The Meanings of Goddess – Part 1
Max Dashu, the Suppressed Histories Archives
So much confusion has been sown about goddess veneration. Resistance to seeing any sacral value in ancient female icons has been a particular sticking point in academia. There, emphasis is usually placed on theoretical frameworks that seem to ignore the sense of sacredness that pervades aboriginal cultures. And there has been fundamental misunderstanding of what the Women’s Spirituality movement means when we speak of Goddess or goddesses. These are some of my reflections on these gaps and what needs to be clarified.
Goddess is a contested word today. In popular culture it has been totally desacralized, disrespected, stripped down and trivialized. People talk about a sex goddess (movie star) or a diva, which is Italian for “goddess”— but used mostly to describe singers with overinflated egos. It’s hardly a reverent term. It has no cultural standing of its own in mainstream society.
Schools still teach the patriarchal Greek and Roman archetypes, the vain and capricious Venus, the jealous and meddling Hera. Further up the academic ladder, university students are discouraged from using the word “goddess” to describe ancient female icons; “fertility idol” is considered the preferred term. It quickly becomes clear that it’s risky to talk about goddesses, except to ridicule feminist “fantasy” or “ideology.” Many intellectuals consider sardonic and cynical readings of Goddess hip, and dismiss the whole idea as a woo-woo illusion with no possible relevance in a post-modern or hi-tech world.
Goddess talk has a forbidden charge in all kinds of settings. Marxists and positivists want no part of it, not too surprisingly where materialism is not only the point of departure but also the destination. Even in Women’s Studies, examination of Goddess-oriented culture and history is generally stigmatized as utopianism and regarded as an embarrassment that detracts from the acceptability of a field already under seige.
The patriarchal religions, however, still carry a venerable aura of time-honored usage, and have roared back into currency in recent decades. Scholars tend to be much more cautious on this ground: these constituencies must not be offended, even when they rest on foundational myths and structures that heavily privilege the masculine. In fact, these scriptures and institutions originate in times when the transmission of Goddess veneration was being interrupted, severed and broken.
Something important was negated in that cultural break, in each time and place where it happened: spirituality honoring the female as creative, sovereign, and potent in her own right, as transcendent as well as immanent. Also lost was a wealth of spiritual observances led by women and values defined by women. This is not to over-idealize the pagan world of west Asia and the Mediterranean, which had become patriarchal as well, but simply to recognize that paganism did retain a cultural freight of very ancient origins. Though priestesses had become marginalized, they still maintained spheres of influence, particularly at the local level. And their power was attacked and bitterly fought down as the patriarchal religious institutions were established. For example, repression did away with Christian priestesses such as the Montanists of Anatolia, or the Sicilian and Breton women who officiated at Mass, or the “heretical” Kollyridian women who worshipped Mary with loaves.
As we know, Goddess reverence came to be forbidden as “idolatry” and “whoring after false gods,” attacked as “heresy” and “blasphemy” and “shirk,” persecuted as “devil-worship,” and finally stigmatized as “superstition” and “cult.” This repression was led by the social elite. Goddess veneration lapsed into invisibility, as if wiped out, but its vestiges persisted, marginalized and unmentionable.
Mary Ford Grabowsky described the cultural remainder of this process as “the crushed feminine.” [See The Sacred Feminine: Essential Women’s Wisdom Through the Ages.] A French historian of the witch hunts, Robert Muchembled, referred to the abased condition of European women in the 17th century as la femme vaincue: the “vanquished woman.” I’ve also detailed this cultural outcome of “women possessed” in my unpublished Secret History of the Witches. [For excerpts see this link.] It was out of this long cultural exile and dispossession in “Western civilization” that women rose up to reaffirm Goddess, refusing her relegation to heresy, blasphemy, and the unspeakable.
The Goddess movement recognizes the political function of male-supremacist religion, and resolves to overthrow its dominionist foundations. We challenge theologies which make females stand for the “inferior,” material realm, which equate us with sexuality and decree submission to male privilege. We repudiate hierarchy, not only male domination, but also the demonization of matter, of bodies, of darkness in patriarchal religion. We recognize how these twisted diabolist ideas were used to target dark peoples and indigenous religions.
