Daughters of the Goddess

This is a provocative and varied account of an intellectual perspective that challenges the cultural assumptions and traditions of Western society. I believe it is an important work if for no other reason in that it articulates a personal and personally meaningful narrative. For anyone wishing to understand feminist spirituality, Daughters of the Goddess is an imperative reading. It gives voice and form to a significantly contending reaction within the shifting parameters of thought in contemporary society. While one could encounter an understanding of Goddess spirituality through a plethora of recent publications elsewhere, to ignore the implications and arguments behind the phenomenon would to be to disengage from the current ferment of intellectual thought and questioning that is at the heart of the Western tradition. It would also remove one from spiritual, social and radical cultural developments in our accelerating matrix of change. From among the many possibilities on offer in which and through which to engage in this challenging debate, and one which cannot be denied to be effecting real change in the ways we think and behave, Daughters of the Goddess offers us a cogent and comprehensive insight and digest of this emergent perspective.

As Griffin explains in her Introduction, the book consists of thirteen contributions from academic researchers in the fields of “anthropology, English, history, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and women’s studies” – including both “several academic authors from Britain” as well as “a small sample of women who are not academics, but who are actively engaged in teaching a variety of forms of Goddess spirituality.” The result, however, tends to produce an uneven mix: some chapters read in a balanced and effective manner, while others seem less thought out in advance and serve instead as pastiches of rhetoric and complaint. For myself, Berger’s chapter on “High Priestess: Mother, Leader, Teacher” is an excellent and straightforward and no nonsense and data-supported exposé into the kind of dynamics to be found in the role of female religious leadership and authority in Wicca. Other chapters occasionally contain inaccuracies. For example, Gottschall in “The Mutable Goddess” claims that Americans are turning away from denominational affiliation (p. 64). This kind of generalisation, however, overlooks the phenomenal growth occurring for fundamentalist and evangelical denominations in the U.S.

One of the most helpful and clarifying essays for this reader, however, is the first chapter by Cynthia Eller explaining the uneasy interface and distinctions between radical feminism, Judeo-Christian feminism and contemporary Witchcraft. Eller sees the feminist spirituality movement as an interaction with, and yet breaking from, New Age and Neo-pagan spiritualities. She delineates the social trends of secular feminism, Jewish and Christian feminism and `neopaganism’ which emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s – stressing how the former two “came from outside the domain of alternative religions where feminist spirituality would eventually make its home” (p. 25). Eller’s historical overview explores the distinction between radical, political feminism whose ultimate limitations did not allow it to make a broader criticism of male-dominated society or to furnish real alternatives, Jewish and Christian feminism which was limited by not recognising the god of established religions as the rationale and support of male socio-political power, and Neo-pagan feminism or Witchcraft with its more evangelical emphasis on spiritual revaluation and social-cultural innovation.

Eller, however, does lapse into an occasional unsubstantiated speculation. She states, for instance, that “The appeal of neopaganism to feminists searching for religious alternatives must have been tremendous.” One finds this kind of unsupported statement or observation throughout the book. Gallagher’s chapter on “Woven Apart and Weaving Together: Conflict and Mutuality in Feminist and Pagan Communities in Britain” is in particular weakened by statements which sound more like hearsay. Gallagher also overuses words like `quite’, `rather’, `very’ or `high level of’ which produce a sense of vagueness and uncertainty in the reader. She also uses but does not adequately clarify the term `mainstream paganism’.

Innuendo and vagueness do not help this book toward an intellectual position meant to be subversive and transformational. But again, because of a patently detectable agenda, nor does this book read in an overall sense as sociology. For instance, while I enjoyed reading Foltz’s elucidating and informative chapter on “Thriving, Not Simply Surviving: Goddess Spirituality and Women’s Recovery from Alcoholism,” I wanted to hear some mention on statistics for women alcoholics who were not helped by the feminist gendered spirituality of Pagan AA meetings. In particular, I would have liked to hear some word on the success rates for both Alcoholics Anonymous and Goddess Spirituality.

So if this work is not sociology in the strict sense, we might be permitted to ask what is it in fact? I would venture to say that Daughters of the Goddess is a daring attempt to articulate the grounds for a subversive and challenging ideology or theology or, in this case, thealogy which seeks to redress gender imbalance in Western if not world society. Once again, I would stress that this work is an important voice that must be heard and engaged with in our perpetual search for a more equitable and satisfying world for all its inhabitants. It may not be sociology in an overall sense, but it is a spiritual expression that deserves and, today more than ever, demands attention.

Consequently, for the balance of my comments, I wish to address this book not as a sociological critic but simply as an individual man living in a gender-challenged world. The chapter with which I had the greatest difficulty was that of  Melissa Raphael’s “False Goddess: Thealogical Reflections on the Patriarchal Cult of Diana, Princess of Wales.” Raphael’s argument is both astute and contentious. She alleges that Diana conforms to patriarchal idolatry. In her words, “It is patriarchy worshipping its own image in the idols of its own creating” (p. 91).  While Raphael at least allows that “It hardly needs to be said that the death of any person of kind disposition, especially a parent of young children, occasions feelings of sadness and loss,” (p. 91) she insists that “The contemporary popular cult of Diana epitomizes patriarchy’s somewhat equivocal worship of femininity and reinforces an ideology of femininity as, like Nature, an object of mass consumption and as public service” (p. 92). Diana has become a `constructed object of devotion’, “merely a pastiche of female divinity, a collage of spurious mythological fragments quite unlike the Goddess as reconstructed into a political and psychic whole by contemporary spiritual feminism” (p. 97). Diana “had little or none of glamour’s authentic and original magico-numinous resonance” (ibid.) Her image is `politically and spiritually misbegotten’ and furnishes no guarantee of helpfulness within a feminist spirituality, even though Raphael has already suggested that feminine spirituality is not a spirituality of images.

