Ancient Archetypes and Modern Manifestations -- The Goddess
by Barry Beck
The Ancients knew more about us than we do about them.
I would like to discuss the notion of the Goddess, not as a quaint superstitious half-forgotten relic of ancient civilizations, but as a key to understanding and rediscovering a forgotten aspect of history and as a framework for re-establishing circulation to and from a lost part of our Psyches and our Selves.
We have had perhaps 5000 years of a patriarchal God, but previous to the cultures of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, Hindus, Chinese and Celts, there is great evidence that matriarchal based civilizations existed where those peoples later located. An agricultural revolution replacing the hunter-gatherer societies may in part account for this transformation. These earlier civilizations worshipped the Goddess, not as a power from above or outside of ourselves, but as an externalization of interior states and a projection of aspects of our Psyche, Soul or Self; and as a personification of Energy that shapes and maintains the Earth. [But see Hayden, 1998, for an archaeological perspective. Ed.]
I will describe the nature of two mythological frameworks and how I relate them to transitions that occurred within myself. An example of changes that took place in our mythology after the patriarchal conquest can be seen in the figure of Athene or Athena and in the symbol of the first woman whom we call Eve. Athena, as she originally appeared, represented wisdom and knowledge in their purest form. She was a fully armed warrior as well as a herald of agriculture and architecture. She was a personification of civilization. After the patriarchal revolution, beauty and wisdom remained as her attributes, but she became subservient to Zeus and other male gods.
Following the lead of such people as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Dr. Jean Houston sees mythology as a coded DNA or a cartography of the Psyche. She writes of how Athena changed from independent woman to Daddy's girl. Zeus metaphorically swallows wisdom and Athena is reborn from Zeus's head. Houston also sees Homer's Odyssey as symbolic of a patriarchal invasion that occurred between five and eight thousand years ago. Ulysses has essentially conquered his world, but as he slowly returns home, he is being developed and educated by feminine archetypes such as Athena, Circe, Calypso, and other assorted sirens, nymphs, fates, amazons and the nine muses, all gateways to the archetypes. They recognize he has conquered the surface world, but quietly, often without his discernment, they are teaching him new models of wisdom and knowledge. With no more external enemies the man is given a choice of either suppressing these new qualities or harmonizing them within himself and his world. This period of gestation or internalization or seeming non-activity is in reality one of his most creative.
Dr. June Singer has rediscovered a Gnostic creation story from the first century with sources that pre-date Genesis. In this tale, Eve is not initially punished for bringing a certain type of knowledge to the world, but later some angels, jealous of her power and influence, attack her. Eve's spirit flies away but her physical Self remains on the earth. This story has a parallel in the split between the physical and spiritual that can take place in child or spousal abuse. Eve's spirit in effect says, "I cannot stay here; I am not welcome; I will return when I am again needed and accepted." But for now, she is wounded and must protect herself. In the patriarchal Genesis, women and men alike are condemned because Eve has sinned by experiencing and introducing unacceptable and forbidden knowledge.
Our myths, gradually over centuries, become unconscious and can be remodeled to justify a social change that has already taken place. Characteristics and attributes that were feminine are either co-opted and taken over by men (such as Athena's strength and military aptitude), become subservient to or denigrated by men (women's intuition and sensitivity) or are distorted to become evil traits (witchcraft and nature customs being chief examples). One would think childbirth would at least be one talent left to women, yet even this trait is appropriated by male archetypes for the birth of important individuals in mythology: Athena is born from Zeus's head; Eve is born from Adam's rib. It is as if the power to give life is too important to be left to women.
I would argue that in taking the Goddess seriously, we are getting twice the God. We're not losing a Son, but gaining a Daughter. In my own experience, I discovered that characteristics within myself such as logic, rationalism, linear thinking and worldly success led to a kind of dead end. A part of me was oppressing another element. Freeing the entire Self and finding new ways of thinking and finding solutions opened up new avenues for me. It was easier to harmonize, organize and individuate all aspects of myself.
Dr. Jean Bolen, author of Gods in Everyman and Goddessees in Everywoman, writes that "relying on one half of ourselves can be impoverishing and result in an experience void of emotional meaning and lacking in full spiritual dimension." This is true of each of us individually as well as for society as a whole.
So to use the symbolism of the Gnostic creation story, the Goddess, like Eve's spirit, was attacked and wounded and had to leave the earth for a while, but perhaps now that we are ready, she will return to help us complete our psycho-spiritual Selves fully.
© 1999 Barry Beck
** Sources: The above was researched from the writings of Jean Houston (misunderstood in the news a few years back for guiding Hillary Clinton in her Eleanor Roosevelt active imagination type exercise), Jean Bolen, June Singer and Lorna Catford. Also valuable was the three part 'Goddess' PBS series: Goddess Remembered, the Burning Times and Full Circle. Though I didn't include his writings here, Robert Graves, better known for I Claudius, wrote a difficult to read volume about fifty years ago called White Goddess about women in the psyche and mythology which is a great resource.