Archive for Gender Theory

Fertility, Potency, Passivity, and Activity in Male and Female Egyptian Nudes

Orly Goldwasser’s theories about the significance of semantic determinatives in hieroglyphic script rest on the premise that the array of determinatives “consists of and reflects a system of knowledge-organization; furthermore… this organization is not at all arbitrary or context-bound, but faithfully represents the deep structured system of world-organization of Egyptian elite society” (Goldwasser 25).  Throughout his analysis, this assumption about word categorization’s relation to world categorization is used in a very productive way, allowing the Egyptian record to speak for itself with a conscious attempt to avoid superimposing modern patterns onto the historical text. 

            Gay Robins, though she does not state it explicitly as Goldwasser does, uses a closely related assumption to found her argument about the relation of nudity in Egyptian art to broader cultural concepts of fertility and potency.  If she were to make a parallel statement about the basis of her argument, it might sound something like this:  Motifs in representational art that depicts human and humanoid figures consist of and reflect a system of knowledge-organization; furthermore this organization faithfully represents the deep structured system of world-organization of Egyptian art-consuming society.  To a great extent, she uses this assumption to make significant and valuable observations—concluding that male nudity communicates either a lack of power (when humans with flaccid phalluses are depicted) or great potency (when deities with erect phalluses are depicted), while female nudity communicates fertility and often has the goal of provoking male arousal.  But I believe she reads some of our own cultural sensibilities into the corpus she is studying, and that by returning to the primary evidence at hand her conclusion might alter significantly. 

            Robins constructs a gender dichotomy with her unquestioning use of the terms “fertility” and “potency.”  Fertility implies a passive relation to reproduction—in this view a woman is something like a field for the growth of life; potency requires an active role in reproduction—male sexuality is here seen as a demonstration of power.  By using this model, an implicit assumption seems to be that active female sexuality is a relatively new convention. 

            In the Egyptian context, it is not entirely unwarranted to posit that femininity in general was construed as less active than masculinity.  As Robins points out, women were more restricted than men in choice of occupation, and the range of titles that could precede their names was more limited—and “the most common by far was ‘mistress of the house” (Robins 27).  It is important to note, however, that this occupation itself is not a passive role!  Administration of an estate, managing domestic contracts, birthing and rearing children are really quite active pursuits.  Robins calls the images of naked women “fertility figurines” and says that “their purpose was to help the deceased, male or female, to be reborn into the afterlife” (30).  She is right to point out the female connection to rebirth—but she should also point out that birth labor is active, not passive! 

            Robins explains that “in contrast to the penis that is either flaccid or erect, there is no easily seen external change in the female genitals between nonarousal and arousal” (39).  While Egyptian art may have lacked the technical capacity to express female arousal visually, this alone should not indicate that in the Egyptian world-view, female sexuality was relegated to passive fertility. 

            The image of Isis as a bird descending upon the dead Osiris’ penis indicates an alternative to this model.  Here Isis is quite active—she is not only atop her lover but she in fact reconstituted his entire body after it had been rent apart in order to initiate the scene.  Considered with her subsequent birth of Horus, this appears to be a visual representation of active female sexuality.  It is executed outside the classifier of human nudity, which is perhaps why it escaped Robins’ study in the first place, but its evidence is well-known enough and significant enough to her conclusion that its neglect is a serious problem indeed.


Leave a Comment

Problematic Assumptions of the Goddess Hypothesis

Clearly one of the greatest challenges of the archaeological study of prehistoric sites is the very pre-Historic nature of finds. Without a text record, it is difficult to establish the chronology of a culture, let alone an epistemology. That isn’t to say that productive digs haven’t turned up a myriad of tantalizing clues—clues which have led modern theorists to develop numerous credible explanations of past cultural beliefs and practices. One very popular object of inquiry is the seemingly omni-present human-like figurine. Found in abundance at many Neolithic sites across Europe and western Asia, these figurines vary widely in size, composition, pattern, form, condition, and location. For all of these differences, one might expect a theory about their purpose to comprehend many facets of usage. One theory that has gained popularity (at least as much, if not more, in lay circles as in academic) however, is surprisingly unified in approach. The Mother Goddess hypothesis, championed by such recent scholars as Marija Gimbutas and Anne Baring, suggests that the overwhelmingly female population of figurines all represent a supreme goddess common among Neolithic communities. This theory is extended to suggest that these Goddess figures are one of several indicators of the existence of a matriarchal society.

