When hens were flying and god was not yet born

Luciana Percovich

Let's imagine a time when hens, supplied with momentarily useless but not withered or lost wings, were flying…and God was not yet born, but existed as just one of the unexpressed possibilities of the pregnant body of a woman…

Hard to imagine a time so far from what History has recorded and what we are accustomed to think about God and the ancient times. But this is the work we have to do in our deep imaginary when looking for stories, symbols, social and sacred institutions of the Early Times. Even if we can think and talk about them in our present lexicon, we cannot simply match the meanings of the present to the words and symbols used in that past, because they correspond to a different sense of life that has slowly slipped out of (and/or has been violently erased from) memory. That means we have to make a conscious effort to imagine a world which is the same but at the same time “other.”

When we enlarge our sight beyond the customary beginning point, to see what was there before Genesis and Olympus, the Floods and Gilgamesh, the Rg Veda, Buddha, Confucius, Homer and the first philosophers, a leap in perspective (or an awakening of memories sealed in our cells) is necessary. And, as when you press the right button and the music plays or a program is loaded, so, through proper displacements at the borders of imagination, you can restore memories not completely cancelled by the temporarily reigning patterns of the patriarchal and Modern age, and go back to those wild fields of female energies whirling freely without God, and see hens flying through the skies in the rhythm of the seasons.

I can still remember when I was a child and such an enormous desire surged within me that I sensed only a miracle could make it come true. I would run to a small picture of a Madonna (a tiny Madonna with her eyes looking down but with a big crown on her head) and pray to her with all my heart. That mixture of faith and total abandonment to her later became a component of my emotional and psychic posture whenever I wanted to become clear in the tumult of contrasting pressures within me. I never applied to God in the same way or to Jesus, notwithstanding the compassion I emphatically felt for him. As an adult, I have questioned myself about the reason for that spontaneous difference in attitude towards the Madonna and God. In more recent times, the question has transformed, turning upside down: what effect is produced on me and every woman by a male God, considered as the ultimate source of and ruler over life?

C. G. Jung, at the beginning of the XX century, wrote of an “interesting inversion of biology” linked with men's passionate “craving for God,” or “yearning to feel oneself as divine.” In his book (1912) 1 on symbols and transformations of the libido, he observes that the desire of the son for his mother, “a very intense emotion, a summing up of libido,” when banned and condemned in the cultural institution of incest, was diverted from its real object and turned into the claim to be God himself. “God is our desire, to which we attribute divine honours….To bring God within is a powerful emotion, for He secures happiness, power, omnipotence, the attributes proper to a divinity. To bring God within means to be God, to some extent.”

We are perfectly aware of the meaning of this “interesting inversion of biology” for both the female and male part of humankind. We are perfectly aware, maybe not yet in a fully elaborated and expressed way, of what it means when a woman's empty sacred space is forcibly filled with an image of God denying our most intimate nature, while confirming and exalting men in every will or thought of theirs. We can easily see in the wings no longer able to fly, in the desperation, insecurity and debasement of so many women, what the loss of the feminine “divine” has brought. She was debased to a mere vessel, a seat, or ground on which to erect a world in his own image; historical patriarchal religions were born in and from the moment in which the place of origin was turned upside down and removed. These religions, quite distinct from earlier concepts and practices of the sacred, have invented the current strictly ritualised and codified authorities and roles, appropriating  everything that appears as mysterious and powerful.

It happened suddenly and unexpectedly in the ‘80s; later I recognized it as my “second enlightenment” (the first one being the embracing of feminism at the beginning of the ‘70s.) I was traveling in the heart of Australia, in the Aranda territory, with an old friend of mine and our two little boys. One July day in Alice Springs, we entered the T. G. H. Strehlow Museum and, in discovering the sacred objects, the ceremonies and the songs of the Aborigines – who believe that women and men emerged out of their own eternity in human guise perfectly formed as female and male, that creation didn't happen just once at the beginning but that men and women have the task to maintain the process through their own separate and sacred ceremonies—I realized that in throwing my catholic education away, I had also thrown away the whole dimension of spirit (as did many women of my generation).

