Ancient Near East

This article presents a general overview of gender constructs that may or may not be revealed in the actions and characteristics attributed to various Mesopotamian deities in the cuneiform record. Sources that inform this overview are predominantly literary: myths, legends, hymns, and royal inscriptions. These texts provide the most description. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of discovery, scribal curriculum, and political and religious interests, it must be accepted at the outset that this knowledge base is inherently limited and biased. While we have dated royal and dedicatory inscriptions that contain references to gods, our Sumerian literary texts—hymns and prayers—date predominantly to the Old Babylonian period (some containing modified versions of older texts) and primarily come from two southern sites: Nippur and Ur. Akkadian texts date to later periods, but even the majority of these are known to us only from late copies discovered in the Neo-Assyrian library of Aššurbanipal. Royal inscriptions, hymns, and prayers are rife with imperialist goals. The texts from Nippur and Ur are undoubtedly colored by the cults of Nippur and Ur. With this said, much can be gleaned from these accounts. In what follows, when a god is first mentioned, the name is followed by an f (for female) or m (for male) in parentheses to alert readers to that god’s sex, e.g., Enlil(m) or Ninlil(f). In many cases it is unknown what, if any, sex a god was given.

Early Scholarship and Reality.

When the ancient Near East was stumbled upon (sometimes quite literally) by curious Westerners in the latter half of the second millennium C.E., these early travelers, soon to be scholars, began to find evidence of a rich polytheistic society. Seeking to make sense of this seemingly very foreign world, they explained the new discoveries in terms of what they already knew. In addition to multiple other ideas, they theorized in an astral pantheon, an agricultural one, and a “primitive” religion at whose heart was a great single deity (a mother goddess). Because these early scholars continued to seek a blueprint for the ancient world in one already known to them, female gods were assumed to be mere shades of their male active counterparts (except for this early “mother goddess”): every family needed a patriarch and every patriarch needed a loving if nondescript female partner. Mesopotamian religion does and does not fit these models. Mesopotamian gods were at times, and in different regions, grouped into families and there was a great goddess who was motherly in that she ushered in all life; there was also, however, a great god who was the essence of all fertility. The gods were, somewhat late in the cuneiform record, associated with or viewed as planets and stars; yet they were also rulers over cities and lands, multiple aspects of human society, flora, fauna, and meteorological phenomena. Gods rarely jockeyed for power among themselves, and the sex and gender of a god, in the main, seems to have had little correlation with the manner by which mortal sex and gender was assigned and/or performed.


On a certain level, it must be assumed that Sumerians, at least, were not overly concerned with the sex and gender of deities. The Sumerian language has grammatical gender but it is assigned according to sentient versus nonsentient and not feminine versus masculine. The Sumerian word for god, diĝir, is unisex. This means that unless there are additional indicators (e.g., the god is said to be a father or mother), it cannot be known what sex the deity is. This makes it impossible to parse out the gender of deities listed in the earliest god lists, unless they rose to such importance as to have made their way into later more descriptive texts. The Akkadian language does differentiate masculine and feminine, although not consistently (third-person verbal forms are unisex in Old Babylonian and can lead to ambiguity of subject). Moreover, many religious literary texts are not written in Akkadian; only during the latter half of the second millennium did such texts begin to be written predominantly in this Semitic language. It is also during this time that the vast plethora of gods begins to be syncretized to such an extent that relatively few deities remain active by the later periods in Mesopotamian history.


Dissimilar from the mortal world, the sex of a god is not assigned based on his or her genitalia, nor is the gender of a god assigned based on the god’s sex. Rather, the visual presentation or textual description of a god occurs after the sex has been agreed on by a culture, if any sex has been decided at all. How these designations are assigned is obscure and eludes any simple rationale. Visually, gender differentiation can be obvious and accords with visual gender differentiation of mortals, such as the presence or absence of a beard. Hairstyles and dress might also provide marking, as do half- or seminude depictions. Dress is not a consistent marker, however, since martial Ištar dons masculine clothing and stance but sometimes lifts her skirt to show her sex. This alerts the viewer that she performs a construct of divine femininity that is more closely aligned with divine masculinity. All gods, regardless of sex, when described anthropomorphically are good looking, sexy, and awesome to behold. Female and male gods, when not depicted anthropomorphically, take various forms. They are amorphous, such as Nammu/Tiāmat(f), who seems to be essentially an enormous womb filled with amniotic fluid. Apsû(m), too, is fluid waters, taking even less shape as the underground “sweet waters” = semen. When Tiāmat fights she becomes a great flying dragon creature; when she is eviscerated by Marduk(m), her body becomes the earth on which humans live and the sky in which birds fly. Enlil is a great mountain, and Inana(f) and Ninurta(m) are the size of mountains when they each destroy Ebih (a mountain) and Asag (a mountain creature with a rock army). Marduk is so large that as a child the four winds are his playthings. On Middle Babylonian kudurru (large commemorative stones), gods are symbolized. Except for Gula(f), who is given the shape of a mortal woman, gods are represented by a turtle, spade, lightning, snake, and goat, among other images. In texts, gods are frequently described as giant bovines, serpents, or celestial in nature. An(m) is the heavens. Appearing as planets and stars, Nana/Sîn(m) is the moon god and father of the Utu/Šamaš(m), the Sun, and his twin sister Inana/Ištar, Venus. Even though he is their father, Nana is smaller than his son but larger than his daughter (as seen by the naked eye). Nergal(m) is the red planet, Mars, and Ninurta(m) is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

Functions of Gods.

In the Mesopotamian evidence, the gods function within both biological/societal roles and the administration of justice.


It might be assumed that the sex and gender of gods mirrors the mortal world with regard to function and actions. Certainly this is true when the gods are grouped together in families. In domestic scenes, gods can be described as acting as would mortals. When Ninisin(f) is promised as wife to Ninĝirsu(m) and comes to reside in the house of her father-in-law Enlil, she is said to be the egia (Akk. kallatu) “bride in residence.” When Dumuzi(m) woos Inana in the many love songs devoted to the couple, Dumuzi acts as would be expected of any mortal suitor. He brings gifts to the family and dances about like a young lad in love.

The sex of gods who preside over procreation also aligns with the sex roles of mortals. The gods of the womb and birth are female: Nammu/Tiāmat, Ninmaḫ/Bēlet-ilī, and Ninimma; however, the god of gestation, Nana, is male. The male moon god may have presided over gestation because of his role in the determination of a month. Fertility itself was presided over by the water god Enki/Ea(m) and the rain god Iškur/Adad(m). Water was the equivalent of semen, considered the source of all life. In addition, the societally gendered roles of weaving—governed by Uttu(f)—and ploughing—governed by Ninazu/Ninĝirsu/Ninurta(m)—mirror mortal practice (although men did weave). Thus, when describing procreative and domestic roles, the sex and gender of a god could follow mortal constructs; however, more abstract realms over which gods presided cannot be so easily explained.

Justice, societal order, and destiny.

Many gods had two vital roles: to function as patron deity over a city(ies) or land(s) and to function as the ruler of a realm such as medicine, irrigation, or animal husbandry. Some more minor gods did not function as patrons and instead served in the entourage of the greater gods in the roles of ministers, heralds, or butlers. Various major deities, or consortiums of deities, also controlled mortal justice, societal order, and the destinies of gods and peoples.

Justice and the execution of justice were carried out by a variety of deities. Utu/Šamaš was god of justice par excellence and continued in this capacity throughout the long cuneiform record. The martial gods carried out justice (periodically with the help of mortals), and hence they occasionally are referred to as guardians of right and wrongdoing. Because there is no evidence that mortal women wielded weapons in any Mesopotamian society during any period (and in fact there is ample evidence that supports martial activity as a facet of a construct of masculinity), we might expect that goddesses were not martial. Yet, although many deities of war were considered male (e.g., Ninĝirsu, Ninurta, Nergal, Adad, and Zababa), there were multiple martial goddesses (e.g., Ištar/Inana, Annunītum, Ulmašitum, Ninsi’anna, and Ninisin).

One might argue that all male martial deities are in some way versions of each other, since all female martial deities seem to be forms of Ištar; however, when acting in a battle setting all male and female war gods are described similarly. Martial gods are heroes who delight in battle. If there is rebellion on the horizon, they are quick to act. They execute mountains, as do Inana in Inana and Ebih and Ninurta in Lugal-e; they lead kings to war, as do Nergal, Ninurta, and Ištar in the Assyrian royal inscriptions; and they carry out destruction and murder at the behest of Enlil, as does Ninisin when she declares that “after I had destroyed [the city] like water, drowned it like the harvest, after I had grabbed [the rebel] as a threshing sledge grabs barley, after I had set him ablaze like esparto grass, I struck him with the mace and killed him” (ETCSL 4.22.1: 118–120). War gods desire power in addition to blood, as does Ninurta in Ninurta and the Turtle when he attempts to acquire the Tablet of Destinies. Nergal/Erra also seeks power when he wishes to wrest control from Marduk in the Erra Epic, as does Inana/Ištar when she travels to the Netherworld to usurp Ereškigal(f) in the bilingual Ištar’s Descent to the Netherworld. All gods, martial or otherwise, are described as sullen, spoiled, impetuous, and disruptive when enraged. For a god to be calmed, be it Enlil when he chooses to destroy a city or land or Ereškigal when she flays Ištar, his or her heart must be cooled and his or her ego soothed.

As patron, a deity was the protector of a city (or land) and her people. According to the Sumerian Temple Hymns, the function of protector of a city was neither particularly masculine nor feminine, at least during the Old Babylonian period. This text, which praises the temples of various cities, lists patron gods that are 40 percent female. A patron deity proclaims a good fate for the king and city and acts as a lobbyist before the council of gods, so that they too may proclaim a good fate for the king and city. A propitious reign was filled with agricultural abundance, lack of plague, good market prices, and safe highways. To keep a patron deity content, the king of the city or ruler of several cities needed to tend to the basic needs of the gods, e.g., feeding, clothing, and entertaining them, and to ensure that the god(s) was(were) properly worshiped through various religious rites. If a king failed in his duties, the god or council of gods could remove his or their protection and “hand over” the city (or land) to another ruler. During this change of power the city (or land) would become the victim of war, drought, starvation, rape, pillaging, inflation, and various other atrocities.

Whereas in the north various gods had the power to revoke kingship (e.g., Adad and Ištar), in southern Sumer the fate of a city was more likely at the mercy of four great gods: An of the heavens, Enlil of the air/lands, Enki of the waters, and Ninmaḫ/Ninḫursaĝ/Aruru of the foothills or netherworld. These gods are not only the patrons of their own cities but as the rulers of the four regions (sky, land, water, netherworld) they could sit in counsel together and decree more universal fates. Of the four, Enlil is most often described as the instigator of the destruction of a city or region. Destruction could be ordered because of divine displeasure with offerings, as in the case of Ur-Nammu in the Death of Ur-Nammu. Or, as in several tales, the gods merely become irritated by the noise made by the multitude of people populating their cities. Sometimes, as recorded in the Sumerian King List, the reason for a change of rule is unknown even to the gods themselves.

Since patron gods could be of either sex, the indifference to these horrors expressed by the god and the compassion needed to alleviate the suffering was neither a masculine nor feminine trait. Somewhat gendered is a god’s described reaction to the destruction of his or her own city. In the Lament for Sumer and Ur, all male gods are said to “take an unfamiliar path,” while all female goddesses lament bitterly: “Alas, the destroyed city, my destroyed house.” However, lest it be thought that only female deities are prone to lamenting, in the Lament for Uruk all of the Anuna gods cry and in the Lament for Eridu Enki weeps bitter tears, wails, fasts, and becomes despondent. Damgalnuna, his wife, claws at her breast, eyes, and hair while wailing. To calm their deep sadness, the lament is recited to soothe the heart of the chief patron, Enki, so that the gods may return to his city. Enlil acts similarly in the Cursing of Akkade. After Enlil decrees the destruction of Akkade, each deity removes his or her gift from the city: Ninurta, the royal insignia; Utu, speech; Enki, wisdom; and Inana, weapons. Akkade then descends on the Ekur, temple of Enlil. Enlil’s response to the ransacking of the Ekur is to become severely depressed, lie down, and fast. Finally, when Ur is destroyed, in the Lament for Ur, Nana goes before his father Enlil to beg for an end to the travesties. He wears the garment of mourning. Ultimately, An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninmaḫ allow for peace and rejuvenation to return to the land just as they also decree the restitution of all of Sumer and Akkade in the Lament for Nippur. In this lament, Enlil destroys his own city because he is angry. He makes the great me, the organizing principles of the universe, fly away, thus causing chaos.

The exact connection between the me and the Tablet of Destinies is unclear. The Tablet, worn around the neck of Aššur in the Neo-Assyrian period, originally had been kept and inscribed by Nisaba(f). According to the Temple Hymns, fates were decreed at the temples of Ninḫursaĝ at Ereš and Adab, since Ninḫursaĝ is the midwife who ordains destinies. According to the myth Enlil and Sud, once they are married Sud/Ninlil (daughter of Nisaba/Ninḫursaĝ) will sit with Enlil in the Ekur and determine the fates. Perhaps the Tablet comes to be in Enlil’s possession when the two houses of Nisaba/Ninḫursaĝ and Enlil join, since it is from Enlil that the Anzû bird steals the Tablet in order to rule in the Epic of Anzû. Ninurta, son of Enlil, must battle Anzû to return the Tablet to his father.

