Pythia’s Warning: Women’s Spirituality and the Oracular Tradition

by Patricia Monaghan

Priestess of Delphi (1891) artist: John CollierWhen, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.

Do these words sound familiar?  American readers probably guess that it’s part of The Declaration of Independence.  European readers might think of Mary Wollstonecraft or another early feminist.

Both wrong.  Now read a little further:

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. 

“He allows her in church, as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.

“He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.

“He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.

“He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

Painting of Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) - artist Joseph KyleThese are the words of the Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled upon the American Declaration of Independence, from whence it takes its somber and yet inciting tone.  The document was adopted by the first women’s rights convention, called by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.  Stanton and Mott had been delegates to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where the event almost dissolved in dissention over whether the women delegates would be allowed to participate.  After several days of argument, the men decided that the women could sit in the bleachers but would not be permitted to speak—an insult which our activist foremothers felt deeply.  Upon returning to America, they dissected their experience and, realizing it was in microcosm the experience of all women excluded from power, determined to act.  They put out a call for women and sympathetic men to attend a women’s congress, and the rest is herstory.

Penned almost 160 years ago, the words of the Declaration of Sentiments still resonate today.  For although some injustices to which early American feminists called attention have been rectified—we can vote, we can gain an education, we can own property in our own names even if married—in one arena we are still not equal.  And that is the realm of religion.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton House, Seneca FallsAt the museum honoring that historic women’s conference in Seneca Falls, lavish exhibits laud women’s progress in politics, education, sports.  But about religion—nothing.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton would have been furious, but she would not have been surprised.  As historian Maureen Fitzgerald Stanton says in the introduction to the new edition of Stanton’s classic A Woman’s Bible, “Elizabeth … would not be surprised to find that newly invigorated religious orthodoxy has for the past decade constituted the most significant popular front against modern feminist in America …. Stanton did not believe that women’s increased political and economic power would in itself negate the degree to which conservative religious ideologies and institutions tended to legitimate the oppression of women.”  Elizabeth was a true visionary, foreseeing the circumstances in which we live today:  “Stanton … feared in the 1880s and 1890s that the new adherents to the suffrage cause, the large evangelical contingent who not only supported Christian orthodoxy but based their political agendas on it, would use the vote for conservative and regressive ends.”  Does that sound like the world in which we live today?

Yet countering the increase in orthodox patriarchal power has been a simultaneous rise in the number of women who are engaged in a quest towards understanding and honoring women’s spirituality.  We may call ourselves Wiccan or pagan or heathen.  We may even call ourselves by more conventional terms, Catholic or Quaker or Jewish.  But we all believe in the spiritual power of women and do not doubt that we are the spiritual equals of our brothers, fathers, sons.

There are certainly women in this movement who do not consider themselves feminist. I regularly encounter strong women who live lives unimaginable a generation ago but who declare themselves “post-feminist” or “not a feminist, but I believe in equal pay for equal work” (or fill in another feminist goal).  But any woman of spirit should be wary of declaring the feminist revolution complete.  The one area in which the patriarchy is settling in most fiercely is in that final frontier, women’s equal religious rights.

Not long ago, The New York Times carried a long article about how little progress women are making in mainstream Protestant denominations.  Although more than 50% of the graduates of liberal Protestant seminaries in the United States are now women, they are priests without pulpits; only 1% of fulltime jobs are filled by women, who serve as assistant pastors and substitutes but rarely find steady work.  Failure to attract a male priest is seen by congregations as a disappointment, while having a woman priest means “settling.”

And that’s the case in supposedly liberal American Protestantism.  The backlash against women in Catholicism (where the most misogynist pope in recent history now holds the reins), Judaism and Islam continues to grow more extreme.  Look around you: we are an endangered species, we who proclaim equal rights for women’s rites and women’s rituals.

Ronald Hutton, in his influential book Triumph of the Moon, connects what is broadly known as women’s spirituality with Wicca and then announces that our movement is rooted in English occultism.  Wicca, he argues, is the first international religion to come from England, and it had its roots in a set of rituals invented in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner.  Gardner, in turn, derived his “witchcraft” from an eclectic lot of sources, primary among them rites of that deeply symbolic and hierarchical secret society, the Freemasons, but also from such occult organizations as the Order of the Golden Dawn and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, as well as from intellectual movements such as German Romanticism.  The European folklore revival, especially through the work of the American journalist Charles Leland and the wide-ranging armchair anthropology of Sir James George Fraser, was also important to creating the environment in which Gardner made his spurious claim of being part of a centuries-long secret religion based in English folk tradition.  It is this heritage to which Hutton and his followers link our movement.  Because we use the term Wiccan and because (in some cases) we trace initiations through a heritage that includes Gardnerians, we are—Hutton claims—direct lineal descendants of Gardner.

