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Goddess
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Goddess

A goddess, a female deity, contrasts with male deities, 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 of the conventional genders and in some cases even hermaphroditic deities. The Goddess can provide a female version of or analogue to God; sometimes, the relationship is more rooted in monism, as opposed to a straight-cut monotheism or polytheism, and the Goddess and God are seen as part of one transcendental monad.

Table of contents
1 Hinduism
2 Judaism & Christianity
3 Other traditional religions
4 Neopaganism
5 The Goddess movement
6 See also

Hinduism

Hinduism admits a complex belief system that sees many gods and goddesses as being representative of and/or emanative from a single source, either a formless, infinite, impersonal monad known as Brahman, or a single God seen by some sects as Vishnu, others Shiva, or still others Devi, the mother goddess, providing a large range of belief system with Vedic scripture. Thus, many analogues between passive male ground and dynamic female energy have lead to the personification of such energies as male and female pairs, often envisioned as male gods and their wives. The transcendent monad, Brahman, transcends categories but its representation through the existential duality that is limited by time, space and causation, simply put the universe as we know it, occurs through the categories of male God and female energy, working as a pair. Brahma pairs with Sarasvati, Vishnu with Lakshmi, and Shiva with Uma, Parvati, or Durga. Kali is a form of Parvati. A further step was taken by the idea of the shaktas, or Hindu worshippers of the Goddess. Their, and much of Hindu tantra's, ideology sees Shakti as the principle of energy through which all divinity functions, thus showing the masculine to be dependent on the feminine. Indeed, in the great shakta scripture known as the Devi Mahatmya, all the goddesses are shown to be aspects of one presiding female force, one in truth and many in expression, giving the world and the cosmos the galvanic energy for motion. It is expressed through both philosophical tracts and metaphor that the potentiality of masculine being is given actuation by the feminine divine. The strong monist bent in Hinduism defies polytheist or monotheist categorization and for this reason local deities of different village regions in India are easily seen by outsiders as their own Goddess in different form.

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Judaism & Christianity

Monotheist cultures, which recognise only one central deity, generally do not recognise Goddess; recent history has overwhelmingly presented the single Deity as male, constantly using the masculine pronoun "he", and images like "Father", "Son", and "Lord". This trend has almost entirely excluded the feminine pronoun "she" as sacred, and images such as "Mother", "Daughter", and "Lady" as divine.

Some mystics within the monotheist religions have used these feminine forms, such as the early Christian Collyridians, who viewed Mary as a Goddess; the medieval visionary Julian of Norwich; the Judaic Shekinah and the Gnostic Sophia traditions; and discreetly expressed Sufi texts in Islam. But these teachings have never held a central place in monotheisms, and one can question whether including a female aspect of deity in a fundamentally male mythos suffices to mean Goddess.

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Other traditional religions

Religions which recognise many deities as forms of the divine, in other words most ancestral religions, have no difficulty in including female deities. In "women's religions", a Goddess is surprisingly not typical, although such religions certainly never centre on a monotheist God (Sered Goddess, Mother, Sacred Sister 1996) and often lack deities as Westernerss understand them.

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Neopaganism

Wiccan and Neopagan practice includes veneration of the Great Goddess along with the Horned God. While not all Pagans make the God an important part of their religion, 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).

Terminology

Notes on terms:

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 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's more sexist notions, such as a desire to retire older priestesses in favour of young pretty ones. Gardner also collaborated with a woman he called 'Dafo', who later dropped out of sight, and thus the extent of her contribution is unknown. It is also important to acknowledge Western Paganism as following 19th-century occultism and romantic nature movements, where the female sacred is more valued in contrast to and perhaps in reaction to mainstream Christian spirituality.

Perhaps the most influential priestess in the Goddess movement has been Starhawk, author of the international best seller "The Spiral Dance" 1979 (and other works since) whose clarity, imagination, insight and love of political magic has done so much to spark the growth of Goddess spirituality. The book still stands as a classic of modern paganism. Starhawk is the most famous student of Zsuzsanna Budapest (Zee) who twinned witchcraft, from her Hungarian background, with USA feminism, to create the women-only Dianic Craft. Separatism (women living for short or longer periods without male contacts) was, in the 1980s, an influence on Pagan ideas of gender: since women needed to learn independence, it was argued, separatism is useful medicine, as well as a inspiration of lost wholeness. Separatism, in a world where gender misunderstanding is common, is sometimes considered as dangerous as it is divisive, though it is most unlikely to become a dominant trend. Zee is still considered the honoured Mother of Dianic Craft, although as many criticise her as love her, or do both.

