Have you ever wondered exactly how religion developed in the ancient world? Check out this lesson to see how the impact of cities, writing and invasion upon religion, the ascent of the sky father and the descent of the mother goddess contributed to the development of religion.
For at least 40,000 years, people worshiped mother goddesses
Whether the worship of a mother goddess implies matriarchy or not, the rise of male gods seems to be associated with the rise of patriarchy.
As we saw in Minoan culture, when male gods first entered the religious scene, they held a subordinate role, and women still held positions of power and respect. Crete may well have been ruled by a queen.
By the time male deities reached supremacy, female deities had been relegated to second class status, and apart from a few priestesses, a woman's role was restricted to running her household.
Origins of Male Deities
The origin and ascent of male deities is lost in the mists of prehistory. They seem to show up around the same time cities begin to form. It has been suggested that this relationship might be explained by a transition away from the family unit to a larger community.
As we saw in the lecture on hierarchies, the earliest social units were all based on a sense of kinship. The theory is that while an entire family could come from a single mother, it is impossible for a single woman to be the mother of an entire city, whereas a very proactive male could potentially father any number of families, or even an entire city. When we look at the behaviors of some rulers (from Solomon's massive harem to Ghengis Khan's long line of children), we can see some merit in this argument.
One man could potentially be the father of an entire city
The Invention of Writing Vs. The Mother Goddess
Another theory is that male deities owe their start to the development of writing. Writing has important implications for religion. If religion is how we explain things that we can not understand or control, then the more we understand about our world, the more in control we feel and the less we need religion. If ignorance is darkness and knowledge is light, then writing keeps the lights on and dispels the darkness as knowledge accumulates.
What does that have to do with male deities? A great deal.
For starters, there is reason to believe that much of a female's power is derived from mystery; the mystery of concealed estrous, the mystery of childbirth, and by extension, the mystery of seeds germinating and growing into plants. Such mysteries might seem like miracles within a single life time. With the arrival of writing, allowing for generations of continued study, these miracles became less miraculous and more mundane.
Yet the implications of writing go still deeper.
No matter how clever we become, there will always be things that are beyond our grasp. Still, rather than the whole world being one dark mystery, instead, the more we learn the more the world is divided into things that we can control, and the things that we cannot control.
Favoring Male Gods Over Female Gods
The forces that frighten or bewilder us: the weather, the sea, volcanoes and so forth; all of these violent destructive forces were understandably considered 'male' by most ancient peoples, while the role of mother was reserved for the earth.
Violent forces, such as the weather and volcanoes, were considered to be male by ancient peoples
Now of all the things that terrify us, the earth we stand upon is not usually one of them (unless of course we live in a place like California). On the contrary, the thought of mother earth is usually comforting. Even if drought strikes and crops refuse to grow, it is not because reliable Mother Earth is withholding her bounty but because unpredictable Father Sky refuses to make it rain.
So if Mother Earth is reliable and understandable, if we can control her bounty through farming and irrigation, we have nothing to fear from her. Whereas Father Sky is a subject of great terror, he can withhold the rain and cause a drought or send a flood to drown your crops, or even strike you with lightning where you stand.
So if you have one cow to sacrifice, who are you going to offer it to? The mother who will care for you no matter what, or the father who just might decide to blast you if you displease him?
Yet a third theory suggests that the new male sky gods belonged to invading nomads who conquered the mother god worshiping agriculturalists and imposed their gods. The theory being that nomads tend to follow herds, and both herds and hunting tend to be male dominated, whereas agriculturalists work the soil, which for obvious reasons has long been associated with mother goddesses. Unfortunately, this theory has been largely dismissed by modern scholars; however, it predominates as a way to explain this time period.
Mythology of Male Gods Vs. Female Gods
Whether from one or another, or perhaps all of these factors, gods came to displace goddesses as the primary deities.
The prince consort who once fertilized the mother goddess came to be her lord and master. From what we can tell from mythology, this transition was not pretty.
In the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian myth, we see Marduk, who, judging by his surplus of penises, is most definitely a male. He creates the universe by cutting his mother, Tiamat, the mysterious primordial dragon goddess of chaos, in two, creating the heaven and the earth.
Marduk created the universe by cutting his mother, Tiamat, in two
We hear echoes of this story in Homer's hymn to Apollo, composed centuries later, which tells how the young god Apollo drove the mother goddess, Gaia, from her temple of prophesy at Delphi. He did this by shooting her guardian dragon, Python, to death. It is noteworthy that Apollo was considered the God of Light, and his seizing of the holy site of Delphi was said to have driven the darkness from the land.
This is not to suggest that mother goddesses went down without a fight. In his Theogony, Hesiod vividly describes a battle between Zeus, the Sky God, and Typhon, the last son and champion of Gaia. Typhon is described as a gigantic creature, with a hundred serpentine heads that shoot fire from their eyes. It takes the combined efforts of all the Olympians to bring him down. His fall shakes the whole world.
This conflict between the orderly, light bearing, male Olympian god on the mountain, and the chaotic, dark, female, Chthonic goddess in the cave - this dichotomy would continue to characterize polytheism until its demise at the hands of Christianity centuries later, and it's traces can still be seen there.
Of course we must always be cautious of accounts written by the victors, especially mythological accounts. And we can only learn so much from stories of slaying dragons.
Dyaus Pitr: The Sky God
However the transition occurred from goddesses to gods, the final result is the Sky Father, the supreme god of the pantheon. He shows up everywhere!
He took many names among many civilizations. The Sumerians worshiped Anu, literally, 'Mr. Sky.' The Assyrians worshiped Anshar, literally, 'Sky Axle.' The Hurrians support the conquest theory by calling their Sky Father, Teshub - 'The Conqueror'. The Hittites followed suit and called called him Tarhunt, their word for 'conqueror.' To the Babylonians he was Marduk, a sky god and also patron god of the central city of Babylon. To the Egyptians he was Horus, a god of the sky, of light, of war and of victory over darkness and chaos.
We first begin to see some sort of agreement on the name of the sky father around 1700 BC in the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text. He is called Dyaus Pitr, or literally, 'Sky Father'.
When the Greeks got ahold of him, they called him Zdeus Pater, father Zeus, and used a derivative word, 'theos,' to designate any god. The Romans combined 'Zdeus Pater' into one word, calling him Jupiter. They also used a derivative word, 'deus,' as a general word for a god. When Christians were looking for something to call their god besides Jehova, or Yahweh, they used that general Roman word, 'Deus.'
The name persists to this day in all. Romance languages: 'Dieu' in French, 'Dio' in Italian, 'Dios' in Spanish. Germanic peoples already had their own word, 'Gott,' which is where we got our name for the heavenly father.
Yet across much of Western civilization, whether they know it or not they still direct their prayers to the old Dyaus Pitr, the father in the sky.