Ancient Mothers of Judaism: Sarai
Ancient Mothers of Judaism: Sarai

Sarai (or Sarah)The “birth” of Judaism (and Islam) is actually a story about the intertwining lives of two Ancient Mothers: Sarai and Hagar. Sarai, or “the princess,” was the half-sister and wife to Abraham, patriarch and Ancient Founding Father of Judaism (Genesis 20:12). Sarai is the most well-known Ancient Mother of Judaism and her marital rank marks an important cultural aspect of ancient Hebrew life because it demonstrated Sarai’s elevated status. It could also imply her role as a priestess in accordance with the ancient Mesopotamian culture and traditions she most likely was born into and how Hagar, an Egyptian princess, became Sarai’s shifhah or, roughly translated, owned companion / handmaid (Teubal, 1984: 1990). Scripture notes that Sarai acquired Hagar after Sarai herself had been brought to Egypt to be a slave-concubine in the house of the Pharaoh until God intervened and Pharaoh released Sarai, but not before bestowing a large quantity of gifts upon her, including Hagar (Genesis 12).Following this narrative, Sarai and Hagar and Abraham traveled together for approximately ten years before the question of children (or heirs) arose (Teubal, 1990). Hebrew Scripture states that Sarai was unable to bear children herself, although controversy exists as to whether this implies that Sarai was literally unable to become pregnant or if it was a socio-cultural description of her possible status as a priestess-wife in which she was forbidden to become pregnant (Teubal, 1984; 1990). Regardless, Sarai proposed a surrogate solution: that Abraham have intercourse with Hagar so that Hagar could bring forth a child for Sarai to claim as her own (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 16:2; Teubal, 1990). Bloodlines were traced through the mother in the ancient Mesopotamian culture of Sarai and the ancient Egyptian culture of Hagar which meant that having children ensured the preservation of culture, the family unit, and the woman’s lineage (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Teubal, 1990). Having a subordinate serve as a surrogate mother was a practice sometimes utilized in ancient civilizations and this process was controlled by the higher-ranking woman, not by her husband (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Teubal, 1990).Hagar and Abraham fulfilled Sarai's request which quickly led to Hagar becoming pregnant. Tensions rose in this new situation, however, as Hagar felt more empowered when she was with child and regarded Sarai as more of an equal rather than as her superior (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; Teubal, 1984; 1990). Since becoming a mother marked a woman’s foothold in maintaining her cultural honor and security, it wasn’t uncommon for the primary wife to take measures to ensure her domestic power was not usurped (Bird, 1974; Teubal, 1990; Trible, 2003). This was true for Sarai who first became angry at Abraham, whom she believed had encouraged Hagar’s disregard for her, and then Sarai took measures to reassert her authority over Hagar (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; Teubal, 1990). Hagar rejected Sarai’s attempt to re-establish her superior status and left the tent of Sarai, only to have a spiritual intercession with God who told her to return to Sarai (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; 16:7-14; Teubal, 1990). Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael, although conflicting theories exist as to who Ishmael is considered an heir to: Sarai or Abraham?Several years later another very interesting event occurred. Genesis 18 recounts that Abraham and Sarai receive travelers into their dwelling, one of whom was God in disguise. During this time God enters into a covenant with Sarai promising her that, despite her advanced age, she will become a birth mother of a great patriarch. Sarai privately laughs at that thought but God then asks why she laughed. It is during this interaction that Sarai accepts divine intervention (and religious conversion) and it comes to pass that she births a son, Issac (Genesis, 18; Teubal, 1990). The arrival of Issac, however, challenges the existing “heir” situation with Ishmael in terms of inheritance so Sarai rejects Ishmael as an heir and, according to the Hebrew narrative, Hagar and Ishmael are forced to leave (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 21:8-13). Their departure ensures two things: that they are granted their freedom and that Ishmael is no longer eligible for an inheritance (Teubal, 1984).Yet this is not the end of Sarai’s story nor of Hagar’s.* For Sarai, God fulfilled the promise that she would become a mother of one of God’s chosen patriarchs, Isaac, and, with this event, Sarai’s roles as primary wife and mother to the Hebrew/Jewish nation brought forth by Isaac’s descendants affirmed the existing cultural framework for ancient Jewish women. But perhaps even more importantly, this event marked Sarai as a prominent female historical figure in a covenant with God in her own right (Young, 2013). As a matriarch, Sarai’s story exemplifies the importance of women in religious accounts and exemplifies “the strength and courage of God’s chosen agents'' (Stowasser, 1994). Neither Judaism nor Islam would have been established without Sarai.(*See the “Ancient Mothers of Islam” for more about Hagar’s story)Works CitedBird, P. (1974). Images of women in the Old Testament. In Ruether, R. R. (Ed.), Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (pp.41-88). New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.Frymer-Kensky, T. (2002). Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of theirStories. New York, NY: Schocken Books.Stowasser, B.F. (1994). Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Teubal, S. J. (1984). Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.Teubal, S. J. (1990). The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs: Hagar the Egyptian. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.Trible, P. (2003). Genesis 22: The sacrifice of Sarah. In J. M. Soskice, & D. Lipton (Eds.),Feminism and Theology (pp. 144-154). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc. Young, S. (Ed.). (1993). An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women. New York, NY:The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Ancient Mothers of Islam: Hagar
Ancient Mothers of Islam: Hagar

