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Goddess Worship and Women Priests by Leonard Swidler from 'Women Priests'

Goddess Worship and Women Priests

by Leonard Swidler

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 167-175.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Leonard Swidler received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin and an S.T.L. from the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen. He is co-founder and editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Professor of Religion at Temple University, and author of Freedom In the Church and Women In Judaism.

The Declaration states that the presence of women priests in various religions and cults in the Hellenistic world would have suggested to the Christian evangelizers the idea of having women priests in the Christian tradition. There are several diffculties with such a notion. One is the assumption that there were in fact, or even in thought, priests (hiereîs) during the early decades in Christianity. In fact, Jesus is the only “Christian” priest (hiereus) spoken of in the New Testament (Hebrews 8 and 9). However, even if the Declaration authors meant priests in a very extended sense so as to include the Christian presiders at communal prayer and specifcally the Eucharist (and we have no evidence of who did and who did not fulfill this function for the early decades of Christianity), the presence of women priests of cults in the Hellenistic world would have had precisely the opposite effect, because of the centuries-long fierce battle of patriarchal Jewish Yahwism against the cult of the Goddess, and the women priests associated with it, and the consequent placing of women in a denigrated and even feared position. This point is worth dwelling on not only because it will set aright a misunderstanding in the Declaration, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it will elucidatate a very important dimension of what is a basic underlying reason for both the Jewish and Christian opposition to women’s religious leadership, especially cultic.

The earliest evidence we have of human religious activity in the Old World points strongly and unambiguously to the worship of the Goddess— the divine was first worshiped as female. The archeological excavations at the upper paleolitic levels have produced innumerable female statuettes that are either figurines of the Goddess or at least are attempts at sympathetic magic, endeavoring to induce the fertility that all life depended on.(1) There is no male God at this early period.(2) As the paleolithic period gave way to the neolithic the worship of the Goddess became even more vigorous and explicit. All of the Old World areas that developed major civilizations, i.e., complex societies in which towns and cities and the differentiation of culture that accompanies them, show massive evidence of having initially been Goddess worshiping. That includes the Indus valley, the Near East, Old Europe, i.e., the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean islands, and Egypt.(3)

The gradual shift away from the total dominance of the Goddess (except perhaps with Egypt, whose history is even more complex than the others) to the participation of a clearly subordinate male God was connected with the development of animal husbandry, whence the role of paternity became apparent. There never was any question about the female’s essential role in bringing new life into the world; but the role of the male and sex were not always so obvious. Still, even at this stage the male God played a vastly subordinate role vis a vis the Goddess.(4)

The role of thc God however in a number of instances advanced to that of an equal and even that of a superior of the Goddess, apparently under the impact of waves of attacks of patriarchal, male-God worshiping, animal herding Indo-Europeans who came down out of the northern mountains, perhaps originally from around the Caspian sea(5) (the Goddess worshipers were at least matrilineal and perhaps at one time even matriarchal in societal structure(6). They appear as Hittite conquerors of Anatolia sometime before 2000 B.C., ranging eventually down into Palestine.(7) In the second millenium B.C. the patriarchal Father-God worshipers swept into almost all the Goddess-worshiping civilizations, from the Indus valley on the East through the Mesopotamian and Asia Minor areas to the Old European on the West.(8) Perhaps only Egypt was unconquered by the patriarchal Indo-Europeans, though even it was dominated at times by Asian nations that were probably “carriers” of Indo-European patriarchal ideas, e.g., the Hyksos in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries B.C. Marija Gimbutas describes in detail the world of the early Goddess worshipers in Old Europe and notes that “it is then replaced by the patriarchal world with its different symbolism and its different values. This masculine world is that of the Indo-Europeans, which did not develop in Old Europe but was superimposed upon it. Two entirely different sets of mythical images met.... The earliest European civilization was savagely destroyed by the patriarchal element and it never recovered, but its legacy lingered in the substratum.”(9)

Thus there was an intense struggle between the forces promoting the worship of the Goddess and the worship of the God. The tendency was for the God worshipers more or less gradually to become dominant. But there were occasions when the Goddess forces not only manifested themselves—as, e.g., in the Christian tradition of Mater ecclesia and devotion to the Virgin(10 )and in Jewish Cabbalah(11) but even again became dominant, as in the worship of Isis in the Roman Empire and the Magna Mater especially in Asia Minor around the beginning of the Christian era. In fact the resurgence of the worship of the Goddess in the Hellenistic world, coupled with its general subterranean persistence in the Semitic world, was the setting in which Christian missionary work began and developed. But to appreciate the Jewish, and therefore first Christian, reaction to the presence of Goddess worship and its women priests (there often were many male priests as well), one must recall the vigorous patriarchal male-God imagery of the Hebraic tradition and its long, fierce battle against Goddess worship.

