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The “Nature” of the Prophetess: Apocalypse, Patriarchy, and the Feminist Subject

These are presentation notes. Please feel free to knock this around. Authorship is open. Perhaps, if done reasonably quickly, this paper could be submitted to the new CAPAS journal.

Published onAug 30, 2021
The “Nature” of the Prophetess: Apocalypse, Patriarchy, and the Feminist Subject

The “Nature” of the Prophetess

(These are presentation notes. Please feel free to knock this around. Authorship is open. Perhaps, if done reasonably quickly, this paper could be submitted to the CAPAS journal).

Tristan Sturm

How are women, in institutionally and culturally patriarchal christianities, empowered to become celebrated prophets?

to quote Foucault, how is it possible to think that?

How is prophecy a site of struggle between authority and those who resisted it?

Authority of divine origins is “the only place in the history of the West in which a woman speaks and acts so publically.” Writes Luce Irigaray.

Using a genealogy with all of its failures from selectivity and essentialism, and as such any grand history spanning analysis is wide open for critique. I think of this as an exercise to think of both religion as a site of empowerment for women, and to critically think about the historical linkages between nature and women.

Nevertheless, I think the answer, in part, lies in our dualism between culture and nature, famously codified, not invented, by Decartes.

Here men are of culture, of the rational mind, publically active yet reasonable

while women are of nature, irrational and emotional bodies, passively private and yet dangerous.

That women, who are of the body, can be vessels and channel god in a perceived purity.

Men are limited by their reason, unable to receive the spirit.

I think we can find this kind of thinking well prior to Decartes without being presentist.

For Carolyn Merchant in “reinventing Eden” The Fall from Paradise, that lapsarian moment, is caused by a women:

Nature appears in three forms in the Edenic recovery story:

  1. As original Eve, nature is virgin, pure, and light—

  2. As fallen Eve—nature is disorderly and chaotic;

  3. 3. As mother Eve, nature is an improved garden,

So this dualism is present from the outset, a biblical account that sees women as: both purity in nature (the virigin eve) and the chaotic nature (fallen eve).

Here I am thinking of the dualism in revelation, women can be Madonna’s wrapped in the sun, or Whore’s, drinking blood and fornicating. Elizabeth Fiorenza says revelation encourages the reader “to perceive women in terms of good or evil, pure or impure, heavenly or destructive, helpless or powerful, bride or temptress, wife or whore.”

And Blake has given us a representation here, the woman clothed in sun is fearful of the red dragon, good, passive, pure, while the whore has actually dominated the red dragon, she is evil, wild, impure.

Ancients, Oracles, and Virginity:

Katarina Wilson argues “Beliefs in women’s mystical, prophetic, and oracular powers as well as in the female predilection for religious enthusiasm are as old as the record of human history.”

The purity and innocence side of nature is reflected in the signifier of virginity, part of the male subjectivity to control and manipulate women as knowable subjects.

This nexus of prophecy and virginity goes back to oracles in the Greco-Roman period.

Greco-Roman: Pythia the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was a virgin because, to quote Diodorus, “of the uncorrupted state of their nature.” But (because the virgin Pythia was prone to being raped) was later replaced by older women who would be adorned with the accoutrements of a virgin. We see thing young vs old “virigin” theme appear again and again.

Similarly the Sibyls, pagan prophetess’ of antiquity, was an aged women and as such a “functional” virgins.

Thus virginity is associated to purity. Thus the closer to a deity, the greater need for sexual purity of body-nature. Such prophecies were often recounted as a penetration by god of a priestess, and invading force.

Moving to the bible:

For early Christianity, the holy spirit could be received by anyone, and therefore it is not surprising that is where we encounter women.

Barara Rossig writes “prophecy provided perhaps the most prominent mode in which women exercised leadership, from the outset of the movement and continued well into the second century of the common era”

Lk 2:36, Anna “had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage”, seven years after her virginity, conceivably she was then a functional virgin, her womb closed up.

Acts 21:9 Luke says the evangelist Philp has “four unmarried daughters who engaged in prophecy. “

Isa 8:3, Mary “I went to the prophetess”.

Some argue that Luke refrains from calling Mary a prophet because of “reluctance to attribute the title of prophet to women in early Christianity.” 270

Mary D’Angelo aregues Luke’s reluctance stems from ancient prejudices toward oriental religion and Judaism in particular with magical (especially Greek inspired) practices among female adherents. Thus the association with women prophets and virgins in particular, was seen as magical may explain his hesitancy. Thus it was considered pagan to associate prophecy with virginity.