In Starhawk's words, we value power within, and power with, not power over. We disavow ideas of superiority/inferiority, the idea of us down here under him or even her up there, and anything that smacks of pompous authoritarianism. This is why many prefer “spirituality” to the notion of “religion,” which has become so deeply stained with dominance behaviors and institutional rigidities. (Though religio originally meant “bound together.”) Still others say: “earth-based religion,” feeling that even “spirituality” implies a rejection of the sacredness of the earthly, as dominionist religion has done.
Goddess feminists understand that the symbolism of religion is not irrelevant happenstance, but a deep encoding of values. Subordination in this sphere, or exclusion from it, has consequences all along the cultural line. It shapes attitudes, behavior and human relations. There’s a reason why religion has been a pivotal battleground in establishing systems of domination. The power of symbolism is also utilized by mass-market advertising, which deploys it to manipulate human feeling and motivation in sophisticated ways. To ignore these forces would be foolish.
When Goddess women talk about the profound formative potency of image and symbol and mythos, it is not taken seriously in the halls of academe. It’s usually dismissed as romanticism, imaginary fantasy. But the same observation takes on prestigious weightiness when others wrap it in the robes of literary or psychological theory, especially when phrased in French, as l’imaginaire. It would be considered gauche to mistake this meaning for the English “imaginary,” which has become synonymous with “not real.” Thus, theorists have deemed it advisable either to adopt another term, the “imaginal,” or just stick with the French.
The good news is that some of what we have been saying is coming in through another door. The bad news is that they don’t want to hear it from us. They want any consideration of sexual politics stripped out, so that the discourse can be kept safely abstract and psychological. And it must be theoretical, not spiritual, for the play-acting of objectivity.
All this boils down to conflicting views of what is real and significant. Human beings are more than rational beings. The mind is powerful, but the heart is greater. We live grounded in a dreaming consciousness of the numinous, where our awareness of ourselves arises. So do our values and the ways we connect with each other. If in this dream-realm of culture, the female is deprecated and subordinated, is ruled out from being named and pictured as divine, creator, or source of being, the effect on girls and women is negative and demoralizing.
Conversely, the Catholic hierarchy keeps insisting that the maleness of god and christ is non-negotiable. (Hmmm: even as I write, the software keeps trying to make me capitalize those titles.) The popes say the priest must be masculine because he stands for christ, who therefore represents maleness as well as divinity. The Virgin Mary represents the female, but Church doctrine vehemently insists that she is not a divinity and is beneath the heavenly father.
Of course, there are other methods of imaginally subjugating the female, as can be seen in Greek and Norse mythology, or Babylonian scriptures, or Indra’s attacks on the dawn-goddess Ushas in the Rg Veda. Patriarchal Hindu theologians retain the goddesses but portray them as pativrataa who serve their husbands as lords, dutifully rubbing their feet or plastered to their sides like vines. But female sovereignty is attested by other voices in the multi-stranded web of culture called “Hinduism.” These voices say that Devi is the ultimate Reality and that Shiva cannot even move a limb without Shakti. These voices say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are like tiny flakes of red kumkum in the bindi dot on Devi’s forehead. Tantrik voices say that women are Devi herself and that to harm any woman is to do violence to Goddess.
The deep stream of Goddess veneration also resurfaced under Christianity in the form of Black Madonnas and Our Lady of the Local Animist Sanctuary. This popular animist veneration comes from a different source, going back to Celtic times and before, than the theologians’ virgin vessel and handmaid of the Lord. Over centuries, of course, these coalesced to a greater or lesser degree. But folk reverence never yielded to the priestly prohibitions of worshipping Mary or the many goddesses-in-disguise that re-emerged as “saints.” And “saint” simply means “holy one,” from the Latin root sanctus.
So much of the disagreement comes down to language. We have to recognize the limitations of language, and of translation. It’s also important to note the variation in cultural approaches to the sacred. The Dineh / Navajo speak of the “holy people” rather than gods and goddesses. Indigenous people generally are more likely to speak of “Our Mother” or of “Mothers,” and these Mothers can be direct ancestors, forces of nature, law-givers, or primordial creators. Diasporic Africans adopted the Catholic terminology of the saints in order to smuggle their own orishas or loas into the churches. The Maya and Peruvians did the same.
The further back we look into the roots of the words we use for the Divine, the more they resemble concepts in aboriginal culture. For example, deity, divinity, and the latinate names for goddess (dea, déesse, diosa, and so on) spring from a proto-Indo-European root *deiwa (f) *deiwos (m) that means “shining.” “Day” and also “Diana” come from this same root, branching into solar and lunar manifestations of light.
