Ancient Attitudes

Ancient Attitudes, Modern Malaise:

Religion, Sexuality and Psychological Growth in the Middle Ages

By Shareen El Safy

Come hither, I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication…And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth (Revelations 17:1-5).

The drawled, stretched-out words, dramatically emphasized with the clenched fist of a perspiring Southern Baptist minister, still ring in my ears and cause me to squirm inside just as I must have done as a young girl sitting on the hard polished wooden benches at church. This apocalyptic vision of Earth’s highest queen, whose female body and its lust for sex were demonic, fomented disgust and loathing in the men and women church-goers. Deep inside I thought: “And what of me; what about my body? Am I not guilty of being female? Have the countless generations of women before me been dammed? Are the church mothers and fathers only protecting me from sinning when they see my budding puberty and become cold and suspicious?” These thoughts were painful and cast a sobering pall over my childhood.

“The Martyrdom of St. Agatha,” Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1750.

Many female figures in Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious doctrine give young women damaging images to embrace and embody. Importantly, the denigration and suffering experienced by one gender does not escape the other. Feelings of one’s essential unworthiness and early separation from God create a deep psychological schism, and the wounding of the psyche begins.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell speaks of the dangers of separating divinity from the natural:

The idea of the supernatural as being something over and above the natural is a killing idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing a thing they truly wanted to because the supernatural laws required them to live as directed by their clergy…This is a killer (Campbell, 98).

If early Greek and Roman societies are considered to be the “infancy” of the West, the Middle Ages are the “childhood” of Western culture, with its myths of magic as well as its terrors. The monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, with their beliefs in one God, a male god, were widespread by this time. These patriarchal belief systems which survive intact today, created a disparaging division between spirit and form, man and god, nature and divinity, good and evil, male and female. This article discusses the topic of sexual wounding and the deep psychological impact made on the human psyche by the judgmental religious beliefs and restrictive social mores held during the Middle Ages that still echo in our everyday lives. If the choices we make as adults are influenced by the attitudes we acquire in childhood, it behooves us to look carefully, while stepping across the threshold of a new millenium, at the psychological implications of long held beliefs.

We must look into the forgotten past, before the pervasive spread of the patriarchal religions, to rediscover the rich vitality of the Mother Goddess, an ancient feminine archetype for the sacred. Archaeologist and historian Marija Gimbutas’ research established that Neolithic and Paleolithic societies of Old Europe worshipped the Mother Goddess and revered the natural world. All life was seen as sanctified with spirit, the mysterious and the divine. “The Goddess in all her manifestations was a symbol of the unity of all life in Nature” (Gimbutas, 321).

In The Power of Myth, Campbell states that the mother-goddess religions celebrated nature and the body, and points to its antithesis in the Biblical “Garden of Eden.”

(They saw the) world as the body of the goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature…However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to (Campbell, 99).

Author Thomas Moore addresses the “wounding” that can occur when we distance ourselves from nature and the body. “Technologically primitive societies use sexual power to sustain community and to remain in sympathy with nature, while we reduce sex in our collective imagination to physical and emotional dimensions and then try to live a vibrant life cut off from the wellspring of sexuality” (Moore, 41).

Patriarchal religions of the Biblical Hebrews, Christians and Moslems re-interpreted matriarchal beliefs, re-invented sexual mores and controlled social behavior with religious dictates. We need only look at the pre-Christian use of the word “virgin” (which may relate to the Latin vir meaning “strength” or “life force” and gen meaning “race”) for their maligned applications.

The pagan notion of virginity was characterized, astonishingly enough, by limitless sexual activity…The pagan goddess had scores of sexual partners whose function it was to impregnate her and thus serve the fertility cycle she represented and on which all life depended…To be virgin was to be thus religiously dedicated, and therefore a cult prostitute” (Phillips 142).

Early Biblical texts place the responsibility for the downfall of humanity with Eve, the original woman, and her gender is suspect from that day forward. She is tempted by a serpent (sometimes viewed as a symbol of sexual vitality) in the Garden of Eden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil). “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7). And God punished them saying: “I will put enmity between you and the woman. To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing … yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:15-16).