In Ninurta and the Turtle, Anzû also tries to steal the Tablet of Destinies, here equated with the me. The powers fall into the Abzu, dwelling of Enki. Multiple myths record Enki as keeper of the me and organizer of the universe. In Enki and the World Order, the god assigns functions to the deities; in Inana and Enki, it is from Enki that Inana receives the me, which she then brings to her city Uruk. Several of Inana’s temples (including her temple at Aššur) are referred to as the residences of the me. But this is true for Ninurta as well. Both Inana and Ninurta are said to decree destinies—Ninurta with this father Enlil, and Inana with the three great gods: An, Enlil, and Enki. Eventually, when Marduk rises in power, his son Nabû, who is essentially syncretized with Nisaba, resides in the temple called the house which gathers the seven me of heaven and earth.

Power Shifts.

Throughout the length of Mesopotamian history, certain functions normally associated with one deity might transfer or be absorbed by another deity. For example, Ninĝirsu, a god of the ancient Sumerian city Lagaš, was both a hero and an agricultural god who came to be syncretized with Ninurta, the son of Enlil. After this merging it becomes almost impossible to separate one god from the other. Similarly, when Babylon rises in prestige, its minor god, Marduk, acquires the great mušhuššu dragon from the god Ninazu(m) after the city of Ninazu, Ešnunna, is conquered. Because Nabû(m), god of Borsippa, is the son of Marduk, he acquires the function of patron of the scribes from Nisaba, the mother-in-law of Enlil. In this exchange, Nabû also gains the designation Sovereign of Sexual Attraction from Nisaba.

This kind of transfer/syncretization can also be from male god to female god. In the Sumerian tale Inana and Enki, Inana travels to Eridu to acquire the me from Enki. This tale is thought to explain the rise of Uruk, city of Inana. Perhaps the most obvious absorption of powers is recorded in the Enūma Eliš. At the end of this Akkadian myth, Marduk receives fifty names, each representing a power normally held by a different god. Even the number fifty is indicative of a transfer of power, first being associated with Ninĝirsu, then with Ninurta, then with Enlil, and finally with Marduk. It should also be noted that when Marduk choses to battle the mighty Tiāmat, he declares that a woman’s strength is not as great as a man’s. It is difficult to decide if this should be read more than as a mere highly provocative taunt, for certainly Ištar of Arbela continued to strike fear into the hearts of men as war god of the Assyrians as long as the text was in major circulation.

The transfer of power between deities is often seen as reflecting a shift from a more matriarchal or “woman friendly” society to a patriarchal one. This is one explanation for the account in which both Enlil and his son Ninurta rename Nisaba and Sud. After marrying Sud, daughter of Nisaba/ Ninḫursaĝ, Enlil renames her Ninlil and acquires the prestige of her family line. In the bilingual myth Lugal-e, Ninurta, son of Enlil, gives Enlil’s sister the great Ninmaḫ the new name Ninḫursaĝ and places her in charge of the stones that he has just conquered. This act not only solidifies his power to name his own aunt but explains the superiority of Nippur over Ereš, city of Ninḫursaĝ. However, the very opposite transfer is recorded in Inana and An. In this Sumerian tale, Inana takes over the heavens and is said to be “more powerful than An.” It is thought that this myth records the preeminence of Inana in the Eana of Uruk, the temple complex she shares with An.

The preeminence of Inana/Ištar during various points in Mesopotamian history, therefore, is not the result of a great matriarchy. Rather, empires such as the Old Akkadian Sargonic and the Neo-Assyrian Sargonid had Inana/Ištar as their most powerful deity. As a city, land, or empire rises in prestige so too do its primary gods.


This survey has by necessity been brief and general. It has left out certain major deities, such as Gula/Ninisin, the great healer, and her medical assistant son, Ninazu. It also does not discuss gods connected to illness, such as Erra, who may bring plague; Šamaš, who may cause leprosy; and Gula, who seems to be able to curse a person with dropsy. Nor does it consider the many malevolent divine beings, such as the daughters of An, the Sebetti, or various demons, all of whom are rarely sexed. It does not provide discussion of minor deities, such as the vizier Ninšubar, who is female when ministering to Inana and male when aiding An. Ninšubar is further equated with the sister of Dumuzi, Geštinana in some texts, and with Pabilsaĝ, the husband of Gula, in others. Finally, it must be noted that even within different regions, gods may have different sexes. Dumuzi-abzu, a god of incantations, is female at Lagaš and male in Eridu. In the most cited example of this phenomenon, the Sun is male in Mesopotamia proper and female in Anatolia (modern Turkey). In both regions, the Sun is a grand judge who presides over justice.

In short, gender, sex, and deity are as complex as the religion(s) of Mesopotamia itself. Each function, description, and transfer of power must be contextualized according to authorial intent, audience, purpose, setting, and period, for it is difficult to know the ways of the gods.




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Ilona Zsolnay

Hebrew Bible

Many of the world’s religions consider one or more female deities to be powerful forces and legitimate objects of veneration. In mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition and practice, however, female deities are noticeably absent. In the latter third of the twentieth century, as feminists within Judeo-Christian tradition began to articulate notions such as patriarchy, androcentricity, and gender equality, this lack of female divinity was rendered problematic. Interpreting Genesis 1:27 to mean that the image of God comprises both male and female, one stream of theologically oriented scholarship focused on demonstrating that certain texts attribute female characteristics and roles to Yahweh, and thereby asserted that this deity should not be envisaged simply as male. A second approach has been to reassess what the Hebrew Bible, and Hebrew Bible scholars, have had to say about female deities and their worship.

A God Both (and Neither) Male and Female.

The initial terms of reference and conceptual frame for attributing female characteristics and social roles to Yahweh were laid out in the 1970s by Phyllis Trible in response to the Women’s Liberation Movement’s denigration of the Bible and its God. Her starting point was the conviction that biblical faith does not support either the creation or perpetuation of patriarchy, and that the interpretational challenge lay in translating biblical faith without sexism (Trible, 1973, pp. 30–31). She proceeded without evident reflection on the essentialist implications of what she accepted as indicative of female, or feminine, roles and attitudes, and did not employ a concept of gender. This conceptual naïveté persisted in much subsequent literature on the topic. The project of affirming women’s equality by arguing that Yahweh is both (and neither) male and female was eclipsed to a certain extent by the second approach noted earlier.

Female images of Yahweh.

Although acknowledging the overwhelming predominance of “masculine” language and imagery used to describe Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, Trible and others argued that numerous texts draw upon female anatomy and social roles to portray this deity. Prominent examples include those that, ostensibly, depict Yahweh in labor (Isa 42:14; cf. 66:9), speak of Yahweh giving birth (Num 11:12; Deut 32:18), acting maternally (Isa 49:15, 66:13) or in the role of a midwife (Ps 22:9–10), or performing typically female tasks such as providing food and drink (Exod 16:4–36; 17:1–7; Hos 11:4; Neh 9:15) and clothing (Gen 3:21; Neh 9:21). That the Hebrew Bible clearly and consistently uses masculine pronouns in reference to Yahweh has been explained by noting that Hebrew has grammatically masculine and feminine genders but no neuter and, since all names and epithets of Yahweh are grammatically masculine, God is referred to, both in Hebrew and in English translation, with masculine pronouns such as “he.” Thus, grammatical gender has made a powerful contribution toward (mis)conceptualizing Yahweh as male (Meyers, 1990, p. 526). For example, regarding Psalm 22:9’s “yet it was you [Yahweh] who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast,” the fact that this “you” in the Hebrew is masculine singular does not preclude Trible (1973, p. 33; 1978, p. 22) from describing Yahweh in this verse as a female midwife.

Several of the texts routinely cited as presenting female images of God have been interpreted differently. Take, for example, Isaiah 49:15:

Can a woman forget her nursing child,or show no compassion for the child of her womb?Even these may forget,yet I [Yahweh] will not forget you.

While this verse clearly compares Yahweh’s bond (with Jerusalem) with a mother’s attachment to her infant, there is nothing that compels the reader to envisage Yahweh as maternal/female as a consequence of the comparison. Numbers 11:12 provides another example. In this verse, an exasperated Moses says to God:

"Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors”?"

That Moses’s rhetorical questions are intended to be answered in the negative is not in dispute. What is in contention is whether Moses’s speech necessarily implies that Yahweh gave birth to and suckled Israel, thereby suggesting that God is female.

Gynomorphism, deity, and simile.

In numerous texts in the Hebrew Bible Yahweh is portrayed anthropomorphically, that is, in human form. Examples include Yahweh breathing into the nostrils of the first human the breath of life (Gen 2:7), walking in Eden at the time of the evening breeze (Gen 3:8), feeling regret (Gen 6:6), and enjoying the aroma of roasting flesh (Gen 8:21). Given that the term “anthropomorphic” can be construed as nonspecific about gender, “gynomorphic” was coined to mean in human female form and contrasted with “andromorphic.” However, when “gynomorphic” is used in the literature that interprets certain texts as illustrating that Yahweh is not always envisaged as male, “gynomorphic” is qualified by terms such as “speech,” “language,” and “imagery.” These qualifications in effect subtly enlarge the range of texts that can be described as gynomorphic such that “gynomorphic” is no longer being employed strictly as a gender-specific subcategory of “anthropomorphic.” To illustrate, consider Isaiah 42:14B: “now I [Yahweh] will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Yahweh in this text is not portrayed as human in the same way as the deity is portrayed anthropomorphically in the examples from Genesis. Rather, in Isaiah 42, the deity is said to scream and gasp and pant like a woman does when she is in labor (Darr, 1987). Isaiah 66:13 provides another example of so-called gynomorphic imagery being applied to God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I [Yahweh] will comfort you.” While the imagery of a mother comforting her child is clearly maternal/gynomorphic, Yahweh is not thereby envisaged by the author as being a comforting mother. In other words, unlike the standard examples of anthromorphism of the type drawn from Genesis, both Isaiah texts employ the literary trope known as simile, and neither simile entails gendering Yahweh female.

The compassionate Womb?

In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is frequently described as a compassionate deity. In Hebrew, the noun raḥămı̂m (“compassion”), the verb riḥam (“have compassion”), and the adjective raḥûm (“compassionate”) share both the clearly related meanings as well as the three consonants rḥm and thus can be described, inaccurately but pragmatically, as sharing the same root. The Hebrew word for “womb,” reḥem, includes the same three consonants, and on this basis it has been argued that “womb” and “compassion” are meaningfully related, the latter being an abstract, metaphorical extension of the meaning of the concrete noun “womb.” Thus compassion, including Yahweh’s compassion, is imbued with meaning that derives from a uniquely female body part and so is deemed an essentially female emotion (Trible, 1978, pp. 31–59).

From an etymological point of view it is possible that the word for “womb” derives from a root distinct from that of “compassion.” This is because Hebrew represents the merger of two consonants that were distinct in proto-Semitic, and so the fact that “womb” and “compassion” share the consonants in rḥm is not incontrovertible evidence that they share the same etymology. In any event, shared etymology does not entail shared meaning in the mind of the speaker of a language, nor does lack of a shared etymology preclude a semantic relationship in the speaker’s mind. Furthermore, even if we grant that “womb” and “compassion” are somehow related, it does not logically follow that their relationship to one another is that of an abstract tenor and concrete vehicle of a metaphor, nor does a speaker’s or writer’s use of the word “compassion” necessarily evoke uterine imagery for the hearer or reader.

Gender, sexuality, and monotheism.

That the Hebrew Bible does not ever depict or allude to Yahweh having sex with a female deity has been cited as further evidence that Yahweh was not envisaged strictly as male. Whereas various deities of the surrounding cultures were often presented in their respective texts as sexually active, Yahweh’s asexuality set this deity radically apart from other gods. Additionally, that Yahweh exhibits female traits and characteristics has been construed as evidence that in Yahwistic monotheism, the God of Israel absorbed the roles and powers associated elsewhere with female as well as male deities.

No Hebrew Bible text depicts or alludes to Yahweh having intercourse with a female deity, but several passages (see especially Jeremiah 2, 3, and 13; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Hosea 2) employ metaphor to portray Yahweh as the sexually betrayed and vengeful husband of a promiscuous wife. A subset of the passages (e.g., Ezek 16:20–21 and 23:37) speaks of children of this union, and Ezekiel 16:8 (cf. Ruth 3:3–9) arguably alludes to Yahweh’s consummation of the marriage. Figurative language aside, the Hebrew Bible, when speaking of the deity anthropomorphically, generally avoids discussing or depicting the divine groin. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has argued that the overall reticence to imagine the deity as explicitly, sexually male in Jewish monotheism serves to deflect the “homoerotic dilemma” (1994, p. 130) that Yahweh’s sex posed for male adherents.

Female Deities in the Hebrew Bible.

For much of the twentieth century, there was a scholarly consensus concerning the fundamentals involved in the worship of female deities in the ancient Near East. This consensus included the tenets that any goddess named in the Hebrew Bible was, by definition, non-Israelite, and any veneration of a goddess in Israelite religion was both illicit and entailed participation in cultic intercourse. This consensus began to be challenged in the 1980s by a generation of scholars who were better attuned to reflecting critically on the rhetorical and ideological positions presented by various biblical texts, conversant with formulating gender-nuanced questions, and more comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries. The challenge was aided by the discovery, at Kuntillet Ajrud in the northeastern Sinai Peninsula and at Khirbet el-Qom in the foothills of Judah, of ninth/eighth century B.C.E. inscriptions plausibly interpreted to pair Yahweh either with a goddess named Asherah or the cult object that symbolized her.

The twentieth-century consensus.