Starhawk's Paganism drew on the polarity of Wicca, and blended this with Dianic separatism, in the context of a women's movement exploding internationally. Her followers consider her 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.

Mother Earth

Recently strong associations have arisen of the Goddess with Mother Earth (or Mother Nature), and with the Moon. These metaphors have very wide currency, to the point of becoming assumed as dogma, but some Pagans affectionately criticise them. Many cultures -- the Celts and the Egyptians, for example -- do not figure the Moon or the Earth (see Geb) as female, although the popular Western model certainly lent itself to phallic imagery at the time of the Moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Mother Earth motif usefully joins deep emotional loyalties to our mothers and to the ecological needs of the planet. Since mothering can become targeted so easily as a key resource for supposed 'female inferiority', a thealogy that unambiguously views childbirth and childcare as sacred meets with a warm welcome. Provocatively, Monica Sjoo's painting of 'God giving birth' -- a cartoon of a female outline with a globe/head emerging in soothing blue-greys -- came under a ban from exhibition imposed by her local council on grounds of "obscenity". However, the Mother Earth mythos can also backfire in the case of those whose mothering remained less than wonderful, and some feminists question the over-emphasis on (biological) mothering at a time when increasing numbers of women either refuse, limit, or feel great ambivalence about it. Goddess culture therefore makes much of spiritual mothering (i.e. creativity), mothering the vulnerable, and mothering the planet.

10,000 Names & Symbols

The Goddess can appear as the "Lady of the Ten Thousand Names", as did Isis. Adherents refer to her as 'Queen of Heaven', 'Lady of the Beasts', 'Creatrix' and just 'the Lady.' Worshippers sometimes approach her through her different aspects, represented by individual goddesses like Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Uma, Kali (of the Hindu tradition) Isis, Guan Yin, Pele or Athena.

A note on the Hindu view of the mother goddess is that while they are seen as individuals the larger mother goddess worship often sees them subsumed into a larger feminine divine as well. The Hindu liturgy of 108, or even 1008, names is common and the Divine Mother is seen in this multifaceted light as well. Aspects of symbolic mandala (circular meditative designs) and yoni (vagina) reverence are central to certain left-hand forms of Hindu tantra, and the intricate figures drawn (known as yantras) are parallels to other similar signs such as are found in the West to represent the feminine divine.

Some Wiccans perceive the goddess Aradia as a kind of messianic Daughter deity. They revere the yoni or vulva 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 (compare Celtic Cross), and many animals and birds.

Triple Goddess

Goddesses or demi-goddesses appear in sets of three in a number of ancient European pagan mythologies; these include the Greek Erinyes (Furies) and Moirae (Fates); the Norse Norns (Fates); Brighid and her two sisters, also called Brighid, from Irish mythology, and so on. One might also see the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth as following this pattern. Robert Graves popularised the triad of "Maiden" (or "Virgin"), "Mother" and "Crone", and while this idea did not rest on sound scholarship, his poetic inspiration has gained a tenacious hold.

Considerable variation in the precise conceptions of these figures exists, as typically occurs in Neopaganism and indeed in pagan religions in general. Some choose to interpret them as three stages in a woman's life, separated by menarche and menopause. Others find this too biologically based and rigid, and prefer a freer interpretation, with the Maiden as birth (independent, self-centred, seeking), the Mother as giving birth (interrelated, compassionate nurturing, creating), and the Crone as death and renewal (wholistic, remote, unknowable_ — and all three erotic and wise. Often three of the four phases of the moon (waxing, full, waning) symbolise the three aspects of the Triple Goddess: put together they appear in a single symbol comprising a circle flanked by two mirrored crescents.

Some, however, find the triple incomplete, and prefer to add a fourth aspect. This might be a Dark Goddess or Wisewoman, perhaps as suggested by the missing dark of the moon in the symbolism above, or it might be a specifically erotic goddess standing for a phase of life between Maiden (Virgin) and Mother.

The Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone has also reached modern popular culture, such as Neil Gaiman's own conception of the Furies in The Sandman, and elsewhere.

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 involved 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 represent the Divine Lover 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.

