Adam And Eve, Sistine Chapel

The Origin of the Idea of the Defective Nature of Woman

The Origin and Effects of the Oppression of Woman

There was a marked change in the attitude towards women in the third and fourth centuries when Christian theologians – many of them originally lawyers – began to inveigh against women holding any priestly office or even speaking out in debates in church, for by now, churches had been built to hold large congregations. Once again, as in Greek, Roman and Jewish culture, women were relegated to the home and could hold no public office, (with the exception of those women in Greek culture who held the role of priestesses). Their primary role was to copy Mary’s example of humility and accept the rule of chastity, silence and obedience. As Irenaeus (ca. AD125–200), bishop of Lyons stated: “Eve by her disobedience brought death on herself and on all the human race: Mary, by her obedience, brought salvation.” The power of men to control the lives of women was never questioned.

Tertullian, (AD160–220), a theologian and prolific writer living in North Africa, became one of the most vociferous critics of women holding priestly office:It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer the [Eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function—least of all, in priestly office.” Tertullian addressed women directly in one of the most virulently misogynistic passages that have come down to us from the past:

It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer the [Eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function—least of all, in priestly office.

By every garb of penitence woman might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve – the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium of human perdition…Do you not know that you are each an Eve?…You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desertion— that is, death—even the son of God had to die.

Generations of Christian ascetics believed that the path to God could only be opened through the renunciation of anything to do with the contamination of woman because that contamination might defile the holy sacraments and interfere with their contemplation of God.

Today we would say he was in the grip of a complex! Despite the fact that in the Gospels Jesus does not equate sexuality with sinfulness but, on the contrary, protects an adulterous woman from death by stoning, the idea of enmity between the higher (soul and rational mind) and lower (body) aspects of human nature and the sinfulness of sexuality became, through the influence of St. Augustine and later theologians, one of the major themes of Christian teaching.

After his conversion, St. Augustine wouldn’t allow any woman in his house, not even his elder sister or his nieces, all of whom were nuns. He said that woman’s face reminded him of Eve.

The Myth of the Goddess

In our research for Chapter 13 of The Myth of the Goddess on the dark legacy of the Myth of the Fall, which gives a much fuller account of this legacy, Jules and I found endlessly repeated in the writings of the Christian theologians that woman, because of her descent from Eve, was described as an inferior substance because Eve emerged from Adam; as a secondary creation because Eve was created second, out of Adam; as the ally of the serpent and the devil because she succumbed to temptation first; as the devil’s gateway through whom the devil or Satan is enabled to pursue his aims in the world through causing her to tempt men into sexual relations. These ideas laid the ground for the witch trials over 1000 years later, when women were specifically accused of ‘consorting’ with the devil and even having intercourse with him.

The fact that Eve in Genesis is described as a secondary creation drawn from the body of Adam rather than a primary creation, led to this contorted statement from Gratian, a twelfth century theologian, which reinforced the idea that women should be under the control of their husbands and went so far as to state that woman was not made in God’s image because she was a secondary creation, drawn from Adam:

The image of God is in man and it is one. Women were drawn from man, who has God’s jurisdiction as if he were God’s vicar, because he has the image of the one God. Therefore Woman is not made in God’s image…Adam was beguiled by Eve, not she by him…It is right that he whom woman led into wrongdoing should have her under his direction, so that he may not fail a second time through female levity.

The end result of these negative projections onto woman was that Eve and all women were equated with body, matter and carnality and the irrational nature of man. Adam, who got off relatively lightly as a primary creation and as a secondary rather than a primary sinner, was equated with the rational soul, following the Greek view of man. “Woman,” wrote Albertus Magnus, teacher of Thomas Aquinas, in the twelfth century, “is an imperfect man and possesses, compared to him, a defective and deficient nature. She is therefore insecure in herself. That which she herself cannot receive, she endeavours to obtain by means of mendacity and devilish tricks.” No wonder it has been so difficult for women priests and women bishops to gain acceptance.

Here are two statements from the pen of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who was influenced, not only by Albertus Magnus but by Aristotle’s derogatory view of woman:

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even some external influence, like the south wind, for example, which is damp.

The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman…But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature.

In 1130, a well-known French poet, Bernard of Cluny, in a poem called De contemptu mundi, contrasted the heavenly world of beauty, light and peace with this fallen one that was contaminated by woman.

“Woman sordid, perfidious, fallen, besmirches purity, meditates impiety, corrupts life… Woman is a wild beast; her crimes are like the sand…Woman is a guilty thing, a hopelessly fleshly thing, nothing but flesh, vigorous to destroy, born to deceive, and taught to deceive—the last pitfall, worst of vipers, beautiful rottenness, a slippery pathway, public doorway, sweet poison. All guile is she, fickle, and impious, a vessel of filth, an unprofitable vessel…The sins of a man are more pious, more acceptable to the Lord, than the good deeds of a woman.”

Woman for him was the symbol of a transient and corrupt Nature, dragging men down to damnation. He was much praised for giving such vivid expression to a then widely accepted belief

The misogynistic attitude towards women that prevailed in Greek and Roman culture had distant roots in the dualism of the solar age where light and darkness, good and evil are so strongly polarized. The subservient position of women in those cultures where the solar ethos prevailed was the same as it was to become in later Christian and other patriarchal cultures. It was found not only in the Semitic cultures of the Near and Middle East, and in Greek and Roman culture, but also further to the East, in cultures such as those of India and China, wherever a powerful controlling male priesthood allied to social custom assigned and enforced a subservient position on women.

These ideas, which reflected and confirmed those imbibed from Greek and Roman as well as Jewish culture, entered mainstream Christian teaching and were responsible for an enormous amount of suffering for woman whose inferior and sexual nature came to be seen as the main impediment standing between man and God. It is as if a spell were cast on the Christian psyche by the Myth of the Fall. Torjesen summarises woman’s position:

The equation of woman with sexuality and body…and the exclusion of sexuality and passion from the divine opened up a chasm between woman and God. Only by repudiating her sexual identity and renouncing femaleness could this chasm be bridged. The equation of woman with sexuality meant she was both subordinated to man and alienated from God.

The beliefs and social customs engendered by these projections justified every kind of persecution of woman, from denying her the right to any property and making her subject to her husband, to the witch trials of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in which many thousands of women were tortured (their head and genitals shaved so that no devil might conceal himself in their hair) in order to prove their sexual relations with the devil, and died horrifically at the stake. The exact number varies with different authors. Many of these unfortunate women were accused of being witches by other women in their communities.

In 1485, Pope Innocent VIII published a Bull that was followed by the publication in 1487 of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches, inaugurating centuries of persecution. This became the handbook of the Inquisition and led to the torture and murder by death at the stake or by hanging of thousands of so-called witches, many of whom were mid-wives, skilled in the use of herbs for healing. “Never” writes Gregory Zilboorg in his History of Medical Psychology, “in the history of humanity was woman more systematically degraded. She paid for the fall of Eve sevenfold, and the Law bore a countenance of pride and self-satisfaction, and the delusional certainty that the will of the Lord had been done.”

Carrying the cellular memory of such deeply negative projections onto her as well as the terror arising from this persecution, it has been immensely difficult for women to find their voice and their true role in society and for men to overcome their fear and distrust of women. It is reflected today in the misogynistic remarks directed at women by men and also by women about other women through the medium of Facebook and Twitter.