The instigation for this post began, ironically, a few days ago while in the supermarket with The Pretenders’ lovely ‘Hymn to Her’ coming over the PA. As always when hearing this, I paused and opened myself for Her touch. Since then Goddess has been even more on my mind and I have also had a desire to write something.
I have long been uneasy with the development of the contemporary ‘Goddess movement’. My unease began as a teenager after I was initiated into Wicca. There I found not a Goddess centred spiritual tradition but a hierarchical system mimicking the structural abuses of the older lodge tradition from where it derived its framework. The years since have seen Goddess move from Wicca to Paganism, from the environmental movement to the new age, from psychology to TV commercials and, worse of all, back to Wicca. Despite the flaws of 80s Wicca it was at least untainted by the new age Goddess fluff that now infects many covens.
If I had time, I could write a book on this theme, with full critiques and references, explorations and alternatives. For now though, these simple points.
Goddess and ‘the Goddess’
Let’s start with Her ‘name’ and the (often unconscious) theology that goes along with it. One of the big clues that most contemporary Goddess Movements stem directly or indirectly from Gardner’s (re)creation of Wicca is the term ‘the Goddess’. Now this makes perfect sense in Wiccan duotheism where ‘the Goddess’ exists alongside ‘the God’. However, as soon as we use the definite article we linguistically fall into the trap of being able to define, know, contain and explain what we are referring to, such as ‘the sofa’ ‘the computer’ and ‘the coven’. But we simply cannot do this with any divine being, so ‘the Goddess’ as a term is extremely limiting. Besides, outside Wiccan duotheism ‘the Goddess’ makes little sense at all.
Also the Wiccan duo-theistic conception still leaves a mystery that is both ‘the Goddess’ and ‘the God’ and beyond the two. In some traditions this is acknowledged but not named, in many it is simply ignored. Either way, ‘the Goddess’ does not encompass this Mystery, as say the Christian concept of God (through the Trinity) does.
Now of course most Goddess folk are unconcerned about theology, but there are very important reasons why perhaps we should be. As said above, the lack of clarity concerning Goddess, such as the inclusion of the definite article, leads to us assuming we can know Her when we cannot. It thus robs us of transcendence, another concept which is pretty much ignored by much of the Goddess movement, which is essentially monist in basis. However, the problems of denying a transcendental aspect to divinity are manifold. I have written a little about this previously here and here.
If the Goddess movement were to critically and sympathetically examine the history of religious thought in the west, it would see these issues have long be examined, pondered over and struggled with by the early and later Christian movements. The need for the inclusion of the transcendence of the One as well as the Immanence of divinity as expressed in Christ and all people led to the development of the mystery of the Trinity. Now, of course I am not suggesting the Goddess Movement follows suit, but I do suggest it tries to learn from centuries of thought, mysticism and theology of the Christian churches, all too often branded as the enemy by unthinking Goddess lovers today.
Pagan theology, which does examine these issues, has come along in leaps and bounds in recent years but much of this has not entered the bulk of the Wiccan and Pagan communities let alone the wider and more generic Goddess community. As an example of this, in recent correspondence between myself and a leading Goddess author, transcendence and immanence were declared by her to be mutually exclusive. This of course is perfectly true philosophically, but the One has historically been seen to be both and beyond all conception, giving rise to the modern term panentheism. Writers and teachers such as Starhawk describe this well, and it was quite a shock to have an influential writer clearly denying the transcendent aspect of Goddess over the immanent.
Lack of clear and consistent theology may mean little when worshipping, attending the latest ‘Goddess Workshop’ or Drawing Down the Moon, but it does provide a depth to our traditions. Without this depth, at some point many people simply cannot go deeper into the mysteries. The Goddess Movement then risks becoming as superficial as the New Age wherein it moves and promotes its wares. Further, drawing from tradition and supported by my personal experiences of dying, death and dead folk, having a clear, internally known and real theology is a major key to a successful post-mortem journey. By its emphasis on personal experience and praxis the Goddess Movement is simply failing in its duty to develop, teach and instil such theologies. I give an example of this situation here.
