Druid Thoughts: In Search of a Feminist Goddess

I should begin by explaining that I am not a Wiccan, but have had close contact with Wiccans and the wider pagan community for more than a decade. Wiccans and those who draw heavily on them for inspiration, still represent the majority of pagans. In my experience, many folk who identify as ‘eclectic’ or ‘on their own path’ turn out to be working with largely Wiccan derived concepts. Of these, by far the most prevalent are ideas about female divinity.

Turning away from God the Father towards a spirituality that also embraces Goddesses, should be empowering to women. But is ‘The Goddess’ as we encounter her in depictions really a feminist or even feminine representation? I’m going to argue that the goddesses currently depicted in Wiccan inspired and new age material do nothing to empower women and a great deal to hold up old and restrictive stereotypes. If we want truly feminine spirituality, we still have a lot of work to do.

The Golden Bough by Jeroen van Valkenburg

Wiccans and other pagans honour a Great Goddess. She is earth mother, endlessly fertile, her divine thighs always open to the God/Priest/King. Wiccan ritual worships her with symbolic sex acts. The Goddess is an overtly sexual being, and her sexuality is very focused on being penetrated by a male. Her essence is fecundity. She is bountiful nature, always renewing and creating, infinitely generous and giving. It’s a very warm, fuzzy notion of both what the earth is, and what woman is. She is not, for example, a raped and abused figure covered in slash marks from mining, burns, chemical poisoning or the defilement of war. The Goddess is beautiful, eternal, untouched by human degradation. She’s also shown as surprisingly benevolent, given how the majority of us treat her. It could be argued that she represents an ideal, that she is the pristine, untouched world that never existed. She does not seem to have a great deal in common with actual women. I do not personally believe that beneficent tolerance of abuse should be anyone’s ideal.

Aside from The Great Goddess, we have the maid, mother and crone archetypes. The triple goddess who is three in one, linked to the changes of the moon and embodying the full range of female experience. That’s an assumption that could stand closer scrutiny.

The maid/mother/crone triad can be viewed as separating womanhood by age – child, adult, old person. Alternatively, it is all about reproduction. The not-yet a mother, the mother, the woman too old to bear children. Already the notion of womanhood has been restricted to a tight focus on fertility and birthing. What of the women who are not mothers? Or the many women who do not relate to themselves primarily in their breeding function? These are not depictions of artists, workers, warriors or leaders. There are individual, named goddesses in specific pantheons who represent these attributes – Brigid in the forge, Athena with her war, wisdom and poetry, and Diana the huntress all being examples. The maid, mother crone trio are reductions. They are part of womanhood, but they are neither fair representations nor personifications of the full complexity of femininity. Prioritizing them as figures for ritual does not seem to me like a good way of exploring the full potential of the divine female. Again, this is breeding womanhood which exists purely in relation to men. The trio give us little of the non-male mysteries.

Wiccan belief, and the many other pagan paths influenced by it, focuses on the power of polarity and opposites. A priest would be expected to invoke the goddess into the body of his priestess. If we work in this way, we set up male and female as polar opposites, and that, I think, does a great disservice to both. We focus on the male/female dynamic, but so much of actual feminine experience is not about what we get up to with our men. As mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters and friends we have many strands to our lives that are not male-centric. Why should the goddesses be otherwise? Why should we seek after a feminine divinity that focuses so intently on amorous, heterosexual relationship at the expense of so much else?

There are vast numbers of goddess representations in the world. The internet offers a huge array. Pagan and new age artists offer up depictions, which you can purchase on t-shirts, posters and other merchandise. There are reliable themes to this kind of art. Firstly, the goddess is always young and slim. She is soft skinned, curves a little bit in all the right places, and is probably not wearing much. Her eyes will be large, her mouth full and sensuous. Her unsupported breasts defy gravity in a truly miraculous way. In the picture, she will be doing something lovely. Animals and birds may cavort around her as though she was a Disney princess. Her body is clean and free from blemish.

Of course a goddess is perfect. Of course she is clean, flawless and beautiful. What else could she be? Compare those standard goddess images to the figures you would find in a glamour magazine. Compare them to centuries of art where male painters offered the female body as an object of desire and entertainment. Compare them finally to any real woman you have ever looked at. What is this perfected ideal of femininity that keeps cropping up in goddess artwork? It is a male fantasy and a rather narrow, insipid one at that. Unhairy, never bleeding, always sexually perfect and ready, soft, tame, biddable, girlishly nonthreatening, pliant, tiny-waisted, slim hipped and with unreal breasts.

