At the earliest beginnings of civilization man’s emotions seem to have swung to the opposite extreme, for emphasis fell on the mystic and uncanny powers possessed by woman. Thus it was that in ancient nations there was a deification of woman which found expression in the belief in feminine deities and the establishment of priestess cults. Not until the dawn of the Christian era was the emphasis once more focussed on woman as a thing unclean. Then, her mystic power was ascribed to demon communication, and stripped of her divinity, she became the witch to be excommunicated and put to death.
All the ancient world saw something supernatural, something demoniacal, in generation. Sometimes the act was deified, as in the phallic ceremonials connected with nature worship, where the procreative principle in man became identified with the creative energy pervading all nature, and was used as a magic charm at the time of springtime planting to insure the fertility of the fields and abundant harvest, It was also an important part of the ritual in the Phrygian cults, the cult of the Phoenician Astarte, and the Aphrodite cults. These mystery religions were widely current in the Graeco-Roman world in pre-Christian times. The cult of Demeter and Dionysius in Greece and Thrace; Cybele and Attis in Phrygia; Atagartes in Cilicia; Aphrodite and Adonis in Syria; Ashtart and Eshmun (Adon) in Phoenicia; Ishtar and Tammuz in Babylonia; Isis, Osiris and Serapis in Egypt, and Mithra in Persia—all were developed along the same lines. The custom of the sacrifice of virginity to the gods, and the institution of temple prostitution, also bear witness to the sacred atmosphere with which the sex act was surrounded among the early historic peoples. It was this idea of the mysterious sanctity of sex which did much to raise woman to her position as divinity and fertility goddess.
The dedication of virgins to various deities, of which the classic example is the institution of the Vestal Virgins at Rome, and the fact that at Thebes and elsewhere even the male deities had their priestesses as well as priests, are other indications that at this time woman was regarded as divine or as capable of ministering to divinity. The prophetic powers of woman were universally recognized. The oracles at Delphi, Argos, Epirus, Thrace and Arcadia were feminine. Indeed the Sibylline prophetesses were known throughout the Mediterranean basin.[A]
[Footnote A: Farnell found such decided traces of feminine divinity as to incline him to agree with Bachofen that there was at one time an age of Mutterrecht which had left its impress on religion as well as on other aspects of social life. As we have said before, it is now fairly well established that in the transition from metronymic to patronymic forms, authority did not pass from women to men but from the brothers and maternal uncles of the women of the group to husbands and sons. This fact does not, however, invalidate the significance of Farnell’s data for the support of the view herein advanced, i.e., that woman was at one time universally considered to partake of the divine.]