This topic is some of the basis for a separate piece on the New England witch trials. It’s a large enough topic, and pervasive enough in our culture today, that it warrants its own discussion.
Modern women know the push-pull of the messages we get about our gender and sexuality. We should be pure and virginal, but dress a little slutty. But not too slutty, or we’re asking to be raped. We should be sexy, and sexually empowered, but a woman like that isn’t someone he can take home to mom or marry. We should keep an aspirin between our knees until marriage, but if we don’t put out we’re prudes.
Yep, I’m talking about the Mother-Whore Complex, and it goes way the hell deeper than Freud ever thought. Part of this is the biological fact that men want to get laid, and they want to know their children belong to them. They want clear inheritance lines, so a virginal wife is ideal. However, they might not want a prudish, frigid sexual partner otherwise.
I’m going to break this down from the Puritanical perspective in particular, because it’s what plays out the most in modern US Protestantism. But please know that there are virgin-whore goddesses in Sumerian mythology, Aztec lore and Greco/Roman pantheons. This is not a purely American thing. This is not a purely Christian thing. It’s a human thing.
Bible Story Time
Let’s start, in case you need a refresher, with a little Old Testament. I’m using King James because frankly, that’s what I have in the house. I got this brown bible when I was 6 years for perfect attendance at Sunday school. It’s also quite likely the closest thing to the translation the Puritans in the 1630s would have read.
Genesis 1:26-28 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply…
That was on day 6, and it’s a pretty tiny story about the creation. Then, on day 7, God’s looking at his earth creation and feeling pretty chuffed, then realizes that there’s no one to plow. (Where did the folks from chapter one go? Not canon. See: Lilith)
Genesis chapter 2 is the Adam and Eve story most of us remember – Adam was made from the dust of the earth, and Eve was made from his rib. Here’s the meat of it:
Genesis 2:8 – And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
… Skip a bunch of verses about the geology and location of Eden…
Genesis 2:15 -17 And the Lord God took the man, and put him in the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the lord God commanded the man saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Y’all know the tree part is important, right? Right.
Genesis 2:18 -25 – And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman. and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
Then, Genesis chapter 3 is where the tree part happens. Oh, BTW, while I’m here. A lot of religious systems and belief sets include a stories about a person breaking a taboo. It’s like the gods put those taboos there just for us to break them. Everything from Bluebeard to the vast majority of Japanese folklore include someone peeking through a door they aren’t supposed to peek through. The disobedience is known in mythological and literary terms as the precipitating act or catalyst. The moment where the plot actually starts to happen, and without it, nothing else would ever have moved forward.
In Christianity, this is referred to as The Original Sin. Interestingly, even though the other People of the Book share the Old Testament as part of their religious teaching and include the Garden of Eden story in their studies, it doesn’t have the same massive implications in Judaism or in Muslim theology that it does in Christianity.
I’m not going to quote all of Genesis chapter 3, but it really is important when we talk about the Puritans, so here goes.
Genesis 3:1 – 13 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea hath god said, Ye shall not eat of every tree in the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden But the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die For god doth know that in the day ye eat thereof then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasent to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord god walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden and I was afraid, because I was naked and I hid myself. And he said Who told thee that thou was naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?
And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the Lord God said unto the woman What is this that thou has done? and the woman said, the Serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
Incidentally, there are mythological scholars who believe that much of this particular telling of the creation tale was especially cruel to women in order to discredit and draw worship away from Goddess cults in the area of the Old Testament times. The serpent is a cross-cultural symbol of feminine wisdom, and was an ouroboric symbol of life, death, and rebirth, rather than one of evil across most ancient cultures.
Ahem. Back to the history stuff. *backing slowly away from mythology nerddom*
The Unacknowledged History
Until the “priesthood of the believer” portion of Protestantism kicked in, most of the church doctrine really focused their attentions on chapter THREE of Genesis when it came to women.
Until the 16th century, church doctrine, treatises and sermons tended to include the same basic assumptions about women. Women were: Ruled by emotions, illogical, closer to the earth and farther from God, evil by nature, seductresses, temptresses, and highly sexually motivated. They were the sexy, sexy naked Eve of Genesis chapter 3 who tempts Adam into doing something he knows he shouldn’t do.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the sermons, writings and doctrines underwent a shift. Women were deeply necessary to the success of colonial New England. They also could not ideologically speaking be both inherently evil temptresses and be members of the Protestant church that is rooted on the belief that all members have access to pray to God and to understand the will of God. That kind of philosophical tension can break a lesser religion.
Puritans didn’t leave Genesis alone, like many other Protestant faiths tend to do, they just shifted their attentions from chapter three to writing their sermons and doctrine around Genesis chapter two. The pure, chaste, kind, nurturing help meet wife of Puritan perfection was thus created. The help meet story allowed Puritans to focus on inheritance regulations, and forget about the rest of the sins of Eve.
This is a really smashing case of a historical version of the Shadow at work. Because of course, they didn’t just purge centuries of thoughts about women-as-evil at the urging of their ministers. Instead, they had to redirect those things onto different, non-helpmeety targets.
Later, after the witch trials, that same shadow of women-as-evil squelched out in new ways, particularly against poor women and women of color. This shadow of evil women persists in our culture in so many ways today.
Who’s to say if this shadow isn’t exactly why so many people subconsciously recoiled from voting for Hillary Clinton in the last election? (unreliable, untrustworthy, illogical, hmmm sounds familiar.)
This is Where Things Get Complicated
I’m not going to be able to break down the cultural shadow work of the virgin/whore dichotomy in one blog post. There’s a huge amount of the European shadow of women that followed the Puritans across the sea to unpack there. There’s racism and sexism and a whole bag of shit to look at in this.
If I use my flashlight in the basement metaphor, this is a moldering trunk full of things that make us collectively hold our noses and say “ew.”
Keep this one in the back of your mind as you traverse pop culture, television and daily life. Look at the messages we send our children and our teenage girls. Look at where these underlying concepts bubble up for you, in your awareness. That’s the key step for this shadow work.
And it’s just the beginning.