The Emergence of the New Sacred Temple Priestess
by Z-Helene Christopher
She is known to us by many names: Isis, Inanna, Astarte, Ishtar, Kali, Demeter, Aphrodite, Virgin Mary, Ceres, Cybele, etc. She is the Great Mother Goddess and she has been around for thousands upon thousands of years. She is, among other things, eternal wisdom, fertility, death and renewal, healing, astrology, agriculture, accounting, protection. And, with the exception of the Virgin Mary and a handful of others, she is most often a sexual goddess whose ancient priestesses were our predecessors.1 I believe that as Middle Eastern dancers ushering in the new millennium, we need to reclaim and reconnect with some of the most sacred and healing principles that these Goddess worshipping priestesses served.
But who were these priestesses? And what were they all about? Known in the East by various names, such as entu, quadistu, ishtaritu, hierodoulai, devadasi, horae and har (the words whore and harlot come from these origins), these priestesses were honored citizens of their day. They were afforded much love, respect and wealth and possessed a great spiritual focus when they performed dances, administered to temple rituals and activities and had sexual unions honoring the Goddess and fertility and life mysteries.2 Considered embodiments of beauty, love and compassion, they were viewed as “sacred servants.” In today’s terminology, they are known by historians as “sacred prostitutes.”3 But this term is confusing and is an oxymoron (for how can prostitution be sacred?) and indicates a mindset that the ancients once held that we no longer hold.4
So what happened? Well, a bit of herstory is in order (we usually only get history). In the ancient Mothertimes, before writing was even invented and hunter and gatherer tribes were evolving to agricultural based societies, sexuality and spirituality were considered as one, with no separation of body and spirit. There was no concept of original sin, no concept of the flesh as a source of defilement. The flesh was considered part of the natural earth, which was revered for its procreative mystery.5 The earth cycles became of paramount importance. When to plant, when to harvest, the seasons, the weather, were all encompassing issues, and rituals (including dancing and drumming) developed around them. These Goddess worshipping cultures were in some instances—such as the Anatolian community of Catal Huyuk (approximately 6,000 BC)—considered “gylanies” (gy meaning female, an meaning male). Women and men worked together sharing equal status, with the females predominating as priestesses.6
Fertility was especially honored.7 Sacred dance led to sacred desire, which led to sacred sexuality, which led to a cherished child who, under the best of circumstances, would grow to adulthood to continue the life and death cycles. Many artifacts have been found showing an Earth Mother deity—sometimes with large breasts and a pregnant belly, other times with the head of a vulture—indicating the importance these ancients gave to the Goddess’s predominance over birth and death.8
Many symbols found in ancient art on pottery and dwelling walls indicate Middle Eastern dance’s direct connection to early Goddess worshipping cultures. It is no coincidence that we wear hip belts often featuring a downward pointing triangle over our procreative area. This ancient symbol represents the Goddess’s vulva and womb.9 Along with the triangle, other symbols of dynamic motion such as whirls, spirals, winding and coiling snakes, circles, crescents, V’s and M’s, have been passed down to us for millennia as a moving, visual tradition and are the building blocks of our dance vocabulary.
Then, as herstory continues, something happened. Between the years 4,300 BC and 2,300 BC, a series of northern Indo-European invasions brought with them a warring thunder/volcano God with a rule by king.10 Goddess worshipping already had the concept of a vegetative, dying God who was the Goddess’s son-lover-brother consort. He was initially a lesser deity who was known throughout the Near and Middle East as Damuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, Baal and Attis. He would annually make love with the Goddess, die (sometimes be sacrificed), be mourned for and then resurrected. With the northern invaders, however, the Goddess religion began to assimilate the Indo-European male deity, and there began to be more of a sharing of deity dominance—a Ms. Goddess and Mr. God, so to speak.11
The hieros gamos, or sacred marriage rite, reflected this. In this annual Sumerian and Babylonian ceremony, a chosen favorite high priestess, representing the Goddess, would have sacred sex (sometimes publicly) with the prevailing king, representing the God. The event would symbolically ensure fertility of the land and bestow the Goddess’s blessing on the king’s power to rule.12
Over the course of 3,000 years the Goddess, who was initially predominant, lost ground completely, until her final demise in the year 406 AD when the temple of Artemis at Ephesus (now Turkey) was looted and burned. Worship of her went underground and there is much speculation that many of her followers were burned as “witches” in the subsequent centuries.13
What is important to remember here is that as the status of Goddess worshipping declined, so did the status of women. The presence of the northern invaders also brought about a gradual shift from gylanies—with a matrilineal descent—to patriarchy—with a patrilineal descent.14 Previously, women were afforded much freedom and sexual license. They chose their own mates and the bloodline always passed through them. With patriarchy (rule by men) came the need to insure definite fatherhood, and therefore it was necessary to control female sexuality. Goddess worshipping, with its exaltation of sexuality, had to be suppressed in order for patriarchy and patrilineage to take hold. Women became increasingly subjugated.15
We can easily trace the Goddess’s decline (and women’s) through the surviving myths of early her/history and from the Judeo-Christian creation myth. From the Mesopotamian Sacred Marriage of Inanna to the epic of Gilgamesh to the creation story of the Enuma elish, we see her deteriorate from a glorified, sexy and holy being to a demon monster.16 Whereas Inanna praises her vulva and asks for her “holy churn” to be filled with Damuzi’s “honey cheese,” 17 her sexual advances are rebuffed by the hero Gilgamesh and she becomes Tiamet, the sea dragon, killed and dismembered by King Marduk in the Enuma elish.
