Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jeudi: Great Spirits

Islam is, of course, one of the “big three” world religions.  Like its progenitor Judaism and its sibling Christianity, it is a markedly patriarchal system.  Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that Islam has also tried to stamp out the memory of any goddesses that ruled over its people before it swept through and “saved” them.  The religion has done a pretty good job, in all fairness, but a trinity of goddesses – one of whom was once worshipped by the family of the prophet Mohammed – still lingers in the collective Semitic memory.

The ancient Arabic ladies known as Al-Uzza, Al-lat and Menat form a sort of Maiden/Mother/Crone group that will be familiar to many pagans.  Much like the same sort of trinity in Wiccan and Druid traditions, these goddesses stand alone at times, meld with each other at others and are sometimes confused or even mistaken for one another.  For instance, the temple thought to be dedicated to Al-Uzza, the virgin warrior, at Petra in modern Jordan, is also mentioned as a place of worship for Al-lat, the fertile mother.

The confusion here is particularly easy to understand.  Just as Al-lah simply means “God”, so Al-lat means “Goddess”.  This is not uncommon in languages of the ancient Near East.  A similar quirk in the Phoenician language, for instance, created the god Ba’al (Lord) and his consort Ba’alat (Lady).  It is worth noting that the acacia tree was sacred to Ba’alat, just as it was to the warrior Al-Uzza.

Al-Uzza was the particular goddess of Northern Arabia and the Koreishite tribe into which Mohammed was born.  She was thought of as a nubile woman whose name meant “the strong”.  Her particular symbol was the morning and evening star and, much like Astarte and Ishtar before her, she took on the oversight of love and war.  Her sacred acacia grove, whose trees were thought to house the spirit of the goddess, was just south of Mecca.  Mohammed had the grove and its temple destroyed as he strove to assert the rule of the “One true God”.

Al-lat, the Goddess, was compared by the Romans to their Ceres.  She has also been compared to the Egyptian Isis.  A goddess of fertility and protector of her people, she was often symbolized by sheaves of wheat or other grains.  She also had a shrine near Mecca where she was venerated in the form of a giant block of white granite.  According to Patricia Monaghan, women were required to appear before the block of stone naked, and circle it once around.  Doing so would guarantee the granting of any boon asked of the goddess.  Ancient Arabians swore oaths by the name of Al-lat, as she was considered to be as permanent and steadfast as the white granite block at her shrine.  Needless to say, this too was destroyed with the coming of Islam.

The third component to the triad was Menat or Menata.  Her name meant, alternatively, “fate”, “allotment” or “death”.  Much like the Angel of Death in Christian myth, Menat was the spirit who came for a person when it was time for them to die.  She was called down when curses were necessary; provided the curse was righteous, Menat would punish the evil-doer.  Like Al-lat, Menat was thought to inhabit a block of stone.  Hers was a huge piece of black granite at Quidaid near Medina and its location is still a place associated with the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

As is often the case with goddesses, people are reluctant to abandon them all together.  Thus the Koran lists Al-Uzza, Al-lat and Menat as three of the daughters of Al-lah.  In that holy book they are longer goddesses, but spirits who intercede for humans much like the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity.

Header: Al-Uzza, Al-lat & Menat by Thalia Took (find her fascinating site listed on the sidebar)


Timmy! said...

Well they have to be assigned to a subserviant role, Pauline. After all, they are women...

Pauline said...

Exactly! And look at those hussies showing their faces and everything.