The Mathematical Priestess, part I

Hypatia, by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Hypatia, by Julia Margaret Cameron.

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.

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Review: Breaking the Mother Goose Code

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.

Source: MCAD Library/Wikimedia Commons

Source: MCAD Library/Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Straight Girls I’m Talking to You: LGBT Friendly Doesn’t Mean Pro-Lesbian

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.

Source: Gender Identity Watch

Source: Gender Identity Watch

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.

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The Goddess and the City


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.

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Thoughts on Michfest Announcement


So Lisa Vogel announced this week that this year’s Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival will be the last. Vogel has been telegraphing her desire to see the Festival energy evolve into something new for a few years now, and this announcement has been long anticipated. In some ways it’s a relief, like the other shoe dropping.

Michfest has been ground zero throughout most of the current millennia in the left wing’s attack on women’s rights, which looks different than the attack coming from the right. At issue is whether women may set their own intentions and personal boundaries, or whether these should be subject to a sign-off from men on the left. Although Vogel is entirely within her legal right to set the parameters of the Festival, there have been persistent efforts to change those parameters. At times these efforts have turned ugly, such as the appropriation of African-American segregation experience to shame compliance with the agenda of people in far different circumstances. At times these efforts have veered into illegal actions, such as blacklisting performers and vendors, which became illegal in the United States in the aftermath of McCarthyism. Usually these efforts have focused on the court of public opinion, using rhetorical points real, fabricated, and irrelevant to convince women and men who know little about Michfest that its supporters are ill-informed bigots who just don’t understand why they should be focusing on “womyn” as self-identity rather than biology, and that the human rights of trans women hinge on whether they are welcomed at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.

Michfest was started in the context of the Womyn’s music industry, which was a response to the fact that women were shut out of the music industry as a whole or else forced to sexualize their music and presentation for male consumption. The idea was to promote music by women for a female audience as an alternative. This meant that festivals showcasing these women performers would, in most cases, be for women only. Organizers did not want to cater ticket sales to a male audience and hence be dependent on male approval for financial survival.

Over the past ten years Vogel has been nicely asked and rudely demanded to shift the target demographic of the Festival. She (and Michfest core supporters) have said no and no and no and no. The ways trans women’s and biological women’s interests dovetail and conflict are interesting but in this context not particularly relevant. The organizers considered the pros and cons and said no. Nowhere is the old adage that “when a man says no it’s the end of discussion but when a woman says no it’s the start of a negotiation” more clearly exemplified than with the Michfest controversy.

A few years ago Vogel admitted publicly what regular Festival goers already knew: the integrity of biological womyn-only space at Michfest had been compromised and trans women regularly attended the Festival. She emphasized that the Festival would continue to be directed toward non-trans women and asked trans women to respect this intention. You would think that would have diffused the issue, but instead it became intensified. The pressure mounted to “change the intention.” Women not only had to submit to their boundaries being violated, their arms were being twisted so they would declare that the violators were welcome.

Predictably, some of the more vocal transgender activists are crowing about the imminent demise of Michfest, calling it a vindication of their political tactics. Some who support the Michfest intention are also blaming transactivists for this development. I’m not so sure they deserve credit. Vogel’s announcement comes at the fortieth anniversary of the Festival, and forty years is a long time to do something. I would wager the constant irritant of the LGBT forces inveighing against the evils of The Intention was a factor, but most people would like to retire after forty years of doing the same thing. When I was at Michfest in 1985 no one could believe the Festival had lasted ten years. Ten years! Women kept repeating this because they couldn’t believe that a scruffy camp-in-the-woods music festival could hang in so long, let alone an all-women’s festival celebrating lesbian culture.

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is a lot like parachute jumping: you either say “That was fabulous; I’m so glad I did that” or you say “That was fabulous; I have to do that again.” I belong to the first camp. Yet even though I’ve never been back to Michigan, I can’t believe that pulling a ripcord could have such a positive effect on my life as that week. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without biological women’s space, and I feel so sorry for the millennial genderation of women who have not had the opportunity to experience this freedom.

