“Patriarchy is best understood as the 5,000-year birth-canal of the Great Mother Goddess.”
— Richard Tarnas, at the Cycles and Symbols III Conference,
San Francisco February 1997
A long, long time ago, the cosmic creation force was seen as female: the spark of life that had begun the Universe was likened to a biological mother giving birth. The earth, which fed everybody, was seen as maternal. People saw her caves as wombs, and buried their dead back within the belly of the Mother, vagina-like cowry shells clutched in their hands.
The moon, whose phases mirrored human menstrual cycles, was the first object of astrological observation. Bone markings from the Ice Age indicate that the calendars in use were lunar. Humans saw themselves as living in an ordered, womblike universe: there was a luminous night-sky clock up there to gauge the monthly quarters, and there were the biological cycles of plant, animal and human kingdoms marking time down here on earth- not apart, not one causing the other, but interwoven in mutual reflection.
As above, so below.
While the Mother was seen to have a dark aspect, as shown in the terrifying crone archetype of myth, her destructive power was seen as balancing her all-nurturing beneficent side. As heavenly and earthly affairs were seen to be halves of a unified whole, so were these two aspects of the divine. It seems that back in those days the human mind was undeterred by paradox.
Much has been written about the relatively peaceful goddess-worshipping societies that existed undisturbed from 8,000 to 5,000 BCE, as far west as England and as far south as Malta, and how the nomadic invaders from the north swept through the fertile crescent in the millennia to follow, substituting their warlike sky-gods for the pantheon of animistic divinities that had held sway for untold ages before them. It is more than striking that these bands of Aryan horsemen from what Riane Eisler calls “the very edges of the world” could have come down to Mesopotamia in wave after relentless wave and thoroughly taken over those settled, highly functioning civilizations the way they did, transforming the sociological, political and religious bases upon which human civilization had been defined for a stretch of time far more vast than that of recorded history. It was as if the time had come for an immense shift.
Modern archeologists have likened the agrarian Golden Age of the Neolithic to the Garden of Eden alluded to in legend; and the destruction by the Kurgan conquerors of the matrilineal societies with their earth- and moon-centered cosmologies has been likened to an Expulsion from the Garden.
So it happened that by the second millennium before Christ, the seven visible planets, whose cyclical wanderings offered a timing system more useful to the pastoralists, became the primary reference point in the heavens. The Moon was removed from astrological primacy.
This was the first cataclysmic cosmological shift for the western mind.
The second, as Richard Tarnas has pointed out, was the Copernican revolution.
Once it was posited that the earth was neither fixed nor central in the cosmos, the process of severing the human mind from its moorings got fully underway. The sun, identified in the neoplatonic Renaissance with the principles of reason and intelligibility, was now seen to be at the heart of things astronomically as well. Suddenly, everything was relative. In the centuries that followed, Descartes, Galileo, Newton and finally Einstein brought this revelation into physics and ultimately into postmodern philosophy. It seems almost impossible at this point in western history to imagine that the cosmos was once seen as an ordered Home with earthlings at the cherished center. Now, we are untethered in the universe; we are no longer embedded in Nature; we have no Mother.
For with the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism, reverence for the physical planet Earth began to dry up. She became dis-ensoulled, and the honoring of nature that had once been theologically central started to become demonized. “Pagan” rituals practiced by worshippers of the Old Religion were suppressed as abominations. Feminine archetypal principles such as the sacredness of the physical body, the sexual instincts, and the animal kingdom that had traditionally represented them, were judged more and more severely, as was the entire female race. The focus on the sun, reflected in the triumphant Big-Daddy deities of Judeo-Christian-Islamic thinking, prepared the way for a mass world view increasingly fragmented and unconnected. If original sin codified the idea that life was suspect by default, by now we have come to the point of revering a modern science nihilistically estranged from any sense of meaning in the universe, where life is seen to be a freak byproduct of material processes.
Yet the takeover by the solar-centered world view introduced something besides war and hierarchy and ecocide. It brought into the world the process of individuation. Something happened over the centuries to the tribal mind, something that bears the stamp of inevitability: humans became, individually and collectively, more and more autonomous.
Jung describes the individuation process as requiring a leaving home, as heroes in fairy tales do when they go off to seek their fortune, a departure that leads, after a series of hard tests, to a grand return. The homecoming is the Self coming back to the universal, at a new level of understanding… which was the point of the whole exercise. Deepened self-knowledge is the prize at the end of the long, hard journey, the golden fleece won after the trials. And just as individual seekers must banish themselves from the Whole in order to reconnect with it again eventually, so has the entire human species had to forget en masse our divine place in the cosmos in order to come back to it, now, as the New Age dawns.
There is a method to the madness of the past five thousand years, and it follows the archetypal pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Babies must get painfully squeezed out of their warm, dark wombs to be born; initiates into mystery schools tended to go through similarly brutal emergences during the rites that led to their next level of awareness. And every one of us who has survived a psychological crisis knows that a dark night of the soul precedes an awakening into a new sense of identity.
There is a great death and rebirth scenario going on here, a Plutonian process on a macrocosmic scale. First humanity had its childhood, enclosed within the unquestioningly sanctified cosmic Mother — a phase of history likened to the planet Neptune, symbol of undifferentiated unity. Then we were forced out, through a long Saturnine trauma of constriction, into the cold of a disenchanted universe. Now we are as a species being birthed into some utterly new consciousness, a moment in history orchestrated by Uranus, governor of the shock of awakening.
As Uranus entered its ruling sign and joined with Jupiter in February of 1997, we see a signature in the sky for this momentous crossroads. This is the Age of Aquarius referred to in what by this time has become pop jargon. There is no single date for its official beginning, but astrologers consider configurations like that of this year to be indications that we are indeed on the threshold. I am struck by how much spiritual searching there seems to be among my friends and clients, by how feminism has evolved into a movement to resacralize the archetypal feminine, by how many books there are on the bestseller list that have to do with Jung, with angels, and with the soul. Most particularly I am struck by how the quantum theorists are coming to conclusions about acausality and nonlocality that sound an awful lot like the metaphysics repudiated by Descartes et al.
The Great Mother seems to be returning to mass consciousness, or, better said, we are returning to Her. And we have learned something during our adventures away from Her. It is now time for the synthesis to be forged between our hard-won individualism and the sense of fundamental unity we once knew. As the 20th century segues into the 21st one can see the signs of a new marriage between Eastern mysticism and Western rationalism, between environmental awareness and technology, between the spheres of the two sexes.
We are witnessing natural law correcting mass excess in order to return the world to health.
Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade, Sacred Pleasure
Eleanor Gadon, The Once and Future GoddessThis article was inspired by several of the excellent lectures given at the Cycles and Symbols Conference III in San Francisco, Feb.14-16, 1997,
including those by:
Rick Tarnas, intellectual historian,
Demetra George, astrologer and mythologist,
Victor Mansfield, physicist and astronomer,
Stanislav Grof, psychiatrist, and
James Hillman, Jungian analyst.