By Carol Winters
Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2006 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Winters, Carol. "The Feminine Principle: An Evolving Idea." Quest 94.5 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2006):206-209, 215.
Our culture has had a long heritage of associating the feminine principle with what it means to be female and the masculine principle with what it means to be male. As a result, both men and women have traditionally been locked into rigid culturally-defined gender roles that have not been helpful for anyone who wishes to live a more meaningful, creative, and soul-making life.
However, this situation is changing. Today, we are more aware of the physical and spiritual harm that this perspective has caused to both the inpidual and to society. Thanks to Carl Jung and H. P. Blavatsky, we are beginning to learn that a fully integrated inpidual is a unique and balanced expression of both masculine and feminine traits. A brief look at the ancient development of the feminine principle and its resultant interpretation by the dominant androcentric or male-centered culture will heighten our current collective understanding of this concept and deepen both our awareness and our effectiveness for creative personal and cultural growth.
It all started long ago, at the dawn of human consciousness, when some said, "In the beginning was Mother Earth, the primal vessel that contains all things." The Great Mother was inclusive. From her womb emanated all life, and from her body all of her family received the gifts of nourishment, shelter, and transformation. When her children died, she enfolded them back into herself to be reborn anew. This early concept of what was later to become the feminine principle was that of a nature-based, interconnected existence for all creation, both in life and in death. Eventually our ancient "foreparents" understood that the female body also embraced the creative life-giving patterns of Mother Earth: its womb generated and protected life, its breasts nurtured, its arms embraced and comforted. The feminine principle became associated with early female experience, and was conceived as the creative vessel of life that contains, nurtures, and protects.
Most anthropologists agree that women invented the earthenware and baskets that held the provisions for their clan's hunting and gathering activities. They prepared animal hides to make clothing and tents to protect against the cold. Eventually, vessel evolved as a ceremonial container used to offer gifts to goddess, in supplication or in thanksgiving for bodily needs, and later, as a ritual receptacle of offerings for spiritual transformation and renewal. Priestesses first offered these ceremonial sacrifices to Mother Earth and goddesses. Eventually, priestesses and priests presented their offerings to goddesses and gods. And finally, the offerings were made only by priests, and exclusively to one male god. Today, the feminine principle represented by the chalice remains a container for spiritual transformation.
Others have said, "In the beginning was blood and the moon." The natural and periodic red waters that flowed from women's vulvas were observed to do so with the rhythmic cycles of the moon. The same Mother Moon who caused the primal life force, the red waters to flow, also sent forth the white waters to Mother Earth to make all things grow and flourish. The amazement and wonder of these women's mysteries gave birth to human consciousness, of life reflecting back upon itself.
The female life cycle of maid, mother, and crone was modeled with the rhythm of the moon. The new or waxing moon was a metaphor for the childhood or maiden time of her life. The full moon symbolized her sexual fulfillment, her fruition as mother, and her economic role as contributor to the community. Later, as a crone or Wise Woman during her waxing moon stage, she matured both as a family and a spiritual leader in her community. During the time of her menses, when the moon died and the sky was dark, she withdrew from community life and sexual activity and retreated into her internal wisdom. Just as the moon died and was resurrected again in three days, so too could the woman be physically and spiritually renewed. The many stories that we know today regarding death, resurrection, and renewal have their beginnings in these ancient women's blood mysteries. Another early concept of the feminine principle, the cyclic union between self and others also began with these early rites.
Hera, goddess of women's mysteries, personified the feminine principle as understood during this ancient, preliterate time. She had many titles, including Seat of Wisdom and Queen of Heaven. Virgins annually bathed in a nearby river, in ritual spiritual purification and dedication to her principles. (Most scholars agree that the original meaning of virgin was woman, regardless of her sexual proclivities.) But as patriarchal society came to dominate, this yearly sacred bath developed into a woman's pledge of her physical virginity to her husband. The meaning of virginity, then, devolved from that of psychological and spiritual intactness in relation to wisdom into one of physical chastity under the dominion of a husband.
During the Neolithic period, many believed that blood contained the human spirit. Over time, sex became tabu—both sacred and dangerous. Sigmund Freud agreed with anthropologist Robert Briffault that the ritual enactments of menstrual tabus were the beginning of moral principles for all primitive societies. The Indo-European derivatives for menses include measure, meter, diameter, geometry, moon, month, menopause, and metis. R'tu in Sanskrit has roots that mean both ritual and menstrual (Grahn 5-6). Consequently, the development of the feminine principle in the ritualized women's blood mysteries was also a central organizing factor of human culture. The resultant birth of primitive astrology was conceived in a unity of what we now consider both science and religion.