From Acts 16:16 Luke is familiar with the tradition of Pythian spirit of divination. The young women in 16:16 is possessed by the Greek Pythian spirit.

Medieval Period: BACK TO THE BODY

The mystic, writes Jacques Lacan, “is by no means that which is not political. It is something serious, which a few people teach us about, and most often women.”

Laurie Finke argues that women’s linguistic empowerment was tied to ideas about the body in the Medieval period.

13th century women were more likely than men to be spiritual leaders based on their mystical experiences.

Petroff writes “Visions were a socially sanctioned activity that freed a woman from conventional female roles by identifying her as a genuine religious figure. They brought her the attention of others, giving her a public language she could use to teach and learn. Her visions gave her the strength to grow internally and to change the world, to build convents, found hospitals, preach, attack injustice and greed, even within the church.”

But Why would the church encourage or tolerate women when they would undermine patriarchal authority?

It seems like, In part at least, because women represented fleshy evil, a scapegoat to purge the church itself of bodily-cum-nature corruption.

Women’s bodies are not proportional, they have orifices, they were perceived as porous.

Laurie Finke reminds us this apropotionality marks the emotionalism so often attributed to female piety, its so-called affective nature, as compared to the rationalistic nature of male piety, may be expressed through violence on the bodytears, elaborate injuries, screams, howls.

For the female mystic, Finke argues, the only means of escaping her body was to indulge in an obsessive display or tears, tongues, howls.

However through technologies of the self, as a method of consolidating power and authority, the body-nature nexus might have been women’s only way to gain authority in their church. But can the subaltern speak?

Finke thinks this mystical experience was highly structured and it was the Church that had provided both structure and content. In other words, prophecy channeled through women was highly orchestrated, performed, and on male terms. I quote, “they could claim no spiritual authority in and of themselves….. Rather the source of the mystic’s inspiration was divine; she was merely the receptacle, the instrument of a divine will.”

But less cynically than Finke, Janelle Dickens’ The Female Mystic (2009) argues medieval women were theologically knowledgable and creative, just as their better known male contemporaries. Men didn’t have a monopoly.

Dickens’ conclusion is possible within the new Feminist medieval scholarship which attempts to depathologize and recontextualize the experience of medieval women. . After all, remarks Chris Weedon, “feminist criticism seeks to privilege feminist interest in the understanding and transformation of partriarchy. How the feminist critic fixes meaning will depend on the framework within which she reads a text.”

In other words, it is possible to read medieval women prophets as feminist actors of resistance rather than subjugated by male institutionalism.

17th Century

By the 17th century, Phyliss Mack argues, the traditional feminine cults of Mary had been jettisoned, the traditional feminine qualities of humility, receptivity, emotionalism, and of course naturalism remained appropriate to express their spiritual values, ie, “spiritual nakedness” was often a feminine virtue. P. 19

The 17th century body, for Puritans and Anglicans, was spiritual. The body reflected in texture, aroma, color, were all reflections of a spiritual state.

Women were more “porous, moist, and spongy,” susceptible to pollution of the animal body into the mind.

Bodily tears for example, had sacramental significance: a tangible sign of inward repentant grace, thus the visionary Sarah Wright was more efficacious for uttered prophecy through tears.

To quote Mack: “Women were also portrayed as liminal creatures inhabiting a no-man’s-land of natural and spiritual forces that had nothing to do with culture… A women was thought to have an inner essence or imagination that could careen over the widest emotional and spiritual landscape, all the way to a union with God and an identification with cosmic wisdom, or, in the other direction, to suicidal direction, to suicidal insanity or possession by demons.”

Women were lustful, irrational, and emotional but also agents

What made them susceptible to channeling god was that teetering between good and evil, mind and body, god and demon possession. So here we can see prophecy as a kind of possession.

Women’s speech itself was considered dangerous and powerful, which led to mistrust of women’s cleverness because, “the mere presence of an active female brain,” Mack Writes “embedded in an untrustworthy body, was the sign of a tendency to lasciviousness or witchcraft.”

Women’s speech was duplicitous and could create disorder.

Because of that association of smart women being subversive, women prophets were often described as “dumb”. Meaning here both stupid and mute, empty of everything but God.

Derived from the classical tradition of the “vates,” the visionary as an empty receptacle for divine inspiration, as well as the Christian tradition of paradox, whereby god is the lowest, the last shall be first. Is at work here

Thus all women had a clear spiritual advantage over men. Women’s weakness and their purity was less likely to interfere with their capacity to act as receptors for the divine spiritual energy emanating from heaven.

