of Mary’s virginity was not that she had not had sex with a man, but that she was a holy priestess of the Goddess, probably Artemis, whose temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, and not far from Palestine, had been a huge centre of worship for thousands of years. It was to Ephesus that Mary retired to live after Jesus’ crucifixion.
It was also at Ephesus, after the temple had been destroyed by Christians, that a Church gathering of 250 bishops in 431 CE declared Mary ‘theotokos‘, the Mother of God, thereby opening the way for the devotional love that the populace across the Empire had long felt for the various Goddesses – such as Cybele, Isis, Artemis/Diana, Aphrodite/Venus – to be channelled into Marian shrines and kept within the Church, while at the same time it affirmed the divinity of Christ. Sacred imagery of a mother goddess and human son was nothing new to the ancient world, it was a very common motif from Cybele (who gave birth to Attis, later her lover), to Isis (mother of Horus), to Aphrodite (who was mother to many male gods, including Eros, Priapus, Hermaphroditus and the feminine male Dionysus), to Venus (mother to Aeneas, ancestor of the Roman people).
Jesus was born among the Jewish people, who had a thousand years previously marked themselves out as different from the other tribes of the region by rejecting Goddess reverence and making their Father God the one and only supreme being. The Christian Church regarded Judaism as its forerunner and shared its patriarchal attitudes, for example apopting the Hebrew creation myth, one of many that were told at the time, but the only one which put the woman firmly in her place as the servant of man. Most creation myths of the Middle East gave the prime place to the Creatrix Mother. But actually Jewish mythology also tells of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who was thrown out of the garden of Eden because she refused to surrender to his will. Second time round Adam’s primacy was affirmed by claiming Eve had been made from his body, the opposite to the reality of childbirth.
The Genesis story of Eden would have been understood differently to ancient peoples than to most of us today, just like the Gospel’s tale of virgin birth. The snake was one of the most prominent images of the Goddess-centred pagan faiths, packed with symbolism, including sexual. The Genesis story is saying that, once again as with Lilith, the female lands them in trouble, this time because she has let the pagan faith lead her astray.
At the time of the birth of Jesus however the Goddess power was still in full sway. Cybele, the most ancient Mother worshipped since at least 6000 BCE in Anatolia, eastern Turkey, and known to the Greeks as the Mother of the Gods (that phrase again!), had been adopted as the Magna Mater of the Roman Empire two hundred years earlier. Her worship united the world from Britain to Turkey, and it was spread through the Empire by her itinerant, queer or transgender Gallae priest/esses, whose flamboyant, loud, erotic and bloody rituals were hated by the Church Fathers, not least because, for the first 300 years of Christianity, the Roman citizens were happy to go hear a Christian preacher in the afternoon then attend an orgy at the Cybele temple in the evening.
All the holy priesthoods of the ancient Goddess featured both virgin females and transgender or gay males. The Old Testament tells of repeated efforts over 400 years by Hebrew kings to stop their people sacrificing and building phallic poles to Asherah, their local version of Ishtar, Goddess of the region since 10000 BCE, also known as Inanna and Astarte. There were some kings who were more tolerant, such as Solomon, whose many wives came from many cultures, bringing their ways with them to his famous temple. The OT tells also of the Hebrew kings’ efforts to eradicate the Qedesha, translated into English bibles as ‘sodomites’ or, nowadays, ‘male shrine prostitutes’, but whose name meant in fact the ‘Anointed’ or ‘Holy Ones’.
The title of Mother of God moved from Cybele to Mary as the Christians set to wiping out Goddess culture once it had become established as the only official religion of Rome in the late 4th century. This move to name Mary Theotokos (as opposed to Christokos, the Mother of Christ – the heated debates over this at the Council of Ephesus led to a schism between Roman Christianity and some, mainly Persian, churches that was only finally addressed and healed in 1994) was a conscious act taken in full awareness that people everywhere held the Divine Feminine in the highest regard, taken because this would enable them to dismantle the worship of other female forms and bring more people into the new faith.
The Church was also busy changing the gender of the Holy Spirit from female to male, the means being the Greek language. In Hebrew ‘ruach’, the word for spirit, was feminine, also in Syriac ‘rucha’, and writers in those languages used maternal imagery to describe the third member of the Trinity. In Greek however, the words used were of either male or neutral gender, and this has of course fed into other translations. Most Christian writings today about the Holy Spirit use He pronouns, but there are some churches that do see a She, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Unity Church, whose founder Charles Fillmore said of the Holy Spirit, “love is always feminine”. What the Church declared and what people believed have not always met of course, and while European art of the Middle Ages depicted the Holy Spirit as male, there is one surviving fresco in Urschalling, Germany, in a church of St Jakobus, that shows her female.
Jesus also said that people will know the Comforter when they come because the Holy Spirit already “dwelleth with you”. The Goddess in Judaism had been channelled into the concept of shekhinah, referring to invisible, divine presence, regarded and experienced as feminine. Yahweh was above the world, shekhinah was divinity moving through the world in all things – just as the Hindus see male Shiva as the overseeing Father and female Shakti as the Divine present in manifestation.