The Goddess movement

Terminology

In the Goddess movement is commonly found a distinction between "goddesses" and "The Goddess":

goddess (small 'g') refers to a local or specific deity, linked clearly to a particular culture and probably to particular powers (e.g. the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, Athene supervisory goddess of Athens or Hindu goddesses like Sarasvati goddess of learning and wisdom, Durga goddess of war, and Lakshmi goddess of wealth, goddess of craft technology esp. weaving.) Anthropologists in their studies of goddesses have noted that adherents of goddesses often view their own goddess 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 is a recent (unattributed) contribution to Goddess vocabulary, following on from Mary Daly's suggestion that Deity is too dynamic, too much in process, changing continually, to be a noun, and should better be spoken as a Verb (following Buckminster Fuller's "God is 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 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.

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 monotheism has space for only 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 towards masculinity. However many devotees who prefer to focus only on their Goddess are not anti-male, but pro-female in their inspirations.

Background

Inclusive spirituality in the West has gained ground since the 19th century, when Matilda Joslyn Gage introduced living female Deity to American feminists, while her contemporary, the Swiss Joseph Jakob Bachofen, increased the attention given in Europe to prehistoric matriarchal goddess cultures. Communist countries accepted this version of history via Engels, and Western prehistory conventionally prefaced the history 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.

One or Many?

Goddess Spirituality characteristically shows diversity: no central body defines its dogma. One recent debate discusses whether one Goddess or many goddesses exist (Asphodel Long 1997), but some consider this 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 an allegedly post-modern worldview sometimes expressed as "all goddesses are one Goddess".

Certainly the concept of a singular divine being with many expressions is not a new development in thought: it has been a major theme in India for many centuries, at the very least as far back as the 5th century CE, though hymns in the early Vedas too speak of a one-Goddess-many-goddesses concept.

But many involved in more traditional cultural paths find the attitude hegemonising and appropriative when applied to their own gods and goddesses. When Isis, Astarte, Diana and Hecate, four quite different deities from different cultures and with only one thing in common, become identified as one figure, one may reasonably ask what one has lost. One might even regard this sort of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative form of monotheism, engulfing and consuming other deities instead of denying and destroying them. Unfortunately, monotheism does not capture the true idea that lies behind the idea of singular being with many expressions. Hindus, who most naturally accept this idea, do not see it as destruction but an admission of oneness that has always underlied the faith in all of its sects. Admittedly, the new-age trend of reviving goddesses from old faiths can be a theologically complex issue, especially when the faiths from which they are drawn were truly polytheistic in that they did not admit an overarching singularity to the beings and saw them as completely stratified.

Moreover, this attitude may inappropriately emphasise gender at the expense of other aspects of divinity. For some deities, gender seems a relatively unimportant attribute, or else fluid. For instance, the Yamato sun-goddess Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kami may once have been a male deity (Tsuda, referenced in Philippi's note on Kojiki 14:4). And in Norse mythology, Freya and Frey are said to be twins, suggesting they can be interpreted as two aspects of one being, and the same may be true of Nerthus and Njord (and possibly other Vanir), or alternatively, Njord may have derived from Nerthus. Those who have a personal or cultural religious relationship with these deities often consider it inappropriate to decontextualise them from their complex stories, including stories of gender, and to subject them to a binary gender test for inclusion in someone else's "Goddess".

Ethics

Also problematic remain 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 inspired by a Goddess that is Love, drawing on a compassionate, protective model of femininity, frequently the Mother, contrasted with a harsher experience of masculinity in our world. This 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 co-operative values, and some theories of this school profile a dialectical conflict between aggressive technological masculine cultures, and co-operative feminine ones, closer to nature (see Elinor Gadon).

On the other hand, others express devotion to a Goddess who incorporates both dark and light, the loving and the terrible, who is indeed 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, known as Kali-Ma (Mother Kali) by her devotees, is often mistaken as a cruel goddess by those ignorant of the Hindu tradition. But much like the Judaic God of the Old Testament, Kali is seen in India as the dark and destructive aspect of the harmonious balance that is God and dharma. Unfortunately, different theological worldviews in the West obstruct understanding of Kali as she has by HIndus not only recently, but practically from her incipience. The concept is that the corrective force in a dark age must be a righteously directed dark force. Thus, to combat the demons of ignorance, ego, anger, etc. the darker aspect of God manifests. Later on even her fierce image was seen to soften in the love of her devotees. Her duality is easily reconciled with the monism of Hinduism, which understands the fundamental unity of truth as being impersonal and stratified in an ego-knotted existence (such as the human condition), and thus to the evil or unrigteous she is destruction personified and to the loving and moral devotee she is nothing but the love of the mother.