The prophet Joan Drake who for a decade thought she was damned, though ridiculed for her mind, her soul was envied by her ministers. One of whom remarked, “in her conversations with God she used neither ideas nor mediations; but was in an admirable vacuity of all desire of knowing either this or that; having no will of her own.”

When Joan Drake died, it was thought that her body was restored to virginity, a return to good nature.


Women made up 5% of preachers in the Millerite movement, and were among the most popular.

Catherine Brekus writes that unlike other Christian movements, the women prophets within the movement were considered female “fanatics”. While the preachers were said to be “intelligent and sensible”.

Millerites believed every event was divine prophetic significance, the fact that women drew large crowds meant God’s blessing. Thus they took on a male role, subverting the nature argument I have made.

Saving souls was more important than women’s traditional values.

But importantly, Women were permitted also BECAUSE of their gender. They identified female preaching as a sign of the coming apocalypse refereeing to Joel’s prophetic description “and it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

Women standing on the pulpit had cosmic significance: women were living symbol of the last days.bodies represented prophecy.

On the whole, most non-millerites attributed these preachers to ‘fallen’ women, I quote “it was immodest for ladies to be studying and explaining the prophecies”. Because of course prophecy is a male preoccupation, it is violence, the key to protecting the family. – here we get into how many modern protestants in the 19th-20th century would understand of the gender of prophecy.

Detractors of millerites thought they didn’t respect the distinction between masculine and feminine, and turned women into men. And men were considered effeminate, at a time when work was masculine, they were considered lazy for closing their shops and no longer working waiting for the end.

After the great disappointment in 1844, many splinter groups broke off, and at least 8 women preachers continued to tour until their deaths, some extending the deadline further into the future.

including the Sabbath keepers, or what became the Seventh-Day Adventists. Under the leadership of Ellen White.

In December 1844 White claimed to have received her first revelation from God. Only 17 years old, she began preaching to Millerite churches in 1844, and married in 1846.

She became a well-known lecturer after her children left home in 1863.

Women preachers were no longer a sign of the millennium because threatened the stability of the family. But importantly White would have been considered a functional virgin by 1963, asexual, pure again to channel god’s will.

Carolyn merchants conceptualization three ways women are conceptualized as of nature fit White’s transition:

1. As original Eve, nature is virgin, pure, and light—

2. 2 As fallen Eve—nature is disorderly and chaotic;

3. 3. As mother Eve, nature is an improved garden,

In Conclusion

Lee Quinby in Anti-Apocalypse argues that [within] the masculinist concept of femininity in which womanhood is defined as both innocent and fallen, man’s savior and destroyer, nature becomes a dichotomized feminine force that follows the angel/demon duality” 86

That women’s bodies from antiquity were thought of as vessels of purity, of nature, seems to be a common thread up to the early 20th century.

though vastly essentialist, selective, and generalist, I don’t want to suggest it the only thread. Certainty there is a multiplicity of historical and geographical cultural contextually.

But what prophecy may have offered women is a form of authority within oppressive patriarchal institutions of religion.

Derrida reminds us in his essay “of Apocalyptic Tone recently adopted in Philosophy” (1984), who claims an apocalyptic tone, claims a truth, a prophetic truth.

And truth as well as faith, as Foucault has cemented in our 21st century brains, is always a question of power and authority.


Thus is a feminist apocalypse or Book of Revelation possible? No.

Mary Wilson Carpenter believes there cannot be a “feminist apocalypse” because apocalypse may be unable to dispense with the violence because that violence—a gendered violence—may be what is at stake in the vision of apocalyptic power.”

Carpenter says Revelation is expurgination of male sexual anxiety through exploitation of the sexual other: women.

Warren Johnston 2009.

Thus asserting their indivudal rights in “terms of a hierarchial chain of command.” But as all of these scholars have observed, in order to participate as prophet, even in tongues, they had to speak the langauge of a man.

Thus is a feminist apocalypse or Book of Revelation possible?

Militaristic vision of apocalypse (patriarchal apocalypse) vs apocalypse of imagination (gay apocalypse). , where the latter is a countercultural apocalypse, and held to underwrite a program of political change and cultural reform, the former is about lack of change, stability, spanning the spectrum of homosocial relations invested in male supremacy.

“revelation’s violence is a representation of a continuing power dynamic of gender and sexuality in Western culture” As Foucault put it, “the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse’”.

“revelation transfer to the female body the horror of sexuality, consuming that body both by eating and by fire.”

Christ as the lamb, writes Abela Collins (Crisis and Catharsis), is overshadowed by Christ as judge and warrior.

