When God was a Mother
I have longed for the hero’s mantle. I have donated, canvassed, volunteered, organized, taught, given, given, given … but it wasn’t until I gave birth to my daughter that I became aware of my full potential for heroism. Giving birth, certainly, should rank among the pivotal heroic adventures celebrated in our culture. Certainly it is more heroic than catching a football or acting in front of a camera, and perhaps even more heroic than going off to war. Men return from the battlefield with victory, but women return from the birthing room with life.
Yet, the stories I see of birth in the media don’t reflect the intense emotions, the physical power, or the immense impact of the experience itself. Women screaming, fathers fumbling about, doctors doing most of the heroic work — theses images don’t do justice to my experience. I felt empowered, strong, heroic in my efforts to bring my daughter into the world; yet, I am painfully aware how little others see the heroism in my birth experience.
The mothering experience, too, is often valued less than I would like. When I left my job as a professor to become a full-time mother, I took a great dive in status. People didn’t want to talk to me at parties once I explained what I was doing. Friends in the academy felt I had sold out feminism. Even sales people in the department store chose to help a woman in a suit over me with my child on my hip in a sling.
But this was not the case in our ancient past, as I found when, pregnant, I began to search for images and stories to support me in my upcoming birth. I read When God was a Woman, The Creation of Patriarchy, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth, and other books about ancient religions and cultures. In my search, I found that before the stories of God the Father, there were stories of God the Mother, and motherhood was the model for the relationship between humans and the divine. In the ancient past, motherhood was awarded more honor than an over-sentimentalized false pedestal that doesn’t let anyone see us eye to eye. This pedestal obscures the truth that all heroic journeys involve facing trials that test the body and spirit–and that motherhood is no different. In the myths of God the Mother, I found motherhood stories told as heroic adventures, performed by goddesses.
Though it may seem strange to us now, I can see why early cultures put women in the role of divinity. Women bled once a month, but did not die. They were able to bring out of their bodies new life. Sexuality was a beautiful and wonderful practice that ensured the fertility of both humans and, symbolically, the world. Seeing the divine as feminine simply made sense. Ancient statues show powerful, birthing women goddesses perched on thrones. As I planned to give birth, I pasted these goddess images on my walls for inspiration. I began to wonder about what happened to them. Where did they go?
I found that the status of motherhood changed as human social order changed. Resources became more scarce, and the status of men rose as the need for warriors increased and work roles became more specialized. Humans learned about man’s role in the creation of new life, and male gods began appearing as consorts of the female divinities, eventually standing on equal footing. In looking at the images created by rising city states, I could see that these ancient peoples created companion gods depicted on temple walls — male and female — twin components of a divine whole. Yet, mothers still held a special status. For example, in Ur, the ancient Sumerian city that some historians say Abraham left to found his own family, stories were told of the heroic mother goddess Inanna who descended into the underworld for three days until she made herself whole again and reemerged, stronger than ever.
In discovering Inanna, my search also revealed Enheduanna (about 2300 BCE), a Sumerian high priestess of Inanna, who is the oldest author we can identify by name in the world, making her the world’s first known poet. She wrote hymns to Inanna on clay tablets in cuneiform, which still survive.
You can read some of Enheduanna’s writing here:
- The Exaltation of Innana” or “nin-me-sar-ra”
- “Stout-hearted Lady” or “in-nin sa-gur-ra”
- “Inanna and Ebih” or “in-nin me-hus-a”
- “e-u-nir” is a collection of 42 hymns written for the temples of Sumer and Akkad. Enheduanna wrote many of these and gathered the rest to make perhaps the world’s first anthology.
These poems (or hymns) celebrate the many roles Inanna played in the mythology of her people — fighting as a warrior, promoting civilization, ensuring fertility, raising children, and protecting the home. To us in modern society warrior and mother don’t seem to go together, but the ancient people understood that they do.
I have heard people say that it doesn’t matter if God is depicted as a man or a woman or as both or neither. I believe the divine is not male or female, but I also believe that in the stories we tell about the divine, gender does matter. We all deserve to see the hero in ourselves, and to know the heroism of motherhood. But if our myths show our place in the universe as lesser than others than society will see us as lesser, and worse yet, we may believe we are lesser. If we give most of the heroic parts to male figures, it is more difficult to see ourselves as heroes. I am proud to be part of Literary Mama, where we can see the heroic strength of ancient goddesses reflected in multifaceted heroic journeys of motherhood.
- How do you imagine the divine? What were you taught as a child? How do you think now? How have your views changed?
- How do you define heroism?
- Was your own mother a hero? Why or why not?
- What do you see as heroic in the stories of Inanna?
- Did you find anything that surprised you in the stories of Innana?
- What did you find hard about reading these hymns? Would reading them outloud make it easier? Could you imagine them sung?
- What do you find heroic about your own mothering experience?
- When you were a child, did you have any heroes? Make a list of the ones who were fictional or public figures. Then make a list of the ones you personally knew. What characteristics did these figures share? What did they value? Why were they important to you?
- Think of an example of something you have done that might be considered heroic. Tell the story of what happened. Show through the story why you think it was heroic.
- Interview a friend or family member about a birthing experience. Do you see anything heroic in her story? Why or why not? Does your friend see anything heroic in her own story?