By the time we get to the Canaanite Genesis story, female sexuality and her desire to even have spiritual wisdom is punished by expulsion from Paradise. Eve is responsible for the complete downfall of humanity and her sentence is that childbirth be painful. By using the natural process of childbirth as a tool for blame and punishment, the Genesis creation myth ensured that all women giving birth would directly relate to the character of Eve, and thus, to herself as “Evil.”18
Many believe, and it appears to me to be so, that Genesis was intentionally and deliberately fabricated (out of fragments of older myths) specifically to undermine Goddess worshipping.19 Every symbol in the story was important to female deity followers. The tree represented their asherahs, or the living trees or poles that were often situated next to Goddess altars. The snake, for millennia, had been a symbol of the Goddess’s eternal wisdom, with many Goddesses artistically depicted wearing or holding them.20 The eating of the fruit, symbolic of the concept of communion, was to partake of “the flesh and fluid” of the Goddess.21 All these symbols were twisted and turned in their meaning so that they would be viewed in a negative light.
Furthermore, one might consider Christianity a perfect culmination of deity assimilation: Jehovah (Yahweh) as the thunder/volcano God, Jesus as the sacrificed, dying God and Virgin Mary as a dismembered Goddess. The latter is of particular importance in that she represented the Goddess in every way except for one.22 She was loving, beautiful, compassionate, procreative (with her cherished son), but she was stripped of her sexuality and, in my opinion, symbolically circumcised. Thus, a fatal blow was dealt separating sex and spirit and resulting in the evolution of the unhealthy Madonna/Whore complex.
Continuing on to the Islamic tradition, we see that women were again blamed for being sexual temptresses. They were veiled, secluded and literally sexually circumcised.23 (Editor’s note: Although not specifically prescribed by Islam, female circumcision is practiced in many, but not all Muslim countries.) This tradition continues today in the Middle East and Africa and is a heinous act against girls and women. It clearly illustrates a deep and unhealthy psychology in which men, women and children alike suffer.
And this brings us to the present. Where do we, as modern day Middle Eastern dancers, stand in relation to all of this her/history? I believe that we, as the new sacred temple priestesses, are in a unique position to reconcile the sexual-spiritual schism that occurred when the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions came into power and matrilineal gave way to patrilineal societies. We do this through our bodies, our living presence, our sexy and holy dance. But first we must reclaim and reconnect with some of the ancient Goddess’s most enduring and life sustaining principles. I am not advocating a return to sacred prostitution or to the Mother Earth religion per se, but rather an assimilation of those aspects of these practices that are most sacred and healthy for us as individuals, our societies and our planet as a whole.
There are four main points in which we, as new temple priestesses, reclaim and reconnect with the ancient Goddess. First, we must understand our dance as embodying nature, especially its fertility aspects. Our present body-spirit schism coupled with our technological Western culture has led us to become separated from nature.24 Most of us do not grow our own food and are not intimately connected with the land like the ancients were. We must be reminded of what is true and natural; our dancing, with its visceral, organic appeal, does this. We also embody the natural elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire when we perform our earthy beledies, airy veils, watery chiftitellies and explosive, hot drum solos.
