Downgrading a Goddess into a Saint (and a marginalised one at that – eclipsed by the imported St. Patrick) was not an abstract notion devoid of impact upon the lives of Irish women, as can be seen by comparing pre-Christian Irish laws with those that developed under the new patriarchal system. “In early Irish society women could marry up and down the property ladder or the social structure, because their property rights were not affected by marriage,” Condren points out. “Early Irish law had very clear rules and guidelines for determining the property relations. As patriarchal structures developed, property became invested entirely in the male lineage, which meant that rich people could not afford to let their daughters loose, mating with people from the lower classes, because otherwise their property would be divided and dissipated all over the place. The virginity of women then became a political issue rather than solely a sexual issue, although the sexual question became the means of enforcing the patriarchal lineage and structure. Not only were women who were going to get married forced to maintain their virginity until they got married, because otherwise their property rights would be affected, but women who could not afford a dowry then ended up in convents, where the ideology of virginity took on an entirely different meaning, which was anti-sex, and anti-body, losing its overt political and spiritual meaning.”
It’s worth dwelling on the concept of virginity, given the importance that it assumed and continues to have in the Catholic Church – with all the implications that has for women worldwide. “The word virginity has had a long currency,” Dr. Condren explains. “The Irish word for it was og, which means inviolate, pure, intact, but the original meaning of virginity was not the absence of sexual relations. It had to do with the struggle to promote an idea of Divinity that was not tied to a tribal or biological system. In other words, if Jesus had not been born of a virgin, he would have been a Jew. The point of promoting Mary’s virginity was to say that Jesus was not born entirely in the Jewish lineage, and that his mission was a universal one. The early baptism formula says ‘Christ was neither Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Jew nor Greek, but all are one’. The religion of Christianity superseded all of the old tribal and biological ties, to put forth the possibility of unification in the worship and veneration of one God”.
This sanctification of virginity though helped create a climate where sex, perhaps paradoxically, became sinful and thus worthy of exhaustive attention on the part of Church authorities. “The emphasis on sexuality began in the second and third centuries when you had things like the Council of Elvira dictating various sexual rules of behaviour. If you study them carefully you see that what you’re dealing with is not just an anti-body thing at that stage, but also structures of power. In other words how can the Pope really control his clerics if they’re cavorting with women, who might attempt to take them in a different direction from their vocation?” Condren says, before outlining the special place Irish monks had in developing a science for the control of sexuality. “Irish monks developed the penitential. They developed further what we call a ‘discourse on sexuality’, in the sense that, up until that time, people were delaying baptism until the very last minute, because once you were baptised you were on a readymade road to heaven, but if you sinned you could never be forgiven again. The Irish monks developed a system of penance whereby sins committed after baptism could be wiped away. Once they got hold of that concept, they started focussing on the nature of sin. Celibate monks became obsessed with sexuality, so in their penitentials they go through, in great detail, all the occasions of sin. They even went through numerous instances of masturbation, assigning different penances for each one of them, depending upon its complexity or results! The discource on sexuality you might say was invented by the monks, and they spread their penitentials – they’re found in libraries all throughout Europe. Some of the Irish ones are considered to be amongst the most anti-sexual in the canon. They even go so far as to impose penances of, say, a hundred lashes for certain crimes. The anti-sexual emphasis came in largely from the attempt to bridge the gap between baptism and eternal salvation. It had a productive life of its own, becoming a means of controlling local populations by making sexuality extremely problematic.”
Examining the early Penitentials, as Condren does in The Serpent and the Goddess, throws interesting light on current Church doctrine on matters of sex and reproduction. In Catholic countries like Ireland, Italy, and Spain, debate over abortion, for example, is strongly influenced by the Vatican with its clear policy on the right to life from the moment of conception, seemingly divinely ordained, and yet, in the Penitentials of the medieval Church, there are surprising attitudes on display about abortion. “The whole discourse on abortion in the early Church was quite different to that of today,” Condren agrees, pointing out, “they didn’t consider the soul had entered the foetus until forty days in the case of a male child, and eighty days in the case of a female child (because obviously it took longer for women than it did for men!), and so the early Church developed its system of penances depending upon whether a male or a female child had been aborted, and effectively whether the soul had been ejected from the woman’s body. It also regulated its penances according to the means by which the abortion had been procured. If it had been procured through ‘magic’, essentially through the local midwife who was in direct competition with the local clergy, then the penance was higher than if the abortion had been procured by other means. The whole issue of abortion for the early Church was that of social consequence. A penance would have been allocated to people who had a child against the wishes of the tribe, because the tribe was the one who decided when a child should be brought into the world. Penances were similar for those who had a child against the wishes of the tribe and those who committed murder, because the giving and taking of life were considered to be equally serious”.
