I've started reading "Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being" by Ted Hughes. I'm digging what I've read so far. The author really understands the significance of mythology in Elizabethan times. The image of Queen Elizabeth as "Great Goddess" was carefully cultivated by her courtiers and was deeply rooted in the tradition and mythology of ancient goddess worship.
I highly recommend you pick up this handsomely bound (yet inexpensive) reprint just published by Barnes & Noble.
What's even more amazing is that this book ties together our recent fascination with both the Sphinx and Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”!
Here's some excerpts:
Concerning the nature of the Great Goddess:
“Adonis … appeared everywhere as the son and consort of the Great Goddess.” p6
Since the business of the Goddess was fertility, reproduction, and renewal of life, everywhere her worship involved ritual prostitution: obligatory premarital or occasional prostitution of all women, and institutionalized prostitution within the Temple itself. At Jerusalem, the priestesses were prostitutes, and the priests ‘dog prostitutes’,’ which is how their Goddess came to be characterized in the sacred books of the Jehovan reformers as ‘the Great Whore of abominations and adulteries’.” p8
In the Christianized Empire, repeated attempts were made to obliterate the visible pagan forms of the Goddess religion. At the same time, the early Christian theologians anathematized it as a great heresy. They fought to extricate Christ’s mother from the archaic mantle of the Great Whore, and to dissociate their new love god in every way from the erotic Attis, Thammuz, Adonis, and the rest. … The signs are that the old religion merely went underground. … When the mystical ecstatic adoration of the Divine Beloved streamed into eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe from the Sufi poet-saints of Islam, it was appropriated, as a matter of course, for Mary, who had become the beneficiary of all the innate Goddess worship of the masses that had survived into the Christianized world.” p11-12
"The Great Goddess is divided into two antithetical figures - the Goddess of Benign Love and the Goddess of the Underworld, though the benign aspect can divide further in to Mother and Sacred Bride.
"The Boar is also the Goddess of the Underworld. The Boar's peculiarly hermaphroditic nature is almost universally recognized in mythology ... Her gross whiskery nakedness and riotous carnality is seized by the mythic imagination, evidently, as a sort of uterus on the loose ... a woman-sized , multiple udder on trotters. Most alarming of all is that elephantine, lolling mouth under her great ear-flaps, like a Breughelesque nightmare vagina, baggy with overproduction, famous for gobbling her piglets, magnified and shameless, exuberantly omnivorous and insatiable, swamping the senses. This sow has supplanted all other beasts as the elemental mother (even Zeus was born of a sow, even Demeter, Mother of Iacchos/Dionysus and Persephone, was a sow ... who carries the same vaginal grin yet is prodigiously virile - that same swinging, earth-searching, root-ripping mouth but equipped with moon-sickle tusks - and who incarnates the most determined, sudden and murderous temperament ... everything about female sexuality that is awesome, alien, terrifying ... enters man's fantasy." pp12-13
“… the Boar always has the double role of being both the Goddess, infernalized and enraged, and her infernal consort (Mars in boar form) who supplants Adonis, and who is ,therefore always some ‘usurping brother’. This sequence (rejected and infernalized Goddess = Boar = Hot Tyrant who overthrows Adonis) is the essential formula in the algebra of the Tragic Equation, as it emerges eventually. Shakespeare’s design, in Venus and Adonis, has a mythic completeness lacking in Euripides’s, Seneca’s and Racine’s versions of the story.” p82
“Shakespeare’s curiosity about narrative raw materials was inexhaustible. He must have known what was common knowledge: the earlier Greek version of this myth [Venus and Adonis] in which Adonis is shared by the two different Goddesses – Aphrodite, on Earth, and Persephone, beneath it – where the two lives, and the two Goddesses, were of equal importance … Shakespeare’s innovation had the effect of reawakening, in Ovid’s simplified little tale, the tremendous living presence of this whole original myth …” p65
“Shakespeare’s weakness (or genius) for total, unconditional, self-sacrificial love seems a little abnormal in the suite of English poets. On the other hand, it is quite at home in other literatures, where the medieval tradition of romantic love was almost inseparable from religious adoration of the Virgin eroticizes. This ‘total, unconditional love’, willfully subjecting itself to hardship and pain, worshipping the physical beloved (whether she likes it or not) as an incarnation of the Divine, animates the troubadours and Dante. Something of the same burns in the Sonnets [of Shakespeare], but with a difference, a rawness, an untheologized, surprised, private pain.
