The Goddess played a central role in religious life of Europe and the Middle East for thousand of years until the rise of Christianity and Islam. Even during the patriarchal Greek and Roman eras the Goddess was still held in the highest of esteem. Worship of the Great Mother Cybele was the official religion of the Roman Empire from 200 BC until Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century. Cybele had been worshiped in Anatolia, Turkey since such ancient times that she had been considered the ‘Mother of the Gods’ by the Greeks. Cybele worship was led by women priestesses, known as Melissae – the Bees, and also by feminine or transgender men, called the Gallae, whose frenzied, erotic, bloody rituals outraged many Christian writers. Forbidden to own property, the Gallae wandered in bands, following the Roman army wherever it went, bringing their worship to the edges of the Empire- there is a Cybele alter on Hadrian’s Wall, and a Galli grave was found nearby.
Melissae was also used as a term for priestesses of other pagan goddesses too. The Bees worked in the temples, serving the Mother Goddess, acting as healers, sacred sex workers, making ceremonies with song and dance, offering divination and blessings. Melissae served Diana, Goddess of the Hunt and the Moon, who had long been worshiped by all the Latin tribes and was listed as one of the 12 goddesses of Rome in the 3rd century BCE. Diana was also associated with the Greek Artemis, whose temple at Ephesus in Turkey was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (it was believed to have been founded by the powerful female Amazons around 8th century BCE during the Bronze Age). At the Ephesian temple she was served by the Bees and as well by eunuch priests, known as the megabyzoi. She was the goddess of childbirth- but she was also a virgin. As with Cybele, everyone was welcome in her temples, including slaves and outcasts. Alexander the Great famously had a eunuch priest lover at Artemis’ Ephesian temple. Diana became (or always had been) well known across Europe and she never really went away – popping up in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, accused of leading witches on night flights – and as a more recent Princess of Hearts too.
In Palestine, it took a centuries of persecution before the early Hebrew Kings could stop women setting up phallic poles in praise of the Goddess, known to them as Asherah, related to Ishtar/Inanna, whose worship in Mesopotamia also goes back many thousands of years. From 1000 to 600 BCE some of the Judaic rulers pursued periods of intense persecution of Goddess worship, and of the Qedesha – the sodomizing male or trans priests who served Her. The OT prohibitions against cross dressing and sex between men were designed to stop this ancient religious practice. Qedesha means ‘Holy’ or ‘Anointed Ones’ but was translated into the King James English bible as ‘sodomites’ and in modern bibles is usually rendered ‘male shrine prostitutes’.
Another deity , popular with the masses, worshiped by all classes in society and notorious for breaking down the barriers between them – Dionysus, Bacchus to the Romans, god of ecstasy, wine and the theatre, was, like Cybele, known long before the rise of the patriarchal cultures. Transgendered Dionysus, like Jesus, was born of a God and a human woman (who got burnt to a crisp by the jealous Goddess, so Zeus himself brought the baby Dionysus to full term, then sent to him to Cybele to learn the mysteries of ecstasy). Dionysian worship was led by women, and his festival became the biggest of the Greek calendar as people sought the liberating effects of ecstatic revelry. Ecstasy was understood as state of being ‘outside oneself’, through which a bigger perspective on who we are, and what life is all about, could be found. Spreading into the Roman Empire the ever increasing numbers of people gathering for wild bacchanalia alarmed the authorities – the cult’s free sexuality was condemned, an attempt made to control the cult by limiting how many people might gather together to worship the ancient god. It was only partially successful – historian Randy P. Conner, in The Pagan Heart of the West, finds evidence of Bacchic worship in the 7th century, and in more recent times too of course.
In those olden days Goddess festivals were a lot of fun. Cybele’s birthday celebrations during early Spring, lasting several weeks, were known as the Hilaria. Aphrodite was celebrated in Athens at the summer Aphrodisia. The Dionysia Spring festival was second in importance to the Greeks after the festival of Athena, their wise city goddess, during which the Olympic games occurred. Goddesses were associated with love, beauty, sexuality – Aphrodite was also the patron goddess of prostitutes – things that the dour religions of the father were to render meaningless, even name evil. Love between women was declared a sin, and sex between men was illegal from the 4th century onwards – prior to that most of the emperors of Rome had had male lovers. Female sexuality was given less attention, but the laws were not needed – the holy power inherent in women’s love for women had already been taken away, wiped out in several massacres of Goddess worshipers undertaken by Christian emperors on the rampage, tearing down the temples, burning the ancient sacred trees. The early Muslim kings did the same thing, just as the Hebrew rulers had done a thousand years earlier.