While in pre-Christian societies like the Celtic, there is evidence that homosexuality was not only tolerated, but was in cases seen as a revered and honoured institution, the Penitentials clearly establish the Christian Church’s hostility, though not necessarily along the thinking of the current Church. In the early Irish Church, according to Condren, there is evidence that homosexuality was still treated with some respect, but, by the time of the Penitentials, it was treated extremely harshly – in one case it is listed alongside murder, for example. Making reference to John Chrysostom, Condren writes that “the real crime of homosexuality was that men assumed the ‘feminine’ position in sexual intercourse. Lesbianism, on the other hand, was not taken at all seriously by the early Church”[The Serpent and the Goddess - pg 90].
The complicated relationship between sex, sin, and power is highlighted by the differing penances meted out for fornication. “In the case of laymen, the crucial issue in fornication was not only the act itself, but the extent to which intercourse with a woman had damaged another man’s property. The penance for intercourse with a married woman in one Penitential is given as seven years, but for intercourse with a ‘neighbour woman’ the penance is fourteen years. Intercourse with a widow carried the penalty of one year, whereas with a virgin the penalty was two years plus the dowry that she could normally have commanded upon the marriage” [The Serpent and the Goddess - pg 89].
The complex power structures at the heart of ‘Christian values’, revealed by scholars like Condren, remain predictably absent from debate in Europe, where political figures in countries like Ireland, and Italy demand that reference to our ‘Judeo-Christian’ roots be included in the European Constitution. “It’s a very complex issue,” Condren responds cautiously. “Primarily because I don’t see that religions exist in a vacuum. Religions mediate fairly essential human dispositions, either positively or negatively. They can serve to contain social violence, but also to stir it up. On the one hand you could argue that the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe should now be superceded by a new form of unity, but I think the events of the last couple of weeks, particularly in the Muslim world, indicate that we’re not all singing from the same hymn sheet with regard to the priority of reason. For Europe to abdicate a religious identity which is fairly secure, fairly worked out, highly theologically trained – however problematic I would find it as a woman – might leave it undefended in the face of other ideologies which would push us back into a pre-Enlightenment age completely. Religion has always been an ambivalent quantity. It provides a vehicle for complex feelings and emotions to be expressed and contained, but it also gives the possibility that those in charge of these complex emotions don’t realise the fire they’re playing with. We can see this, for example, in Islam at the moment, where whole populations are being turned to violence overnight, over a cartoon. We’re not on a level playing pitch. The European Union has a very complex role to play at the moment, because it could abdicate one identity only to be overtaken by another, which would bring us back centuries.”
Condren has spent much of her academic life examining the role of sacrifice. Her doctoral thesis was entitled The role of sacrifice in the construction of a gendered social order and gendered systems of representation. She has written extensively on the role of sacrifice in the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the context of the ‘war on terrorism’, and the increasing use of suicide bombing both as a weapon and recruitment tactic, Condren’s feminist analysis has much to offer. “It’s an extremely complex argument, which can’t be done justice in a couple of soundbites,” she qualifies, “but basically in most societies, where sacrifice relates to the social structure, only men can sacrifice, and the control of sacrifice or the control of the lineage created by sacrifice, the founding event of sacrifice, becomes part of the political struggle – like in Ireland, the different groups who turn up to Wolfe Tone’s grave, each claiming to be the legitimate successors to his legacy. Sacrifice in feminist theoretical terms is a political means of superceding birth. The birthing that women do is not that important, what is really important is the ‘cultural’ birthing through war and death that takes place through the institutions of sacrifice. Because of that, these institutions are rigidly controlled by men – for instance, in any Church where the eucharist is still considered as a sacrifice, only men can administer the eucharist. In Churches where the eucharist is not considered to be a sacrifice, women are allowed to be ordained. It’s a huge political issue as much as a theological one. It has its roots in politics, and in some deeply unconscious psychic processes. People like Freud and Melanie Klein have touched on this.
