Have you ever noticed how the Catholic Church replaced the sensuous Pagan deities with ascetic monotheistic humans – almost invariably male. Take the Feast the Nativity of John called ‘The Baptist” which is ‘celebrated’ on 24 June. It is no coincidence that the Church chose to honour one of its favourite ascetics. Prior to the Christian era this was the month commemorating the death and re-birth of the Sumerian/Babylonian/Chaldean/ Phoenician god of shepherds, vegetation and fertility, Tammuz, who spends one half of the year following the summer Solstice in the underworld and the other half from the winter solstice onward bringing new life to the upper world. In later versions of his myth he is conflated with the Greek god of love, Adonis, and Dionysus/Bacchus, the gods of pleasure and abundance. The early Church on the other hand disapproved of pagan ways, especially the existence of numerous gods whose worship was deeply ingrained in the tribes of what we now call the Middle East. Prior to the creation of Monotheistic doctrine, the Israelites also worshipped a variety of Goddesses and Gods. Ashtera, Tiamat, Baal, etc. were the gods of ancient Israel as documented by the great scholar Raphael Patai whose book “The Hebrew Goddess” brought some balance to the perception of Judaic history as a male-only preserve.
By New Testament times, the old religions were seen as a major threat to the spread of Christianity, the new brand of Monotheism, In an effort to erase any folk memory of gods of like Tammuz, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built over the cave identified with the worship and mourning of Tammuz as most churches and basilicas would be built over the remains of pillaged pagan temples all over Europe, Britain, and Ireland. The Christian version of Monotheism inherited many of the attitudes of Judaism including a deeply rooted misogyny that gradually reversed the original role of women in the Church until they became totally marginalised.
Inanna and Tammuz
Until the advent of Judaic Monotheism the robust Goddesses and their consorts were primarily concerned with human survival in this world. The reign of the Great Goddess lasted for tens of thousands of years because she provided for her people. She was seen as the source of all bounty whether it was fertility in animals or humans, the fruits of the field or the herds whose preserved meat fed the people in winter, provided warm skins for clothing and shelter and assured the re-birth of life each Spring. Whether it be Inanna/Ishtar/Tiamat/Isis/Ashera – without her all life would perish. The Great Goddess was at the very heart of human life; she gave life everywhere but she could took it away in times of famine, flood, or plague so she was both loved and respected as the Creatrix of the world. As time went on and nomadic existence gave way to settled farming communities, the recognition of the male contribution to human reproduction was recognized and the Goddess was joined by a Consort in a sacred marriage. In the case of Inanna, the lesser god Tammuz was her chosen Consort for half of each year from the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice. The Divine Marriage during what we call Yule brought longer days and a re-birth of animals and vegetation, a time of great joy and celebration. But in June Tammuz had to return to the underworld and his worshipers mourned his loss for six days, one for each month of his absence. The religion of Inanna/Tammuz made sense. One mourns the loss of sunlight when plants cannot grow and the lives of animals and humans enter a precarious stage and one celebrates the marriage of the Goddess and her Consort when a new cycle of life begins.
Christianity, on the other hand, celebrates voluntary starvation, self-flagellation, and refusal to participate in sex and indeed elevates these un-natural practices to the level of virtue. John the Baptist, the wanderer in the desert, became the poster-boy for this brand of Judaic-Christian renunciation of the world. In Christian iconography The Baptist is a grim looking character. Instead of the jolly Green Man who celebrates abundance and enjoyment of the fruits of the natural world, John represents the opposite – a puritanical, disapproving, anhedonic asceticism that has unfortunately carried down to the present day in Christian tradition. I find it hard to consider The Baptist’s ‘feast day’ as a celebration. For me, The Baptist represents the dying god Tammuz, the darkness, and the hunger that can so easily overtake a world subject to natural disasters. I would rather adopt the philosophy of celebration of life represented by the pagan Goddesses and the Vegetation Gods. Maybe Herodias who allegedly who plotted The Baptist’s downfall and her daughter Salome who obeyed her mother’s wishes and asked her father for John’s head on a platter had a point…
© Delia O’ Riordan 2012
Images: San Juan Bautista by El Greco; Inanna Triumphant; Salome With Head of John by Titian. Courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.