As I study ancient human spirituality, I see a shift in the attitude toward women in some regions and I wonder why. Women seem to have been respected members of society and fertility goddesses were fairly common until the rise of the nomadic herding lifestyle, roughly 10,000 years ago.
What there was about nomadic herders that made the change I do not know, but societies, especially in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, became more and more paternalistic. Not so among the tribes in colder climes, where women retained more respect and power.
Nowadays we Americans think of Islam as being particularly hard on women; for example Saudi Arabia, where women cannot go outside without male escorts, drive cars, or leave their heads uncovered. Of course, Saudi Arabia is not that far removed from desert-nomad, King Ibn Saud (1876-1953) having conquered that region as a tribal leader on camel-back in 1932.
Women are depicted as quite dangerous in stories from the nomadic herding era. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu the wild man, is domesticated when a prostitute finds him drinking with the wild animals and drops her robe. It’s all over for Enkidu, who leaves the wild, meets king Gilgamesh and does a few heroic deeds before inevitably dying young.
In the Caananite story of Anath, the goddess gives a banquet, then falls upon everyone gathered, tears them to pieces, eats their flesh, wades in their blood and adorns herself with their skulls and severed hands.
According to the Greeks, woman was given to mankind not as a helper, as in the Bible, but as a punishment. Stories of Greek women going buckwild when Dionysus (god of wine) came around are harrowing. Women roamed around at night, drunk and half-naked and fell upon any living thing that crossed their path, tearing them to bits with their bare hands and eating them raw.
Ancient Greece is extolled as the cradle of democracy, but that did not apply to the majority of Greeks, who were slaves and women. Greek women led a very repressed life, locked up in their homes and confined to the second floor lest they come in contact with a man.
The wild young Enkidu being tamed by a woman is understandable; it happens every day. If you think about it, bachelor parties are meant to console our Enkidus for their loss of the wilderness and the companionship of the wild beasts (their fellow bachelors.)
But women falling upon animals and humans and tearing them up and eating their raw flesh is more disturbing. Did men really fear women that much? I’m assuming the stories of the Greek women are not eyewitness accounts, but rather express some deep-seated fear by means of story-telling. Then again, just how angry were those Greek women? Should the Saudis lighten up before Dionysus makes his way to Riyad?
If you think ancient stories were just silly and we are above all that, please note that little has changed-or have you missed the latest episode of Werewolves in Heat, or whatever those shows are called nowadays?
After all, even the very rational Center for Disease Control has posted a Zombie Apocalypse preparedness kit because dead people might come and eat our brains.
Mircea Eliade, History of Religious Ideas