Women came to be regarded as temptresses, as inferior to men; men who loved men were threatened with death by fire, a myth that sex was for procreation only crept in. A long dark age of denying the potential in the pleasures of the flesh to open up the soul had begun.
The Roman Catholic Church reduced the once all-powerful Goddess to the role of the virgin mother, a truly twisted notion that was actually hiding the fact that since ancient times virginity was associated with Diana, whose (often lesbian) priestesses served the community as midwives. Protestantism pushed the divine feminine even further into the shadow, leading to puritanical extremes of anti-pleasure, anti-joy, body-phobic cultures. This paved the way for the scientific, materialist worldview to emerge, denying the sacred dimensions of life, and the reality of the spirit, all together. A very sick humanity, a world out of balance, mass extinction, climate change – are all the result.
The feminine presence of the Divine is what connects us all. Through the goddess we can know our innate oneness with each other and all life – through the feeling body, through emotion, dance and the sharing of open hearts. Dionysian pleasures give us the chance to open inner gates, step out of our serious minds and into the dance of female and male within our own being – which opens the way to knowing the dance of spirit and matter, pulsating erotically, ecstatically in us and all things. This gateway is sometimes entered through drugs – humanity has always used substances as teachers – but in our modern times the divine purpose of ecstatic communion is not much remembered, so drugs tend to lead to breakdowns as much as breakthroughs!
The Goddess was not forgotten by all the worlds faiths. Western culture can learn a lot from Hinduism, which continues to celebrate the divine feminine, and understand that is her shakti that is divine presence in the world. Hindu Goddesses hold great power and are celebrated in joyous festivals, such as Navratri in the early Autumn (when the western zodiac is in the Libran season, ruled by Venus). In fact shakti is present in the abrahamic religions – in her most purest form in Judaism, where she is known as shekhinah, but also in Christianity, her gender hidden in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.
The best, the most ‘natural’, way to come into to the presence of the Goddess is to tune to the cycles of the seasons, the sun and the moon, the cosmos. Goddess worship was effectively illegal in the UK from the time Henry VIII brought in the Witchcraft Act, only repealed in the 1950s. Sex between men was illegal for almost exactly the same period. Decriminalisation of gay sex happened long after the ancient association of same-sex love and Goddess worship had been eradicated from human culture. In Goddess culture, all forms of pleasure, of consensual sexuality, of love, have a place. In Goddess culture the body is remembered as a vehicle designed for flights of consciousness, into spirit, outside the limitations of the ego and into the fullness of our divine souls.
Gradually the veils dissolve, the Goddess has been waking her people up since the 1960s. She wants in, back into the picture, back into our hearts, back into our parties, our lovemaking – and into our service, to the planet and each other.
She’s wants in.
Whether we are female, male, trans or non-binary: She is found within.
“The return of the Sacred Feminine that is everywhere trying to occur is, in part, a return of the uncanny, of those insights and aspects of ourselves that have banished from our awareness for too long, repressed or demonized. The Mother is preparing a revolution of consciousness for the whole human race, but this revolution will be possible only when we invite the wisdom of the feminine, with its instinctual understanding of the sacredness of all life and all true love, back into our hearts and minds in its full radical splendour.”
(Andrew Harvey, The Essential Gay Mystics)
When we dance, when we sing She flows through, around and out of us as Love. She is the presence of Venus in us all. She is the Bee in us all. And as bees we urgently need to rebuild a home for the Queen.
This Venusian love is so strong it can move mountains, build huge circles of stone, pyramids and temples, on the earth and in the air, in which Her Spirit, Her Praise returns. This truly can change the world.
Victory to the Mother! Victory to Venus! As the Hindus cry: JAI MA!