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Feminist Theology Unit Two

This course offers a theological examination of the representation of women and gender in Christianity. Attention is given to the historical and cultural contexts of the first century and contemporary period. Theological, historical, literary, exegetical, and feminist methods are variously employed.


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Feminist Theology Unit Two

  The Pleasures of Her Text by Alice Bach


Chapter 5: A Heifer from Thy Stable: Goddesses and the Status of Women in the Ancient Near East, by Carole R. Fontaine


Carole Fontaine is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Andover Newton Theological School. She is the author of Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament: A Contextual Study (Almond Press, 1982). Her poetry and artwork have appeared in the journal Anima. She is presently at work recovering ancient women’s voices for a full-length study Holy Torch of Heaven: Goddesses, Queens and Ordinary Women, of which her article in this volume is a part.

The question of how women relate to religious systems of signification is always a complex one. This is particularly true when we try to probe ancient texts concerning the relationship between the status of women and the presence of goddesses in a given culture. The standard feminist critique of history and its interpreters holds for any investigation of these issues in ancient Near Eastern societies: "history," as it has come down to us through cuneiform and hieroglyphic sources, is very much the province of the "winners" — elite males whose ideological interests were served by the "disappearing" of the voices of women and other subject peoples. Added to this inherent bias within the texts themselves is the problem of piecemeal survival, with some texts surviving the destructions of war or abandonment of sites and others perishing. Nor do all texts survive in good condition: clay tablets break or become worn down around the edges and outer sheets of papyrus rolls may be victims of decay and rough handling by graverobbers or inept restorers. Further, even where text critical work is able to establish a readable text, translation problems exist. Not all lexical items or contextual allusions are readily intelligible to translators, and considerable debate may ensue. In short, we do not have a complete record of past, even though biased, sources on which to base our studies and what we do have to work with is often shrouded in ambiguity or limited in scope and value.

The situation is even more difficult should we try to trace the development of the "historical" goddess cults from their supposed Neolithic precursors. In the absence of texts from the Neolithic era, we are forced to rely on iconographic representations, and recovery of material culture through archaeological excavation. Archaeological reconstructions of culture are no more free from the biases and preconceptions of their excavators than literary readings of ancient texts are free from the values imposed on them by their modern critics. Hence, we may observe widely divergent interpretations of a single artifact: do Paleolithic and Neolithic "Venus" figurines represent a celebration of the sacrality of the female body with its life-creating and sustaining abilities, or do we have instead male art which finds its outlet in the creation of female "sex objects"? Both interpretations appear in the literature, and in the absence of epigraphic confirmation of either hypothesis, the anepigraphic evidence retains a mystery as it gestures toward a functional meaning we may imagine but cannot "prove." We may choose to endorse Mellaart’s conclusions from the evidence of burial practices, grave goods, and iconography at Catal Huyuk that women were held in high esteem, holding religious offices and participating in the vital activities of the community.1 We may even relate this alleged high status for women to the overwhelming presence of goddesses in the community’s cultic installations, but without corroborating texts and a thorough excavation of the site, as feminist historians we still find ourselves operating in the realm of scholarly conjecture. Excavations from Minoan Crete, covering a time period which ranges from the middle of the Early Bronze Age into the Late Bronze Age, are often used to support the presence of peace-loving matriarchies in the ancient world. Here we find another case in point where speculation sometimes outstrips solid reconstruction. Where evidence is embarrassing or contradictory to the matriarchal hypothesis, it is ignored or redated to reflect the warlike practices of the later Mycenaean invaders, thereby preserving the desired view of the Minoans.2 What we may say about the Neolithic Anatolian and later Minoan communities mentioned here is that they appear to be relatively peaceful, compared to the later imperialistic, clearly patriarchal empires of the Nile Valley and the Fertile Crescent, and that this cultural configuration was enabled both by their geographical locations and socioeconomic adaptations to their ecosystems. Within this cultural matrix, it appears that the relations between the sexes may have been organized along more egalitarian lines, at least judging from iconography and burial practices, and that the presence of goddesses in these cultures may have served to both symbolize and legitimize the position of women. No matriarchies can be proven to exist in the absence of genealogical texts, and we must pose the question of whether or not that is something to be mourned. Feminist critique of power relations suggests that a simple reversal of the roles of oppressed and oppressing groups is not enough, at least from an evolutionary perspective (even though such reversal must certainly appear advantageous to those in the oppressed group). What is needed is a thorough-going dismantling of the structures by which any group is able and allowed to oppress another. Matriarchal rule is not necessarily the answer, so that the failure to uncover such "ideal" cultures need not deter us from the task of envisioning an alternative future to patriarchal destruction of the earth.

Once we move into the historical periods of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the goddess cults known to us are well integrated into the patriarchal ideology of their cultures. Isis, the Egyptian redeemer, acts on behalf of Osiris her husband and Horus her son rather than for herself. The Hattic goddesses of pre-Hittite Anatolia are incorporated into the Hittite pantheon, and engage in activities which benefit the new imperial power structure. The Sumerian Inanna acts on behalf of her city Uruk (biblical Erech), and by the time she is identified with the semitic Istar, her divine power has been fully harnessed to support kingship.3 While it is tempting to see this "domestication" of the ancient Near Eastern goddesses as an analog for the slow but steady decline of the status of women known to us from legal and economic texts, we are brought to another critical question in our attempts at reconstruction of women’s past: what is the relationship of a text to the society that spawned it? Dare we assume a simple, one-to-one correspondence between literary symbol and social reality? Can a patriarchal text speak truth about the reality of women’s lives?4 This, of course, is not a question confined only to feminist discourse on history and literature, but one that consistently plagues all the disciplines.5

It might be helpful to propose here a model for sorting through the various types of texts preserved, with an emphasis on the amount of social verisimilitude likely to be preserved in them. The figure below represents a kind of sliding scale ranging from texts which are most likely to contain the highest degree of verisimilitude to those judged least likely to reflect social reality, at least in any direct way. It is important to remember that the creation of a text, even a humdrum economic or legal text, is still an imaginative, creative act undertaken by someone with the leisure or mandate to engage in such activities. Texts both respond to social reality and help to shape it.6 Texts may be classed along a continuum of those which are based in purely referential discourse (high degree of verisimilitude) to those which are highly symbolic and expressive (small degree of verisimilitude), i.e., those which are mapped on the combinative, syntagmatic axis of language as opposed to those whose nature is more related to the associative, paradigmatic axis.7 Further, anyone with experience of modern legal or economic texts knows that even such supposedly "neutral" texts as these may contain a large measure of wishful thinking or outright disinformation. The walls of Karnak give adequate testimony to the fact that ancient writers were no more adverse to casting recorded reality into their desired image than are modern lawyers and businesspeople.8 Additionally complicating the task of judging a text’s relation to society, types of texts may blend across genres, mixing elements that are referential and imaginative ("secular" love poetry developed from models of ritual performance of a "sacred marriage," for example, or imaginative tales which become embedded in annalistic or etiological narratives). Hence, the following model should be taken as a guide only. Texts must be evaluated for verisimilitude on an individual basis, in conjunction with study of material culture, parallel texts and comparative ethnography.9


Even were we to solve the riddle of text-and-society, our problems in the use of ancient Near Eastern texts are still legion. Androcentric language was often used inclusively, so that we may not automatically assume the absence of women even when they are not explicitly mentioned as present. Further, as noted above, these texts reflect the agendas of their elite male authors and tend to focus on the public domain where male power is located and exercised. The private domain of the extended family, even though it functioned as the primary unit of economic production in antiquity,10 is usually known to us only through hints or textual "asides" because it was not of particular interest to the authors. Since the private domain was the arena in which the lives of most women were lived out, we are generally left with a nebulous picture of women’s everyday lives. Reflecting the class issues involved in the creation of "literary" and referential texts for the ruling classes, it is also the case that we know less about the lives of women of middle or lower class than we do about elite women. Generally, then, we have very little access to what women themselves actually thought about their lot in life and scholarly models of reconstruction which are insensitive to the web of considerations involved in the formation and interpretation of these texts often do not advance our knowledge.

Models of the Past

In our search for answers, we must begin by posing the proper questions. In any consideration of the "status" of women, the researcher must be aware of the comprehensive difficulties involved in such a project. As Martin K. Whyte points out in The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies, there is no such thing as the status of women, for there is wide variability both cross-culturally and within cultures, where women’s "class" identity, with all its possible benefits and detriments, is linked to the class of their men.11 Elite women may have a quite different status than do their out-group sisters. In his sample of 93 preindustrial cultures, covering a time period from 1750 BCE to 1800 CE, Whyte investigated the status of women through use of the following variables: property control, kin power, value of life, value of labor, domestic authority, ritualized female solidarity, control of sexuality, ritualized fear of women, joint participation with men, and informal influence. Despite the difficulties in use of the cross-cultural method (inability to deal with evolutionary change in the status of women in a given culture, inability to handle class variations in status in a sample, need to rely on data gathered in ways that reflected gender-bias in either informant or fieldworker, focus on formal rather than informal aspects of the status of women, etc.), significant hypotheses were tested and important findings made.12 Whyte concluded that no one key factor could be used to predict the status of women for a particular culture, nor was there any one factor which, if improved, resulted in raising the entire status of women. In matrilineal and matrilocal societies, women enjoyed modest benefits in status in the area of property rights, female solidarity, kin power, sexual restrictions and value of life. Male hunting, male bonding and male strength did not account for the low status of women, but cultures which were dominated by the "classical" religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) consistently displayed lower statuses for their women. This last finding may be related to the fact that these religions tend to appear in more culturally complex societies (in which women generally fare worse) rather than in simpler, less stratified, and diversified cultures.13 Whyte’s study did not offer any specific correlation on the relation of the presence of goddesses to women’s status, and lack of explicit focus on the religious ideologies used to legitimate low or high status for women limits its usefulness for our purposes here. Nevertheless, this study alerts us to the incredible complexity involved in any investigation of the status of women.

Sanday’s results are intriguing for the questions raised with respect to the ancient Near East, but as she acknowledges, more work needs to be done in this area before we can propose hard and fast conclusions. Further, there are elements in Sanday’s shaping of the study which deserve attention. By focusing on female status in the public domain, the entire sphere of women’s role and status within the domestic unit is pushed aside. If one of the goals of feminist research in this area is to reclaim and re-value the worlds in which women actually live, the public domain cannot become our exclusive locus of inquiry. Similarly, by attending primarily to goddesses with "general powers" and excluding those with power exclusively over women, we see a subtle modern bias at work to devalue the role of fertility in women’s lives and self-understanding. While it is true that a "full-service" goddess might be more appealing to modern people seeking to expand their horizons of divinity, the "fertility" goddesses of antiquity cannot be so easily dismissed without losing important insights into ancient women’s concerns and religious sensibilities. Although it has rightly been pointed out that the designation "fertility goddess" is an appellation which has allowed predominantly male scholars to dismiss and discount the role of goddesses in ancient religions,17 it is still the case that the roles of these goddesses in promoting and sustaining fertility were significant aspects of their personalities and functions. At this point, it becomes important to remain aware of how modern trends in rethinking the "biological destiny" of women may be skewing our vision of the past.

In Die Gottin und ihr Heros: die matriarchalen Religionen in Mythos, Marc hen und Dichtung (Munchen: Frauenoffensive, 1980), feminist philosopher and aesthetician Heide Gottner-Abendroth uses world mythology in an attempt to reconstruct the "matriarchal mythology" of early civilizations. She outlines three stages in the development of matriarchal religions, which she understands as "religions of rebirth" rather than simply as "fertility religions" (see Fig. 3).

I. Pre-Indo-European (Matriarchal periods)

a. early rural matriarchies: chthonic goddesses

b. developed urban matriarchies: astral goddesses

c. continued urban matriarchies: cyclic battle with nature demons

II. Indo-European transformations (imposition of patriarchy)

a. sex change: Great Mother becomes All-Knowing Father

b. role change: Goddess as God’s "Wife"

c. generational change: Goddess as Father’s "Daughter"

d. myths of rebellion against Father

e. matriarchal cults survive in secret opposition

III. Patriarchal Major Religions (absolute father-god)

a. abstract mythology

b. philosophical abstractions

Fig. 3: Heide Gottner-Abendroth’s stages of transformation in matriarchal religions (adapted from Die Gottin und ihr Heros, 119-20)

While Gottner-Abendroth has performed a valuable service in calling our attention to patterns which seem to extend across time and region in mythological texts, there are a number of problems with her reconstruction. Even discounting a too-easy identification of matrilineal and matriocal cultures as matriarchal ones and her reliance on the scholarship of Bachofen and Graves, her simplistic assumptions of the way in which mythology reflects out-group history must give pause to historians and literary critics alike. As is typical of most attempts to develop a comprehensive, universal scheme, she is obliged to "tinker" with the evidence from certain cultures which does not fit her patterns and this results in violation of some of the basic rules of good ethnography. A case in point is her phase I.c. of developed urban matriarchies, where she sees battles with nature demons (i.e., dragons and the like) as a feature of classical matriarchal mythology.18 This conclusion is certainly a questionable one for Mesopotamian myth, where the cosmic battle between the chaos dragon Tiamat and the god-king Marduk represents not a development from goddess-centered mythology but a patriarchal rejection of the ancient goddess as the source of cosmic life. Others may be bothered not only by her historical reconstructions based on myth, but also by the political position which affirms mother-right and mother-rule without reflection on the possibilities of abuse inherent in any such system of gender dominance. However, Gottner-Abendroth does see matriarchal social organization as far more egalitarian and wholesome than any known to us under patriarchy, but once again, this is a very complex argument to sustain when based primarily on imaginative texts.19

The brief review of these models for evaluating the status of ancient women and the relationship of that status to the presence of goddesses and their worship leaves us with some directions for inquiry and cautions about how we proceed. As we turn to women’s texts from the ancient world then, we must beware of the temptation of generalization. Status of elite, goddess-identified women (see Enheduanna and Puduhepa, below) may not extend to their lower-class sisters, nor should we assume that the presence of goddesses always implies a higher view of female authority and power. Questions of status should always be asked in conjunction with study of the economic power held by women. Future work should attempt to test Sanday’s hypothesis about women’s contribution to a culture’s subsistence needs and the percentage of full-service goddesses in the society, although that is beyond the scope of the present essay. Further, in so far as possible given the texts with which we are working, we should attempt to press our questions about women’s roles and status into the domestic sphere and not simply in the public domain where only a few exceptional women find a place. We should be alert to recurring patterns within the literature and cultures studied, while simultaneously resisting the easy assumption that a given motif or pattern will carry the same oncology and meaning in one culture as it does in another. Finally, we must be sensitive to the "literary" nature of the texts studied with respect to the proportion of cultural verisimilitude likely to be present, preferencing economic texts and correspondence, for example, more highly than tales and myths. With these injunctions in mind, let us now turn to the examination of texts by some ancient women of Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

"Be it known!": Ancient Women Speak

In the cuneiform sources reflecting the rise of the kingdom of Akkad in the last half of the third millennium we meet a truly remarkable woman: Enheduanna of Ur (ca. 2300-2230 BCE). Daughter of the great political leader Sargon of Akkad, Enheduanna combined the roles of princess, priestess, and poet to such an extent that centuries later her literary works were still being catalogued and held in great esteem by the cultures which had inherited them. One scholar has gone so far as to declare her the "first non-anonymous author in literature ."20

The origins of her father Sargon, salient to our discussion here, have been mythologized: he claimed to be the son of the union between a high priestess and an unknown father. A water-drawer plucked him from the river where his mother had placed him after she secretly gave birth, and he later came into power when the goddess Istar gave him her love as he worked as a gardener.21 Some scholars take this to mean that he was aided by women, perhaps devotees of Istar, in his rise to power. Subsequently, Sargon was able to unite the city-state kingdoms of Sumer (Ur and Uruk) with his own kingdom of Akkad. Several political and theological moves paved the way for and symbolized his consolidation of Sumerian and Akkadian culture. He appointed his daughter Enheduanna to a dual cultic role as high priestess-bride of the moongod Nanna in Ur and also installed her as a cultic functionary in Uruk, thus honoring the Sumerian traditions wherein a male deity was served by a female cult official or en, and vice versa. He synthesized Sumerian and Akkadian theologies by identifying his patron deity, the Semitic Iitar, with the Sumerian Inanna.22 In the masterful Sumerian poetic compositions of his daughter Enheduanna, this identification is carried through with style and fervor, and constitutes one of the world’s first efforts at a "systematic theology." Enheduanna’s life and work are known to us through her seals, inscriptions, and the cycle of hymns to Inanna and the temples of Sumer which comes from her hand or has been attributed to her. We have her portrait preserved on a badly damaged disc from Ur.23

In her composition nin-me-sar-ra, or "The Exaltation of Inanna" as it has come to be known, Enheduanna moves beyond a mere propagation of her father’s political theology to a personal identification with the fortunes of her beloved goddess. The same terms used to depict Inanna’s past flights from the cities of Sumer are employed to describe the usurper Lugalanna’s expulsion of Enheduanna from her priestly offices in Ur and Uruk. When appeals to the moon god Nanna and the sky god An prove futile (since Lugalanna now controls their cults), she turns hopefully to Inanna. She says of her own composition that inspiration came to her at night and that she "gave birth" to this song, "that which I recited to you at (mid)night/May the singer repeat it to you at noon!" (lines 139-140).24 By casting her predicament in terminology which has been applied to the goddess’ own past trials, Enheduanna forges a bond of compassionate empathy by which she hopes to return to her former position of service to the goddess. Given the reconstructed political context which informs the composition, it is not surprising that it is the martial aspects of Inanna, rather than the fertility functions, which receive the most emphasis:

That you are lofty as Heaven — be it known!
That you are broad as the earth — be it known!
That you devastate the rebellious land — be it known!
That you roar at the land — be it known!

