In Mesopotamia the first accounting systems arose out of the need to record and disperse temple commodities. Many of these early accounting scribes were women. As societies became more complex, arithmetical systems developed to accommodate trade, architecture, irrigation, and land division. Math and record-keeping were also necessary for the development of Mesopotamian astrology, which was the genesis for the Greek astrological system we use today. We’re not talking about grade school arithmetic at this point either: Mesopotamians had a base 60 counting system (it eased division), utilized square and cube root tables, calculated compound interest, and (by the later period) could calculate the time of an eclipse to within a few minutes. Both Mesopotamians and Egyptians understood triangular relationships long before Pythagoras, although the Greeks did provide the theorems.
Note: This is the first of a four part series
I must admit that I approach this subject with trepidation. I’m concerned that some of my readers may be those for whom the keys to the numerical kingdoms have been denied, those who have bumped against that iron door and convinced themselves that beyond lies a sterile uninteresting yet unfathomable realm, filled with errors and yielding nothing of significance. I feel like I should sing a song and do a dance, maybe bring out a colorful Muppet cast for a chorus routine brought to you by the number nine, all to convince you that numbers have something relevant to say, something even you can understand.
Women have long been shut out of mathematical worlds. I can identify nine of these worlds, which should be intersecting but which are in some cases hermetically sealed. These nine worlds are those of arithmetical computation (including accounting and finance), applied mathematics (engineering, statistics, economics, physics), number theory, statistics, music, puzzles or riddles, philosophy, geometry, and symbolism. I do not say that there are only nine worlds; I like the number nine because it is the number for human gestation.
What makes nine the number for human gestation? That comes from a basic division of time based on the moon cycle, which at one time ruled the menstrual cycle. The first mathematicians were women, inventing numerical systems for calculating their menstrual cycles and the course of their pregnancies. Mathematics is, literally, in the blood.
A study published earlier this year out of the State University of New York – Buffalo, finding that men are more narcissistic than women, was met with jokes and derision for being yet another academic examination of the obvious, but author Emily Grijalva responded eloquently that it is precisely those things that “everybody knows” that need to be examined. Not simply because they might not be true, although (obviously) there is a chance that they are false: establishing a fundamental fact (the what) allows us to move on to questions of why or how.
I thought of Grijalva’s words when I saw the promotion for Breaking the Mother Goose Code, about Mother Goose as a surviving form of the Mother Goddess. I believe I may have heard this idea from Z Budapest in the mid-1980s, but I don’t believe she made any claim to have researched this herself. I began showing my own students a picture of Aphrodite on her goose and calling her an early form of Mother Goose, and I don’t think it occurred to me or to anyone to examine the assumption.
In Breaking the Mother Goose Code Jeri Studebaker chronicles her effort to pin down the source of the nursery character, and on the journey with Mother Goose finds a long history of suppression of the Mother Goddess. Without delving exhaustively into the patriarchal takeover of Europe and the Christian takeover of religion, Studebaker provides the background for understanding why Mother Goose is such a powerful figure and how Christianity changed her. Studebaker gives a history of the fairytale and a synopsis of the prevalent theories for how European fairytales developed. There is a more detailed examination of the German goddess Holda than most women will be familiar with, along with some discussion about the goddesses Baba Yaga, Mari, Brigid and Aphrodite. There is some examination of theater history related to the Harlequin that appears in one of the rhymes. In addition to a history of their publication, Studebaker goes through the nursery rhymes line by line and attempts to decipher them. This involves a great deal of conjecture, but apparently this author is intrepid.
Studebaker’s intuition is on track in the avenues she explores, even when she admits that her evidence is tenuous. In some cases she seems to be unaware of information that would bolster her arguments further. I do disagree with her argument about classic fairytales created as an underground Pagan resistance movement. If anything, I think these fairytales were created as allegories against rival Christian institutions. I was going to expound on this, but it’s a rather esoteric point.
There is some great supplemental material in the appendices: a glossary, a list of fairytale codewords, a synopsis of the stories in Tales of Mother Goose, two timelines, and the full text of a Holda fairytale. The author did not neglect to provide references, a bibliography, and an index, which in this case were essential.
One regrettable omission: there are no pictures. Studebaker admits that an examination of artwork was essential to her research, and she refers to this artwork frequently. Priestesses in the Goddess Movement have become accustomed to relying on pictures to enhance their understanding, and I think the Internet has fueled the demand for illustrations even more. She says that the decision to omit pictures was made to accommodate e-book requirements, but many e-books do have illustrations. In fact, e-books should be making it easier and cheaper to produce books with pictures, as well as expanding other creative borders. I am aware that the variety of e-book readers on the market makes it challenging to format manuscripts, but even in the early days of the printing press, books had illustrations. There are a lot of e-book readers out there that are marketed to consumers with features that do about everything except wash your clothes, but at the same time they are limiting the ability of authors to produce creative content. It’s not right, and authors, publishers, and consumers should not be standing for it.
All in all I really liked this book (except for the pictures – did I mention that?). I hope the author will return to the subject of nursery rhymes, including Mother Goose. While the book is a respectable 300 pages there is still a lot of gold to mine here.
