Vagina Power and the History of Christian Symbols
Early Christian syncretism involved taking existing pagan symbols and giving them new meaning.
I saw the symbol for vagina on the back of a car the other day. I also saw one on a business card, a necklace, a church bulletin, and even a Bible. Vaginas are everywhere! People in America must really love female sexuality.
Of course, I’m talking about the fish symbol.
The vulva-shaped ichthys or “Jesus fish” was once a prominent pagan symbol representing almost every pre-Christian fertility goddess: from Atargatis, Aphrodite, and Artemis, to many others who do not follow my alliteration streak, so we’re just going to ignore them for right now.
Early Christian syncretism involved taking existing pagan symbols and giving them new meaning. One example of this is the ancient goddess Asherah who was worshipped in the Holy Land during the time of the early Israelites. Karen Garst, the editor of Women Beyond Belief, gives a brief history of Asherah, the ancient goddess of new life, and her symbol, the snake, who sheds its skin to demonstrate regeneration.
Snakes and female deities were often seen together. In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyph for the word “goddess” is a picture of a snake. Garst’s makes a good point: “What better way to put down this goddess worship than by portraying the devil using a classic symbol associated with her?” In fact, what better way to show that women are somehow evil?
Just like with the snake, Christianity took over the pagan ichthys fertility symbol and twisted it to represent a religion that ultimately promoted the subjugation of women and blamed them for everything wrong in the world. Lovely.
The Christian ichthys is a backronym, that is, an acronym applied to an already-existing word, like when Calvin when Calvin and Hobbes fame made the word “gross” stand for Get Rid Of Slimy girlS. In the same way, Christians twisted ichthys (ἸΧΘΥΣ) into Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ or Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
But ichthys is also the Greek word for fish, which made a fitting name of the child of the fish-goddess, Atargatis. Since Atargatis worship obviously pre-dates Christianity, it holds the rights to the symbol. While ideas and language can be borrowed by other cultures, Christianity went a step further by taking goddess worshippers’ intellectual property and completely subverting the symbol into something antithetical to it.
“[The ichthys] was so revered throughout the Roman empire that Christian authorities insisted on taking it over, with extensive revision of myths to deny its earlier female-genital meanings.” The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secretsby B. G. Walker
Imagine if a conquering religion came through and took our symbol for love, the heart, and decided it was now was the symbol of their hate gods. “I <3 you,” would then come to mean “I despise you in the name of the hate gods.” It’s that application of severe retrograde meaning that makes its usage almost an act of bullying. How much worse, though, when a sexual symbol of femininity is stolen without consent by an androcentric religion?
Countering a Woman-Centered World
In ancient Ephesus, Artemis (who was at times conflated with Cybele) was portrayed with this familiar fish symbol over her genitals. She was the origin of all life, but sin was said to have entered the world through the male gods around her; not through a human being, and certainly not through a woman. Contrary to the male-centric worship of Yahweh by all male priests, the priests of Artemis were primarily women or men who had renounced their masculinity, who spoke with religious authority. This culture was so prominent that early missionaries (Christian outsiders) went to misogynistic extremes to counter it.
Consider the pastoral epistle to Timothy, which was written from Ephesus:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
You can almost see the author of this letter (most scholars would put 1 Timothy among the pseudonymous epistles) stomping his foot as he demands this ham-fisted reversal of not only the native religion but also the natural order. Instead of man coming from the woman, now woman comes from a man.
Female empowerment was likely seen as dangerous to Christianity. Ephesus, a city once said to be founded and ruled by warrior women began to see a steep decline in the status of women after Christianity blew through town. Christians inspired by these words would go on to destroy Artemis’ temple, her images, and her massive statue. A Christian inscription at the site explains why we find so few remains:
“Destroying the delusive image of the demon Artemis, Demeas has erected this symbol of Truth, the God that drives away idols, and the Cross of priests, deathless and victorious sign of Christ.”
Idols of female deities of fertility are so old that they are often called Venus figurines, yet they predate the goddess, Venus. The Venus of Willendorf, for example, has been estimated to have been made as far back as 28,000 BCE. Humanity has been venerating the vagina, vulva, and birthing powers of women since the Palaeolithic age! By contrast, Judaism is only around 3,000 years old, and its offshoot, Christianity, a youthful 2,000.
Despite all of this, remnants of the fertility symbol have yet survived within Christian worship through the veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Scholar B.G. Walker has pointed out,
“Sometimes the Christ child was portrayed inside the vesical [ichthys], which was superimposed on Mary’s belly and obviously represented her womb, just as in the ancient symbolism of the Goddess.” (Emphasis and parenthetical brackets mine.)
In many ways, Mary became a fertility symbol herself, although her fertility has been unnaturally divorced from her sexual agency, allowing motherhood to be called holy but female sexuality sinful. This is how I could be taught growing up that the best thing I could do was have children, but the worst thing I could do was have sex outside the confines of heterosexual, church-approved, man-ruled marriage.
When Your Only Deity Is Male
All this is to say, the Christian fear of female sexuality is certainly not new. In the Middle Ages, it was literally demonised. Thousands upon thousands of women were burned as witches by order of the Christian leaders of the day. The 1487 Christian treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum, warns, “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in woman is insatiable.”
Scholars, Stuart Clark and Robin Briggs, tell us that a certain binary exists in Christian thought which explains why women were more prone to the accusation of witchcraft:
“Men are associated with positive attributes, then women must be associated with their negative counterparts. If God is the embodiment of good and the Devil, His polar opposite, then, accordingly, men are innately closer to God and women to the Devil. This is even supported by Eve’s original sin in Genesis of the Bible.”
This is what happens when your only deity is male.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. The polytheistic roots of the Old Testament (“Let us make man in our image”) are still evident. Yahweh himself began as merely an epithet of El in the Canaanite pantheon. Asherah worship did not go away once the Israelites moved in, but she was known for a long while as Yahweh’s wife, or the “Queen of Heaven,” as we find in the book of Jeremiah. Her sons are the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 who mate with the daughters of humans and create giants (yes, that’s actually in the Bible).
Later when the gods and goddesses morphed into one big male deity under Yahweh’s name, all the others’ powers were subsumed into one being. This is how Yahweh can have Asherah’s abilities, which include the traditional powers of women to give life. Even prominent Christians have noticed female descriptions of the biblical god in their Scriptures. It seems obvious to the modern reader that Asherah was ultimately beaten out of their holy text to preserve male authority.
Most Christians aren’t aware that the ichthys originally represented female sexuality. Today they put it on their clothes and hang it in their churches where it silently sings the ancient songs of female empowerment.
Speaking for myself, I see it and remember that in my body lies the flesh that humans first called divine. I myself have brought a child into the world through its powers. And while Christianity works to control female bodies even today, millions of women throughout history scream out through this symbol of fertility and life.
Note: This blog first appeared 0n www.patheos.com with the headline"Vagina Power and the History of Christian Symbols" on November 30, 2016.