"Goddess" is a latinized feminine form of the Germanic "god," from an older root gudhan (I can't reproduce all the diacritics here). Its original meaning is still debated, but both of the proposed roots point to ritual. Most linguists favor ghau, "to call on, invoke," while the alternative root gheu means "to pour libation."
Because of a long history of persecution, English and most European languages have a limited vocabulary for pagan and shamanic concepts. This is why words like shaman (from Evenk, Siberia) or mana (from Polynesian languages of the Pacific) were borrowed. Some of the most heavily persecuted observances in Europe revolved around ancestor veneration, an important part of the spectrum of what we are calling Goddess. This stands out in the megalithic tradition, with its ancestral mother icons, and the names and stories about Boann whose “house” is New Grange (Brugh na Boann), or Bui, the Cailleach Bhéara, and any number of other Irish goddesses.
The Goddess movement affirms a sacral view of the world, the conviction that we are kin within a whole, a flow and circle of life. As Ruth Barrett has written, for many "the Goddess is not an entity but the web of life itself." (But perhaps the web too is a Being we can hardly perceive because we are within, like cells in a great body.) Some British Goddess folk have expressed this diverse continuum as "the one and the many." [See Wood and Water journal] Most of us don’t relate to rigid categories of monotheism vs. polytheism, or transcendent vs. immanent. Some simply say Spirit, the divine spark present in all beings.
Essence is another way of putting it: the source of being from which we all arise. Mary Daly calls it Quintessence: that which permeates all Nature, the Spirit that gives life to the universe, the “real source.” Feminists with Buddhist leanings call it Mother Essence or the Mother Luminosity. In ancestor religion it includes the human mothers living and dead, and the mother within us, who swells in our breasts and wombs and blood, whether we have biological children or not, whether we even have wombs or breasts anymore. This experience of the body as sacred and filled with vital force (Indic ojas, Chinese jing) has little in common with the theoretical construct of “essentialism,” to which I’ll return in Part II.
Most of us conceive of Goddess and the Sacred Woman as a continuum, encompassing living beings, spirits, ancestors, essences, qualities and vast governing principles like Maat, Tao, and Wyrd—Fate being another name for divine Law, the Way. We see parallels in the pagan Gothic Halioruna (“holy mystery”) and the Great Mystery of aboriginal nations in North America. For us Nature is holy, ultimate Reality, and the fount of wisdom.
That there are Mysteries does not necessarily lead to the mystification practiced in authoritarian institutions. Our reverence has nothing in common with abasement, or the submission demanded by doctrines of dominance. It flows toward what is valued and admired, what causes awe: a rushing river, wind moving through a great forest, the fire-patterns in embers. It is roused by powerful music and beautiful art, incantation and drumming and dance. There we enter into the Presence where knowing and healing come.
We have deists and atheists and polytheists and panentheists among us. Each aspires to follow the deepest truth she can uncover within herself. For that reason there are many different approaches: some pray, some invoke, some take the deities as symbols, others as beings—or Being. Still others ride the currents of mystic bewilderment, recognizing the impossibility of condensing their experiences into language.
We affirm the long-reviled Female, now expanding out of ancient cultural confinements. In her liberation males will be transfigured too. There is room for the gods, without the taint of lordship. In the ultimate sense gender is ephemeral, and in a just world it would not matter, but we live in a world that is severely out of balance, afflicted with male domination to a high degree. So in our invocations it is She.
Many say that this She is found in our own inner spark, a microcosm of the entire Vastness, and a gateway to it. We say She rather than It, rejecting the impersonal object in favor of a numinous and melodic approach to consciousness. In the same spirit, many of us prefer to say Goddess rather than “the Goddess,” which carries a sense of A Thing rather than Being, Essence, and Presence.
However she is understood (and whether she is experienced in relational or conceptual ways) we address what we hold sacred through this mirror of Goddess. We know this will create a profound transformative impact on the patriarchal world we live in. The opening of cultural doors that have been slammed shut and tightly locked up for millennia is momentous and hugely significant. Invoking the names and images of Goddess answers a deep hunger in women, and among a growing number of men, to restore balance, for justice and truth. This longing is felt beyond pagan circles. It’s a call, a cry mounting from women in the majoritarian religions, propelling a movement that transcends traditional religious boundaries.
Part II of this article (in the next edition of The Goddess Pages) looks at how the “Western” heritage of academia has shaped the heretical status Goddess discourse.