The rotting goddess
by Noel Rooney
[ bookreviews ]
Once in very long while you come across a book that stops you right in your tracks. The Rotting Goddess is a slim volume on a huge subject, which somehow manages to encapsulate the subject, and say something profoundly original, in the time it takes most writers to wind up their egos for the introduction.
Rabinowitz charts a journey, more properly a descent, from divinity to defamation. Starting with the Anatolian Hecate, a goddess who serves as a nodal link between the universal triple goddess of Neolithic antiquity and the particulated personnel of the Parnassian canon, he shows how the witch is less an invention than an accretion, a set of mundane attributes attached like patination to what is both ancient in the memory and new in the mythopoeia of civilised fears.
If Hecate is a shrunk version of the great She, then the witch is a decomposed imago of the fallen goddess. Or to put it another way, as we limit the world’s abundance through primitive rationality, our simplified psychic environment is pestered by everything we have left behind. But, rather as UFOs fit the pattern of the contemporary imagination rather than appear in consistent form, the witch takes on the characteristics we need to fear; so the Greek witch (to the extent that there is such a thing) is a semi-divine worker of herbal miracle cures, but the late Roman version (she is an established motif by now) is a foul-mouthed speaker of curses.
Rabinowitz takes us from triple goddess to two-faced charlatan, from herbal healer to pustulent promiscuity, in a few breathtakingly succinct passages. He demonstrates that this is a largely literary and iconographic process, in the sense that poets, artist and commentators fix the witch’s persona at every turn, using her engineered bathos to counterpoint their patent fear of the real goddess, with malicious gratitude.
Perhaps they intuited what Rabinowitz articulates; that no amount of badmouthing will dislodge Hecate, or any of her benighted descendants and antigones, from the axis tree. What Raboniwitz calls the “steady demonization of originally benign traits” can only obscure the divine origins of the witch.
Why this dislocation from origins? Rabinowitz points to the dualism inherent in Greek religion; the schizophrenia induced from mixed parentage, part ancient attic, part indo-european. We are reminded that this is a taboo area by the long delay between Hecate slipping from the canon and the first literary instance of witchcraft as we might recognise it, a gap of nearly half a millennium (until the second idyll of Theokritos, the first description of witchcraft in western literature).
Dualism fuels a dynamic in Greek thought and religious practice; the Appollonian/Dionysian split manifests in periods of repression for the mysteries, and their rejuvenation in late antiquity. And Plato’s eternal dialectic with Aristotle speaks to the same tension, the sky-earth polarity which inhabits and inhibits all attic efforts at the sublime.
The Rotting Goddess is an object lesson in the three things a writer should do. First, know the subject - Rabinowitz has a magisterially broad compass; second, understand your own argument - nowhere in this book does the reader get the impression that the author is inconsistent in thought or logic; and third, only write as much as you need to - there is hardly a spare word, let alone a superfluous page, in this magnificent volume.
Even if you don’t want to know how the witch came to be, buy this book and find out how to write properly; you’ll have generations of grateful reviewers, if nothing else.