No one questions the fact that the dominant imagery of the Hebrew divinity is masculine; it is that of a Father-God, a warrior-God, a God who refers to his people Israel as his bride, etc. The personal name of this God is Yahweh and his devotees are most zealous about the elimination of the veneration of any other divinities. Nevertheless female imagery of the divinity persists throughout large portions of the Bible, perhaps starting with the plural form of the name of the divinity in Genesis one, Elohim, which is probably derived from the feminine form of the name for divinity, Eloah also often used in the Old Testament,(12) through the latest book in the Catholic canon of the Old Testament, the Book of Wisdom, wherein the feminine dimension of the divinity, Sophia, is so hypostatized it becomes almost the Goddess as the consort of God (Theos)(13)

But the Yahwists struggled for hundreds of years to suppress the worship of the Goddess among the Hebrews. In tracing the history of this struggle it should be noted first that in the land of Canaan the Goddess worship had already declined by biblical times so that there were at least three names of the Goddess, Anath, Astarte, and Asherah (probably originally one(14)) who were subordinate to the male God Baal.(15) There have been hundreds of Goddess figurines dug up all over Palestine at pre-, early, and middle biblical levels,(16) though little in the way of male God figurines. Biblical texts give us only a glimpse of the pervasiveness of the Goddess worship among all the Hebrews, mostly by way of condemnations of it by Yahwist prophets and destruction of Goddess images etc. by reforming Yahwist kings. It is worth outlining this history briefly to gain some sense of the implacable fury vented by the Yahwists on the Goddess worshipers.

In the time of Judges (before 1000 B.C.) “the people of Israel . . . stopped worshiping Yahweh and served the Baals and the Astartes” (Jg 6:25f.). Later Solomon (961-922) “worshiped Astarte, the Goddess of Sidon” (1 Kg 11:5). Then the prophet Ahijah said: “Yahweh the God of Israel says to you, ‘I am going to take the kingdom away from Solomon.... I am going to do this because they have rejected me and have worshiped foreign Gods: Astarte, the Goddess of Sidon’” (1 Kg 11:31-33). In the next generation Ahijah said to the wife of Jeroboam, King of Israel (922-901), that “Yahweh will punish Israel . . . because they have aroused his anger by making idols of the Goddess Asherah” (1Kg 14: 15). Meanwhile in Judah the people “put up stone pillars and symbols of Asherah to worship on the hills and under shady trees. Worst of all there were cult prostitutes (qadesh) in the land. And they imitated all the abominations of the people Yahweh had thrown out before the Israelites came” (1 Kg 23f.). Then in Judah the next king, Asa (913-873), “expelled from the country all Temple prostitutes {qedeshim) from the land and removed all the idols his fathers had made. He removed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother, because she had made an obscene idol of the Goddess Asherah. Asa cut down the idol and burned it in the Kidron valley” (1 Kg 15:12f.). In the next generation King Ahab (869-850) of Israel “put up an image of the Goddess Asherah” (1Kg 16:33). At that time there were at least “four hundred prophets of Asherah” (1 Kg 18:19) in Israel. Under King Jechoahaz (815-801) the people of Israel “still did not give up the sins into which King Jeroboam had led Israel, but kept on committing them; and the image of the Goddess Asherah remained in Samaria" (2 Kg 13:6). The Goddess cult in the North apparently continued, for in 721 when Israel fell to the Assyrians it was recorded that it fell “because the Israelites sinned against Yahweh their God. ... They worshiped other Gods.... On all the hills they put up stone pillars and images of the Goddess Asherah" (2 Kg 17:7, 10).

The Bible redactors report somewhat more favorably on the attempts at reform led by some of the kings of Judah, but in the process indicate the pervasiveness and persistence of the Goddess worship among the Hebrews. After early reforms under King Joash (837-800) of Judah it was said that the “people stopped worshiping in the temple of Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, and began to worship idols and the images of the Goddess Asherah” (2 Ch 24:18). Goddess worship obviously continued until King Hezekiah (715-687) of Judah “broke the stone pillars and cut down the image of the Goddess Asherah” (1 Kg 18:4). But his own son Manasseh followed as king and “made an image of the Goddess Asherah” (2 Kg 21:3). Then came the last great reform efforts before the Exile under King Josiah (640-609) of Judah, who “removed from the Temple the symbol of the Goddess Asherah, took it out of the city to Kidron valley, buried it, pounded it ashes to dust.... He destroyed the living quarters in the Temple occupied by the temple prostitutes. It was there that women wove robes for the Asherah” (2 Kg 23:6f.).