I admit to being more than a little perplexed when I read Hutton’s argument.   I trace my awakening as a spiritual woman to feminism and to my growing realization that monotheistic religion excludes me and that, therefore, I must move beyond it.  That the most available form of polytheistic practice in America over the last 30 years has been paganism does not mean that I trace my intellectual and spiritual heritage to Gerald Gardner, as Hutton argues, claiming that we all descend from Starhawk, who was initiated as young woman into a Gardnerian coven.

Parenthetically, I must call attention to the sexism that pervades Hutton’s discussion of Starhawk’s work as well as that of other important thealogians.  He dismisses Starhawk’s prose as “heaving with emotion” and claims that her “religion (was) ... not theology but poetry.”  He more than once uses the word “notion” to describe Starhawk’s theories and ultimately derides her as “not an original thinker.”   Hutton treats feminist foremother Z Budapest even worse, covering her contributions in a half-paragraph and overruling Z’s own description of her work as derived from the feminist classicist Jane Ellen Harrison by saying “her work also shows signs of the influence of Leland and Gardner” (conveniently, both men).  Carol Christ is never mentioned, but anti-goddess campaigner Cynthia Eller is invoked several times.

Given Hutton’s sexism, is he really a credible source on which to build an understanding of the history of women’s alternative religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?  I think not.  I am probably not alone in having been a practicing Dianic for years before I ever heard of Gerald Gardner.  Reading Triumph of the Moon was like looking in a distorting mirror.  There were parts of my experience I recognized, but the whole was twisted out of shape.  Yes, we often call the quarters, have guardians, invoke using an athalme.  But I would be perfectly willing to give up all such rites that derive from an invented English tradition, and my religion would be the same.  Because for me, form is far less important than the meaning invested in the ritual.  And the meaning of our rituals is that women are powerful spiritual beings whose essence is expressed in magnificent stories, told for eons around the world, of the great goddesses of all human culture; and that our power manifests itself in psychic attunement with the earth, our planetary mother.

I am here today to propose a different vision of the heritage of women’s spirituality, and especially Dianic Wicca, than that offered by Hutton and his followers.  The movement, I believe, has its roots in the continuing struggle of women to define our spiritual realities and our power in a patriarchal world.  We trace our origin, not to Freemasons, but to the suffragists who saw clearly that patriarchal religion is just poppycock.  As Gerda Lerner has shown in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, individual women have, time after time, awakened to the oppressiveness of patriarchal religion and have, over and over, struggled to define spiritual feminist, only to be erased from history.  A hundred years later, another woman has the blinding insight that women are spiritually powerful, only (again) to have that insight buried with her upon her death.  Let us not let that happen again.  Let us resist the redefinition of our movement as descended from the fathers, rather than the mothers.  As a Dianic, I am born of feminists, not Freemasons.

In addition, I believe, we are descended from an ancient women’s mystical  tradition, one that draws from many different cultural sources, including those indigenous to both Europe and to America.  That is the tradition of the oracle.

Before going on, let me define two important terms: mystic and oracle.  The first is common in comparative religion, but its meaning has not been analyzed in gendered terms.  Evelyn Underhill employed the term in her comprehensive study of moments of timeless union with the universe.  It’s been called “cosmic consciousness” (Bucke) and “ecstasy” (Siefert) and “transcendent experience” (Maslow).  Unfortunately Underhill eliminates all but Christian experience from consideration as “mystical.”  She loathes that the word is:

 “one of the most abused words in the English language...claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious and aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics... (but also) freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have criticized these things.”

Guilty as charged.  I do want to employ the word for the kind of experience that made Underhill shudder:  occult, transcendental, symbolic, and metaphysical.  I want to note, however, that conventional religious theorists describe mysticism almost invariably in terms of solitary experience that has no relational outcome—no change in relationship to others or to society results from the experience.  Rather, these scholars have argued, mystical union leaves the mystic in relation with the universe but not necessarily with other people.  I believe Dianic practice indicates otherwise.

As for “oracle,” it is a word that I have chosen carefully, for it typically calls up images of tarot cards, runes or other oracular systems.  But although “oracular” today typically refers to “fortune-telling” systems, the term also conjures up one of the great spiritual leaders of the ancient world, the oracle named Pythia.  For twelve hundred years or so, Pythia was the most renowned sage of the Mediterranean.  Literally millions of people traveled to her shrine at Delphi, from kings asking for advice on how to conduct matters of state to ordinary people in love, hoping to be told that their affection was returned.

