Monday, April 7, 2008

When the gods were young, where were the women?

As I mentioned earlier, I attended three lectures at the ROM on Friday and Saturday. One of those lectures was Robert Mason's Of God, Art, Technology, and War: Wirth Gallery of the Middle East. Mr. Mason is a very entertaining lecturer and essentially described the museum collection of artifacts from the Middle East that illustrate the development of various technologies and religious beliefs over time.

Mr. Mason described the development of tool-making from chipped stone implements to bronze and steel weapons, and the development of monotheism by the gradual synthesis of local gods and goddesses into a single Deity.

The earliest settlements often had skeletons buried beneath house floors, family members were buried right inside the home to keep them close. Sometimes they were exhumed and their skulls removed, and then encased in plaster and kept above ground, presumably as a lasting memento of the dear departed. He said that the first temples were actually homes converted for that purpose. So there was a gradual development from ancestor veneration/worship to the veneration of local deities in buildings specialized for that purpose. As settlements coalesced into states and empires, local deities merged into pantheons and ultimately into a single God, with supporting gods, goddesses, angels, saints, etc.

There was some interesting stuff about the origin of cherubs and seraphim. Cherubim were originally (two-)winged guardians of the Torah, perhaps derived from earlier winged human-headed lion-bodied creatures pictured in early Mesopotamian friezes. Seraphim have four wings, and are often represented as four-winged heads. There was one artifact, a kind of ceramic egg with seraphim painted on it. Mr. Mason explained that this was used as a kind of barrier to mice on olive oil filled hanging lamps in churches. Originally they were actually made of ostrich eggs.

The three major monotheistic scriptures of course come from this area. The Torah is thought to be an accumulation of several versions each with a slightly different emphasis, probably written at different times in different areas of present-day Israel. One version is clearly influenced by the Babylonian Captivity, this version includes the story of Noah's flood. Another version was most likely written by priests (Leviticus and Numbers), directing Jews on the proper practice of their religion, right down to the correct measurements of boxes to hold the Torah. There is one version most likely written by early Israelites, and another written by early Judeans (inhabitants of Judah), who were rather critical of the lax religious practices of the Israelites.

The Christian New Testament was put together officially several hundred years after the birth of Jesus. The first Christian texts were letters written by Paul, some of the Gospels were written a while later, and then finally around 300 CE the official version of the Christian New Testament was decided on. The Nicene Creed summarized the belief requirements for being a Christian. There has been some disagreement on the contents of the Nicene Creed, so various Christian Churches have restated belief creeds somewhat differently. There is no common agreement on what it takes to be a Christian, so it is difficult for some Christian sects to worship with other sects in the same place. Too much disagreement on the definition of Christian.

The Q'uran was written during the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed, there was no argument about what he actually said or did not say. There is one simple belief statement of what is required in order to be a Moslem: "There is no god but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet." In spite of later divisions into sects, all Moslems can worship together in any Mosque. There is of course some disagreement around interpretation of the Q'uran, but no disagreement on the requirements for membership.

I came away from this lecture with the rather uncomfortable feeling that all of this left out the female of the species. There was a lot of talk about the development of technology from the earliest times to the time of Mohammed that was largely focussed on weapons development. This seemed to be the most important use of metallurgy (agricultural implements were mentioned but not really discussed). There was a brief look at fertility tokens, figurines of female bodies, and the persistence of female goddesses in the form of Mary the Mother of God and "God's Wife" ( a figure appearing in one version of the Torah), but other than that, culture and religion appeared to be a largely masculine phenomenon in Mr. Mason's lecture.

Where were all the women in this? Squirreled away in tents and backrooms raising the kids and washing the dishes? As an aside, I saw an early cuneiform (earliest form of writing, on clay tablets) collection of proverbs in the Wirth gallery, including one which I can't repeat exactly, but it was to the effect that what is kept secret among men soon becomes public knowledge in the women's quarters.

As I wandered around the Wirth gallery after the lecture, and from there into the adjacent Triple-AP gallery of indigenous arts and crafts around the world, I looked at the art and craft of metalwork, pottery, ceramics, and calligraphy in the Wirth gallery and then textiles, basketry, featherwork and woodcarving in the Triple-AP. Another visitor remarked critically that these artifacts were new, some dating from only a year or two ago (a woven cellphone case, a T-shirt with an indigenous drawing and inscription on it). They somehow didn't seem appropriate in a museum, they weren't old enough.

It dawned on me that such artifacts don't preserve very well, you don't often see textiles from 5,000 years ago, and if you do, they are not in great shape. And these are exactly the kinds of things that were "women's work". When you look at what is retrieved from archaeological digs, so much of it is the kind of thing typical of male arts and crafts. Female arts and crafts tend to be much more difficult to preserve. It is hard to determine who actually made and developed pottery and ceramic arts, it could have been men or women or both. But it is easy to get a distorted view of historical development when you only have half the story. The "soft" arts and technologies are just not well represented.

But looking at surviving indigenous cultures, we get a much better idea of the cultural and technological contributions of women. Housework and childcare are traditional female spheres of work, but so are farming, animal husbandry, textile production, and the production of "soft" religious artifacts and pottery cooking ware. Many male religious ceremonies rely on the use of items produced by women, even though the women may be excluded from the actual performance of the ceremonies.

As Lisa Colombek pointed out in the previous lecture, we come to the museum collections of artifacts with our own contexts and stories, we come away with our own insights and understandings.


Anonymous said...

Maybe women will be better represented in ancient history as more women become archeologists. I know, as a man, that the male eye is quicker to see things with a masculine slant. So, male archeologists tend to unearth the history of men—not wrong as far as it goes, but only half the story.

Zabetha said...

Very true Pete, and starting to happen already. It's gratifying to see those kinds of changes. Everyone brings a bias to the table, it helps when there's a balance of biases.