Prior to the 1980s, biblical scholars typically distinguished sharply between ancient Israelite religion and the religions of other ancient Near Eastern societies. These scholars were especially concerned with distinguishing ancient Israelite religion from its closest and most dangerous competitor, so-called Canaanite nature/fertility religion. This type of religion was thought to be primitive and characterized by a focus on the promotion of human, animal, and agricultural fecundity, and aided, according to some scholars, by hieros gamos, the sacred sexual union of a god and goddess (and perhaps enacted by their royal and/or priestly human representatives). Fertility cult worship was also imagined to entail so-called sacred (or cultic, or temple) prostitution. Precise reconstructions differed, but basically women were thought to have ritual premarital or extramarital sex with a man or men as a form of homage and/or to stimulate, by imitative magic, the fertility of crops and herds. In sharp contrast, proper (and decidedly superior) Israelite religion was understood to be grounded in history, ethically based and antithetical to Canaanite religion, including the Canaanite worship of female “fertility goddesses,” and the immoral and degrading sexual practices that this worship was imagined to require. Thus, by definition, Israelite religion was supposed to preclude the veneration of goddesses and the concomitant, sexually oriented fertility cult that, allegedly, various Hebrew Bible texts alluded to and condemned.

Challenges to the standard paradigm.

Several lines of argumentation have contributed to the disassembling of the aforementioned consensus position. All are built to some degree upon a fundamental appreciation of viewing Canaanite and Israelite religion as developing out of a shared cultural past and of acknowledging the vested interests of the various biblical authors and their modern interpreters alike. Initially, it has been observed that consensus position scholarship was rooted in a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social evolutionary model, which was, additionally, ethnocentrically skewed toward Western, Christian, androcentric values. This model viewed goddess worship as originating during a supposed primitive, matriarchal phase in the development of human societies during which humans lived in harmony with nature, and women were equal or superior to men and, immorally, had multiple sexual partners. The type of goddess worshipped during this period was imagined to be a great mother/fertility goddess who, like mortal women of the era, mated with various partners. This rudimentary stage was superseded by patriarchal societies characterized by political states, ethical systems, monogamous marriage, and kinship traced through the father. So-called sacred prostitution, in which women had promiscuous sex in honor of the goddess, was understood to be a survival of the prior, inferior phase of human development.

The consensus position has also been critiqued on other grounds. First, consensus position scholarship perpetuated the Hebrew Bible’s hostile stance toward Canaanite religion, without taking adequate account of the polemical nature of the biblical texts. Second, the nature/history dichotomy does not stand up to scrutiny but is instead a modern, Western construct that has been retrojected onto the relevant biblical and nonbiblical texts. Third, it has been demonstrated that not all female deities in the literature of other ancient, androcentric cultures figure as sexually active and reproductive “fertility” goddesses, and so the mere presence of goddesses in Canaanite religion does not necessarily entail that each and every one functioned in a sexual capacity. Indeed, reappraisal of the mythological texts concerning the “Canaanite” goddess Anat has led to the conclusion that the texts do not portray her as sexually active. Finally, it has been observed that Canaanite societies were no less stringent than Israelite societies when it came to controlling female sexuality, as they too placed a crucial emphasis on paternity. Thus it is implausible that Canaanites would have been any more likely than Israelites to tolerate a practice that involved premarital or extramarital sexual activity of their wives and daughters.

Yahweh and Asherah?

The Hebrew Bible makes numerous references to a wooden cult object called an ʾăš‑erâ, or asherah, which the NRSV most often translates as “sacred pole” (e.g., Deut 16:21; Judg 6:25–30; 1 Kgs 16:33; 2 Kgs 13:6). Though not all scholars agree, most maintain that this object symbolized Asherah, a goddess of the same name. The vast majority of references to Asherah or her cult symbol occur in a section of the Hebrew Bible that scholars call the Deuteronomistic History (hereafter DH) and portions of the books of Chronicles that have DH as their source. The compilers of DH had a vested interest in supporting the Davidic royal house, and they advocated the exclusive worship of Yahweh in his temple in Jerusalem, the seat of the Davidic dynasty. They branded all Israelite worship of deities other than Yahweh as apostasy, and all worship of Yahweh anywhere other than the Jerusalem temple as illicit. In accordance with these biases, DH uniformly condemned the worship of Asherah and her cult symbol.

In spite of DH’s censure, it seems clear from the testimony of DH itself that Asherah was venerated, even in the Jerusalem Temple, during the reigns of some Davidic monarchs. Indeed, DH praises the Davidic kings whom it credits with ridding Jerusalem of Asherah worship (1 Kgs 15:9–13; 2 Kgs 18:1–5; cf. 2 Kgs 23:4–7, 25) and castigates one ruler in particular, Manasseh, for reinstating Asherah worship in the Jerusalem temple (2 Kgs 21:1–9). Seen in light of the inscriptional evidence from Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom, Saul Olyan (1988) has proposed that outside of Deuteronomistic circles and/or prior to Deuteronomistic influence, Asherah was venerated, unproblematically, in conjunction with Yahweh and perhaps as his divine spouse, even by members of the Davidic dynasty in the Jerusalem temple. Susan Ackerman (2003, pp. 459–461) has further argued for linking the worship of Asherah with the Davidic queen mother and dynastic succession.


The Hebrew Bible mentions a goddess named Astarte three times (1 Kgs 11:5 and 1 Kgs 11:33; 2 Kgs 23:13) and pluralizes her name with reference to deity several times; all occurrences are in DH. The three singular references explicitly associate Astarte with the Canaanite (or, more correctly, Phoenician) city-state of Sidon, and attribute the introduction of her worship, considered illegitimate, into the Davidic kingdom to Solomon’s marriages to Sidonian princesses (1 Kgs 11:1–8). That Solomon, in the tenth century B.C.E., was responsible for introducing Astarte’s worship into the environs of Jerusalem is not verifiable by extant, nonbiblical evidence. However, that Astarte was in fact a deity of importance to a royal dynasty in Sidon is corroborated, for example, by the sarcophagus inscriptions of two kings of the sixth/fifth centuries B.C.E., Tabnit and his son and successor, Eshmunazor. Taken together, these inscriptions state that three consecutive rulers (counting the co-regent Ummiashtart) of this dynasty served Astarte and no other deity as priests, and Tabnit invokes her and no other deity to protect his remains against grave robbers. Perhaps Astarte was this dynasty’s patron deity.

With the exception of one problematic reference (1 Sam 31:10), DH uses the plural form of Astarte’s name with reference to deity (NRSV “the Astartes”) in its depictions of the pre-monarchic Israelites’ routing by their enemies when they worshipped foreign deities, as opposed to their success in battle when they worshipped Yahweh alone (Judg 2:11–15; 10:6–9; 1 Sam 7:3–4; 12:9–11). These depictions conform to the compilers of DH’s stereotypical attribution of conquest to the abandonment of the exclusive worship of Yahweh. It is unclear what the compilers of DH intended to convey through the pluralized form of Astarte’s name. One option is that it means “goddesses,” generically. Another is that it conveys the notion of multiple, local manifestations of a single goddess. There is no consensus on this point.

The Queen of Heaven.

Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:17–19, 25 make reference to a deity called “the Queen of Heaven,” a title mentioned nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It is unclear whether this title is an epithet of Asherah, of Astarte, or of another deity. Jeremiah 7:17–18 depicts this deity’s cult as family-based and widespread in sixth century B.C.E. Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah 44 is addressed to the refugees from Judah in Egypt, where they had fled to escape the Babylonian subjugation of Judah and Jerusalem in the early sixth century B.C.E. Jeremiah blames the Egyptian communities’ plight on their and their ancestors’ worship of gods other than Yahweh. The people assembled in Pathros respond ((VV. 15–18)) that when they and their ancestors and rulers regularly propitiated the Queen of Heaven, times were good and they had plenty to eat. It was only when they ceased giving cult to the Queen of Heaven that they began to die from hunger (rāʾāb) and the sword. This link in the text between starvation and enemy invasion (cf. 44:13) bespeaks a reality of war: starvation as a consequence of the invading army’s plundering of crops and herds (Jer 5:17) and the siege conditions endured by those trapped inside Jerusalem (Jer 21:7 and 9; see also 2 Kgs 25:1–3). That the people attribute having plenty of food to their giving cult to the Queen of Heaven and their lack of food to ceasing this propitiation should not be viewed in isolation from the historical circumstances of the Babylonian invasion and thereby dubbed an example of the practice of nature/fertility religion.

Sacred prostitution.

That normative Canaanite and illicit Israelite worship of female deities entailed the practice of so-called sacred prostitution has also been called into question. Remarkably, all of the nonbiblical, ancient Near Eastern and classical sources previously cited as primary evidence for the practice have been discredited, on a variety of grounds. In light of this negative reevaluation of the nonbiblical sources upon which the biblical practice has been reconstructed, and in conjunction with the objections to the twentieth-century consensus noted earlier, it is no longer acceptable to translate Hebrew qādēš as “[male] temple prostitute” and qĕdēšâ as “[female] temple prostitute,” as the NRSV does (e.g., Gen 38:21; Deut 23:18 [English V. 17]; plurals 1 Kgs 15:12; Hos 4:14). Furthermore, the frequent use in biblical texts of the language of female sexual promiscuity to denote apostasy, such as the use of the verb zānâ, “to whore, prostitute,” in the sense of accusing the people of whoring after other gods (e.g., Exod 34:15; Lev 17:7; Deut 31:16; Judg 2:17), or to speak of personified Jerusalem as Yahweh’s insatiably adulterous wife (e.g., Ezek 16), must be divested of any allusions to sacred prostitution or cultic sex. Unlike the interpretation of scholars of the consensus position, this sexual language must be understood metaphorically and not as derived from and indicative of sexual fertility rites that typified foreign/Canaanite cults. The effectiveness of the language of specifically female sexual infidelity derives from its power to persuade a (male) audience to accept the purveyor of the metaphor’s point of view (Shrofel, 1999, 141–166).




  • Ackerman, Susan. “At Home with the Goddess.” In Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past: Canaan, Ancient Israel, and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palaestina, edited by William Dever and Seymour Gitin, pp. 455–468. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2003.
  • Bird, Phyllis A. “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Genesis 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation.” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 129–159.
  • Budin, Stephanie L. The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. “Like Warrior, Like Woman: Destruction and Deliverance in Isaiah 42:10–17.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987): 560–571.
  • Day, Peggy L. “Yahweh’s Broken Marriages as Metaphoric Vehicle in the Hebrew Bible Prophets.” In Sacred Marriages: The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity, edited by Martti Nissinen and Risto Uro, pp. 219–241. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2008.
  • Day, Peggy L. “Hebrew Bible Goddesses and Modern Feminist Scholarship.” Religion Compass 6, no. 6 (2012): 298–308.
  • Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Boston: Beacon, 1994.
  • McCarter, P. Kyle. “Kuntillet ʿAjrud,” “Khirbet el-Qom,” “The Sarcophagus Inscription of Tabnit, King of Sidon,” and “The Sarcophagus Inscription of ʾEshmunʿazor, King of Sidon.” In The Context of Scripture, Vol. 2, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, edited by William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger Jr., pp. 171–173, 179, 181–183. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
  • Meyers, Carol. “Female Images of God in the Hebrew Bible.” In Women in Scripture: a Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, edited by Carol Meyers, pp. 525–528. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Miller, Patrick D., Jr. “The Absence of the Goddess in Israelite Religion.” Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986): 239–248.
  • Olyan, Saul M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
  • Shrofel, Karin R. “No Prostitute Has Been Here: A Reevaluation of Hosea 4:13–14.” M.A. thesis, University of Winnipeg, 1999.
  • Trible, Phyllis. “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 41, no. 1 (1973): 30–48.
  • Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Peggy L. Day

Greek World

The Greeks envisioned their deities in highly anthropomorphic terms, and so it is not surprising that gender was a prominent aspect of all Greek gods. The Greek pantheon included both male and female deities whose identities encompassed a wide spectrum of social and sexual roles. Greek deities could be youthful or mature. They participated in a full range of family relationships, including husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister, and daughter or son. All Greek male deities were sexually active; many female deities were also sexually active, although at least three Greek female deities remained aloof from sexual entanglements. Greek male deities took part in a cross-section of activities similar to those of human males. Female deities were engaged in an even broader range of activities, both those considered stereotypically feminine and also those usually associated with men, such as hunting and warfare.

The gender of a deity is expressed in several ways: through language using grammatical gender, through literary descriptions of appearance and activities, and through visual representations depicting the deity’s anatomy and costume. Language offers one of the clearest indicators of gender. The Greek language, like most Indo-European languages, uses one of three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter, for all nouns and adjectives. Thus a male deity is regularly described with masculine grammatical forms, and a female deity with feminine forms. This feature carries over into substantive adjectives, for example, the powerful one, the swift one, the deity who shoots from afar; the same adjective can be applied to either a male or a female deity, and the sex of the deity is evident from the grammatical gender. Zeus, a male deity, is potnios, powerful, and Athena, a female deity, is potnia, powerful. When substantive adjectives appear on inscribed votive offerings (gifts to the gods), the grammatical gender expresses the gender of the deity receiving the gift. As examples, a bronze statuette of a male figure from Thebes was dedicated toi Hekaboloi, to the (male) god who shoots from afar (i.e., Apollo), while a stone statue of a female figure from Naxos was dedicated tei Hekebolei, to the (female) deity who shoots from afar (i.e., Artemis). Both Apollo and Artemis were archers and so the same adjective is used to describe both gods, but the grammatically gendered language makes clear the gender and thus the identity of the deity for which the dedication was intended.

Literary and Visual Images of Deities.