Our dance exudes fertility. We move our pelvises and roll our bellies, honoring the sexual act and the resulting procreation.25 Our dance has, for centuries, been used to teach and facilitate childbirth movement and breathing, passed on from woman to woman. This actually resonates from an earlier era when one of the functions of the sacred priestess was to preside over childbirth and wet nursing.26
We exalt our wealthy, fertile culture with our show of bodily adornments: our costly, beautiful beaded breasts and hips, our expensive silky chiffons and our well kept-skin and hair. We communicate robust life forces, our eyes and lips, open and full. With our lush, often rounded bodies, we revel in our flesh! In a culture where bulimia and anorexia (literal denials of the flesh) are quickly becoming the norm, it is healing for others to watch us do so.
Secondly, we reclaim and reconnect with the ancients by understanding our dance as manifesting ecstasy. “Artgasms” are what my husband (who drums for me) and I call them. These are those climatic moments when the dancer, musicians and audience are viscerally transported to a heightened awareness that is very satisfying for all. This can be a great taksim, floor work or drum solo in which one can feel the energy shift in the entire room and everyone’s breathing changes, usually at once.
Our movement invokes the ecstatic kundalini—the sexual and spiritual life forces symbolized by the coiled serpent asleep at the base of the spine—and the whirling chakras—the seven energy centers that transmit and balance this life force. Our full body undulations, what Tantric practitioners call the dolphin wave,27 connect the lower primal and sexual chakras with the higher intuitive and spiritual chakras through the center, our hearts. Our vibrations and shimmies display ecstatic intensity as the dancer digs deeper and deeper to sustain them. And the viewers are transformed as they watch and experience the physical law that matter is both solid yet constantly moving.28
Thirdly, we reclaim and reconnect with the ancients by understanding our dance as an experience of Divine Union.29 Be it Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity or Paganism, all great religions satisfy the innate human need to feel connected to a universal source. As dancers, we are the apex, the pinnacle that connects the individual to him/herself and then to the community. We are at the center of a circle in which the individual is lovingly received, transformed and then united to the whole30 Our spins create this context along with our gestures to heaven above and earth below. The group clapping and verbal soundings are part of the shared experience. Similar to the function of the ancient hieros gamos, we dancers embody the Goddess as her representative, and the mystical union of masculine and feminine, spiritual and physical takes place. The personal is transcended and the divine entered in.31
Fourth, we reclaim and reconnect with the Goddess by understanding ourselves as dispensers of karuna, early motherly love that is transformed in adulthood to embrace all forms of love: touching, tenderness, compassion, mercy, sensual enjoyment and eroticism.32 This is a prevalent feminine image throughout her/history: the Hindu asparsas who were heavenly erotic angels; the Grecian Three Graces known as Joy, Bloom and Brilliance; the Greek, Persian, and Egyptian horae who danced the evening zodiacal hours.
When we perform, in essence, we make love to our audience. We enter and say, “I love you, please love me.” The audience receives our love and, if they are open, loves us back. We create a love-fest and in this capacity we are Love Goddesses. Our passion helps them feel their own emotions, be they joy, grief or humor. For those whose hearts are armored, this can be a profound, awakening experience.
Karuna is also dispensed through our personal beauty. We are exotic and breathtaking to behold. We create more beauty with our beautiful movement. We extend this beauty in a relationship to the audience who, in turn, are filled and go out into the world to appreciate and create even more beauty.
Why all this beauty, love, passion and compassion? Why all this karuna? We dancing priestesses serve a powerful function. We need to keep spreading karuna, to keep filling our karuna coffers, so to speak, as a shield against pain. Because sometimes life is not beautiful and loving and sometimes things do not go well and the fields are fallow and sometimes sudden misfortune hits. We need to balance the dark side of life with the light that we Goddess representatives bring. In this capacity, we are again all important reconcilers of opposites.33
In conclusion, I would like to remind all Middle Eastern dancers, regardless of what “style” they adhere to, that we have always administered at important events and rites of passage. We have been there for the weddings, birthdays, barmitzvahs, baptisms, solstices and retirement parties. But our presence, although auspicious, has been viewed by others, and sometimes ourselves, as merely fun, secular entertainment. Yet we are so much more than that! We are not there to just “embarrass” Joe on his birthday. We are there to “honor” Joe on the fact that he was born! We are there to “celebrate” Joe for having made it through so many birthdays! We are there to “bless” Joe so that he may have a fertile, forthcoming year! And finally, we are there to “love” Joe—even if we do not like him—so that his heart may be lovingly filled. We do all of this … and for fifty or so dollars! What a deal!