All three of the greater prophets mention the worship of the Goddess. The oldest, Isaiah predicts around 735 B.C. that when Yahweh punishes Israel the people “will no longer rely on altars they made with their own hands, or trust in their own handiwork—symbols of the Goddess Asherah" (Is 17:8). At another place he adds that, “Israel’s sins will be forgiven only when the stones of pagan altars are ground up like chalk, and no more symbols of the Goddess Asherah or incense altars are left” (Is 27:9). Ezekiel, who traditionally is said to have been active around the time of the fall of Jerusalem a generation after King Josiah in 586, reported being shown “at the inner entrance of the north gate of the Temple an idol that was an outrage to God” (Ez 8:3). In line with most scholarship the New American Bible notes here that “this was probably thc statue of the Asherah erected by the wicked King Manasseh—cf. 2 Kg 21:7; 2 Ch 33:7, 15. Though it had been removed by King Josiah—2 Kg 23:6—it had no doubt been set up again ....” In the same vision Ezekiel reported on a sight three times more abominable, namely, at the north gate of the Temple were “women weeping over the death of the God Tammuz” (Ez 8:14—a part of a seasonal ritual in which the death of plants in Fall was likened to the descent into the nether world by the subordinate male God Tammuz, to be triumphantly restored to life in Spring by the source of life, the Goddess Astarte—or Ishtar in Babylonian or Inanna in Sumerian traditions).

Some years before, Jeremiah complained that the people of Judah “worship at the altars and the symbols that have been set up for the Goddess Asherah by every green tree and on the hill tops and on the mountains in the open country" (Jer 17:2-3). Later the same prophet Jeremiah was taken with the remnant of Judeans, after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586, into Egypt. He berated the people for having brought on the disaster by worshiping other Gods. Who the “other God” was is made clear by the people’s response: “Then all the men who knew that their wives offered sacrifices to other Gods and all the women in the crowd . . . said to me, ‘We refuse to listen to what you have told us in the name of Yahweh. We will do everything that we said we would. We will offer sacrifices to our Goddess, the Queen of Heaven [Anath-Astarte was addressed as Queen of Heaven in Egypt(17)], and we will pour out wine offerings to her, just as we and our ancestors, our king and our leaders, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. Then we had plenty of food, we were prosperous, and had no troubles. But ever since we stopped sacrificing to the Queen of Heaven and stopped pouring out wine offerings to her, we have had nothing, and our people have died in war and starvation.’

“And the women added, ‘When we baked cakes shaped like the Queen of Heaven, offered sacrifices to her, and poured out wine offerings to her, our husbands approved of what we were doing’” (Jer 44:15-19). It is clear from this that the women too were “priests” in this cult.

Probably from around this time onward a colony of Jews lived at Elephantine, Egypt. From their papyrus letters and documents of the late fifth century we know that not only did the Jewish women as well as the men contribute money to the Temple and that the women could divorce their spouses as well as the men could, but also that in the Temple along with Yahu (as Yahweh was addressed there) the Goddess Anathbethel was also worshiped.(18) In another Elephantine document the Goddess Anath is apparently referred to as the consort of Yahweh: “He swore to Meshullam b. Nathan by Yahu the God, by the Temple and by Anathyahu.”(19)

After the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile the public worship of the Goddess seems to have been successfully suppressed, being relegated largely to feminine manifestations of God as in the post-exilic wisdom books’ praise of the feminine Hokmah or Sophia. Wisdom, and the growing reference to God’s feminine Presence, Shekinah an Aramaic term first found after the beginning of the Christian era in Rabbinic and Targumic writings. One of the high-cost ways this was accomplished was by the banning of intermarriage. By this time Jewish women in any case could not marry non-Jews; Jewish men also were not supposed to marry non-Jewish women, though in fact they did. The reason foreign wives were not to be taken is that they were seen as thc source of corrupting Goddess worship, e.g., Jezebel and her worship of Asherah. This enforcement of the Deuteronomic prohibition (Dt 7:1-4) took the drastic form of the divorce and driving out by the Jewish men of their non-Jewish wives and children!(20)

