The Re-emerging Mother-Goddess
(from “Pagan Rites in Judaism)
I. In a Synagogue for the First Time
If Hamlet had known the insight psychoanalysis has given us into the laws of mental processes, he would certainly have added that strange phenomenon to his praise of man (“What a piece of work is a man!” – II, ii). The wonders of unconscious thoughts would have surprised him as they still amaze us every day even though we have been familiar with that particular “piece of work” for a long time now.
Why did an early childhood memory suddenly pop up in my thoughts, which had been focused on a research project? It dealt with the problem of what happened to the great mother-goddesses, common to all the peoples of the ancient Middle East, in the religion of the prehistoric Hebrews. There was no discernible connection between that research project and a reminiscence from the past of perhaps seventy years ago. Only much later, when my exploration had progressed to a certain point, did I become aware of a latent thought-connection that had remained concealed for weeks.
It was a memory: I must have been four or four and a half years old when my grandfather took me to a synagogue for the first time. I was not astonished by the sight of men in prayer shawls because I had earlier seen my grandfather covered with such a mantle.
What amazed me was the scene that took place shortly after our entrance. Two or three men went up to a platform and to a kind of recess or closet, the curtain of which they pulled away. After they opened that recess they took out a strange object. Or was it a person? Was it a prisoner who had been locked up there?
I am sure that my first impression must have been that it was a woman the men lifted from the closet. What I saw must have confirmed that impression: there was a wonderful long dress with many adornments and decorations and a beautiful crown on the head of the figure. Was she a queen? Everyone had jumped to his feet when she appeared.
There were, it was true, no feet visible, but the figure had a long dress as was the fashion in those days. Later on I saw something like a hand – a real hand – that seemed to come out from the dress, following the lines the men read from the parchment.
Only much later I understood my mistake. The closet was of course the recess, the ark, in which the scrolls of the law are kept, and that mysterious, richly dressed figure was the Torah. Naturally the boy was then too scared to ask.
The belief of the little boy who was fascinated and looked at the scene was strengthened when he saw that the men were “undressing” the figure. They took her precious clothes off and removed the crown, while they prayed or, actually, sang. But even before that, they had done something which must have confirmed my impression that the figure was a woman, and a highly respected or loved one at that. She was carried around in a brief procession to the lectern. The men of the congregation near her touched her mantle with their prayer shawls (talith) and kissed them on this spot.
I still remember that when the men had removed the wrappings and adornments of the figure, they lifted the white scrolls high, showing them to the congregation. I vividly remember the feeling of sudden shame I experienced then. The corporal form of the Torah did not allow any doubt. The kissing had supported my belief: I had been a witness to the process of undressing a woman so that the figure appeared naked now. I had been present at a kind of peep-show, an exhibition shared by all the men present.
It cannot be denied that this impression renewed earlier attempts of the little boy to peep, but the scene in the synagogue was itself enough to convey that distinct impression. The physically or corporeality of the Torah in its center was of great weight.
This childhood memory, whose significance became recognizable only much later, should merely form an introduction to the treatment of the subject of the mysterious disappearance of a mother-goddess in the religion of prehistoric Israel.
II. The vanished Mother-Goddess
It is likely that for all the Semitic migrants who wandered from Arabia into the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria “the moon was originally the supreme deity.”1 Even Moses Maimonides states that moon worship was the religion of Adam. The name of the moon goddess in ancient Babylonia was Sinne; she corresponds to the great goddess Manat in Arabia and to Venus, and Aphrodite in other countries. The moon was the emblem of Israel in Talmudic literature and in Hebrew tradition. The mythical ancestors of the Hebrews lived in Ur and Harran, the centers of the Semitic moon-cult.2
The moon did not long remain the ancient Hebrews’ only goddess. As did all people of the ancient Middle East, they imagined that man had been produced by a divine couple as the product of their sexual intercourse. The Egyptians and Babylonians believed that man was conceived in the embrace of heaven and Earth. In the psychoanalytic interpretation of the Genesis saga, Otto Rank arrived at the reconstruction that Adam was born as the product of sexual intercourse between a father-god and the mother-goddess Eve or Adamah (the earth). The myth-formation we know, the tradition that Adam gives birth to Eve, is a reversal of the original version that Adam was born from Adamah, the great earth-goddess.3
Adamah or Eve would correspond to the great mother-goddess of the ancient Orient, to the divine mother of the Babylonians called Ishtar, the Egyptians Isis, the Phrygians Cybele, the Greeks Aphrodite, and the Romans Venus. All these goddesses were consorts of their divine sons, called Osiris, Tamus, and so on. After the liquidation of the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish refugees in Egypt associated Yahweh with two goddesses. The name of the Lord was blended with that of the goddess as Anath Yahu.4 When Jeremiah came to Egypt in 585, he gave the Jews there a severe lecture (44:2ff), but the men answered that they would continue “to burn incense unto the queen of heaven and pour out drink offering unto her as we have done, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem for then we had plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil.”