For Raphael, “the sacredness of any female thing under patriarchy is unstable and ambiguous” (p. 93). But is this kind of assertion automatically true by definition, or is it something ascertained by empirical observation? There appears, however, to be little of the last in a polemic of this kind against traditional Christian assumptions of brokenness, on the one hand, and the condescension of `disinterested’ and disempowering philanthropic love, on the other. We hear that during the popular response to Diana’s death, Raphael’s focus was sharpened on both how “the love Diana had exhibited for the afflicted renewed a very old patriarchal discourse on the sanctity of feminine love, and … that her death triggered in many a grief for themselves” (p. 92). But the concern for this `many’ is immediately reduced to women only.

The Raphael chapter epitomises the unanswered questions and agenda-driven biases contained within feminist Goddess Spirituality. For Raphael, children, the sick, the old and the very poor “are beneath masculine attention because they are without a useful function in an inherently exploitative patriarchal system” (p. 92). But why `patriarchal’? Why not an inherently exploitative capitalistic system? While feminist spirituality is hailed to be organic and loving, it nevertheless appears to need a scapegoat, and that scapegoat has become patriarchy. But the alleged myth of a peaceful, communistic matriarchal `golden age’ that was supposedly destroyed by patriarchal Indo-European conquerors has not withstood critical analysis. The historical and cultural register is greatly more complicated than the reductionistic patriarchal scapegoat allows, and transcendence and immortality as goals, the idea of perfection as unchanging and an anti-body as well as anti-nature stance is Judeo-Christian and not pagan whatever its gender compositions. It is less a question of Judeo-Christian traditions `deepening’ the split between spirit and matter, as Greenwood in Chapter Eight would have it, but that Judeo-Christian traditions are themselves the split. Vajra Ma (Chapter 12) comes closest to identifying the problematic cultural matrix which has actually produced a milieu in which women feel inferior when she refers to “patriarchal monotheism” (p. 204). But this same milieu is one which renders everyone across the board inferior in one sense or another. If we are to solve and change the social inequalities that plague our times and foster a more balanced and equitable sense of worth for all human beings, a more detailed understanding of the historical causes and factors would appear to be more productive toward this end than over-simplification.

In painting her picture of Diana as a `false goddess’ and as a toady, victim and product of patriarchy, Raphael carefully selects what she says about Diana the person. She overlooks the fact that Diana was equally known for her many love affairs as well as for her charity work. There is no mention how the Princess broke through the bonds of conventional decorum in her Aids care nor her many completely unpublicised visits, for instance, to the London Lighthouse centre for people HIV+ and with Aids. There is no mention that Diana was herself `kicked out’ of the inner royal circle, nor that much of Diana’s popular appeal rested with her very humanness and her personal triumphs despite her vulnerability. In short, the real Diana does not accurately fit Raphael’s treatise or agenda.

The public response to Diana’s death remains in our day and age perhaps the classic illustration of what Durkheim referred to as `collective effervescence’ – the very stuff out of which religion is often made. Church of England officials remarked at the time leading up to the funeral itself that they felt `bullied’ by the popular reaction. Raphael at least concedes that Diana’s death “touched a collective mythological nerve” (p. 90), but otherwise this response has simply “been preserved by the deceit that female sanctity is above and beyond women’s customary, routine domestic commitments and biological processes” (p. 97).  The danger in this kind of one-sided analysis and the movement it represents is that it is `bucking the tide’, so to speak, of what religion and spirituality is to many people – perhaps even to a majority. Raphael, for example, concedes that “it seems as if the presence of a growing community of Goddess women and men in the West over the last twenty-five years or so has not yet made much perceptible impact on popular culture and popular religion.” (p. 100).

In the radical project of thealogy which “sees woman-power becoming Goddess-power in systemic political criticism and in the envisioning and enacting of a wholly Other political possibility” (p. 98), we are talking the language of radical change which is that of revolution. But as we learned through Crane Brinton’s 1957 Anatomy of a Revolution classic, what always hangs in the balance in any revolutionary activity is that the revolution can so easily reproduce exactly what it sought to overthrow. Consequently, I question the use of any contentional language in a situation in which a detectable feasting on that language occurs. Daughters of the Goddess remains an important work in the understanding of a passionate and challenging discourse and one that I can only recommend to be read by one and all. It expresses cogently the deeply felt condition in which women have come to feel disconnected and alienated from their own bodies. But at the same time, we must take vigilant heed in that there is always the possibility of a tyranny of thought involved when there is special issue at stake. In any special interest group, we all face the lifelong problem of blinded vision. Daughters of the Goddess is hopefully a contribution toward lifting a cultural blindness, but we also must take care that it does not become an augmentation instead of an inability to see and deal with human suffering that knows no gender division.