Female zealots

October 19, 2020

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A popular academic fact claims that females are the most zealous religious adherents, despite being marginalised in their own religious communities. We are told this is because they are uneducated and submissive. But a quick look at most of recorded history shows us this was not always the case. Once, female zealots formed the core of what is possibly our most universal religious tradition.


In the psychological or sociological study of religion, one is introduced very early to the idea that women are more zealous religious adherents than men. They apparently participate more, feel religion is 'more important', are more devout, and incorporate it to a greater extent in their lives.

I was taught this almost a decade ago, as part of my psychology undergraduate in Australia. We discussed the apparent role of Vicki Weaver, the 'religious leader' of the family besieged during the Ruby Ridge fiasco in the US. Weaver was a devout woman whose visions and apocalyptic ideation ostensibly drove the family to the behaviours that lead to the siege—to retreat from the 'corruption' of the modern world and prepare for a defence against persecution. The family were promptly persecuted, the property was biesieged by US government officials, and Vicky was killed in one of several subsequent shootouts while holding her baby—an action that was later ruled illegal.

Surveillance photo of Vicki Weaver Vicky Weaver, thought to be the religiously motivated architect of the behaviour that brought the family under suspicion (though the government response was fairly insane).Wikipedia

This idea of female zealotry is repeatedly mentioned in the opening chapters of the textbook for this year's high-school Sociology classes in the UK as a feature of gender across cultures. Scattered across the internet are research reports and journal articles that claim this fact over and over again. It would seem then, that women are the zealots.

On reflection though, this academic fact creates a tension. On the one hand, it kind of feels right. Our image of new age spirituality is dominated by females meditating, filling yoga classes, comparing astrological charts, and debating the merits of various crystals. In the Christian circles I've brushed against, the women were always the ones facilitating the community—holding the after church gatherings, or approaching newcomers to talk. From an outsider's perspective, women are one of the most visible aspect of some Islamic traditions. The Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece was a woman, used unsparingly in movies and the tv. As are nuns, a perennial favourite television victim slaughtered by the boatload in dramas like Netflix's Dracula. The idea that women have a closer relationship to the sacred feels true.

But of course, religions are typically male-dominated structures. The example of Vicki Weaver from Ruby Ridge was used in my psychology class to illustrate her leading role in generating an 'apocalyptic' psychology in the members of that compound. The implication being that her leadership was a primary reason for the violence that followed (not to mention the extreme and illegal actions of the government).

But our images of religious violence aren't filled with female leaders. Rather, we're shown masculine zealots committing masculine crimes, perhaps stopping occasionally to press a weeping woman into detonating a vest. For all my exposure to nuns, I don't even really know what they do at the time of writing this paragraph, despite being the subjects of one of my favourite examples of ongoing research. I only have a clear understanding of the male religious roles. The Pope is a man, and the clergy of many Christian denominations has remained exclusively male for hundreds of years. This exclusionary quality is often a defining feature of the Abrahamic religions, if not explicitly by doctrine then by practice.

Women apparently have a greater connection to the sacred, despite appearing to be the least influential.

Indeed, a masculine dominance is true of any religion I can think of off the top of my head. A quick search reveals that despite a belief in an implicit divine femininity in Hinduism, I still can't easily find an example of an influential female guru. The Buddha may have established the ancient female monastic order of bhikkhunis, but the Buddhist figures that I've been presented with are entirely male, from The Buddha to the Chinese laughing Buddha to the Dalai Lama.

The academic resolution of this tension, and the popular wisdom too, boils down to something like women are uneducated and/or weak and/or submissive and/or likely to follow the path of least resistance. And thus, in this weak-willed way, they are drawn to religion. This isn't really an unfair depiction of the literature, I assure you, though it should immediately alert us to something fishy. Being particularly religious has historically been a fairly dangerous affair, certainly not for the faint-hearted.

To illustrate the typical explanations, let's examine a few. I pull all of these from the very first pop-psychology site article and journal article(pdf) I find in a search, to give you a sense of the immediacy of these conclusions in our collective academic and popular cultures.

  • Women have historically obtained less education, and are thus unshielded from supernatural beliefs.
  • Women are taught to be passive and submissive, and so submission in a religious context is more appealing.
  • Women's traditional roles, with an emphasis on child-rearing, makes them more oriented to traditions and their maintenance, more aware of the existential realities of life and death through birth and caring for the sick, and more likely to oversee their children's religious education by virtue of being their primary carer.
  • Women are forced to seek out power and status in one of the only domains remaining to them—the church.
  • Women have less agency and are more vulnerable in many societies, making the support of religion seem more appealing.
  • So on and so forth.

