Why It's Time We Drop Gender from Our Goddess Worship

The goddess has become a universally accepted figure among modern feminists, but the term is still tied to second-wave gender essentialism.

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Dec 11 2015, 9:00pm

The androgynous god Nana Buluku. Illustration via Wikipedia

In 1978, the fifth issue of Heresies, a canonical second-wave magazine on feminism and art, was dedicated to "The Great Goddess." Featured is an article by Carol P. Christ on "Why Women Need the Goddess." She opens with the last line from Ntosake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: "A tall beautiful black woman rises from despair to cry out, 'I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.'"

Christ writes for the political and psychological ramifications of embracing a feminist spiritual dimension. In one fell swoop, Christ claims, the Goddess denounces the patriarchal motivations of traditional religions and affirms "the legitimacy and beneficence of female power." The Goddess, according to Christ, has several incarnations. She's a divine female who can be called upon in ritual and through prayer; she is a symbol of the life cycle, exalting both birth and death; she reflects the relationship between women and nature; she is the ultimate creator, the mother, and the seat of female power.

Christ and other feminists who evoke the divine use matriarchal myths to speculate on the origins of patriarchy. Their promise: There was a time before patriarchy—a more peaceful and productive time—when women ruled. Goddess worshipers look to ancient history for evidence of this lost matriarchal past that's been replaced by the agricultural assent of property and patriarchy. They point to the requisite image of a voluptuous mother figure from the Paleolithic era carved in stone. They pay homage to the fertile Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, a clay statuette with low-hanging tits resting between two cats. They summon Greek and Roman mythology; Venus, Athena, Diana, Persephone are invoked and their myths are reclaimed. (Christ, for one, ran her own "Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete" Tour.) In the present, I call my girlfriends goddesses to define a certain power that they're carrying, and a popular sweatshirt screened with the text "The Future Is Female" implies that we are likely to reclaim our past.

It is really important to have a sense of sacred imagery that reflects our own embodiment. The images that we've inherited historically from most of the world's religious traditions have been very masculine.

However, some scholars warn us not to take the matriarchal myth as history. "The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals," Cynthia Eller writes in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Won't Give Women A Future. "But even with these limitations, what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon by it by the matriarchal thesis."

"Mother goddess from Çatalhöyük." Photo via Wikimedia Commons

To find out where the goddess figure stands in the contemporary canon of feminist images, I talked to Dr. Alka Arora, chair of the Women's Spirituality program at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS). "I do think that, for many of us, it is really important to have a sense of sacred imagery that reflects our own embodiment, she says. "The images that we've inherited historically from most of the world's religious traditions—and their ideas and concepts about God—have been very masculine. We need a balance. And [to achieve that we need to] reclaim and relearn female images of the divine."

Authors Martha Anne and Dorothy Myers Imel emphasize this importance of reclaiming female mythic figures in the dedication to their book, Goddesses in World Mythology:

To all women who in the world who were unaware of their own heritage
You are descendant from a long line of sacred females
who have been respected and honored for thousands of years
Remember and make it so.

In other words, matriarchy's implausibility doesn't render it useless. After all, most of western religious tradition rests heavily on myth–making. According to Eller, Anne, and Imel, women who respond strongly to the matriarchal myth do so, in part, because it promotes a sense of their own divinity, of their god–given goodness. It instills self–confidence and reminds them of their right to fight against their oppression. Stories of ancient societies peacefully ruled by matriarchs, they argue, inspire present–day women to name and resist patriarchy. Myths matter. By upholding their own myth–making, marginalized communities can reclaim their stolen pasts.

But Dr. Arora also reminded me about the need to critique essentialism when reclaiming feminine images of the divine. "A lot of the scholarship coming out the women's spirituality movement and the second–wave was overly essentialist," she says. "We need multiplicity."

Read More: The Hoodwitch Helps Women Tap Into Their Inner Goddess

As supposed goddesses, women are narrowly valued for the nurturing capacities seeded in their wombs. Goddess worship reinforces stereotypes of women as caregivers, women as inherently empathetic, women as loving pacifists. It's also tainted with trans–misogynistic tones of the second–wave, conflating feminine power with cis–woman biology.

Diverse and inclusive representations of the divine are not only important, but actually available to us. Samantha Costa, a PhD candidate in Women's Spirituality at CIIS, tells me she had to reconcile her affinity toward goddess worship with her ideas about gender. "It really forced me to stop and ask—who is this goddess that I am feeling so excited by? So charged by? That I have an altar to and a shrine to and accept she has 1000 names and comes in all these different manifestations?" she says.

If you know a trans person—especially if they are gender fluid or gender fuckers, someone who is neither male or female, but something else—it forces your mind to break outside of these gender categories. And there's a divinity in that.

These questions led Costa to focus her studies on religious traditions that include transgender deities. She tells me, "I've studied the Yoruba tradition, which includes such a power pantheon of gods and goddesses. They're believed to have come from the androgynous [god] Nana Buluku," she says. "There's other indigenous cultures, like the Hopi and the Iroquois, that encourage people who identify as trans to take on the role of a sacred teacher. [People who are transgender] are seen as a conduit to the greater divine because they are blessed with the ability to experience all forms of gender."

Read More: When Riot Grrrls Meet Goddess Warriors

Costa added that she believes in a sacredness that doesn't just embrace androgyny, but inspires a different way of being. "If you know a trans person—especially if they are gender fluid or gender fuckers, someone who is neither male or female, but something else—it forces your mind to break outside of these gender categories. And there's a divinity in that."

Dr. Arora also speculates that "there is something ineffable and mysterious in this universal force that is beyond gender or sex." If there is some spiritual dimension, they—we—would dance fluidly between genders, our power stemming from our omnipotent capacity to be more than one at the same time. Perhaps by loosening gender's grip on our souls, we might find salvation—or, at the very least, some relief.

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