It is imperative that we create a vision within ourselves as sexy and holy mediators between heaven and earth, body and spirit, and male and female. I suggest that we study the varied archetype of the Great Goddess and consciously foster within ourselves those aspects of her we personally resonate with. Furthermore, we must actively make any space we dance in, be it the Holiday Inn or a concert stage, a sacred space, our own temple. I believe that as we understand ourselves as facilitators of profound, transforming and mystical experiences, the depth and potency of who we are and what we do will be more fully appreciated and we will regain the love and respect that our ancient priestess predecessors once enjoyed.
1. Buonaventura, pp. 32-33.
2. Mann and Lyle, pp. 38-42.
3. Hastings, pg. 672.
4. Stone, pp. 153-163.
5. Buonaventura, pg. 30.
6. Gimbutas, pg. XX.
7. Barstow, pg. 7.
8. Barstow, pp. 11-12.
9. Gimbutas, pg. 99.
10. Stone, pg. 67.
11. Stone, pg. 68.
12. Eliade, v.6, pg. 310.
13. Mann and Lyle, pg. 37.
14. Stone, pp. 30-61.
15 Stone, pg. 179.
16. Starhawk, pp. 40-64.
17. Wolstein and Kramer, pg. 39.
18. Stone, pg. 222.
19. Stone, pp. 198-223.
20. Peck, pp. 8-9, 25. Contains detailed account of snake denigration.
21. Stone, pg. 216.
22. Mann and Lyle, pg. 132.
23. Mourat, Part 1, Section A.
24. Metzger, pg. 122.
25. Buonaventura, pg. 28.
26. Westenholz, pg. 252.
27. Hubert, pg. 25.
28. Deagon, pg. 27.
29. Mann and Lyle, pg. 182.
30. Stubbs, pg. 164.
31. Qualls-Corbett, pg. 40.
32. Walker, pg. 495.
33. Qualls-Corbett, pg. 84.
Barstow, Anne, L. The Book of Goddesses, ed. Carl Olson, Crossroad, New York, 1983.
Buonaventura, Wendy. The Serpent of the Nile, Interlink Books, New York, 1994.
Deagon, Andrea. “Dance, Body, Universe,” Habibi, Santa Barbara, Spring 1996, Vol. 15, No. 2.
Eliade, Mircea, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion Macmillan, 1987, V.6.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1989.
Hastings, James, ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Sculner, 1925, V.6, “Hierodouloi.”)
Hubert, Amy. “Opening the Gates,” Habibi, Santa Barbara, Spring 1996, Vol. 15, No. 2.
Mann, A. T. and Lyle, Jane. Sacred Sexuality, Element Books, Rocksport, 1995.
Metzger, Deena. “Re-Vamping the World: On the Return of the Holy Prostitute,” Utne Reader, Aug/Sept 1985.
Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis. The Illusive Veil, unpublished, 1995.
Peck, Amy. “Re-Visioning Adam and Eve,” Habibi, Santa Barbara, Winter 1995, Vol.14, No. 1.
Qualls-Corbett, Nancy. The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine, Inner City, Toronto, 1988.
Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman, Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1976.
Starhawk. Truth or Dare, Harper, San Francisco, 1990.
Stubbs, Kenneth Ray, ed. Women of the Light, Secret Garden, Larkspur, 1994.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1983.
Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. “Tamar, Quedesa, Qadistu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia,” Harvard Theological Review, 82:3, July 1989.
Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna, Harper and Row, New York, 1983.
Z-Helene Christopher has a broad dance background that includes extensive study and performance in East Indian, African, modern, ballet, Middle Eastern and flamenco forms. She has been performing and instructing Middle Eastern dance for over twenty years, and performs and teaches seminars both locally and nationally. For the past ten years Z-Helene has been teaching an accredited Middle Eastern dance class at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, where she has produced large scale Middle Eastern dance concerts and received numerous cultural grants. She has co-produced performance videos and music cassettes featuring her eclectic ethnic style, Blue Wave, and her percussion talent with zils. She holds a BA in Theatre Arts from Franklin & Marshall College, and has successfully completed one year of training for Iyengar Yoga instructor certification. www.zhelene.com
This article is an expanded version of a presentation given on May 18, 1997 at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank my husband Richard Fink for his lively and inspiring thoughts and opinions, as well as my friend Suzanne McAnna, librarian at the University of Texas at Austin, for her help in gathering some crucial material for this paper.