Note that Shiva is regarded actually as half male-half female, as he contains all within him, and this reflects the totally disregarded description of the Hebrew God in Genesis as being both male and female (which should in fact be clear from the Genesis verses that say he made humans male and female ‘in his image’). Arabic has the word sakina, translated usually as tranquility/peace but which actually indicates so much more, as is clear from its similarity to shekhinah.
In its efforts to evangelise the Roman Empire the Church also took on traits of the Goddess priesthood – such as the wearing of robes, its insistence on celibacy for priests (people were simply not used to holy servants having spouses and families, they were not ready to accept it) and of course built churches at pagan sites (eg St Pauls Cathedral in London at a site where Diana was worshipped) and the timing of Christian feasts to fit and replace the pagan calendar. The Archgallus of Rome, head of the genderqueer servants of Cybele, became the Pope, complete with the same style of headgear, the mitre.
The association of trans/queer people with the Goddess temples and rituals goes way back into pre-history, but from those times we have some myths that suggest we were created by the Goddess for that very purpose. A hero named Asushunamir, who was both male and female, was sent into the Underworld to rescue Goddess Inanna, a task they fulfilled, but not without suffering a curse from Inanna’s dark sister Ereshkigel, which was that they (and their kind) would be hated and feared by the world. Inanna could not remove the curse but appointed the queer/transgender people (known variously as kurgurru, assinnu, galatur at different times in the long history of Mesopotamia) to be her special, beloved servants, and promised a time when the curse would hold no more and they be recognised in their holiness again.
Jesus was aware of all this. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus saying that there are those who chose to become eunuchs ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas he speaks of uniting/transcending the male/female in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The future for transsexuality is also referred to by Isaiah in the Old Testament, who predicts, for those eunuchs who serve the lord faithfully, an ‘everlasting name’, ‘ better than that of sons and daughters’. Those joining the Gallae priest/esses of Cybele undertook public self-castration during a frenzied ritual on the Day of Blood, where Attis, the dying (through botched self-castration) lover of Cybele, was remembered. The ritual involved carrying an effigy of Attis tied to a pine tree through the streets raising the ecstatic energy and the next day celebrating his resurrection. This ritual predated Christianity by a very long time, and of course the Christian Church Fathers hated this ceremony, so timed the Easter festivities to replace it.
The Catholic Church encouraged the channelling of devotional feelings for the Goddess into the honouring of Mary, but of course throughout the Middle Ages the populace of Europe were not so quick to let go of their love of other versions of the divine feminine. Diana worship, which was especially associated with nature and the night, with the moon, continued among the country folk for centuries. It was generally Her that witches went to meet at their night time Sabbats, though the Inquisition and later the witch trials would use torture to force prisoners to say they were meeting with the devil.
For English female mystic Julian of Norwich in the late 14th/early 15th century Jesus himself became the Mother. She lived as an anchoress, living a life of prayer in an enclosed space, through a slit in the wall she would dispense advice and wisdom. She was very highly regarded but the nuns of her order kept her writing about the Motherhood of Christ secret for centuries after her death. ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is now regarded as one of the finest works of medieval mysticism.
Protestantism, from the 16th century, regarded Catholic veneration of Mary and the saints as no better than pagan cult practice, and pushed the divine feminine further into the background. It shared the Catholic fear of witches however and the peak of the witch hunt craze came in the 17th century.
Then reason and rationalism rose to the fore, and religion gradually lost its dominant grip on our lives, but it has yet to release its power over our souls, for so much of the taboos it enforced were carried forward into the rational age – not least the prejudice against gay, lesbian, bi, queer and trans people, which is still far from dismantled as we progress into the 21st century. Religions still influence the attitudes of a large percentage of the world’s population, but without real historical knowledge of how faith was in the pre-Christian world, people today do not see much of the underlying significance of the stories in the holy books on which they base their faith, nor do they understand where their religiously justified, irrational and stubborn prejudices stem from. The long told story of Christianity’s ‘Triumph’ over paganism hides the fact that the religion was born from the Goddess-centred faiths of that past time as much as from the Judaic prophecy of the Messiah.
But the Goddess isn’t worried. She has never gone anywhere. Anyone who has felt the presence of expanded, vibrant, high vibrational, peacefully embracing love has met Her, even if they called it ‘Him’. The shakti-shekinah-sakina is present in all matter, in both ‘he’ and ‘she’.
Jesus came to do a job, his inspirational life kicked off a stream of growth for humanity that has unfortunately utterly severed our connection to the actual presence of the divine in the world, except for rare, magical moments that become the highlights of our lives. To heal our disconnection from the planet, from love, from the god and goddess within ourselves, we need – as a species, but each of us individually can help that day come – to reconnect to the light-giving, loving, teaching, compassionate and comforting Divine Mother Presence in everything- the shekhinah, shakti, sakina: the Great Holy Goddess Spirit.