From Grain Goddess to Catholic Saint

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One of the most important transformations in human civilization occurred when someone, perhaps a woman who did the gathering, recognized that seeds tossed on the ground would sprout into plants. The advent of agriculture completely transformed the nomadic life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. People became more sedentary and settled together first in villages and then in fledgling cities. Because adequate rainfall and other conditions were necessary for a successful harvest, these early humans developed rituals and sacrifices to appease the responsible deities. What is fascinating is how Christianity transformed one such deity, the grain goddess, into a female saint.

One of the earliest clues to the link of a female goddess to agriculture is the figurine discovered at Catal Huyuk (in modern day Turkey) dating from 6000-5800 BCE. Similar to earlier clay figurines of females, this carving is of a woman sitting on a throne with lions by her side. It appears that she is giving birth, although that has been disputed. What is interesting is that she was found in a grain bin. This may be an early clue to the link between the fertility of women and the fertility of the earth. Later figurines show a goddess holding plant leaves, petals, and stalks. It is likely that before heavy plowing was introduced, women were responsible for agricultural production.

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Women and nature also shared some aspects that our early ancestors figured out. The moon’s cycles are the origin for our concept of a month. The word for menstruation comes from the Latin word for month—mensis, plural menses. One carving of a female has nine slashes across her back—symbols for the nine months of gestation. The cycles of the earth were crucial to successfully determining when planting should occur. While the time period in early civilizations differed depending on the climate, rituals were similarly situated around the sowing time.

Specific deities, mostly goddesses, were in charge of a successful harvest throughout the cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Mesopotamian goddesses such as Nunbarshegunu and Ninlil, are shown sitting on shafts of grain as others sprout from their shoulders.[1] Ezinu and Ashnan are saluted as “the good bread of the whole world.”[2] The Greek grain goddess Demeter had an interesting story to explain the barren winter months—her daughter Persephone was captured by Hades and had to remain in the underworld four months of the year.[3]

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Peasants are loath to give up their cultic rituals. In the Old Testament, women complain that their new god does not provide like the previous ones.

As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we 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 food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” And the women said, “When we burned incense to the queen of heaven and poured out libations to her, was it without our husbands’ approval that we made cakes for her bearing her image and poured out libations to her?”(Jeremiah 44:16-19)

The early Christian Church struggled for centuries trying to eradicate rituals, statues, and references to the earth mother and goddesses throughout the Roman Empire. As with the old adage, if you can’t beat them, join them, they often christened the ones they did not destroy as a saint or the Virgin Mary.[4] In the seventh century Pope Gregory the Great instructed his missionaries as follows:

He is to destroy the idols, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up, and relics enclosed in them. For it the temples are well built, they are to be purified from devil-worship, and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people seeing that tits temples are not destroyed, may abandon idolatry and resort to these places as before…”[5]

Another such appropriation of the grain goddess and her role in propitiating a harvest is seen in the grain miracle legend that arose with an early female saint Radegund. It combines the issue of purity (a woman escaping rape by her male pursuers) and the fertilization of the earth. In this legend, Radegund passes by a farmer and tells him to say to anyone that follows that he has seen no one since he sowed his field. As Radegund leaves the crop sprouts and grows to full size. When the men arrive at the field, the farmer tells no lie when he repeats what Radegund told him to say.[6]

What this story shows is that traditions and rituals are deep-seated within a culture. In order to insert new concepts, such as a new god, some appropriation of existing practices must usually occur. This is true for many aspects of Christianity. The birth date of Jesus came to be celebrated on December 25 because the major Roman festival of Saturnalia fell on that date. The celebration of Easter replaced the spring agricultural festivals. Easter itself is a word that comes from the pagan goddess Eostre. As goddesses are often associated with fertility, it is not surprising that eggs today are still associated with Easter. Even the Catholic monk Bede in the late 8th century stated that the festival of Eostre had finally died out and had been replaced by the celebration of the resurrection.[7]

Yet many religious people today will attest with fervor that everything in their religion is unique and tied only to their “one true god.” They ignore the wealth of history, archeological, science, and other evidence that shows that this is simply not true. The question then arises, does it matter? Yes, it does. How can we move forward as humanity when so many nations and peoples still cling to traditions that are rooted in a past that predates the genesis of their particular belief? How can people think critically about the monumental issues that stand ahead of us—climate change, war, famine, disease—if they are not willing to look critically at their belief systems?

It is time to say we are done with religion. The god of the Old Testament, the god of the New, the god of Islam, and the thousands of other gods that people believed in the past and still in the present today are creations of humans, designed to explain phenomena that they could not understand, give them solace in times of sorrow, and serve to control the masses. We are lucky in the United States that at least we have the separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution. Think of the many nations that would have to devise an entirely new system of government if their citizens rejected religion. We can no longer be the first country to let go of religion. Our European counterparts such as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are way ahead of us. However, if more Americans who have rejected religion would speak out, it would make it easier for others to leave the folds. Are you an atheist? Have you shared this with anyone?

Karen L. Garst

November 6, 2015

P. S. Does writing interest you? If you are interested in writing a guest post, just email me at karen@faithlessfeminist.com.

[1] http://www.matrifocus.com/LAM08/spotlight.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/Demeter/demeter.html

[4] Pamela Berger, The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1985), 37.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ēostre

About the Author Karen Garst