What would a goddess look like if she truly embodied femininity? It’s an image to reach for and ponder not least because it tells us so much about how we see ourselves. What does the truly, essentially female look like? Not a fantasy doll, not a sanitised woman, but the real thing. These are the goddesses we need. The ones who teach us how to be our own selves, not someone else’s creature. How can we celebrate the goddess within ourselves if we see our own bodies as far removed from the ideal she supposedly represents? The fixation on young, slinky looking goddesses ignores so much of what it means to be female.

I’m not a visual artist. I can’t paint you the gorgeous diversity in the female form, or the beauty that aging brings to a wise face. I don’t know what to dress her in, when nudity is so close to sexualisation. Words are what I’m best at wielding.

The goddess in my mind does not look like an innocent twelve year old cuddling Bambi. She’s older. Her face bears lines. Her body has known work, love, joy and grief and all these things have marked her. She has strength in her shoulders and loins. Her feet are bare, because she is of the earth. Her hands are busy, making and unmaking. She may be kind, but she is not infinitely generous. She knows when to turn her back, when to refuse. She does not serve, but demands that we give the very best of ourselves to her.

There can be no one Goddess who is all things feminine. No one skin can encapsulate all of that, not even a divine skin. She would need to be all shapes, and all colours, all heights and all ages. As soon as we pin her down into one definite form, we reduce our ideas of what feminine means. The very notion of a single mother goddess has pushed us too far down that route already. The divine feminine should be more than a limitless milk supply, an eternal breast or an always-busy womb. She most certainly should not be sold back to us as our ideal when we are looking at little more than the desires of men.

We should not look to the deities to fulfill our fantasies, but in looking at how we, as a culture, describe them, we can tell a great deal about ourselves. As I see it, the majority of divine feminine representations we have are still a very long way from representing the divinity within women, the qualities of womanhood, the diversity of our gender or the richness of our lives. I love the full figured Neolithic Venuses, images of Kali, and anything that does not conform to the stereotypes, but they are sorely outnumbered by the saccharine girls, the love goddesses and the eternal, uncomplaining mummy.

I have a great deal of respect for all of the pagan paths. But it is worth considering that Wicca was founded by Gardner, who was definitely a bloke, and taken off at a slightly different angle by Alex Saunders, who was also a bloke, and that both of them were no doubt influenced by Crowley and other magical thinkers who were also decidedly male. Wicca is a modern faith, born in an era of sexual repression and profound sexism, as we began to emerge from centuries of patriarchy. We too are products of our time, and there is nothing to gain in blaming anyone for that. What we need instead is to move forwards. It will take women to show the world what goddesses really look like.

www.druidlife.wordpress.com

About Nimue Brown

Druid blogger, author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors and Spirituality without structure (Moon Books) Intelligent Designing for Amateurs (Top Hat Books) and Hopeless Maine (Archaia). Book reviewer for the Druid Network and Pagan Dawn. Volunteer for OBOD. Green, folky, Steampunk wench with a coffee habit. www.druidlife.wordpress.com and www.hopelessmaine.com @Nimue_B and can be hunted down on facebook.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rustymon Rusty Mon

    It takes two, to be “duo-theistic”…

  • Mark S

    You cannot blame the saccharinization of the Goddess on Crowley. I think you need to do a little more research on the man – and on Thelema – before making an off the cuff generalization like that. 

    • Brandon Arkell

      I don’t think Nimue was placing all the blame on Crowley and saying he was a total sexist–indeed, she blamed other men too. I think she was simply saying that he played a role in perpetuating the gender binary of the dominant male and submissive female. And he probably did inform some of this binary in Wicca (which, as noted above, is the masculine form of the word).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1114845537 Kay Massey

    You just blew me out of the water. I couldn’t ever accept the God without a Goddess….Takes two to Tango, after all. Never could, finally, accept the Old Patriarch’s Yaweh…unspoken name whatever. I do have a soft place for the Human Man called Jesus and my hopes are that he and the Magdalen were able to marry and maybe have a child or two, such was the life of a thirty something Jewish man in those times. Many goddesses fit different needs I have, and so I go to the olde ones and commune and ask their help and guidance. I can’t think of maybe one or two of mine who might NOW be considered flawless, but most probably were not. Great article! :)

  • Sharon

    As yet another **** storm rages at PantheaCon about women-only rituals, it certainly tunes in the importance of these observations. When our various collectivities can’t even digest the spiritual implications of biological femaleness, any inchoate, psychic qualities of femininity becomes even more nebulous, slippery and (in this case) contentious. Thanks for writing this. I’m off to ponder my own observations and practice (maybe read a blog or two from the storm). BB