Most of our information on the gendered aspects of a deity’s appearance, actions, and areas of divine power comes from literary texts and visual images. Among masculine deities, the leading Greek deities are Zeus, the sky god and dominant male; Poseidon, god of the sea; and Hades, god of the Underworld, also known as Ploutos. Numerous descriptions comment on their power, strength, and masculine appearance. In visual representations all three are regularly depicted as mature figures with heavily muscled bodies and full beards; often they are shown nude with clear depiction of male genitalia. All play the social role of an older male, since each was married and Zeus and Poseidon had children born from the marriage. Zeus, and to a lesser extent Poseidon, were also perpetual philanderers, credited with frequent extramarital affairs with women and boys. Such liaisons could produce a younger generation of gods, including Apollo and Artemis, Hermes, and Dionysos. Extramarital affairs with human women also produced illegitimate children, some of whom grew up to become major heroes, such as Herakles and Perseus.

The younger male deities are similarly presented as thoroughly masculine figures. This group includes Apollo, Dionysos, Hermes, Ares, and Hephaistos. Of this group Apollo is especially prominent; he is an archer and a warrior in addition to his identity as the god of light, truth, and prophecy. He is consistently described as a young man who was sexually active and fathered several children with mortal women, although he himself was not thought to be married. Always handsome and frequently shown nude, the figure of Apollo formed an archetype for the high-status young Greek male, whose strength and power enabled him to play a dominant role and engage in unrestricted sexual behavior with impunity. The other male deities were less strongly defined characters, and their powers were more limited. Hermes was the messenger of the gods and the patron of travelers; he also conducted the souls of the dead to the afterlife. In visual representations Hermes, like Apollo, was a handsome young man, best known through a famous statue of the nude god holding the infant Dionysos. Dionysos, the god of wine and the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, is usually presented as an older bearded man. He appears regularly with two sets of companions, a group of women called maenads, known for wild dancing and unrestrained emotional expression, and satyrs, half-men, half-goat creatures notorious for their intense sexual appetites. These followers of Dionysos engaged in activities, which challenged the conventional norms of appropriate gendered behavior that expected modesty from women and sexual restraint from both genders, although the god himself did not take part in these actions. Ares, son of Zeus and Hera, was the god of war. Despite the prevalence of warfare in Greek society, he was an unattractive figure, known for his violent nature and his adulterous affair with the goddess Aphrodite; in both actions Ares represents the unpleasant side of uncontrolled masculine behavior. Hephaistos, the god of industry and crafts, also appears in literature and in visual representations as a masculine figure whose physical labor as a skilled craftsman is appropriate for his gender. Hephaistos was exceptional among the Greek gods in one key aspect: he lacked physical beauty but instead was considered ugly and physically disabled.

Prominent female deities in the Greek pantheon include Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Artemis, Athena, and Aphrodite. They comprised a wide range of ages, appearances, social roles, and divine functions. Some female deities were thought to be married and/or sexually active, although three, Hestia, Artemis, and Athena, did not engage in sexual activity and carefully guarded their virginity. As in the case of the male deities, a deity’s feminine gender is made clear through the use of grammatically gendered language, through written descriptions of appearance and activities, and through representations of the deity in the visual arts.

Hera, Demeter, and Hestia were considered to be part of the older generation of gods, mature figures whose social role approximated that of a matron of a household. Of the three, Hestia is a colorless character; she was the goddess of the household hearth (her name simply means “hearth” in Greek), and while she received acknowledgement in household religious practices, she was never the subject of any literary narrative nor is she portrayed in the visual arts. Hera and Demeter, in contrast, were both extremely prominent figures who are featured regularly in literature, art, and cult practices.

The dominant female divinity in the Greek pantheon was Hera, guardian of women, marriage, and the home. She was the wife of Zeus and mother of several divine children, including the major gods Hephaistos and Ares and a minor goddess Hebe, cupbearer of the gods and personification of youth. In literature the picture of Hera is mixed or negative; she can appear beautiful and alluring, as in the Iliad 14.292–351, where she seduces Zeus to distract him from the Trojan War, but more often she was portrayed as a shrew and a nag, constantly berating her husband for his many extramarital affairs and in some cases persecuting the children that resulted from these affairs. In cult practice, however, Hera was an important and powerful deity in her own right, the sole deity celebrated at several important sanctuaries including those at Argos and Samos; here she was revered for her power and her ability to protect the people of her cities. The disparity between Hera’s negative image in literature and her positive presence in religious cult practice may reflect the different audience of these two institutions. Greek literature, especially the epics, was primarily directed to an audience of male elites, and to this group Hera symbolized the stereotype of a domineering and controlling wife, one whose presence created an unwelcome restraint on her husband’s behavior, especially his sexual behavior. In cult practice, in contrast, the deity was a figure of power and respect, valued by all her worshippers, female and male, for her protection of the home and the community.

Demeter, goddess of agriculture, especially cereal crops, was another important figure. Her role in promoting and protecting the fertility of the soil was an extension of her feminine gender, since the fertility of the earth was likened not only to the ability to bear children but also to sexual intercourse, which was often compared to plowing a fertile field. Apart from her divine protection of agriculture, Demeter was best known as a mother, whose close relationship with her daughter Persephone was celebrated in both literature and cult practice. Persephone’s divine father was Zeus, but Demeter’s personal relationship with Zeus is rarely mentioned. Rather, the bond between mother and daughter is regularly emphasized and forms the basis of joint worship of the two goddesses. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter celebrates this bond, as it relates how Persephone was snatched forcibly from her mother to be the bride of Hades in the Underworld, the land of the dead. The emphasis of the hymn is on the mother’s grief when she loses her daughter to a marriage arranged for the convenience of the bride’s father and husband, the mother’s response to the trauma of separation from her daughter, and the continuation of the close ties between mother and daughter even after the daughter’s marriage. The divine relationship between Demeter and Persephone may have helped Greek women adjust to similar circumstances in their own lives, since Greek women lived in a patrilocal society of arranged marriages between young brides and older husbands. Demeter’s power over agriculture and fertility was especially evident in her most famous cult ritual, the Eleusinian Mysteries. The participants in this ritual were sworn to secrecy, and many details of the rites remain unknown to us, but the Mysteries seem to have celebrated Persephone’s separation from her mother in the Underworld, her return, and their reunion. The sorrow of separation and death gave way to the renewed fertility of the soil and the symbolic rebirth of the soul. Thus in both myth and cult practice, Demeter’s feminine gender and her status as a mother were key to her divine power.

Two other major female deities, Athena and Artemis, were thought to belong to a younger generation of deities and so youthfulness was an element of their identities. Both were active, self-reliant figures whose areas of influence overlapped with traditional male activities. Both were also perpetual virgins, and their refusal to marry or bear children formed part of their independent character. Athena, a warrior goddess, was one of the most powerful and widely worshipped divinities in the Greek world. She is clearly female; she is always described in the feminine grammatical gender, and in the visual arts she is clearly portrayed with the body and clothing of a woman. Yet she regularly appears with the equipment of a warrior, a helmet, shield, and spear, wearing her aegis, a distinctive breastplate with the head of the Gorgon in the center. Her militaristic attributes and active nature endowed her with an identity that seems more masculine than feminine. The goddess had sprung, fully grown and fully armed, out of the head of Zeus, and in several texts, notably Aeschylus’s tragedy Eumenides, her asexual birth formed the source of her strength and her lack of identification with a traditional female role. She was often the protector of heroes such as Herakles, Perseus, and Odysseus, and shared in their inclination for swift action and great deeds. In addition to her persona as a warrior goddess, Athena was highly intelligent and regarded as the goddess of wisdom. She was also an important protector of cities; her shrines were often located in the heart of a city, especially Athens, her namesake city, and many cities in Asia Minor.

Artemis was another figure whose identity skirted the boundaries of traditional gender stereotypes. She was identified as a daughter and sister, the sister of Apollo; their birth on the island of Delos was well known. A passage in the Odyssey (6.102–109) celebrates her relationship with her mother, Leto, and the mother’s pride in her daughter. In visual representations Artemis regularly appears as a beautiful young woman who is active and athletic. Yet Artemis, like Athena, never married nor had any sexual contact with men, and Greek legend recounted several tales of tragic deaths for mortal men such as Actaeon and Orion who were attracted to her. She was a hunter, regularly portrayed in hunting costume while carrying a bow and arrow; she was frequently found in the mountains and often associated with wild animals. Apart from the sanctuary on Delos, Artemis was usually venerated separately from her brother Apollo. She was a deity of great power, a tamer of animals who controlled the unknown and the wilderness. Her areas of concern, especially hunting, the mountains, and the wilderness outside settled urban territory, and her active and independent personality were all qualities traditionally associated with masculine behavior and activities. Yet despite her independent nature and unmarried status, Artemis was a deity of great importance to women: she presided over the major transitions of women’s lives, including puberty, marriage, and childbirth.

The other major female deity in the Greek pantheon, Aphrodite, was unabashedly feminine in her appearance and activities. Aphrodite was the goddess of sexuality and desire. Her physical charms were regularly emphasized: Homer speaks of the goddess’s “neck of surpassing beauty, her desirable breasts, her brilliant eyes” (Iliad 3.397–398). No one, human or divine, could withstand her powers of seduction. In the visual arts, too, Aphrodite was the personification of female beauty and desirability; not surprisingly, the deity was the first female figure to be represented nude in a major work of sculpture, by the sculptor Praxiteles in the mid-fourth century B.C.E. Although the work is only known to us through later reproductions, the statue conveys through its body type and coy pose (the goddess partially covers her genitals with one hand, thereby drawing attention to them) the Greek view of the desirable female form, one that was widely imitated in later images. Nude images of Aphrodite form a striking contrast to the frequent depiction of male nudes, divine and human. The nude male body can signify masculinity, strength, power, and—especially in the fifth century B.C.E. and later—Greek identity (since nude Greek males often appear in sharp contrast to clothed foreigners) but rarely open sexuality. Female figures, in contrast, are shown nude for only one reason: to enhance their sexual allure. Aphrodite’s sexuality was also the source of her considerable power, since she was able to compel both men and women to give in to the pull of sexual desire, often against their will. Of all the Greek deities, Aphrodite is the clearest example of a deity in a heavily gendered role. She represented human need for sexuality and fear of the loss of control that submission to erotic emotions can bring.

In addition to the major Olympian gods, there were numerous minor deities in the Greek pantheon, each with a gendered identity. Among these were personifications of abstract qualities, such as Victory (Nike), Divine Justice (Themis), and Divine Retribution (Nemesis). Such personifications were always female and were depicted in the visual arts as beautiful young women. Their gendered appearance may be an extension of the language, since in Greek, abstract nouns normally have feminine gender. Other divinities that represented abstract concepts appear as groups of women, such as the Nymphs, Graces, and Fates. Although each member of the group lacks an individual personality, the group as a unit had a form and identity that alludes to the characteristic described. Thus the Nymphs (spirits of woodland and water) and the Graces were shown as beautiful young women, while the Fates, personifying the inevitable portion of life’s sorrows, were ugly older women. Other immortal figures include frightening bogeys that symbolized objects of fear, such as the Sphinx, bringer of death, and the Gorgons, who could turn people into stone; these were composites of human and animal features, but the human half was clearly female. Such figures probably reflect a fear of death and the ritual pollution associated with death, a pollution that transferred to human women.

Human Rulers as Gods.

In addition to eternally immortal figures, some human beings, especially rulers, could gain immortality. Beginning in the later fourth century B.C.E., several hereditary monarchs in the Greek world were worshipped as divinities, either during their lifetime or after their death. The concept of a divine ruler became prominent in the Greek world with the conquests of Alexander of Macedon, whose personal charisma and unrivaled military successes made him an object of admiration and adoration. He was thought to be the son of Zeus, and after his death he received divine honors in several Greek cities, especially the city where he was buried, Alexandria in Egypt. Subsequent rulers received divine honors for exceptional activities, for example military conquest or protection of a city, although the ruler cult was not a universal expectation for every monarch but was normally granted only to a particularly strong or beneficial ruler. These rulers were normally men, although some ruling queens in Hellenistic Egypt, such as Cleopatra VII, were also divinized. The royal wife, the queen consort, could also be the object of divine cult. A queen consort might receive divine honors for generous donations to a religious sanctuary or acts of charity; for instance, Laodike III of Macedon endowed dowries for poor girls in the city of Iasos. These were actions traditionally associated with wealthy women.

Modern Debates Regarding the Categories of Divine Gender.

The key role of gender in the personalities and actions of Greek deities is in part an extension of their anthropomorphic qualities. All Greek deities have gender, just as they have other human characteristics such as age and eye color, personality and sexual appetites, with the exception that deities were immortal. Because of this, many have assumed that Greek deities represent projections of human imagination and human desire: Greek gods are larger than life figures with unlimited power who enjoy the benefits of human existence with few of its problems. To an extent, the actions and personalities of many Greek deities support this assumption. Greek male deities such as Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo have the qualities of human males, but they are stronger, more successful, and not subject to the constraints of human social mores. Some Greek female deities typify the traditional roles of human women, such as Hera, guardian of the household; Demeter, protector of fertility; and Aphrodite, emblematic of female sexual appeal.

Yet this is an overly simplistic viewpoint. For one, many of the deities that we meet in Greek literature and art of the first millennium B.C.E. were descendants of much older deities whose gender was already fixed and remained constant, even as their identity and personality were absorbed into the Greek pantheon. Zeus was related to an older Indo-European sky and weather god; Athena was the descendant of a Bronze Age female warrior deity; and the identity of Artemis owed much to earlier Anatolian divine figures, which were tamers of wild animals. Gender is a powerful element of the Greek pantheon, but it did not originate there.

