Alice C. Linsley
The Wisdom Tradition of the ancient world involves women seers and prophets. Themistoclea is an example of the first and Deborah is an example of a female Biblical prophet. They served similar functions in their communities, but their practices and worldviews were different. Themistoclea represents the shamanistic approach and Deborah represents an approach in which consultation of spirits and trace states was forbidden.
The Biblical Prophet
The Biblical prophet was forbidden from consulting spirits. Indeed Saul's rejection as king over Israel was due in part to his consulting a medium. The Biblical prophets knew what shamans worldwide know - that the spirits sometimes lie. Therefore they were to consult only the Spirit of God (Ruach) who moved over the waters at the beginning and know all things, and cannot lie.
The Wisdom Tradition of the Bible represents a very ancient approach to epistemology. This is evident is such books as Job, Proverbs, Sirach and Baruch. Wisdom as a feminine principle is sometimes called the “Sophia” Tradition. Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom.
Here is an example of the personification of wisdom as a female:
Wisdom has built her house;
she has set up its seven pillars.
2 She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
3 She has sent out her servants, and she calls
from the highest point of the city,
4 “Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
5 “Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
Deborah was a prophetess who judged in Israel from her sacred palm between Ramaah and Bethel to the north (Judges 4:5). Deborah's duties would have included settling disputes, providing wise counsel in both spiritual and worldly concerns and advising on matters of war. Judges 4 and 5 tells us the land enjoyed peace for forty years under Deborah’s rule.
There are many examples in the Bible of wise women. The wise woman of Abel-beth-Maacah saved her town from destruction when she surrendered the head of Sheba to David’s general (II Sam. 20:17-22).
The prophetess Huldah was sought by kings because of her reputation as a wise advisor. King Asaiah sent his priests to consult Huldah (II Kings 22:14). Her name indicates that she belonged to the tribe of Hul, a son of Aram (Gen. 10:23). Huldah, who lived approximately 655 years after Deborah, resided in Jerusalem, in the "new” section or the temple precinct which was regarded as the sacred center of the Jerusalem shrine. Jerusalem (Urusalim in Akkadian) was an important shrine city, exhibiting typical characteristics of ancient shrines. It had flowing water from a perennial spring and was built on a precipice.
Greek Shrine Wisdom
Women in the ancient world played a greater role in the philosophical project than is generally recognized. Pythagoras and Socrates were taught by women philosophers, and Plato received philosophical instruction from Perictione, his mother.
Pythagoras’ wife, Theano, took over the direction of his academy after his death. She perpetuated his idea of the transmigration of souls into new bodies, not necessarily human. Iamblichos or Suda mentions Pythagorean women who were mathematicians and philosophers.
Themistoclea (Theistokelia) was a 6th century B.C. philosopher and the Pythia or Prophetess at the ancient shrine of Delphi. She is reputed to have been the teacher of Pythagoras, the great mathematician of Samos who believed that the workings of the material world could be expressed in terms of numbers.
In Diogenes Laeterius’ work, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, in the section concerning the "Life Of Pythagoras," Diogenes states that "Aristoxenus asserts that Pythagoras derived the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, the priestess at Delphi."
Themistoclea represents an ancient epistemological approach which wedded experience, reason and the supernatural. As the Prophetess of Apollo at Delphi she would have been a source of much ancient wisdom, including knowledge of the natural world, astronomy, medicine, music, mathematics, animal husbandry and philosophy. She would have offered advice pertaining to sowing and harvests, whether to go to war, and who and when to marry.
It is likely that such wisdom was received from her predecessors. This very ancient tradition of wisdom was associated with trees, serpents and women. The wide dispersion of such myths and archetypes indicates a very ancient point of origin. The oldest known site of serpent veneration dates to about 70,000 years ago. Stories of trees and serpents often have a female as the principal character. It was a woman to whom the serpent spoke, inviting her to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (Gen. 3).
Women such as Themistoclea were often deified, either posthumously or during their lifetimes. Similarly, the Hebrew (habiru) holy ones were regarded as deities (elohiym). The plural form for God in Arabic and Hausa is Allohi, the equivalent of the Hebrew Elohiym. El and Al are very ancient names for God. The plural form appears in Genesis 1: In the beginning elohiym created the heavens and the earth. The word also appears in Genesis 6:2, which speaks of the "sons of the elohiym" who took wives from the daughters of men. The plural form relates to the ancient Horites from whom we receive this material. They are the origin of Israel's priesthood and why Jews call their ancestors "horim."
The Horite ruler-priests were regarded as deified "sons" of God. They served as the wise ones or the ruler's holy counselors. As such, they are called "gods", as in Exodus 22:28: "Thou shalt not revile the gods (elohiym), nor curse the ruler of thy people."
Deborah the prophetess likely had as her totem a serpent (nahash). The serpent image was sacred for the ancient Israelites, as is evident from the story of Moses lifting the bronze serpent over the people in the wilderness. (Numbers 21:8)
The Pythia sat on a bronze tripod in the inner chamber of Apollo's temple. Here the spirit of Apollo overcame the Pythia while in a trance state. The trance was induced by hallucinogenic vapors from below the temple or presumably from chewing laurel leaves. Black figure ceramic pieces from ancient Greece show the seated Pythia holding laurel leaves and a divining bowl.