The post-exilic Jewish literature, wisdom, apocalyptic and rabbinic, exhibits a growing restriction of women, a hostility toward them and a preoccupation with illegitimate sex as the source of all evil. E.g., the third century Ecclesiastes says “I find woman more bitter than death; she is a snare, her heart a net, her arms are chains” (Eccles 7:26). Second-century Ben Sira has much negative to say about women; thc following is a small sampling: “For a moth comes out of clothes, and woman’s spite out of woman” (Ecclus 25:26); “Any spite rather than the spite of a woman” (25:13); “A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach” (42:13f.); “No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman, may a sinner’s lot be hers” (25:19), “Sin began with a woman, and thanks to her we all must die” (25:24). Around the year 100 B.C. Jewish apocalyptic literature flourished; it was decidedly negative toward women and sex. The Book of Jubilees, for example, suggested that every woman is a nymphomaniac: “For all their deeds are fornication and lust, and there is no righteousness with them, for their deeds are evil” (25:1). The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs reflects the same attitude: “For women are evil, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves. And whom they cannot bewitch by outward attractions, him they overcome by craft” (Testament of Reuben 5:1f.). The Essenes are said by Philo to refuse marriage “because a woman is a selfish creature, excessively jealous and an adept at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued impostures.”(21)

The early rabbis continued the hostile attitude toward women. Their few positive statements about good wives are massively outweighed by their negative comments,(22) of which the following is a tiny example: “A woman is a pitcher full of filth with its mouth full of blood, yet all run after her”;(23) “The most virtuous of women is a witch”;(24) “Women are light-headed”;25) the daily prayer: “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman”;(26) already in 150 B C. Rabbi Jose b.Johanan said “. . . talk not much with womankind. This they said of a man’s own wife: how much more of his fellow’s wife! Hence the Sages have said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of Torah and at last will inherit Gehenna";(27) women automatically lead to sex and hence to sin: “He who gazes at a woman eventually comes to sin”;(28) “A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement. ... A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement.... If one gazes at the little finger of a woman it is as if he gazed at her secret part”;(29) “Rabbi Akiba (50-132 A.D.) said: ”Whence do we learn of an idol that like a menstruous woman it conveys uncleanness by carrying? Because it is written, Thou shalt cast them away like a menstruous thing: thou shalt say unto it, Get thee hence. Like as a menstruous woman conveys uncleanness by carrying, so does an idol convey uncleanness by carrying.’’(30)

It is with this centuries-long Hebrew-Jewish hostility toward Goddess worship, the women priests associated with it (especially as it often included ”sacred sex" between at least a king or leader or perhaps other devotees and a woman priest - qadesh), and the greater freedom for women accompanying it, that the first Christians (the Apostles, Paul, etc.) entered the Hellenistic world with the Christian gospel. Moreover, it was first to the diaspora Jewish synagogues where these attitudes would also have been strongly present that they went.

In that Hellenistic world these Jewish Christians faced the worship of the Goddess in strong resurgence, from the worship of the Phrygian Mater Magna or Kybele throughout Asia Minor and even in Rome, to the cult of Isis and her veneration under many other names—Demeter, Athena, Venus, Ceres, Ma Bellona, etc. Thc worship of Mater Magna or Kybele in Asia Minor was not only extremely influential, but also often included ecstatic passion, self-mutilation, even self-castration by male devotees so as to attain complete identity with the Goddess.(31) Although in fact the most pervasive Goddess worship at the beginning of the Christian era, the Isis cult, did not promote sexual excesses or promiscuity,(32) it was widely rumoured to do so, and thus the effect of seeing women priests of Isis on the early Christians was just as negative as if it were true. E.O. James notes that “her cultus was the most effective rival to Christianity from the second century onwards, and during the temporary revival of classical paganism in Rome in A.D. 394, it was her festival that was celebrated with great magnificence.”(33) He further notes that, “the unprecedented victory of the cultus [Isis] over official opposition and its persistence during the frst three centuries of the Christian era are a testimony to the deep and genuine religious emotion aroused in the initiates by the ritual.”(34) In fact, her public worship was brought to an end only by Emperor Justinian in 560. Moreover, throughout the Hellenistic world one can speak of a growing “women’s liberation movement” increasing in effect from the time of Alexander through the time of the Roman Empire until the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century(35)—paralleling the resurgence of the Goddess worship.

