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Goddess

At the most basic level, a goddess is a female Deity. Male Deities are known as gods. A great many cultures have their own goddesses, sometimes alone, but more often as part of a larger pantheon that includes both genders. The Goddess is a female version of God; although followers of the Goddess are not necessarily monotheist.

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Terms

goddess

(small 'g') is a local, or specific deity, linked clearly to a particular place and probably to particular powers (e.g. Athene, supervisory goddess of Athens, goddess of wisdom, war and craft[?] technology esp. weaving.) Goddesses are studied by anthropologists who note that many goddesses are viewed as a personal guardian or teacher.

The Goddess, the Great Goddess, or Goddess

(capital G) refers to a deity who spans many cultures and places, and many powers. Goddess may be so all encompassing as to be apparently contradictory (eg Kali-ma[?], originally of Bengal, India, Terrible Mother of the destructive forces of Time, and yet Benevolent Mother who protects her children.) Goddess may sometimes be used strategically to dislodge an unwelcome dominance by monotheist male Deity, and her greatness and complexity tends to invoke the skills of thealogy. Although Goddess appears to mirror monotheism, the term is frequently used for an inclusive spirituality that may embrace the God, gods, goddesses, ancestral spirits, faerie etc. When Goddess is spoken of as a personal guardian, as in 'my Goddess' it means 'my worldview in Goddess spirituality.' The Goddess is also followed by Wiccans and Discordants.

God/dess, God/ess, Godde

Methods of trying to include both female and male divinity in one word.

Goddessing

Goddessing is a recent (unattributed) contribution to Goddess vocabulary, following on from Mary Daly's original suggestion that Deity is too dynamic, too much in process, changing continually, to be a noun, and should better be spoken as a Verb. We can refer to goddessing meaning Goddess culture, Goddess way of life, Goddess practice, or 'my goddessing' as in my individual interpretation and experience of Goddess.

Thealogy

Thealogy is 'reflection on the divine in feminine or feminist terms' Caron 1992. It was first proposed by Naomi Goldenberg 1976. Frequently used to mean analysis of Goddess thought and mysticism, it can also be used more liberally to mean any kind of divine, not just deity divine, as in meditation, ethics, ritual pragmatics.

Polytheism & monotheism

Polytheist cultures (who recognise many deities as forms of the divine) such as Hinduism, and most ancestral religions, have no difficulty in including female deities. This does not necessarily mean that women's status in those cultures is any better than in others, as the current situation of Indian women shows. In "women's religions" surprisingly, a Goddess is not typical, although such religions certainly never centre on a monotheist God (Sered "Goddess, Mother, Sacred Sister" 1996) and often lack deities as Westerners understand them.

For monotheist cultures (who recognise only one central deity) it is much more difficult to recognise Goddess; recent history has overwhelmingly presented single Deity as male, constantly using the masculine pronoun "he",and images like "Father", "Son", "Lord" etc. This recent trend has almost entirely excluded the feminine pronoun "she" as sacred, and images such as "Mother", "Daughter", "Lady" etc. as divine.

There have certainly always been mystics who have used these feminine forms within the monotheist religions, such as the early Christian Collyridians who believed Mary to be a Goddess, the medieval visionary Julian of Norwich, the Judaic Shekinah and Sophia traditions, and discreetly expressed Sufi texts in Islam. But these teachings have never held central place in monotheisms, and it is a thoughtful question whether including a female aspect of deity "as well" in a fundamentally male mythos is enough to mean Goddess.

Attempts to create more inclusive ways of describing Deity by using both genders in grammar and imagery can seem awkward to some, or plain unnecessary to those whose spirituality has little sense of gender. As a monotheist project inclusive language can seem competitive because there is only space for one deity. Some types of Goddess thealogy have worked as Goddess monotheism, without any parallel God or attendant God consort; this may or may not include hostility for masculinity. However many devotees who prefer to focus only on their Goddess are not anti-male, but pro-female in their inspirations.

Background

Nonetheless inclusive spirituality has been gaining ground since the 19thC Matilda Joslyn Gage introduced living female Deity to American feminists, while her contemporary, the Swiss Joseph Jakob Bachofen, gained attention in Europe for prehistoric matriarchal goddess cultures. Communist countries accepted this version of history via Engels, and Western prehistory conventionally prefaced the 'important' his-tory of male acts with a note on primitive goddess cultures. Since 1970 a rapidly growing Western movement of Goddess Spirituality has emerged as an international, well networked, and richly documented culture, now transmitting its values to a younger generation.

Current Issues

One or Many?