Furthermore, the assumption that Greek deities reflect the social behavior of human beings is only partially correct. While many aspects of male deities—their strength, their warlike tendencies, their protection of craftsmen and travelers, and their active sexuality—mirror the qualities that human males have or would like to have, the same explanation cannot be applied to female deities. Female deities can be wives and mothers, seducers and protectors of the household, but they can also be warriors, hunters, and craftsmen who act independently of a male guardian, activities denied to Greek human women whose lives in a patriarchal community were highly restricted. This is the aspect of divine gender that seems to cause the greatest difficulty to contemporary observers. In our society the term “goddess” (avoided elsewhere in this article) normally carries the connotation of female sexuality (e.g., Marilyn Monroe, a modern sex goddess). Yet the application of this concept to ancient Greece misses the wide variety of functions and attributes found in Greek female deities, many of them unrelated to sexuality and childbearing. Nor are Greek female divinities less important than males: for example, Athena the warrior is strong, independent, and much revered, while Ares, also a warrior, is a bully and a coward, the least honored of the gods. Clearly more is going on than the magnification of human actions.

In sum, gender and anthropomorphic behavior were key components of Greek divinities. In some cases these concepts follow the expectations of human social norms and in others they deliberately transgress standard patterns of human gendered behavior. In this as in other aspects of the Greek response to the divine, the Greek religious experience resists easy categorization.




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  • King, Helen. “Bound to Bleed: Artemis and Greek Women.” In Images of Women in Antiquity, edited by A. Cameron and A. Kuhrt, pp. 109–127. Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1983.
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Lynn E. Roller

Roman World

Ancient Romans recognized a virtually unlimited number of divine powers that preserved their world, and each divinity had a narrow sphere of interest. Roman religion was therefore primarily cultic; that is, worship was performed in the context of various discrete cults dedicated to individual deities according to traditions that were believed to conform to the deity’s own wishes.

Roman Religion in the Regal and Republican Periods (Eighth Century B.C.E.–ca. 31 B.C.E.).

The cultic nature of Roman religion makes generalization difficult, since each cult developed with relative independence and had its own traditions. Nevertheless, there are some general trends in Roman religion that emerge concerning gender.

Basics of Roman religion.

What is often called the Roman “civic religion” was an aggregate of individual cults managed by four official priestly colleges on behalf of the Roman people (populus Romanus). Funds for these cults were provided in turn by the kings (until ca. 509 B.C.E., during what historians call the “regal” period of Roman history), by the senate (from ca. 509 B.C.E.–ca. 31 B.C.E., during the “republican” period of Roman history), and by the emperors (from 31 380 C.E., during the “imperial” period of Roman history, until the Christian emperors began to persecute the old cults).

The Romans provided public funds to cults because they considered these cults essential to maintaining a condition of divine favor that they called the “peace of the gods” (pax deorum). Rituals that maintained the “peace of the gods” were said to be performed “on behalf of the state” (pro populo).

Gods with Greek equivalents.

It is common knowledge that at some point in early Roman history many Roman deities came to be identified with individual Greek gods and goddesses. By the late republic (first century B.C.E.), such identifications had obscured the original Roman character of the deity. For example, the Roman goddess Minerva assumed all the attributes of the Greek Athena (e.g., armor); the Roman god Jupiter assumed all the attributes of the Greek god Zeus (e.g., thunder). Ceres assumed all the attributes of the Greek goddess Demeter (e.g., a cornucopia representing agricultural abundance). Roman gods with Greek equivalents had fully anthropomorphic iconography, and always had a defined gender, either male or female. In the case of Ceres, though, it is not altogether certain that the Romans always considered her a goddess: Ceres’s gender may originally have been ambiguous or fluid (see below), but the association between Ceres and the Greek goddess Demeter gave to Ceres all of Demeter’s attributes, including her female gender.

The worship of abstractions.

Most religious communication in ancient Rome was conducted in the Latin language, and in Latin, all nouns by convention fall into a gender, whether masculine, feminine, or neuter. A few ceremonies were performed in Greek, but the same is true of that language. Despite the fact that nouns had fixed gender, the ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (first century B.C.E.), in his Antiquitates rerum divinarum (Antiquarian Studies of Divine Subjects) saw Roman civic religion as the creation of idealized ancestors who originally instituted the worship of philosophical and abstract gods that lacked anthropomorphic qualities like gender. For Varro, contact with the Greeks and their elaborate mythology and anthropomorphic cult images caused Roman worship to “go astray” (errorem addidisse, fr. 18) to the point that Roman gods looked human.

Modern archaeology provides us with ample evidence that anthropomorphic deities were worshipped in Italy long before Varro supposes, but Varro’s theory of Roman gods as pure abstractions had some truth, since the Romans did develop a tradition of worshipping abstract principles. One of the most important examples is Fides (“faithfulness”), who represented the trustworthiness that underlay the legitimacy of the Roman social order. Concordia (“harmony”) protected the “concord of the orders,” or the harmony among the social classes that was supposedly established after a generation of social upheaval in the early days of the republic. These deities are not genderless, but rather have gender that is assigned to them by the conventions of the Latin language. Both Fides and Concordia, like most abstract nouns in the Latin language, are grammatically feminine, and so the Romans conceived of these particular recipients of their worship as goddesses with the forms of human women.

Gods with ambiguous or fluid gender.

It may seem from casual observation that all Roman gods had defined gender. This was certainly true in the case of gods with Greek counterparts and of the abstractions, as well as goddesses like Bona Dea (more on whom below) and Flora, a fertility goddess. It is also the case with many gods, like the masculine Dius Fidius, who ensured the sanctity of oaths. It was not the case, however, that all Roman gods had clearly defined gender. Sometimes Roman gods lacked a stable, defined gender. This aspect of Roman religion desperately needs more scholarly attention: why some gods had ambiguous or fluid gender—and what it means—we cannot hope to understand until scholarship takes the gender ambiguity of some Roman gods more seriously.

The best attested example of a Roman god with ambiguous or fluid gender is Pales, on whose festival, the Parilia (April 21), Romulus supposedly founded the city of Rome. In our sources, the name Pales can be either masculine or feminine, and, to add further confusion to the matter, the name can also be either singular or plural. Another example of a deity with ambiguous or fluid gender is Robigo/Robigus. On the festival of the Robigalia, a dog was sacrificed in order to alleviate wheat rust (in Latin, robigo, robiginis f.) from the crops. The deity placated by this ritual is often called by the grammatically feminine name Robigo, but in other sources the name is converted to a masculine form, Robigus.

Gendered pairs of gods.

There are intriguing traces of an obscure opposite-gender counterpart to several well-known Roman goddesses and gods. For example, the goddess Ceres had an obscure male counterpart named Cerus. The well-known god Faunus had a female counterpart named Fauna, and the well-known god Liber had a female counterpart named Libera. Ancient commentators sometimes identified these counterparts as consorts, parents, children, or siblings. However, it is possible that these gendered pairs were originally doubles of the same deity.

The pairing may go back to a well-attested Roman tradition whereby, if the Romans were unclear about the exact qualities of a deity whom they wished to address, they would address the deity as “whether a god or a goddess” (sive deus sive dea). The Romans may have devised feminine and masculine forms of divine names when they were not sure whether a particular deity wished to be addressed as a god or a goddess; and even when one name came to predominate over time, the vestigial opposite-gender name could have remained in the tradition. Since gods like Pales could have an unfixed gender, we should entertain the possibility that Liber and his sister Libera were originally different names for the same ambiguously gendered deity or divine concept. The issue of gendered pairs of gods may not really be separate from the issue of gods with ambiguous or fluid gender.

Priestesses and goddesses.

In the Greek tradition, it was generally (though not universally) customary for the worship of a god to be officiated by a priest and the worship of a goddess to be officiated by a priestess. In the Roman tradition, this was certainly the case in the worship of the goddess Vesta, whose sacred hearth was tended by the seven vestal virgins; it was also true of Ceres in the classical period. The worship of Roman goddesses, nevertheless, was very often in the hands of a priest and not a priestess. The flamen Floralis (priest of the goddess Flora) provides one example. The scholarly view often repeated in the twentieth century that women had no formal role in maintaining the “peace of the gods” has, however, rightly been abandoned. Our sources leave no doubt that women actively participated in Roman religion. One Roman priesthood about whose function we are particularly well-informed was the flamen Dialis (the priest of the god Jupiter), and the wife of the priest also had priestly duties and received the feminine form of the word “flamen” as a title: she was called the flaminica Dialis (the priestess of Jupiter). The flaminica was indispensable, and the flamen Dialis had to resign his post at the death of his priestess wife.

Periodically the noble women of Rome would gather to worship some of their goddesses in cults that were barred to all men and probably to nonaristocratic women as well. The secrecy of these rites was well maintained, and even the identities of the goddesses worshiped were obscured by vague titles like Bona Dea (the “Good Goddess”) and Mater Matuta (variously interpreted as “Good Mother” or “Mother Dawn”). In the case of Bona Dea, the women gathered in the house of one of the highest magistrates every year, and the ceremony was officiated by the magistrate’s wife together with the vestal virgins. In the case of Mater Matuta, we are told that the women would gather at Mater Matuta’s temple, beat a slave woman, and drive her out of the sanctuary; the significance of this cruel ritual, however, was clear only to the participants.

Goddesses whose worship was in the hands of women sometimes seem to have presided over spheres of life that the Romans considered feminine. For example, worshipers of Mater Matuta prayed for their nieces and nephews first, and then for their own children, and so reaffirmed the extended ties of family; women prayed to Ceres for fertility and to Juno Lucina for easy childbirth. This gendered division in Roman worship, however, does not necessarily create a gulf in Roman concepts of gendered worship. Roman women were definitely responsible for placating the gods and protecting the state and populace. Far from dismissing Bona Dea as a marginal figure, the Roman statesman Cicero (De haruspicum responsis 37) states specifically that the women sacrificed “on behalf of the state” (pro populo). Within their own spheres of activity, Roman women collaborated with Roman men to preserve the “peace of the gods,” and by extension to preserve the Roman state and its citizenry—just as Roman goddesses collaborated with Roman gods.

Imperial Cult (31 B.C.E.–380 C.E.).

Roman religion was a network of cultic traditions that were practiced in the city-state of Rome in Italy and focused upon its well-being. It is impossible to speak of Roman religion in a fully meaningful sense outside of the vicinity of Rome itself. Nevertheless, the city-state of Rome grew to be the administrative center of a world empire, and religious traditions in conquered provincial territories adapted to acknowledge this reality.

The Roman Empire was vast, stretching from Spain to Iraq and from England to Egypt at its height, and it was culturally diverse. All subject peoples, whether Celts, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, or any others, maintained their own unique ancestral traditions with little or no interference from Rome. Still, throughout the empire most subject peoples participated in a new institution that scholars today call the “imperial” cult. In its most basic form, the imperial cult was the granting of divine honors (sacrifices, prayers, vows, and festivals) by local people to a Roman emperor, and in every region of the empire the imperial cult remained one cult among many. This cult was the only religious institution outside of Rome that we can, at least in a qualified sense, consider “Roman.”

The focus of the imperial cult was not necessarily limited to the person of the emperor, but often included worship of members of the emperor’s family, especially women (wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters). Gender ambiguity did not appear in the imperial cult. For the purposes of worship, imperial men and women acquired divine identities consistent with their own human gender.

Imperial cult at Rome.

There were three distinct regions of the empire that treated the imperial cult somewhat differently. The first region was the city of Rome itself, and the other two regions were the western and eastern halves of the empire. The official civic religion of the city-state of Rome never recognized the divinity of an emperor or any member of his family until after that person’s death. Upon an imperial person’s death, the senate could and often did vote to proclaim him or her a divus (“god”) or a diva (“goddess”). The first emperor proclaimed a divus, in 14 C.E., was Augustus; his wife Livia died in the year 29 C.E., and was belatedly declared a diva in the year 41 C.E. Subsequent emperors received their legitimacy in part from their connection to a deified imperial ancestor or ancestors, just as Augustus during his lifetime claimed to be the “son of a god” (divi filius) because of his (adoptive) father, the deified Julius Caesar.

In the first generations of the empire, imperial women were made priestesses of the cults of the divi; Livia, for example, was the priestess (sacerdos) of the deified Augustus after his death. For several years, this was the highest honor that an imperial woman could expect in Rome. The first imperial woman to be recognized as a diva was Drusilla, the sister of the emperor Caligula (r. 37–41 C.E.), but this deification after her death in 38 C.E. was controversial even in antiquity. Roman historians (like Suetonius in Life of Caligula 24) were very hostile to Caligula. They claimed that he had an illicit sexual interest in his sister, and implied that the deification was a sign of Caligula’s supposed mental instability. It is uncertain to what extent we should accept these accounts, since our sources on Caligula (especially Suetonius and Cassius Dio) were senators and reflect senatorial, anti-imperial bias.

Susan Wood (1995) has attempted to explain the deification of Drusilla in more rational, dynastic terms. After internal strife had reduced the Julio-Claudian dynasty to a handful of family members, Caligula may have been eager to exalt all three of his sisters publicly as carriers of the imperial blood and potential mothers of a legitimate heir. When Drusilla predeceased Caligula, he asked the senate to give her the title diva (the senate was not in the habit of refusing Caligula’s “requests,” and so the young emperor could count on the unorthodox deification becoming a reality). Drusilla’s immense value lay not in any illicit sexual interest that Caligula took in her but in the fact that she possessed the dwindling blood of Augustus Caesar. Her deification would have recognized this fact.