The awareness of the existence of primary paths we can follow in the search for Being, in reconnecting with our deepest feeling, needs and wisdom, grew as I returned home and began to read the “goddess” books I had been collecting over the years (from Carol Christ to Starhawk, from Mary Daly to Merlin Stone), but never had read up to that moment. Feminism, in my experience, had left untouched those determining layers within, the most intimate core of being female, where the root of dispossession and of male domination has insinuated itself. I began to follow the path of the “Goddess” with enthusiasm. I felt I was returning to Mother's home.

Soon enough the need to share this knowledge with women students in the Free Women University of Milano led me to give some classes on “The Mythologies of the Sacred” and from our discussions I learned that some key words, like “divine” and “sacred,” had to be redefined in order to express our new understandings. In fact, I sensed these words belonged to two radically different cultural perspectives.

The notion of “sacred” is linked to the female body and to inner, intimate knowledge; it designates the threshold between human and superhuman, between life and death, nothing and life.  It is linked with the concept of sophia, a spiritual wisdom tied with experience, passing through the complexity of bodily perceptions and the activation of subtler energies than mental ones. It manifests in everyday life, without steady officiants. It flourished in egalitarian and matrifocal/matriarchal societies.

“Divine” was born in the presence of a male body, after the theft of functions connected with the (female) sacred, from the perception of a separation (the son from his mother, the mind/soul from nature) and from the rationalization of something missing (the ability to generate by himself).  It is always associated with hierarchical personifications and is philosophically conceptualised as logos, abstract intellectual knowledge. In a patriarchal regime, spirituality turned into theology, which is a “theology of separation,” a discourse on the “transcendence” of God, interrupted here and there by irruptions of what is now classified as “mysticism.”

Moreover, after reading and reading the generous and documented literature produced by my American/English sisters, to whom my gratitude is boundless, I also began to suspect that the overthrow of the sacred female could have happened only after the transformation of the Great Mother of animals and plants, or the Feminine of A Thousand Names, into one Goddess Queen. The poem of Inanna, for example, can be read as an exemplum: she “falls in love” with Dumuzi, beginning with her “only spouse” an unending story of competition. More, as the most venerated Sumerian goddess, she begins to be represented as the One and as a sort of  “Lady of the Goods of the Temple,” in an historical period in which the passage from rain agriculture to forced agriculture interrupts the former community economy of smaller urban settlements and opens the way to  cultures based on the accumulation of goods. The priestess, as Inanna's avatar, is the “owner and dispenser,” the temple being the place where the surplus is accumulated. In short, as she became a Queen Goddess (i.e. a political and religious symbol), the egalitarian social arrangements of preceding matrifocal societies began to break up. After the ascension of Inanna to the throne, an event which changed forever the way of life in societies, a man could easily cast the Queen Goddess down from the throne and sit in her place.

In other words, I don't think we can simply and exclusively impute to male violence, such as the warlike invasions of Arian or Indo-European peoples, both westwards and eastwards, the end of the peaceful, egalitarian matriarchal/matrifocal cultures of the Early Times.  While more factors were operating, it is hard for me to believe in a total innocence of women, so I would also propose, probably urged by the developments of Italian feminism, which has long questioned the dark aspects of mothers' power, an inquiry into the responsibility of women, into their own ability to destroy, not to ascribe only to violent actions from outside, that is by men. We can see these actions happening also in actual relationships among women and between women and men.

In my opinion, therefore, the most important teaching coming from the early peaceful women-oriented societies is their image of Female Power. We need to investigate how it gave rise to a shared vision permeating cosmic, natural and human representations (from Paleolithic to Neolithic times) and how, in the subsequent long period of transition (Bronze and Iron age) it was transformed and adapted to new economic and political domains. This kind of Female Power is something we have forgotten long ago or exercised only intermittently in the enclosures of our households, in a slavish survival strategy. Our diaspora –in the sense given by Mary Daly to the term, that is, women dispersed and assigned to every man – has been the main instrument of our defeat and still is. In the present, whenever we come together again, re-enacting the powerful energy of yin, which flows naturally strong in our bodies, we must be aware that only in the sacred form of the circle can our strength manifest without producing deadly envies and hierarchies.