Goddess Spirituality is characteristically diverse: there is no central body to define its dogma. One recent debate examines whether there is one Goddess or many goddesses (Asphodel Long 1997), but it has been remarked that this is specifically a monotheist's question. To most Goddess devotees it makes little sense, and they slip fluidly between both concepts so that "the Goddess" is more often than not a short form code for a highly post-modern worldview.

Ethics

More problematic are issues such as whether the Goddess/ goddesses are "good" or "nice" (see Journal for the Feminist Study Religion 1979), the popular use of maternal images (see below), and the position of men.

About the first point, some Goddess devotees and thealogians, notably Carol Christ, are adamant that Goddess is Love, drawing on a compassionate, protective model of femininity, frequently the Mother, contrasted with a harsher experience of masculinity in our world. Here the Goddess is frequently pictured as the guardian of a peaceful way of life, charged with healing and nurture, rooted in nature. We are seen as lacking in feminine cooperative values, and some theories of this school profile a dialectical conflict between aggressive, technological, masculine cultures, and cooperative, feminine ones, closer to nature (see Elinor Gadon).

But other Goddess devotees are just as convinced that the Goddess is both dark and light, loving and terrible, since she is Everything. A first standpoint for this is a dislike of followers of other faiths who instantly disown whatever their co-religionists do that reflects poorly on their faith (Shan Jayran, Goddess Studies Colloquium, Bristol UK 2000). Kali-ma is a Great Goddess whose savage violence teaches us how cruel Goddess can be. Yet she is often diminished the other way in the West as only the Terrible Mother, when she is in Bengal her heartland just as much the devoted, Benevolent Mother. This suggests how powerfully we are trained to think in either/or terms).

The partial, romantic view of the wholly compassionate Goddess, as founded on a social stereotype of women, can be critiqued by pointing to historical examples of goddesses of war, child rejection, and ethical indifference. Women are too much mutilated into compulsory compassion that is a passive slavery. (Valerie Saiving 1967) But the darklight view of Starhawk, Jayran and others does not mean a lack of Goddess ethics as challenged by Melissa Raphael, 'Religion' 1996. In response to Raphael, Jayran answered that we need to explore complex Deity encompassing a manyfaced divine: the properly caring Mother, as well as the remote indifferent natural law of the Crone, and the raw feminist desire for selfhood and independence as Maiden (Jayran, Goddess Colloquium, King Alfred's Winchester 1997) See below for more on the Triple Goddess motif.

Earth Goddess

Nor is the connection between Goddess and (currently admired) Nature any more than a recent myth, since ancient goddesses were usually the icons of civilisation and law that aimed to control nature. What we may see as gentle and beautiful Nature has been to struggling farmers a coldhearted, ungiving bitch goddess. Yet now our collective power is so great it calls for the revisioning of ecology. Goddess, as other deities do, comes newly dressed for different times at our need.

However, even if we stand back and debunk the romantic wing of Goddess Spirituality, it is showing considerable social influence, and its revaluing of an assertive compassion that recognises a world wide Web of Life (sic) can be welcome to romantic heart and scholarly brain alike. The connections between feminism and ecology are not new, and are well reflected in Goddess Spirituality (although it is only in some parts feminist and should not be assumed completely so).

Men of the Goddess

The position of men within Goddess Spirituality is only recently beginning to be publicly discussed but this is emerging as a debate of great interest. So much work has been done on women's newfound (or rediscovered) sacrality with the power it bestows, that this can now be taken for granted in most Goddess contexts, while the nature and role of men is an intriguing and relatively unexplored area. Initial assumptions may define men as subordinate, and some groupings do exist where both genders prefer this model, much as certain Neolithic goddess cults held a God to be a secondary Son/ Consort figure. But it is more typical for Goddess groups to be either women only, or equally women and men, and in both single or mixed sex groups alike, for members to be seeking a creative way for both genders to use authority. The Pagan communities, labelled Neopagan by many academics, are the most prolific and influential type of this creative Goddess effort.

Non-religious Goddessing

A variant of Goddess Spirituality is a non-religious use of its power. Transcendental Psychology, Jung and others include powerful Goddess metaphors that enables many to touch base without committing as devotees. Some thealogians also speak a non-realist goddessing, where Goddess is the spirit of women's heartfelt movement for freedom. Carol Christ named this "womenspirit" in 1979 (though Christ is a devotee now she was closer to non-realism then). However it is important not to overlook that the vast majority of Goddess devotees worldwide are not feminist, and even in Western societies there are plenty of non-feminist types of goddessing. The work of Jung has been criticised as narrowly based on Western sexual stereotypes, and therapy can inspire and strengthen but also placate and adapt to the status quo.