Within Revelation, Collins and Fiorza, state the author of revelation abuses the prophetess he names Jezebel, “her authority seems to have at least equalled that of John whom, in turn, she might have perceived as a false prophet.”

Thus the idea here is that Revelation is might more plausibly be about political interests and divisions within Christianity rather than peg them against imperial persecution. Thus the fear of persecution was used as a kind og shock doctrine, to use the parlence of our times, to solidfy the movement through fear of persecution thus excluding others, potentially female voices.

Revelation 2:4”nevertheless I have somewhat against thee because thou hast left thy first love….” And 2:9 “I knowthe blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan”Satan is inside and outside, in the midst of the faithful.

They allowa woman, “Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess,” to teach in the community. Jezebel has been gieven “space” to repent, but since she hasn’t she is threatened with violent consequences: “behold, I will cast her into a bed and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts….” (2:20-23). The church of Thyatira is thus threatened for its tolerance of a woman preacher, and in return for giving up this egalitarianism is specifically promised the reward of a phallic power (the rod of iron) over the nations.

The woman clothed with the sun has sometimes been read as figuring a kind of feminist power. But in Revelation she functions to provide a male heir who is to rule with a ‘rod of iron’ and who is immediately caught up to God, after which the women retreats to the wilderness. She is a figure not of maternal power, but paternal power. Her single function is bodily, the facilitation of exchange between men through her reproductive capacity.

Whore of Babylon with her cup of “abominations and filthiness of her fornication” locus of sexual evil. 17:4

Fleshy indolugence, drunk of blood. Women are wine. Ch 18 is all about the destruction and burning and eating the whore.

Jane Gallop using Lacan argues, of course the signifier phallus functions in distinction from the signifier penis. But it also always referes to penis.”

The whore of Babylon is not a whore but a city only reinstates our understanding that the city is not a city but a whore.

Carpenter says Revelation is expurgination of mae sexual anxiety through exploitation of the sexual other: women.

Second wave feminism promises a revolution, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), where we are sexless and equal, third wave feminism asks us to seek truth in the wilderness of difference itself.

Thus can apocalypse be nonhierarchical and nonviolent?



Apophasis: the rhetorical strategy of approaching a subject by denying its existence, or denying that it can be described. The foundational apophatic writer in the Christian mystical tradition was Dionysius the Areopagite, who stated in the fifth or sixth century that only “by knowing nothing, one knows beyond the mind.” Six centuries later, Meister Eckhart, influenced by Dionysius and likely by Porete, described God as the “negation of the negation.”

Norwich recorded these visions and others in her book Revelations of Divine Love (1395), the first known book written in English by a woman.

Hollywood explains: “Throughout pre- and early modern Christianity, women were associated with the body, its porousness, openness, and vulnerability. Female bodies were believed to be more labile and changeable, more subject to affective shifts, and more open to penetration, whether by God, demons, or other human beings.” This engendered a “slide, from claims to women’s spiritual penetrability to that of her physical penetrability” and vice versa.

The argument that there is biological basis for the female experience of being-in-world as being-with-other is not uncommon. For instance, philosopher Nancy Hartsock writes in her foundational 1980s text on the “Feminist Standpoint”: “There are a series of boundary challenges inherent in the female physiology—challenges which make it impossible to maintain rigid separation from the object world. Menstruation, coitus, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—all represent challenges to bodily boundaries.”

Hartsock argues further that these “boundary challenges … [take] place in such a way that empathy is built into [women’s] primary definition of self, and they have a variety of capacities for experiencing another’s needs or feelings as their own … more continuous with and related to the external object world.”

According to Kraus, “Weil’s detractors saw her, a female, acting on herself, as masochistic.” But Weil was, despite all dismissive diagnoses, “arguing for an alien-state, using subjectivity as a means of breaking down time and space.”

Notes from Heidelberg workshop:

Silvia fedirici witches

Anna trapnol – cornwall

The Wise Wound: mestration Penelope shuttle

Not just contextualization of gender rleations in each period but also importantly how the body is conceptualized!!! Historicized, Foucault emergence of new kind of biopolitics

Julia kristiva the abject.

Donna Haraway cyborg manifesto

A picture containing text, person, screenshot Description automatically generated

Plato: women prophet what is love, what is prophecy and what is the meaning of life in the famous symposium.

God’s will the inbetweenness goddess and women, male and female,

Prophet and witch, both possessed, both equivalent between good and evil, they become a tool in difference between perception, and methodological tool to understand.

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