That you smite the heads — be it known!
That you devour cadavers like a dog — be it known!
That your glance is terrible — be it known!
That you lift your terrible glance — be it known!
That your glance is flashing — be it known!
That you attain victory — it known!
Oh my lady beloved of An, I have verily recounted your fury!
lines 123-130, 132, 135

Since the text considered here is a prayer text which contains clear liturgical elements ("be it known!"), it can be rated fairly high on our scale of verisimilitude. While Enheduanna certainly makes use of hymnic convention and hyperbole, both in the invocatory epithets and the "complaint" section which details her humiliation at the hands of the usurper, since she is seeking redress of tangible wrongs we must assume that her account and plea bear some clear relationship to the historic events that occasioned them. Like the individual complaint psalms of the Hebrew Bible, we may not know the precise details of what has afflicted the psalmist, but we are generally on safe ground in concluding that something happened. She who had "carried the ritual basket" and "intoned the acclaim" has been "placed in the lepers’ ward" (lines 68-69).26 Enheduanna had encountered the "catch-22" in the status of women "elites": where status derives from the politics and pleasures of one’s male relatives, one can be easily "de-classed" when new elite males take charge. When the gods to whom she had been espoused turned a deaf ear to her lament, she turned to the goddess Inanna-Istar with the cry "O my divine impetuous wild cow, drive out this man, capture this man!" (line 91).27 If we are to believe the composition’s concluding lines, the goddess did not desert her as had her gods. It may have been Enheduanna’s father who placed her in power, but it was her goddess who restored her and her own talents which insured her an enduring place in Sumerian literature.

"If truly you are my daughter. . ."

The opportunities and pitfalls associated with the role of princess in Mesopotamia are well attested in the literature from the city-state of Mari (Tell Hariri) in the Old Babylonian period.28 During the reign of King Zimri-Lim (ca. 1780-1760 BCE, middle chronology) women in his court held a remarkable range of positions in both the public and private spheres. An able strategist, Zimri-Lim was often away from Mari while conducting his numerous campaigns to establish and maintain Mari’s hegemony along the upper Euphrates. For this reason, he often had occasion to leave matters of state and religion in the capable hands of his head queen Sibtu, herself a princess from the court of Aleppo in Yamhad. It was there that she apparently met and married Zimri-Lim when he had fled Mari in exile at his father’s death. Although he had many wives and a large harem, Sibtu clearly held a preeminent place in his affections and trust. Scholars speculate that since no such broad role for the queen or queen-mother was known in Mari either before or after Zimri-Lim’s reign, that the extraordinary activity of the women in Zimri-Lim’s family is an example of women claiming "unassigned power" when circumstances permit, rather than of any institutionalized "assigned power" in the city-state. Our main textual evidence for this period comes from correspondence from the royal archives.29

Sibtu’s correspondence is quite varied, permitting some glimpses into personal life, even though most of it is economic and routine in nature, as she carries out tasks delegated to her by Zimri-Lim and updates him on the state of affairs in the palace and city. Much of the interchange between the pair which is private in nature consists of her inquiries about the king’s health, reports of favorable omens which she had ordered taken for him, and his reassuring replies about his welfare and the fortunes of the army. In ARM X 26, she reports, "(To my lord) say: Thus Sibtu (your) maidservant: I have (just given) birth to twins — a son and a daughter. May my lord rejoice!"30 Elsewhere (ARM X 17) she writes that she is sending Zimri-Lim a coat and other articles of clothing that she has made herself, requesting that he wear them. But apart from such typical domestic roles, Sibtu was involved in acting as an all-purpose factotum for her absent lord. She oversaw the direction of the palace, the harem, the temple, workshops, and the entire city, receiving and sending diplomatic correspondence to the outlying provinces, showing that her influence and authority extended well beyond the city of Mari itself. Aside from overseeing the city archives, she supervised the work of various officials, many of whom sought her influence in settling a variety of official and personal matters. She was also in contact with her father’s court and acted to secure positive treatment for favorites. In the realm of cultic activity, she filled the role of king or governor as needed, escorting the cult statues, ordering sacrifices, and relaying divine oracles to the king.

That she was a concerned and thoughtful queen is evident from the number of appeals for help which she received and the letters from her which direct officials to give aid and comfort. In ARM X 153, one Kibri-Dagan was requested by her to discover what was causing a particular woman’s "heartache"; in ARM X 160, she arranges for the release of women who had been given in pledge for a debt. In ARM X 114, TariThattu, a woman of higher rank (perhaps a widow of Zimri-Lim’s father?), writes to Sibtu to settle a matter of slander, saying "If truly you are my daughter and you love my health, then you will convey (this matter) to the king. . .31

Also evident from her letters is the fact that she had fully internalized the values of imperial patriarchy, among them the well-known "double-standard" that limits the sexual activity of women while allowing a full range of opportunities for men. So great is Zimri-Lim’s trust in his queen’s solidarity with his goals that he is able to direct her to select the most beautiful of the women taken in battle for his harem (ARM X 126), though he later decides to see to the matter himself. When an epidemic strikes the harem (X 129-130), it is Sibtu who carries out Zimri-Lim’s instructions for limiting the spread of the disease.32 From the correspondence available to us, we can conclude that Sibtu firmly understood that her welfare was tied to the fortunes of her lord; she does not grudge him a fine harem or lesser wives to oversee other palaces, for such arrangements were expected of a great king and testified to his prominence, hence augmenting her own. As is often seen in ethnographic data, a variety of factors determine whether or not the addition of another woman to the household is seen as threatening to personal status or as enhancing the available pool of workers.33 The "other woman" only becomes a threat where the head wife’s status or husband’s affections are jeopardized by the addition of the new female — we may think here of the fates of Sarah and Leah in the biblical narratives. Unlike them, Sibtu, daughter of the powerful king of Yamhad, was secure in her position and assured in her relationship with Zimri-Lim.

"Even if I am a woman . . ."

Not all of the princesses of Mari were so fortunate as Queen Sibtu and that we ought not to generalize from her position is brought home in letters concerning Zimri-Lim’s daughters’ struggles with their co-wives. Part of Zimri-Lim’s plan for the maintenance of strong vassal alliances involved the giving of daughters in political marriages. Royal daughters in such positions also served their father by acting as trusted informants on political and socioeconomic conditions in their region, actions which predictably caused friction when vassal husbands were less than whole-hearted in their allegiance to Mari. One of Zimri-Lim’s daughters, Inibsarri, was given in marriage to Ibal-Addu of Aslakka, only to discover, much to her dismay, that a previous wife still held the position of head-wife and queen (ARM X 74). After writing to Zimri-Lim concerning her husband’s potentially traitorous activities, she flees to a neighboring city and writes her father entreating him to return her to Mari (ARM X 77, II 112, 113). While in "exile" in Nahur, she corresponds with an official on various matters, at one point invoking the blessing of Belet-ekallim (= Ningal?), her goddess, to protect him (ARM X 78)34 We do not know the outcome of her requests to return home.

Another daughter who was successful in achieving the dissolution of a noxious political marriage was Kiru, married to one Haya-Sumu of Ilansura. Again, the father’s political motives set the stage for the daughter’s misery: Zimri-Lim had not only given Kiru in marriage but had also established her as mayor in her own right; at the same time, he gave Haya-Sumu another (adoptive?) daughter, Sibatum, perhaps by a lesser ranking wife, and this is the queen favored by Haya-Sumu. Domestic battles escalate among the trio, until Haya-Sumu threatens Kiru’s life (ARM X 32). Desperate, Kiru writes home to daddy: "If he (the king) does not bring me back, I shall die; I will not live," and again, "If my lord does not bring me back, I will head toward Mari (and there) jump (fall) from the roof" (ARM X 33). Humiliated before guests, deprived of her rightful servants and prerogatives, and finally threatened with death, Kiru’s pleas were finally heard. In ARM X 135, Zimri-Lim instructs Sibtu to make arrangements to return Kiru to Mari.35

Other examples of unhappily married daughters of Zimri-Lim exist, but not all marriages ended so unfortunately as Kiru’s and Inibsarri’s. Other daughters found sufficient happiness in their politically motivated marriages to write to Zimri-Lim on their husbands’ behalf (ARM X 98). At least one daughter was sent into the cloister as a naditu-woman (ARM X 38), and we also hear the daughters of other kings mentioned in the Mari correspondence. While Zimni-Lim did not hesitate to make use of his daughters as instruments of foreign policy, he maintained contact with them although we may wonder how much of his correspondence was due to fatherly affection since the information obtained by his daughters was of great benefit to his own political maneuvering. Indeed, Kiru even writes Zimni-Lim reminding him of previous problems caused when he disregarded her reports (ARM X 31), concluding "And now, even if I am a woman, may my father and lord listen to my message."36 Still, Zimni-Lim sought to influence the fate of his daughters for the good, occasionally even giving them assigned powers within the political structure. But if the rank of princess could bequeath special status and opportunities to a woman like Sibtu, it is clear it could also bring considerable hazards as in the cases of Kiru and Inibsarri. Once again, the fate of royal women, like that of their lower-class sisters, was almost entirely dependent on the wishes and whims of the men who controlled their lives.

In the realm of religion, we are given intriguing hints from the Mari letters about how women related to the gods and goddesses of their regions. Women are often found offering prayers before the gods Samas, Adad, and Dagan for the safety of the king and his armies. Women also offer sacrifices, commission oracles and are found worshiping both the main gods of Mari, Dagan and Adad, as well as other gods (Samas, Itur-Mer, Nanna, Tesub, etc.) and the goddesses of their own and surrounding areas (Istar, Istar.RA.DA.NA, Annunitum, Hebat, Belet-ekallim). Women served as lay and professional prophetesses for both gods and goddesses, and could be attached to specific cult centers (including cloisters) in a variety of capacities. While such a dedication provided status and authority to the women involved, it offered only moderate protection in time of war: in ARM X 126, we learn that some ugbabatum-priestesses were taken as war captives, but were not forced into the textile factories as slave labor as the other female captives were.37

Two tantalizingly brief events relating women to their goddesses might be mentioned. In ARM X 87, one Sattamkiyazi has left her own city to serve the king in another, apparently against the wish of her goddess, Istar.RA.DA.NA, as expressed in a liver omen. As a consequence, she has become quite ill ("the hand of Istar.RA.DA.NA presses heavily against me"), and requests leave of the king to offer another sacrifice to her goddess in hope of restoring her health.38 In ARM X 112, women servants of the palace tell the male palace servants that "we are constantly praying for you to Belet-ekallim."39 While the evidence from Mari does not permit us to conclude that it was the presence of goddesses there that accounted for the relatively high status of elite women and widespread activities of women in the cult, it is clear that women had deeply-felt "personal" relationships with their deities, goddesses as well as gods, and in official capacities could be regarded as legitimate representatives of the divine before the king, and vice versa.

"A Heifer from Thy Stable": Women of Anatolia

From the royal archives at Hattusa, capital of the Hittite empire which flourished in central Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1450-1200 BCE), comes a wealth of materials which shed light on the position of women in this most sophisticated of conqueror-kingdoms. Since space does not permit a thorough review of all the materials found at Hattusa, we will concentrate on two figures which represent the far ends of the social scale: Queen Puduhepa and the MI.SU.GI of Hittite ritual texts.

Queen Puduhepa was the wife and consort of Hattusili III, an able military and political leader who came to the throne through the irregular process of deposing his nephew. Hattusili later explains with some piety that this was all the idea of his personal goddess, Istar of Samuha, whom he was bound to obey since she had saved his life when he was only a sickly child. When the same Istar told him to take Puduhepa, a girl half his age, as wife, he naturally obeyed. That Puduhepa was the daughter of a priest of Istar in the southern province of Kizzuwatna, possibly of royal extraction, but certainly in a position to consolidate allegiances to the Hittites in a territory notable for its Human and Mitannian ties only made obedience to the goddess that much more satisfying. The marriage was apparently a happy and fruitful one: Puduhepa bore four children that are known, and her prayers and intercessions for Hattusili’s health in his old age suggest that her relationship to her husband was a positive and fulfilling one. Due to the peculiarities of Hittite succession in the Old Kingdom, the Queen (-Mother) retained a powerful position even after the death of her husband, and Puduhepa continues to be mentioned during the reign of her son, Tudhaliya IV.40

Because of her mention in her husband’s "Apology" and the many vows, prayer-texts and items of personal correspondence to and from the Hittite court, we know more about Puduhepa than any other woman of the Late Bronze Age. Although Hittite queens were always active in the religious sphere through their position as high priestess of the cult of the Sun-goddess of Arinna, the head of the Hittite pantheon, Puduhepa expanded her activities into the political and social realms. She had her own seal, carried on her own diplomatic correspondence, took a hand in arranging the settlements for her daughters in their political marriages (one married to Ramesses II, the other to the prince of Amurru), and is the only woman of the ancient world known to have received a divine "message" dream (as opposed to the "symbolic" dreams usually recorded for women).41 She had her own chariot, probably to rush her to her cultic duties throughout the kingdom, and had access to temple treasuries, though she could not collect taxes. She carried out normal cultic and administrative duties associated with her rank, even took part in a count case (which was highly unusual in Hittite legal proceedings), and ordered materials from her home province of Kizzuwatna copied and archived in Hattusa.42

In the realm of personal theology, this queen left us materials which allow a glimpse into the religious sensibilities of a Bronze Age woman. Puduhepa’s seal, like those of the Hittite kings and queens before her, shows her clasped in the embrace of the Sun-goddess of Arinna whose high-priestess she was. Both females wear strikingly similar costumes, and the seal reads GEME.DINGIR.LIM, "the servant of the goddess."43 In KUB XXI, 27 Puduhepa addresses this goddess to plead for the restoration of her husband’s health. The tone of her prayer is intimate, persuasive, and trusting. She tells the goddess

To the Sun-goddess of Arinna, my lady, the mistress of the Hatti lands, the queen of heaven and earth. Sun-goddess of Arinna, thou art queen of all countries! In the Hatti country thou bearest the name of the Sungoddess of Arinna; but in the land which thou madest the cedar land thou bearest the name Hebat. I, Puduhepa, am a servant of thine from of old, a heifer from thy stable, a foundation stone (upon which) thou (canst rest). Thou, my lady, rearedst me and Hattusili, thy servant to whom thou espousedst me, was closely associated with the Storm-god of Nerik, thy beloved son. . .44

A number of features are of interest here. Puduhepa, whose name means "Servant of Hebat," has made a clear connection between her patron goddess Hebat, a Hurrian mother goddess worshiped in her native "cedar" land,45 and the Hattic mother-goddess (probably to be identified as Wuru(n)semu) who heads the official Hittite pantheon. She further goes on to identify this Hebat/Wuru(n)semu as the goddess who gave her in marriage to Hattusili, even though his "Apology" clearly states that it was Istar of Samuha who did so. In another portion of the "Apology" (12, 11. 7-15), we learn of one of Puduhepa’s dreams:

Now, while My Lady Ishtar had even before this been promising me the kingship, at that time My Lady Ishtar appeared to my wife in a dream: "I shall march before your husband. And all Hattusas shall be led with your husband. Since I thought highly of him, I did not — no, not ever — abandon him to the hostile trial, the hostile deity." Now also I will exalt him, and make him priest of the sun goddess of Arinnas. Do you also make me, Ishtar, (your) patron deity."46

Since the prayer of Puduhepa cited above (KUB XXI, 27) is usually dated toward the end of Hattusili’s reign, we presume here that the dream appearance of Istar occurred earlier since it is clearly narrated as taking place before Hattusili’s seizure of the throne. Has Puduhepa taken her husband’s Istar as her patron deity, thus fusing this militant goddess with the mother-goddesses of her youth and her official cultic roles? Though modern scholars are often apt to separate the military roles of the nubile "maiden" goddess from the nurturing roles of the "mother" goddess, it is clear that such distinctions did not hold for at least one ancient devotee.

Like Enheduanna’s fusion of the Sumerian Inanna and the Semitic Istar, Puduhepa’s thealogical move here can be understood as growing out of her experience of her goddesses. Both thealogical and political motivations are at work. The Hittites of the New Kingdom were known for their syncretistic policies which incorporated the deities of conquered territories into the official pantheon rather than repressing indigenous worship. They were self-styled as "people of the thousand gods," and indeed, it seems they never met a deity they didn’t like, which resulted in a cultic calendar so ridiculously full that wars had to be interrupted so that the king could perform his assorted ritual duties. Hence, Puduhepa’s syncretism takes place against a background of easy tolerance and official approval. While it is not too far a "stretch" to identify Hebat with the Sun-goddess of Arinna since they are both understood as consorts of the Weather-god of Hatti and mothers of the divine son, the Weather-god of Nerik (the Hurrian Sarruma), the immediate coherence between these mother figures and the battle-ready Istar, the Weather-god’s sister, is not so readily apparent. Politically, it was important that the official head of the Hittite pantheon, the Sun-goddess of Arinna, accept Hattusili, the favorite of Istar, as an acceptable if irregular king. Puduhepa’s syncretism allows this by identifying the goddess who brought her husband to power with the goddess who sustains and authorizes Hittite kingship.47 But the Queen’s consolidation of these divine females moves beyond simple pragmatic politics into the realm of faith — could the power that moved her from her home into an unknown land actually be any different from the loving power she knew as a child and continued to experience as queen? Puduhepa’s Hurrian roots have been posited as an explanation of the marked Hurrian-Hittite theological syncretism during Hattusili’s reign, though the beginning of this trend can be traced back further. However, it is to the common condition of women that we must turn for the deeper psychological motivation behind the politics. Like the royal daughters of Sumer and Mari, Puduhepa probably had very little choice in her marriage partner or place of residence. Dedicated to Hebat by her very name, it is scarcely possible that a woman of faith would leave her native deities behind, and highly probable that she would identify the divine figures with whom she was familiar with those who populated her new world. Where women are moved and traded like game-pieces on the board of political hegemony, they cannot afford inflexible deities bound to a given location. The goddesses a woman worshiped had to be thealogically "portable" if they were to be of any use to the devotee — a goddess only effective in the "Cedar Land" was of limited value to the Queen in Hattusa. As Puduhepa grew, changed residence and social rank, her understanding of her goddess grew and traveled along with her. She can speak of herself as "a heifer from thy stable," a "foundation stone (upon which) thou (canst rest)," both metaphors which conjure up images of service, dedication, and long-term intimacy. Later in her prayer Puduhepa goes on to draw parallels between the motherhood of the Sun-goddess and her own travail over Hattusili’s illness. In a culture obsessed by ritual purity, Puduhepa can speak to her divine helper using images drawn from the world of women, from the time when a woman’s body is presented in all its primal "otherliness" and potential impurity, and be guaranteed a positive hearing not in spite of her sex but because of it, since this gender marking is shared with the goddess. A reader of the biblical book of Leviticus can conceive of such a relationship between women and the exclusive male god of ancient Israel only with the greatest of difficulty, though to be sure, the female characters of the Bible are often presented as relating their birth-giving activities in some way to that same god they are not allowed to approach.48

"I am speaking the gods’ words. . ."

