We can imagine that when our remote ancestors explored their universe in the distant past, they recognized the beauty and (if you like) the spirituality of certain places. Other places grew to be perceived as dangerous. They learned that edible plants grew better in certain areas than in other areas. They learned that water from a specific spring was better for their health than any other water. Thus both positive (“sacred”) and negative (“tabu”) places developed in the clan’s shared heritage. It was but a short step, then, to the appointment of someone to tend such areas. Whatever the criteria for selection, gradually that person(s) became the shamans of the site and of the tribe. *1
Many abrahamic religionists deride the ancient ways and the spirituality of the older cultures. Fashionable moderns tend to think of the older cultures as deprived; indeed, early folk lived without many of the attributes (both positive and negative) of a modern technology-driven society that has lost most of its humanistic sensibilities. We often refer people to Sir Arthur Evans and his description of the Mycenaean civilization he found in the eastern Mediterranean:
“It represents a civilized refinement that has not been equaled since : which I would like to fix firmly in place, by way of a challenge to the high claims of those proudly phallic moral orders, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, that were to follow … There were no walled cities in Crete before the coming of the Greeks. There is little evidence of weapons. Battle scenes of kingly conquest play no role in the setting of the style. The tone is of general luxury and delight, a broad participation by all classes in a genial atmosphere of well-being, and the vast development of a profitable commerce by sea, to every port of the archaic world and even–boldly–to regions far beyond.”
Personally we think that the world he uncovered sounds a lot better than our present world.
From various studies of early cultures such as that at Catal Huyuk (in present-day Turkey) and the Vinca culture in what Gimbutas calls Old Europe*2 and even the later Cretan studies, it is clear that many of the shamans were women. Then came the axial age, when the nomadic horse herders of the steppes, with their male-dominance paradigm and their sky gods, overran those benign cultures. Shamanic power became vested solely in the male; male deities forcibly replaced the earlier female forms. The power of the shaman was dramatically increased, and the old spiritual site became the center for the new religion. The very word religion comes from binding, and we see how people were bound into obedience.
Those male gods seem to have been associated mainly with negative sites where the local god had to be appeased with various kinds of sacrifices or offerings. We see this most clearly in the continuity of the volcano god Jehovah. Unfortunately he retained aspects of his origin, becoming the master negative juju of the gods. Jehovah is well summarized by Richard Dawkins, Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University :
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction : jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”*3
It is an interesting mind-exercise to speculate why the ladies gave up their power. The transition didn’t happen easily. But when agriculture and settled farms became the norm, the stronger males controlled the distribution of food; to protect their children and to gain access to that food, the women became subservient. The loudest and meanest (males) overran everything peacable that had gone before. Even today that status quo exists–although there are encouraging signs that in countries with a high standard of living and, would you believe, state-run health care, the women are beginning to look to the more gentle males for a mate.*4
This very brief story of how we got to where we are shows how spirituality devolves into religion, which then devolves into a controlling threat system. In Wicca we reject that devolution. We prefer to go looking for the spiritual and for the sites where we feel at one with the universe. We recognize that named gods and goddesses are generally either the names of tribal leaders or of ancient tenders of shrines, human beings who have posthumously grown legends and through campfire retellings have become heroes and then gods.
These are all constructs of the human mind and have only human types of energy. Divine they ain’t.
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*1 It is unfortunate that the earlier word shama has become shaman. The -man ending is not masculine; it’s just, shall we say, a dialect form of the earlier word. Nonetheless English-speakers may have a natural tendency to think of a shaman as a male and of the plural form as shamen. Wrong. Shaman is not gender-specific, and the plural form is shamans. Take it from Yvonne, the obsessive word-freak.
*2 Gimbutas, Marija “Language of the Goddess”, Thames and Hudson, New York 1989
*3 Dawkins, Richard “The God Delusion”, Bantam, New York 2006
*4 Wall Street Journal March 27, 2010 “The Masculine Mystique”