The most famous story about Pythia tells of how the Lydian king, Croesus (as in “rich as Croesus”) sent out minions around the ancient world to test the divinatory wisdom of the seven most famous oracles.  The test:  to say exactly what the king was doing at the moment the oracle was quizzed, one hundred days after the testers were sent forth.  The words of each oracle were written down and delivered to the king, who compared them.  Pythia’s words were as follows:  “I count the grains of sand and measure the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless.  The smell has come to my sense of a hard-shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot.  The cauldron underneath is of bronze and of bronze the lid.”  At the moment in question, Croesus was making lamb-and-tortoise stew, and so Pythia was proclaimed the winner.

You have probably heard the remainder of the story: Croesus then asked Pythia if he should invade Persia, and she answered that if he did “a mighty kingdom would fall.”  Interpreting the oracle as a sign to go ahead, Croesus went up against the armies of Persia’s Cyrus the Great, who utterly defeated him.  Thus was Pythia proven correct, for a mighty empire DID fall—just not the one Croesus expected.

Pythia originally served the earth-goddess, Gaia.  She has also been connected with the goddess of justice and the social bond, Themis.  But after the takeover of Greece by patriarchal Hellenes, Pythia became a servant of the mouse-god Apollo.  The exact mechanism for bringing forth visions at Delphi has been debated for centuries, with a recent book by science writer William Broad (The Oracle) offering convincing research into earth-borne vapors, just as attested in ancient texts.  But however she attained her visions, Pythia served her people, articulating information that informed the decisions of seekers.  In this, she is like many women today, for practice of divination and fore-seeing is a significant part of the practice of many contemporary women of spirit.  In fact, I would argue that systematic use of divinatory systems and other mystical disciplines is more central to women’s spirituality than such ritual forms as use of an athalme and calling on the watchtowers of the west.

Our use of such spiritual disciplines ties us to an age-old tradition, much older than Gardnerian witchcraft.  Systems for moving between the worlds are found in many, if not most, cultures and are not limited to the ancient Greek.  Contemporary women still practices the Nordic seidr, wherein an entranced priestess gains access to knowledge beyond her normal ken, or many forms of Asian or American shamanism, in which the shaman rides on the drum into visions of other times and places.   The arts, too, have been used in oracular ways; my Irish ancestors believed in the bard as an oracular being.  As I wrote in The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog, poetry and divination were connected among the ancient Irish:

“(To) my Celtic ancestors—whose very word for poet meant “seer”—...poets were magicians and prophets, what Jerome Rothenberg called 'technicians of the sacred'.  Poets had access to occult knowledge called fíos or imbas, a sudden simultaneity of inner and outer worlds that folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin describes as “fire within water.”

Think of poetry as a tree, rooted in the past, extending through the present, into the airy future.  Celtic tradition married speech and spirit; poets used chanted revision to forge poems from their visions.  Becoming a poet back then took longer than becoming a doctor does now.  Years were devoted to memorizing almost four hundred tales in sixteen categories including cattle raids, voyages and elopements.  Only after mastering that repertoire did one learn composition, practiced in silence and darkness, the better to open to imbas.  Those years of rote learning strengthened memory to the point where writing was unnecessary, for poems were “composed in the mind and not on paper, retained in the memory and not in books, recited to audiences, heard and not read,” in the words of Rhys Carpenter, a scholar of oral literature.

Completion of a dozen years of study entitled the poet to wear a costume symbolizing her ability to move between worlds:  the tuigen, a multicolored cloak of feathers from swans and mallards, birds equally agile in several elements; and the tinkling belled branch—gold, silver or bronze, depending on the level of skill—that represented the tree of life and of poetry.

Had I lived then, had I been a poet then, I would have been familiar with many altered states of composition: imbas forasnai or “light of foresight,” in which after chewing raw meat—bull, pig, even cat—I would recite incantations into my hands; teinm laeghda, or “illumination of rhymes,” in which I would use metaphors to prognosticate; dechetal do chennaib, “composing on one’s finger-ends,” a kind of psychometry that brought instantaneous knowledge that was just as instantaneously spoken.  Like other banfhili  (woman poets), I would have been also bandrui (a druid), a member of what religious theorist Marie-Louise Sjoestedt called Ireland’s “scholar-magician class.”  Prophecy and poetry gave poet-druids great power.  Literary critic Walter Ong tells us that in oral cultures, names grant power over the objects named.  Because the basic poetic technique—metaphor—names one thing then changes it to another, a poet could transform the world.  Had I lived then, had I been a poet then, my transformative power would have been both feared and revered.

What is important in considering these traditions is the connection of oracle to community as well as to the cosmos.  Underhill and others who have written about mysticism in western culture presume a solitary, often nature-based experience.  But in indigenous societies, shamanic and other visionary activities were employed to serve the community rather than for personal religious or emotional satisfaction.  In the arctic, the shaman journeyed to find where the caribou herd’s migration route had moved to, because otherwise the people would starve.  The Celtic bard entered a deep trance to discover what in the king’s behavior was causing drought, flood or famine, so that the problem could be magically corrected.  The Delphi oracle advised her community in matters both personal and global.