A fascinating look at the role certain females might play that crosses the boundaries between the public and private domains can be found in the recorded rituals of the MI.SU.GI (Hittite: MI.hasauwas), or "old women."49 These women constitute the class of practitioners most often mentioned in Hittite ritual texts, and were truly indispensable to the functioning of that society. Many of the rituals by them are recorded in the first person, so we have a sense of a qualified informant bequeathing her "recipe" for the restoration of health, purity and peace to the tradition for use in similar circumstance. Many of these women appear to be from the provinces of Kizzuwatna and Arzawa, and the Human element in these rituals is especially pronounced.50 An Old Kingdom edict of Hattusili I aims at curtailing the influence of the MI.SU.GI on the women of the palace, and it has been suggested that they, along with the Hattic city elders and the Tawananna (the king’s wife in Hittite times, but originally the king’s sister and mother of the heir-presumptive in the Hattic period), represented one of the indigenous groups attempting to resist the imposition of cultural changes brought by the Indo-European Hittite conquerors.51 We know the names of thirteen women designated as MI.SU.GI, with many other women appearing as "authors" of magical rituals whom scholars also consider to be recognized practitioners.52 Among these, the proposed MI.SU.GI Ayatarsa is said to be the female slave of one Nawila; one Anniwiyani is called "mother of Armatis, the bird-maker, slave of Hurlus," so that we know that MI.SU.GI were not cloistered as the naditu were.53 Here, then, we have an exception which tests the rule by which modern scholars usually assume that slave-women are necessarily women of low status. The Hittite MI.SU.GI was endowed with powers so formidable that kings must legislate against them and tradition must encode her words, and yet she could be owned by another.

The MI.SU.GI performed her services in a number of areas. The rituals with whose authorship she is credited on those which may reasonably be attributed to her include evocation magic (calling enemy gods away from their towns and calling native gods back to their own place), countermagic against sorcery, removal of ritual impurity and quarrels, restoration of sexual functions, the healing of children, the interpretation of omens, and royal funerary rites.54 An example of how authoritative were her words and actions comes from the preamble of Annanna’s mugawar ritual designed to entice the Sungod’s return to his own land: "I am speaking the gods’ words and am evoking him" (VBoT 58 iv 9-10).55 A full picture of the sphere of her activities emerges from a reading of the variety of rituals recorded. She selected rituals appropriate for a given situation, assembled or created necessary equipment (wax and clay figures, woolen thread, household items, food and drink, wooden pegs, stones, mud, herbs, dung), gave orders, made sacrifices, interpreted omens, and pronounced words of blessing and curse. She most frequently called upon the Sungod in her rituals, but invoked other deities as necessary for the given situation. She speaks decisively when her rituals are recorded, and her words and deeds were obviously considered efficacious enough to be recorded for posterity. An excerpt from the Ritual of Tunnawi gives some of the flavor of her words and deeds:

If a person, either a man or a woman, has been placed in any impurity, or someone else has named him/her for impurity, or (if) her children repeatedly die within the woman, or (if) her children are born prematurely, or (if) in a man or woman the sexual organs are disabled as a result of a formula of impurity, and that person is experiencing impurity, then that person, whether a man or woman, performs the ritual of impurity. . .56

After various hex-breaking activities, she recites the incantation "Evil impurity, witchcraft, sin, anger of the god, terror of the dead, the wickedness of mankind, remove (all) that!"57 Although the Hittite’s possessed other male and female ritual practitioners and physician-priests, it was the work of the MI.SU.GI which was most frequently called upon by society.58

"I am at peace and sisterly": Letters from Egypt

From the Hittite royal archives found at Boghazkoy also comes evidence of the correspondence carried on between "Naptera" (= Nefertari), the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II, and "Petkhep" (=Puduhepa) of Hattiland. After Ramesses and Hattusili (then serving his brother, the king Muwatalli) fought one another over Syrian hegemony at the battle of Kadesh (ca. 1286/85) with the Egyptian army only narrowly escaping an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Hittites, the two nations sought to come to agreement by treaty (ca. 1271) rather than through clash of arms. As usual, the agreements of nations were sealed "with a kiss" — by the exchange of appropriate females. In this case, M3T-HR-NFRW-R ("Justice is the beautiful face of God (Re)"), the daughter of Puduhepa and Hattusili was given to Ramesses as a wife, and the letters (KBo I 29; KBo I 21?) passing between to the two queens seem related to this occasion.59 As was noted in the correspondence between Sibtu and Zimri-Lim, the head wife has little concern over the double standard which provides her husband with many wives as a political matter of course. Nefertari writes in response to Puduhepa’s routine inquiry over her health, and speaks of the "good brotherhood" which Re, the Sungod, will give to Hattusili and Ramesses. For her own part, she says "And I am at peace and sisterly with the great queen, my sister; I, now (and forever)."60

Along with these treaty texts comes an interesting reflection of the "gender" question regarding deities. The Egyptian copy of "Hittite treaty" contains a notice describing the seal of Puduhepa which the treaty bears. The Egyptian scribe wrote

Female figure in the likeness of (the great goddess) of the Khatti, clasping in her arms the figure of the Great Queen of Khatti. Circumscription: Seal of the Sun-god of the city of Arenna, (A-r-n-na) lord of the land; seal of Putu-khipa, Great Queen of Khatti, daughter of the land of Kizawaden, mistress (?) of the city of Arenna, mistress of the land, the ministress of the goddess. In the border: the seal of the Sun-god of Arenna, the lord of all the land61

This is actually an excellent description of Puduhepa’s seal, known to us from other archaeological finds, but it seems clear that the Egyptian scribe, undoubtedly male, felt some confusion. In Egypt, the solar deity was clearly male, yet in Hatti, a different gender tradition about this deity obtains. While the scribe has dutifully described the goddess who clasps Puduhepa, he has had trouble incorporating this female deity into his traditional theological language, choosing instead to translate by using the typical solar disc hieroglyph which stands for Re. While some scholars argue that this means that the hieroglyph must therefore carry an androgynous meaning, it also seems likely that the scribe, even while recording the outlandish Hittite view, reinforced his notion that the solar deity was male. That the disputes over appropriate gender designations for deity began at least as early as the Late Bronze Age should afford modern persons engaged in that struggle some comfort: obviously, these are not easy questions to decide.

Conclusion: Syncretistic Thealogy

In closing, this brief glimpse into the words and lives of ancient women has brought us closer to an understanding of the conditions that bounded their lives, and shown us the strength and wit with which they addressed and expanded the roles decreed for them by society. It was impossible to speak of the lives of these women, mostly elites, without also speaking of the menfolk to whom they were attached. Where we had access to the personal feelings of these women, we saw head wives generally content with their lot, and more attached to their men than to the less fortunate women, occasionally even their daughters, who surrounded them. Slavery was accepted as a matter of course; sexual exploitation of captives was regarded as routine. Women caught up in struggles with their cowives or in conflict with elite males outside their kinship group seemed more conscious of their lower status as female, but even so, this concern did not extend to women of lower classes who frequently appear as pawns traded in the battle for prestige. Few women of other-than-elite status were available for study, due to the nature of the materials available.62

At least some of the women considered here could be designated as "goddess-identified," particularly Enheduanna, Sattamkiyazi, and Puduhepa. In each case, the affiliation served as a basis for at least some of the high status each was accorded, and this, in turn, was tied into the political fortunes reflected in worship of that goddess. In the contexts where a relationship between women and the status-authorizing goddess could be discerned, the women in question also seemed fully engaged, at least in an administrative way, in the economic life of the temple, city-state or kingdom in question, providing tentative support for Sanday’s hypothesis.

A particular trend toward syncretism was recognized, in service of both politics and female religious sensibilities. Enheduanna could fuse the Sumerian Inanna to the Semitic Istar; Puduhepa found the goddess of her "Cedar Land" alive and well in the cult center of Arinna, and identified both with her husband’s patron goddess.

Egyptian women’s names also reflect a similar syncretizing perspective: the Egyptian name of Puduhepa’s daughter identified the goddess "Ma’at," or "Justice" as the beautiful face of the sungod Re; the throne name of Hatshepsut, M3 T-K3-R’, makes a similar move, proclaiming "Justice (Ma at) is the likeness of God (Re)." We might also think here of the Egyptian maidservant Hagar, who is narratively the first to identify the Hebrew patriarchal God-of-the-fathers with one of the indigenous gods of Canaan (Gen 16:13-14). As the women were moved from place to place, they found that their deities moved with them, and though both might acquire new names, the relationship of mutuality remained undisturbed.63



1. J. Mellaart, Catal Huyuk (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967) 101; "Excavations at Catal Huyuk, 1963: Third Preliminary Report," Anatolian Studies XIV (1964) 93.

2. The latest entry in the popular literature about Crete may be found in R. Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 29-41. For a critique of this popular view of the Minoans, see C. G. Stan, "Minoan Flower Lovers," The Minoan Thalassocracy: Myth and Reality, ed. R. Hagg and N. Marinator (Stockholm: Proc. Third International Symposium at the Swedish Institute in Athens, 31 May-S June, 1982) 9-12.

3. C. J. Bleeker, "Isis and Hathor: Two Ancient Egyptian Goddesses," The Book of the Goddess: Past and Present, ed. C. Olson (New York: Crossroad, 1985) 29-48; J. Ochshorn, "Ishtar and Her Cult," Olson, Goddess 16-28. Obviously, phrasing comments on historical goddess cults in this way has already injected a modern perspective into our interpretation.

4. C. Greene and C. Kahn, "Feminist Scholarship and the Social Construction of Woman," Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. G. Greene and C. Kahn (New York: Methuen, 1985) 18.

5. Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1981) 3-17.

6. M. Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana Univ., 1987) 132.

7. R. Jacobsen, "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics," Style in Language, ed. T. A. Sebeok (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1960) 350-77; T. Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1977) 76-87.

8. Inscriptions from Ramesses II claimed that he won the battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. He lied: at the very least, it must be considered a draw, if not an actual Hittite victory. See below.

9. For a discussion of the use of comparative ethnographic data, see R. R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

10. T. F. Carney, The Shape of the Past: Models and Antiquity (Lawrence, KS: Corondao, 1975) 149; C. Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988) 139-57.

11. M. T. Whyte, The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies (Princeton: Princeton Univ., 1978) 170; for an assessment of how women’s class affiliation is derived from the men to whom they are attached, see C. Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986) 9.

12. Whyte, Status 13-26.

13. Whyte, Status 167-84.

14. Woman, Culture & Society, ed. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ., 1974) 189-206.

15. Sanday, "Female Status" 198-200.

16. Sanday, "Female Status" 203-206.

17. J. Hackett, "Can a Sexist Model Liberate Us? Ancient Near Eastern "Fertility" Goddesses," JFSR forthcoming. For an analysis of the different roles filled by "fertility" deities, see J. Ochshorn, The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1981).

18. Gottner-Abendroth, Gottin 118.

19. Gottner-Abendroth, Gottin 12-16.

20. W. W. Hallo, "Women of Sumer," The Legacy of Sumer, BibMesop 4, ed. D. Schmandt-Besserat (Malibu, CA: Undena, 1976) 29.

21. E. A. Speiser, tr., "The Legend of Sargon," Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd. ed. with Supplement, ed. I. B Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969 = ANET) 119.

22. For a fuller portrait of the character of Inanna, see my study, "The Deceptive Goddess in Ancient Near Eastern Myth: Inanna and Annoyers," Semeia 42 (1988) 87-93.

23. W. W. Hallo and J. J. A. Van Dijk, The Exaltation of Inanna, YNER 3 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968) 1-11. contra J. Ochshorn, "Mothers and Daughters in Ancient Near Eastern Literature," The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature (ed. C. N. Davidson and F. M. Broner; New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980) 7; Enheduanna writes in Sumerian, not Akkadian.

24. Hallo and Van Dijk, Exaltation 33.

25. Hallo and Van Dijk, Exaltation 31-32.

26. Hallo and Van Dijk, Exaltation 23.

27. Hallo and Van Dijk, Exaltation 27.

28. For an English introduction to the materials from Mari, see BA 47(1984) which is devoted to this topic.

29. G. Dossin, Archives royales de Mari, X: La correspondence feminine (Paris: Departement des Antiquites Orientales, Textes cuneiformes, XXI Musee du Louvre, 1967) = ARM X; W. H. Ph. Romer, Frauenbriefe uber Religion, Politik und Privatleben in Mari: Untersuchungen zu. G. Dossin, Archives Roses de Mari X (Paris 1967), AOAT 12 (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1971); B. F. Batto, Studies on Women at Mari (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ., 1974); P. Artzi and A. Malamat, "The Correspondence of Sibtu, Queen of Mari in ARM X," Or, n.s., 40 (1971) 75-89; J. M. Sasson, "Biographical Notices on Some Royal Ladies from Mari," JCS 25 (1973) 59-78.

30. Artzi and Malamat, "Correspondence" 81.

31. Artzi and Malamat, "Correspondence" 78-79.

32. Batto, Studies 27-28.

33. L. Lamphere, "Strategies, Cooperation, and Conflict Among Women in Domestic Groups," Women, Culture, Society 97-112.

34. Batto, Studies 37-42, 131; Sasson, "Notices" 63-67.

35. Batto, Studies 42-48; Sasson, "Notices" 68-72.

36. Sasson, "Notices" 68.

37. Batto, Studies 79-139. Many of the women found in the service of the deities were elites, judging by their genealogical ties; where relationships to males are not mentioned it is difficult to decide whether or not lower-class women were involved in cult and religion in anything other than menial capacities.

38. Batto, Studies 128-29; Romer, Frauenbriefe 31.

39. Batto, Studies 131.

40. For Hattusili’s version of the truth, see "The Apology of Hattusili III" in F. H. Sturtevant and C. Bechtel, A Hittite Chrestomathy (Philadelphia: Univ. of Penn. Press, 1935) 65-83. For a fuller discussion of Puduhepa’s career, see the present writer’s "Queenly Proverb Performance: The Prayer of Puduhepa (KUB XXI, 27)," The Listening Heart: Essays in Wisdom and the Psalms in honor of Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., ed. K. C. Hoglund, F. F. Huwiler, 1. T. Class and R. W. Lee (Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1987; JSOT Supp 58) 95-126, and H. Otten, Puduhepa: Eine hethitische Konigin in ihren Textzeugnissen (Mainz: Franz Steiner, 1975).

41. A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretations of Dreams in the Ancient Near East: With a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1956= Trans. Amer. Philosophical Soc. 46/3) 254-55.

42. M. Darga, "Puduhepa: An Anatolian Queen of the Thirteenth Century B.C.," Mansel’e Armagan: Melanges Mansel=Festschrift Arif Mufid Mansel (Ankara: Turk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, 1974) 2:944-45; I. Seibert, Woman in Ancient Near East, rev. C. Shepperson (Leipzig: Edition Leipzig, 1974) 47-49.

43. 5. R. Bin-Nun, The Tawananna in the Hittite Kingdom (Texte der Hethiter 5; Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1975) 193. For a picture of Puduhepa’s seal, see E. Akurgal, The Art of the Hittites (New York: Harry Abrams, 1962).

44. A. Goetze, "Prayer of Puduhepas to the Sun-goddess of Arinna and her Circle," ANET 393. KUB = Keilschdften aus Boghazoi, I-XX V (Berlin, 1921-24).

45. For Hebat’s association with the biblical "Eve" (Hawwat), see V. Haas, Hethitische Berggotter und Hurritische Steindamonen: Riten, Kulte und Mythen (Kulturgeschichte der antiken Welt 10; Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1982) 30.

46. Sturtevant and Bechtel, Chrestomathy 79.

47. It should be noted, however, that elsewhere it is the Weather-god who commissions the king, and that the Sun-goddess of Arinna is absent from foreign treaties, but see discussion of Puduhepa’s seal by Egyptian scribes, below. Bin-Nun, Tawananna 203-204.

48. Cen 4:1; 21:1; 25:21; 29:31; Ruth 4:13; 1 Sam 1:19-20, 27; 1 Sam 2:1-10; Luke 1.

49. 0. R. Gurney, Some Aspects of Hittite Religion (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976) 44-45.

50. Gurney, Aspects, 44; D. H. Englehard, "Hittite Magical Practices: An Analysis," (Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis Univ., 1970) 13.

51. Bin-Nun, Tawananna 120-40.

52. Gurney, Aspects, 45, n. 2. Designated as MI.SU.GI are Annanna, Hebattarakki, Kuesa, Malli, Mallidunna, Silalluhi, Susumanniga and Tunnawiya; Allaidurahi, Alli, Anniwiyani, Mastikka, and Paskuwatti are referred to by the variant SAL.SU.GI.

53. Englehard, "Practices" 23; Sturtevant and Bechtel, Chrestomathy 107.

54. Englehard, "Practices" 6-24.

55. Cited in Englehard, "Practices" 11; VBoT= Verstreute Boghazkiii-Texte (Marburg, 1930).

56. Englehard, "Practices" 72.

57. Englehard, "Practices" 74.

58. Englehard, "Practices" 7.

59. D. D. Luckenbill, "Hittite Treaties and Letters," AJSL 37 (1921) 194. KBo=Keilschrifttexte aus Boghazkoi, Hefte 1-6 (Leipzig, 1916-23), Hefte 7-17 (Berlin, 1954-).

60. Luckenbill, "Treaties" 194.

61. J. Garstang, "The Sun-Goddess of Arinna," Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology 6 (1914) 109.

62. Slave-women do appear as literary "types" in various biblical and extrabiblical narratives and instructions. A further analysis of the literary use to which they are put will appear in Holy Torch of Heaven: Goddesses, Queens and Ordinary Women in the Ancient Near East, in progress.

63. The research presented here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Holy Torch of Heaven: Goddesses, Queens and Ordinary Women in the Ancient Near East. The study was made possible by a sabbatical grant from Andover Newton Theological School spent as a Visiting Research Scholar in the Near Eastern and Jewish Studies Department of Brandeis University. I wish to thank Dorothy Moore, Deborah Vickers, Gerry Brague, Cara Davis, and Connie Schutz for their technical assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.


Chapter 6: Human Persons as Images of the Divine: A Reconsideration, by Ellen M. Ross


Ellen M. Ross is assistant professor of the History of Christian Life and Thought at Boston College. Ross has recently published articles in Downside Review and Listening. Her major research interests are in the fields of medieval mysticism and contemporary feminist theology.


Then God said, "Let us make the human person [adam] in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26).


