Comments on the approach of this course
I described the geographical setting in the previous page as "Mediterranean." This word carries culturally engrained assumptions of "European," a default settin of northern Mediterranean, or sometimes its eastern reaches. The word itself is eurocentric, meaning "middle of the world." But the southern Mediterranean — all of it — is Africa.
And African cultures exerted their influence on other cultures around this sea across the ages. In fact, crucial events in the history of Christianity took place there. Influential figures like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Athanasius,and Augustine were from Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. So was Hypatía. Long before her time, the religion of Isis (Auset) had spread across the Mediterranean and western Asia, in what we might call the first known international religious movement.
Women's history questions the way that "the Mediterranean," and also "Antiquity" or "the ancient world," have been used to signify Europe and western Asia to the exclusion of Africa. (Outside the scope of this course, the rest of the world has its own Antiquity, though you don't see it named that way very often.) It's important to recognize how North Africa has been depicted as a lesser offshoot of Greco-Roman culture (itself a cultural offshoot in many respects of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Crete and Anatolia -- and Libya too).
The two earlier phases of this course did in-depth examination of Goddess traditions and women's ceremonies. (Subscribers are welcome to look back through the Message archives on the Veleda yahoo group to find the readings and discussion on these subjects.) We'll have a webcast on how the various national goddesses were syncretized in the early centuries CE. But mainly we will be looking at the transformations that turned a charismatic healing rabbi into the son of a virgin in the mold of older pagan avatars, and built a new (gentile) religion around him, and eventually his mother too.
We'll follow the thread of how early Christianity manifested in various cultures, the growth of a priesthood that forged the doctrines and canons known as Christianity. We'll examine the sexual politics of that religion, such as the ban on female priesthood, required veiling, repression of female elders and deacons, and the implications of masculine monotheism.
One of thee issues is the sexual politics of sainthood. Virginity is a strong theme in the many hagiographies of women resisting rape or arranged marriage (Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Thecla and myriads of others). Some of these virgin martyrs, who are typically shown resisting torture used to force them to marry, are shown being accused of using sorcery to withstand it.
On Mary Magdalene: There are a lot of things we just don't know. Maryam of Magdala has been so mythologized, and historical accounts of her are slim. By the 6th century, prelates reinterpreted her as a penitent prostitute, and more recently, that same story has been turned on its head and romanticized into a glorified "sacred prostitute of the Goddess." Full disclosure: you should know right up front that i am critical of this position, for which there is zero historical evidence. We can discuss, but I'm much more interested in how the Mariamne traditions grew out of spiritual communities (movements) that affirmed female equality in a deeply patriarchal time.
The same goes for the account of early Christianity that I will be presenting. I am not out to offend believers in this religion, but I am going to tell its story from a perspective that has not gotten its fair hearing. My research includes many liberal Christian scholars who have uncovered inconvenient facts about the religion's roots. The orthodox-minded will find it controversial, while people educated in this field have recognized the real basis for saying, as an example, that Yeshua of Nazareth was a Jew who would not recognize the religion built up around his name. The anti-female doctrines especially bear re-examination now, as fundamentalist doctrine is revving up renewed assaults on women's rights.
Those times had striking similarities to our own. People were living in a patriarchal empire waging war amidst rampant corruption and violence, including institutional violence against women. Large populations of displaced people, many of them emancipated slaves or migrants from colonized countries, had been pushed into crowded cities under severe economic pressures. The empire ran arena spectacles where captives were tortured and executed; now we have media circuses, terrorism scares, and torture takes place in prisons. Under such conditions, extremism was (and remains) a common response. This had its effect on religion, as it still does.
We'll be looking at a range of social issues, always with women at the center. Things look very different that way.
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