Women today continue to practice the arts of the oracle, but we do not always embed our work in the context of community.  I have to admit I have been guilty myself of using divination for entirely personal reasons.   My favorite moment was when I was waiting for word as to whether I had been appointed to the faculty position I now hold.  I knew that the dean, David Justice, was making the decision on a certain day.  I sat by the phone; I checked my email hourly (well, more than hourly).  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  My anxiety grew and grew.  Finally I took out my tarot deck and talked to it.  “Just one card, I’m going to draw just one card,” I wheedled.  “Just one.”  And pulled a card.

The card was: Justice.

“Ha-ha,” I said to the cards, “very funny, now I’m going to draw another card, and stop playing jokes on me.”  And I shuffled and shuffled and shuffled, then drew another card.

You know what it was: Justice.

There is nothing wrong with such behavior, but the role of the oracle is bigger and more important than the merely personal.  Today our planet is suffering the ravages of centuries of inappropriate technologies.  Gaia is responding, for all her systems are interconnected, so that when we dilute the oceans with waters from glaciers melted by warming caused by our burning of fossil fuel, we see gigantic storms fueled by the warming water.  This is a time when the oracle must speak.

For we are part of that interconnected system too.  Our foremothers knew that when they devised their oracular systems and tools.  In the oracular space, women have for eons moved into connection with the earth and her rhythms, discovering information vital to community survival.  Women practice many mystical and oracular systems that permit the earth to speak through us.  What if we begin to use our oracular knowledge to find out what Gaia needs us to know today?  What if we did tarot readings for our watershed, what if we journeyed for our trees?

The knowledge accessible through oracular mysticism reaches beyond our daily concerns.  When we join our consciousness to Gaia’s, we assume the important cloak of the woman oracle, serving our planetary community by bringing back information inaccessible in other ways.  I believe that we must, as women, reclaim that power and that responsibility.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton worried that simply giving women the vote while religion remained a male preserve would result in more votes cast under the spell of patriarchal values.  We live in a day when that prophecy has come true.  How can we turn the tide?  Let us not be like the coven of California witches of whom I heard, who cast a spell over George Bush but didn’t bother to vote.  No magic is strong enough that the gift of the suffragists can be disdained.  No: political action is necessary, and voting is imperative.  But we need magic on our side as well.  We need to resume employing our oracular powers for the good of our community—a community that includes the rocks and the soil, the trees and the birds, the fish and the waters in which they swim.

Above the cave of the oracle at Delphi were the famous words, “Know thyself.”  While that can seem solipsistic and self-absorbed, I read it as meaning “know thy power.”  As a women of spirit, I know that power includes the powers of far-seeing and far-hearing, of reading the future from its roots in the past.  Let us take up our position again as oracles and mystics and claim the right to speak for the earth and her many children.  For if we do not, who will?

Note:  This essay was originally delivered as the keynote speech at the 2006 Daughers of Diana conference in the central United States; thanks to Ruth Barrett for creating the space to develop these ideas.

Bibliography

Hutton, Ronald.  Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Monaghan, Patricia.  The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit.  Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady.  A Woman’s Bible.  Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
Lerner, Gerda.  The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Underhill, Evelyn.  Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness.  New York: World Publishing Company, 1955.
Broad, William.  The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets.  New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

 

Patricia Monaghan

Patricia Monaghan died in November 2012.  She had been professor of interdisciplinary studies at DePaul University and was a widely-published author, a winner of the Pushcart Prize and the Friends of Literature award for her work. She produced four books of poetry, including Dancing with Chaos (Salmon Poetry), a book that explores chaos theory through poetic images. Her most recent book of poetry is Homefront (Word Tech Editions), a book that explores the lasting impact of war on families of psychologically-wounded veterans.
She was a frequent collaborator with musicians who set her work to music, most recently folk composer Michael Smith, whose Celtic-inspired art-song settings of Patricia's poetry have been released on the CD, Songs of the Kerry Madwoman, while the Alaska a capella group the Derry Aires did a two-CD compilation of Patricia's poetry under the title, Seasons of the Witch.
In nonfiction, Patricia was an active scholar and author. She wrote two encyclopediae of mythology: The Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines (Greenwood Press) and The Encyclopedia of Celtic Myth and Folklore (Facts on File). Her most recent nonfiction book, The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog , explores ecology, myth and folklore in Ireland. She was also author of an introduction to goddess spirituality entitled The Goddess Path (Llewellyn Worldwide), a book of translations of classic goddess poetry (The Goddess Companion, Llewellyn Worldwide) and a book of goddess stories for girls (Wild Girls, Creatrix Press).
Patricia was also one of the founders of Black Earth Institute: connecting earth, spirit and society through the arts.

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