HagarThe “birth” of Islam (and Judaism) is actually a story about the interwining lives of two Ancient Mothers: Hagar and Sarai. Hagar, an Egyptian princess, whom her father (the Pharaoh) had “given” to Sarai (Ancient Mother of Judaism) was considered Sarai’s property, not the concubine or slave of Sarai’s husband, Abraham (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Teubal, 1990). Some controversy exists as to exactly what status Hagar employed in relation to Sarai, whether it was that of Sarai’s shifhah, roughly translated this means “owned companion” or handmaid which was a higher social rank than slave, or if Hagar’s rank was actually that of a slave (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; Teubal, 1990).What can be determined is that Hagar, despite being a lower social rank than Sarai, played a vital role in the religious emergence accounts of Islam and Judaism (Young, 2013). She, like Abraham and Sarai, entered into a covenant with God who saved her and her son, Ishmael, in the wilderness after being forced to leave Sarai and Abraham. This is significant because Hagar is depicted as the one woman who had a direct relationship with God rather than an understanding of God via a male religious leader (Young, 2013).In this narrative, and after being given to Sarai, Hagar traveled with Sarai and Abraham for about ten years before the question of children (or heirs) arose (Teubal, 1990). Hebrew Scripture states that Sarai, the the primary wife of Abraham, was unable to bear children herself so she proposed that Abraham have intercourse with her “owned companion,” Hagar, so that Hagar could bring forth a child for Sarai to claim as her own (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 16:2; Teubal, 1990). Bloodlines were traced through the mother in the ancient Mesopotamian culture of Sarai and the ancient Egyptian culture of Hagar which meant that having children ensured the preservation of culture, the family unit, and the woman’s lineage (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Teubal, 1990). Having a subordinate serve as a surrogate mother was a practice sometimes utilized in ancient civilizations and this process was controlled by the higher-ranking woman, not by her husband (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Teubal, 1990). Thus, Hagar and Abraham fulfilled Sarai's request which quickly led to Hagar becoming pregnant. Tensions rose in this new situation, however, as Hagar felt more empowered when she was with child and regarded Sarai as more of an equal rather than as her superior (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; Teubal, 1990). Because of her boldness, Hagar was subject to diminutive actions by Sarai whose goal was to reassert her authority over Hagar (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; Teubal, 1990).Hebrew Scripture goes on to say that, spurred by Sarai’s abusive actions, Hagar ran away but encountered God who insisted she return back to Sarai (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 15:3-6; 16:7-14; Teubal, 1990). It is in this spiritual interaction that Hagar both names God - she is noted as the first historical agent to do so - and she enters into a covenant with God who promises that a great nation will arise from her child (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 16:13; Teubal, 1990; Trible, 1984). Hagar does indeed return to Sarai and Abraham and gives birth to Ishmael. Years later, however, when Sarai births Issac and rejects Ishmael as an heir, Hagar and Ishmael are forced to leave (Frymer-Kensky, 2002; Genesis 21:8-13; Teubal 1984). Their departure ensures two things: that they are granted their freedom and that Ishmael is no longer eligible for an inheritance (Teubal, 1984).Yet this is not the end of Hagar’s story, nor Sarai’s.* As Hagar and Ishmael struggled in the wilderness, Hebrew Scripture says that God protected them and provided for them, ensuring that Hagar became mother to the Muslim nation rendered by Ishmael’s descendants (Genesis 21:14-21). Muslims honor her status as mother to both Ishmael and to the Arab nation, a woman who was an exemplary follower of Allah because her faith saved both her and her son (Hāshimī, 2005; Ibn Hisham & Guillame, 1967). Hagar remains the first female to receive the divine promise of multiple descendants, a covenant typically reserved for patriarchs of Israel (Eskenazi & Weiss, 2008; Genesis 16:10; Trible, 1984).Hagar further anchored Islam centuries later when Muhammad (The Prophet) traced his lineage back to Hagar, Abraham, and Ishmael in order to strengthen his religious advocacy for Islam (Ibn Hisham & Guillame, 1967; Qur’an 3:383-385; Stowasser, 1994). In this capacity, Hagar represents the first Muslim who completed the Hajj (or pilgrimage to Mecca), which became one of Islam’s Five Pillars of Faith (or religious tenets) (Hāshimī, 2005, 28). Additionally, the Ka’ba - or holiest shrine in Mecca, the Muslim holy city - marks the site upon which Hagar received divine intervention. Century after century devout Muslims have made yearly pilgrimages to this area in order to retrace her steps.Hagar’s role as a matriarch and as the one who names God exemplifies her importance in the religious accounts of Islam and Judaism as well as models her “strength and courage [as one] of God’s chosen agents'' (Stowasser, 1994). Without Hagar, neither Islam nor Judaism would have been established.(*See the “Ancient Mothers of Judaism” for more on Sarai’s story)Works CitedEskenazi, T.C. & Weiss, A.L. (2008). Torah: A Women’s Commentary. New York, NY: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism.Frymer-Kensky, T. (2002). Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of theirStories. New York, NY: Schocken Books.Hāshimī, M.A. (2005). The Ideal Muslimah: The True Islamic Personality of the Muslim Woman as Defined in the Qur'an and Sunnah [Shakhṣīyat al-marʾah al-Muslimah] (al-Khattab, N. Trans.). Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House.Ibn Hisam, A. & Guillaume, A. (1967). The Life of Muhammad: A Translation [from Ibn Hisham's adaptation] of Ishaq's Sirat rasul Allah. London: Oxford University Press.Stowasser, B.F. (1994). Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretations. New York, NY:Oxford University Press.Teubal, S. J. (1984). Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis. Athens, OH: SwallowPress.Teubal, S. J. (1990). The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs: Hagar the Egyptian. New York, NY:Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.Trible, P. (2003). Genesis 22: The sacrifice of Sarah. In J. M. Soskice, & D. Lipton (Eds.),Feminism and Theology (pp. 144-154). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc. Young, S. (Ed.). (1993). An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women. New York, NY:The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Ancient Mothers of Christianity: Mary, Daughter of Anne
Ancient Mothers of Christianity: Mary, Daughter of Anne