Only tangential notice can be given here to the idolatry of that generation and of the preceding ones because our attention is given to the question What happened to that great mother-goddess of the ancient Hebrew tribes? What, for instance, was the destiny of the female deity who produced the first man according to the primal tradition? Did she disappear? Do we here encounter a surprising reversal in the form “La recherche de la maternité est inderdite”? And what happened to other, later female deities?
Before we try to answer this question we hasten to add that other goddess-figures of ancient West Asia were also subjected to changes of various kinds. The divine family (preferably in triads of father, mother, and son) had various histories. There were in early Babylon, for instance, as many goddesses as gods; each male deity had at least one female companion. The city goddess Ninlil, the lady of the great mountain; Nana, the patroness of Uruk; and others later changed their functions. Some became “more shadowy reflections of the gods; but with little independent power, and in some cases none at all.”5 There was, as Edwin D. Starbuck once called it, a kind of “twilight extinction” of goddesses in early Babylonia and Assyria and among other nations eager to conquer the world.6 There were various forms of the subjection and transformation of the goddesses.
The strangest was defined by W. R. Smith: “In various parts of the Semitic field we find deities originally changing their sex and becoming gods.”7 It is questionable whether such change of sex was really, as Robert Briffault and others assume, the outcome of the struggle of patriarchal principles against the survival of matriarchal society. In any event, such change makes an odd impression, and it is difficult for us to imagine its development.
But to return to our particular subject here, the vicissitudes of the ancient mother-goddess of the Hebrew tribes, we know (better: we assume that we know) what happened to her: She became a victim of the great religious and social reform we connect with the name of Moses. This tyrannical and intolerant leader of the Hebrew tribes and his followers banned the figure of the mother-goddess into the nether world. That removal was performed so radically that scarcely any trace of her previous existence remained in the official Hebrew religion. Occasionally Yahweh, the victor, took over her functions, saying “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you: and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Even the root of the goddess-idea was torn out: there is no feminine form of Adon, the name of the Lord.
III. A Mysterious Story and a Mystery Story
The idea that a goddess changed her sex and become a god is entirely alien to us, and we have no means to help us understand this transformation. There is a lack of communication between us and the mental world of the ancient Near East. To facilitate our understanding of the mentioned change and of others, I shall introduce here a comparison that will, in a lighter vein, prepare us for acceptng some peculiar aspects of the problem. The question is not only how the figure of the mother-goddess disappeared, but also what happened to her afterward. We would like to investigate the circumstances of her disappearance, but we also want to find out if she turned up again in some disguise or other within the Hebrew religion. We know that she reappeared as the virginal Mary, the mother of Jesus, that this was in Christianity, a religion whose roots were in Judaism but which severed all ties with it. What happened to that originally female figure before that and what since?
The comparison I am introducing is with a mystery story. Here is the plot. The elderly wife of Lord A had disappeared. A sleuth, a figure similar to Agatha Christie’s Monsieur Poirot or Inspector Maigret, whom George Simenon created, takes over the task of investigating the manner of her vanishing and, if possible, the task of finding her again.
No trace of the missing woman is discovered. Investigation brings to light the fact that there was a severe marital conflict between the Lord and his wife, who was unwilling to accept his autocratic rule. A young butler or major-domo called Moses, engaged only a short time before, plays a sinister role in that conflict. Lord A has made him the delegate in the household. Some rumors indicate that the Lady left after a furious argument with this major-domo – who ejected her and forbade her to enter the house again.
What happened to her and where did she go? There, is a temporary suspicion that Lord A or this major-domo murdered her, but it cannot be confirmed. Could she still be hiding in some secret room of Lord A’s palace? No one saw her leave the house. Since she left no belongings, it is as though she had never lived in the palace at all.
