Thursday, October 1, 2009

The transformation of myth, through the story of a Goddess who will be Isis - Part 1

Part of the process of creating action, is the creation of myth. Societies do not create myths of whole cloth, but take material that they find and absorb, and recreate it in accordance with their own needs and their own ideas. Any idea or movement must create mythology around it, because the facts are often too uncertain to really draw judgment from. Myths are stories which encapsulate archetypes, as the work on mythology since the 19th century shows. Peoples incorporate knowledge in myth that they cannot structure in a rigorous way, such as food taboos.

Patriarchal societies structure myths which place the male principle, and the male ways of being, doing, and thinking, at the center of success and society. Despite the spate of powerful women around him, Odysseus and his journey, are The Odyessy. Circe, Athena, Penelope, are all figures which structure his journey, and despite their powers, it is only through the lens of the male that there is a story at all. The process of patriarchalization of myth is seen in many societies around the world, and has been studied in detail in many of them. Every time a Greek sky god rapes, ravishes, or seduces a female goddess, that is a story of the cult of that goddess being folded into the main sky-god cult.

But the reverse process also occurs: we unfold myths from being patriarchal myths into being myths of pluralism. Christianity was used to argue for women's rights in Wollstonecraft's seminal pamphlet defending the rights of women to vote and be educated in the same way as men. And there is another recent example that this essay will turn to later.

In the present there has been a renewed focus on the role of women in development, particularly in the development of the poorest nations and regions. This has been the focus of micro-lending, the subject of many columns by writer Nicholas Kristof. In activism Jodi L. Jacobson wrote a report Gender Bias: Roadblock to Sustainable Development which detailed the myriad ways which bias against women holds back sustainable development, particularly in access to education, the very topic which motivated Wollstonecraft in 1794.

The roots of women as development go back very far in the historic, and prehistoric, past, and the mythology of the early literate societies points to a complex of archetypes of women in development. The early archetype portrays women as either the protectors of a narrow domestic sphere, or as, quite literally, bitch goddesses from hell. An illuminating example comes from Old Kingdom Egyptian mythology, prior to the merger of the two main cosmologies. In this myth Ra descends to earth and rules as a human Pharoh, and oversees a golden age. However, as he ages, the people begin to disobey him, and after taking council of the gods, makes a goddess into "The Eye of Ra" with the name Sekhmet. Sekhmet begins to slay the people of Egypt, but Ra can no longer command her to stop. Instead he brews beer, and spikes it with red dye. Sekhmet is tricked into believing she has already done slaying, drinks the red river water laced with the beer, and falls asleep for three days. When she wakes up, she is stripped of her name, and becomes loaded with titles, among which is Hathor, which is the most common name used to refer to her. In this form she becomes the loving domestic goddess of fertility.

The anthropology of this myth can be read as follows: human beings, as the climate stabilized, around 10,000 BCE, began to engage in agriculture. Over time their settlements would grow large enough, and fertile enough, that diseases would begin to afflict humans specifically, the first plagues. One major source of contagion, even up to the present, is, of course, drinking and bathing water. The Egyptians, particularly women, brewed two kinds of beer: a weak strained beer, and a stronger festival one. What the myth says, in part, is the use of strained beer to purify drinking water is an essential woman's duty. The other part of the myth is bound up in menstruation: women are not to bath in the Nile during the three days around their periods. Bathing in the main river is a custom that is present in a number of societies, but is hazardous in one that has exactly one main river.

The social context of the myth is that while women are the protectors of the home, and against disease, they are only marriageable as domestic loving sweet fertility goddesses, patrons of the gentle arts, and subservient, by intoxication if necessary, to the male.

Later, in the Middle Kingdom, Hathor's cult and story are assimilated into another goddess, who is known by several names, and is conventionally called by "Ee-set" or "Eset," her Hellenized name, is more familiar: Isis. Her name literally means "she of the throne" and it is through matrilineal descent that Pharoh's claimed their power.

The important moment here is the absorbtion of Hathor by Eeset. Hathor's power came explicitly from Ra, and while he could not directly defang her slayer aspect, it was a creation of his power. Only men could let women run loose, but once they did, it required trickery to get control again. Eeset, however, was not a limited part of the life giving nature, but became the great magician of the gods, taking this power on her own from Amun-Ra. She resurrected her husband brother Usir, called Osiris by later peoples. This story was set down in a Latinized form by Plutarch, but was based on a complex of stories from Egyptian times.

The sociology of this myth is far reaching, in it Sutah, or Set, kills Usir, and hacks his body to pieces so that it cannot be resurrected. Eeset either sews the body back together, where it is then embalmed, or in other versions, resurrects him so they can have a child, who is Haru, or Horus as he was known to the Greeks. In several versions she creates a penis for Usir. This conflict is an old myth, but it was grafted on Eeset and Usir, precisely at the time when foreigners had occupied Egypt repeatedly. The prior Sutah, god of the desert and Upper Egypt, was the god of monarchy. The sociology of this myth is that Eeset reunified the kingdom, and that the Pharoh, as her religious son and archon of Haru, is the legitimate ruler because of her.

Since these myths are many faceted, and Egypt's long history changed the aspects of almost every deity several times, there is no one form of the myth. It is also important, at least as important, to realize that this is all in a very pre-feminist context, without reference to the ideas of rights, equality, politics, humanism, and so on, that we take for granted. But as an archetype, the meaning of Eeset being not merely the home goddess, but the goddess who reunified the country draws a series of contrasts with Hathor.

This represents a mythological transition associated with development. Eeset, the figure of later Egypt, is not the domestic goddess of mere fertility and lust, but a major figure across virtually every aspect of society, worker of magic, and seat of the legitimacy of every dynasty. The transition from home protecting Hathor, to dynasty making Eeset, represents a shift of archetypes.

The important differences:

• Hathor has her power and knowledge entirely through the agency of Ra.

• Hathor is disruptive and dangerous force, where as Eeset contends against Sukah.

• Hathor's power is limited once she is tamed.

• Hathor's sphere is limited, where as Eeset is the bearer of state legitimacy, the throne itself.

• Eeset has agency, Hathor is first an embodiment of rage, and then drunk, and then a servant of her husband.

• In Hathor's myth Ra owes nothing to Hathor, in the Eeset myth Usir and Haru owe everthing to Eeset.

I could be accused of merely wallowing in some old scrolls and forgotten knowledge with particular interpretations, there are other versions of this story which are just about Haru and Sukah, and several complex later versions which involve other deities in the process. However, this archetype is the oldest version of the story, and the one which later inspired the Hellenic and Latin cults of Isis, Set, Osiris, and Horus.

But this story is important because it is not just a myth from long ago, but a pattern, which is used by people far removed from it, who were not even consciously patterning their actions after it. I would like to leap forward 3000 years, and change to the new world, specifically the First Wave Feminist fight over women's suffrage in the United States. The connection is closer than you might think to just the myth, since the late 19th century America is in the grip of an old testament driven version of Christianity, and many of the Egyptian myths are woven into that story. Women who are creators of raving destruction and evil, contrasted against domestic and loving subservient wives are strewn across their mythopoetic landscape. But there is a startling parallel in the writings of the anti-suffrage camp.

(I need to thank Widget, Chidy, Kevin, and SA for their invaluable help in setting this particular text on the right road after it had been terribly lost.)

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