A Short History of Myth, part 2
Blatant and inaccurate double standards
As I’ve previously noted, I was not happy with how the second chapter was progressing. To my increasing dismay, things only got worse: we are introduced to the so-called original “High God” or “Sky God” of the “ancient Mesopotamians, Vedic Indians, Greeks and Canaanites,” which is a “primitive monotheism” Armstrong claims “almost certainly dates back to the Paleolithic period” (p. 20).
OK, wait. Completely aside from calling a culture she knows nothing about “primitive,” this is getting ridiculous. Her claim is, I’m guessing, based on the modern Western attempts at interpretation of the few scraps found of the written mythologies of the above-mentioned cultures — none of which are older than 3000 BCE! So she’s extrapolating for the Paleolithic (remember, that’s circa 20000 to 8000 BCE) on a few mythologies from somewhere between five and seventeen thousand years later?! Curiously, Armstrong even tells us we should look to the visible actions of ancient peoples, and the remaining mythologies such as those she listed above, to clue us in as to the possible beliefs of our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors — and then she does not do so herself.
I honestly have no idea where, why, or how she came up with the amazing above-mentioned bit of cultural projection, since as she notes herself: “He [the supposed sky god] is never represented by images and has no shrine or priest” (p. 20) and, conveniently, “the myth is a failure” because he is too “distant” (p. 22). I suspect we see here a bit of her former christian teachings projected onto data she found confusing — teachings which claim ‘up’ is where exaltation and heaven can be found.
But why would the people of that time look upward for the creation of life — when they can see it around them all the time, in the earth itself? One of the few remaining ‘actions’ we know of regarding these long-gone peoples, which Armstrong herself mentions with admiration, are the paintings in the caves of Lascaux. She refers to the caves as being much like returning to the womb in order to view the sacred animals, and states “the earth was not personified, but was venerated as sacred in herself. She produced all things from her womb in the same way as a woman gave birth to a child” (p. 44-5). Wouldn’t that indicate the Paleolithic peoples most likely worshiped a female deity?
Unfortunately this double standard regarding seeing the dominance of the male in the unlikeliest of places does not abate whatsoever. By the time we reached the chapter on the Neolithic farmers, the assumption that Catal Hoyuk housed “an aggressively male society” made my jaw drop again, although this time in dismayed and disbelieving laughter. Frankly, I’ve never understood how a city which had no real weaponry and built no defensive walls for 1500 years can be considered aggressive, let alone focused on the male! Armstrong goes on to speculate wildly about there being a goddess who “demands endless bloodshed” (p. 39) — due to the hunting men resenting the birth-giving women, for having to risk their lives in defense of the women and children!
There are so many things wrong with that baseless speculation that I found myself momentarily boggled as I read it — I had to go back and re-read to make sure I’d not misunderstood. Unfortunately I had not; it appears Armstrong did not realize just how much she was projecting current cultural beliefs on a completely different and alien society. I guess she did no research on the often terminal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth in gatherer/hunter cultures, nor did she remember the members of Catal Hoyuk were more herders and farmers than hunters. I was equally baffled by her assumption that a nurturing earth mother cannot also be a fierce mother, hunter, or defender of her children. Surely Armstrong can look around herself even today and see examples of such women. Why would she think Neolithic women any less capable than their modern sisters? It’s not like women suddenly and conveniently evolved ferocity several millennium after men.
This double standard repeatedly dogs this book’s writing. Armstrong’s apparent inability to think outside false binaries means she cannot seem to conceive of a goddess who is both fierce and nurturing — and thus if a goddess is at all fierce, Armstrong simply cannot see examples of that deity as nurturing. Inanna’s joyous sexuality, Isis’ devotion beyond death to her beloved, Demeter’s love for her daughter — none of these are mentioned. Instead we are simply told of the ferocity and dangerousness of the various goddesses. Consequently by extension Armstrong sees agriculture as well as “a constant battle, a desperate struggle” (p. 46). This time her projection of biblical teachings is actually mentioned right there — with no realization, I believe, of just how much she is projecting the mythic loss of the garden of Eden onto peoples who lived in peace several thousand years before the war-loving nomadic Hebrew tribes came along with their vision of lost paradise.