A long time after the disappearance of the mistress of the house, new persons appear on the scene: women who hold highly responsible positions. The detective who is still suspicious of the Lord considers it possible that one of those new women-figures is the Lady in disguise, but his suspicion seems unjustified. These women are not only much younger, but also very different in character and behavior. The unavoidable exploration of Lady A’s life had revealed that she had had several lovers – there were even rumors that she had once been a prostitute. These new women seem extremely virtuous and have spotles reputations. Nothing indicates that there is any sexual relationship between them and Lord A, who is harshly puritanical.
The detective who quietly observed those women inside and outside the house could find nothing that confirmed his suspicions. In vain the detective asked himself again and again: where is she now? There was not the slightest physical or psychological resemblance between the vanished Lady and any of the women-figures. Yet the detective could not rid himself of the thought that there existed a relationship between them.
So much for the plot of the fanciful mystery story introduced here for the sake of comparison. The reader will have guessed long ago what the points of comparison are. The Lord is, of course, Yahweh; the vanishing Lady the original goddess whom the Hebrews at first worshiped like other Semitic tribes – a mother-goddess, but also the goddess of love and sexual desire; the major-domo is Moses, the religious reformer of the Israelites, who banned the goddess as well as her divine son, ejecting both of them. But who are these women-figures who came to the house much later to hold mysterious and responsible positions?
After this Intermezzo in a lighter vein let us return to the question of what happened to the missing goddess of the Hebrew tribes. For many centuries she remained lost and forgotten. As a matter of religious fact, she has never been heard of, only traces of her existence have been found in the early creation myth of Eve and a few distorted Biblical passages. There is no female deity in Judaism.
We expressed our astonishment at the fact that some goddesses of the ancient Semites changed their sex and became gods. Even more odd or freakish apears to us another peculiarity of ancient mythology: the personification of an abstract idea or of attributes of the gods. Yet those phenomena are universal in ancient and primitive religions and have their roots in the animistic beliefs attributing a soul to natural objects and later to the powers of nature. Such personifications are not, as one would assume, results of late developments. They are present among the aborigines of Australia and Africa and are found as well in early Babylonia and Egypt. And are they entirely alien to us? Do we not ourselves sometimes personify death and time? On the monuments of great men of the last century you often see symbolic or allegoric figures such as Courage, Virtue, or Victory, quite independent of the personality presented. Justitia, for instance, is still alive for us as a bindfolded figure holding a pair of scales in one hand and a sword in the other.
Scholars have described great numbers of such personifications in ancient Egypt, where some were worshiped as gods and goddesses while others had no cult. The same is true of Babylonia and Greece as well as of the ancient Roman civilization. The most frequently mentioned of all Egyptian personifications is Maet (“:that which is straight or direct or what is the truth”). She is depicted as a goddess with a feather on her head and is thought of as the daughter of Re and closely connected with her spouse Thoth, the god of law and regularity. She had a cult of her own in an early period. We know that there were similar personifications in prehistoric Israel (for instance the Depth, corresponding to the Babylonian Tiamat ), but they too fell into oblivion following the severe religious upheaval of Yahwism
In the following paragraphs we shall be exploring the three most important personifications, all female, of a much later period, beginning perhaps after the close of the biblical canon. All these figures present emanations or attributes of God, but increase in their importance as time passes. (They can be compared to the women with responsible functions as the house of Lord A in our interlude.)
The first of these figures is perhaps Wisdom (hebraic Chochma), known to everybody from the Wisdom literature of the Bible. It was always understood that Wisdom is of divine origin, but she developed by and by an individuality of her own. As Samuel J. B. Wolk points out, Wisdom made speeches, exhorted men to follow her if they would find God – “The adjective became a substantive.”8 A human quality became a distinct personality (Prov. 1:1-9; Sirach 24). On account of the rigid monotheism of Yahwistic religion. Wisdom could never attain a thoroughly independent personality such as that of Ea, the Babylonian god of wisdom, or the Logos of Philo whom we later encounter as the second or third person of the Christian trinity. Wisdom developed an individuality but did not become a creator or competitor of God – “hypostatized, but never apotheosized.”9 Wisdom was identified with the Torah. In Ben Sirach Wisdom quotes (Deut. 33:4) and applies the verse to herself (24, 23).
The Babylonian god of Wisdom dwelt in the great Deep, in popular theology associated with the Tehom Rabbah (Babylonian Tiamat), but the author of Job energetically rejects the ancient myth and lets the depth say that wisdom “is not in me” (28:4). Yet chochma “was the first of the works of old” (Prov. 8:22) and “the Lord by wisdom founded the earth” (Prov. 3:19).