Augustus’s wife Livia was deified three years after Drusilla, in the year 41 C.E., during the reign of the emperor Claudius. Claudius (r. 41–54 C.E.) was the son of Livia’s son (Augustus’s stepson) Drusus, and when he asked the senate to make his grandmother a diva, it was at least in part to legitimize his own rule, since Claudius was descendent of Augustus neither by blood nor by adoption. Livia provided a more widely accepted precedent than Drusilla, and the deification of imperial women at Rome became common practice thereafter.

In theory, at least, the emperor was only the foremost citizen of Rome and its guardian. He could claim a privileged position by a familial connection to divinities, but he did not disrupt the civic cult of Rome to the point of demanding worship within Rome itself. The divi and divae, on the other hand, became a standard feature of Roman religion, and were frequently invoked in prayers, even in prayers to other gods—as the inscriptions of a priesthood called the Arval Brethren make clear in prayers to the goddess Dea Dia. The cults of the divi and divae helped to maintain the stability of the state and the peace of the gods, which were still treated as inseparable.

Romans continued the practice of worshipping abstractions, but they placed these abstractions in a specifically imperial context. So, the goddess Peace (Pax) came to be worshipped as the Peace of the Emperor (Pax Augusta) and was the recipient of a costly sculpted altar in Rome, the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of the Peace of the Emperor). Harmony (Concordia) was worshipped as the Harmony of the Emperor (Concordia Augusta), and so on. These abstractions are grammatically feminine, and were depicted with female form in their iconography; the major exception is Honos (“honor”), which is grammatically masculine, and therefore depicted as a male figure.

The fact that the words for the rest of these abstractions were grammatically feminine enabled them to be identified with imperial women. Sometimes, feminine abstractions at least bore the likeness the imperial wife—especially on imperial coinage. Examples include Salus (“safety”), Pax (“peace”), Fortuna (“luck”), and Securitas (“security”). For example, a coin in Rome, dating to 22–23 C.E. (during the reign of Livia’s son, the emperor Tiberius) depicts Livia as Pietas (“piety”). This was during her tenure as Augustus’s priestess. Tiberius denied Livia official divine honors, both when she was alive and after she died, but her image paired with Pietas did not count as worship. Rather, it only suggested divinity for Livia and by implication all imperial persons.

Imperial cult in the Latin west.

Even before the imperial administration officially recognized the fact, the Roman Empire was always divided roughly in half. The western half of the empire was ethnically and linguistically diverse, but the common language of communication was Latin. The imperial cult in the Latin west was largely an extension of traditional Roman practice, with one major innovation: the living emperor and his wife received worship as divinities, even in colonies of Roman citizens. The priest of the living emperor was given the Roman title flamen, while the priestess to the emperor’s wife was given the title flaminica. In the western imperial cults, the flaminica was often, but did not have to be, the wife of the flamen.

In the west, imperial women could also be identified with Roman goddesses. Ceres (the goddess of fertility) was by far the most popular. For example, a temple near the theater in Leptis Magna in what is now Libya contained a statue of “Ceres Augusta,” whose statue bore the likeness of Livia. Cults to imperial abstractions were common.

Imperial cult in the Greek east.

Worship of the emperor and his family in the Greek-speaking east had its roots in earlier Hellenistic ruler cults, particularly the cults of the Ptolemies of Egypt. For centuries before the rise of the Roman Empire, Greeks had worshipped kings and queens, often in the guise of traditional gods and goddesses. A continuation of this practice for Roman emperors and their families was natural and inevitable. There were cults to imperial abstractions, as in the Latin west, but it was more common in the east to identify the emperor or the emperor’s wife with Greek goddesses. Images of imperial women as goddesses and inscriptions to imperial women with divine epithets, such as “Livia Demeter” in Cyzicus and “Drusilla the New Aphrodite” in Ephesus, proliferated.

Gender, divinity, and imperial power.

There is a general consensus that the imperial cult was in some way a religious response by the emperor’s subjects to his immense, almost limitless power. The emperor was always a man; why imperial women were granted divine honors and what this signifies is debated. Some argue that deified imperial women by their fertility represent the continuity of the imperial family and the future stability of the empire. This is an interpretation that is persuasive in the case of several imperial women who are identified with Cybele, the Great Mother; but it is less so in the case of Athens, where an inscription identifies Livia with the goddess Athena Polias, who was a local goddess—a virgin goddess—and so should have had a local interest.

Some have noted that power, especially martial power, is traditionally a masculine trait (see Fischler, 1998, p. 165). This may be true in the human world of Greek and Roman cultures, but both traditions also recognized warrior goddesses. For example, Juno was worshipped in Rome under the epithet “Regina” (“queen”) and was depicted as a warrior and protector of the city. The Greek goddess Athena was usually depicted as clad in armor. When imperial women are portrayed as or identified with such goddesses, there is no choice but to assume that they are similarly invested with power.

Our understanding of power—or rather, our understanding of the ancients’ understanding of power—may have to be broadened. Of course, imperial women were dependent upon the emperor for their power and prestige: imperial women were always under the control of the emperor, as was the rest of the empire. Imperial women were nonetheless immensely wealthy, influential, and famous people, and their depiction as goddesses hardly diminishes them. In a polytheistic system, there was no need to assume that power had one single face. Though the emperor was supreme, it would have been perfectly natural for people to worship other members of the imperial family, just as countless Roman gods and goddesses were honored and worshiped in addition to Jupiter, their king.




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Joshua L. Langseth

New Testament

Although it is true that people in the ancient world thought about categories of female and male and the nature of sexual difference, scholarly interest in using gender as an analytical category applicable to all aspects of life, including those concerning the divine, is modern. Following the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) in the 1960s, particularly in Europe and North America, gender came to be understood as malleable, unstable, and an effect of culture: one is not born but rather made into a girl or boy. Feminist analysis of gender next explored the effects of cultures of oppression on the development of male and female roles and ways that both sexes might be freed from the restrictions of gender norms. Applying the analytical category of gender to antiquity, scholars developed new research topics such as the construction of sexual difference and sexuality and ideals of masculinity. It is arguable that Greek philosophy from Plato and Aristotle begins with the idea of a male rational principle reflecting cosmic social order that, in turn, identifies an inferior female principle as materiality, body, and emotions. Even if the account in the Hebrew Bible of the creation of humanity in the divine image includes both male and female ((Gen 1:26), the privileging of masculine images for God in biblical and Christian tradition scarcely balances the notion that all language about God is metaphorical and analogical.

New Testament Language: Proskuneō, Proskynēsis.

The verb proskuneō, to prostrate before someone (usually male) or something more powerful, transcendent or holy, or to do obeisance in the presence of a deified ruler, connotes respect, honor, worship, and submission. Slaves and inferiors venerate and obey (their) masters (Gen 33:6; Matt 18:26). In Persian culture it is normative before divinized rulers like Cyrus (ca. 580–530 B.C.E.), as Xenophon (Cyropaedia 5.3.18) describes in his fourth-century B.C.E. biography of Cyrus the Great. In the Hebrew Bible Abraham venerates guests (Gen 18:2) and angels (Gen 19:1). To Joseph as Pharaoh’s delegate in Egypt his brothers “came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground” (Gen 42:6). Angels, Jews (including Jesus), Samaritans, Jewish proselytes, and Jesus followers (later Christians) all worship God (Heb 1:6; Exod 34:14: John 4:20; Luke 4:8; Acts 8:27; Rev 7:11). Israel also worships other gods or idols (Num 25:2; Judg 2:12) and is warned away from them by prophets, judges, and also God (Deut 4:19; 5:9).

The term theos, god, for the object of veneration, is predicated of Hellenistic rulers and Roman emperors. Roman emperors, however, did not use theos of themselves when communicating in Greek to subjects. Assimilating emperor to god, whether to Zeus, Helios, or Dionysus, or empress to Hera, Aphrodite, and Demeter, is not about incarnation but is rather a predicate of divine power. Gods often appeared in human form (theos epiphanēs), and immortality (athanatos) could be predicated of the emperor’s benefaction and reign. Imperial cults are to express eusebeia (piety) toward the emperor/empress and to the gods.

Consider Alexander the Great and proskynēsis. After Alexander defeated the Persian king Darius and became the king of Asia, he seems to have wanted to create personal power based on collaboration between trusted Macedonians/Greeks and Persians. In 331 B.C.E. Egyptian priests welcomed Alexander as son of Zeus in temples in Egypt at Siwa and Bahariya. In 328 B.C.E., he proposed the introduction of proskynēsis as a demonstration of his status as king through an essential part of Persian court ceremonial. Historians of Alexander point out that certain Greeks and Macedonians refused to comply. After the death of Alexander in the ensuing struggles of the successors (Diadochi), Diodorus Siculus reports that Eumenes in 318 B.C.E. set up Alexander’s throne in a royal tent, together with the diadem and other tokens of royalty, to secure his status and facilitate transition to a new order by enjoining “common obeisance to Alexander as to a god” (Biblioteca historica 18.60.4–61.2).

What of Jesus? It is too simplistic to say of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that he “is rendered homage as messianic king and helper” (Danker, 2000, p. 882b), since the first to venerate him as a child in Matthew’s Gospel are outsiders, namely, Magi from the east (Matt 2:2, 11). Others, especially outsiders—a leper, a centurion, and a Canaanite woman—venerate Matthew’s Jesus as a person of power (8:2; 9:18; 15:25; 20:20), while Jesus advocates worship of God (Matt 4:10). Only once do disciples collectively recognize Jesus’s power and venerate him as the Son of God (NRSV Matt 14:33: “worshiped him” [proskuneo]). With the case of Alexander in mind, we can imagine that for Greek readers Jesus was on one occasion given divine honors by followers as a human Son of God. After resurrection, the same male and female disciples venerate Jesus, although some doubt ((Matt 28:9, 17; cf. Luke 24:52). First-century veneration of Jesus is a contested issue. The meaning of proskynēsis varies in different contexts. It is therefore not helpful to read fourth-century Christianity and confessional notions back into first-century texts.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is designated “Son of God” at baptism. Read through a Roman lens, adoption involved a person’s designation as successor to the emperor, which in the first century C.E. (when dynastic adoption was particularly frequent) would have meant highest honor. Thus references to Jesus’s designation by God as “Son of God,” “Christ,” and “Lord,” in Romans 1:3–4; Acts 2:36; Philippians 2:9–11; and Mark 1:11, indicate assigning to Jesus great honor associated with imperial adoption (see Peppard, 2011).

God as Father (Aramaic: Abba).

Jesus has only one father in Matthew’s Gospel: the heavenly Father, object of the disciples’ prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. Disciples are siblings, that is, children of the heavenly Father. Furthermore, this affiliation is exclusive: Jesus admonishes his followers: “Call no one father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven” (23:9). Throughout the Gospel, Matthew also shows Jesus responding to the challenge of incorporating non-Jewish believers into Matthew’s Jewish community. While there were provisions for converting to Judaism, at heart being Jewish was about being descended from the ancestral fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The “house of Israel” is not a metaphor; Israel was the other name of Jacob, and the house of Israel means the descendants of Jacob. The extent to which family controls participation in the Jewish community becomes apparent when one looks at inheritance law: strictly speaking, there was no possibility of making a will under Jewish law, because the Torah determined succession absolutely. The observant Jew could not will his estate to someone outside the family, nor could he or she inherit from someone who was not a Jew. This made converting to Judaism problematic for very practical reasons, since the convert became ineligible to inherit from anyone. Because inclusion in the Jewish community is so much a family matter, part of Matthew’s task is to reframe family so that descent from Jacob or from Abraham is not required for full participation in the Matthean Jewish community. Matthew reserves the authority of “the fathers” for “the Father in heaven” alone. Only in the Gospel of Matthew does Jesus command his disciples, “Call no man father.” Since God is the only Father Jesus recognizes, an absolute and uncompromising rejection of the role or authority of the human, biological father distinguishes the composition of this family.

In spite of the fact that modern scholars have made it clear that Abba isn’t “Daddy,” preachers and theologians continue to assert that Jesus’s address to God (e.g., in Gethsemane) reflects a unique relationship, central to Jesus’s teaching and distinct from Judaism. But “Abba” is not a unique way to address God.

In Mark’s account of Gethsemane Jesus prays to be delivered from arrest, torture, and the crucifixion. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Only Mark’s Gospel preserves Jesus’s address to God as “Abba,” and only in Gethsemane. No other Gospel indicates that Jesus prays to God in this way. And Mark’s Gospel has no version of the Lord’s Prayer.

Most scholars agree that only Mark conveys Jesus’s use of Aramaic. When Jesus uses Aramaic, the words are translated into Greek presumably for the sake of Mark’s listeners who were not familiar with Aramaic. The fact that Mark glosses Jesus’s Aramaic speech is worth noting. Is it likely that Jesus uttered a bilingual prayer in Gethsemane using both Aramaic and Greek in the opening petition? Probably not. But Mark renders the scene by keeping the strangeness of the Aramaic while translating the foreign word into Greek. So Mark moves hearers from the unknown language of Aramaic to the more universally known one, Greek, by rendering “Abba” as “Father!”

Jesus’s petitionary language is the same as that of other Jews of his time (e.g., Sir 23:1, 4; Wis 14:3). In the Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q372 1:16, the “Joseph prayer,” Joseph calls God “my Father” and pleads that God save him from the hands of the Gentiles. So to argue that no contemporary Jewish prayer contains this form of address for God is to ignore the evidence. Jesus is a devout Jew whose prayer language fits with his time and place.

Further, to argue that Jesus’s use of “Abba” is unique is simply wrong. On two occasions in his letters, Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, Paul describes “Abba, Father!” as the cry of believers calling on a relationship to God they can now claim as their own. Paul’s letters predate the Gospels. The cry “Abba, Father!” recorded by Paul expresses the ecstatic speech of those newly adopted into the faith from a Gentile background in Asia Minor or elsewhere. It is better to say that Jesus’s address of God as “Abba” is distinctive rather than unique.

