Today I am honored to give a lecture on “Queering Iconography: Holy Women Icons from Sappho to Pauli Murray” at the North Star LGBT Center in Winston-Salem, NC. So, I want to continue the theme of featuring some of my queer Holy Women Icons. Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, La Negrita, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is the often overlooked and misunderstood primordial goddess of creation: tehom.
In Genesis 1 we read, “In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” It is the creation narrative held dear, formative, and meaningful for countless Jews and Christians. Interestingly, this word, deep, in Hebrew is tehom. Tehom translates as “deep or depths,” but it’s also a cognate for Tiamat, a Babylonian Goddess of creation. Out of the face of the deep, the world begins. Out of tehom, God creates. Out of Tiamat, the earth comes into being. This dancing Babylonian goddess syncretistically intermingles with the creation myth so pivotal to the faith of Christians and Jews in a way that could be terrifying, or beautiful, or—like the chaotic body of Tiamat that brings the world into being—both.
Catherine Keller deconstructs the terror therein and constructs the potentially parodied and subversive beauty of this esoteric cognate in her book, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. My interest in this earth goddess piqued while traveling in the Middle East and witnessing carvings of her dancing body: eyes filled with rage, arms outstretched to protect her children, healing snakes spilling out of the folds of her skirt, her distended body splitting open so that earth and life and all creation could be and become. It haunted me. And then I read Keller. Most of my interpretation and artistic choices rely on her beautiful work.
Keller recounts the way the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, portrays Tiamat as the ever-raging sea monster mother who must be slain by her own child, Marduk, the mighty warrior who prevails uncensored. Before the war-hungry myth demonized Tiamat, however, she was regarded as the mother of all humanity, all creation, the one who births the world into being. Keller asks, “How does a religion manage to vilify the goddess it still recognizes as cosmic parent of all that is (Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, 28)?” The creation in the Enuma Elish, in an incredibly abbreviated form, goes like this.
Tiamat and her primal mate, Apsu, create children. Apsu finds the children too noisy and has a difficult time resting. He wants to destroy the children so he can sleep. Tiamat rages furiously (rightly so, most mothers would add). Apsu calls on the second generation to help with his plans. Tiamat grows so furious and restless that she begins to breed monsters. Marduk, her own child, emerges as the soon-to-be great warrior who will slaughter her. Marduk creates imhullu, an evil wind, and lets the evil wind loose in her face. Because her mouth is open in a scream, she ingests the wind, it fills her belly, distending it a deadly parody of pregnancy. As she opens her mouth wide, Marduk shoots an arrow between her lips and it tears Tiamat apart. He then constructs “the cosmos from her oceanic carcass (Keller, 107).”
She who gave birth to them all becomes the martyr for their continued existence. Out of her slaughtered body becomes all that is. The narrative turns the concept of creation ex nihilo on its head. There are some striking similarities that give us pause. The formless void, in Hebrew tovo va bohu may well refer to Tiamat’s slain body. Some claim that the “wind from God”—ruah in Hebrew—that swept across the face of the deep is the imhullu used by Marduk to slay Tiamat. Keller reminds us, however, that the ruah (God’s spirit or breath) of the Hebrew bible is never viewed as evil, but as life-giving, life-forming, feminine, and good. Tiamat and tehom are both feminine words. And so is ruah.
Keller claims that the evocation of Tiamat, embedded in the Hebrew tehom, indicates a crafty parody of the Babylonian creation from chaos. Her insights are worth recounting at length:
In Tiamat’s “heart-pondering,” may we not receive a clue for a hermeneutics that would let her live: her, the primal creativity, where children run wild, where the new is granted a costly permission by its antecedents; the body of all that is silenced or slaughtered so that the new order need not negotiate its claim? Such a tehomic hermeneutic, haunted by the dead goddess but not worshiping her, would not find the chaos waters always pacific. It would tune its texts to a universe that puts up with a lot of painful noise. It would teach its insecure traditions that turbulence, though it may have ill effects, cannot be excluded without murder…If we read the layered deep of Genesis 1.2 as a cunning parody of the Babylonian creation from chaos, we might regain the peacemaking Tiamat and expose the warrior. He has occupied the Abrahamic traditions in her absence (Keller, 122).
Who knew that embedded in the traditions that have often forsaken women, using this same creation narrative from Genesis to marginalize and oppress them, was this brave and wild goddess? Who knew that lurking within the creation story Jews and Christians cling to, claiming dominion over this chaotic earth, was the Babylonian earth goddess Tiamat? Interestingly, Keller offers a slight critique, or at least a need for expansion, in the heteronormative dalliances of the female Tiamat and male Apsu. But a queer reading of Genesis 1 might do the subverting for us.
The masculine imhulu wind may have “impregnated” Tiamat in the Babylonian narrative, but the wind from God—ruah—that sweeps over the face of the deep, the face of Tiamat, is also feminine. In these ways, the sexual imagery is female and female. Out of this chaotic and windy union of two feminine beings, the world springs forth. Hetero-dalliances are nowhere to be found. Instead, it is the folding and unfolding of the feminine chaos between Tiamat/tehom and ruah that birth the world.
Keller states that tehomic love means that “to love is to bear with the chaos (Keller, 29).” Bearing with this churning chaos, Tiamat teaches us that much lies beneath the surface of a text if one does not implore a deeper reading, a reading of the depths. So, out of Tiamat’s oceanic womb, the earth is in the process of being born in my icon.
As I canonize Tiamat into holiness, her protective arms spread wide, covering all the earth, and all her children therein. Her hair flies wildly and her heart cries out to us:
From the depths of her inner chaos
And birthed the world into being…
Out spilled all the earth
Folding and unfolding life and love
For all eternity
Not only does Tiamat teach us that much lies beneath the surface, hidden in the folds, washed over by the very breath of god(dess). She also reminds us that life and love and flourishing dwells, not outside of chaos, not by conquering chaos, but within chaos. “The answers are out there in the drowning deep,” the singer Vienna Tang reminds us. In the womb of the earth, in the salty waters of chaos, in the drowning deep, we find life and love and eternity. Forever.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com