(Essay 1) 'Archetype or Patriarchetype? A Brief History of the Symbolic Meanings of Thorn Trees' by Kelly A. Greer

Early Judaic and Islamic-based religions commonly denounced goddess worship. They simultaneously synchretized some of the same elements and locations associated with the pre-existing female deities they sought to defeat. The elder deities and sacred symbols were overlaid by patriarchal, male-dominated religions and have been held up as archetypes. I argue that these patriarchal patterns are better called “patriarchetypes” because they merely mask the true archetypes.

Interpreting patriarchal symbols, myths, and religions as archetypal is misguided. They are more accurately interpreted as patriarchetypal, rooted in archetypes of oppression. The thorn tree is an excellent example of this phenomenon. The uses of thorn trees and the symbolic meanings associated with them can be found throughout the world. Most of these associations probably originated in the traditions of tribal Africa and ancient Egypt, yet nowhere are they better exemplified than in pre-Islamic Arabian tradition, ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

Archetypes are primary sets of universal symbols inherent in the human psyche and represented on a grand scale throughout the world in myth and folklore. Whether or not archetypes are viewed as a process or as content, the universal pattern is simple: human life begins with actual pregnancy and birth. Aside from conception/procreation this depends entirely on the mother. As evidenced in the works of archaeologists James Mellaart, Alexander Marshack, and Marija Gimbutas, female deities predate male deities in human prehistory. The work of these and other scholars show that figurines excavated from Paleolithic and Neolithic sites have been predominantly female and many have been interpreted as representations of the female divine. Later myths and religions include female deities, but as major world religions illustrate, most are historically correlated with their decline and ultimate exclusion.

As I have previously argued elsewhere, the primary archetype is the universal awe associated with human pregnancy and childbirth and the fact that, while not all women are mothers, all humans are born from women. I further suggest that the central patriarchetype is couvade, or the birth-giving male. Examples include the myth of Zeus giving birth to Athena from his head and the story of Eve being made from the rib of Adam. Male creator gods extend the power of couvade, and followers echo it in sacrifice, ritual, and patrilineal kinship.

As ethnocentric bias eclipses cultural relativity, so too does patriarchal bias. Patriarchetypal symbols and oppressive patterns have been unconsciously mistaken — and perhaps at times intentionally employed — as archetypal symbols as a result of this bias. Feminist scholars have both criticized and rejected archetypal theory, arguing that because it is based on patriarchal cultural norms it is inherently biased.  As Adrienne Rich observed in “Of Woman Born”:

[Mary] Daly depicts at length the patriarchal bias which saturates all culture as an unacknowledged assumption. The earlier writings of men like J.J. Bachofen, Robert Briffault, Friederich Engels, Erich Neumann, among others, though useful in identifying the phenomenon and in suggesting that the patriarchal family is notan inevitable “fact of nature,” still stop short of recognizing the omnipresence of patriarchal bias….

An archetypal theory that fails to directly address the domination of women perpetuates and embraces patterns of this domination. This renders such theory invalid and oppressive, yet these theories continue to be accepted as matters of fact instead of as matters in question. The rationalization of the systemic domination of women was necessitated by patriarchal cultures. This phenomenon can be observed in mythologies and the history of religions wherein female deities have been denounced and replaced by male counterparts.

“He Who Dwelt in the Bush”: Thorn Trees in the Mosaic Tradition

Most people are familiar with the biblical accounts of Moses, the burning bush, and the Ark of the Covenant. Some may be aware that the Ark was made specifically out of shittim or acacia wood. What many people may not know is that acacias are thorn trees and that the burning-bush is also said to have been a thorn-bush. This is significant because not only were both considered to be the dwelling places of the Hebrew God, but even more so because in the ancient Middle and Near East thorn trees were first associated with and represented female deities.

The theophany of the burning-bush is found in Exodus 3:1-5 and again in Deuteronomy 33:16, where God is called “the Lord” and is referred to as “he who dwelt in the bush.” These references raise, yet do not answer, the question as to what kind of bush it was. To find the answer, we must look outside scripture. In “On the Life of Moses,” Philo wrote that the burning-bush “was a bush or briar, a very thorny plant,” and in the writings of the Roman historian Josephus, we find that “a fire fed upon a thorn bush.”

Later in Exodus, at Mt. Sinai, Yahweh instructed Moses to use acacia wood, a type of thorn tree, for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred table, the tabernacle, and the altar. Where did this wood come from?  According to Exodus 35:24, the Hebrews had it with them; “….every man, with whom was found shittim wood for any work of the service, brought it.” No other scriptural explanation is given regarding the source of the acacia wood. Rabbinical literature, however, does explain that, on the way to Egypt, Jacob went to Beersheba to cut down and harvest the groves that were planted there by Abraham. This act was not without great purpose, as we find much later that it was taboo to cut trees still growing there because they were consecrated only for the Ark.