Son of (M)man/Human One.

Some years ago, and not without controversy, Geza Vermes indicated that when Jesus uses the term “son of man” self-referentially, it is not only fully consonant with his first-century Jewish milieu but is also a way of speaking about human identity (Vermes, 1973). The titular usage employing capital letters, “the Son of Man,” occurring in the NRSV, seems to refer to a specific figure, perhaps the one in Daniel 7:13. In both cases, the Greek word anthrōpos can be rendered inclusively as “the son of Humanity” or, with the Common English Bible, as “the Human One.”


As far as identification of the deity with a specific gender, the history of translation of key terms matters a great deal for modern interpretation. For example, the Greek term “Logos” in John 1:1 is invariably rendered “Word” but, as we see from William Tyndale’s rendition of John 1 in his 1526 New Testament, is not invariably masculine.

Tyndale renders Logos in John 1:3 thus: “All things were made by it, and without it was made nothing that made was…. In it was lyfe.” If the pronoun autos replaces and derives meaning from the antecedent noun, the appearance of autou in V. 3 refers to Logos, and since Logos is personified and inanimate, the translation of autos is “it.” This is what Tyndale does. Now this rendition continues in the Geneva Bible of 1560 and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. Compare these three translations with the 1611 Authorized Version (KJV), which consistently renders Logos and the consequent pronoun autos as “he”—as in, “All things were made by him.” Thus the translators of the KJV are proposing that Logos (the antecedent for autos) is equivalent to Jesus. This is hardly a fair rendition, however. If John had seen Logos as Jesus, John would have used Jesus instead of Logos. But John didn’t do this. So Tyndale, and after him the Bishops’ Bible and the Geneva Bible attest a rendition of John 1 in English that better represents the Greek.

The rendition of Tyndale continues into V. 14: “And that word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten son of the father, which word was full of grace and verite,” and is similarly rendered by the Bishops’ Bible and the Geneva Bible. But this is not the case with the KJV, whose legacy passes into the RSV and the NRSV.

Sophia (Wisdom).

Scribes of the wisdom tradition in the Second Temple period composed the wisdom Psalms (PSS 1 and 119, thanking God for the Torah; Ps 19 praising God the Creator), the laments and arguments of Job, the hymns of Ben Sirach to creation and the Torah, and the poems about Wisdom inserted into the collections of Proverbs (such as 8:22–31) and the (Greek) Wisdom of Solomon.

Changes to the scribal profession occurred in the Hellenistic period. Sirach continues the traditional notions of conservative wisdom offering study in a school. When Greek became the common language, Greek ideas of the individual emerged in Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) and the Wisdom of Solomon. But Qohelet uses skeptical wisdom to argue against the justice of God and the developing idea of an afterlife. Other wisdom traditions include the idea of afterlife (for the righteous faithful, according to the Wisdom of Solomon) and the idea that hidden wisdom is mediated through revelation.

In the poem of Sirach 24, Wisdom’s role in creation and Israel’s history is described. Whereas Job 28 described a search for Wisdom to which only God knows the way, Wisdom herself speaks here describing her origins: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist.” Hellenistic goddesses like Isis spoke of themselves in this way. Wisdom traverses the earth seeking a resting place among all the nations. At the Creator’s command, Wisdom takes up residence in Jerusalem, “taking root in an honored people,” where she flourishes like “a cedar in Lebanon.” Giving forth perfume and incense as part of temple worship, she next invites all who desire “to eat your fill of my fruits.” Sirach then identifies Wisdom as Torah, “the law that Moses commanded us.”

Sirach proposes that Wisdom is the creation and gift of Yahweh to humans. Torah cannot be attained by human effort. The idea that Wisdom as Torah descends from God presents an accessible Wisdom to a postexilic audience in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Now Wisdom is present in creation, dwelling with humans as Torah, and accessible to all through teaching that takes root and in teaching that is poured out like overflowing water. Sirach may have been the first to show Wisdom as Torah residing on earth. Gender analysis asserts that Wisdom is a creation of male authorship, but the longevity of Wisdom traditions in the East and West invites reassessment.

Traditions of embodied wisdom continue in the New Testament, though are configured differently than what is contained in Proverbs. Jesus speaks as Wisdom herself in Matthew’s Gospel and in the Gospel of Thomas inviting all to “learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:28–30, cf. Gos. Thom. 90). Matthew’s Jesus teaches higher righteousness through fulfillment of the Law. However Jesus’s teaching reflects the shift of traditional wisdom teachings from the family to the individual, incorporating a new context of the afterlife. Jesus’s traditional teaching on marriage prohibits divorce except on grounds of adultery. In the same passage, Jesus also commends a distinct group of disciples who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Now, married and single persons are included as Jesus’s disciples.

Jesus Sophia traditions are additionally discernible in early Christian and Byzantine history. According to Tertullian and Epiphanius, so-called church fathers who wrote in the third and fourth centuries, respectively, in the Montanist churches of Asia, Phrygia, and North Africa, spiritual gifts such as prophecies and visions abound. These churches were founded by Montanus, with the female prophets Maximilla and Prisca, and even Epiphanius’s hostile reports attest charismatic speech. Maximilla, for example, reports a vision of the resurrected Christ. “In the form of a woman, clothed in a shining robe, Christ came to me and put wisdom in me and revealed to me that this place is sacred and that it is here that Jerusalem will descend from heaven” (Epiphanius, Panarion 49.1). Maximilla connects the appearance of Christ in a female form with wisdom granted to a woman.

From the sixth century C.E. onward, Byzantine icons and frescoes feature prominently in places of worship as intersections between the faithful and holy figures both in private devotion and public worship, and serve as an important aspect of how New Testament representations of the gendered deity were appropriated in later historical circumstances. Heirs to the Roman tradition of portrait painting and illustrated biblical and liturgical manuscripts, the images in these traditions appear to be circumscribed in their range. For example, in many examples of Jesus Christ Pantocrator icons, Jesus displays Matthew 11:28, a passage connected with Wisdom, discussed earlier. But a different image of Jesus Sophia exists in the fourteenth-century frescoes of the Church of Santo Stefano in Soleto in the region of Salento, southern Italy. Byzantine hegemony in southern Italy (880–1071 C.E.) establishes the context of both Greek inscriptions and artistic expression of the Salento fresco artists into the subsequent Norman period. But Byzantine art historians tend to ignore southern Italy, possibly because the frescoes and art of Salento are on the edges of the Byzantine world. Perhaps one could say that the fresco inscribed “Sophia the Logos of God” in the east wall of the church is not an anomaly but “a Byzantine regional type with unusual iconographic features” (Safran, 2012, pp. 503–504).


Jesus Sophia. Detail, frescoes at the Church of Santo Stefano, Soleto, Italy (14th century C.E.).

Photo by Deirdre Good.

Paraclete (Greek: paraklētos).

When Jesus speaks of the Spirit (pneuma) as a masculine paraklētos in John 14, 15, and 16, he is speaking metaphorically. The first two appearances of the term paraklētos occur after Jesus has directed the disciples to follow his commandments (John 14:15, 23) in order to attain eternal life. The paraklētos functions in the context of judgment, because that one will speak before God the judge on humankind’s behalf as one of more elevated status than a legal patron (Latin: advocatus). In John 14:1–7, it is the Spirit of truth who will teach and remind everyone of what Jesus said (John 14:26), be a witness for Jesus and the disciples (John 15:26–27), and prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11). This is similar to Paul’s statement in Romans 8:26, that “the Spirit itself intercedes in our unutterable groans.”

At John 16:7–8 Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the paraklētos will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him [Greek: auton] to you.” The subject is spoken of as a masculine personal pronoun “he” in agreement with the masculine paraklētos but what the Gospel writer wrote simply accords with the requirements of Greek grammar by matching the gender of the pronoun with the gender of the noun it refers to. The text continues, “And He, when He [Greek lit. “when that one”] comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Similarly, all the masculine pronouns in John 16: 13–14 are correct but correspond to the grammatically masculine paraklētos and thus do not address the question whether the Spirit of truth is personified.


If John’s Logos Christology, for example, is analyzed from a gender-critical perspective, perhaps as dialogue with the Word, the Gospel exhibits both emancipatory and constricting engagements between Jesus and individuals. Mary, as one whom Jesus loved, hosted the second-to-last supper, wherein she is represented as playing the role of Jesus, kneeling, wiping, and pouring out substance of inestimable value. As community leader, Mary is the host, the one who knows what is to come, the one who anticipates Jesus’s example of foot washing and symbolically washes him. On the other hand, Jesus disaffiliates from his mother (John 2:4), separates husbands from wives (John 4:17–18), and affiliates a new son to his mother from the cross (John 19:25–26). This mixed evidence is not unlike the problem of anti-Judaism in the Fourth Gospel, which reaches to the core of the message and is intrinsically oppressive rather than revelatory. One cannot excise anti-Jewish elements to save the healthy core of the message. A hermeneutical solution might be that scriptures themselves are not the only place or the end of divine revelation. The author of John was a fallible human being. Yet the Gospel cannot be reduced to its anti-Jewish elements. It projects an alternative world of all-inclusive love and life that transcends its anti-Judaism (and gender discrimination) and this world of the text rather than the world of the author is a witness to divine revelation.




  • Berger, Michel, and André Jacob. La chiesa di S. Stefano a Soleto: Tradizioni byzantine e cultura tardogotica. Lecce, Italy: Argo, 2007.
  • Bieringer, Reimund, Didier Pollefeyt, and Frederique Vandecasteele Vanneuville, eds. Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  • Danker, Frederick Wilhelm, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Holmes, Brooke. Gender: Antiquity and Its Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Lopez, Davina C. Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.
  • Peppard, Michael. The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Price, S. R. F. “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984): 79–95.
  • Safran, Linda. “‘Byzantine’ Art in Post-Byzantine South Italy? Notes on a Fuzzy Concept.” Common Knowledge 18, no. 3 (2012): 487–504.
  • Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. London: Collins, 1973.

Deirdre Good

Early Judaism


Early Church

God, says Jerome (fourth–fifth century C.E.), has no gender. This is evident to him in the various grammatical identifications of the Holy Spirit: feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek, and masculine in Latin. Yet this denial of gender identity for the deity belies the images and metaphors by which God is known in the early Christian tradition, building as they do on language and depictions of the Hebrew deity. The question of the deity’s gender has implications not only regarding conceptualization of God but also for understanding the human person (made in the “image of God” [[Gen 1:27]), as well as practical implications for God-language in prayer and worship.

Hebrew Tradition.

Gendered deities are commonplace in many religious traditions but monotheistic religions insist on a divine simplicity. At the same time, the language and imagery used for God in monotheistic traditions reveal a complex understanding of the divine. Monotheistic religions generally refer to the deity (“god”) in the masculine gender; this is true of the God of Israel, who is often described with masculine language. One metaphor for the relationship between God (Yahweh) and the people of Israel is that of a faithful husband and an adulterous wife (who is often shamed by her husband; see Jeremiah 2, 3, 13; Ezekiel 16, 23; the metaphor is most fully developed in the book of Hosea). Although cultic and political faithfulness is expected of the nations of Israel and Judah, God, understood as husband, can have more than one partner (at least if they are the “twin sisters” of Ezek 23), thus reflecting the culture’s different gender expectations. Gender-based violence is revealed in imagery of God punishing the nation (the unfaithful wife) or the city, the “daughter” who is stripped or threatened with rape (Lam 1:8–10). God also appears as a warrior, an enthroned ruler, and a judge, among other images.

Although the feminine divine is often suppressed in the Hebrew tradition, a key element in the Hebrew scriptures is the idea of God as one who liberates, overturning systems of oppression. This life-giving principle lends itself to being imagined in female terms. Given the predominance of male, including violent, images for God in the Hebrew tradition, it is even more striking when grammatically feminine language or images of women are used to depict God. One metaphor for the God of Israel is that of a pregnant woman (Isa 46:3–4) or a woman in labor (Isa 42:14; see also Deut 32:18), or even a mother bear (Hos 13:8).). The language used to describe divine compassion employs the Hebrew word for “womb” (reḥem). But female metaphors for God also go beyond maternal images.

The most developed treatment of a feminine aspect of the divine in the Hebrew tradition can be found in Wisdom literature, in which the feminine Wisdom is the consort of God (Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon). The image may originate as an expression of divine marriage (with Wisdom as Yahweh’s bride), but it is more developed than a simple pairing of male and female deities. First, the personification of ḥokhmah (sophia in Greek) as a woman stems from the grammatical gender of the Hebrew term. In addition, in this literature that generally conceives of only two roles for women (either model wives or beguiling temptresses of men), Wisdom becomes a seducer of human men, enticing them and calling them to learn from her. But she appears primarily as a way of speaking of the divine quality of wise thought and action and, as such, takes on a creative as well as educative role. She is present at and a participant in the creation of the world (Prov 8:22–31). It is this last characteristic of Wisdom that will be especially developed in the Christian tradition.

New Testament.