I'm getting bored. But I think the point is clear enough. There is also an interesting undertone here. We often see subtle veins of derision toward religion that trace their way through our social and media narratives. Consider the condemnation of religious communities during the current concern about the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They are condemned for spreading the disease when coming together to worship. This condemnation comes often in patronising ways that is absent from the reporting on other groups known to spread the disease, like travelling business-people or holiday-makers.

This particular trend of ridiculing the religious intersects with the woman-as-religious trope. The outcome is a noticeable atmosphere in both media and academic literature that women are susceptible to the silly influence of religion because they too are silly.

In academic circles and the popular media, the general message is that women are submissive, weak, and uneducated and thus fall into religion. Something that seems at odds with how difficult it has been historically to be religious.

Evolutionary and biological accounts are also problematic. The general idea is that women may be biologically more risk-averse than men, and thus are more likely to adhere to religious conventions and rules. Breaking these might be seen as risky. It may very well be true that women are more risk averse, and this may indeed be biological to some extent. We know, for example, that men are far more likely to score high on an index of sensation-seeking behaviour. But that this predilection would make women more likely to devote themselves to what is historically one of the most dangerous activities seems a little flimsy.

And yet the messaging is on trend. Once again, women are portrayed as submissive, obedient, and weak-willed, and thus more likely to engage in or be forced into religious practices.

It's a very different message to the one I got in my introduction to the subject. Was Vicki Weaver of Ruby Ridge a religious leader who led her family in the circumstances leading up to a violent siege by encouraging them to retreat from the 'corruption' of the modern world? Or was her illegal killing at Ruby Ridge simply another example of a meek and obedient woman with the wrong beliefs at the wrong time?

Surveillance photo of Vicki Weaver The image of a martyr for her beliefs, but a passive one or an active one?Wikipedia

The new message is a lie

Considering the messages that have pervaded both my academic career and my media streams, imagine my surprise to learn that trope of the subservient religious woman is a fairly recent invention.

Enter the Eleusinian Mysteries, the "most famous of the...religious rites of ancient Greece".

The Mysteries of Eleusis were initiation ceremonies held each year as part of a cult to Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture, and Demeter's daughter Persephone. In Grecian mythology, Persephone was abducted by Hades, lord of the underworld. Demeter caused a famine and drought in her dismay. Eventually Zeus, the king of the gods, intervened to stop the drought, Persephone was returned, and the world blossomed into the first spring.

While the particulars of the Mysteries held in honour of these events elude us still, held a closely guarded secret as they were, we do have access to some important features.

The initiation rites were not simply a rite of learning about the gods, but a rite of experience according to Aristotle's Fragmenta, one that united the individual with the gods in an apparently literal apotheosis. Plato describes this experience as a "blessed sight and vision" witnessed in a "state of perfection" in Phaedo. The vision-based experience followed the drinking of some kind of potion—the kukeon.

The potion appears to have facilitated a vision that mirrored in kind Persephone's descent into the underworld, and her return: a bridge between life and death that united one with god. Pindar, the famous Greek poet, noted "Blessed is he who has seen these things before he goes beneath the hollow earth; for he understands the end of mortal life, and the beginning [of a new life] given of god" in a fragment (137) among his Nemean and Isthmian Odes. Another fragment, this time from Sophocles the playwright, (837) survives with a similar tone, "Thrice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites, go down to Hades. Only for them is there life [after death]; all the rest will suffer an evil lot."

The Eleusian Mysteries involved the drinking of a potion to bridge life and death and become one with the gods.

Given the general impression of the Grecian underworld as a miserable afterlife, these statements are interesting indeed. The Mysteries of Eleusis appear to be the antidote to this bleak future. An experience that separates the blessed and the damned, creating such a profound change in the writers who documented what little they could of the rite that the potion—the kukeon–is thought by many to have been a psychedelic experience in which one experiences an ego death and rebirth.

But not just anyone could engage in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Only the religious elite and those who were deemed to reach épopteia—something like enlightenment. This ceremony didn't just separate the blessed from the damned, but the haves from the have nots. An experience so closely guarded and important to the Grecian state that the famous philosophy student of Socrates, Alcibiades faced execution for attempting to replicate the Mysteries in a private ceremony. A protected rite for the elite, just like so many luxury beliefs that populate our civilisations through time.