Mary (Daughter of Anne)Mary is often identified by both her role as a mother and her sexual status as a “virgin” in the Christian narrative. She is referred to as the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the wife of Joseph, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, to name a few. Yet, it is important to remember that first and foremost, she was the daughter of Anne. Mary serves as an integral component of the Christian emergence accounts since the story of Jesus begins with her and even into modern times she continues to serve as a divine icon or image worshiped by Christians (Hopfe & Woodward, 2012; Young, 2013).In this narrative, Mary became the first Christian disciple through motherhood. Scripture places an emphasis on her sexual status as a “virgin mother” to exemplify her faithful acceptance of divine intervention –– or divine annunciation –– in converting her young chaste womb to that of a pregnant one (Luke 1:26-38, 46:55; Matthew 1:18-25; Qur’an 3:367, 14:1321). Reflecting Jewish domestic expectations set centuries earlier by Sarai, Mary’s role of mother and spouse recounts little of her family history as a person in her own right (Rubin, 2009), outside of connecting her ancestry to Sarah and Abraham (Yazdi & Ali, 1995). Unfortunately, Scripture also only sparingly mentions her role as mother and caregiver (Luke 2:44-48), her faith in her son’s ministry (Luke 2:34-35), and her presence at Jesus’s death (John 19:25-26). Mary’s intermittent insertions throughout the life of her son forces the bulk of her account in Christianity to rest on her virgin sexual status since this –– in addition to the account of her own immaculate conception added centuries later (New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003; Qur’an 3:355-356) –– legitimized the divinity of Jesus in human form.Nevertheless, Mary is an integral symbolic component of Christianity both on a local and global scale. When she accepted the responsibility of a divine being born of only her flesh (Galatian 4:4; McNamara, 1996; Rubin 2009), Mary became the first convert to this new religion, later called Christianity. Her actions supporting Christianity, as recalled in the brief patches of scripture depicting Mary’s persona, created the foundation for the religion itself and has swelled over the centuries to embody Mary herself as a demi-goddess (Anderson & Zinsser, 1998). Through the spread of Catholicism and missionary work, she became a feminine icon, one whom believers could identify with, and this symbolism aided in religious conversions around the world. Throughout history she has served as a representative of motherhood, purity, victory, consolation, and protection, as well as a female intercessor to whom mortal women could relate to (Anderson & Zinsser, 1998; McNamara, 1996; Rubin, 2009; Young, 1993; Wiesner-Hanks, 2010).Works CitedAnderson, B.S. & Zinsser, J.P. (1988). A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present. (Vol.1). New York, NY: Harper and Row.McNamara, J. A. (1996). Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.Rubin, M. (2009). Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Wiesner-Hanks, M.E. (2010). Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.Yazdi, A., & Ali, S. (1995). Introduction. The Holy Qur'an (A. Yazdi, S Ali Trans.). (2nd ed.,pp. 7a-173a). Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc.Young, S. (Ed.). (1993). An Anthology of Sacred Texts by and about Women. New York, NY:The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Ancient Mothers of Christianity: Mary of Magdala
Ancient Mothers of Christianity: Mary of Magdala