What use have feminist theologians for a concept that characterizes human persons as imitators of a God who is often portrayed as a male deity?2 What use have we for a description of the human person which has been at times applied in a primary way to males and only derivatively or secondarily to females?3 Some may say that we would do well to abandon the scriptural theme of "human persons’ creation in God’s image" because the history of its use has been resistant to the affirmation of women’s full humanity. I want to suggest something quite different here. By engaging in dialogue with the writings of two medieval theologians of the Augustinian tradition, Richard of St. Victor (12th cent.) and Walter Hilton (14th cent.), and the contemporary theologies of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Dorothee Soelle, I will argue for the wisdom of reconsidering this central concept of the Christian tradition, suggesting that the heritage of what this symbol has meant to Christian believers may yet proffer theological guidance to communities of renewal and hope in the late twentieth-century.

Both Richard of St. Victor, a theologian and mystic at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, and Walter Hilton, an English spiritual guide, were members of the Augustinians, a religious order of the high Human Middle Ages that sought a middle way between the monastic life of cloistered nuns and monks, and the individualistic parish life of priests. For these two spiritual theologians, representative of one major type of medieval formulation of the imago Dei concept, the implications of the image theme are largely practical, operational, and moral: our identification as image-bearers applies not only to a past, creative association with God, nor only forward to a future, eschatological situation, but provides orienting and directive guidance in our day-to-day living with other bearers of the divine image.4

In conversation with Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton, I will argue for the centrality of the image of God theme in a contemporary feminist theology, suggesting that it is precisely the practical or moral implications of image-bearing that can be most helpful to theology today. In this vein I will consider the work of Rosemary Radford Ruether and of Dorothee Soelle who, for differing but complementary reasons, provide excellent resources for articulating a systematic and inclusive understanding of our identities as image-bearers. Ruether, who gives explicit attention to the imago Dei theme, is a feminist theologian committed to retrieving the scriptural message and affirming its transmission in the Christian tradition. Although critical of the Christian tradition’s distortions of the message, Ruether is unwilling to dismiss Christianity’s theological heritage completely, but prefers to draw selectively and constructively from it and from other disciplines and thought traditions in order to enrich contemporary theological reflection. The German theologian Dorothee Soelle, who speaks eloquently to the need for development of the interior life as the only possible cure to the social ills afflicting the contemporary world, makes little direct use of the image of God theme. But her lengthy discussions of the motifs related to it, and in particular, her analysis of the "sins" or "vices" of our time, makes her a valuable resource. Soelle provides a contemporary analysis of what Hilton would call "the image of sin," our dissimilarity to God, and a vision of solidarity, an affirmation of the unalterable connection between love of God and love of neighbor.

In considering Ruether and Soelle as representatives of prevalent tendencies within feminist theology, I will indicate how the image of God theme as described by the two medieval Augustinian canons might complement and enrich feminist theologians’ affirmations of our full humanity and call for a holistic, developmental way of being which invites the use of all our human faculties in a socially responsible context. The image of God theme as set forth by Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton provides a rich symbol of the "thinking-relational"5 self both Ruether and Soelle help us to recover. In particular, I will suggest that the contribution of medieval reflection on the image to contemporary theology arises from (1) its depiction of the human person as constituted in a fundamental way by its relationship to the Divine; (2) its analysis of the importance of personal and social transformation in our lives; and (3) its offering of language and imagery to express our intimacy with God and the world.

In the dialectic between medieval and contemporary feminist theology, feminist thought, for its part, introduces themes that highlight dimensions of the image concept which were unexplored during the Middle Ages; specifically, I will point to feminist theology’s major role in recognizing the implications of the image of God theme for shaping our political experience. Despite significant differences in style and method — Ruether more concerned with reclaiming the systematic structure of the Christian tradition, and Soelle with rejuvenating the spiritual life of her audiences — Ruether and Soelle are united in their concern to celebrate the dignity of the human person in relationship to God and the world and to celebrate the possibilities of the Christian tradition. And like much of contemporary theology which focuses on the political ramifications of theological expression,6 the theologies of both Soelle and Ruether are explicitly political and economic insofar as theological claims have praxis implications that call for concrete responses. While precedents for these concerns are not readily apparent in the political claims of medieval thinkers like Richard and Hilton, we can find a compatible sensibility in the significant social dimensions of theology evident, for example, in Richard and Hilton’s identification of love with mutual interaction of love of God and neighbor, and not exclusively — with either love of self or love of God. As Richard puts it, for us to attain love in its highest degree, charity or love must be directed toward another person.7 Hilton describes this phenomenon even more exactly in saying that we do not actually "leave" God in loving our sisters and brothers: ". . . if you are wise you won’t leave God but will find God and possess God and see God in your fellow-Christians as you do in prayer, but you will have God in another way."8 For Hilton the greatness of the human person is measured by the degree to which one loves God and other human persons.9 In conjunction with this model, contemporary feminist theology pushes us beyond the medieval context to recognize the implications of traditional conceptions of love of God and neighbor for our own time.

The Issue of Gender Language

Before embarking on a project which entails application of medieval themes to contemporary thought one of the first questions we must ask is how the image of God theme can be retrieved when it has been associated at times with the claim that man is truly and essentially the image of God, while woman is the image of God only derivatively and not even fully. Although we can find such explanations beginning even with scriptural passages,10 such claims do not accurately represent the thought of the figures considered here. Because of space constraints I can do little more than mention this important topic, and state my own attempt to deal with it. I maintain that the inferiority of women is not built into the medieval theological system as a primary structural support, but rather appears as a form of gender symbolization carried over from the patriarchal society in which the authors lived.

Kari Borresen introduces two rubrics that are especially helpful for assessing medieval reflections on women: subordination and equivalence.11 She isolates two dominant and conflicting attitudes in Augustine’s and Aquinas’ reflections on the nature and role of women. One she calls subordination, the view that woman is subordinate to man in the order of creation, or in the day-to-day existence of this world.12 She calls the second dominant attitude equivalence, a term used to indicate the "identical value of man and woman as human persons."13 The imago Dei theme arises here: . . . equivalence according to the spirit of the Gospel belongs to the order of salvation, as the realization of the quality of divine image borne equally by man and woman."14 Although the order of creation is androcentric, the order of salvation is theocentric, and thus, in the order of salvation, the woman "bound to her individual end, [finds] the complete fulfillment of herself as the image of God."15

The equivalence/subordination conflict is certainly present in the medieval authors we consider here. On the one hand they assert that all people are created in God’s image; but, on the other, they at times distinguish between men and women on a secondary and nonessential level. Augustine, Richard and Walter’s major source here, divides reason into superior and inferior reason: males symbolize superior reason and females inferior reason, just as the male/female relationship symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the Church. Significantly, however, he adds that

. . .although the physical and external differences of man and woman symbolize the double role that the mind is known to have in one man, nevertheless a woman, for all her physical qualities as a woman, is actually renewed in the spirit of her mind in the knowledge of God according to the image of her Creator, and therein there is no male or female [my emphasis].16

Despite the symbolic female/male differences wherein woman represents the physical and man the spiritual, for the most part the medieval tradition affirmed that women and men are equally images of God. As this example indicates, we must read these medieval writers with a constant eye to patriarchal distortions, and to inconsistencies in their claims about the human person. Although we should be always alert to the possibilities for systematic distortion, we need not summarily dismiss everything that has been said or written about male and female in these texts, particularly because they often include contradictory claims, that is, statements which disparage women because they are reflective of a patriarchal social context, and others which could be the basis for affirming the dignity and equality of all human beings, females and males.

Authors like Borresen, Eleanor McLaughlin,17 and Caroline Walker Bynum18 who perceive the conflict in medieval texts between equivalence and subordination, or between theocentric theory and androcentric bias, have recognized that the medieval use of the imago Dei pushes writers at least in theory beyond what much medieval thought and practice taught concerning the subordinate status of women. The tensions and even contradictions in medieval comments about women suggest that the medieval world did not live out the full implications of the image theme. The equivalence signaled by the image of God tradition could have had significant implications not only in the order of salvation but also in the order of creation had its proponents admitted that affirmation of one’s status as an image of God has significant implications for women and men in their relations to one another and standing before God. The female and male equivalence signaled in the imago Dei theme refers to a practical, every-day perspective out of which we act in relation to God, self, and the world. In this way, we may be encouraged to reconsider this theme by Bynum’s observation that "[I]f the images . . . have not in the societies that produced them brought about the equality of the sexes, it is not, so to speak, the fault of the image."19 Symbols do not simply reflect dominant hierarchical societal values because they also carry with them the potential for radical social change and renewal.20 Even when unrecognized by those using them, symbols, and specifically the image of God theme, "can invent as well as reinforce social values."21

In the context of Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton’s thought I will ask here what the image of God concept meant, what potential it did express, and what emancipatory prospects it might offer for us today. In what follows I will attempt to draw together three central ideas associated with the imago Dei in medieval theology: the fundamental orientation of the human person to God, the dynamics of transformation in human existence, and the discourse of intimacy that defines the God/human nexus. I will offer three thesis statements about the image that reflect traditional and contemporary uses of the image theme.

1. Our Existence as Images of God Expresses Both a Capacity and a Present State. As We Develop as Images of God We Come to Express Our Full Humanity in a Unity of the "Thinking-Relational" Self, and We Learn to Respect the Image Character of Other Human Persons.

In the work of Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton the image of God in us describes both a state of being and a capacity. First, the image of God theme refers to a present, already-existing state of being in which we are defined in an originary way by our relationship to the Divine of whom we are reflections by nature. Presupposing the revelatory function of Scripture, the medieval tradition interprets Gen 1:26 to mean that human persons from their creation are constituted in an inalienable way as images of God. The narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve and the concomitant damaging of the image reflects the tradition’s perception that the image is somehow blurred and not fully actualized in our experience, although the human person remains in a fundamental way, by virtue of its nature, an image of God.

Thus a second aspect of the image emerges: the image describes a capacity, namely that about us which makes it possible for us to grow in relationship with the Divine as the breach symbolized by the fall is healed. Although we may not yet fulfill our capacities, we are images of God already simply by virtue of the fact that we have the ability to know and to love, and to the extent that we actively love and know God we are developing as images and fulfilling our capacities in actuality. In referring to both an actuality and a potentiality the image alerts us to our nature and to our destiny. This is the logic of medieval anthropology: by virtue of our being images of God we are offered an intimate relationship to God, but it is only insofar as we are images of God that we are capable of receiving this heritage.

In the medieval tradition represented here the image concept guides and directs all aspects of the human person’s relationship to the Divine. Growth in relationship to God is measured by one’s reformation as an image of God. Writers like Walter Hilton describe the work of God and Christ in our lives as a process of reforming us in Christ’s image. The image of God theme plays an integral role in the divine-human relationship: it is only insofar as we are image-bearers that we can even be rendered capable of the relationship, and our relationship to God is measured by the development of the image within us. Specifically, the image of God in us describes our capacity to become like God by understanding and loving the God who is love.

Rosemary Radford Ruether also employs the notion of capacity and present state in accepting the dichotomy of classical theology between a good creation represented by Christ and a fallen humanity which we primarily encounter now.22 The imago Dei, "remanifest in history as Christ," represents authentic human nature, what we can be potentially — in other words, it represents a present human capacity.23 For Ruether and for the image tradition explored here, though, there is no absolute dichotomy between imago Dei and fallen humanity (as there is, e.g., in Karl Barth). Our existence as images of God is more than simply a capacity since at times we experience the full or partial fulfillment of that capacity in our present state. As Ruether writes, "the fullness of redeemed humanity, as image of God, is something only partially disclosed under the conditions of history. We seek it as a future self and world, still not fully achieved, still not fully revealed. But we also discover it as our true self and world, the foundation of and ground of our being."24 The image in us points to our nature and to our destiny.

Dorothee Soelle affirms some similar aspects of the imago Dei theme, although the concept plays no explicitly central role in her theological formulations. She associates the image theme with "the Jewish affirmation of our being created as images of God, empowered to grow into love and to become love ourselves."25 "The directive is clear . . . We are beckoned to approximate God . . . Created in the image of God, we therefore are able to imitate God."26 And what does the capacity refer to? In what does the imitation consist? For Soelle, representative of the political turn in contemporary theology, the fact that we are God’s image-bearers means that our destiny is to realize God’s justice in the world. Soelle draws here on Carter Heyward’s understanding of God as power-in-relation which refers not to dominating power-over, but rather to the Divine’s capacity to empower others to love,27 and "to become love ourselves."28 Insofar as we can become or are bearers of that love we are images of God in that we potentially are or actually become co-creators with the Divine. The challenge for feminist theology is to articulate recommendations for the implementation of justice in specific instances, but the Christian image of God tradition reminds us of our nature as having the capacity to fulfill God’s way of being in the world and as actualizing our nature in doing so.

In calling for an end to the compartmentalizing of roles in our lives as one significant condition for attaining a justice which respects the full humanity of all persons, male and female, Ruether raises one of the issues the image of God theme can most productively address. She writes, "[W]omen want to integrate the public and the private, the political and the domestic spheres in a new relationship that allows the thinking-relational self to operate throughout human life as one integrated self, rather than fragmenting the psyche across a series of different social roles."29 The image of God theme as described by Richard and Walter provides a theological concept which symbolizes exactly the holistic integration of the thinking-relational self Ruether advocates. The fact that we are image-bearers tells us that we are thinking-relational beings.

Both medieval thinkers identify a dual focus of the image, an identification with human understanding, often when they speak of knowledge of God, and with the human will, often when speaking of love of God. This dual focus is clarified in medieval attention to the constant interaction of knowledge and love, one encouraging the other. Knowledge of God for its own sake unrelated to love of God is useless, Hilton says;30 or as Richard expresses it, love and knowledge work with one another and mutually encourage one another: "the richness of divine knowledge increases in vain, unless it increases the flame of divine love in us.31 This is a theological reminder that our discussions of God are best rooted in a knowledge related to love; but, further, it is also a starting point for describing our relationship not only to God, but also to the world. Our two medieval theologians maintain that our relationship to God forms a model for our relationship to others and to the world around us. Love of neighbor, as described by the two Augustinian canons, is integrally related to love of God, and is so basic that we are by nature in-relation to God and in-relation to others at the same time. A knowledge in continual interplay with love, such as that described by Hilton and Richard, guides our development of rationality. Thus a theological anthropology dependent upon the medieval tradition would call for a constant interaction of knowledge and love in our relationship to other persons and to the world: we can see immediately the kind of implications this dialectic would have for a theological anthropology in exploring, for example, our relationship to our natural environment. Our medieval theologians’ vigilant reiteration of the constant interaction between knowledge and love cautions us to exercise care in using language like "thinking-relational" self, for such language used unreflectively can perpetuate the myth that there is a "thinking" self which can be clearly distinguished from the "relational" self. In actuality the two are not divisible in the manner such language would suggest.32 All of our thinking is in some sense relational, and to the extent that it is not relational or is actively destructive of relationships it does not express full humanity. The separation of the two terms "thinking" and "relational" may have some limited use in making a distinction, such as Parker Palmer does, between a kind of knowledge which originates in curiosity or from control, and a knowledge arising from love or compassion.33 Of course, even the first type of knowledge is relational — though the relational implications are negative in that they promote neither compassion nor respect for the dignity of all human persons. (Knowledge-based research for the Strategic Defense Initiative, for example, is not simply "pure knowledge." Potentially, it has tremendous relational consequences because it may, for example, actively contradict a 1971 Salt I agreement prohibiting development of Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense, thus undermining the emerging relationship described in the Salt I agreement.)

Traditionally many theologians have emphasized one or the other side of the love-knowledge dichotomy; indeed, theology in the second half of the twentieth-century can be characterized by its emphasis on love.34 Perhaps, though, we need to reconsider for a moment the importance and possibilities for the theme of knowledge in the process of recognizing the full humanity of all human persons. We are taught to "love our neighbors," but this has little meaning; often, we cannot even determine who our neighbors are. The notion of "knowledge" could be helpful here. We would see things in a new way and in a way closer to the medieval insight if we were to imagine "knowing" our neighbors as images of God. Frequently we "know" people as "the sister or brother of so-and-so," "the husband or wife of so-and-so," "the author of a particular book," "the advocate of a particular cause." "Knowing someone as generally results in our having particular preconceived attitudes towards the person before ever meeting her or him. If we know someone as "an advocate of peace concerns," for example, we might expect (rightly or wrongly) the person to have particular interests or particular attitudes. How would we think differently if we were to "know" people as "images of God"?

Richard of St. Victor points us in this direction in making the insightful point that in spiritual matters we must love first by deliberation, and only later will we love by affection.35 A first step of deliberation is a knowledge which we eventually come to understand more deeply and more experientially. We begin by emphasizing that we must first "know" ourselves and all other people as images of God, and after acting out of that knowledge, contemplating it, and striving to live from that perspective more faithfully, we then become able to love and understand more fully the meaning of our and all humanity’s existence as images of God.

Contemporary theologians’ attention to the political ramifications of our action in the world reiterates the medieval recognition of the emptiness that results from bifurcating love and knowledge. It is that very practice of dividing our lives into a series of separate and limited territories, separating the religious from the political, or the economic from the social, or the feminist from the theological, that makes it possible for us to talk about "love of neighbor" without making a commitment to economic sanctions, for example, which might free our neighbor from political, economic, or social oppression. In a variety of ways theologians like Ruether and Soelle affirm the interconnectedness of our lives and focus especially on the too-often-neglected political nature of theology. In their explicit attention to political matters their starting point and central concerns differ from those of Richard of St. Victor or Walter Hilton and their emphases shed new light on the implications of the image of God theme; however, the basis for using the image tradition to speak of each and every person’s originary constitution and dignity as a reflection of the Divine and use of the image concept to highlight the interrelationship between love and knowledge can be traced back to the medieval insights examined here.

II. The Way to Image Restoration Is By Way of Spiritual Transformation, Including the Cultivation of Self-Knowledge, the Active Metamorphosis of Vices into Virtues, and the Pursuit of Love and Knowledge of God.

As we have seen in the cases of Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton, in medieval thought the image theme often appears in the context of holistic descriptions of a Christian life of seeking to imitate God by "becom[ing] love and not just receiv[ing] it."36 The image of God theme and its medieval articulation highlights the transformative nature of human persons. Practical and moral analyses of the image consistently chart the dynamics of this transformative process through which persons seek to actualize their potential as bearers of the Divine image. While the specific stages of transformation are articulated in different ways, the development is frequently depicted as a journey, variously described as a process of faith seeking understanding, or as a process of the transformation of the image of sin within us into an image of Jesus.