Women, explains Campbell, “represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman, and so it is woman who brings us into this world of pairs of opposites and suffering.” By gaining knowledge of differences—man and woman, God and man—“comes the idea of good and evil in the world. And so Adam and Eve have thrown themselves out of the Garden of Timeless Unity…just by the act of recognizing duality. To move out in the world, you have to act in terms of pairs of opposites” (Campbell, 48).

In the early Christian church, women were forbidden to teach men or hold authority over them, because of the sins of Eve. “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve: and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (I Timothy 2:11-15). “Let the wife be obedient to her own proper husband because the husband is the head of the wife” (I Corinthians 11:3).

The early Christian church accepted that the feminine body was a holy vessel, but as a symbol of sexuality and birth, it also was also capable of sin and death.

The Roman Catholic dogma presents the Virgin Mary as an unprecedented form of the Mother Goddess. Her perpetual virginity is sexual renunciation rather than continual sexual activity; she is thus freed forever from the entanglements of sexual relationships…(Of) the two bodily activities allowed her…both involve caring motherhood: suckling and weeping (Phillips, 144).

The sins of Woman weighed heavily on the medieval collective psyche. “If Eve forfeited paradise by losing her virginity, Mary as the Second Eve must secure her victory by having her virginity preserved inviolate…She must be seen as virginal after the conception of Jesus, preserved virginal (with intact hymen) upon his birth, and thereafter eternally virginal (aeparthenos)” (Phillips, 135). After 649, according to Hilda Graef in Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Mary was no longer subject to the same conditions of ordinary women: sexual desire and pain in childbirth.

Sexual renunciation played an important role in the stories, poems and songs of the Middle Ages. Great emphasis was placed on chastity, purity and virginity, virtues worthy of preserving. Within the tradition of medieval romance, knights rode off to battle in distant lands, secure in the chastity and modesty of their pledged and betrothed. They served Christ, protected by the elixir of contained female sexuality. Queen Angevin declares in the 13th century epic, Parzival, “Many were the love-pangs I suffered for him, yet my woman’s shyness made me delay his reward…My virgin state spurred him to win fame in many feats of arms” (von Eschenbach, 26). Interestingly, chivalry and courtly love coincided with the upsurge of Mary worship in the thirteenth century (Achterberg, 53).

The real-life devastation of hundreds of years of wars fought in the Holy Land of the Middle East, and the decimation of entire generations of both Arab and European men is significant. The First Crusade alone was responsible for 800,000 deaths on both sides (51). Women outnumbered men in the Middle Ages, and during the height of the Crusades in those areas most heavily involved in the wars, women outnumbered men seven-to-one (45).

During my visits to Egypt I have heard an occasional inference in defense of the Islamic privilege of the man to take four wives, that this practice stems from historic times when the male population had been severely decimated by lengthy wars. Perhaps this practice dates back to the Crusades, when the needs of women and children for sustenance and protection were therefore addressed responsibly by those who had survived the battlefield.

First-hand accounts from the Middle East describe the appearance of European women there during the Holy Wars. Francesco Gabrieli, translating from Imad Ad-Din (1145-1234), an Arab source on the Crusades and secretary to Saladin, legendary Sultan of Egypt and Syria and defender of the Islamic faith, wrote about a wealthy Christian noblewoman, perhaps Eleanor of Aquitane, who arrived by sea to the battlegrounds of the Crusades:

She was a queen in her own land, and arrived accompanied by five hundred knights with their horses and money, pages and valets, she paying all their expenses and treating them generously out of her wealth. They rode out when she rode out, charged when she charged, flung themselves into the fray at her side, their ranks unwavering as long as she stood firm. (Gabrieli, 207).

Imad-Ad-Din wrote in a less flattering way about three hundred young and beautiful Frankish women who arrived in Beirut in 1228-30 by ship:

…offering themselves for sin. They were expatriates come to help expatriates, ready to cheer the fallen and sustained in turn to give support and assistance, and they glowed with ardour for carnal intercourse…They proudly walked about, some bearing a cross upon their breast. For a Frankish woman there was no sin in offering herself to a celibate man, especially so in the case of a priest, “if chaste men in dire need find relief in enjoying her.” (204-6).

Ad-Din also cites examples of Frankish women who bravely rode into the thick of battle dressed in men’s clothing with cuirasses and helmets, “maintaining that all this was an act of piety, thinking to gain heavenly rewards by it…(C)lothed only in a coat of mail they were not recognized as women until they had been stripped of their arms” (207).