And yet, these crucially important religious rites were entirely administered by women. Women of a certain age and stature in society were the ones deemed wise enough to not only facilitate the ceremony, but to oversee it. Indeed many of the religious rites and ceremonies that were related to agriculture were administered by women, connected as these things were with fertility. Perhaps it goes without saying, but agriculture in the ancient past was a vitally important part of civilisation in a way that was much more present in the cultural conscience than today. A failed harvest would be a disaster for the isolated city-states of ancient times.

Many crucial religious traditions were once the exclusive purview of women.

Which brings us back to the popular image of the Oracle at Delphi. In the movie 300, King Leonidas visits a circle of grotesque priests to consult the Oracle. The Oracles are "only the most beautiful Spartan girls", and the implication is that these priests aren't just exploiting these women in service of the gods, but also sexually abusing them. This image is an abhorrent corruption of the true Pythian tradition. For over 1500 years, the Oracle at Delphi was "the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Greeks, and she was among the most powerful women of the classical world", and a position held by the same kind of older, wiser woman that ran the Mysteries of Eleusis. The Oracle was similarly responsible for the transmission of important godly visions for the benefit of the state.

While women of ancient Greece were elsewhere subjugated to greater or lesser extents than many women today, the religious woman of ancient Greece was an incredibly powerful figure in the state, a conduit to the true rulers of Greece—the gods. In a culture where politics and religion were inextricably bound, women were a critical part of the central power structure of the civilisation that birthed our modern western world.

Female zealots may have held power for thousands of years

Many scholars regard the Mysteries at Eleusis as a continuation of agragrian rites that stretch hundreds, if not thousands of years into pre-Grecian antiquity, tracing similar experiences recorded as parts of various death cults spanning the ancient world from the Levant to the Mediterranean. The heart of the Mysteries is the potion—the kukeon—and the visions that bridge life and death to unite one with the gods. Similar potion rituals are rife in the ancient world.

Importantly, these potion rituals seem to unerringly stick to women. Not only in the West, but in the East. The Rigveda, a collection of sacred texts in Sanskrit—the language that preceded the likes of Hindi, Punjabi, Persian, and Urdu—describes a similar ritual potion called the soma. Soma, in the Rigveda, is the god which resides in the plant. Like the experiences described following the administration of the kukeon, the Rigveda describes those who "have drunk soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the gods discovered" (8.48.3).

And, as the Mysteries was a ritual administered by women, so too was the soma a ritual by women, for women.

This apparently universal religious experience—the use of potion to transcend death and unite one with the gods—was something that was once the worldwide dominion of the female zealot.

Long before the bearded patriarchal male gods, there was the goddess—feminine spirit of birth and fertility. The earth mother. Twenty thousand years ago, it was a goddess who gave life and abundance and it was the goddess who, out of a mother’s love and pity for her fallen children, gave the gift of brew to the women of mankind. The cup of bliss...

Eames, Secret Life of Beer

But today, this is not the case. The Christian Eucharist is still the administration of a potion. Still the presentation of god in a cup (quite literally for many Catholics). Still the path to transcend death through the absolution of sin. But now administered almost exclusively by men. The historic tradition of powerful female leaders has shifted quite radically. It is worth exploring how, and why. One hypothesis takes us back again to Greece.

The political erasure of the female zealot

The Eleusinian Mysteries, as mentioned, was a state sponsored ceremony. But as the hourglass turned, a new religious movement sprang into being that would present a stark challenge to this secret rite.

Like the Mysteries of Eleusis, the Bacchic or Dionysian Mysteries held at it's core the drinking of potions and experiences that bridged the divide between life and death, gods and humans. Unlike the Mysteries of Eleusis, the Bacchic rites could be held more freely, without the threat of state retribution for participating illegally. Rather than the more elitist procession to Eleusis, religious adherents could bring Eleusis to them (from page 129).

The rites of Dionysus were fabulously gory. Sexually disinhibited Grecians would coalesce in the mountains and the forests for days-long orgies and the consumption of raw animal flesh in a frenzy. At the heart was the "juice of the vine"—wine, likely packed with various herbs and medicinal plants—and in this juice was the god himself: "Himself a god, he is poured out in libations to the gods".

The Eleusian Mysteries became the Dionysian Mysteries became Christianity, and it was the women who were the priestesses of the transition.

That passage is from the famous tragic play of Euripides, the Bacchae. The play is essentially a dramatisation of this new revolutionary challenge to the state-sponsored Eleusian rites. In the play, Dionysus and his followers are captured by the King of Thebes. The god destroys the palace and drives the aristocratic women of Thebes mad. They are left wandering the forest, nursing wild animals at the breast and braiding snakes into their hair. These women are the eponymous Bacchae, or Maenads of Dionysus, and when startled by a hapless shepherd become frenzied—tearing the shepherd's animals apart and devouring them before moving on to decimate nearby farmland, farm animals, and houses. Dionysus drives the son of the King into the path of his frenzied Maenads who promptly kill him. One of the women seizes his decapitated head and brings it to her husband, the king. As her frenzy fades, she comes to realise that in her frenzy she has killed her son. But it's too late—Thebes and the royal family are ruined.