While I am not advocating a wholesale return to medieval categories of transformation, I do want to point to the critical role accorded transformation in medieval understandings of the human person, and most visibly in medieval discussions of the image of God theme. Although as theologians we sustain ourselves by hope for transformation in the world around us we too often focus on the way things should be, or on the way things are, with little regard for cultivating the process of effecting change. Guided by medieval descriptions of the transformative process we might renew our vigor in attending to the place of change in human existence.

Almost without exception medieval portrayals of development as images of God begin with the pursuit of self-knowledge, a lengthy process attainable only with the help of grace. Self-knowledge leads people to recognize two things (1) that we are image-bearers, and therein lies our dignity (and the source for unwavering self-love); and (2) that we frequently neglect our responsibilities and capacities as image-bearers. In spite of the medieval spiritual theology’s undeserved reputation for focusing on sin in believers’ live’s, the fundamental affirmation underlying the texts considered here is that humanity is good and directed toward growth and transformation. Self-knowledge, cultivated with attention to the disparity between what we are (blurred images) and what we can be (clear images), leads both to a restoration of a good will and to a knowledge gained through experience of what we may know already by faiths or by the teaching of Christian communities. Self-knowledge seeks k:nowledge and love of God; it "assum[es] . . . another relationship to reality, one of wholeness."37

Most of us at times experience disjunction or disunity, (a sense of alienation from the world around us and from God. We could argue as Hilton does that our enslavement to vices such as apathy, gluttony, pride, and lechery, accounts for our disjunction with the world.38 And we could argue that progress in the transformation of vices into virtues signals progress in growth as images of God so that the virtues he prescribes as correctives to vice are useful to characterize the situation in which we would be at one with the world. There are, however, some other contemporary ways to convey the sense of what Hilton suggested with his contrast between vices, or sin, and virtues.

Like many contemporary theologians, Ruether understands sin in part as a distortion of our relationships to others and to the world around us; in particular, it is a "distortion of the self-other relationship into the good-evil, superior-inferior dualism."39 Sexism is a primary example of sin since sexism presumes and perpetuates distorted, bifurcated relationality.40 Sin refers not only to our active participation in relationships dominated by pride, but also to "the passivity of men and women who acquiesce to the group ego."41 The process of developing self-knowledge can help counter situations of distorted relationality by encouraging us to recognize our own capacities to oppress others, to promote a sexist status quo, and to close our eyes to injustice.42

Dorothee Soelle is even more sensitive to the significance of spiritual development and more vocal about the political and social demands of Christianity than Ruether. She deepens the understanding of our distorted relationality to the world by naming its five characteristics: (1) isolation, (2) reduction to the individual, (3) muteness and speechlessness, (4) fatalism and apathy, and (5) immanence.43 What is the antidote to this situation? The tradition has answered "Virtue," and writers such as Richard of St. Victor have called love the chief of all virtues. But how do we understand "virtues" and "love" today? Soelle names an antidote to each of the vices named above and the common denominator of all the "virtues" is solidarity, the cultivation of full humanity, an active recognition of the uniqueness, value, and interconnectedness of each human being and of all human beings. Her catalogue of contemporary "virtues" vis-a-vis the "vices" of modernity are the following: (1) connectedness, (2) collective experience, (3) symbolic and linguistic expression, (4) readiness for political action, and (5) transcendence.

Connectedness is the opposite of isolation because in affirming our connectedness we affirm our solidarity, our interdependence. Rather than celebrating the individuality of our experience we appreciate its collective nature. Affirming our own and others’ experiences, and struggling to find a voice to express them, we deny fatalism and we emerge from the pit of apathy. As we demand our right to speak and the rights of others to speak we enter into the political arena to assure voices for collective human experience. Listening to others and speaking to others calls for transcendence, an ability to look beyond our immediate surroundings to a future, to the practical consequences of what we do and say.

Although Soelle does not pose the question in quite this way, it is important to ask how we move from the situation of seclusion to the situation of solidarity. More implicit than explicit, but present in Soelle’s work seems to be the claim that the inward journey, the spiritual path, provides the means for moving from seclusion to solidarity. The "way of inwardness" has love (here understood as solidarity) as its goal and involves a process of development, which can be understood in terms of a movement from the negative side to the positive side of the polarities she describes.

The most important virtue of this kind of relation is not obedience but solidarity, for solidarity asks that we change the image of God from that of a power-dispensing father to one of a liberating and unifying force, that we cease to be objects and become subjects involved in this process of change, that we learn cooperation rather than wait for things to come to us from on high.44

Soelle advocates the inward journey as the way to learn to experience a new and deeper unifying love, or solidarity. As with Richard and Walter we begin with the affirmation that "God is Love" which for Soelle we recognize in particular historical experiences of liberation. The tendency of God’s love, which becomes present to us in the experience of solidarity,45 is to increase, to grow, "to bind and join together in even larger entities."46 The image of God is reformed in us to the extent that we are capable of participating in God’s active and ever-widening love. But it is not an easy process because we are accustomed to avoiding pain; we are used to narrowing our vision to protect our own private stability and comfort.47 Soelle, and the tradition represented by Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton, challenges us to trade security and control for a life which includes publicly "seeking God." Richard says we love first by deliberation in spiritual things as the soul turns inward and pursues self-knowledge through cultivation of virtues and intentions. At some stage of the process, after the initial steps of reordering one’s priorities and seeking to act out of love and understanding in the world, many medieval spiritual theologians describe an aspect of transformative experience which focuses almost exclusively on the Divine, culminating in a union with God, interpreted by Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton as a union of wills. Significantly, though, in the moral and practical image tradition represented here, the process of image reformation does not end until finally, we "go forth because of our neighbor."48 Soelle writes, "[the goal . . . is to reach this farthest point, to experience the deepest self-conformation, and yet to return and to communicate the experience that we are a part of the whole."49

III. The Goal of Image Restoration Is the Conformity of Our Wills to God’s Will So That One Perceives Oneself Not as a Servant of the Divine, But Rather as a Friend of God.

Christ plays a central role in medieval depictions of persons response to God’s offer of love in that, as Hilton explains, we begin the transformation process by contemplating Christ’s humanity, by cultivating our resemblance to Jesus. Richard echoes this when he says that " . . . one who does not follow the footsteps of Christ perfectly does not enter the way of truth rightly."50 He describes the highest earthly stage of love of God in terms of conformity of our wills to the image of Christ: "In this state the image of the will of Christ is set before the soul so that these words come to her: ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus."’51 Dorothee Soelle uses the same passage from Phil 2:5 "to have this mind . . . which you have in Christ Jesus." She explicates it in a similar way to Richard: "Living as Christ lived means the inward journey to . . .surrendering of the ego and the return journey to the midst of the world."52 Richard makes the point that in this fourth degree we are torn between being "dissolved and being with Christ" and remaining in the flesh which the "charity of Christ compels."53 His contrast captures the experience of the person who, having tasted the love of God, on the one hand, longs to be taken up completely into that love to dwell entirely within it, but who, on the other hand, cognizant of humanity’s existence as an embodied reality, recognizes the significance of loving others in concrete experience as an expression of our love of God. Charity compels us to go out into the world with compassion.

This discussion of conformity of wills to Christ raises the problematic issue of contemporary appropriations, and in particular, feminist appropriations of Christ. Although I have no satisfactory Christological formulation to offer, I think it is important to acknowledge that we can no longer simply issue a call to imitate Christ without considering the implications of Christ’s existence as a male human person.54 At this point, I, like Ruether in Sexism and God-talk, focus on Christ’s work as a renewer of the Word of God who "does not validate the existing social and religious hierarchy but speaks on behalf of the marginalized and despised groups of society,"55 and I affirm, as have many influenced by issues of sexism and patriarchy, that "[theologically speaking . . . the maleness of Christ has no ultimate significance."56 I am well aware, though, that in Christian ecclesiastical traditions the maleness of Christ has at times been regarded as having importance, and even ultimate significance for some theologies of ministry. The consequences of this way of thinking are clear in the Roman Catholic use of Christ’s "maleness" to claim that only men have the capacity to be priests. Image of Christ language is drawn into the discussion and is used here to subordinate women: "the priest, who alone has the power to perform it [celebration of the Eucharist], then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration."57 The implication is that Christ’s maleness has a certain ultimate significance: "The incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying an alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation. . .58

The role of the maleness of Christ quickly becomes an issue in a retrieval of the imago Dei, since Christ was regarded as the Image of God and insofar as we learn to love and understand Christ as human and divine we learn to love and understand God. In speaking of Christ as both human and divine the western Christian tradition sought to indicate at the very least that Christ presented God to the world in a particularly vivid way. And perhaps this is the very least Christians can say now, namely that Christ’s life and way of being in the world leads us to understand and to love God. For the time being we can affirm what Ruether and Soelle do as very similar to the insights of Walter Hilton: we can say that imitation of Christ leads to a moral shift which will in time change our way of being in the world. This moral shift will disallow the patriarchal focus on the maleness of Jesus and promote instead the full humanity and gender-inclusive message and mission of the saving Christ. It will in no way deny the particularities of Jesus’ ethnic and sexual identity, but it will not use these particularities to undermine the complete participation of all people — male and female — in the religious, social, and political dimensions of human existence.

The discourse of intimacy used to describe the relationship between image-bearers and the Divine vividly conveys the nature of the practical and operational shift that results from allying oneself with Christ’s way of being in the world. Far from construing the lot of image-bearers as being one of mere obedience to a dictatorial exemplar whom we mechanically imitate from a great distance,59 the dominant imagery expressing our relationship to God as images is language of friendship and even marriage.

Citing Scripture to characterize the intimacy between God and persons who have pursued actualization of their capacities as image-bearers, Richard writes: "Do you wish to know that the loftiness of divine showings may be an open disclosure of divine love? ‘Now I do not call you servants but friends,’ [Christ] says. . ."60 This relationship to the Divine suggests a model for our relationships to others, and provides opposition to "Christian" relationships of domination and oppression. Indeed, servant-language is to be fully replaced by friendship discourse and language of dialogue in which persons take God’s way of being as their own in carrying on their work in the world. Hilton evokes spousal or lover imagery in describing Scripture as love letters to the human person: "You may be very sure that all such grace-giving knowledge, in Holy Scriptures or within any other writing that is made through grace, is nothing else but love letters and messages exchanged between a loving soul and Jesus the Beloved."61

In considering the image of God tradition feminist thought can acknowledge and retrieve traditional alternatives to relating to God as the "Almighty Father."62 The Christian image tradition, starting with the affirmation that we are images of God, signals our closeness to God through speaking of the union of wills with the Divine and by invoking language of intimacy. The focus in traditional interpretations of the imago Dei theme is on our nearness to God and on the possibilities for advancing that nearness to the point where we may be considered friends of God.


This discussion set out to illustrate some of the preliminary points of convergence between medieval reflections on the image of God theme and contemporary reflections on the human person, suggesting that feminist theology can reclaim this image of God tradition as a resource which describes a holistic and responsible way of life, and encouraging further consideration of this and other symbols that have potential for affirming the full humanity of all persons, female and male.

The image of God theme is a concept that conveys something of our relationship to God, self, and the world. We move from the datum of revelation that we are created in God’s image to the process of actively realizing our potential as images of God by cultivating the unity of the "thinking-relational self," and by learning to see and actively respond to others as images of God (a response which includes political, economic and social action). We seek to become images of God by becoming images of Christ by way of a conformity of will, that is, by directing ourselves to the community around us in charity and understanding. We look inward, actively cultivate our relationship to God, and, as Richard said, we "go out into the world in compassion"63 to affirm the full humanity of all people as images of God.

Feminist theology, as a significant voice in contemporary theological reflection, can affirm the tradition’s recognition that all people are created in God’s image. It can further draw on the tradition’s insight that while the image points to a present state of all created human persons it points also to a relational capacity of all human persons to actualize their abilities to love and to know the Divine and the world around them. While theologians like Ruether and Soelle recognize the features of distorted and healthy relationality, we might be even more attentive to the tradition’s insight concerning the importance of transformation as a basic experience of the human person in the world. By placing the medieval and contemporary traditions into dialogue with one another, we become reflective about the nature of the transformative process as a way to guide human persons to fulfillment of their capacities to love and to know.

Despite its sometimes checkered history with respect to speaking about the full humanity of women, the vision of the God/human/ world relationship described in the image of God tradition may offer support for feminist theology’s retrieving imagery from the Christian tradition. The image of God tradition does not lead believers to a slavish imitation of a domineering God; rather the God of whom we are images appears as a friend, and even as a spouse, inviting all of us to share in the creative and emancipatory work of love and understanding in the world.



1. I would like to thank Mark Wallace for his helpful comments on this article, Bernard McGinn for reading this at an earlier stage, and my colleagues in Soundings at Boston College for their conversation about this material.

2. The Latin imago Dei makes this clear.

3. E.g., I Cor 11:7.

4. A second tendency, represented by thinkers like Nemesius of Emesa (4th c.) and John the Scot (9th c.), is to focus on the metaphysical dimensions of the image.

5. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 113.

6. "We are living parts of active love" [Dorothee Soelle with Shirley A. Cloyes, To Work and to Love: A Theology of Creation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 43].

7. References are given to The Twelve Patriarchs, (hereafter TP), The Mystical Ark (MA), and Book Three of the Trinity (DT) by book (where applicable), chapter, page reference in Patrologia Latina for TP and MA, and for DT to book, chapter, and page number in Jean Ribaillier’s (R) critical edition of De Trinit ate (Paris: J. Vrin, 1958). This reference is to Grover Zinn, trans., Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark, Book Three of the Trinity (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) DT, 3:2:374; R, 3.2: 136. (Since all Pat rologia Latina references to Richard of St. Victor are from Volume 196, I include here column number only).

8. The Stairway of Perfection will be referred to in the notes as SP; references are to book, chapter, and page reference in the English translation. The reference is to Walter Hilton, The Stairway of Perfection, trans. M. L. Del Mastro (New York: Image Books, 1979) 1.83; 175-176.

9. Hilton says, "As much as you know and love God and your fellow-Christians, so great is your soul" (ibid., SP, 1.89; 182).

10. 1 Corr. 11:7.

11. Kari Borreson, Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Women in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981).

12. Ibid. xvii.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid. 335.

16. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982) 3.22.34; 99. It may be helpful to see the original here: cf. De Genesi ad litteram in Augustine, Opera Ornnia, ed. Benedictine Monks of S. Maur (Paris: Gaume Fratres, 1836) vol. 3; 263D, Itaque quamvis hoc in duobus hominibus diversi sexus exterius secundum corpus figuratum sit, quod etiam in una hominis interius mente intelligitur; tamen et femina ma quae est corpore femina, renovatur etiam ipsa in spiritu mentis suae in agnitone Dei secundum imaginem ejus qui creavit, ubi non est masculus et fermina.

17. Eleanor McLaughlin, "Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology," in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) 213-266.

18. Caroline Walker Bynum, "‘And Woman His Humanity’: Female Imagery in the Religious Writing of the Later Middle Ages," in Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Hamell, and Paula Richman, eds. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986) 257-288.

19. Caroline Walker Bynum, "Introduction: The Complexity of Symbols," in Gender and Religion 8.

20. Symbols also have power as "inventing, questioning, rejecting and transcending gender as it is constructed in the individual’s psychological development and sociological setting" (ibid.).

21. Ibid., 15.

22. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 38.

23. Ibid. 93.

24. Ibid. 114.

25. Soelle, To Work and to Love 43.

26. Ibid. 42.

27. "When will you discover that all is possible to her who participates in God’s power?" (ibid., 4.6).

28. Ibid., 43.

29. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 113.

30. Hilton, SI’, 2.34;289.

31. Richard of St. Victor, MA, 4:10;274, 145C-D.

32. For an excellent analysis of this see Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).

33. Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, nd.) 8.

34. See, e.g., Jurgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner, Thomas Merton, Dorothee Soelle.

35. Richard of St. Victor, MA, 4.11:274; 146A.

36. Dorothee Soelle, Death By Bread Alone: Texts and Reflections on Religious Experience, trans. David L. Scheidt (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) 102.

37. Ibid. 79.

38. Hilton, SP, 1.78; 170

39. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 163.

40. Ibid. 174.

41. Ibid. 164.

42. Ibid. 188.

43. Dorothee Soelle, The Strength of the Weak: Towards a Christian Feminist Identity, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984) 11-22.

44. Ibid. 103.

45. Idem, Death By Bread Alone 134.

46. Ibid. 137.

47. Ibid. 9.

48. References to Richard of St. Victor’s De quatuor quadibus violentae caritatis given to page numbers in Claire Kirchberger’s English translation and to Gervais Dumiege’s critical Latin edition. This reference is to Richard of St. Victor Dq, 224; D, 29:157.

49. Soelle, Death By Bread Alone 69.

50. Richard of St. Victor, TP, 79:136; 56C-D.

51. Ibid., Dq, 230; D, 43:171.

52. Soelle, Death By Bread Alone 135.

53. Ibid., Dq, 230; D, 44:173.

54. For discussion of these issues see: Anne Marie Gardiner, ed., Women and Catholic Priesthood: An Expanded Vision (New York: Paulist Press, 1976); Leon Swidler and Arlene Swidler, eds., Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

55. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 136.

56. Ibid. 137.

57. Swidler, Women Priests 26 (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood," 5.26).

58. Ibid. 5.28.

59. Another productive area of dialogue between medieval and contemporary theology is in the area of imitation. In this regard see Karl Morrison, The Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

60. Richard of St. Victor, MA, 4.16:288; 155B.

61. Hilton, SP, 2.43;332. Or, again, "The lover of Jesus is his friend, not because he desires it, but because God, of His merciful goodness makes him His friend by a true agreement. And therefore, He shows His secrets to him, as to a true friend who pleases Him with love (rather than one who serves Him through fear, like a slave)" (ibid. 2.43; 329).

62. A recent excellent example of this which might make even more explicit links to the Christian tradition is Sallie McFague’s Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

63. Richard of St. Victor, Dq, 224; D, 29:157.

Chapter 7: "The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us": Myth, History and the Witch as Scapegoat, by Martha J. Reineke


Martha J. Reineke is assistant professor of religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, is also director of women’s studies at the University of Northern Iowa. Her essay in Union Seminary Quarterly Review is part of a larger work, Life Sentences: Reflections on Women, Violence, and the Sacred. Other recent works that form background to this larger work include "Life Sentences: Kristeva and the Limits of Modernity," Soundings LXXI, no. 4, 439-461; and "This is My Body: Reflections on Abjection, Anorexia, and Medieval Women Mystics," in The Body as Social Text, ed. Catherine R. Burroughs and Jeffrey Ehrenreich (1990).

