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Goddess Heritage

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Atete: In Search of the Ethiopian Goddess


      "A goddess!" I exclaimed, as I approached a large rounded feminine figure in the National Museum of Ethiopia.

      "No!" A man's voice echoed throughout the room.

   When he noticed people's glances upon him, the museum guide lowered his voice: "That piece is a very, very old", he said hesitantly.  "It is pagan.  She comes from the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group here in Ethiopia."

   I could not peel my eyes off the figure.  The unexpected discovery piqued my interest.

  "Does she have a name?" I asked hopefully.

   Instead of answering my question, the guide told me about Ethiopia's most famous woman:

    "Our Queen Sheba was beautiful, intelligent, and talented. She traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon.  Upon her return home, Queen Sheba gave birth to their son, Menelik I." The guide straightened his back and continued:  "When he became emperor, Menelik went to Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia."  The guide smiled at the thought.  "Our most sacred treasure," he said triumphantly. 

   "What about the goddess?"

    I googled the pagan figure as soon as I got back to my hotel. Atete, an ancient fertility goddess, introduced herself. Like other earth mother goddesses, Atete presided over creation, midwifery, healing, intuition, death, and renewal. The Internet information described her as the great goddess of the Zar religion, which was the dominant cult among the Oromo people.  Women were Atete's intermediaries, and as such, the goddess was their protector.  Strengthened by Atete, the women fiercely protested male abuse.  As women invoked their goddess, they became empowered to negotiate their plight with the Elders.  Since the Elders were fearful of Atete's power, they judged on behalf of the women and against the abusers. 

    Unfortunately, the divine protector of women followed the fate of many other earth mother goddesses.  Although Atete's cult was suppressed when Christianity arrived in Ethiopia, vestiges of the goddess remained. For instance, she was syncretized into the Virgin Mary.  Interestingly, I was told that women celebrated Atete's festival during the Epiphany of the Virgin Mary.  In such celebrations, women participated in a healing rite where they placed sacred plants in rivers and lakes.

    Atete was on my mind.  Actually, I was not surprised when I saw her during a creative visualization. Did I unconsciously invoke her?  This is what happened: Atete appeared to me as an old Ethiopian woman dressed in white.  Even though she looked ancient, her face was luminous, and her aura was resplendent.  I wondered if she had a message for me. 

    My husband, Fred, and I went to Ethiopia to visit the wonderful rock-carved Orthodox churches in Lalibela.  As a child, I read a book about this UNESCO World Heritage site. A burning desire to visit the churches grew in me ever since I read that book. Now, here I was, a middle aged woman, fulfilling a childhood dream.  I marveled at the unbelievable energy emanating from these monolithic rock-cut temples.    

    Filled with a renewed spirit after my encounter with Atete, we embarked in search of more sacred places.  However, to my dismay, I could not go inside several churches and monasteries. "No Women Allowed" signs impeded my entrance.  When a priest walked by in one of these temples, I asked him about the rule.  He replied by telling me the story of the Ethiopian Queen Gudit (Judith):

     "Queen Gudit was a Jewish warrior monarch who killed many Christians, destroyed monuments, and burned many churches.  Even today, many Christians still curse her."  The priest caressed his cross as he spoke.  "She was searching for the Ark of the Covenant.  Queen Gudit never found it," he concluded.

       "Don't you think it is unjust that women are not allowed in churches because of Queen Gudit's deeds?" I asked the priest.

      In response, he stared at me for a long moment.  Without saying a single word, he smiled.

      The situation of Ethiopian women intrigued me.  We traveled by car over rocky roads through small villages, so I had the opportunity to observe women from diverse ethnic groups.   What I saw was a complex, perplexing, and disturbing picture.  On one hand, Ethiopian women are celebrated for their beauty.  For instance, I saw girls and women acting in a self-assured and almost regal manner.  In fact, they did not shy away from being photographed.  Most of them seemed to enjoy the attention.  I thought that many women carried themselves as proud daughters of Queen Sheba.  

   On the other hand, Ethiopian females are also perceived as being Queen Gudit's offspring.   In addition to not being allowed to enter several religious establishments, women and girls were exposed to gender oppression.  For example, I saw women walking and carrying enormous loads of wood on their shoulders, while men rode horse-driven carriages with their loads.


        I was shocked to learn that female genital mutilation is still practiced in the Ethiopian countryside.  Moreover, the tradition of telefa (the forceful abduction of young girls into marriage) is alive and well in Ethiopia.  This practice encourages men to kidnap girls, rape them, and force them to marry their rapist. Sadly, telefa has serious health consequences.  Numerous victims of telefa develop obstetric/vaginal fistula--a hole between the rectum and the vagina, or between the bladder and the vagina--leading to urinary and or fecal incontinence.  Young adolescents and women with this condition are sitgmatized, marginalized, and even ostracized.

       Telefa remains a controversial issue in Ethiopia.  Although the law criminalizes this practice, government officials do not always enforce the law. There seems to be a conspiracy of complicity.  For example, Angelina Jolie produced Difret, a film depicting a 14 year old Ethiopian girl who was abducted and forced to marry her abuser.  Policemen interrupted the 2014 Addis Ababa premier of Difret, closed the movie theater, and offered no reason for their actions. 

      This is what I concluded:  Ethiopian women embody a mystery.  Like Queen Sheba, they are perceived as beautiful, intelligent, and talented.  But as females, they are accountable for Queen Gudit's deeds.  

       Where are Atete's daughters?

    During our last days in Ethiopia we decided to visit a lake famous for its flamingos and hippos. "Tourists don't come to this place, " Iyasu, our guide, assured us.

   We traveled by car to the lake.  It was a glorious day.  I remembered thinking: This is a perfect outing.  Unexpectedly, we stopped in the middle of our journey.  Hundreds of women dressed in white, accompanied by men and children, appeared on the road.  The women carried flowers, plants, and food. 

    "A religious peregrination," Iyasu explained.

     We got out of the car and joined them.  The sun was warm, the air sweet.  Music came out of nowhere and alternated between liturgical melodies and hypnotic drumming.  Something about the women caught my attention.  Their luminous faces and resplendent smiles were welcoming.  We followed the crowd, and walked up a hill.  We were greeted by a loud speaker broadcasting prayers in Amharic.  A white church slowly appeared in front of the human mass.  

        "What is the celebration?" I asked Iyasu.

        "The Epiphany of the Virgin Mary, " he replied.

          I looked around.  A small group of women carrying flowers and plants moved away from the church.  Instinctively, I followed them.  They headed towards the water.  I pulled out a white scarf from my backpack and covered my head.  When we reached the lake, the women gathered in front of the water.   They looked possessed.  In a trance, they moved like vestals.  They initiated an ancient choreography of diaphanous white veils dancing in the air.      

          Suddenly, the dance ended.  Without a sound, the women placed their offerings in the water.  

         A choir of ululating voices erupted.

         I smiled. 


Photos by Frederick Jacobsen

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As a psychologist, healer, and writer Lillian Comas is interested in spirituality, feminism, and multiculturalism.


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