  • Rachel Brown

    When I paint the Goddess I paint her with all different figures, different faces and emotions, from the tempest storm to the fruitful but weathered “mother” bearing persimmons in her hands. Fruitfulness is not just bearing children, nor is fertility, it is giving life to any creation. Think about that. Women have the power to create human life, but we also can create many other things that are often passed over by the world of men. The reason Wicca is so polarized also has to do with wider things… in a magnetic field, you have poles. In the seasons you have hot and cold. Everything in nature is at one end or the other, light and dark, except that the one thing people forget is that there is always something in between. Shades of gray, a temperate area. Even blended genders. But even then, the most opposite things are all the same. They are all a part of the greater One, that intangible force that holds together and makes up all-that-is. I don’t honestly know whether I even count as Wiccan anymore, aside from observing the Sabbats, I don’t use the same ritual formats, I could never completely follow the Harm None rule because it is natural for our species to consume the leaves of plants and the flesh of animals. I thank the animal for its life, appreciate the nourishment it will give me, but ultimately, I have killed it and technically that’s “harm”. Same goes for carrots or a head of bok choy. I’ve killed the plant to nourish my body. Fruitarians seem to have found a way around this, but that is not the life for me. Many people develop narrow views of how things are or are supposed to be in a religion based on prior beliefs, upbringing, and what they are exposed to. Open up to the idea that fruitfulness of a woman is not just from her womb, but from her mind and her soul. She does not need a man to be fruitful, she merely needs to be empowered to do all the things she is capable of. In my own beliefs, the Maiden to me represents a woman in her youth, her potential not yet unlocked, the bud forming who will later blossom. The Mother represents ALL types of fruitfulness, and even a woman who never bears children has this phase of life, where she is mother to ideas and other more tangible things she may create or cultivate. Perhaps instead of (or alongside) having children she becomes a gardener, a healer (doctor), or even builds houses. She bears the scars of life’s battles and collects wisdom along the way. The Crone is a woman who has borne many ideas and had many experiences, who is past the peak of her energetic fruitfulness but still has life in her and now is giving the last and most bittersweet of all her fruits, in the form of wisdom that can be both harsh and enlightening. She is past the age where she can be burdened with her biological reproductive ability (regardless of whether she ever had children… most of us have periods and that’s a fact of life that most of us look forward to being done with!) and so can focus on fruitfulness of the soul.  I only wish this concept was in more of the beginners books for Wiccans. All aspects together as the Great Mother, she is both beautiful and terrible, giving with one hand and rending away with another. She is beautiful even with all the blemishes she bears, though not in a Cover Girl kind of way, more a raw natural woman sort of way. No masks, no airbrushes, just her true self as she is. And ultimately, she is part of the greater still One which makes up All-That-Is.

    • ac

      BEAUTIFULLY SAID…THANK YOU..

    • M L Spence396

       You said what I was thinking . The person writing this likes to put everyone ( Pagan & Wiccan ) to one ideal . The Divine All ( Goddess & God ) is loving , beautiful , and fruitful but they are also can be harsh, cruel and destructive. Duality of both the positive & negative, light & dark , it is about balance .     

    • Gloria Gypsy

      Well stated. I am not a wiccan but a traditional witch. This is as I see it as well.

  • annrpharrison

    This is an unfortunately narrow view of female divinity and her multiplicity of representations. Mother Goddess encompasses all that is on Earth and throughout the Cosmos: Birth, Growth, Death and Regeneration. Those who advocate some Goddess(es) as stereotypically “feminine” beautiful, clean have bought in to patriarchal fragmentations of the great Mother Goddess.

    • Brandon Arkell

      You’re right. It is narrow. That is why Nimue was criticising it in her blog entry. If she were more than just her motherhood, why is she called a Mother Goddess? By pointing out this is her dominant role, you have admitted that she has been reduced to motherliness, and excluded from all of the other roles that females can play.

  • http://www.elementforge.com/ Adrian Hawkins

    Wicca itself is the supposedly the male version of the word with Wicce being the feminine.  So I could see the argument you make about the male authors having a definite influence on the future of Wicca as it were.

    However, I think their is another point worth addressing and that is the Hermetic Laws of Polarity and Gender.  Everything has poles even within itself, and that includes gender. The reason why typical depictions of the goddess do or may not succeed in being an accurate representation are they do not encompass the entirety of the divine feminine polarity. Then tend to represent only a point or a segment of the wide berth the polarity represents. 

    • Brandon Arkell

      But we’re still treating it as a polarity. That’s where the problem lies. We need to start viewing it as a flexible, mutable constellation of traits that can sometimes be shared with males.