Finally, it is important to distinguish the inner journeys of self growth from the interactive dialogue of religion. Self growth may (or may not) lead into spiritual dialogue so that what is 'just in the mind' becomes so vast as to render the phrase meaningless. But from the devotee's view the Goddess metaphor, however cherished and awesome, does not match the sheer relating of spirituality. The relationship may be solemn, or funny, polite or rude: the restrictions of pious godform do not apply. Alternatively from the non-realist view of sacred metaphor, the Goddess devotee is calling on unjustified or unknown reality, dancing with illusion, comfortinmg or stimulating as that may be. The two are obviously very different and rely on starter assumptions, distinct paradigms: there is an Other/ there is not. For such profound choices there is no guide.

Paganism

Wiccan and Neopagan practice includes veneration of the Great Goddess along with the Horned God. While not all Pagans make the Goddess an important part of their Paganism, none would deny the Goddess as a central Pagan tradition in general (it is important to recall the diversity of both Goddess and Pagan movements).

Background

The standard founder quoted for Wicca is Gerald Gardner whose books still read well and defend a fairly feminist ideal of priestess authority in service to Goddess and God; but as so often this story privileges the male, because it was arguably Doreen Valiente (the 'Mother of the Craft') his early convert and priestess whose books became far more widespread and influential. It was certainly Valiente who critiqued Gardner when his anti-sexism fell into contradictions, such as a desire to retire older priestesses in favour of young pretty ones! Gardner's Craft was also learned from women, Old Betsy, and also the daughter of Annie Besant, which he freely acknowledged. It is also important to acknowledge how Western Paganism has roots going back through 19thC occultism and romantic nature movements to earlier transmissions from colonial sources, where the female sacred survived intact, or was less suppressed.

Perhaps the most influential priestess of all has been Starhawk, author of the international best seller "The Spiral Dance" 1979 (and a powerful list of works since) whose clarity, imagination, insight and love of political magic has done so much to spark the huge growth of Goddess spirituality. The book still stands as an unsurpassed classic. Starhawk is the most famous student of Zsuzsanna Budapest (Zee) who twinned witchcraft from her Hungarian background, with USA feminism, to birth the amazon tenderness of Dianic Craft (women only). Separatism (women living for short or longer periods without male contacts, was in the 80s a major analytic and inspirational source that renewed Wicca and brought Paganism into a more realistic recognition of Goddess and anti-sexism. Since women needed to learn independence separatism was and still can be, useful medicine, as well as a beautiful inspiration of lost wholeness. Separatism, in a world where gender misunderstanding is painfully plentiful, can seem dangerous as it is divisive, though it is most unlikely to become a dominant trend. Zee is still the honoured Mother of Dianic Craft, although as so often her strength of character means as many criticise her as love her, or do both.

Starhawk's Paganism drew on the polarity of Wicca, and magically blended this mystical embrace of women and men, with the searing critique of Dianic separatism, in the context of an exploding women's movement internationally. She stands as a prophetess, an expert ritualist, and later a thealogian, whose work spans both Pagan and non-Pagan Goddess cultures in a seamless whole, looking especially to include separatist, straight/ gay, women, men, and most recently children, in a utopian agenda of hope across many societies.

Terminology

Notes on terms:

  • In the USA Wiccan and Neopagan are roughly similar in meaning but in Britain, where the movement began, Wiccan is clearly distinct as one type of Neopagan.
  • Many academics favour the neologism 'Neopagan' which most Pagans detest, pointing out that it is obvious that modern forms of a faith are not the same as historical or prehistoric forms. We do not for example speak of Neotantra or Neobuddhism.
  • Goddess and Pagan devotees do not usually use the term "worship" as this implies an acutely hierarchical dialogue between deity and human, with the human in a very humble mode. To indicate the self assertion and dynamic interaction between divine and human (or as some would say, two kinds of divine) terms like "veneration" are preferred.

Mother Earth

There has been strong recent association of the Goddess with Mother Earth (or Mother Nature[?]), and with the Moon. These metaphors are very popular to the point of being assumed as dogma, but some Pagans are affectionately critical of them. Many cultures do not figure the Moon as female, (Celts/ Egyptians) although the popular Western model certainly lent itself to phallic imagery at the Moon landings.