The tradition flows directly into the troubadours, and into Dante, from the Sufi priests of Islam. The Sufi originals at their best have a savage abandon, a frenzy of self-dedication … Shakespeare’s tragic heroes tend that way … from Sufism into Occult Neoplatonism, and into the Hermetic fraternities … direct imitations of the Dervish orders … swept through Reformation Europe. It is not so impossible that a similar spirit touched Shakespeare. In later chapters I argue that Aaron, the daemonic power supply of his first ‘tragic’ play Titus Andronicus, is the first manifestation of an elemental being that takes possession of each of the tragic heroes in turn, and that appears for the last time in Caliban, in The Tempest. It is more than a coincidence, presumably, that these two figures, Aaron and Caliban, the beginning and the ending of the greatest sequence in our literature, should both be Moors.” pp67-68
“… that elusive religious philosophical movement known as Occult Neoplatonism … began in Italy in the early sixteenth century. It was a response, consciously devised and directed, to the deepening schism of the Reformation. At that time a strange collection of ancient writings was translated, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, who was thought to have been an Egyptian sage from the period of Moses, and whose visionary ideas seemed to anticipate both Plato and Christ. The possibility that this work seemed to offer, of returning to the fount and origin of all spiritual revelations, and of finding the genetic common denominator, so to speak, of them all, in some grand universal synthesis centered on a Christ figure, created immense excitement.” pp20-21
“The great, formative figures of this final phase of the movement were Giordano Bruno and John Dee, then both at the height of their powers. Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s mathematician, consultant to navigators and the builders of the navy, and the most celebrated English philosopher of the day: a man of prestige and influence. His Occult Neoplatonism was imperialist, messianic, Christian Cabbalist, moving towards a deepening preoccupation with the conjuration of spirits and angels that eventually almost swallowed him up. He had been the tutor of Sir Philip Sidney, the admired luminary of the intellectual, literary circle from which the Elizabethan poetic renaissance sprang, and which was inherited, after his early death, by the Earl of Essex, patron to Sir Francis Bacon and the closest friend of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton.” p24
“Shakespeare’s mystical deification of love … is a direct response, it has been suggested , to Bruno’s teachings – and almost a direct expression of them.” p25
Bacon reveals a familiarity with the Hermetic, alchemical and Rosicrucian texts, as well as with the work of Bruno and Dee. Several curious questions in the Shakespeare/Bacon debate would be come simpler, perhaps, if one could accept that Shakespeare and Bacon might well have been as close as Bacon and Ben Johnson undoubtedly were.” p28
“… the process of religious change was arrested, or rather held in suspense, by the historical accident of Elizabeth I. Those two savage competitors for the English soul, which were the new Puritan spirit and the old Catholic spirit, each intending to exterminate the other, both uncertain of the outcome, were deadlocked, and in sense spellbound, by her deliberate policy throughout her very long reign … disarmed … inside Elizabeth’s crucible.” p84
“Since the movement aspired so openly to dissolve both Catholicism and Protestantism in its own greater synthesis … this ‘most imaginative idea of the Renaissance’ became devil worship and heresy (Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600). For Protestantism is became plain devil worship (John Dee was discredited, and died rejected and destitute in 1608). Imagination itself – became anathema … in Puritan society … it was a superstition … pushed so deep into Hell (with the witches) that sensible men soon feared to be associated with it … (and much of Shakespeare, accordingly, ceased to be visible).” p33
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