Goddess Experience and Goddess Spirituality
OK. Let me be clear – I am not belittling or trying to be offensive here, knowing the personal healing outcomes and immense importance the Goddess Movement provides to many women and men, but basically it is mostly not a spiritual tradition at all. Then again, most Western religions and spiritual traditions are not working spirituality, so this is not really a directed critique of the Goddess Movement. I have talked about this before in a previous post and because she expresses it well, I will again argue from authority in the words of Rev Dr Cynthia Bourgeault:
As Buddhism observed long ago, pain and pleasure are simply two ends of the old “egoic stick.” As long as one is drawing one’s vital energy from self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-expression, even in service of the purest and noblest of causes, one is still orbiting within the egoic feedback loop. As long as happiness and a personal sense of self worth are still the measures by which one relates to life and adjusts one’s heading; as long as vitality is the measure of spiritual well being, one is trapped within the egoic feedback system. These are not moral judgments; they are descriptive criteria. And by these criteria, it is depressingly clear that ninety-nine percent of what is being promulgated as contemporary Western spirituality is merely fine-tuning the ego.
Go ahead and read the article. This is the traditional point of view and from it is clear the Modern Goddess movement is focused on personal healing and fine tuning of the ego. This from a leading website describing ‘Reclaiming the Goddess’:
Allowing our emotional vocabulary to become activated and enlivened. Exploring what stops us from expressing ourselves – shame, cultural conditioning, low of self-esteem, fear of touch, lack of intimacy. (http://www.amritahobbs.com/amrita-hobbs/the-goddess.html)”
All wonderful and much needed, but not spiritual. Even if we define the human experience as divine, we simply cannot deny that the reclamation offered here is cultural and temporal. Opening to intimacy, touch and boldness is valorized in the modern liberal west. It is not so in other cultures and was not so in other times. And it may not be so in the future. Is ‘the Goddess’ to be reclaimed then dependent upon culture, time and place? If so, by definition She is not eternal and beyond our human culture. Or do we wish to ascribe our current notions of what it means to be ‘free’ and empowered to ‘the Goddess’, assuming this is what ‘She’ wants. If so, are we not idolaters, making Her in our own image?
Of course, I simply cannot form a dichotomy here and say what is ‘real’ Goddess spirituality and what is not. However, I do think we need to examine ourselves very carefully.
Goddess Workshops vs Goddess Life
The Goddess Movement in recent years has developed and promoted itself within the broader New Age community and framework. There are of course many critiques of the New Age and all its wares, and I am going to lift a little from my own writings here.
On the surface the New Age appears to have much in common with traditional western esotericism where Goddess spirituality (though not under that term) was hidden and kept alive for the last 1500 years. One the unique features of the New Age is the availability of aspects of esoteric lore outside a formal exoteric structure, and these days this includes Goddess workshops and Goddess initiations on the weekend.
A central esoteric understanding is that human psychic-astral experience lies between the outer-personal (physical) and the inner-transpersonal (spiritual) world. Astral-psychic experience is not spiritual experience, though the two are often confused in today’s New Age Goddess community as discussed above. New Age Goddess spirituality emphasises the experiential, the astral-psychic realm. It is unwilling to create effectual outer forms of expression, such as corporate ritual, doctrine and moral codes, since it is consciously trying to avoid being ‘religious’. Therefore the astral-psychic experience is rarely fully grounded in daily communal life and transformation rarely achieved. Traditionally the outer forms of a spirituality, that is religion, housed and contained the inner experience and meaning provided by the esoteric. Both were required for full transformation and expression of the divine. Attendance at Goddess workshops several times a year simply does not allow for this ongoing, daily-life outer container to hold the transforming self.
New Age Goddess spirituality is also mostly unable to provide meaningful spiritual world experience since such experience builds upon both outer form and consistent astral-psychic experience over a number of years. The lack of in-depth teachings, the need for commercial success, the highly changing nature of the community and the individualistic nature the New Age in effect precludes consistent experience of the spiritual world.
The emphasis on the astral-psychic realm within New Age Goddess Workshops hinders us passing through the gateway to the eternal offered by the esoteric techniques the developers have lifted from tradition. Instead we assume we have passed the gate and that our experiences are in and by themselves spiritual. A good example of this is of would be a woman who has rejected the Christianity of her childhood due largely to her bad fathering and has adopted ‘the Goddess religion’ unconsciously to compensate for her lack of mother contact as child.
This woman enters the Goddess Movement and after a few weekend workshops is initiated as ‘Priestess of the Great Mother’. Her contact with the potent ‘Great Mother’ Goddess (and she is not referring to the historical Magna Mater but some homogenised conception) will be extremely limited. Since her primary (unconscious) motivation is to address needs within her emotional life, there will be little higher (mental realm) contact and thus the transformational qualities of the Great Mother in the mental realm could not be mediated to others. Also, since the primary contact is within the astral/emotional realm, the contacts with the Great Mother would be felt as great emotional or visionary events and be ‘real’ to the Priestess and others working out similar emotional issues. However, the lack of deep connection will be evident by the lack of real transformation and spiritual unfoldment over the years.
