For millennia, people have struggled for gender and many other kinds of equality, with progress achingly slow and sometimes regressing. Egalitarian societies have existed and do exist, such as those described by Marija Gimbutas and Heide Goettner-Abendroth and others. So why does a 21st century egalitarian world seem so far away? Sometimes looking at challenges from a fresh perspective can be illuminating as well as inspiring for the long journey ahead. So, what if we envision equality as a tree, those wondrous beings that make life on earth possible and symbolize our world in so many cultures? What are the roots, the source truths which lead to all forms of equality and, if embraced by everyone, would make equality an assumed fact of life? What is the trunk where the roots manifest as positive supports for equality work? What are the branches, our acts reaching up towards our greatest aspirations for a truly equal society?
Let’s start with the roots, the basic statement from which all forms of equality grow. To me it is “All participate in the essential life force of the universe and are therefore inherently, completely, and infinitely valuable.” “Essential life force of the universal” may or may not refer to a deity, depending on individual beliefs, but it does have a spiritual element in that it relates our individual existence to that universal essence which gave us life, connects us to all other beings, and is beyond any personal characteristics. You may have a different root statement but I think that any root statement is more powerful with a spiritual element.
The concept of spiritual equality is, of course, not new, and has been invoked often related to modern equal rights movements. However, it is also at the heart of various ancient myths and practices from all over the world. What can we learn about spiritual equality and its meaning for our own time from these?
Spiritual equality starts at humanity’s creation. A number of goddesses explicitly made everyone from the same Earth-based material. This, to me, implies that spiritual equality is based in the most fundamental birth of our very being. Among these are Indara of the people of Pacific Celebes, who created humanity from stone, and the Sumerian Mami, who fashioned everyone from clay.
This equality is affirmed in practices demonstrating that the Divine recognizes all as equal. Rome’s Bona Dea was celebrated every December when women from every station in life, including enslaved female workers, gathered together because, as Patricia Monaghan notes “all women were equal in the goddess’s eyes“. The Eleusinian Mysteries, among the most popular in ancient Greece, brought together people of any status as long as the celebrants spoke Greek and had not killed anyone.
Spiritual equality at birth and in life is followed by equality in death. All who entered the Sumer’s Underworld were stripped of symbols of their worldly status and then judged. The heart of each deceased person was weighed against the feather of Egypt’s Ma’at, goddess of truth and justice, while Shait followed each person through life and judged them after death. Babylonia’s Belit-Seri kept records of each life and called out judgements. China’s Tou-Mou also recorded deeds and passed judgement on all, no matter how elevated or low their status in life.
What about the trunk? What comes from the roots that support us in our work in the world? In these myths, spiritual equality requires accountability leading to both justice and transformation. In the story of Sumer’s Inanna, her judgment, execution and revival are the means for her to acquire greater wisdom, depth, and power. In the Greek story of Demeter, justly holding the perpetrators of Persephone’s abduction, even though they are gods, accountable causes the transformative return of the world’s abundance. Scandinavian’s Syn, who judged everyone at death and kept those who were unworthy out of heaven, was also a goddess of justice because she was absolutely fair. We have seen the power of accountability for rendering justice as well as transformation to right the wrongs of inequality in, for example, commissions on truth and reconciliation.
Spiritual equality is also a partner to compassion. China’s Kuan Yin, for example, so valued each human that she vowed to maintain human form until all were enlightened and hears the prayers of all who call upon her. Spiritual equality and its relationship to compassion also lead to non-violence, again demonstrated by Kuan Yin whose example inspires her followers to avoid harming any living being as each is sacred. When we work for a world that values compassion and non-violence, so, too, do we bring about equality.
What about the branches and leaves, our own individual actions? Many of the goddesses mentioned above came from highly unequal societies, so another lesson from the myths and their cultures is that clearly we must act on our commitment to spiritual equality to make change. That could be educating, legislating, organizing, speaking out, standing up, or whatever feels right to you. When we do these actions supported by the truth of our roots and the power of our trunk, perhaps we are better able to articulate our vision and inspire our own and future generations toward real and long-lasting change.
Just as botanical trees interconnect with one another, the trees of equality, justice, compassion, peace, and every other element of the society we are striving for are all interconnected. They each require and sustain one another. While no one strategy will bring about worldwide change, sometimes new ways of thinking can help us in our work. Perhaps those of us who find meaning in trees can visualize a Forest of Harmony representing all these connected elements bringing new life to our planet as a way to stay focused and energized over the coming years. May a better world bud, grow, and flourish!
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer, student drummer, and herb and native plant gardener. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in, among others, Feminism and Religion, Return to Mago E-Magazine, Sagewoman, The Goddess Pages, Matrifocus, and The Beltane Papers, and various anthologies. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com where you can find some of her free e-books to download.
Photograph of weighing of the heart by the British Museum; original artist unknown. Public domain.The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani. At left, Ani and his wife Tutu enter the assemblage of gods. At center, Anubis weighs Ani’s heart against the feather of Maat.