It is important for Pagan and Goddess groups to become more aware of and responsive to the ways Lesbians are alienated and marginalized within the spiritual community. Lesbian erasure is rampant in literature, organizations, and events that purport to be “LGBT friendly.” In fact, sometimes acknowledging or making an outreach to the “LGBT” ends up directly alienating lesbians, making enemies where there were none before.
Erasure is different from inclusion. When there is lack of inclusion of a minority group, they are simply not there. Lack of inclusion may be a problem or it may not be, since every group does not purport to serve everyone. Erasure means that a significant number of people are participating in a group at a high level, but everyone pretends they’re not there. Erasure of women is a problem in virtually any group that is not women only. Erasure of lesbians can be a problem even in women only groups.
It’s important for straight women to know that having a gay male friend you would do anything for does not mean lesbians will assume that you are on their side. Many straight women have gay male friends while maintaining distance from women they describe as “unfeminine,” “angry,” “too radical,” or some other adjective which is really an oblique way of saying “lesbian.” Maintaining that “of course I can’t be homophobic against lesbians, I have these great gay male friends” is naïve at best and offensive at worst.
By the same token, expressing support for “LGBT” organizations (or sometimes even using the initials LGBT) will not win you automatic friends in the Lesbian community. Gay organizations often do not understand or prioritize the concerns of lesbians, advocating for lesbians only when an issue occurs which also affects gay men (and sometimes not even then). This has been a problem since the beginning of the gay rights movement. Exacerbating the problem today is the tendency of well established advocacy organizations to begin working in tandem. These organizations are started by sincere individuals with a high level of commitment, but once established they tend to attract individuals seeking ego gratification from association with an organization of high repute. These individuals will see other executives in other high profile organizations as their core constituency, making policy decisions that reflect loyalty to this constituency. Lesbians quite often do not perceive LGBT organizations as working in their interest, and in the last 5 to 10 years this has gotten much worse, with many lesbians now saying that the LGBT lobbies directly against their interests.
What does this mean for spiritual groups that are not expressly LGBT? It means don’t point to a policy statement or endorsement from an LGBT group and expect it to hold favor with lesbians – or worse, invalidate what a lesbian has to say by pointing to an LGBT advocacy group. If anything, invoking the LGBT makes you look tone deaf and out of touch. The initials LGBT, much used by advocacy groups and in the media, do not mean that the people these initials represent have a great deal in common. There are even some under each of these letters who say this alliance needs to break up. So writing a few lines about transgender women in a book about Goddess spirituality will not be seen as acknowledging the significant participation of lesbians in this area. Giving an award to a gay man will not be seen as bestowing recognition on lesbians.
It would behoove straight women to listen more to lesbians and seek lesbian opinions on “LGBT” issues. Don’t assume that the left media on the internet is doing this. Listen to lesbians talk about their spirituality and their relationship with the Goddess and what they seek in spiritual community. Above all, acknowledge lesbians are in the Pagan/Goddess/feminist communities in significant numbers. And that we want them here.
The mythology of Mesopotamia revolves around the accouterments of civilization to a surprising degree. Maybe it’s because cities were founded so early in that region, sometime before 4,000 B.C.E. One myth even concerns itself primarily on how Inanna brought various technologies to her city of Uruk. Another myth describes how wild creatures were banished from a tree so it could be fashioned for Inanna’s throne. The most famous Mesopotamian myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, concerns itself with the tensions between urban and rural life.
I just finished a book called Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City by Gwendolyn Leick that underscored for me the central place of the city in Mesopotamian religious life. Before the invention of cities, the gods lived in heaven, and they created dry land in the sea below with the idea of building a dwelling place for themselves. That dwelling was the temple, and the surrounding city, like humans themselves, was created to serve the needs of the gods in their home. Leike points out “Thus the Mesopotamian Eden is not a garden but a city, formed from a piece of dry land surrounded by waters.” The significance of this reason for creating earth is that “Contrary to the biblical Eden, from which man was banished for ever after the Fall, Eridu remained a real place, imbued with sacredness but always accessible.”
There have not been a lot of books about Mesopotamia in English published in the last twenty years that are directed toward a lay audience, and still fewer written by women. My interest in Mesopotamia is in religion from a feminist standpoint, and I have no interest in urban planning and still less in the dizzying history of war and conquest in this region. I trusted that my subject would be treated at least tangentially, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a reminder yet again that you cannot understand the religion of a culture without understanding many aspects that our secularized society has designated nonreligious.
This is a book for people who have already read a bit about Mesopotamia. The material is dense, although clearly written, and there is a lot of politics that will not interest most people. The biases of the milieu Leick comes from are apparent, especially in the first few chapters where the dearth of evidence necessitates some speculation. Unlike many academic writers she does address issues of class, ethnicity, and women’s status, and she identifies places where religious texts are driven by political concerns. I recommend that novices start with Mesopotamian myth and poetry, such as that found in Gilgamesh: A New English Translation by Stephen Mitchell or Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, which also has some introductory commentary. But if you’re ready to move on to some historical context, this is a book I would check out.
There is still time to sign up for my online course Emerging Interpretations of Inanna’s Descent.