      • http://www.elementforge.com/ Adrian Hawkins

        I’m not saying it is not.  When I am looking at it I think of polarity as being Macro-cosmic in scale not microcosmic. It includes everything that could be within that polarity. Its an inclusive idea rather than exclusive. 

  • Suzibhighdesert

    please read “mother peace” by  vicki noble….then get back to this subject..blessed be,sb

  • A.C. Fisher-Aldag

    Mr. Garder, Sir Frazer, et al, worked with a concept of the divine feminine that went through the filter of the “Romantic” age.  Compare it to all of the flowery, idealized lterature of that period.  Look at how “fairies” are depicted.  Now look at real Fae / Sidhe / Gentry and their legends.  And then look at the real legends of real Goddesses of many cultures.  You’ll find maidens, nurturing mothers, wise crones… and warriors, and blacksmiths, and old women with harsh messages, and queens making difficult judgements, and beggars, and farmers, and healers.  And yes, some victims of oppression, who triumphed.  You’ll find some angry Goddesses, some mean cranky Goddesses, some vain, silly, capricious Goddesses.  Every aspect of the human condition.  Perhaps some Wiccans need a loving mother Goddess for healing.  Perhaps some feminists need a harsh Goddess to feel empowered.  Good thing She is versatile, that way!

    • Brandon Arkell

      On a global scale, yes, she is versatile, but within religions, like Wicca, is she really that all-encompassing? I think not. And I think that is where the problem lies that Nimue was pointing out above.

    • Melissa

      Feminists don’t need a harsh goddess to feel empowered, we need well-rounded ones who are powerful and don’t take any crap. It’s interesting that you view that as “harsh.”

  • Tuula

    Amazing post, I have been thinking about this and having these ideas about wicca and you articulated in perfectly

  • Ace

    As you look for goddess images who represent all faces of femaleness, this seems particularly timely: 
    http://foxfetch.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/in-our-own-image-transcentric-paganism/

    • Limnaia

      This. This, a thousand times this. Give me a Goddess with a hard cock instead of these saccharine depictions any day. 

  • Pteryga Logos

    And what of the male gods, which perfectly sculpted bodies? Is this a female’s portrayal of males? Should all male gods be redipected as overweight, cheeto-faced, middle-aged? Skinny, weak, and covered with acne scars?

    No. Gods and Goddesses are almost always the ideal image. As they should be, because as the divine, should they not be depicted to posses some divine beauty, in both genders?

    • Brandon Arkell

      No. Both ideals are just that–ideals. But the goddess ideal is still submissive, yielding, and male-oriented. The male ideal is independent and aggressive, and his need to breed with the female in order to reproduce is not as all-defining for him. That is where the hegemony lies, and where females, but not males, are getting screwed over. (Or, if males are getting screwed over, it is because they are not expected to be nurturing like females.)

      http://www.brandonarkell.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Anne-Wolf/100000543139743 Mary-Anne Wolf
  • Pingback: It’s not just Christians who worship the patriarchy | Susan Campbell

  • Kellie

    Interesting. you have a lot of good points that I havent given much thought to, such as the heterosexual view of the God and Godess. But all people have a mother and father, even if its just biological and there’s nothing wrong with that. Its a part of life and it should be celebrated! Plus Motherhood if freakin EARNED. Making a baby and giving birth is a miricle and freakin hard! Embracing my motherhood and sexuality is NOT embracing a male stereotype. I find that kind of insulting. The Goddess is all aspects of womanhood. Even if a Woman never has a baby that is her CHOICE. Feminism is not throwing out every idea that ever came from a man, its being treated equally to a man.

    A Goddess can be strong and feminine. She has no limits. She represents all things female and females give BIRTH. its not sexist, its a fact.

    • http://www.facebook.com/katie.l.berger Katie Berger Tremaine

      Except those who choose not to. Except those who *can’t*, for any number of reasons. The idea that the experience and life of being a woman can be reduced to ONE thing, which not every woman experiences (or wants to experience)… that doesn’t make sense to me.

      • Brandon Arkell

        You took the words right out of my mouth! I basically said the very same thing right before I read your reply.

    • Brandon Arkell

      But it is sexist, Kellie. Because not ALL females give birth–and that is ALSO a fact. So, then, are sterile women, postmenopausal women, prepubescent girls, or women who simply choose not to have babies somehow less female? The Mother Goddess archetype is still reducing women to birth-giving and nursing as their primary role, and yes, that is sexist. If the Mother Goddess were more than just motherhood, she wouldn’t be called just a Mother Goddess. But she is, so she is still being reduced to the baby-making role.