In time, men's blood rituals, patterned after the women's mysteries, were enacted in thanksgiving, supplication for a successful hunt for food, or in ceremonial preparation for a neighborly foray. Historian Gerta Lerner theorizes that the social practice of capturing and enslaving the women of enemy tribes during those raids created the patriarchal family in which women became subordinated to men, their sexuality controlled by the men who owned them. This practice eventually became enforced and strengthened by law. Female subordination gradually led to the notion that women were inferior to men. The perceived truth of the human condition understood "man" to be the norm that defined what is human, and "woman" was defined in relation to "man."
Further, women's natural, life-giving blood mysteries were perceived as inferior, less sacred, more unclean. At the same time, men's violent blood letting in hunting and warring, the taking of life, emulated a cultural model for what it was to be male. Whereas heroism marked the violent force of men's blood activities, shame characterized women's natural bleeding and reproductive processes. As a result, the feminine principle associated with the cultural concept of female being was relegated to a secondary and relational role to the masculine principal, the model by which men were to live their lives.
During the Homeric and classic Greek periods, Athena personified the prevailing cultural ideal of the feminine principle. During this evolutionary period in human consciousness, Father Zeus swallowed and assimilated his pregnant wife, Metis. From his head, he then rationally gave birth to their daughter, Athena, fully armored and ready for war to defend the polis. This unnatural act signaled the end of the female as creatrix of life and of a nature-based consciousness. Athena, the creation of her father, also replaced her mother, Metis (meaning practical wisdom) as a new paradigm of wisdom--that of law, order and justice. Her father's daughter, Athena was demoted in status from one of equality and independence on Mt. Olympus to that of his fully capable administrative assistant. She became the mediatrix between him and humanity, "And I alone of all pinities know of the keys which guard the treasury of heaven's thunder" (Aeschylus 366)! At the same time, unmarried Athena modeled physical chastity, her only acceptable alternative to the confines of a patriarchal marriage.
Athena's physical virginity also marked the change in human thought regarding the split between spirit and matter. In a world increasingly perceived in rigid dualities by the dominant culture, the writings of Plato and Aristotle reflected the phallocentric gender norms of the time. Their words set a crucial and authoritative precedent that continues, even today, to perpetuate the notion of the inferiority of the feminine principle in a circular movement of social convention within philosophical, scientific, and theological parlance.
Plato's dualistic view asserted that materiality or nature is associated with femaleness, and spirituality or higher reasoning with maleness. He believed that men could perform all tasks better than women, and that the highest form of love was between men. The essential functions of women were to run the households and to produce heirs. Aristotle's understanding of reality linked dualities such as spirit-matter, mind-body, reason-nature, light-dark, active-passive, hard-soft, good-bad, and ultimately male-female. The first concept in each of these dualities is superior, relates to males, and is considered a masculine quality, while the latter word is inferior, relates to females, and is referred to as a feminine attribute.
Aristotle's notion of female inferiority was twofold: scientific and social. Aristotle reversed the ancient pre-literate understanding that conception and life-giving is singularly a female phenomena by theorizing that the active male gives form and spirit, or movement, to the passive, shapeless matter of the female: "For the female, as it were, is a mutilated male, and the catamenia [menses] are semen, only not pure; for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul" (Clack 36). Aristotle thought that the duty of a woman was to submit to a man, for just as the soul or mind rules the body, so masculinity, understood at that time as being male, must dominate femininity, understood as being female. The wisdom of the feminine principle—natural, vibrant, creative and life giving—was gradually banished to the underground, hidden, but nevertheless still active (a masculine quality!) and flourishing.
For example, during this period in classical Greece, Hestia was the most venerated and revered of all the Olympian deities. Hestia Sophia—voiceless, imageless, and "storyless"—became the center of the human heart and the social hearth, as well as the implicit central flame of the Greek pantheon. Hestia's carefully and lovingly tended fire burned steadily in every home and temple, attesting to her abiding, but silent presence. Hestia's light represented the unspoken feminine principle that radiated at the center of the male-dominated life. Later, in Christian churches, the vigil lamp signifying Jesus' presence in the tabernacle replaced the sacred fire once tended by Hestia's vestal virgins. Certainly, Jesus did teach and ensoul many feminine principles; however, this truth was lost in the dominant culture's literal interpretation of his male embodiment.