If our ancestors had thought in the same mode as do today’s masters, they would never have put an end to the witch trials.
Rene Girard1

How do I examine women’s history as a feminist? In a recent article, Adrienne Rich reminds us that history is more than tales of our finest hours. History is forged in a struggle for consciousness waged against the forces of amnesia. Rich tells us that, when a feminist breaks silence with history, she does more than invoke women from the past, for feminist history is history "charged with meaning." Charged by history to know the past in order to make choices for the future, each feminist is asked also to recover the lost memories of women, but only in ways that do not perpetuate the structures of history-making that first relegated women to invisibility.2 Rich’s words echo those of Phyllis Trible who suggests that a feminist "interprets stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again. In telling sad stories, a feminist seeks to redeem the time."3 She recounts the past in memoriam.

In this essay, my own efforts to take the charge of history to heart focus on the witch hunts, 1450-1750. Notwithstanding recent scholarly efforts to redress Reformation historians’ prior neglect of the witch hunts, I want to claim that current analyses, attentive as they are to tracing the demographic, economic, and sociological factors of the witch hunts in evermore sophisticated ways, are inadequate to the goals of feminist scholarship. My complaint focuses on the portrait of an extrinsic relation of religion to witch hunting offered by most recent scholarship and on the scholarly treatment of the violence that attended witch hunting. The people who accused women of witchcraft, who put them on trial, tortured, banished, or executed them, explained their reasons by appeal to religious beliefs, but those beliefs, according to many current theories, were but external trappings for other social, political, and economic agendas. Chosen for its efficacy and by historical accident, religion accompanied the witch hunts but did not form or define them. Moreover, while wisely avoiding a detailed analysis of the violence that attended the witch hunts which might verge on voyeurism, current scholarship has met their violence with virtual silence. Neither the torture of the accused nor the violent deaths of the convicted have been explained adequately. Because these analyses of witch hunting bypass the issue of the intrinsic relation of religion to those hunts and do not engage in a systematic attention to the violence of those hunts, they are seriously flawed. Specifically, because they misread the dynamics of persecution, these analyses leave the persecutors unchallenged, perpetuating the victimization of the women charged and convicted by those persecutors. Despite their attention to detail and evidence, current scholarly analyses share an amnesia which I now believe we ignore at our peril.

The issue of amnesia is particularly acute for feminist scholars of religion who study the witch craze. Lest we become forgetful of the diverse resources that found our work and utilize only a narrow range of disciplinary perspectives, I offer this essay as a cautionary tale to those who find themselves, as I have found myself, captivated by current trends in witch craze scholarship. Our attraction is understandable: in the interests of identifying with women accused of witchcraft and making their victimization visible, we are wary of explanations that might mute these women’s voices further. On behalf of the victims of the witch hunts, we distance ourselves from the voices of their accusers, for we fear that if we make reflections on the accusers’ mythic discourse of demonology the linchpin of our analyses, we risk offering accounts of the craze that overlook the victims. Reducing the range of our inquiry, we do not extend an appreciation for myth, prominent in much of our work, to our reflections on Reformation demonology. Not surprisingly, we then make common cause with those social scientists who, in dismissing demonology or "translating" it in terms of a political ideology, also seem to give voice to the victims of witch hunting by silencing their accusers.

I will argue that, when feminist scholars in religious studies engage in selective inquiries about the witch craze that bypass mythic discourse, we seriously underestimate the resources of our discipline at a point where they are most crucial for our work in memoriam on behalf of our foresisters. To speak adequately of the witch craze, to remember all that we must remember if we are to free our foresisters from a history of victimization, we must treat myth as essential to the witch craze and its violence.

In order to establish my argument I will summarize current theories of the witch craze. Then, appealing to the work of Rene Girard, I will challenge the adequacy of these scholarly explanations and point to a need to refocus current strategies of analysis in order to be more responsive to the charge of feminist history.

The Witch in Historical Perspective

Over three hundred years that span 1450 to 1750, women throughout Europe and in the American colonies were accused of witchcraft, tried, convicted, and executed.4 Witches — persons who practiced magical arts, sorcery, and healing — had always been part of the European cultural landscape, but it was not until the fifteenth century that prosecution of them began to reach panic proportions. Prior to that time, legal charges were brought against individuals only if their sorcery caused personal or property damages. Recent scholarship cites a variety of factors that contributed to the development of a witch craze. These factors locate women accused of witchcraft at points of flux in the society where changes in the legal system, in marriage patterns, in the economy, and in the dominant social ethic and gender ideology were most dramatic and unsettling.

Christina Larnercites a changed legal system as an essential precondition of the witch craze. Interpersonal, restorative justice was in transition in the sixteenth century to a system of retributive justice Where formerly an individual took the initiative to bring charges of sorcery against a neighbor who had harmed him or his family and also assumed the risk of reverse charges should the case be proved frivolous or unsound, now centralized systems came into existence which functioned on the premise that the whole society was the potential victim of witchcraft. For example, in Scotland, statutes against witchcraft, formerly linked with sexual and religious offenses, were abstracted from their traditional ecclesiastical context. The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, like that of the Holy Roman Empire in 1532 (Constitutio Criminalis Carolina) made witchcraft a civil offense.5 As centralized and secularized processes of control replaced the mode of individual prosecution of neighbor against neighbor, religious beliefs functioned in service to a secular system.

According to Erik Midelfort, preconditions for the witch craze in southwestern Germany during the latter half of the sixteenth century were founded similarly in a new legal possibility: the inquisitorial trial.6 Traditional functions of an accuser were taken over by the court. A single panel included as one body the accuser, the prosecutor, and the judge. The skill of the examiners resulted in increasing numbers of charges, trials, and convictions.7 Only two items of proof were needed to find a person guilty. First, three independent denunciations had to be offered. Under torture, women were called to denounce other women. Since the denunciations had to be made independently, that three different persons would name the same suspects tended to limit suspects to two groups: women notorious in the community for eccentric or unusual behavior or well-known women (e.g., midwives, wives of village innkeepers or well-known merchants).8 The second item of proof was a devil’s mark, a sign of one’s relationship to the devil. A devil’s mark was any spot on the body that was insensitive to pricking with a pin or needle or which failed to bleed if pricked. Women suspected of witchcraft were stripped and searched for devil’s marks. In some areas of Europe, professional prickers made an occupation of the search for these marks.9 This new legal system set in motion a remarkably efficient machinery for witch hunting.

Why did witch hunters, in utilizing this new legal system, find their victims almost exclusively among women?10 Midelfort offers two explanations. First, women were believed to be prone to the devil’s seduction. They were both more lustful and weaker than men. Thus, women as a group were vulnerable to the suspicions of witchcraft.11 Second, a change in marriage patterns in the sixteenth century created widespread social instability and uncertainty. An excess of women of marriageable age, a high number of spinsters and widows, and a late age for marriage increased women’s vulnerability in a society beset by social unrest.12

The specific rationale for the late marriage pattern is traced to the high standard of living in Western Europe. Late marriage brought about wealth, because one could conserve resources over many years; wealth, or the insistence on it, brought about late marriage. The standard of wealth was property, and in the sixteenth century men had to wait for land to become available, generally until their father’s deaths. The stem-family pattern, according to which the eldest son inherited his father’s property, contributed to the economic incentive for late marriage.13

The changed marriage pattern threatened patriarchal control and caused a fundamental disturbance in the family unit.14 When efforts were made to consolidate patriarchal control, unmarried women were viewed increasingly with suspicion. Moreover, on a practical level, unmarried women were outside the key institution — the family — that would offer them protection. Widows and spinsters number high among the initial victims of witchcraft charges. Once in court, the sophisticated process of condemnation, founded on the principle of three independent denunciations, would extend as well to less-suspect members of the society.

For Carol Karlsen, historian of the witch hunts in New England, that women accused of witchcraft were women who threatened the economic order is of decisive significance. Daughters of families without sons, mothers of only female children, and women with no children predominated among the women charged with witchcraft. Women in these categories "were aberrations in an inheritance system designed to keep property in the hands of men."15 In New England, women without male heirs comprised sixty-four percent of the females prosecuted for witchcraft, seventy-six percent of those found guilty, and eighty-nine percent of those executed.16

Like Midelfort, Karlsen traces tension in the social order to the intersection of familial and economic pressures. The new European marriage pattern occurred in New England in the late seventeenth century. Moreover, at that late date, changes in the family unit coincided with disruptions associated with the society’s transition from a land based to a mercantile economy. Sons who wanted their inheritance, but faced a shortage of land, experienced frustration and resentment. So also did the religious and landed elites and a newly risen, religiously diverse mercantile elite who competed with each other. Because the basic economic unit in the late seventeenth century was the family, to whom one owed respect, not complaints, and because there were few institutional avenues available to all alike to deal with economic conflict, witch hunting, Karlsen argues, became the vehicle of stress release. That frustration and resentment was then visited on the witch who, in Puritan belief, had come to symbolize all that was disorderly and evil in the society. The Salem witch trials were the clearest indication that in an economic war, competitors vied for control by using women as pawns in their struggle. Accusers tended to come from the old farm economy and those accused of witchcraft from the new mercantile economy that was threatening the old order.17

In addition to familial and economic disruptions to the social order, insecurities about social mores contributed to a climate of suspicion conducive to witch hunting. Villages and developing towns throughout Europe were experiencing a transition from a communal ethic to an ethic of individualism: a tradition of mutual help was being challenged by a new economic order.18 That change exacted its highest cost from those persons who had depended most on the older order of charity: widows, the poor, the elderly. In transition from old to new ethic, residents of a community were more likely to resent a neighbor’s appeal for help, yet to feel guilty about their refusal of help. Notably, the accuser in the witch trial was nearly always more prosperous than the accused. Moreover, the poorest of the poor generally escaped charges of witchcraft. Instead, the borderline case — the moderately-poor woman who felt she ought to receive her neighbor’s help but whose overtures were rejected — was most likely to be linked to witchcraft.19 With the decline of a social ethic, which had been firmly articulated by the church in previous times, the individual bore sole responsibility for adjudicating the parameters of charity. Not until the state, in the next century, made charity the province of a government bureaucracy would a social ethic be articulated clearly again. In the transition period, the guilt feelings of an individual uncertain about his or her responsibility to a neighbor became "fertile ground" for witchcraft accusations. Misfortunes might be a witch’s retaliation against her neighbor.20

John Demos argues that this scenario is particularly applicable to witch hunting among the Puritans in New England. Although the Puritans brought with them to the New World the traditional ethic of Christian charity, court records of struggles over land, money, and inheritances demonstrate that these fragile communities were fed increasingly on an ethic of individualism. Marginalized women, at greater risk in communities populated by people maneuvering for "personal advantage," bore the brunt of communal insecurity about the new ways.21

Insecurity about new social mores characterizes another factor contributing to the witch hunts: new gender ideologies offered by the Church created unrest similar to that unrest associated with the new ethic of individualism. Both Karlsen and Larnernote the ambiguous status of women during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in respect to expectations for their gender. On the one hand, the preReformation view that women, morally inferior to men, were weak-willed and susceptible both to lusts of the flesh and to enticements to greed, still functioned. On the other hand, and more explicitly, voices of the Reformation espoused a new gender ideology: women, granted a greater autonomy and capacity for virtuous behavior, were responsible for the state of their souls.22 These twin religious ideologies of gender, appropriated by the state, had major consequences in women’s lives. On the basis of the pre-Reformation theology that still formed the background to cultural perceptions of women, the witch hunters could justify a position that made witch hunting synonymous with woman hunting. On the basis of Reformation theology, the witch hunters could make women responsible, as pre-Reformation governments had not, for the crime of witchcraft.

Prior to the Scottish Witchcraft Act, women were invisible in the courts. Their behavior was the responsibility of their husbands and fathers and the punishment for any crimes they had committed was that thought appropriate for children, whipping.23 With the Witchcraft Act in force, the state began to explore the parameters of women’s responsibility for their own behavior.

Indeed, Larnerargues that the contrasting theologies of gender were introduced into the court in order for the state to educate women to their new roles.24 Women who misjudged the limits of their responsibility and saw a license for equality in the Reformation’s affirmation of their capacity for responsible behavior were instructed by the witch trials to the error of their views. The witchcraft trials were therefore pedagogical: by means of the trials, lines of appropriate female behavior were drawn, and overly independent women had the new theory of female responsibility turned back on themselves.

Karlsen’s study of accusations of witchcraft directed against radical Puritan women, such as Ann Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, who believed that the mandate for spiritual equality before God justified equality in the church, closely parallels Larner’s. Basing their views on the notion that gender arrangements were not only divinely ordained by God but mandated by nature, the Puritan male leadership strove to disabuse women such as Hutchinson and Dyer of their views.25 That women accused of witchcraft were linked with the crimes of bearing illegitimate children, having abortions, or committing infanticide26 served to confirm, for that leadership, witches’ sinful interference with divinely ordained gender roles. So also did imagery associated with witches — they hatched, bred, or suckled either heretical ideas and/or actual monsters — exemplify the Puritan male leadership’s view of witches’ sinful challenge of divine mandate.27 Unmarried women, childless women, midwives, and women in business — all aberrations in the divinely ordained system that defined women by their role in procreation — were particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft.

Again, like Larner, Karlsen traces the preoccupation with gender roles in colonial New England to the ambiguity of those roles in Puritan society. As was the case in Scotland, Puritan views of gender maintained an implicit reference to the pre-Reformation suspicions about women while externally advocating a more optimistic portrait of women. Karlsen argues that the witch trials ensued during the time in which both views were still held. The trials were, in some ways, the very occasion for adjudicating the truth about women.28 The witch was the negative model by which the virtuous Puritan woman was defined. She set off in stark relief the values of Puritan society and the borders of its moral and cultural universe.29

The Witch as Scapegoat

For each scholar of the witch hunts, contributing factors, such as those discussed above, form the background for analyses of essential aspects of the craze. The figure of the scapegoat appears in three typologies that frame the witch craze: the witch as scapegoat served the ideological interests of the ruling-class, or she was chosen to bear the brunt of the fears of the peasant class, or, standing at the juncture of popular and learned cultures, needed by each, she was the one torn apart in their struggles with each other. For none of these typologies was religious belief — myth and practice — central to the witch craze. Religious discourse was located at the periphery; other factors constituted the core dynamic of witch hunting.

Erik Midelfort’s work is representative of those which locate the impetus for the witch craze at the low end of European society. Arguing that, even at its worst moments, the churches in southwestern Germany — both Catholic and Protestant — supported the craze only ambivalently, Midelfort claims that the witch primarily served the needs of peasant culture. The call for witch hunting issued from popular pressures: the peasant majority needed to locate scapegoats for the pain and suffering of plague, famine, or other disasters. His model example is Balingen in Wurttemberg where, in response to the town’s devastation by fire in 1672, the search for a scapegoat led the townspeople to take matters into their own hands and stone a suspected witch when the Oberrat (the Superior Council in Stuttgart) would not act.30

Contrasting with Midelfort’s "bottom-up" theory of witch hunting is Christina Larner’s work. Representative of "top-down" theories of the craze, Larner’s analysis indicates that witch hunting was a ruling-class activity aimed at social control.31 Specifically, witches were pawns in the struggle between secular and church authorities for control of the Scottish countryside. In a game of "who is the godliest of them all" the church and state struggled for authority,32 tossing the bodies of witches between them and blurring the lines between sin and crime.

Larner’s thesis echoes those of Peter Brown and R. I. Moore. Brown argues that "sorcery beliefs may be used like radio-active traces in an X-ray: where they assemble we have a hint of pockets of uncertainty and competition in a society increasingly committed to a vested hierarchy in church and state."33 Moore, who focuses on the development of a persecuting society in the Middle Ages, claims that European society defined itself and established its borders by engaging in persecution of Jews and lepers.34 Larner’s analysis extends Brown and Moore’s theses to the Reformation: it was not the masses who found a voice for their protests against societal uncertainties and cruelties in the courts; rather, it was the courts who found their voice and reason for existing in hunting the masses for witches.

Larner notes that, in the battle for control of the geographical, cultural, and moral borders of Scotland, the state increasingly had the upper hand. Indeed, while it was possible to prosecute a witch under the old machinery of the church, that witch prosecution in Scotland was "conducted throughout under those parts of the machinery of social control which were entirely new" is notable. The statute of 1563 centralized the administration of the Witchcraft Act and extended the authority of the Privy Council in witchcraft cases.35 The new machinery, once in place, moved only slowly at first. In 1583 the General Assembly of the Church complained to the King that incest, adultery, and witchcraft were not being punished. In 1591, however, the Privy Council rocketed into action and appointed commissions to examine witches. The Privy Council’s license to hunt witches lasted until 1597, when the relegated powers were restored to the King (James VI) and witch hunting entered into a period of decline.36 Despite the efforts of the church to proceed with witchhunting, it was not until the 1620s that the Privy Council interested itself in witchcraft cases again, as part of a general reassertion of its authority.37 There was a brief lull in the 1630s, a time of plague and famine.38 But witch hunting entered into a new panic phase in the 1640s, a period which coincided with tension between church and state over their respective boundaries. Again, as in 1583, the General Assembly of the church chastised Parliament for its inaction against witches. The Privy Council established commissions to hunt witches, and witch hunting moved forward on a rising tide until the witch hunting machinery of the state ground to a halt under Cromwell.39

Crucial to Larner’s thesis that witch hunting was a ruling class activity among institutions competing for social control is her analysis of the role landowners played in the witch hunts. Landowners, rather than ministers, requested most of the commissions and conducted most of the witch trials.40 Clergy participated in this structure in two ancillary ways. First, the Kirk session functioned as a policing force for local landowners. Appointed and paid by the landowners, the ministers — though nominally of the landed class themselves — stood midway in social structure as a mediating force between landowners and peasants.41 Second, the ministers facilitated preliminary searches for witches and served as witnesses at their trials.42 But in each case, the power lay with the landowners and not with the church. Thus, the rise and fall of witch hunting in Scotland is traced by Larner, first, to the structure of centralized authority — the Privy Council-and to its inclination in any particular time to prosecute witches and, second, to the authority of the landowners who, through commissions, carried out the work of the Privy Council.43 These two groups — council and landowners — hunted witches in order to establish and reinforce their jurisdiction over the countryside. By contrast, the moral and religious fervor which the church directed against witches expressed itself in ways that, though visible, were largely inefficacious. Religion may have accompanied witch hunting, but other social and economic agendas defined it.