An obvious remedy to this situation is for the Goddess Movement to move away from New Age manifestations of workshops, play-shops and intensive courses towards ongoing, challenging and intimate group work where transformation can be held and encouraged. Of course, no one makes any money from it 🙂
All Acts of Pleasure are My Rituals
One of the biggest growth areas in the broader Goddess Movement is that of sex. Hardly surprising considering the New Age connection just explored; sex sells. Of course the concept of and connection to Goddess can and does provide much sexual healing for many women and men. This is a very good thing, but it is not spirituality and positioning it as spirituality considerably limits the Goddess movement’s potential.
Sacred sexuality, to use a generic term, can be divided into three distinct areas. That which seeks to redress and heal sexual dysfunction, that which enhances sexual functioning and that which embraces sexuality as a vehicle for transpersonal transformation. The first two are focused on the self, the third on the world as a whole. Traditionally, the various hidden sexually based traditions concerned themselves solely with the third area. Any healing required in the first area would naturally be accomplished by focusing on the third area. Expansion of sexual functioning may also occur but is not focused upon, much like how the development of psychic gifts along the way are ignored by those seeking illumination.
All this is shown (not explained) clearly in the novels of Dion Fortune, particularly Sea Priestess and Moon Magic.
Let me try and make this clearer. Sacred sexuality within a Goddess context is nothing like how it is presented in the Sex Goddess or Neo-Tantra weekends, let alone the Sluts and Goddess weekends where women explore different sexual personas. It is not about sexual healing, though that may be required. It has nothing whatever to do with the self, or with pleasure or your partner or orgasms that last an hour or energy direction at the moment of climax.
Traditionally the sexual mysteries would only ever be taught to the highest initiates, those who had undergone some form of death-transformation-rebirth experience and knew themselves as beyond the personal, beyond the ego. They could therefore know, and see and love and their partners beyond the self, beyond the ego, beyond pleasure.
This is the true nature of functional love; love by its very nature is beyond the self. However, if it is solely focused on a single other human being, it has not left the level of self-focus, merely shifted in the same plane. To move to another plane the lover needs to become the all-women or the all-man. Only then can true love flourish, and the higher principles arise. (The Lover in Tiphareth)
From a Qabalistic perspective we can’t even begin to understand sacred sexuality without the Tipharetic level of consciousness, a point of view affirmed by the few authentic esoteric traditions that ‘teach’ the subject. Therefore the Goddess movement has much to do helping us develop these levels of consciousness. We should focus upon how we transform ourselves not the mysteries we may work once we are transformed. Any sexual healing or sexual enhancement workshops should be clearly labelled as such and not as Goddess spirituality.
All the Goddesses are My Goddess
I have written before about the tendency for magicians to use Goddesses and Gods within their magic, rather than forming a deep relationship with the deity in question, see The Golden Dawn and the Gods. Much of what I say there applies here as the Goddess Movement does the same, spurred on by a psychological underpinning that the Gods are ‘within us’ which is often assumed to be ‘spiritual’ by reference to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious. But psychology, even Jungian psychology, is not spirituality. Not by a long shot.
A typical Goddess Movement approach would have us praying to or working magic with different Goddesses depending on our need.
Burn a candle to Venus for Love, pray to Lakshmi for money, offer fish to Yemaya for protection.
The egoic focus here is clear. However, since we are all divine, and are all Goddesses, this self focus is assumed to be spiritual as well. This is one of the traps and problems with monism and the denial of transcendence I referred to earlier. As I have made clear throughout MOTO, the traditional view is that Goddesses are not only within us, but are also without us, transcendent to us. We connect to an inner Goddess as a vehicle for connection to the outer Goddess. As soon as we assume or practice as if there are no outer deities we are lost within ourselves, and as such our transformation is hindered considerably.
If we simply use a Goddess in magic or prayer for our own needs rather than seeking transformative union with Her, we reduce Her to a set of psychological and temporally based correspondences. We thus connect only with ‘the Goddess within’ (I find it hard to type that phrase without puking). Such a limited connection can never change us, since we have limited its potential by our own ego needs.
As sensible folk we know there is far more to our friends and family that can ever be written about. Yet there are lists on the Internet and in books describing what Goddess to use for what purpose, and Goddess folk really do this!! (See for example http://www.spiralgoddess.com/GoddessMagic.html). I find it incredible that the Goddess Movement which purports as a whole to worship, love and respect Goddess acts in this way. We would not use our friends in magic this way, so why do we use a Goddess?