The Western part of Syrian Orient, which had been held by Crusaders during the late 11th and 12th centuries, were later re-conquered by Muslim Turks, although the early Syriac Christians sometimes suffered less at the hands of the Muslims than at the hands of Christians, whether Byzantine Orthodox (10th century) or Catholic Crusader (Brock and Harvey, 6). The region became known for gnostic groups with an ardent asceticism. “For the extremist groups the understanding was based on a dualistic view of the cosmos—that the temporal­, physical world is inferior to the spiritual one, if not an outright channel for evil, and that the spiritual world is the only true and good realm of the divine” (7).

Syriac spirituality demanded not only renunciation, but also celibacy for all its faithful. The life of chastity, virginity and continence in marriage represented the basic Christian commitment. Christ was known as the “Heavenly Bridegroom,” and to make the symbolic literal, celibacy was practiced because earthly marriage was not possible when one was “betrothed” to Christ (8-9). Persecution of these Gnostic sects involved interrogation and violent torture, especially of women.

In early Christian writings “women are portrayed as weak-natured, wantonly sensual, darkly sexual beings. Saved from the error of their ways by the grace of God (and men wiser and stronger than themselves), they live out their holy careers with a penance of violent proportions” (21). Translations from the holy lives of martyred women saints, such as Pelagia, Anastasia, Febronia and Shirin, were especially popular in the West during the Middle Ages (41). In order to escape the narrow definitions of their role in society, some women ascetics adopted a male identity, destroying their physical female characteristics. Historical accounts graphically describe sexual mutilation of female martyrs. “The sexual mutilation of women by torture and sexual annihilation of women by taking on a male identity are both the same issue—namely, power and dominance in the relationship between men and women” (25).

Gender-based violence is pervasive throughout history, however, and not attributed to any one religion, belief or practice. When the newly emerging Christian religion was outlawed by the Roman Empire, thirteen year old Agatha of Catania, Sicily was persecuted for her faith, beaten and stretched on the rack. The local pagan governor, enraged at seeing her suffering this ordeal with cheerfulness, ordered her breasts to be cruelly crushed and then cut off. She endured further torture and died four days later. St. Agatha is depicted in religious paintings carrying her breasts on a platter. During medieval times they were mistakenly thought to be loaves of bread, which may have led to the practice of blessing bread at the altar on her feast day (One, 64).

In the 4th century, Christianity was officially legalized by the Roman Empire and in 395 paganism and heresy were outlawed. The extremes to which matricidal attitudes were taken were later witnessed in the trials of the Inquisition, when hundreds of thousands of women were tortured and murdered, which began in earnest with the publication of The Malleus Maleficarum in 1486.

In the 11th century Christian Crusaders began invading parts of the Middle East, “reclaiming” the “Holy Land” where Jesus had once lived and died. Islam was then (and is now) the predominant religion in the region. Imagining the din of clashing swords, the feverish battle cries, and bright red, flowing blood, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Islamic faith had influenced the Moslem defenders. Surprisingly, there are many parallels between Christian and Islamic beliefs, especially where women are concerned.

In the Qur’anic (The holy book of Islam) version of the Garden of Eden, Allah commands the angels to bow down to Adam, and Iblis (Satan) refuses and is exiled from Heaven to later appear in the Garden to tempt the couple (Sura 7:10-24). The Qur’an, in a curious reversal from the Bible, tells of Adam and Eve (although she is never named except as an extension of him!) clothed properly to begin with, but when they sin, they become naked. “Satan whispered to them, to reveal to them what was hidden from them of their shameful parts (7:19). “As punishment for taking the advice of Satan, Allah pronounces the man and woman enemies ‘each to the other’ and sends them to earth, where they are to ‘live and die’” (Phillips, 149).

Phillips comments on the extraordinary patriarchy of the Islamic religion, noting the remarks of Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher: “Islam itself placed women…far lower than men on the social scale; women are called ‘the majority of those in Hell’…lacking in religion and understanding” (150).

Islam also has its own version of the Virgin Mary in the martyr-conscious Shi’a sect in Fatima, daughter of the holy prophet Muhammad. “She is exempt from the physiological troubles of women such as menstruation, labor, and menopause, and gives birth to her sons through her thigh, thus preserving her virginity—for which she is called al-Batul, ‘the Virgin’” (153).

Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi points out that in Islamic society a woman is thought to be the active, not the passive instigator in sexual matters. “Sexual desire was created solely as a means to entice men to deliver the seed and to put a woman in a situation where she can cultivate it” (2). The prevailing attitude is that female sexuality is powerful, and threatens, if the sexes are desegregated, to destroy society. Women possess “the power to deceive and defeat men, not by force, but by cunning and intrigue” (5). Muhammed reportedly said: “After my disappearance there will be no greater source of chaos and disorder for my nation than women” (13).

Practitioners of Oriental dance in the West have had the challenge of “explaining” their dance form to the art world specifically, and to society in general, on both cultural and moral fronts. Misunderstanding is prevalent; there is mistrust of the undulating, shimmying female form with its obvious sexuality. It would seem that a healthy self-image that celebrates one’s body no matter its size, shape or age, is a necessary component of a fulfilling life lived with integrity. But for many women a simple acceptance of one’s physical form doesn’t come easily. It takes a rebellious determination to override the subtle and not so subtle cultural attitudes that discourage a more joyful expression of female sexuality in life and in art.

My experiences in Egypt researching and performing Oriental dance, have given me the opportunity to express myself through dance in a way that few Middle Eastern women experience within their culture. Traditionally, dance is enjoyed within the familial environment, and very few women perform on stage before an audience of strangers. Because I was performing before a Middle Eastern audience familiar with both the live music and the vocabulary of dance movement, I didn’t need to “explain” the cultural side of this form. And being a Western dancer, I was somewhat outside the emotional constraints that an Egyptian woman might feel, although a warm sensuality is often characteristic of the raqs sharqi performer. I’ve experienced, as I am sure many dancers have, the subtle power that rhythm and movement can awaken in the female body, heart and mind. The waters of liberated vital energy wash over the psyche, healing, nourishing and cultivating wholeness in the performer and the audience. A performing artist communicates her inner experience to the audience; it’s important that the dancer feel the effects of her movement from the inside, to be aware of the distinct “flavors” and various sensations produced by specific motions, to “own” these changes and openly express them through her personality.

The Western Oriental dancer is in a unique position to gain a somewhat distanced perspective on gender roles and sexuality. We are, after all, a sizable group of practitioners enjoying an unparalleled opportunity to shape and modify existing misconceptions. Most likely there has never been another time in recent history when women have had greater access to higher education, vocational and economic independence, life-long health care, political and religious freedom. We are fortunate to be able to individually choose our avenues of self-expression. We enjoy not only great opportunity, but also share great responsibility in envisioning and creating a more enlightened human experience for all.

Following the destructive patriarchal religious attitudes towards women since Gimbutas’ suggested end of matriarchal cultures around 3500 B.C., it’s no wonder that there has been a “wounding” of both female and male sexuality. Thousands of years of guilt, remorse, confusion, anxiety, misunderstanding, alienation, loneliness and violence have separated our bodies from our souls, our psyches from nature, ourselves from one another.

For both sexes the healing that could be experienced vanishes when the work on the self has not been done. Trapped feminine energy becomes negative when constellated by a judgmental masculine pole. And conversely, the male must also integrate his feminine side. “Only the man who is truly in possession of his inner power can afford to be ‘vulnerable,’ to lay aside his mask and his projections and meet the feminine face to face. This is an encounter with his own soul, she who animates the whole world, inner and outer” (Dancing, 123).

Compassion and acceptance can bridge differences and heal the polarity between the opposites. From conscious awareness and the process of individuation come integration and union. The Romantic poets have implied a new partnership between the conscious feminine and the conscious masculine which transforms the dynamics of relationship in which neither partner is controlling or dominating the other (The Ravaged, 33).

Thomas Moore comments on eros and relatedness, the relationship between the physical and the emotional that he feels makes for meaningful experience.

This eros we feel in sex and romance is also the broader magnetism that holds the universe together, the go-between spirit said to keep the planets in orbit and the seasons on track. What we seek in sex is…a response to the soul’s need…for a world that holds together and a whole life that is creative and motivated by love (13).


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von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. Penguin Books. Middlesex, England, 1980.

Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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