Larner’s discussion of the dynamics of power played out between the Privy Council, the landowners, and the church offers intriguing prospects for understanding the integration of theologies of gender in the discourse of the witch trials. Suggested by her work is the possibility that, in their struggle to be the primary institution of social control, both the church and the state exploited the ambiguity about gender roles expressed in the differences between pine-Reformation and Reformation theologies. The power of the church and state to impose a particular ideology on women was not just the power to impose that ideology on women’s minds. Rather, they forced women to embody the ruling ideology. Applied to the witch trials, the metaphor of "writing the body" well describes this power: in the course of the craze, an underlying fifteenth century text — engraved on women’s bodies in terms of lust, weakness and greed — was covered over with a new sixteenth century text, that of responsibility and adulthood. Throughout the craze, old and new texts were inscribed and reinscribed on women’s bodies as church and state vied to scratch out a final and definitive sentence that would confirm their sovereign control over the society. Through torture and trial, ideological conformity, which allowed female responsibility only within the context of a patriarchal system of female submission, was engraved on women’s very bodies.

Representative of a centrist position, falling between theories advanced by Midelfort and Larner, is Joseph Klaits’ work. Klaits argues that interpretive frameworks that emphasize the role of popular pressures in the witch craze and those that highlight the interests of the educated elites in the craze are not mutually exclusive. Klaits blends interpretive models and suggests that witch hunting impulses both "trickled down from the society’s leaders" and "rose upward on a tide of popular anxieties."44 The witch, as scapegoat, served both groups.

For Klaits, the decisive factor in the witch craze, from the side of the educated and politically powerful, was an atmosphere of spiritual reform. That the masses of Europe were being Christianized for the first time is demonstrated by the preoccupation of the clergy with the values and habits of the peasant folk in the countryside.45 As religious evangelism became increasingly preoccupied with issues of sexuality, the witch appeared as the figure of deviant sexuality on whom evangelistic fervor focused.

Klaits’ thesis is influenced by the work of Richard Kieckhefer. Kieckhefer, whose work focuses on preconditions of the witch craze established during the late medieval period, has argued that a conjunction of popular belief in sorcery with a demonology created by a learned culture laid a foundation for the worst excesses of witch hunting. The superimposing of the language of diabolism on that of sorcery "added fuel to an already blazing fire."46 Specifically, because charges of diabolism embellished charges of sorcery, the discourse of the elite was directly responsible for the craze of spiraling accusations and increasingly harsh punishments. Sorcery — the weapon of the socially powerless when illness, love affairs, quarrels, and communal inhospitality placed them at odds with their neighbors — was elevated in diabolism. Diabolism was used by the devil and his legions in the battle for the souls and bodies of an entire people. Where the sorcery called for reparations — the lifting of curses, the return of "borrowed" property, reciprocal apologies and protestations of forgiveness — diabolism summoned forth all the powers of the state to do battle with evil. At stake was not the harmony of a single community or clan, but the survival of human society itself.

Moreover, if, at first, demonology served primarily to "translate" popular belief into the language of the educated, it was not without its own popular appeal. With a theory of demonology in place and a legal system prepared to bring all its powers to bear against the devil, when demonological theory "trickled down" to the masses, after gestating among the elite in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the zeal to exterminate devil-worshipers knew no limits. Beliefs in sorcery and in demonological witchcraft mingled to form one virulent world view. With their fears joined, popular and learned cultures required and hunted down a virtually endless supply of victims.47

Extending Kieckhefer’s analysis of the links between popular sorcery and demonological theory, Klaits attributes the reformers’ preoccupation with issues of deviant sexuality — as expressed in their demonological theory — to the association of sexuality with the core of human identity. The decisive proof of successful inculcation of Christian values and habits required by the reformers issued upon one’s ability to demonstrate one’s liberation from the wiles of Satan, specifically one’s freedom from the perverse sexuality of Satan’s servants.48 Moreover, because the reformers believed that women were weak and particularly prone to the devil’s seduction, clerical suspicions rested more and more on them, feeding an increasingly virulent hatred of women among the clergy.49

At the same time as spiritual reform was advancing across the countryside, the ordinary masses upon whom the clergy turned their attention had their own problems. Social unrest created great insecurities. The search for scapegoats came to rest upon lonely, poor women who "touched the subconscious anxieties of the villagers who saw in their isolation the worst fears they had for themselves."50 Fed by the misogynistic suspicions of the reformers, these frustrations precipitated the witch craze.

Thus, for Klaits, witch hunting served a dual purpose. For the masses it focused anxieties, provided an explanation for their miseries, and "took the people’s minds off their troubles."51 For the clerical elite, it served to validate the authority structure of society and to give vent to their misogynistic feelings about women. Moreover, because an "unanticipated side effect" of legal reform was the creation of a judicial apparatus conducive to witch hunting, both the masses and the elites found their search for scapegoats efficaciously channeled.52 With their fears and hopes joined in the courts, the clergy and lay peasantry could accomplish their objectives: the witch trials both publicly demonstrated the truth of the reformers’ vision and power — bringing the battle with the devil to a decisive conclusion — and provided the cathartic release the masses had been seeking.

Klaits can be applauded for attempting to honor the complexity of the witch craze by meshing "top-down" and "bottom-up" interpretive frameworks into a single theory of reciprocal influence and for wanting to accord to religion a more central role in the witch craze than have Midelfort and Larner. Nevertheless, his own efforts remain marred by oversimplifications. When Klaits identifies the religious reformers as the vehicle by which the sentiments of the masses and the machinery of a judicial elite were brought together in one place, with explosive results, he misreads key factors in that sequence of events. First, mitigating Klaits’ notion of misogyny as the driving ideological force behind the witch hunts are Larner and Karlsen’s demonstrations that misogyny characterized the dominant, pine-Reformation ideology of gender, but not that of the Reformation. Second, notwithstanding the fact that the Reformation did Christianize the European countryside, Klaits errs in imputing vast power to the church. Because Klaits fails to integrate the rise of the nation state into his portrait of the Reformation, he ascribes to the clergy more power than they actually had. He makes religion central to the witch hunts, but only because he oversimplifies the notion of religious power, reducing it to clerical politics and mistakenly designating the clerical vision as the dominant ideology. If religion did have a decisive impact on witch hunting, it cannot be for the reasons Klaits cites.

If Klaits overestimates the power of the church, he underestimates the power — ideological and practical — of the courts. Larner’s analysis of the conflict between the lay courts and the clergy suggests that Klaits’ vision of the role of the courts in the witch hunts is naive. Hem thesis is both more specific in its documentation and more comprehensive in its scope than Klaits’: witch hunting was not the "unanticipated side effect" of the new judicial system but was, in fact, integral to the development of that system.

Finally, even if we amend Klaits’ portrait of the elite to include judicial as well as clerical elites, his portrait of the peasant masses remains problematic. If Klaits’ interpretive framework is to stand, we need to know not only the discourse of the elite which trickled down to the masses, but also the discourse of the masses which rose up as a tide toward the elite. Klaits identifies the frustrations of the masses without giving those frustrations voice. Cited only as "primordial fears," the anxieties of the peasant folk remain amorphous.53 If the language of fear expressed by the peasants was more than or other than the language of the elite that had trickled down to them, Klaits must show us this language, but he does not. Thus, in a variety of ways, Klaits fails to meet his own challenge to honor the complex dynamics of witch hunting by setting them in a single, integrative framework.

The Witch in Mythic Perspective

Current analyses of the witch craze, reflecting broader trends in historical scholarship dealing with religion, make a laudable advance over earlier treatments. None, in discussing the religious backdrop to the craze, argue that belief in witchcraft was a superstition held by the masses of which they were finally freed by the great wisdom of eighteenth-century humanism. Not only have scholars realized that such an interpretation betrays a kind of ethnocentrism that distorts our understanding of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but, more to the point, research on the witch craze has shown that the witch craze ended with beliefs about demonology still intact among both the educated elite and the peasant masses. According to recent scholarship, witch hunting did not end because persons ceased to believe in witches. Instead, state and church machinery needed to hunt witches fell into disarray, no longer able to discriminate reliably between real witches and those falsely accused.54 Nor did the state and church need to use this machinery. The eighteenth century would see each utilize different strategies of legitimation. Moreover, the eighteenth century saw the resolution of earlier ambiguities about gender roles. Freed from the borderline status women had had in the flux of pine-Reformation and Reformation times, women were secured within the walls of a newly-created domestic sphere. Confined safely in that moral preserve,55 women in the eighteenth century did not pose a substantive threat to the social order, and reason to suspect them of witchcraft declined dramatically.

Despite their advances over earlier scholarship, I wonder whether the analyses I have summarized here have replaced earlier theories about religious superstition with understandings of the mole of religion in the witch craze that are substantively more adequate than those which preceded them. I want to argue that the strength and weakness of each theory hinges on the adequacy of each theory’s notion of the witch as scapegoat.

The common thread linking the typologies of the witchcraft craze that I have summarized is the figure of the scapegoat. According to Midelfort, a changing court system played into the hands of those bent on finding a scapegoat for various natural and social disasters. For Larner, the witch, a scapegoat for various natural and social disasters, played into the hands of a political institution bent on legitimating itself. Finally, opting for a centrist position, Klaits locates the scapegoat at the juncture of new institutional structures where peasant anxieties were channeled into mass panic.

For the most part, each account does advance our understanding of the witch craze. Moreover, I believe that, of the lot, Larner, who invests most in an ideological interpretation of witch hunting, offers the most persuasive analysis. After all, Midelfort and Klaits must see the court’s change to the inquisitorial trial, so advantageous to the prosecution of witches, as serendipitous. How convenient that, just when the peasants and/or the clergy needed a scapegoat, court procedure changed to accommodate them. By contrast, Larner describes a straightforward convergence which acknowledges the changing political forces of Europe: that the court changed is precisely why witches were hunted. Witches were what the court generated in the state’s process of self-legitimation.

Despite my appreciation of current research, the theories cited here remain problematic. The category of the scapegoat, I argue, does eventually betray the adequacy of these accounts to the phenomenon of witch hunting. In seeking to understand the scapegoat phenomenon, current research does, for the most part, reduce these women to anonymous cogs in the machinery of a persecuting society.56 So also does it reduce religious language about witches to a coded language of politics and protest. Neither tack does justice to the scapegoat. Instead, these modes of analysis continue to participate in an historical amnesia that perpetuates the victimization of the women condemned as witches and leaves their persecutors unchallenged. They are inadequate to the goals of feminist scholarship.

In my efforts to take the charge of feminist history to heart, I want to demonstrate this thesis by appeal to Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat. Notwithstanding two qualifications — The Scapegoat’s relevance for my thesis is based on extrapolations, and Girard’s paradigmatic scapegoat is not the witch of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but the Jew persecuted for causing the plague in the fourteenth century — I seek to demonstrate that Girard’s work does speak to feminists in significant ways, advancing the goals of our scholarship.

With Girard’s study in mind, let’s consider one possible record of a witch trial and execution, written by an accuser, which states that a woman was executed because she caused the plague."57 From our current vantage point as feminist scholars, we make two judgments about such a record of an historical event: we are sure that the woman did not cause the plague and we believe she really was executed. On what basis do we confidently and blithely disregard an account of a day that recorded the execution of a woman for witchcraft? The author/accuser says both that the woman caused the plague and that she was executed. Why do we want to split in two a text that records an execution, affirming one half and denying the other? Apparently, the frame of contemporary analysis is one in which we feel that we must either do such violence to the text or let the text continue to do violence to the victim of persecution, thereby affirming the accuser’s charge and justifying his murderous actions.58 Our intentions are honorable, but we may not achieve our aims. Why? With Girard, I suggest that, in our current efforts to vindicate the woman accused of witchcraft, we also deny her access to a truth that is crucial to condemning her persecutor: the persecutor’s own belief in the witch’s guilt. That belief can not be challenged if we, on behalf of the victim, rend the unity of the persecutor’s text. Instead, we must go back inside the text, inside the mind of the persecutor, there to break the pattern of violence from the inside.

We advance the cause of the innocent victims of persecution only if we ourselves set out on the trail of persecution that the prosecutors were too naive to cover.59 Because the traces of that truthful trail are left in the mythic language that the persecutors used to justify their acts, ideological analyses which bypass that language or replace it with codes of political and ideological intrigue may make sense of the witchcraft craze, but only at the price of leaving the victims of witchcraft craze where their persecutors left them — unvindicated — and the way of persecution still open for future use.

When we ask of a woman accused of witchcraft, "Was she who her accuser said she was?" and, by appeal to analyses such as those reviewed in this essay, gather evidence, put her on trial again, and pronounce her innocent, we play a strange game with truth. We say that the accuser, speaking as he did about demons, diabolic contagion, and the witch’s pact, was unaware of what he was doing: he was frustrated by changing marriage patterns, confused by economic instability, angered by plague and famine, and embattled over claims to political turf. Angered, frustrated, confused, and embattled, he picked out an innocent woman and killed her. What we do not say in all of this language is that this man was a persecutor. The reason we do not say this is that the language of witch persecution had only one home: sacred myth.60 If we alter the language of witch persecution, severing it from its roots in myth in order to render its meaning in other terms, we will never unpack the meaning of the word "scapegoat."

That epithet "scapegoat," which so often characterizes our gut-level reaction to the witch craze, needs more careful analysis if it is to become a well-grounded claim. Ungrounded, the category of scapegoat is highly vulnerable to expropriation to the interests of ideological analysis, where its meaning, impoverished and malnourished, will always be under threat of complete extinction. To properly ground the notion of the scapegoat we must locate its place within a persecutory structure and locate the roots of that structure in the sacred. Only then may it be possible to overthrow the persecutor rather than to overthrow only the persecutor’s texts, as has current witch craze scholarship.61

What then is the structure of persecution? Girard cites four stereotypes of persecution. In referring to these characteristics as stereotypes, he leads us away from the pejorative connotations which attend the use of that word. He reminds us that a "stereotype" is a metal cast used in printing that enables the unvarying and fixed reproduction of an original image or pattern. Hence, stereotypes of persecution are persecutory patterns advanced by the type in fixed and unvaried reproduction across cultures and centuries.

The first stereotype of persecution locates it only in times of crisis. Plague, famine, floods, institutional collapse, all qualify as crises. Such crises announce the obliteration or collapse of hierarchical or functional differences between persons.62 Violence attends this eclipse of culture: persons at both ends of the social scale — kings and women or children — are the most vulnerable to violence. Sexual and religious crimes abound: rape, incest, bestiality. Ultimately, a small number of persons are determined to be extremely harmful to the whole of the society.63

A second stereotypic accusation is needed to bridge the gap between this very small group, sometimes a sole individual, and the social body. What is at stake is order: of the community and even the cosmos.64 How could one small group or individual carry the powers that could destroy a much larger whole? Images of contagion provide the answer and fuel the stereotype: the individual’s capacity to cause illness or to use poison augments his or her powers to destroy and closes the gap between the individual and the society as a whole.65

The crowd’s choice of victims points to the third stereotype: the victim is generally characterized by a lack of difference from his or her accusers.66 This stereotype seems at first counter-intuitive. Aren’t persons persecuted because they are different — a Jew is not Christian, a woman is not a man, a spinster is not married? Certainly, the many feminists who have understood the problem of woman’s oppression in terms of her role as the "Other," utilizing a typology of "dualism," have identified the "woman-problem" as an issue of difference. But Girard’s claim is not as surprising as it might seem. He offers the example of the physically disabled person. Disability is disturbing to others, not because of its difference, but because of its impression of disturbing dynamism.67 Life goes on, in difference, giving the lie to the exclusive truth of our own lives. What bothers heterosexuals, ethnic and religious majorities, and the able-bodied about those who are different — gays and lesbians, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled — is the potential they see in those persons "for the system to differ from its own difference, in other words not to be different at all, to cease to exist as a system."68 The relativity, fragility, and mortality of one’s own small world is put into relief by the one who is different. Different persons are reproached not for their difference, but for being not as different as expected, and in the end for differing not at all.69

In failing to respect "real" differences, those who are "not-different-enough" incur others’ anger and bring down upon themselves the fourth stereotype of persecution: the violence that would defend difference by inscribing that difference on the bodies of the indifferent and, in so doing, would create the expiatory sacrifice which could return the whole community to order. Torture and death complete the persecutory structure.70

Two stories highlight Girard’s analysis of these stereotypes of persecution. In one story a Jewish woman is depicted contemplating two pigs to whom she has just given birth. In another story, a woman has intercourse with a dog and gives birth to six puppies. Her tribe banishes her and she is forced to hunt for her own food. The first story is from a 1575 German text describing the Jewish proclivity for witchcraft. The second is from a myth of the Dogrib people. Each story bears the marks of the stereotypes of persecution. The background for each, explicit in the former and implicit in the latter, is crisis. The women flaunt cultural distinctions, engaging in bestiality. Because they are women, they bear essential victim marks. Moreover, they fail to differ as they should from others, inviting the scapegoat mechanism. That lack of difference is implicit in the former story of the Jewish woman71 and explicit in the Dogrib myth, which tells us that the puppy children are really human, having the ability to remove their fur coats at will and reenter the world of human society.72

With these examples, we begin to see that lines separating history and myth are arbitrary in stories of persecution.73 The structure of persecution is indifferent to such categorical distinctions, for the Dogrib and the author of the 1575 German text are telling the same story. Yet we want to read them differently. We want to deny the mythic meaning of the story from Germany and translate its meaning, following rules of witchcraft interpretation represented by scholars such as Midelfort, Klaits, and Larner.

Why do we refuse myth? For those who are not scholars of religion, that question is easily answered. We live in a society that has a highly impoverished view of myth. That myths found and shape a people’s common life — their memories, their hopes and dreams, their fears, their ultimate concerns — is virtually forgotten. But, how do we, scholars of religion, answer this question? The hermeneutics of our discipline allows a far greater appreciation of myth. We know that the standard of truth in myth is not empirical correctness, but its life-founding potential: a myth is true if persons live by it and find their hopes, fears, memories, and values carried forth by it. Thus, for scholars of religion, the question of myth-refusal in analyses of witch persecution is not so easily answered. In the earnestness of our quest to recover the memories of the victims of the witch craze, have we shied from an embrace of myth that would bring us too close to the accuser? Is that why we have forgotten the lessons of our discipline? Perhaps another of Girard’s stories will jolt our memory:

Harvests are bad, the cows give birth to dead calves; no one is on good terms with anyone else. Clearly, it is the cripple who is the cause. He arrived one morning, no one knows from where, and made himself at home. He married the most obvious heiress in the village and had two children by her. All sorts of things seemed to take place in their house. The stranger was suspected of having killed his wife’s former husband, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was rather too quickly replaced by the newcomer. One day the village had had enough. They took their pitchforks and forced the disturbing character to clear out.74

Girard places his tale in the Christian middle ages: it is a tale of persecution if ever there was one. But others may recognize another, much older story, the myth of Oedipus. Again the lines between myth and history blur.