She Who Resides within the Tree: the Thorn Tree in Arabic Tradition

The history of the ritualistic use of thorn trees is indicative of their significance and raises questions regarding their symbolic meaning. Clues to the answers to these questions survived into much later times, as we find in pre-Islamic Arabia.

There are many biblical references to the abolition of goddess worship, and according to the Koran, the foundation of Mohammed’s teachings in the seventh century CE also depended on this abolition. During this time he ordered acacia trees to be destroyed along with the shrines of the goddesses Al-Uzza, Al-Lat, and Manat. Al-Uzza was the goddess of the Quraysh tribe and also a deity of the Ghatfan tribe, who worshipped her in the form of an acacia tree. The Ghatfan constructed a temple called “Boss” over this tree, built so that it made a sound whenever someone entered. Under the instruction of Mohammed, in 629 CE Khalid Ibn Walid, a loyal follower, destroyed the tree and the temple and killed the priestess.

A tribe at Tayish likewise long worshipped the goddess Al-Lat and built a shrine for her at Nakhla. This shrine was destroyed in 630 CE, also by Mohammed’s followers, who did so although the people there protested and begged to continue their worship. Nakhla is about 70 miles, or one and a half days journey on the way to Mecca, and was famous for the sacred acacia tree that grew there, known as dhat anwat: “the tree to hang things on.” In a long-standing tradition, pilgrims hung bits of cloth and other items there. According to some, this tree represented the goddess “Uzza,” or “Al-Uzza,” who, like Yahweh, was also said to reside within the tree.

The gum of acacia trees was highly valued for several reasons, including the belief that it was a clot of the tree’s menstrual blood. This indicates that the tree was considered to be a woman. Within Islamic tradition this parallel has multiple meanings, as, according to the Koran, God created man from a clot of blood (96: 1-2). At birth, the gum of the acacia, or haid, was used as an amulet, rubbed on the heads of newborn babies to keep them safe from the jinn. In similar ceremonies, the shaved heads of newborns were typically daubed with the blood of a sacrificial animal, such as a sheep.

Mohammed had ordered the destruction of temples and acacia trees of the goddesses, yet he himself stood beneath such thorny branches as followers swore to him the “oaths of the tree.” In another instance, the acacia played a significant role in the life of Mohammed as he and a friend hid from their enemies in a cave. When they emerged they were surprised to find that an acacia tree had miraculously grown over the entrance to the cave and a spider had woven a web in the space between its branches and the wall of the cave. Thus, through divine intervention, the acacia and the spider protected them.

The inclusion of the acacia in these stories is probably not coincidental. Although Mohammed had ordered the destruction of the goddesses and their sacred acacias, as a member of the Quraysh tribe he himself had sacrificed to Al-Uzza as a young man. Al-Uzza was associated with the acacia. Significantly, he acknowledged the goddesses, asking: “Have you thought upon Al-Lat and Al-Uzza and on Manat, the third other? Are yours the males, and his the females?” (Koran 53:19), and later retracted his statements. This controversial inconsistency generated what came to be known as the “Satanic Verses,” made notorious outside the Koran by the title of Salman Rushdie’s novel.

According to some, such as the annalist Tabari (d. 923 CE), the original verses were positive references to the goddesses as “three high-flying cranes,” or as “exalted damsels” whose “intercession with God may be hoped for.” Mohammed later recanted and claimed that Satan gave these verses to him as a temptation. A new verse was written in their place stating that these goddesses “are nought but names yourselves have named, and your fathers; God has sent down no authority touching them” (53:19-23).

Although the three goddesses are mentioned in the Koran and Mohammed denounced them, outside subsequent commentaries, the Book of Idols is the primary source of information about them. They were popularly known as the daughters of Allah, which was a tradition that was disputed by Mohammed. Although they were long at home in Arabia, evidence suggests this was not their native land. In “The Daughters of Allah,” F.V. Winnet concluded that the three goddesses came from the north and spread south and that the original home of Al-Lat was in Syria, Al-Uzza in Sinai, and Manat in the Dedan area of the Hejaz. Manat, he explains, had her place in the early pagan hajj ceremonies and was likely the first to find her place in the Ka’ba. She was later replaced by Al-Uzza, who was worshipped by the Meccans during Mohammed’s life.

(See part 2.)

(A Paper Presented at the S.W. Texas Popular Culture Conference, Albuquerque: New Mexico, February 11, 2006)