There’s two types of sacrifice: the overt political sacrifice, done under the auspices of war. And self-sacrifice, which is only done by the powerless. Traditionally, in Christianity, women could never celebrate the rites of sacrifice, but there was no problem with them celebrating the rite of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice does not generally though have what we call genealogical effects. It doesn’t give rise to an effective political lineage. For example with the Hunger Strikers in the Northern Irish jails, it was the turning to refuge of those who had absolutely no instrumental means of power left. So, in sacrificing their own bodies, they were attempting to establish another political lineage, which would then feed the fires of revolution. It was though an essentially female strategy, and a precarious one at that, because in the final analysis the families intervened. Families, in Hegel’s terms have always been the anti-thesis of the State.
In The Serpent and the Goddess I made the point that there were holy anorexics in the middle ages. Whereas men could go and preach, convert, and travel the world, the only instrument that women had at their disposal was their bodies and so they flaggelated them. They wallowed in abjection, in their bodies, in ways that were self-sacrifical. It was a desperate attempt at leverage for some form of power, but ultimately it had the opposite effect – it resulted in their own death. So the Suicide bombers are similar: obviously it has a different effect, causing chaos, but it probably won’t ever establish a legitimate political lineage, because by definition it belongs to terror, rather than rational government.”
Condren’s research and analysis offer a devestating critique of the power structures that dominate still dominate our society. Her criticism of the Church’s role in establishing and promoting patriarchy could be lazily misconstrued as entirely negative, but what much of her work has been concerned about is understanding the past in order to change the present and future. “I look at all of these things in some way as a necessary evil, just as Marx considered capitalism a necessary evil. Some of my feminist friends would disagree with this fundamentally, but, as societies became more complex and stratified, the patriarchal system took over from an earlier system for better or for worse. The challenge now is not to take refuge in an idealised past, but to look to the past, examine how we have evolved, and to question in the future what kind of dialectic can there be between the sexes? Under patriarchy women have become completely subservient. There were the dialectics between, for example, the Morrígan and Cúchulainn, which showed a very vibrant and alternative voice In the complexity of the social structure and symbol structure that we’ve inherited, and given the need to recuperate values that we lost with the rise of patriarchy, particularly the emphasis on the vulnerable and the weak, that voice needs to be recuperated, so there’s a geniune dialectic between men and women as we move forward.
There is an alternative mythology, and that needs to be brought out and theorised. One of the exciting things that I’ve come across in recent years is the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist, who in 1983 brought out a book called Female power and male dominance, where she surveyed two hundred societies and found that the more female the image of the deity, the more likely it was that both men and women took responsibility for the raising of children, and that there was little or no violence against women and children. As the deities began to change, becoming more male, the division of labour was split and men no longer took any active role in raising children. She developed a very clear correlation between the gender of the deity and attitudes to women, children, and child rearing. She was heavily criticised for that work because of the breadth and scope of it. Out of that she spent the next twenty years studying a contemporary matriarchal society in Indonesia called the Minangkabau
which is comprised of four million people in West Sumatra. Her excitement about that society is very much because it maintains the old matrialinear structures, the focus of the sociey is on the women and children as they are the most vulnerable elements of the society. The whole society is geared towards taking care of them, on the understanding that if we take care of the most vulnerable and needy, then the rest of us will also be taken care of.”
One of the figures from Irish mythology that Condren came across during her research was that of Macha, one of the important Irish Goddesses who gives her name to the city of Armagh. While myths of heroic deeds by the likes of Fionn Mc Cumhaill have more currency, the legend of Macha provides a centre piece for Condren’s The Serpent and The Goddess. Macha, a mysterious woman linked to the Sun, through the pride/vanity of her husband Crunnchu mac Agnoman, is summoned, pregnant, to the annual Ulster horse racing competition. Crunnchu’s boasts that his wife could run faster than the two finest horses of the King result in Macha being forced to race two horses, despite her plea for mercy, “for a mother bore each one of you”. Forced to run, she wins the race, and dying gives birth, while at the same time cursing the men of Ulster. Her curse is famously called “The Pangs of the Men of Ulster”, condeming them during a time of oppression to be overcome with the weakness of a woman in childbirth. Condren’s analysis of Macha’s curse is an eloquent point to conclude with:
“The philospher Kant has argued that God is the precondition for ethics. But in the light of the curse of Macha, a curse that hangs over us today, we could argue the opposite: care for the preservation of the earth and all her children must now become the precondition for, and the ultimate test, of any ethical system or knowledge of God.”
[The Serpent and the Goddess - pg 210]
The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland is published by New Island Books.
Keynote speakers will include Bracha L. Ettinger, Griselda Pollock, Anne Primavesi, Peggy Reeves Sanday, Genevieve Vaughan.
For further details (including call for papers) see here.
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