We also find Wisdom hidden in the Hebrew Testament: "Though but one she can do everything, and abiding in herself she renews all things â€¦" (Wisdom 7:27). Here, Sophia/Wisdom assumes the tradition of all the autonomous, virginal and self-powering Great Mothers, including her Hellenic contemporary, Isis, who declared, "Nothing happens without me." Several of the words used to describe Wisdom in this biblical passage include holy, intelligent, humane, all-powerful, radiant, and penetrating. It is a mix of both masculine and feminine traits. However, most of us who are familiar with the Hebrew-Christian tradition are more acquainted with the oft-quoted passage in which Wisdom is personified as the first created and playful companion of the Creator:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth, [. . .] then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. (Proverbs 8:11-31)
This passage drops Wisdom from creatrix to created. Nevertheless, as a master worker, she still creates. In a world dominated by dualities, Wisdom continues to view the world as holistic and transpersonal, rejoicing in nature and humanity. Foreshadowing Jesus, she is inclusive of all human beings, calling upon them to "Come eat at my table and drink of the wine I have mixed" (Proverbs 9:5)
The images of the great goddesses all reflect various aspects of the feminine principle which are ever-changing and ever-the-same. They remain ever the same because they are archetypical and relate to basic human creative and organizing impulses. However, they are also ever changing, because they reflect the evolving consciousness, authority, and mores of the perceiver or culture. The image may be archetypal, or it may be a stereotype, a prototype, or a combination thereof, depending upon the perceiver. Such is the extreme case of the Christian Virgin Mary. For several centuries, politically dominant Christians destroyed the temples and shrines of the pagan goddesses in the name of their male pinity. Christian churches and cathedrals were developed at these holy sites and named for Mary, who had been previously designated Mother of God by the early church fathers. As such, she absorbed most of the attributes of the great goddesses, including the titles, Seat of Wisdom and Queen of Heaven. As Athena before her, she was and is still the powerful and comforting mediatrix between her devotees and a male godhead. Nonetheless, for two thousand years, by the god-given authority of the Church, she could not be called "goddess" and still remains officially subordinate to her son, Jesus.
Continuing still further, the androcentric church fathers also molded the image of the very human Mary into their own prototype of the feminine principle: completely submissive, passive, and subservient. Mary's human voice was silenced, but only after she promised obedience: "Be it done unto me according to thy word." Rational theologians split the archetypal images of Maid, Mother and Crone into the irrational trio of Virgin, Mother, and Whore. Mary Magdalene, who was unmarried and had sex, but no children, labored under the designation of (redeemed) whore; conversely, Mary, the mother of Jesus, took on the impossible aspects of physical virginity and motherhood, even though she was married and was perpetually sexually inactive. Through special prerogatives granted by God, they stripped Mary of all her female blood mysteries. They purified her unclean woman's body to accommodate her title, Womb of God. Mary did not menstruate, nor did she experience labor during the birth of Jesus. Most significantly, infallible dogma has declared for over 1500 years that her hymen remained intact before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. The church fathers aggressively packaged and marketed Mary as the epitome of "feminine" virtues—voiceless, sexless, and submissive.
Today, Mary's story is evolving. Many are reinterpreting her image of the feminine principle from an irrational and unnatural literal and physical explanation to that of symbolic and spiritual realization. Self-directed, she creatively and reflectively "ponders in her heart" and then agrees to the message from God. Subsequently, she consummates her spiritual union with the Holy Spirit/Wisdom, then conceives and gives birth to her Divine Child. A most transforming experience! However, taking back the control of her body and renewing her blood mysteries from ancient prejudices still remains an arduous task.
We need to rethink the whole notion of the feminine and masculine principles. Today, we acknowledge that the substance of a new life is not uniquely a female attribute as the primitives thought, nor is it a predominately a male characteristic as the early Greeks surmised. It is, indeed, the result of a co-equal union between a man and a woman. We are beginning to become aware that what it means to live as a woman does not mean to be lock-stepped into a culturally-defined gender role that embodies and ensouls feminine attributes, and that to live meaningfully as a man does not mean that he must submit to a stereotyped ideal of masculine qualities. The emerging level of our current collective consciousness, regarding this issue, recognizes that each inpidual's creative and unique soul-making process is an ever-evolving dance of change and renewal between yin and yang, masculine and feminine, male and female. Secondly, we need to become more aware of language usage. It is not uncommon for writers and speakers to interchange the words feminine and female. As we have seen, these words are not interchangeable. "Female" refers to a person's sex, "feminine" is an attribute that either gender may integrate.
Perhaps we need to push the point further (another masculine principle!) by challenging the traditionally rigid definitions of masculine and feminine. For instance, what could be more masculine than the powerful, forceful, and scientific Big Bang of energy as the universe gave birth to herself? What could be more masculine than the active, hard, and powerful thrusts and pushes of energy as a mother labors her child to birth? Conversely, what could be more feminine than the soft, warm, passive scrotum that shelters, nurtures, and gestates semen to fruition?
In fact, let's do away with the idea of masculine and feminine principles altogether. By evolving our consciousness to a higher plane, each of us, according to our pine calling, could combine the best of each, and rename them life principles. Societies could do the same. By doing this, we could then engage substance and energy more harmoniously to contemplate our sacred union with the principle of Presence.
Carol Wolf Winters, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and theosophical lecturer in the Pacific Northwest. This article is excerpted from her book in progress, Who Said, "God Said"? The Truth behind the Myth of Female Inferiority.
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Translated by Phillip Vellacott. London: Penguin, 1959.
Clack, Beverley, ed. Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition: A Reader. NY: Routledge, 1999.
Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1993.