A philosophical discussion erupted later concerning whether Wisdom was a being of herself or an attribute of God. She was certainly once conceived as something outside of God. Who consulted her in the process of creation. Is such “consultation” perhaps a later diluted form of a more vital participation of the wisdom-goddess in the process of creation?
The second personification to be discussed is the Shekinah, the female figure as is Chochma, but one who has quite a different function. Shekinah means the omnipresence of God. The word is derived from the Hebrew shchan - to dwell. Philo assumes that Shekinah corresponds to logos. This is also the view of Maimonides.10 The Cabbalists and the mystics regarded Shekinah as the real entity. In the Talmud and Midrash the Shekinah descended into the Tabernacle in the wilderness in the form of a cloud. We find her again in Solomon’s temple. In the Talmud, Shekinah appears as the omnipotence and is synonymous with the divine light.
The mystical philosophy of later Judaism assumed that there was first unity between Creator and Creature.11 With the Fall of Adam there arose a barrier between them. God did not entirely withdraw from the world. When Adam was driven out of Eden, an aspect or emanation of the Divine followed him into his captivity. She went before Israel, going through the wilderness. In the same way the Shekinah follows everyone as long as he observes the precepts of the Torah.
The Shekinah also followed Israel into the Exile. It is said that she “always hovers over Israel like a mother over her children!” It is because of Israel that the Shekinah dwells on earth. The doctrine of the Shekinah has a central place in the doctrine of the Cabbala.
None of these female figures is comparable in impact to that of the Torah, the image of God, the creator of the world. The Cabbala explained that the stories we find in the Torah are subordinate to her essence.12 Those stories are only her “garments”; without them the world could not endure her.
Together with God and Israel, the Torah forms the base upon which Judaism rests. She is considered older than the material world and was assigned a cosmic role as an instrument whereby God created the universe. Even in this thoroughly diluted form we recognize the primal female goddess who, with God, produced the world.
Shekinah, Chochma, Torah – these are the disguised, scarcely recognizable figures of the Hebrew primal mother-goddess. Driven out, they returned by a side door in order to remain in the house – especially true of the personified Torah.
It is remarkable that the unadmitted cult of those female figures is sometimes at the expense of Yahweh, whose emanations they represent. I was once present at a heated discussion between one religious Jew and another. Impatiently brushing aside an argument, one said: “Who speaks of God? I am talking about the Holy Torah.”
The ability to personify those remnants of the primal Hebrew mother-goddess did not perish even after the Talmudic period. It continued to live in the artists who kept old traditions alive. E. M. Lilien presented Sabbath as a queen.13 In Heinrich Heine’s Hebrew Melodies, Princess Sabbath is praised and celebrated because she changes the doggish life of the Jew into that of a prince every Friday evening. He sings then the old hymn:
“Lecho Daudi Likras Kalle,”
Komm, Geliebter, deiner harret
Schon die Braut, die dir entschleiert
Ihr vershaumtes Angesicht…..
["Lecho Daudi Likras Kalle,"
Loved one, come. The bride already
Waiteth for thee, to uncover
To thy face her blushing features.
This most charming marriage ditty
Was composed by the illustrious Minnesinger
Don Jehudah ben Halevy.
In the song was celebrated
The espousal of Prince Israel
With the lovely Princess Sabbath
Whom they call the silent princess.]
This hymn, erroneously ascribed here to Judah Halevi, was composed in 1540 by Salomon Halevi Alkabeth and reflects the old Cabbalistic tradition in which the disavowed mother-goddess reappears in another form.14
V. Return to the Childhood Memory
Even if the Hebrew names Shekinah, Chochma, and Torah were not feminine, one could easily guess that they are women from the descriptions we have of them. Their prototype, the mother-goddess, suffered a rude expulsion more than two thousand years go and was never officially readmitted. In the best Old Testament fashion, even her name was expunged from the records.
Yet let us look at a few myths or tales connected with those substituting figures and let us consider the tales as definite evidence of their true identity. There is, for instance, a tale about the Shekinah. As mentioned before, the Shekinah followed Israel into Exile “always hovering over Israel like a mother over her children.” In the Cabbala the Shekinah is called “the Matrona,” which is itself revealing. The mystics predicted that in times to come, God would restore the Shekinah to her place. There would then be a complete reunion and the Lord would be one, and His name one. It may be said: “Is He not now one?” The answer is no, for the Matrona is removed from the king. The king without the Matrona is not invested with the crown as before. But when He joins the Matrona, who will crown Him with many resplendent crowns, then the supernatural mother will invest Him in a fitting manner.
