Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Sexuality, Sin, and Sacrifice – Deconstructing the Patriarchy. An interview with Dr. Mary Condren

Censorship is not limited to totalitarian States. It can be a subtle thing, when disconcerting ideas are not banned, but, through various means, marginalised. Dr. Mary Condren’s groundbreaking work The Serpent and the Goddess, a study on women, religion and power in Celtic Ireland, was never placed on an index of banned books, and yet it remained until recently a very difficult book to get your hands on. As Condren describes in the introduction to the latest edition of the book [New Island Books 2002], in 1989 when The Serpent and the Goddess was first published, despite an enthusiastic public reception and encouraging sales, getting the book into shops proved difficult. Perhaps not surprising, given the scope of the book. While concerned with themes of a universal importance, in an Ireland to a large extent dominated by the twin ideologies of Nationalism and Catholicism, the book challenged a number of ‘sacred cows’. For example, Condren argues in the book, “surely, just as England had colonised the people of Ireland, we Irish women were, just as effectively, a people colonised by the patriarchal relations of Church and State?”[The Serpent and the Goddess – pg xviii].

Condren, a former Carmelite nun, has degrees in theology, sociology, and social anthropology. A combination of studies which she says, in the introduction to her book, has “to this day left me unable to read any text without asking questions about power, sexuality, and economics”. Her study on women, religion and power was written against a backdrop of continuing violence in Northern Ireland. Violence that has ensued for centuries, centring over rival claims to territory, and the legitimacy of those who hold sacramental and state power. Condren’s analysis was brave and radical, breaking one of the strongest taboos around the conflict, a taboo enforced by all sides that demanded religion be treated as having a subsidiary role in the conflict. “We take it for granted that the Fisherman of Nazareth has long since ceased to bear much relationship to historical Christianity. Can it be that we find ourselves in our current situation not because Christianity has failed, or has never been tried, but because as the historical carrier of patriarchy in the West it has succeeded?” [The Serpent and the Goddess – pg x].

Condren is currently national director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion in Ireland, and continues to be a challenging and intelligent voice questioning the power relations within both religious and secular societies. The Serpent and the Goddess was written over fifteen years ago, but it remains as fresh as the power structures it highlighted remain prevalent. The analysis of Church & State relations, control over reproductive rights, and the role of patriarchy in violent conflict makes for fascinating reading in today’s world, where war is waged to ‘spread democracy’; where the European Union debates vigorously whether to include religious roots in its constitution; where, in a ‘pro-life’ culture, scientific research involving stem cells poses serious ethical issues for the State, but billions of dollars are spent annually ‘legitimately’ developing more weaponry without a moral qualm. Three Monkeys Online had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Mary Condren to discuss issues raised in her work.

The Problem of History

“History has provided the forum wherein men have safeguarded their arena of political and religious power. But the sacred space of male history has often been carved out, literally, over the bodies of women. Using the language of Tradition, Precedent, and even Divine Will, men in many cultures have appealed to, or established, a mythical or sacred past to justify social dominance in the present” [The Serpent and the Goddess – pg xvii]

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, but history is always written by the victors. The history of pre-Christian Ireland, for example, was written by Christian scribes, who, faced with editorial challenges as to what should be preserved or jettisoned from a society’s history (pre-Christian Irish history, tradition, and mythology were preserved by an oral tradition), did what historians for centuries have been doing: they kept what served their ideological model (Celtic Heroism for example), and dumped what might provide a challenge to their model – for example the role of women in society. “When the Christian religion arrived in Ireland, in roughly the fourth/fifth century, Ireland was by no-means an idyllic society,” Condren clarifies. “It had already been colonised by successive waves of invasions, and was essentially a warring society, a very violent society. We can see this in some of the stories of the interactions between the clerics and the warriors, but prior to that there is evidence of a pre-Celtic society in which the matrilineal systems were the means of holding the society together. It favoured the most vulnerable and the weakest. The Celtic society superimposed a social structure on that that was essentially violent and aggressive.”