In this view, a wholly compassionate Goddess is considered partial and romantic, quite possibly founded on a social stereotype of women, and unhistorical when examined against examples of goddesses of war, child rejection, and ethical indifference. Coherent with this is the notion that women are too much mutilated into compulsory compassion that is a passive slavery (Valerie Saiving 1967).

But this raises the question of ethics, neatly paralleling the Problem of Evil in Christian theology. If Goddess is Everything, including violence and suffering, can there be a meaningful "Goddess Ethics"? Devotees of such a Goddess answer this by drawing from the wealth of tradition and lore surrounding the complex Deity, which encompasses a manyfaced divine, to find an attractive ethical system, rather than simplistically asserting that every "action of the Goddess" (i.e. everything) is an tutelary example of ethical behaviour. For instance, those who draw on the Triple Goddess motif (see below) might explore the properly caring Mother, 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).

Others take a more experiential view, and consider that all such theological (or thealogical) matters are only meaningful as revealed truths to be explored in the context of a personal relationship with Deity, and that they lose coherent meaning when straying too far from the "altar within".

Prehistoric Matriarchy

Many Goddess devotees believe the Great Goddess functioned as the Deity of a universal pre-historical matriarchial religion. This faith model has come under heavy critique, and while evidence clearly suggests many examples of early Goddess religions (notably Marija Gimbutas 'Old Europe'), and matriarchal cities and cultures frequently appeared widespread [the myth of the Amazons, for example], the story is not universally agreed upon. Since the 1960's, scholars have discredited the idea that humanity passed through matriarchal and patriarchal stages of development.

[Several points of arguement must be raised here that question these assumptions. The historical and social records available certainly point to a worldwide system of male-oriented societies, whose laws, customs, norms, mores, and beliefs are crafted to be favorable to males. That these societal structures are not universal is demostrated not only by their variance among the different societies but by their ability to be changed and mutated within a particular society, without the society itself ceasing to be able to function. Ideas (and their application) about women acquiring property or voting rights, for example, have produced resistance, but not a drastic dissolution of the society, or its ability to function. In addition, it has been demonstrated that children must be instructed in defining (and replicating) the qualities of a society (namely its norms, mores, and beliefs) since these are not universal, which suggests patriarchy is a teaching, not an ingrained response.

Another point of contention is that matriarchal cultures, if they did exist, could very easily have relied upon an oral-tradition. Many indigenous tribes (both patriarchal and matriarchal) rely (or have relied) upon the oral method to pass along the societies teachings, and the disappearance of many tribes and cultures (especially those whose emphasis was on the oral tradition) demonstrates the fragility of those records. Also, the advent of cultures/societies based upon written records allow emerging cultures the opportunity to 'rewrite' history. One has only to consider the portrayal of the Native American culture in the U.S. during the 1800's (with its emphasis on savagery, hostility, and impediment to the U.S.'s own idea of sovereignty,) coupled with the tribes decimated presance, to understand how easily a culture/society can be de-legitamized and/or erased. The lack by scholars to find evidence supporting an idea of alternating developments of society (matriarchal/patriarchal), in light of such an understanding, is inconclusive at best.]

Goddess religion can provide support for patriarchy or for a conquering king (note the much-loved Inanna) or it can counsel submission, as in some forms of Hinduism. The famous paleolithic goddess figurines may not have serced as deity images at all, though we cannot know either way, and modern observers certainly often see them as such now.

Earth Goddess

Some feel that the connection between Goddess and (currently admired) Nature is not more than a recent myth, since ancient goddesses were usually the icons of civilisation and law that aimed to control nature. They claim that what we may see as gentle and beautiful Nature has been to struggling farmers a coldhearted, ungiving goddess. The idea of a 'world wide Web of Life' (sic) is not, like the idea of the Earth Goddess, new, however, nor concocted artificially. Parvati, a Hindu goddess, is seen as sprung of earth, and fertility goddesses found not only in the Indian subcontinent but all over the world attest to a widespread culture that associated the large and virile mother figure with rich harvest and crops. In traditions that can be seen to stretch back at least until the early 1st millennium CE, Indian farmers will often see the welfare of their crops through the lens of their local goddess deity.

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 question 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 many 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 can 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.

Related publications

MatriFocus A cross-quarterly web magazine for and by Goddess women.

See also