God = rational = bad vs Goddess = emotional = good
One would have expected this false dichotomy perpetuated by the earlier Goddess movements to have faded away by now. But just this morning from the net:
The Divine Masculine may have started out as a worthy counterpart to the Divine Feminine in the ancestral environment. Unfortunately, over the past few thousand years, patriarchy, the shadow side of the Divine Masculine, has gained ascendancy and fostered myriad forms of oppression (suppression of women’s rights, Holy Inquisitions, etc.). You can tell how true this is by how you feel in your gut about the very word “patriarchy” . Over millennia we’ve had priests but no priestesses; a male God, but no Goddesses. It’s been pretty one-sided . . . but things are changing – http://goddessontheloose.com/?p=24 (emphasis added).
It is not that I question any of this. However, I find the idea that the apprehension of truth should be made solely by an emotional response to a word that has been associated since the 60s with negative acts, very limiting indeed. ‘Nuff said. 🙂
Every woman is a Priestess?
One of the wonderful aspects of the Goddess Movement is its empowerment of women and men. It encourages us to be our own Priestesses and Priests, to boldly claim our power and remove all barriers between ourselves and the divine. This is very good. However, there are two main shadow sides to this approach which are seldom discussed. Firstly, often the empowering involves participation in commercial weekend workshops and courses which by their very nature exclude those unable to pay and thus sets up an empowerment barrier which paradoxically the Goddess Movement aims to overcome. Secondly, such an approach can tend to devalue the role of tradition, elders and expertise.
Virtually every culture and tradition beside the modern New Age and Goddess movements have included specialists who span the mystery realms of life and death – priests, priestesses, oracles, shamans, magicians. Sadly over emphasis on egalitarianism and a fear of hierarchy has robbed much of the Goddess movement of the priestess or shaman, who is replaced instead by the workshop leader. Now the workshop leader may or not may not be a Priestess in the sense they have spanned the worlds, traversed the path of death and returned with a commission to aid others. They may simply be good at leading workshops. In classical terminology the workshop leader has a job and the Priestess, a vocation. The two are not equivalent and conflating the two can be problematic or even dangerous.
I know an excellent Goddess workshop leader. She is able to hold the pain and feelings of women on the astral-emotional level very well. She can facilitate and guide group processes in her sleep. However, every time there is a real transpersonal issue such as death, negative entities or beyond personal healing, she calls for assistance. Despite using the term, she is not really a Priestess and for her to function beyond her skills could potentially put people and herself at risk.
The difficulty lies I feel in the belief that every woman is a priestess and every man a priest, and like the proverbial 70s witch, all we have to do is declare ourselves as such three times and we are one. The actual case is expressed very well by Dion Fortune:
And she told me that each man had it in him, by virtue of his manhood, to be a priest; and each woman by virtue of her womanhood had it in her to be a priestess… (Sea Priestess).
This is not the same as saying every woman is a priestess. Becoming a functioning priestess by virtue of your womanhood involves a journey to the transpersonal nature of womanhood, discarding the smaller, individual ego-bound woman as you go. It requires much transformation, training, courage and to be blunt, good luck. It is not like enrolling in an adult education course, where once you hand in your assignments you pass. We can fail in our unfoldment to the Priesthood, something that is seldom mentioned in the weekend workshops. Really, we don’t all need to be priests and priestesses, do we? Each day I am dependant on bus drivers, clerks, foundry workers, postal workers, technicians and others. These roles are equally as valuable, equally precious and equally as sacred.
The Once and Future Goddess
There is no doubt the contemporary Goddess Movement has and is doing wonderful things. It has helped shaped the modern western spiritual landscape and offered personal healing, visions and new life for many women and men. However, its formation and development has largely rejected concepts such as tradition, transcendence, vocation and authority. Traditional ‘Goddess’ and esoteric spirituality in the west however embraces and is held by these concepts and values. Thus the trajectory of the contemporary Goddess Movement, particularly in its more generic and popular ‘New Age’ forms, is one where it moves ever further away from its traditional source. In doing so it seems to be developing a human and psychological based spirituality where the potential for authentic spiritual upheavals and transformation are minimised. The movement away from tradition may only be a necessary stage of development and future manifestations of the Goddess movement could tend back to traditional roots. Or the course may already be set. In either case the offering of tradition and the critiquing of the Goddess Movement can only be of aid for all concerned.