Given the Hebrew-Jewish-early Christian attitude toward Goddesses and women, the context of the Hellenist world with its swelling Goddess worship, priestesses and relative freedom for women was well calculated to intensify the Jewish-Christian emphasis on a male God, male priests, and male dominance. The ages-long struggle of the devotees of a Father-God against a Mother-God, priest against priestess, patriarchy against matriarchy lay behind the early Christian (not Jesus’s or even authentic Paul’s) failure to make women priests when that role became established, and the corresponding un-Jesus-like subordination of women.

With that knowledge and with a proper stress on the core Judeo-Christian tradition of the transcendence of God beyond all sex, plus a recovery of the balancing feminine imagery of God in the Bible and Christian tradition and other “grace-full” traditions in the heritage of humanity, the Catholic Church can now move to the creative step of making the priesthood reflect more fully that God (Elohim) “in whose image we are made, male and female” (Genesis 1:27).


1. E.O. James, Prehistoric Religion (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1957, pp. 147, 153. Cf. J. Edgar Bruns, God as Woman, Woman as God (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), pp. 8-10.

2. E.O. James, The Cult of the Mother-Goddess (New York: Praeger, 1959), pp.21f.

3. Ibid., pp. 22-47.

4. Ibid., pp.47, 138.

5. Ibid., p.99.

6. Ibid., p.228.

7. The Hebrew Bible refers often to Hittites in Palestine, e.g., Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, a soldier in King David’s army (2 Sam 11:3)

8. H.R. Hays, In the Beginnings (New York: Putnam, 1963), pp. 209f.

9. Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 238.

10. James, Mother-Goddess, pp.192-227; Bruns, God as Woman, pp.56-69

11. Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (New York: KTAV, 1967), pp. 157-206.

12. Elohim is one of the three Hebrew variants El, Eloah,Elohim (Elah in Aramaic portions of the Bible), which usually are used interchangeably (similar words are used in the rest of the ancient Semitic world for the deity, e g., Akkadian ilu, Arabic ’ilah). Of special interest is that Elohim is plural (which is reflected in the occasional plural verb forms used, e.g., Genesis 1:26), probably coming from the singular feminine form of the word for God, Eloah.(ah is a singular feminine suffix; im is a plural suffix that can be feminine or masculine). There is likely a residue of a very ancient Semitic female God, Eloah, a male God, El, and a court of female and male Gods, Elohim, reflected in this Hebrew biblical usage. This intermixing of masculine and feminine forms for God by the biblical writers indicates both a combining of sexual images in God, and a transcending of all sexuality. The combining of feminine and masculine forms seems to be the first phase, and the transcending of sexual forms the second phase.

13. Wisdom Sophia, is said to possess omnipotence (7:23, 27), omnipresence (7:24) immutability (7:27), sanctity (7:22)—all clearly exclusively divine characteristics. Moreover, She participated in creation (7:12, 21), and is at present the sustainer and ruler of the world (8:1). Still further, Sophia is described as a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty (7:25).

14. James, Mother-Goddess, p.69.

15. Ibid., p. 74.

16. Patai, Hebrew Goddess, pp. 58-61.

17. Ibid., p. 55.

18. Arthur E Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), p. 72.

19. Ibid., p.148.

20. Ezra 9 and 10; cf. Nehemiah 13:23-28.

21. Philo, Hypothetica, 11, 14-17.

22. Cf. Leonard Swidler, Woman in Judaism (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976).

23. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 152 a. This teaching is attributed to a “Tanna,” i.e., a rabbi of the early period, the time before the Mishnah was finally edited in the second century A.D.

24. Attributed to Rabbi Simon ben Jochai, around 150 A.D. Mishnah, Terum 15.

25. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 33 b.

26. Ibid., Menachoth 43 b; Palestinian Talmud, Berakoth 13 b; Tosephta, Berakoth 7,18.

27. Mishnah, Aboth 1, 5.

28. Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 20 a

29. Ibid., Berakoth 24a..

30. Mishnah, Shabbath 9, 1.

31. James, Mother-Goddess, p.167

32. Sharon K. Heyon, The Cult of Isis Among Women in the Graeco-Roman World (Leiden:,E.J.Brill, 1975) pp.111ff.

33. James, Mother-Goddess, p.180

34. Ibid.,p.177.

35. Klaus Thraede “Frau,” Reallexikon fur Antike und Christentum (Regensburg, 1970); Leonard Swidler, Graeco-Roman Feminism and the reception of the Gospel", Traditio-Krise-Renovatio aus theologischer Sicht, Berndt Jaspert and Rudolf Mohr, eds. (Marburg: N.G. Elwert Verlag, 1976), pp.41-54.

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