The Cabbala does not consider that the Lord as long as He is without crowns has less responsibility (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”). But now that the king is not with the Matrona, the supernatural mother withholds her crowns. Therefore, as it were, He is not one. When the Matrona shall return to the place of the temple, the king will be wedded to her. Then all will be joined together without separation.
It is easy to recognize that in this Cabbala prediction the primal mother is readmitted and the old Semitic myth of a sexual union of God with her has returned from the area of the repressed after many centuries of expulsion.
The other tale or simile will bring us closer to the quintessence of my childhood memory, especially to the boy’s impression of the indecent “undressing” of the Torah in the synagogue. The Jewish scholars declared that the stories to be found in the Torah are to be compared to “outer garments,” as Simeon said. Whoever looks at them otherwise, woe to that man! He will have no portion in the next world. We are told that one has to observe the things beneath the garments. The Torah has a body made up of the precepts called gufe Torah (bodies), and that body is enveloped in garments made up of worldly narratives. The senseless people see only the garment, the mere narratives. Those who are somewht wise penetrate as far as “the body” while the really wise penetrate right to the soul.
This is the doctrine of the Cabbala and the comparison is, of course, meant only as a simile. Yet the word Torah has a double significance, a literal and a symbolic one. The little boy who saw several men take out the queenly dressed Torah from the ark and who looked, half-curious and half-ashamed, at her undressing was not entirely mistaken when he assumed that the mysterious object was a woman.15
1. Otto Weber, Arabien vor dem Islam (Leipzig, 1901), p. 19.
2. Robert Briffault, The Mothers (New York, 1928), p. 32.
3. Otto Rank, Das Inzest motiv In Dichtung and Sage (Leipzig, 1921), p. 317, and Psychoanalytische Beiträge zur Mythenforschung (2d ed.; Leipzig and Vienna, 1922), p. 77. I modified and completed Rank’s theory in my The Creation of Woman (New York, 1960).
4. Eduard Meyer, Der Papyrusfund von Elephantine (2d ed.; Leipzig. 1912), p. 63, and A. Cook, The Cambridge Ancient History, I, 206.
5. Morris Jastrow, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (New York, 1898), p. 104.
6. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, V, 857.
7. Religion of the Semites (2d ed.; London, 1894), p. 52.
8. Universal Jewish Encyclopedia , X, 537.
10. More Nebuchim 1, 28..
11. In this description I am using Abraham J. Herschel’s chapter on the mystical elements in Judaism, in Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews (Philadelphia, 1949).
12. Ibid., pp. 613ff.
13. Universal Jewish Encyclopedia , IX, 296.
14. Herschel, loc. cit. , pp. 614ff.
15.Addendum 1963. When God destroyed the Temple, Abraham rose up as a complainant against Him and demanded who should witness that Israel transgressed the Torah. God answered that the Torah herself would bear testimony to that effect. Summoned by God, the Torah appeared. Abraham reproached her, saying, “My daughter, dost thou forget how, when God did lead thee from one people to another and none would receive thee, Israel alone did welcome thee? And thou, in this nation’s time of stress, wilt come up as a witness against her?” These words abashed the Torah and she refused to give evidence. Abraham was thus victorious over God. (Immanuel Olsvanger, Contentions with God, A Study in Jewish Folklore [Capetown, 1921], p. 8) Olsvanger points out that according to tradition the Torah was drawn up even before the creation of the world. As Midrash says, God himself acted in accordance with it “as an architect with his plans.” Olsvanger compares the Torah as the supreme law which stands above God with the Greek Tyche, to whom Zeus later eventually submitted (p. 13).
My son Arthur reminds me that I had already presented the view of the re-emerging Hebrew mother-goddess more than forty years ago in a book not yet translated (Der Eigene und der Fremde Gott [Vienna-Zurich, 1923], pp. 57ff.).
How could I forget that? Here is a confirmation of Freud’s statement in a conversation with me that one easily forgets what one has oneself written. What one has written is, so to speak, intellectually and emotionally conquered and will therefore be easily dismissed from one’s memory.