The Pythia could not be approached by the petitioner directly. Those seeking her help first offered sacrifice. The sacrifice was made by the priests of Delphi. Only men were priests. The priest would then present the seeker’s question to the Pythia and the priest would interpret the Pythia's response for the questioner.
Dating back to 1400 B.C., Delphi was the most important shrine in Greece. As with all sacred shrines in the ancient world, Delphi was built at a water source; in this case a natural spring. Delphi was considered the omphalos, the earth’s belly button, or the sacred center of the world.
The Pythia’s services were in high demand by the wealthy and by rulers. She offered advice and wisdom and gave prophesies (oracles), usually in a trance state. People came from all over to present questions to the Pythia. The shrine amassed a great fortune in gold received from rulers and from all the Greek city states. Delphi was also a place where scholars congregated to discuss and debate, and where political rivals met to negotiate, often with the help of the priests and the Pythia.
The Pythia was the seer of Apollo, the “God at Delphi” (tou pythiou). The word "Pythia" is related to the word for serpent – python – and alludes to the dragon slain by Apollo. The origins of serpent oracles is very ancient. The wide dispersion of serpent images on artifacts and in mythologies indicates that serpent veneration is very ancient. Serpents on artifacts range from coiled snakes to fire-breathing winged dragons. Serpent cults entail trances like that described in the account of Appius Claudius Pulcher’s visit to Delphi in Lucan's Civil War (5.64-236).
Connections to African Practices
Flinders Petrie wrote in his book “The Making of Egypt” that the deity Galla had the serpent as his totem. The origin appears to be in the Upper Nile in East Africa, perhaps among the Oromo who are also called Galla. The Delphic shrine dates from 1400 B.C. at which time it was dedicated to Gaia. It is likely that Gaia and Galla are the same deity.
The serpent cult was also found in the Lower Nile. The whole of Lower Egypt venerated Renenutet whose totem was the serpent. She often appeared in the form of a hooded cobra. She was also venerated at Terenuthis (modern Tarrana) north of Cairo in the western delta. It was probably from Terenuthis and Crete that the cult moved into Greece. In the Laws, Plato attributes the serpent cult of Athena to the culture of Crete.
Virgins and Priests
The water shrines of the ancient world were attended by virgins and priests. The virgins were often the unwanted daughters of high ranking persons. A similar practice occured in the Middle Ages when noble families sent unwanted daughters to the monasteries.
Such water shrines are still found in Africa. Osofo Ahadzi, spokemen for Africania Mission (Ghana), explains that women consult deities at the water shrines in order to have children. These children are often pledged to the shrine or to the deity (as Hannah pledged Samuel to God in return for blessing her with a child). Ahadzi says that people who fail to redeem such pledges eventually lose those children.
People come to the shrines for other reasons as well. Ahadzi explains, “If there is a calamity befalling a family and they go back to the divinity or shrine and it is said that such a person should be trained in the shrine to learn the skills and acquire the power of divination to protect the family, that is when that person is devoted to the shrine."
The girls who are presented to serve at the shrines are usually young virgins. Sometimes their families are too poor to provide a marriage dowry. These girls are called "trokosi" and they serve much as undentured servants.
Ofoso Ahadzi says that men may not marry a trokosi without permission from the shrine. This is because the girls are also regarded as spirit wives of the deity. He said marrying a trokosi without going through the proper procedure will bring severe punishment. He recounts the following story to inllustrate:
“There was a situation where the divinity asked one of the keepers not to marry this woman and he decided to go forward and marry. He thought that he was powerful and he went ahead and married. The mother died, he was going and the car had an accident. He died with his wife. In the traditional African religion the commandment is thou must not do this, if you do that you will get your punishment.”
He says, “It is completely out of place for anybody to claim that the keeper of the shrine plays around with the girls. You can’t do that. When you go against any of the regulations, it is not human beings that will punish you. The deity will punish you because all the girls who go in there for training are the daughters and princesses of the divinity. So if you take liberties with them you will be punished.”
Ahadzi said the girls have a good life at the shrine. They are not taken advantage of even though they are expected to provide free labor. He said the chores they perform can be likened to what students are made to do in boarding schools. (Read more about trokosi shrines here.)
In the ancient world, shrine virgins became the daughters of the shrine deity. From among these one emerged as the wife of the deity. This virgin would remain in the position of Pythia or Sibyl until she died or retired around the age of 50. Similarly, nuns in Christian monasticism are regarded as married to Christ.
Related reading: Priests, Shamans and Prophets; Passing Conversation with Priestess Kaeton; Why Women Were Never Priests; Greek Art: From Prehistoric to Classical; The Serpent of Eden; Women Rulers in Ancient Israel; Sacred Mountains and Pillars; Seats of Wisdom