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The Power of Pagan Women

The patriarchal Church sought to destroy paganism to break the power of its women.
This is a story particularly supported by the more feminist Wiccans. Wicca then becomes a tool through which these members feel they can reclaim1 their long-suppressed importance and power.

Certainly Medieval Christian Europe was a bad place to be a woman, and the Church just as certainly had few things nice to say about them. But that was a later development in Church history and was influenced as much by culture as culture was being influenced by the Church.

The simple fact is that there has historically always been gender inequality, whether the culture be pagan or Christian. The power of women varies from culture to culture, and it is certainly true that in some of these cultures women wielded considerably more dignity, respect, and power than they did in Medieval Europe. But to say that women were generally considered equal to or even superior to men is a ghastly exaggeration. Historical kingdoms, whether pagan or Christian, can brag very, very few ruling queens.

And here's the kicker, folks: in some pagan societies, women were viewed even more poorly than in Christian ones, including one that deserves special note - the Roman Empire. Roman wives were kept all but captive inside their homes. They were forced to veil themselves upon marriage because of the shame of sexuality the wife alone had to bear. And the Romans had a story they told about a virtuous woman who was raped: she informed her husband and father of the crime so that they could seek justice and revenge, then dutifully committed suicide to spare her family the shame of her rape. She was honored as a supreme example of what a woman should live up to.

Compared to that, Christianity was a feminist revolution within the Empire in which it started. Christian girls could dedicate their bodies to Christ, remaining virgins and never forced into marriage, while the Roman custom was to marry off daughters as quickly as possible. Women could speak during Christian services. Wives appalled the Romans by removing their veils as they rededicated their bodies, the shame of sex no longer upon them. The oft-quoted New Testament passage by St. Paul demanding that women be veiled in Church was not a misogynistic act of control but a measure taken to keep the pagan Romans calm.

Wiccans are quick to cite Christianity's abhorrence with sex as being part of their dislike of women, since sex is associated in Christianity much more strongly with women than with men. While chastity was certainly respected within early Christianity, it was not as central as it later became, particularly among men. Priests, for example, were not originally expected to be celibate. Certain intellectual Roman pagans, on the other hand, were suggesting right at the time of Christianity's early days that semen was the source of a man's power. Therefore, ejaculation and the loss of sperm weakened the man. More drastic solutions to this issue including tying tight cords around the testicles and outright castration - a practice certain extreme Christian ascetics adopted in an attempt to retain spiritual strength.

I'm not awarding the Church any points for picking up on this curious trend, and I'm certainly not excusing what happened in the name of the Church in subsequent centuries. But we need to stop portraying paganism as this great bastion of gender equality and sanity.

1 There is a Tradition known as the Reclaiming Movement, headed by Starhawk. She specifies her belief as Goddess-worship and Witchcraft, but not Wicca. Nevertheless, her writings remain incredibly influential among Wiccans.

© Catherine Noble Beyer, 2002 - 2011   *     Awards