As so many things do, this begins with a story…
Many stories in fact, but I’m going to start out with just the one.
In 508 BCE, the great Spartan King Cleomenes joined forces with the exiled family of Cleisthenes in the hope of overthrowing Hippias, the tyrant of Athens. (Take a breath, I know that was lot of ancient Greek names.)
King Cleomenes managed to get himself to the acropolis, the central and most important part of the ancient Athenian polis, also the location of the holy temple of Athena. Weary and looking for a moment of spiritual reflection, Cleomenes, King of Sparta enters to the holiest place in the city of Athens, to pray. I imagine he opened the temple door, ready to step into the welcome cool dim within when he heard an angry female voice. An angry and powerful female voice, accustomed to being obeyed.
An Athenian priestess rose from her seat within and is said to have shouted, “Spartan stranger, go back. Do not enter the holy place.”1
She harnesses the power of the divine and exists in liminality, between the living and the dead.
This Athenian priestess is not given a name, not like the males in the story. She doesn’t stick out individually, but her strength, conviction and divine authority is enough to get King Cleomenes thrown out of the temple. She, like many women throughout history harnessed a special mystique, a voice that does not sway to the demands and wants of a king, conqueror or the greater society.
She harnesses the power of the divine and exists in liminality, between the living and the dead. With mere words she has toppled kingdoms, flicked away the pride of overzealous politicians and directed the focus of entire civilizations. She accomplishes these things with no significant wealth or army at her disposal. Through the authority of her own female divinity she is the sacred vessel of supernatural knowledge. What she has to say, whether a king likes it or not, holds the weight of powers more significant and more powerful.
This is not unique to the polytheistic world. As Christianity rose to predominance, it brought with it the identity of sacred women as powerful figures. If you think about it, Mary’s pregnancy was a rebellion. While married to Joseph, Mary gives birth to the son of the divine, instead of her husband’s offspring. Her own immaculate conception further cements the concept of her sacred feminine before she even conceives Jesus. She exists outside the normal conventions of society and gender restrictions simply do not apply to her.
As Christianity rose to predominance, it brought with it the identity of sacred women as powerful figures.
Classical works, embraced by medieval Europe created a natural dilemma for the Christian devout. If these works were to be celebrated and revered, scholars could not ignore the blatant references to pagan gods. Taking one of their favorite classical writers, medieval thinkers harnessed the prophetic presence of the Cumae Sibyl in Virgil’s Elcogue. The Sibyls, an extension of the classical Greek oracle tradition, played a similar and significant prophetic role in ancient Rome. Virgil’s mention of the Sibyl’s words, most likely meant as a propaganda outlet for Augustus, were interpreted by medieval scholars to have been
oracular visions of the coming of Jesus Christ and the ultimate establishment of Christendom. Yet it is interesting to note that Christians of this age viewed the prophesy of the Cumae Sibyl as a frightening example of female paganism. This is a fascinating conflict, despite rejecting paganism itself, they acknowledged the power of the female prophetess. Christian scholars were convinced that Sibyl, by divine power, had foreseen the birth of Jesus and through extension rejected Roman pagan authority.“By Destiny’s unalterable decree. Assume thy greatness, for the time draws night, Dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!”2 While the Sibyl represented a pagan belief system, medieval scholars recognized that she held a special power, especially if she foresaw the coming of their Lord.
Even from the lowest rungs of society, she commands with the voice of the gods and becomes a goddess herself.
In 1492, the Maid of Heaven, Joan of Arc met with the Dauphin of France, Charles VII. France was at this time, a shadow of itself, a kingdom on the verge of complete annexation. English ambitions to rule over France seemed only a hair’s breadth away from realization. Charles himself was not in a strong position. But something about Joan, a commoner who somehow managed to obtain a chance to meet with him, the Dauphin, moved Charles to invest in her rebellion. It was of course, in his interest and whether Charles himself was religious moved or inspired by Joan, cannot be definitively decided. Nonetheless, if Joan was a mere political gambit for Charles, she still appealed to a multitude as a figure of French resistance. This is in great part because of the figure she cut into the collective French identity – a virgin girl in direct communication with God.
As seen above, this model is quite familiar, a female who is a conduit to the divine which can only be achieved because of her gender. This embodiment goes beyond divine inspiration, but to the very pores of her being. She is symbolic of the divine and therefore cannot be ignored. Even from the lowest rungs of society, she commands with the voice of the gods and becomes a goddess herself.
We can see those connections of female divinity to the very dawn of civilization, where sacred womanhood is not to be underestimated. This is reflected in the very stories of the divine, contained with the feminine— a sacred looming power.
So, I leave you with these powerful and daring words of the first known author, Sumerian priestess Enheduana as she exalts her goddess Inana:
“At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm.”3
1. Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin, 2003), 337-338.
2. Virgil, “The Eclogues,” The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/eclogue.4.iv.html.
3. Enheduana, “The Exaltation of Inana,” The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.07.2&display=Crit&charenc=gcirc&lineid=t4072.p7#t4072.p7.