The question on many women’s minds is what the conclusion of Michfest means for women-only spaces. The Festival has been taking it on the chin for other women’s gatherings that exclude trans women, and the apprehension has been that if Michigan caved the focus of “inclusion,” as they call this tyranny, would continue to shift until all biological women’s space was destroyed entirely. But Michigan hasn’t exactly caved, and more and more women are getting tired of abuse from the left. Hopefully the opponents of women’s rights of association will just declare victory and go home. I give them that. They can smirk and dance on the grave of the Festival all they want, but that isn’t going to stop women from defining their space and defending their boundaries. That fire has already been set. I think of women-defined space as one of those brush fires that get below the topsoil and spread into unpredictable places. Stamp out the flames one place and they only flare some distance away. They cannot identify or redefine or dialogue or include us into submission. At this point, failure really is impossible.

Note: Thanks to Lisa Vogel and all women who have supported Michfest. Thanks to Gender Identity Watch and GenderTrender for reporting on this issue.

A bill for upcoming music festival with names of all-male groups erased. Wonder why the proponents of "inclusion" never talk about things like this? Hat tip: Nedra Johnson.

A bill for upcoming music festival with names of all-male groups erased. Wonder why the proponents of “inclusion” never talk about things like this? Hat tip: Nedra Johnson.


Thelma and Louise & Inanna and Ereskigal

This is the title of a new article of mine posted at Moon Books Blog. Remember, you can still sign up for the course on Inanna at Mago Academy.

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Interview with Hearth on Pagan Pages

Interview by Mabh Savage is on Pagan Pages website.

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Cast of Characters in Inanna’s Descent

Inanna and Enki

Inanna and Enki

If you haven’t already seen my post at Return to Mago The Goddess Inanna: Her allies and opponents be sure to check it out.

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The Joy of Laughing with Them

One of the things I appreciate greatly about Mesopotamian mythology is the humor. It’s not just the things that sound funny to us today, from far outside the culture, that tickle me. There are some of those, to be sure, as there are with any mythology. When Ishtar issues her zombie threat at the gates of hell, declaring she will raise up the dead to devour the living unless she is allowed to pass through, Americans giggle because we think zombies are hilarious. Mesopotamians were chuckling because when Ishtar issues this blackmail she has not yet been to hell (she’s trying to get in!) and has no power there. It is an empty threat. Also, even if the scenario she describes were something she would do (it isn’t), it’s a bit of overkill.

Sometimes we understand right away what the Mesopotamians were laughing at, such as when the god Enki gives Inanna all the accoutrements of civilization while he is in a drunken expansive mood, then gets an a dudgeon when he sobers up and realizes all his stuff is missing. Other times it takes some familiarity with ancient cultures to catch the humor. In the Gilgamesh myth the hero Enkidu takes the haunch of the bull he has just killed, to Ishtar’s outrage, and he throws it at the goddess. The haunch was considered the choicest part of the animal, and when a bull was sacrificed this was the part that was ritually offered to the deity. Here, instead of offering the haunch with humble obeisance, the hero is deliberately offending the goddess by throwing it at her. No doubt there are a lot of inside jokes in these stories that we don’t have the background to catch.

Sometimes the stories don’t convey humor so much as wry irony. This is the case with the story of how the fly came to pester humankind, or how Gilgamesh lost his herb of immortality.

I will be teaching an online class in another month where we well discuss these myths, particularly the one about Inanna’s descent into the underworld. Reading materials and instructions for joining the live sessions will be available April 26, and the first live session will be Sunday, May 3. Sessions will last for about an hour and meet every other week until July 26. The class will be taught through Mago Academy, and information for signing up can be found at this website.

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Spring is a Sound, not a Picture

I wanted to post a nice flower picture for my Spring Equinox entry this year, but alas not even a snowdrop is blooming. The subtle signs of spring are welcome but not eye-catching. I doubt anyone wants to see a picture of snow fleas, who aren’t really discernible anyway except by their movement. Similarly, the increasing flow of water can only be expressed over time. There are brown bare patches of earth in the fields, but mud is not the best part of the thaw, and anyway these patches will be covered once again in the snowstorm this weekend.

The most startling shift for me at the equinox is an audible one: the winter birds begin making their presence felt. They have not been completely silent during the dark months, to be sure, but now their calls are louder, more frequent, and much more varied. Blue Jays, ravens, chickadees, doves, and woodpeckers are most prominent. The migrating birds have not yet appeared, but soon the cacophony of Canada Geese will be overhead and then the huge chorus will begin, going on all day and all night, with insects and frogs adding to the fracas. I can’t wait. Whoever said the country is quiet? Only in the winter, and I am beginning to hear the sounds of spring.


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