A delightful tale, like all the Greek tragedies. But in the story two important things jump out. First, the cult of Dionysus was a clear and present danger to the established Grecian society. Euripides' play is a stylisation of the fears of the people—the worshippers of the bacchanalia would destroy the state. The second is that, like the Mysteries of Eleusis, the key worshippers were women. Dionysus's Maenads are his priestesses and the frenzy is his version of the experience of unification with god.

These two factors come into conflict with disastrous results for our female Zealots some two-hundred-odd years later under the auspices of Roman rule.

By 186 BC these Bacchanalia had sparked a moral panic in the Roman state. For the Romans, the seduction of men into the female-run cult was a heinous violation of their patriarchal society. The historian Livy recounts the bloody crusade the Roman's waged against the cultists that year, killing thousands.

The same moral outrage is thought to have been a key factor behind the persecution of the early Christians. The cult of Dionysus shared non-trivial relationships with the fledgling cult of Jesus. The consumption of wine which is the literal body of god in order to bridge the gap between life and death by unifying with god. The Grecian version of the young Christian religion was marked by a similar "appeal...to women".

Indeed, there has historically been a heavy emphasis on the women of Jesus. His mother, the Virgin Mary still plays an enormous role in the religion today. In the withered branch of Christianity that lies closest to its ancient roots in the Greek speaking world, Gnosticism, Mary Magdelene was considered the "most beloved apostle" of Jesus and a central figure. With particular reference to the Gospel of John which was uniquely written for a Greek community, women were the ones destined to inherit the rites of Christianity.

The trope of female zealotry encouraged by the cult of Dionysus and the cult of Jesus was a trope completely unacceptable to the patriarchal Romans, and indeed one that had posed an "especially potent" danger for quite some time to the Roman state. Perhaps it is no wonder than Mary Magdelene, once a revered Saint and central figure in Christianity has been relegated to the sidelines and mistakenly remembered as a prostitute. She was too dangerous.

And so, as this millenia-old tradition of female zealotry collided too enthusiastically with the political elite, it was stamped out. First by violence, and then eventually by the far more effective tactic of sublimation. The ritual potion was handed to the men.

Female zealots as a religious tool

The Gospel of Mary Magdelene is worth a read. According to this Gnostic text, excised from canon by the Catholic branch of Christianity some 400 years after the life of Jesus, it was Mary to whom Jesus revealed himself to first. Via hallucinations worthy of Eleusia, Jesus passes along his instructions and it is Mary who teaches Peter how to access these revelations. Canon or no, the Gnostic tradition seems to lie far closer to our most longstanding religious impulses.

And yet today, those traditions are gone, and in the place of the wise female zealots who led us across the bridge between life and death and into unification with god, we have institutions crowded with men, haemorrhaging adherents at exponential rates and accumulating an endless litany of institution-wide abuses. Our female zealots have been pushed to the sides, still more devout than men, still more engaged, but remoulded into a passive role as weak-willed and submissive subjects of our academic condescension. Those wise old women and their potions were branded witches and murdered for centuries before they too were sublimated into popular culture as a halloween costume. Modern attempts to reconnect with this most ancient form of reaching for god are simultaneously commercialised and derided—the Mysteries today are sponsored by Goop.

It's hard not to see this as an intentional political tactic. The excision of Mary from the canon. The sublimation of the Eucharist. The focus, not on the martyrdom of our various Saints (because martyrdom threatens the establishment by definition), but instead on the weeping mothers and female followers—a safer more passive form of defiance. The demonisation of local herbalists as witches in league with satan. The reinforcement of silly women falling into silly religions in academia and the media.

A passive and submissive zealot, kept at arms length from god by the new male gatekeepers, appears to make for a far more malleable religious community. A community who won't follow the Vicky Weavers of the world in trying to escape the corruption of the modern world. A passive and submissive zealot won't be encouraged to harness her special connection to the sacred.

As with the rise of the rites of Dionysus and the Roman patriarchy, the female zealot remains to this day an especially potent danger.

Surveillance photo of Vicki Weaver A female zealot.Wikipedia

Special thanks to Brian Muraresku's excellent book Immortality Key for sparking this train of thought and inroads to the research.

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