By Barbara Falconer Newhall Patricia Monaghan was 66 years old when she died. One could wish for a longer life for her, but probably not a fuller one. She grew beans in her Wisconsin garden, restored a native prairie, grew grapes for wine.
She also made a study of such matters as sacred fires, holy wells, magic cauldrons, and shape-shifters, all of which eventually became entries in the posthumously released, revised edition of her Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. There’s also a blue-faced woman with one eye in the book, as well as a goddess screaming for human meat, and accounts of human scabs that can bring wealth to a friend.
Monaghan’s must have had a blast putting together this book.
I wish I had known her. She died of cancer in 2012 after a rich life as a poet, author, Goddess scholar, and a pioneer and mentor in the contemporary women’s spirituality movement. She was an academic, yes, but also a hands-on kind of woman. According to her husband, she was as concerned about the temperature of her root cellar as she was with the depth of her research.
That research is stunningly thorough. The first, very popular, edition of Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines was published in 1979. The fat – in a good way – new expanded version tells the stories of more than 1,000 ancient goddesses and heroines from such far-flung corners of the earth as Mongolia, Benin, Tierra del Fuego and Wisconsin.
I began thumbing through it as soon as it arrived at my house. I started out looking for stories that might have been told by my long-ago Scottish, English or Native American ancestors, but I was promptly waylaid by tales of goddesses worshipped elsewhere. To wit:
- The Inuit creatrix Aakuluujjusi, observing that the caribou she had created were too fast for human hunters, arranged to turn their belly hairs around so that they caught on the wind and slowed the animals down.
- The giant goddess Cailleach survived on the milk of deer and made it her project to protect the wildlife of Scotland. Hunters caught preying upon pregnant animals were strangled to death with their own hair.
- Uzza was the goddess of the evening star worshipped in Mecca before the advent of Islam.
- The tiny fairy Bebo of Ireland was the king’s mistress for a year – despite the fact her body was smaller than his phallus.
- The Ho-Chunk people of the upper Midwest tell the story of young C-ga whose shiny white hair attracted numerous suitors. C-ga grew so vain with all the attention that she chose to sit by a pond rubbing her skin with flowers. When she rejected the attentions of the trickster Turtle, he turned her into the first skunk.
A tiny fairy? An Arab goddess? There’s something for everyone here. Take your pick.
A Pushcart Prize winner, Monaghan was also the author of Goddess Paths and The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog. She was associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at the School for New Learning at DePaul University and a senior fellow at the Black Earth Institute in Wisconsin.