The downplaying of the role of women was not particular to Christian Ireland. Condren, in her book, made comparisons between the ideological role played by religion in Israelite society and early Christian Irish society. “I contrasted the Irish and the Israelites, ” she explains, “simply because they were both tribal societies and they were both dealing with the issue of how do you supersede the old matriarchal structures with the patriarchal, or in other words, how do you move from a society based on kinship through to one based on the State?”.

Analysing the Genesis story from the Bible, Condren, by contrasting it with older mythologies (“The [Genesis] narrative was written sometime between the tenth and the eighth century B.C.E. and was by no means the first biblical book to be written, even though it appears first in order.” – The Serpent and the Goddess – pg11), outlined a distinct political purpose. The Garden of Paradise, the Serpent, and the tree of knowledge were symbols that existed in many creation myths, including the Sumerian story of the Goddess Ninhursag. In the story of Ninhursag, the Goddess is represented as a serpent (or fishtailed woman), and controls fertility (a fertility that was “without the slightest pain or travail”). The subsequent Genesis narrative radically alters the roles of the symbols – the serpent is no longer a Goddess, creation is in the hands of God who makes life spring forth from Adam, not Eve. In short, a re-ordering of the roles seen in nature.

“To put it simply and briefly: the form of religion that the Serpent represented was a major threat to the new religion of Israel or, indeed, to the future of Western civilization. If Israel was to grow as a nation state, with all the entailed political and military trappings, Goddess religions would have to be overthrown. Allegiance would have to be to one god, Yahweh, and the central symbolism of the new religion would be based on Promise and History rather than on the Life and Cyclical Regeneration represented by the Serpent.”
[The Serpent and the Goddess – pg 11]

Is territorial expansion an inherent outcome of religion then? “I think religion can be used to expand territories, but the energies that go into that are much broader than religion,” Condren responds. “Religion provides a ready-made symbol system, and our images of God are always related to our own personal or political struggles, and part of the work of the best religions would be to expose that, as the prophets for example do. Priestly or clerical religion goes hand in hand with the power structures.”

Brigit, Sin and Sexuality

The transformation of powerful female symbols into subservient ones, in Irish tradition, is perhaps best represented by the figure of Brigit, upon whom Condren concentrates much of her work. “Brigit is a synonym for the old Goddesses of Europe. In my research I found that many of the traditions that we associate with St. Brigit in Ireland actually go back to the old European Goddesses. They may not occur on the same day, for example in Bulgaria they put out cloak on the first of March – we put it out on the first of February. The tradition is that Brigit walks on the cloak that night and impregnates it with her dew, and then it’s used for healing. So Brigit was the old European Goddess – the word Brigit simply means ‘the high one’, or ‘the exalted one’. In Ireland she basically collected the old Goddesses, and they appear in her monastery under one guise or the other. She also collected the sites like churches, holy wells that were indigenous. Her veneration would have been an extremely potent force against which the Christian church would have had to struggle. In the fifth century there was an existing school, you could call it a pagan school or an early form of University in Kildare, and it’s said that a woman called Brigit, a historical Brigit managed to turn that place into a Christian school. Even so, the figure of Brigit in the Dublin Monastery was the superior one in the sense that she was the Abbess of the Dublin Monastery. As patriarchal forms began to develop both in the Church and the State, any form of religion in which women played any kind of symbolic or major role was gradually eradicated. Women were seen as the epitome of chaos, men were considered to be the repository of rationality, and so it was a gradual process, but over the period of about five centuries women’s religious authority was dismantled. We can trace that through the lives of the Saints, for example, where women receive a very bad press altogether. Finally, in the twelfth century, the Abbess of Kildare, who up till then had played a huge symbolic role in Irish culture, was raped by the soldiers of Dermot MacMurrough, and that symbolically and practically put an end to that lineage.”

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