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Goddess

A goddess is a female deity. Compare to 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 sometimes hermaphroditic deities. The Goddess provides a female version of or analogue to God; although followers of the Goddess do not necessarily espouse monotheism.

Table of contents
1 Terms
2 Polytheism and monotheism
3 Non-religious Goddessing
4 Paganism
5 Goddess related publications
6 See also

Terms

goddess

(small 'g') refers to a local or specific deity, linked clearly to a particular place and probably to particular powers (e.g. the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, Athene supervisory goddess of Athens, Sarasvati goddess of learning and wisdom, Durga goddess of war, 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

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

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.

Polytheism and monotheism

Polytheist religions -- which recognise many deities as forms of the divine -- such as Hinduism and 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.

In Hinduism, the goddess Shakti represents the principle of energy through which divinity functions. The transcendent god, Brahman, transcends categories but its representation through the mind 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 just a form of Parvati.

Monotheist cultures, which recognise only one central deity, find it much more difficult to 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 recent 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.

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

Nonetheless, inclusive spirituality 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".

But many involved in more traditional cultural paths find this 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.

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-ma is a Great Goddess whose savage violence teaches us how cruel Goddess can be. Yet she is often diminished the other way in the West as only the Terrible Mother, when she is in Bengal -- her heartland -- just as much the devoted, Benevolent 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 complex Deity, which encompasses a manyfaced divine, to find an attractive ethics, 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".

Earth Goddess

Nor is the connection between Goddess and (currently admired) Nature any more than a recent myth, since ancient goddesses were usually the icons of civilisation and law that aimed to control nature. What we may see as gentle and beautiful Nature has been to struggling farmers a coldhearted, ungiving goddess.

However, even if we stand back and debunk the romantic wing of Goddess Spirituality, it still shows considerable social influence, and its revaluing of an assertive compassion that recognises a world wide Web of Life (sic) can be welcome to the romantic heart and the scholarly brain alike. 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.

Paganism

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

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 as so often this story privileges the male, because 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 when his anti-sexism fell into contradictions, 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 how Western Paganism has roots going back through 19th-century occultism and romantic nature movements to earlier transmissions from colonial sources, where the female sacred survived intact, or was less suppressed.

Perhaps the most influential priestess of all 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 huge growth of Goddess spirituality. The book still stands as an unsurpassed 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 birth the amazon tenderness of Dianic Craft (women only). Separatism (women living for short or longer periods without male contacts) was, in the 1980s, a major analytic and inspirational source that renewed Wicca and brought Paganism into a more realistic recognition of Goddess and anti-sexism. Since women needed to learn independence, separatism was, and still can be, useful medicine, as well as a beautiful inspiration of lost wholeness. Separatism, in a world where gender misunderstanding is common, can seem dangerous as it is divisive, though it is most unlikely to become a dominant trend. Zee is still the honoured Mother of Dianic Craft, although as so often her strength of character means as many criticise her as love her, or do both.

Starhawk's Paganism drew on the polarity of Wicca, and magically blended this mystical embrace of women and men, with the searing critique of Dianic separatism, in the context of an exploding women's movement internationally. She stands as 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.

Terminology

Notes on terms:

Mother Earth

There has been strong recent association of the Goddess with Mother Earth (or Mother Nature), and with the Moon. These metaphors are very popular, to the point of being assumed as dogma, but some Pagans are affectionately critical of 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 Moon landings.

The Mother Earth motif usefully joins deep emotional loyalties to our mothers to the ecological needs of the planet. Since mothering can be targeted so easily as a key resource for supposed 'female inferiority', a thealogy that unambiguously views childbirth and childcare as sacred is welcomed. It is provocative that Monica Sjoo's painting of 'God giving birth' -- a cartoon of a female outline with a globe/head emerging in soothing blue-greys -- was banned from exhibition by her local council on grounds of "obscenity". However, the Mother Earth mythos can also backfire in the case of those whose mothering was not wonderful, and some feminists question the over-emphasis of (biological) mothering at a time when increasing numbers of women either refuse, limit, or feel great ambivalence about it. Much is therefore made in Goddess culture of spiritual mothering (i.e. creativity), mothering the vulnerable, or mothering the planet.

Prehistoric Matriarchy

As with some other sectors of Goddess devotees, the Great Goddess is believed by many Pagans to have been the Deity of a universal pre-historical matriarchial religion. This faith model has been heavily critiqued, and while evidence clearly suggests many examples of early Goddess religions (notably Marija Gimbutas 'Old Europe'), and these cities and cultures were frequently widespread, the story is not universal, for the idea that humanity passed through matriarchal and patriarchal stages of development has been discredited since the 1960s. Goddess religion can be a support for patriarchy or a conquering king (cf the much loved Inanna) or it can counsel submission, as in some forms of Hinduism. The famous paleolithic goddess figurines may not have been deity images at all, though we cannot know either way, and they certainly are seen as such now.

10,000 Names & Symbols

The Goddess is known as the Lady of the Ten Thousand Names, as was Isis. She is referred to as 'Queen of Heaven', 'Lady of the Beasts', 'Creatrix' and just 'the Lady.' She is sometimes approached through her different aspects, represented by individual goddesses like Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Uma,Isis, Guan Yin, Kali, Pele or Athena.

Among some Wiccans, the goddess Aradia is perceived as a kind of messianic Daughter deity. The yoni or vulva is revered 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 (cf 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 look at 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 reat on sound scholarship, his poetic inspiration has gained a tenacious hold.

Considerable variation in the precise conceptions of these figures exists, as typical 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 the three are symbolised by three of the four phases of the moon (waxing, full, waning), and put together in a single symbol of 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.

Goddess related publications

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

See also

See deities for a list of goddesses and gods worshipped by different religions. Also see goddess worship. Charge of the Goddess for a popular statement of Goddess faith. Paganism for both negative and positive uses of the term.