      It’s fine if you perform a female role as a mother, but it is not your place to reduce the femaleness of others because they do not choose motherhood.

  • Brandon Arkell

    Oh my god! The uncanny thing is that I have made the very same criticism of the divine goddess archetype, but I have always kept it inside of me out of fear of stoking the wrath of third-wave feminists like Carol Gilligan! The divine goddess archetype–at least when treated as the sole, primary, or salient female archetype–simply reinforces gender hegemony, not break it down. I’m so glad to find another person voice the same apprehensions about the blindly worshipped divine feminine.

    http://www.brandonarkell.com

  • http://twitter.com/BlyssfulWitch The Blyssful Witch

    Really enjoyed this. Thank you. :)

  • Peter Wagstaff

    I googled “Goddess Agora” and found this article. Maybe a candidate for feminist goddess could be “Agora: the goddess of the market place?”

  • Catherine Crayton

    This really put a lot of what has bothered me about the “Earth Goddess” into thoughts and words. We need a new Goddess for real women who have lived life and have developed wisdom and strength.

  • Feisty Amazon

    We have PLENTY of Goddesses to choose from which is why I honor She of 10,000 Names…..faces, guises, shapes; colors, sexual proclivities and temperaments. Lesbian archivist Max Dashu with the Suppressed Histories Archive has been mentioning this for YEARS this is no new revelation and there are women who are just as complicit as many men even in women only sites..with those cutesy waif like figures who are no emanations of the Goddess. Check out http://www.suppressedhistoriesarchive.com. or google it.

  • Feisty Amazon

    Her work shows real historical depictions of the different Goddesses figurines pottery ect.

  • Gemma Seymour

    As an atheist Solitary, I have conceptions of divine symbolism that are at odds with most common practices. First of all, when I say “atheist”, I mean just that—I do not believe in the existence of divinity, and additionally, I do not believe in the supernatural or the mystical. So, when I tell people I am an atheist Solitary (capital S) witch who never the less uses Goddess symbolism in my practice of Ordinary Magick, it tends to confuse people.

    The whole triune “Maiden, Mother, Crone” thing has always left me, as a lesbian transsexual woman, out in the cold. I envision five aspects: Maiden, Mother, Warrior, Queen, and Crone, represented by the pentacle, and most of us will follow one of two paths in our lives, the Mother Path (Maiden, Mother, Queen, Crone), or the Warrior Path (Maiden, Warrior, Queen, Crone). Some very few of us will straddle the knife’s edge between the two, or move fluidly between them.

    The number four corresponds to the cycle of life and death, the four seasons, the four points of the compass, the four phases of the moon, the four times of day, and the four aspects of humanity, which I define as Flesh, Blood, Bone, and Spirit.

    To confuse the issue even more, so far as I am concerned, sex/gender is something which we, as limited humans, assign to our divine symbolism, and should not properly be considered any aspect of the divine. The Goddess is The God, The Goddess is Sun Goddess as well as Moon Goddess, the God is Moon God as well as Sun God. Sky Goddess, Earth God, Earth Goddess, Sky God. Scion, Father, Warrior, King, Sage. Lover, Guardian, Hunter, Ruler, Guide.

    These aspects correspond to the aspects of humanity: Maiden/Scion/Lover to Flesh, Mother/Father/Guardian and Warrior/Hunter/Huntress to Blood, Ruler/King/Queen to Bone, and Guide/Sage/Crone to Spirit. The blood of life is also the blood of death, and we would do wisely to remember the moon has not three faces, but four. The Dark Moon represents the passing from one world to the next.

    Who is this Goddess? She is Freyja, of the Norse; she is Pomona, of the Romans; she is Ishtar of the Sumerians, later known as Asteroth in the Levant, and Aphrodite of Crete; she is Venus Castina, who chose for herself women such as myself to honor her; she is Athena of the spear and aegis; she is Aphrael and Flute and she is the Star-Eyed. She is Lakshmi, and she is Tao, nameable and yet unnameable, ineffable and yet intimately integral in our being; she is the spark in each and every one of us that yearns to join with all others.

    She is who we wish her to be, who we need her to be, and she is what she is, all at the same time. Or did you think our frail human perceptions could contain her? Sex and gender are part of human life; you will have no denial of that from me. But, just as the God and Goddess both have a thousands faces that are yet one, so do human embodiments of sex and gender span a wide and multidimensional spectrum.

    An’ it harm none, do as thou wilt. All ways lead to the Way. Magick be real, do ye but believe; not all ye believe be Magick, or real…

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