Human views of nature and time have always had an influence on religions and on the status of women in society. Women are viewed differently depending upon a society’s understanding of the passage of time and also depending upon how a society recognizes recurring patterns in nature as affecting human life. Ironically, polytheistic religions that arose in more ancient times were more likely to promote the role of women in society, while in contrast, monotheistic religions that arose later (and that are still widely practiced today) tend to degrade the role of women in society.
Early Reverence for Women
As far back as the Paleolithic era, reverence was given to the ability of the female body to produce offspring. Fertility is what carried the tribe forward. The clay and stone figurines from this era are predominately female and many of them show a pregnant woman. The 28-day monthly fertility cycle—menstruation—and the 29.5-day cycle of the moon were undoubtedly seen as in some way magical. Without scientific knowledge, people used patterns in nature, such as the alignment of the lunar and menstrual cycles, to infer cause and effect—with lunar phases causing women’s menstrual cycle or vice-versa. Women’s cycles may have been seen as part of the wider cycle of nature and menstruation was therefore to be venerated. Also because of the relationship between women and the phases of the moon, menstruation was not seen as taboo, but as life-giving and something to respect. In accordance with the view that women’s biology filled a laudable societal role, prehistoric peoples may have viewed women as having a special place in the social structure.
It seems, however, that prehistoric peoples may not have been all wrong when they related the menstrual cycle to the phases of the moon. A study of 826 women with normal menstrual cycles, conducted by the National Institute of Health, showed that women’s cycles were actually synchronized with lunar cycles, with a large proportion of menstruations occurring around the new moon. While there is probably no way to show that woman’s menstrual cycles developed in concordance with the moon’s cycles, this phenomenon raises a compelling question for evolutionary biologists: If the moon’s gravity influences tides, does the moon’s gravity also create women’s monthly cycles? Although, to be fair, some scholars do not support this connection.
Moving on to the Neolithic era, there is ample evidence of the veneration of goddesses as well as nature. At first, a Great Goddess or Mother Goddess with a strong relation to the cycles of nature was probably worshipped or revered. Later on, after the invasion of Indo-Europeans who introduced male sky gods into the culture, the goddesses became part of the pantheon consisting of gods of both sexes. At that time, the female body was still portrayed in sculpture and art in a way that revealed it as something to be honored because of a woman’s unique ability to bring forth new life. Frescos in Crete from that era portray women also in a leadership role.
This Neolithic belief in a multiplicity of gods (male and female) differs significantly from the Old Testament, which espoused devotion to a single male god. With a single male god, women took a more secondary role in Old Testament culture. For example, rather than being revered for their ability to reproduce, women who had their period were viewed as unclean and were required to stay in a red tent during menstruation. Furthermore, because they were seen as unclean, they could not participate in the religious rituals in the temple while they were menstruating. By eliminating the feminine divine, all monotheistic religions have denigrated the female body and placed women in a subservient position to men¾as is evident when Eve is portrayed as the source of original sin. Even use of the word “curse” used to describe a woman’s menstrual cycle has not completely died out as part of modern culture.
Life and Death: Cycles versus Dualism
In the worship of the feminine divine, both birth and death were part of a natural cycle. The goddess represented both. Just like the plants that died in the wintertime and were reborn in the spring, humans died and babies were born. As late as the advent of an Israelite culture in Canaan, the goddess Asherah was worshipped in the woods, in nature, and her symbol was often a tree or pole. The current Maypole celebrations have their origins in pagan worship with celebrants dancing around a tree. Today, there is a goddess-centered practice that honors cycles in its adage “whatever is sent out will be returned” with celebrations once again occurring outdoors. Goddess worship has been described as “one of positive, joyful affirmation of the female body and its cycles and acceptance of aging and death as well as life.”
This is in contrast to all monotheistic religions, which create a dichotomy between death and life. Instead of seeing them as a continuation, there is a rupture that leads to an afterlife. This focus on the afterlife, whether that is heaven or hell, detracts from the present. This view certainly has had an impact on the “disconnect” between current societies and the natural world. It is as if the earth is something for us to exploit and destroy versus take care of and nurture.
An interesting Christian symbol is the crone, which has an old woman often a witch representing death, which denigrates both death and a woman’s body as it ages. In contrast, most Christian portrayals of women, either of the Virgin Mary or the female saints, portray them as young women, a telling depiction that only honors the young.
Cycles versus Linear Time
The ability to reduce our thoughts and experiences to writing brought about another significant change in human consciousness. Lawrence Schlain, author of The Alphabet versus the Goddess, discusses the significant change that writing brought about on our consciousness. Because writing is linear, time has assumed a linear nature for modern peoples. Today, rather than viewing life in cycles that repeat, there seems to be a beginning and an end to how we view the world around us. What would we do without our clocks and watches? With the advent of the concept of linear time, it was also easier to see life as a line, rather than as a cycle. Rather than evolving in circles of life, modern concepts of time emphasizes that life has a beginning and an end—making it easier to posit the notion of an afterlife at the end of that linear lifetime.
To further explain his hypothesis, Shlain states that “when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric ones, which manifest as a decline in the status of images, women’s rights, and goddess worship.” As evidence of this theory, when the Israelites adopted a single male god, they also banned the images of female bodies that had been a staple of goddess worship. As time passed, however, the Christian church finally had to relent and allow images in churches, not only to teach the largely illiterate people about the Bible, but also to satisfy a need felt by parishioners. Pope Gregory the Great effectively declared the Second Commandment’s prohibition on graven images null and void. However, it was now the church that controlled what images could be produced.
Cycles also were dealt a blow by the advent of dualistic thinking. Zoroasterianism, one of the earliest monotheistic religions entering the scene in the 5th or 6th century BCE (with origins as far back as the second millennium BCE) is thought to have introduced the dualistic concept into the thinking of other Mesopotamian civilizations. Concepts of heaven and hell, notions of free will, and the messianic thinking of Zorosaterianism influenced Judaism, Christianity, as well as Islam.
The close relationship between humans and nature, the acknowledgment of natural cycles, and a veneration of the earth were all gradually displaced as written language—and the ideas carried by written language—developed. As Zoroastrianism was developing, Hammurabi, the leader of the Babylonians, compiled the first known set of written laws, around 1700 BCE. Civilization was moving from tribal relationships to more centralized control with written rules. Societies that do not have an alphabet, even today, rely more on custom and taboos rather than laws. Neither early Egyptian nor Chinese civilizations had written canons. Property accumulation and wealth also allowed the creation of an elite. With no notion of secular government, the heads of the cities were also the theocratic heads. They were, of course, men.
Today we are paying for this shift in thinking. Many people who do not enjoy a good life on earth, just think that heaven will be better. Earth is seen as something to be used up and exploited versus revered and taken care of. No, I’m not objecting to writing and industrialization and technology. But, adding a dose of the reverence for goddesses, cycles, and nature and a concentration on this life on earth would do us all good.
The Faithless Feminist
 Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: Male Words and Female Images (London, England: Penguin Press, 1998), viii.
 Ibid, p. 149