Mary of Magdala (or Mary Magdalene)Mary, a woman from Magdala, was more than an interested party in the ministry of Jesus according to Christian scriptures and texts. As an ancient mother of Christianity in her own right, Mary Magdalene held the status of being a devout disciple of Jesus, the one favored by Jesus above all others (The Gospel of Mary, 2006). She was one of the few to stay with Jesus to the end and also one of a small group of women to see Jesus resurrected after his crucifixion in the Christian accounts (Luke 24:1-11; Matthew 28:1-10; Young, 2013). In fact, Mary of Magdala is noted as the first one to see the resurrected Jesus (John 20:14-18; Gospel of Mary, 2006; Mark 16:9-11). Her actions as a disciple, teacher, and preacher solidified the foundations of Christianity as much as –– if not more than –– the male disciples. According to the Gospel of Mary (2006), her status as “beloved one” indicated that she was the one who the other disciples – both male and female – turned to for guidance after Jesus’s death (The Gospel of Mary, 2006).In this narrative, Mary of Magdala was a preacher, prophetess, teacher, and Christian leader because of her unwavering acceptance and understanding of Jesus’ teachings (The Gospel of Mary, 2006). The symbolic representations of Mary Magdalene over the centuries have centered on portraying her as a woman with whom new and potential converts seeking forgiveness might identify with (Ruether, 2006; Wiesner-Hanks, 2010).Works CitedRuether, R.R. (2006). Introduction. The Gospel of Mary [The complete gospels] (K. L. KingTrans.). (pp. 5). Newark, VT: Janus Press.The Gospel of Mary (2006). [The complete gospels] (K. L. King Trans.). Newark, VT: JanusPress.Wiesner-Hanks, M.E. (2010). Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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Welcome to the “Ancient Religious Mothers”Art Gallery Resource!

Learning about world religions is an essential and important part of our education as cultural beings living in a multicultural world and this resource is designed to help everyone on that journey, regardless of how much you may (or may not) already know about the Ancient Mothers.

First and foremost, the goal of this professionally researched and carefully curated digital collection is to portray the Ancient Mothers accurately as pillars of their respective religions and to help dispel racist and sexist myths that surround the Mothers. This means to see them as they were: North African / Southwest Asian women of color whose experiences, actions, and strength helped lay the foundations for the emergence of their respective religions and whose stories continue to fortify those religions.

This collection also serves as a strong counter-narrative to the inaccurate traditional (dominant) narrative that all religious founders were white males. Despite the persistent lingering of this incorrect perspective, we know that all of these Ancient Mothers continue to serve as powerful symbols of their respective religions today and deserve to be represented as such.

As you virtually wander through this resource, notice that each collection includes a brief overview about the Mother it highlights. These overviews provide Gallery visitors with some general background information on the Mother; they are not complete biographies, however. Scholars and historians are still piecing together what scant knowledge exists about many of the Ancient Mothers as patriarchal power structures have diminished much of the religious experiences of women as matriarchs and spiritual beings in their own right. This means that we need to dig deeper, ask tough questions, and have reflective conversations to truly begin to understand who the Ancient Mothers may have been.

Use this Art Gallery resource to help engage in those questions, conversations, and critical thinking skills! Let the Ancient Mothers and beautiful artwork speak to you, show reflections of you, and help you question existing, traditional narratives. Access the “Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Religious Mothers Art Gallery” for additional information, ideas, tips, and examples of how to successfully navigate through both the Gallery and your own personal reflection journey.

With deep gratitude, we, the creators of The Ancient Religious Mothers Art Gallery, celebrate all national and global participating artists and their courage to bring art into our world. This Art Gallery would not exist without our Artists’ generosity and goodwill and we are humbled and honored to be able to collaborate with each one of them. Thank you, our wonderful Artists!

*NOTE: Visitors, please respect the copyright of each artwork. If interested in a specific artwork, use the artwork’s “Credit Line” hyperlink to contact the Artist (as appropriate). This Art Gallery Resource adheres to the standards and guidelines of the College Art Association regarding Intellectual Property & the Arts and Fair Use for the Visual Arts.

Finally, enjoy this resource and thank you for visiting. If you have any questions, concerns, or wish to serve as a participating artist, please contact Dr. Erica Barnett at erica.barnett@snc.edu.