What can we make of Girard’s play with the boundaries of myth and history? His comments suggest that scholars of the witch hunts need to grant to the stories of the witches the respect ethnologists grant the Dogrib.75 We need to listen to those stories the way we listen to the myth of Oedipus. To listen to them in that way is to understand persecution in a way that only myth preserves because only myth carries forth the stereotypic structures of persecution intact. Only myth reveals persecution as the dark lining of religious beliefs and practices. Only myth holds together in one frame, for better or worse, both violence and the sacred.

To really listen to a witch’s story is to return to the rite of sacrifice of the scapegoat.76 But when we think of the ceremony, the priest, and the expiation of sins, we must go farther with our reflection on the scapegoat than does current scholarship. If we are to enter the mythic world of the witch craze, we have to enter a persecutory structure in which the victim — the chosen scapegoat — was not only responsible for public disasters but also was capable of restoring, symbolizing, and even incarnating order.77 We have to honor the power of the victim to do what scapegoats do.78

But that we will not allow. We may, in attempting to enter the sixteenth-century mind, suspend our disbelief and see that, for her accuser, the witch was responsible for public disasters in some mythic, larger-than-life sense. However, we balk at giving to the witch the power her persecutor gave her. We cannot see that, so great a power did the witch have that, for her accuser, extraordinary measures were required to capture and channel it for the good. We do not understand that, in accord with that belief, her accuser had to torture a woman accused of witchcraft in order to gain her confession, which was the required "proof" of her power, and that he had to execute her in order to demonstrate that those powers had been successfully foiled. Not understanding, we fail to listen to the accuser’s tale of violence and overlook the clues he gives us about the place to which he has taken his victim. Not heeding his words, we leave the scapegoat where her accuser has left her — unvindicated — and do not seize the opportunity to wrest from his hands the key that would unlock the persecutory structure so that the scapegoat could be freed.

Our resistance to according to the scapegoat the power her persecutor granted her, nowhere more evident than in recent scholarship’s silence and puzzlement before the violence which announced the witch’s power and marked the struggle against it, highlights our incapacity to read the mythic elements of the witch craze. Challenged by the need to integrate accounts of violence into its theoretical perspectives on the witch craze and denied the old "superstition" argument by its advocacy of non-ethnocentric analyses, current scholarship uses two strategies in order to make sense of torture and execution. Neither strategy acknowledges adequately the mythic home of the persecutory structure.

Scholarship informed by the first strategy documents the elements of persecution — descriptions of torture and transcripts of confessions — recorded by the witches’ accusers. Observations count as explanations. Thus, Larner, Midelfort, and Klaits dutifully record the importance of the witch’s confession for the accusers and those accusers’ stated opinion that torture alone would free the witch from her enslavement to the devil. Repeatedly, each scholar also notes the persecutors’ oft-stated claim that the witches told the truth under torture. Midelfort highlights it.79 Trevor-Roper documents it, observing that the accusers’ confidence in the mechanism of torture to extract the truth from the accused outlived their confidence in the existence of witches.80 Klaits also comments about the "genuine concern" the accusers had for the accused. He underlines the sense of integrity he reads in their statements: they truly believed in the guilt of the women they prosecuted and were absolutely confident that those women, confessing under torture, told the truth.81

The inadequacy of this strategy of analysis to the violence of the witch hunts becomes apparent when we note the surprise of the historians before their recorded observations. Midelfort is not the only one to be confounded by the persecutors’ repeated claims that the witches told the truth under torture. Others seem equally bemused.82 The absolute confidence of the accusers in the truthfulness of the accused appears irrational to the contemporary mind. For us, that witchcraft suspects would lie under torture to save their lives is as comprehensible as it was apparently incomprehensible to the accusers of their day. Seeking to better explain the beliefs they have observed in the accounts of the witch hunters, scholars turn to a second strategy.

Observing no rationale in the external discourse of the witch persecutors, they appeal to masters of unstated discourse: the psychologists. Aware that they are testing the limits of their methodologies, each is circumspect in his or her conclusions. Noting that her views are "just speculation," Larner muses about the "psychological cleansing effect on a community" of the witnessed execution of witches.83 She also describes the witch’s confession as "the triumph of the state in the battle for minds." Confession demonstrated the accused’s sentience: correct ideological commitment (to the state) was accompanying ideological re-education (in the interrogation and trial).84 In a similar vein, Klaits compares the interrogators of witches with the interrogators in the Stalinist purge trials. He suggests that, immersed in an ideology and committed to a higher good, each looked to confession as a necessary step in "ideological reeducation."85 Further, comparing the judicial application of torture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the use of the lie detector in today’s judicial system, Klaits suggests that, in each case, absolute confidence in the ability of the machinery to extract the truth leads to the willing confession of the accused. In the earlier time, accusers believed the women they tortured were telling the truth because the women themselves came to believe they had been rightfully accused. Providing a contemporary parallel is the case of Peter Reilly, a Connecticut teenager who was accused of murdering his mother in 1973. Repeatedly interrogated by lie detector, Reilly came to believe in his guilt. He confessed to the murder, even though subsequent investigations established his innocence. Such "brainwashing" or "thought reform," according to Klaits, whether located in the witch hunts or in contemporary judicial practices, appeals to the same "psychological dynamics."86

While not wholly disavowing these explanations, I suggest that the theorists considered here would do well to entertain a greater variety of explanations. An appeal to psychology may once again entail a distorted "translation" of the witch hunting dynamic. Is Peter Reilly’s lie detector ordeal the closest parallel to the witch’s ordeal by torture on the rack? Our study of the persecutory structure of myth suggests not. The witch’s closest kin is not Reilly, but the sacrificial victim of an earlier time. The key dynamic of her ordeal is not "brainwashing," but "ritual." And the end to be achieved is not psychological catharsis or successful thought reform, but the expiation of sin and the restoration of cosmic order.87

This mythic model accounts best for an accuser’s confidence in the truthfulness of his victim’s confession. How could he believe that the witch had real power, that all initiative came from her, that she alone was responsible for the cure as she was for the sickness in the society?88 Proper neither to political ideology nor to psychological thought control, the logic of his discourse expressed the sacred and appealed to a pattern of causality proper to it: expiatory powers had to cross the threshold of death, and only that which was transcendent and supernatural could cross that line. The witch had to be made to appeal to powers beyond herself if, at her death, those powers were to live on after her. The woman accused of witchcraft had to be tortured and killed because only those actions followed the trail of death and summoned the transcendent powers of good to do battle with the powers of evil, so that sin could be vanquished and godly order reign again.89

Our resistance as scholars to a mythic reading of the witch craze is well-intentioned. We think that if we acknowledge any power in the women charged as witches — which in myth we must acknowledge — they will cease to be victims unjustly accused. We think that if we listen to their stories as their persecutors did, even for a moment, we will bloody our own hands. But Girard’s work has led me to consider a different possibility. If we resist the mythic reading of the witch craze, the persecutors cease to be persecutors. If the persecutors were not persecutors, then the women whose innocence we wish to proclaim were not victims. We must read the tales of persecution through the eyes of the persecutors because in their eyes alone lies the full structure of persecution undisguised.

We will not save the victims of the witch craze by snatching them from the grip of history to put them on trial again and to declare them the innocent victims of economic unrest, political change, or psychological manipulation. Rather we will save them by putting their persecutors on trial. Such a trial will be as much or more the task of the theologian as of the historian or sociologist, for the primary texts of human sacrifice are religious texts whose myths plumb the human spirit at its innermost depths. To truly challenge the persecutors we must challenge them there, on their own turf. Only then will we be able to name the myth that has fueled their violence and to free the victims from the place of their incarceration. Only then will we know enough about the persecutor — his motives and his weapons — to condemn him. We must turn to myth if we are to grasp the persecutory structure at its roots and break its power.

If we are to protect victims of scapegoating we must examine why the religions of the West and, in particular, Christianity, have been religions of sacrifice. We must find out why humans live by myths of persecution, and we must seek alternate myths to live by that can account for crisis, anomie, and angst in human life without need for the expiatory sacrifice. Vigilance is required to protect victims: past and potential. But we practice vigilance on behalf of victims only by turning toward the persecutors and the myths by which they live, seeking them out wherever they may be. Ironically, faithfulness to history is possible only if we embrace myth.

Can we do this? The forces of amnesia which make it impossible for us to read the mythic elements in our own past history are very strong. Indeed, Girard’s further examples of our confusion before the arbitrary distinctions between myth and history must give us pause. Girard notes that, in the middle ages, physicians first resisted the notion that the plague could be spread through physical contact with the disease. They opposed quarantines of plague victims. Did they harbor naive superstitions about the workings of disease? Were they stubbornly clinging to current theories of the plague because they had some ideological investment in the status quo? No; Girard applauds their enlightenment. The theory of contagion smacked too much of a persecutor’s prejudice not to be suspect. The physicians saw in the contagion theory of the plague the structure of persecution. For the idea of contagion to be accepted by physicians it had to be freed from the persecutory structure. That time awaited the nineteenth century.90

With this example, the lines between myth and history blur once again. The physicians, we would say, misjudged the parameters of myth. They made a mistake. But are mistakes always made in the same direction? Consider the witch trials. In a movement directly opposed to that taken by the physicians who viewed the new theory of the plague as part of a persecutory myth, and sought real causes elsewhere, we deny to the witch craze its mythic elements, confident in the truths offered by the social sciences. Both we and the medieval physicians have denied myth in order to make room for truth. The medieval physicians got it backwards. Have we?

My confidence in the adequacy of the discourse of the social sciences to the phenomenon of witch hunting has been profoundly challenged by Girard, who writes that, "if our ancestors had thought in the same mode as do today’s masters, they would never have put an end to the witch trials."91 Challenged by his vision, I believe increasingly that, only if feminist scholars look at the mythic investment humans have in the scapegoat, will we be able to come to terms with the terrors of persecution and recount our foresisters’ stories in memoriam.

Even so, when we work to redeem the past on behalf of a future freed from terror, we must wonder whether, in our own time, if humans have not lost the capacity to create scapegoats, we may have lost the capacity to recognize that a scapegoat who has no expiatory powers is no scapegoat. Unless we can confront that problem directly, and take its lessons to heart, the risk of new witch hunts remains high, for we continue to live in a society that searches for scapegoats and lives by the scapegoat myth, even as its capacity to recognize myth fades from memory.92 The tragedy of this cultural amnesia may be not only that our society can recognize everyone’s scapegoats but its own.93 The tragedy may be also that, no longer at home in a mythic universe, yet still in need of scapegoats, those who live in the modern age, more than those of the past, may seek them in evermore virulent ways.




1. The quote in the title is attributed to Cotton Mather in 1693. as cited in John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) 313. The epigraph is from Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986) 99.

2. Adrienne Rich, "Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life," in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986) 146.

3. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 3.

4. The total number of executions will never be known because many records have been lost or destroyed and surviving records do not always list names. Some merely record that "many witches were executed." While estimates vary widely, low estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000 victims. The exact figures are of little consequence. As Christina Larner notes, "the conspicuousness of witch hunting is not modified by precise figures, and there is a sense in which failure to be appalled by the hunt on the grounds that we know that on a particular day we are talking of twenty-seven witches rather than two hundred would be a distortion of its own." In Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) 16.

5. Larner 193.

6. H. C. Erik Midelfort, Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972) 67.

7. Midelfort 104-6.

8. Midelfort 187-88.

9. Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 56-57.

10. The majority of victims were women. Of the twenty percent of victims who were male, most were charged with additional crimes (e.g., heresy) and not exclusively with witchcraft, or they were relatives of women accused of witchcraft and were guilty by "contagion" or association (Larner 91-94; Midelfort 95; Demos 60-62). Demos devotes one chapter (36-56) to the case of John Godfrey who, as an exception to the general rule, was accused of being a witch for reasons similar to those cited in the cases of females accused of witchcraft. Godfrey’s life was characterized by extreme rootlessness: no parents, no spouse, no children, no property. Demos speculates that homosexuality may have been a factor in his persecution.

11. Midelfort 182.

12. Midelfort 184.

13. John Hajnal, "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective," in Population in History, eds. D. V. Glass & D. E. C. Eversley (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1965) 101-147.

14. Midelfort 184.

15. Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987) 101.

16. Karlsen 102.

17. Karlsen 214-18.

18. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic and Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, as cited in Klaits 87-94.

19. Klaits 90.

20. Klaits 91.

21. Demos 298-300.

22. Larner 101.

23. Larner 102.

24. Larner 102.

25. Karlsen 120-25.

26. Karlsen 141.

27. Karlsen 14-4.

28. Karlsen 154-55.

29. Karlsen 181.

30. Midelfort 190.

31. Larner 64.

32. Larner 73.

33. As cited in R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) 141.

34. Moore 146-48.

35. Larner 58.

36. Larner 71.

37. Larner 72.

38. Interestingly, Larner finds the lull inexplicable; others, noting that plague and famine years often alternated with witch hunting years and that the latter provided a scapegoat mechanism for the tragedies of the former, would find the lull quite explicable (Demos 386, Midelfort 70-73).

39. Larner 73-75.

40. Larner 40.

41. Larner 56.

42. Larner 106-7.

43. Larner 88.

44. Klaits 150.

45. Klaits 60.

46. Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) 105.

47. Kieckhefer 73-92.

48. Klaits 76-77.

49. Klaits 72.

50. Klaits 102.

51. Klaits 103.

52. Klaits 132, 176.

53. Klaits 176.

54. Midelfort 196; Larner 73-75.

55. Karlsen 180-81, 255-56.

56. Some aspects of Karlsen and Larner’s work are an exception to this rule. More than the other scholars mentioned, they affirm the engagement of women accused of witchcraft in the struggles to determine their fates, countering their anonymity and object-status. Each notes that some women assumed the role of witch as a strategy of aggression in a social context in which they were powerless otherwise. Because a poor, peasant woman, angered and frustrated by her lot in life, could, in acts of sorcery against her neighbor, recoup on wrongs done to her, the trials were a forum for women’s discontent (Larner 94-96; Karlsen 244). Even so, because both Karlsen and Larner must locate the women accused of witchcraft on an ideological grid in which men defined and used women for their own political, economic, and social aims, Karlsen and Larner’s efforts to identify with the women they study, in the end, do serve only to reinscribe the women accused of witchcraft as anonymous "cogs" in the machinery of a persecuting society.

57. That Girard begins his exploration (Guard 4) of the scapegoat with an analysis of texts that record the execution of a scapegoat is most suggestive to my own thesis. The adequacy of current analyses of witchcraft persecution is precisely a question of the adequacy of scholars’ interpretations of the documents generated by the accusers which record the witch craze. The text with which I begin my reflections is an imaginary one that captures the essence of a typical complaint against women accused of witchcraft and parallels, in a different century, a fourteenth-century text of Guillaume de Machaut cited by Girard. In that account, a number of Jews were executed because they caused the plague.

58. Girard 8.

59. Girard 8.

60. Girard 38.

61. Girard 10.

62. Girard 12-13.

63. Girard 15.

64. Girard 15.

65. Girard 16.

66. Girard 22.

67. Girard 21.

68. Girard 21.

69. Girard 22.

70. Girard 45-57.

71. The third stereotype of persecution — the lack clack of difference of the victim from his or her accusers — identifies an important element in anti-Semitism. The dynamics of anti-Jewish prejudice, stemming from the first century of the Christian era, as recorded un the New Testament, are highlighted by this typology. The differentiation of Christianity, as a separate religion, from Judaism, was very much an intra-familial debate: Judaism and Christianity were two children, born of the same parent: pre-rabbinic religion (see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism [New York: The Seabury Press, 1974] 62). 62). Thus, in the story of the Jewish woman cited here, the dynamics of her persecution are traced, not to her "alienness," but to her lack of difference from those who would secure the boundaries of their altogether fragile world at her expense.

72. Girard 48-49.

73. Girard 47.

74. Girard 29.

75. Girard 53, 96.

76. Girard 40.

77. Girard 42.

78. Girard 44.

79. Midelfort 142.

80. H. R. Trevor-Roper, "The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," in The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) 1) 122.

81. Klaits 150.

82. Midelfort 142; Trevor-Roper 121; Klaits 149.

83. Larner 115.

84. Larner 184.

85. Klaits 84.

86. Klaits 155-58.

87. Girard 55. Note: Supporting this analysis is Larner’s own observation (Larner 113) that witch executions were preceded by a day or days of fasting and sermons. Prior to the modern era and the ascendance of medical discourse, fasting was meaningful within the context of religious discourse. That, apart from her brief observations, Larner has remained silent about the meaning of fasting suggests that she may have recognized the inadequacy of her mode of analysis to this phenomenon. Were she to have integrated fasting into her theory — witch hunting was the instrument of ideological education of a state bent on legitimating itself — she might have said that "a hungry stomach is a stomach attentive to the state’s message." By contrast to that impoverished analysis, in the context of Christian myth, for centuries, communal fasting had united a people before God. Partaking of a ritual of communal penitence and invoking divine power, in fasting, a people made themselves vulnerable before God in order that, through suffering and loss, they might induce God’s blessings. Fasting thus served the drama of the witch execution by preparing people for the sacrificial act that would banish evil and return God’s people to their covenant with God.

88. Girard 43.

89. Girard 44, 9.4.

90. Girard 19.

91. Girard 99.

92. Girard 50.

93. Girard 41.

The Pleasures of Her Text, Feminist Readings of Biblical and Historical Texts was published in 1990 by Trinity Press International

The Pleasures of Her Text, Feminist Readings of Biblical and Historical Texts was published in 1990 by Trinity Press International.


Trinity College of Biblical Studies

This course offers a theological examination of the representation of women and gender in Christianity. Attention is given to the historical and cultural contexts of the first century and contemporary period. Theological, historical, literary, exegetical, and feminist methods are variously employed.

Feminist Theology Unit Two