This theory is appealing on many counts. First, it provides a sweepingly broad set of categories by which future finds can be classified with relative ease. While there is some amount of scholarly disagreement about the finer details of representational gender traits, many of the figures can be clearly identified by primary sex characteristics such as curved breasts, stylized vulvas, or phalluses. By this system, ostensible femininity marks a figure as a representation of the Goddess, and ostensible masculinity marks a figure as something other. The similarities of figurines across geographic areas is taken to indicate a shared belief system, expanding the academic potential of each site to cover all loosely contemporaneous sites.

Second, such a prevalent Goddess implies much about Neolithic religious culture. If female figures are so much more common than male figures, then it is easy to conclude that more significance was attached to the feminine aspects of the divine. That so many of the female figures themselves appear to be pregnant (as shown by enormous bellies, breasts, and buttocks) or birthing seems to clearly associate the Goddess with fertility and life. Taken a step further, this second convenience of the Goddess Hypothesis takes on a political significance. If emphasis on a female divinity can be equated with prominence of women in Neolithic society, then this might suggest a matriarchal social structure as opposed to a patriarchal one.

The third appealing dimension of this hypothesis is a direct consequence of the second. If this matriarchy existed on a large scale, as suggested by the presence of similar figurines across wide swaths of Europe, then the existing patriarchal structure of society must not be inherent—it must be historically contingent and therefore alterable. It is the revolutionary potential of this reading of history that attracts so many.

While this explanation seems to answer many questions and has a great potential impact on contemporary social life, many of the assumptions on which the Goddess Hypothesis is founded are quite troublesome. Aspects of the theory’s primary conveniences in some ways prove to be their own undoing—making the Goddess Hypothesis something less than entirely tenable.

The convenient gender binary set up for the classification of figurines is, while not unassailable, quite productive for study and so I will not argue against it here except to note that, like gender, sex is socially constructed and so might have had a different representational significance during the original context of a figurine than it does now. The first major point of contention is rather that these figures, despite their diversity in material, style, and geography, should all represent the exact same entity, and second that this entity should necessarily be the supreme Mother Goddess. The problematic compression of time and space in pre-Historical studies is perhaps unavoidable, though the universality of the theory seems a bit of a stretch. Implicit in the Mother Goddess assumption is that the most frequently represented entity must be the most important entity in the culture, and further that the most important entity should be a divine figure. Some form of religion is attested almost universally among Historical cultures, so it is no great leap to suppose that in pre-Historic Europe this was also the case. But what is it that tells us that every figure must be religious in nature, and that it must in fact be the central character of the religion? History is rife with examples of taboos against representing important or sacred objects. Without a written record, it is difficult to judge whether these figurines represent the holiest of holy figures, a lesser deity, or something altogether more earthly—perhaps a human female, in portrait or in the abstract.

The social application of the Goddess Theory also produces problems. While Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, in their The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, warn us against interpretations of pre-Historic evidence “through the veil of our own cultural assumptions,” (94) the very paradigm that the gender of a primary god is necessarily and clearly reflective of the dominant gender in a society is difficult to separate from the masculine monotheism of western culture. The represented fertility of the figurines could indeed correlate with a respect of or desire for fertility in the Neolithic women, but might this be to place too great an emphasis on Neolithic fertility concerns? Certainly there is something to be said for the evolutionary prerogative to further the species, and certainly life expectancy was not so great then as it is now. But to insist on a single-minded quest for procreation is to underestimate the human capacity for adaptation to difficult environments.

While the Goddess Hypothesis does contain valuable insights for interpreting the past, many of which are revolutionary in the fields of archaeology and historical studies, the overwhelmingly narrow focus of the conclusion (that is, that all or nearly all female-identified figurines of the period represent a Supreme Mother Goddess, who represented the power of women in a matriarchal culture) is problematic.

Leave a Comment