Many of the claims made about Wisdom in the Hebrew tradition, including dwelling with God and participating in creation, are applied to the divine Logos in the prologue to the Gospel of John. One claim made in John 1:14 for the Logos had not been applied to divine Wisdom: that the Logos “became flesh and lived among us.” Although the concept of the Logos as the presence of God in the world had been developed in Jewish philosophical writings of the Second Temple period, it is here explicitly associated with the person of Jesus. That characteristics of the feminine Wisdom are now applied to the masculine Logos could be seen as natural and appropriate, given the maleness of Jesus. Because of the grammatical gender of each term, it is unsurprising that the concepts would be personified as gendered beings. But Jesus of Nazareth is not simply the personification of a concept but an actual male person, a reality that has contributed to claims that men are more appropriately representative of the divine or that women are unfit to serve in ministerial roles. Although these claims have been challenged as misappropriations of divine metaphor and allusion and as inadequate in light of Jesus’s own ministry, the reality remains that Christianity identifies a male person as the visible manifestation of God (Col 1:15). Yet Christian theological reflection has often maintained that Jesus’s maleness, far from suggesting divine maleness, is not significant for Christological or soteriological claims. Indeed, various Christologies in the New Testament often develop different aspects of the Hebrew tradition, especially the identification of Jesus with Wisdom (see not only John 1:1–18 but also, among many examples, 1 Cor 1:30, or in the background of the hymns found in Phil 2:6–11 and Col 1:15–20).

A common way of speaking of the divine in the New Testament is to use images of men, in particular “father” (see, e.g., John 4:23 or Gal 4:6). But there are also images of women’s activities that are illustrative of divine activity or the promises associated with God’s reign. A woman’s act of kneading dough (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:20–21) is compared with the expansiveness of the reign of God; heavenly rejoicing over a repentant sinner is similar to a woman’s joy in finding a lost coin (Luke 15:8–10). The gospels record Jesus using the image of a mother hen to speak of himself (Matt 23:27; Luke 13:34). And it is the language of “rebirth” (John 3:1–7) that is used to describe the life provided by the divine spirit.

Although Paul addresses God as Father, he also hints at a more complex understanding by alluding to the declaration in Genesis 1:26–27 that humans are made in the image of God as “male and female.” For Paul, Christian baptism reverses any divisions among humans, and there is, in particular, “no longer male and female” (Gal 3:28), a direct allusion to the Genesis passage. Although Paul never reveals an idea of a hermaphrodite deity or an androgynous first creature, some early, especially gnostic, Christian sources reveal the notion of a restored human, a reunified male and female, as the goal and reward of human life.

Early Christianity.

The early centuries of Christianity saw various developments of these themes as well as new ideas. While committed to monotheism, many Christians also began to express belief in Jesus’s divinity and in the working of the Holy Spirit, and the most common way to articulate the idea of relationships within the Godhead was through the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Gregory of Nazianzus (fourth century C.E.) emphasized that the terms “Father” and “Son” are used as metaphors to describe relations within the Trinity and should not be misunderstood to indicate divine maleness. Indeed, a favorite way to reflect on this emerging Trinitarian thought was through the image of Wisdom (sophia), which corresponded in some ways with rabbinic reflection on shekinah as the presence of God. Whether due to a desire to recognize a feminine divine or simply due to the use of languages that utilize grammatical gender and therefore naturally lend themselves to representations of God in gendered terms and images, Christianity has always produced fruitful imaginings of the divine that employ female as well as male embodiments.

Gnostic traditions.

Early Christian gnostic movements made ample use of categories of gender—with both positive and negative ramifications—when reflecting on divine reality. Because gnostic Christianity was far from monolithic, the importance of gender in gnostic texts cannot be oversimplified. Sometimes gender appears to be an important aspect of a text’s themes; at other times it seems incidental. What is certain is that there is greater attention given to gender in general and feminine images in particular in these texts. This reality does not necessarily suggest greater attention to or appreciation for real women or their roles in society, although that may indeed have been the case at times. At other times there is, in ascetic gnostic texts, clear denigration of the role of women as, for example, bearers of children. In general, gnostic texts demonstrate a decided proclivity toward gendered images, both male and female.

Gnostic Christians preserved texts with important female figures in them, such as Norea, a gnostic savior figure, or Barbelo, a divine (often) feminine principle and emanation of the Father, the originating divine principle. The divine emanations in gnostic thought appear in gendered pairs of one male and one female element, which complement one another in an ideal state of fullness. An element acting alone apart from a consort, as in the case of Sophia in some myths, allows evil to be introduced in the world, causing a state of chaos and separation. Sometimes Christ and the Holy Spirit are paired, and in one version of the myth Christ is sent to bring the fallen Sophia back into a state of unity and fullness; he appears on earth as Jesus, who teaches humans about their origin in the spiritual world. In the Christian gnostic sacramental system of the Gospel of Philip, it is the decidedly female Holy Spirit who is at work in the world, especially in ritual actions, including the highest ceremony of the bridal chamber, reflective of the spiritual bridal chamber, the world of light and fullness.

Valentinian gnostic texts also affirm a feminine Spirit, which is identified with the bosom of the Father (Gos. Truth 24:9–14) and is the one who reveals the Son, hidden in the Father. Elsewhere, it is denied that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, for “When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?” (Gos. Phil. 55:26). Irenaeus (second century C.E.) and Epiphanius (fourth century C.E.) both knew of gnostic groups that speak of a “Mother on high” whom Irenaeus says is also called Holy Spirit.

Alexandrian and Antiochene schools.

Other Christian writers develop an understanding of divine activity in the world in part in response to gnostic thought. Many follow the practice, begun in the Gospel of John, of using similar language of the Logos as had been used of Wisdom in the Hebrew tradition. Justin Martyr (second century C.E.) reflects on the personified Wisdom in Proverbs in speaking of the Logos. Athenagoras the Athenian (second century C.E.) speaks of God creating the universe through the Logos (the Son), which is best expressed as the eternal mind of the Father, an idea that will be furthered by Christians of the Alexandrian school, developing Platonic ideas in thinking of God as Mind. Athenagoras quotes Proverbs 8:22 on Wisdom to speak of the Son and declares that the Son is the intelligence, reason, and wisdom of the Father. The Spirit is described as an emanation or effluence, in language reminiscent of Wisdom of Solomon 7:25 with respect to Wisdom.

Representatives of the Antiochene school of early Christian thought reflect similar fluidity of expression, sometimes using language of Wisdom to speak of the Logos, sometimes to speak of the Spirit. Theophilus of Antioch can identify the Logos with Wisdom but at other times speaks of them differently. God created the world “by the Logos and Wisdom,” but the Logos is elsewhere the same as the Spirit and Wisdom and that which inspired the prophets.

By the time of the Trinitarian controversy in the fourth century, Greek-speaking Christians were largely in agreement that Proverbs 8:22 and following could be applied to the second person of the Trinity. It was one of the hallmarks of the teaching of Arius on the Son, the reality of which moved the council members at Nicea to turn to Greek philosophical terminology to reflect their understanding of relations in the Godhead.

Syriac Christianity.

Although Greek and Latin Christian writers, with their varying emphases, influenced much of the reflection on God in western Christianity, fertile ground for poetic reflection could be found in eastern, especially Semitic, Christianity, with its appreciation for and development of the language and metaphors of the Hebrew tradition. Principal among these was the idea of the femininity of the Spirit and her role as mother of Jesus.

In early writings in Syriac, including biblical translations, the Spirit is always treated as grammatically feminine. By the fifth century C.E., the Spirit is sometimes treated as feminine in Syriac biblical texts and sometimes as masculine. The trend of treating the Spirit as masculine, surely due to influence from the Latin West, continues, so that masculine verbs and adjectives gradually come to replace feminine ones when paired with the feminine noun ruḥa. This is true of both biblical and nonbiblical writings, so that by the sixth and seventh centuries, the feminine Spirit is treated as if grammatically masculine. At the same time, authors continue to use mother imagery in reference to the Spirit.

Such shyness with feminine language for Spirit is unknown in the early centuries of Christianity in Syria. Use of the feminine term ruaḥ (breath, wind, spirit) in Hebrew texts, together with the image of the divine spirit hovering like a mother bird (Gen 1:2), contributes to the idea of the Holy Spirit (or “Spirit of holiness” in early Syriac biblical texts) as a Mother. The Spirit can be understood as feminine apart from the mother image; some authors identify the biblical Rebecca or Eve as the Holy Spirit, while Synesios of Cyrene speaks of the Holy Spirit as the mother, the sister, the daughter. But Christians in the early centuries who spoke a Semitic language (namely Syriac) were fond of the idea of the Spirit as Mother. There are links here with gnostic thought, some of which flourished in Semitic regions, but it would be incorrect to identify these texts as themselves gnostic. The Odes of Solomon, surviving in Greek and Syriac, preserves graphic imagery for the Spirit. Grammatically feminine in Syriac, she is the air that produces music from stringed instruments and leads in praise of God. She rests on and transports the odist to heavenly heights and provides protection. In two places in the Odes, she appears as a bird, flying and cooing over the Messiah (apparently referring to the presence of the Spirit at the baptism of Jesus) and also serving as a messenger. In Ode 28, the “wings of the Spirit” are those of a mother dove, who provides protection, comfort, and warmth to young nestlings. The hovering dove of Genesis has become a mother dove, caring for her offspring.

The feminine imagery for God used in Ode 19 defies attempts to apply consistent gendered imagery to God. The Father has breasts that produce sweet milk that is offered to the odist; the Son is the cup from which the milk is drunk. The feminine Spirit is the one who milks the Father’s breasts and subsequently opens her bosom (or that of the Father?) to mix the milk from the Father’s breasts. The ode goes on to describe the birth of the child, perhaps to a human mother, but also perhaps to the Spirit as Mother.

The idea of the Spirit as the Mother is developed most fully in the Acts of Thomas, often in liturgical prayers. The Acts of Thomas was most likely written in Syriac and survives in both Syriac and Greek, but the Greek seems to be closer to the original and contains the most colorful and primitive language. In a prayer over the bread of the Eucharist, there may be an identification of the name of the Mother and the name of Jesus: “We pronounce over you the name of the Mother, of an ineffable mystery, and of hidden authorities and powers. We pronounce over you your name, Jesus.” Elsewhere, most notably in two corresponding initiatory prayers, it becomes clear that the Spirit is the Mother. Both prayers invoke an addressee with an appeal to “come,” followed by feminine participles that describe the figure’s activity, and both call for the presence of the “Mother.” In the prayer over the oil of an initiatory anointing (Acts Thom. 27; author’s translations), an appeal is made to “come, compassionate Mother,” and later, “come, Mother of the seven houses, so that your rest might be in the eighth house.” This prayer explicitly identifies the addressee as the “Holy Spirit,” who is described as “perfect compassion” and “revealer of hidden mysteries.” Mention of the seven houses recalls the seven pillars of the house built by Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1; in Sirach 24:4–8, Wisdom seeks a resting place on earth. There is thus a striking resemblance between the Mother in this prayer and the figure of Wisdom from the Hebrew tradition. The second initiatory prayer, in a eucharistic setting, again calls the feminine addressee “perfect compassion”; she is one who reveals secrets and “makes visible what is hidden.” She is also the “holy dove which bears twin nestlings” and “hidden Mother.” Although not explicitly identified as the Holy Spirit in this prayer, the similarity with the first initiatory prayer and the use of images, such as dove, that are elsewhere associated with the Spirit, suggest that this is the intended meaning here as well. The Spirit is here a revealer, and in particular reveals the presence of the Anointed One.

An early identification of a mother figure, probably understood as the Spirit, as well as allusion to the dove with twins, comes from a thinker of the same general region of northern Mesopotamia that produced the Acts of Thomas, but from a slightly earlier period. Bardaiṣan, a Christian court philosopher in Edessa, speaks of the Spirit bearing two daughters, and also uses explicit language of Father and Mother. Although Bardaiṣan claims to be monotheistic, he is criticized by Ephrem (fourth century C.E.) for holding to the idea of a divine pair of Mother and Father, who unite sexually to produce a son. Ephrem may be reflecting the thoughtworld of later Bardeṣanites or ascribing to Bardaiṣan ideas of a Father–Mother–Son triad known in the region both outside of Christianity and in Marcioniate thought.

Ephrem himself does not use mother language for the Spirit but regularly identifies the Spirit as feminine and uses other feminine imagery for the divine as well. He is perhaps the first to use nursing imagery to describe how Christ gives life (“he is the living breast;” Hymns on the Nativity 4.150) and often uses the image of the womb of God. The womb that hides Jesus’s human nature is the “great womb of divinity” (Hymns on the Nativity 13.7).

The Persian sage Aphrahat (fourth century C.E.), a younger contemporary of Ephrem, does not hesitate to employ mother language for the divine spirit. Reflecting on Genesis 2:24, which declares that a man leaves his father and mother for his wife, Aphrahat suggests that the meaning pertains to the unmarried man who “loves and reveres God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother, and he has no other love” (Demonstrations 18.10). Aphrahat also speaks of the Spirit hovering like a mother bird. From a similar time and region, the Macarian homilies refer to the Spirit as Mother. And the seventh-century Syrian Martyrius speaks of the Spirit as a mother who hovers over the community, while Moshe bar Kepha (ninth century C.E.) says that the Holy Spirit hovered over John the Baptist and acted as his mother.

Syriac-speaking Christianity, followed by those authors who inherit its images, clearly has the most vibrant and most developed understanding of a feminine Spirit, but the idea was known in other regions as well. The aforementioned Jerome, who declares that God has no gender, was led to this conclusion after quoting from the now lost Gospel of the Hebrews. The fullest form of the quotation, placed on the lips of Jesus, is found in Origen (third century C.E.): “Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away on to the great mountain Tabor” (Commentary on John II.12). And Clement of Alexandria (second–third century C.E.) uses feminine imagery for God, by declaring that the Father became feminine and indeed, in loving humans, has become a mother.


Early Christian language for God, building on that used in the Hebrew tradition, most often employs male images and terminology for the Godhead. But this is balanced by denials that God is gendered, coupled with a variety of female metaphors, resulting in rich and varied patterns of God language.




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Susan E. Myers