The Mother Earth motif usefully joins deep emotional loyalties to our mothers, to the ecological needs of the planet. Since mothering can be targeted so easily as a key resource for supposed 'female inferiority' a thealogy that unambiguously views childbirth and childcare as sacred is welcomed. It is provicative that Monica Sjoo's painting of 'God giving birth' a cartoon of a female outline with a globe/head emerging in soothing blue-greys, was banned by her local council from exhibition, as "obscene." However the Mother Earth mythos can also backfire in the case of those whose mothering was not wonderful, and some feminists question the over emphasis of (biological) mothering at a time when increasing numbers of women refuse, limit, or feel great ambivalence about it. Much is therefore made in Goddess culture of spiritual mothering ie creativity, mothering the vulnerable, or the planet.

Prehistoric Matriarchy

Just as for some other sectors of Goddess devotees the Great Goddess is believed by many Pagans to have been the Deity of a universal pre-historical matriarchial religion. This faith model has been heavily critiqued, and while evidence clearly suggests many examples of early Goddess religions (notably Marija Gimbutas 'Old Europe'), and these cities anmd cultures were frequently widespread, the story is not universal, for the idea that humanity passed through matriarchal and patriarchal stages of development has been discredited since the 1960s. Goddess religion can be a support for patriarchy or a conquering king (cf the much loved Inanna) or it can counsel submission as in some forms of Hinduism. The famous palaeolithic goddess figurines may not have been deity images at all, though we cannot know either way, and they certainly are now!

10,000 Names & Symbols

The Goddess is known as the Lady of the Ten Thousand Names, as Isis was. She is referred to as 'Queen of Heaven', 'Lady of the Beasts', 'Creatrix' and just 'the Lady.' She is sometimes approached through her different aspects, represented by individual goddesses like Isis, Guan Yin, Kali, Pele or Athena. Among some Wiccans in particular, the goddess Aradia is perceived as a kind of messianic Daughter deity. The yoni or vulva is revered as a symbol of the Goddess, together with the cowrie shell, the (Moon) Crescent, the Earth, the Serpent, the Tree, the five pointed Pentagram and the Eight Pointed Star, the Quartered Circle (cf Celtic Cross), and many animals and birds.

Triple Goddess

The Goddess is popularly recognised as threefold in one (although this is based on poor scholarship by Robert Graves his poetic inspiration has gained a tenacious hold); as the Maiden (or Virgin), the Mother (all-Mother), and the Crone. Freely interpreted, all three are erotic and wise. The Maiden is birth, independent, self-centred, seeking. The Mother is giving birth, interrelated, compassionate nurturer, creating. The Crone is death and renewal, wholistic, remote, unknowable. The three forms represent the stages of life of women, though again, this has been queried by some feminists as too biologically based and rigid. Often the three stages of the moon (waxing, full, waning) are considered equivalent to the three forms of the Goddess, and put together in a single symbol of a circle flanked by two mirrored crescents. Critiques of the Triple Goddess use the fourth stage of the moon, the dark moon, to inspire a symbol of a fourth stage of the Goddess; this can be interpreted as the Dark Goddess, the Wisewoman, or the Nymph. The Triple Goddess can be associated with the Furies (Erinyes) of Greek Myth, as in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, with the Witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth, or the Fates from Norse Mythology, among many other parallels.

Gender, Pagan Men

Of all sectors of Goddess Spirituality, Paganism has the most well developed culture of a divine polarity of gender which has strong parallels with Tantra. The God is a powerful inspiration to a "third way" for men, neither wimp nor bully but "everything the male can be." While the search for Goddess has been an unearthing of the hidden to fill emptiness, the search for the God beside her, which usually comes afterwards, needs a transformation of ugly, unworkable models of the masculine. Goddessing is an embodied thealogy, and Pagan men find interesting beds! but have to meet the challenge of women of power in order to be invited into them. Paradoxically this means sharing power, and relaxing away from the burden of being eternal fixers and in charge. In almost all ways the divine couple can mirror each other's attributes, as in the Horned Huntress, and Old Horny/ the Hunter. Both are the Divine Lover to be found in all mystical traditions. While the priestess is often (though not always) held as slightly pre-eminent, the priest is deeply respected in his own right.

While some Wiccan groups can, in insisting on the sacred polarity, exclude a positive role for homosexuals and lesbians unless they act as ceremonial heterosexuals, others actively welcome a variety of sexual orientation and explore mythos that can reflect it.

Goddess related publications

MatriFocus A cross-quarterly web magazine for Goddess Women near & far.

See also

See deities for a list of goddesses and gods worshipped by different religions. Also see goddess worship. Charge of the Goddess for a popular statement of Goddess faith. Paganism for both negative and positive uses of the term.



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