We are living now on the edge of a new deep transformation. Women in western civilization seem to be losing the remnants of their female and generative power, sometimes willingly letting it go when they submit to plastic surgery, commit their pregnant bodies to surgery, quit menstruation, imitate men in men's institutions, or reclaim equality in a patriarchal frame. . . in a  last-ditch effort to settle conflict with man through the final renunciation of our “difference.”

I can remember my resistance, the conflict within me, at the sight of my first menstrual blood, to which I hadn't been prepared in any way by anyone. To accept one's own mysterious femininity in a world with no praise for the true meaning of a woman's body cannot be any more “wondrous” or “easy” for young women of today than it was for us in the ‘50s. We need to recognize and confront the contrasting forces within ourselves, resuming the more radical work of consciousness-raising with which we started.

My present research, still in progress, concerns female cosmogonies of the Early Times before God. As far as I can see, in every continent the process of creation is narrated through a She-energy that contains, as the chromosome X contains the Y and not vice versa, both female and male energies, not yet separated or oppositely polarized. This recurring theme could be investigated not just to underline that the first sex is female, but that the female contains yin and yang principles or energies, as in the organic world a pregnant body can contain both a daughter and a son. Usually, in the most ancient stories of creation, the male archetype is generated by the female archetype only as a second or third step, giving shape to men and women ancestors; it is as if at a certain point in the process of creation the cosmic female can't help but expel her male aspects. Why did and does this happen, and what can it mean in terms of balancing our creative and destructive drives?

I think we have much to learn from the infinite wisdom of the oldest images of the great mothers, who contained light and darkness, creation and destruction, yin and yang (which don't simply coincide with gender difference, being two different qualities of energy, present in both men and women). Striving to recover this pre-historical, pre-logical meaning is part of that necessary creative effort of imagination I mentioned at the beginning. The ancestral female symbols hinting at cosmic forces acting in the physical world as in the organic and psychic domains have much to teach us, if we set our senses free to re-tune to the hidden secrets they synthesize. May times be ready to awaken the precious terma  (“recovered treasure” in the Tantric Tibetan tradition) our mothers of the beginning of time sealed in human cells.

  1. C.J. Jung, Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido. Leipzig und Wien: F. Deuticke, 1912.  The translation is my own, from the Italian edition, 1993, p. 76.

About the author

A member of the Italian Feminist Movement since its beginnings in the early ‘70s (Lotta Femminista, Gruppo femminista per una Medicina delle donne, Libreria delle donne, Libera università delle donne), Luciana Percovich is a teacher, an editor, a translator and the author of Posizioni amorali e relazioni etiche, Melusine, Milano, 1993 (also in Figuras de la madre, Madrid, 1996), La coscienza nel corpo. Donne, salute e medicina negli anni Settanta, Franco Angeli, Milano, 2005, Oscure Madri Splendenti. Le origini del sacro e delle religioni, Venexia, Roma, 2007.


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issue 9
Spring Equinox
March 2009

Dulce stippling Quan Yin

Thinking about Goddesses


Lise Weil
Hye Sook Hwang

Deena Metzger
Vulture Medicine

Luciana Percovich
When hens were flying and god was not yet born

Marianela Medrano-Marra
Canoeing our Way back to the Divine Feminine in Taíno Spirituality

Vanita Leatherwood

Andrea Nicki
Young Pagan Goddess

Judy Grahn
Goddess is Metaformic

Carolyn Gage
For Want of a Goddess

Shannyn Sollitt
Amaterasu – The Great Eastern Sun Goddess of Peace

Nané Ariadne Jordan
What is Goddess? Towards an ontology of women giving birth…

Betty Meador
Inanna Comes to Me in a Dream

Katie Manning
First Blood
The History of Bleeding

Liliana Kleiner
The Song of Lilith

Katya Miller
Freedom Speaks Through Us

Susan Kullmann
Marvelle Thompson
Dulce's Hands

Notes on Contributors


Dulce's hands
by Kullmann & Thompson