Let me seek you by desiring you, and let me desire you by seeking you, and love you in finding you.
I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving, that you have made me in your image, so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you.
But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults, and darkened by the smoke of sin, and it cannot do that for which it was made unless you renew and refashion it.
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal to that, but I desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I can believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe, I shall not understand.
St. Anselm (1033-1109)
By Viola Larson
Most Neo-Pagan groups have some concept of a feminine deity, including the more male centered Heathen groups, such as Odin and Asatru.1
However, Goddess spirituality is the central focus of Wicca, the fastest growing movement in the neo-pagan community. It is generally Wiccans who have contributed to the neo-pagan's views about the Goddess. In 1979 Starhawk, wrote several descriptions and definitions of the Wiccan view of the Goddess in her book, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess,
seeing her as, “the Mother, the turning spiral that whirls us in and out of existence,” a deity she believes can only be found through love. Such love includes the love of nature, others and ourselves.2
Several groups have contributed to Wicca's focus on goddess spirituality. In the United States the Feminist movement and the Wicca movement are in constant flux, influencing each other with various understandings of deity as feminine. While the radical feminist movement is fragmenting with diverse cultural visions of deity and theology, different Wicca groups also uphold a variety of views about the goddess. With so many movements and religious groups contributing to the development of the Goddess movement the history of goddess Spirituality is complex and filled with myth and speculation.
There is an academic history of the Goddess movement and a religious or mythological history. In The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton provides a well-documented academic history of the movement. 3 He identifies the various groups and movements that contributed to the rise of the Wicca movement with their focus on a feminine deity. Hutton's book is a concise and thoughtful history, bringing together such topics as the Romantic Movement, literature, the Masons and the various spiritual and occult groups of the last several centuries.
The history begins in Britain, a quite different location than the mythological version. After developing all the branches that contributed to the movement Hutton focuses on several people who contributed to the more recent development of modern Wicca. He includes a chapter that focuses on four individuals. Hutton writes that “many modern witches,” have “acknowledged,” Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Robert Graves and Margaret Murray, “as sources of inspiration.”4 Aleister Crowley was an occultist and a magician. His contribution to goddess spirituality was an understanding of the goddess having a triple aspect related to the nature of the moon. This view, very prevalent in Wicca today, sees the aspects as three supposed stages of woman's life: maiden, mother and crone. However, for Crowley the vision of the crone, the older woman, was dark and forbidding. He also used some of the same tools in his magical rites as goddess adherents do in their circles today. 5 The second person, Dion Fortune, “incorporated the nineteenth-century vision of ancient matriarchy, by declaring that religion was the preserve of priestesses,” and in a novel “declares that the One God is the source of all nature, but Isis is Nature, and then proceeds to treat her effectively as the only deity.” Hutton writes that Fortune most influenced modern Wicca with her emphasis on the “magical power of polarity and the manner in which the whole world is constructed on binary opposites.” According to Hutton her concept of “female/male” polarity as sublimated “sexual attraction in acts of magic,” was her greatest contribution.6
The third person, Robert Graves, portrays the goddess in her triple form, “Maiden, Mother, and Crone,” in his book, The White Goddess. Graves gives a respectful notice to the Crone aspect of the goddess, but with a strange twist. Hutton writes that Graves, “found that third, waning-moon personification the most fascinating and alluring of all, as it represented the divine feminine who gives pain and death in order to give reward and new life.” Hutton calls Graves' “fully formed,” picture of the goddess in her triple form “his great gift to modern pagan witchcraft.” 7 The fourth person is Margaret Murray. Hutton writes that, “she appeared to become the first person to provide apparent supporting evidence, based upon systematic research, for the long-rehearsed theory that the victims of the early modern witch trials had been practitioners of a surviving pagan religion.” Murray published her research in The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of The Witches. 8 This is one of the mythic views of the history that Hutton disputes in his book.9
The person most often linked to the beginning of modern witchcraft is Gerald Gardner. He was involved in ritual magic and developed rituals and ceremonies that are foundations for various Wicca covens today. Hutton writes that in the late forties Gardner “put together a book of rituals.” This was eventually called The Book of Shadows. While the initial rituals “consisted of a sequence of initiatory rites based on Masonic practice and Crowley, with some novel features, plus a blessing for wine, and set of ceremonies and declarations of theory drawn from existing published sources,” Gardner added to and changed these rituals over time as do other witches and covens today. 10 Hutton notes that some editions to the rituals move from “standard texts of ritual magic” preformed by a male “magician,” to those preformed by “a coven led by a high priestess and high priest. 11 He expands on the shaping of this “new” religion and its emphasis on the goddess explaining that the rites moved from “the nature-goddesses and the horned god who had arisen in the nineteenth century,” to a greater emphasis on the goddess. 12
An event that furthered the dominance of the goddess was the movement of the craft to the United States. Hutton writes that English pagan witchcraft arrived in the states during the “1960s and early 1970s.” He writes that, “America's most distinctive single contribution to that witchcraft,” was “its assimilation to the women's spirituality movement.” 13 American witchcraft in close alliance with radical feminism has largely shaped what is now accepted as goddess spirituality.
Mythological History: Herstory: Members of Wicca or Pagan groups accept a different kind of history for their movement. Many call this “herstory” rather than history. According to this view the first civilizations were matriarchal and worshiped a goddess. They believe this was a universal and golden age. The coming of patriarchal warrior societies destroyed the peace of the golden age. Although many members of Wicca groups understand this to be myth they still accept the view as an important foundation for their worldview. 14 Wiccan members, aligning themselves with both the modern and the nineteenth century radical feminist movements, regard many religious texts and past history as patriarchal. Likewise, they view all patriarchy as war-like, domineering and harmful. For many, goddess spirituality is a safe haven from what they perceive as gender-based religions that contribute to the destruction of nature and fail to respect women and nurture life.
Those involved in goddess spirituality understand the goddess in several different ways, however, she is not considered a personal mother goddess meant to replace a father God. Starhawk gives the classic description of the goddess as understood by most Wiccans and other pagans, “She is reality, the manifest deity, omnipresent in all of life, in each of us. The Goddess is not separate from the world-She is the world, and all things in it: moon, sun, earth, star, stone, seed, flowing river, wind, wave, leaf and branch, bud and blossom, fang and claw, woman and man.” 15 Seeing all reality as deity is, of course, pantheism, however, it should be noted that unlike some forms of Eastern pantheism, most adherents of goddess spirituality believe the material world to be absolutely real. They see their religion as a spirituality that affirms nature. The goddess spirituality is also a polytheistic spirituality because the various ancient goddesses or goddesses of different cultures are seen as the manifestations of the one reality. 16
Resonating with the above definitions is the understanding that the Goddess is those attributes that mark women universally and woman in particular. Carol Christ states, “The symbol of Goddess aids the process of naming and reclaiming the female body and its cycles and processes.” She notes that the “Goddess is celebrated in the triple aspect, [having to do with the aspects of the moon], of youth, maturity, and age, or maiden, mother, and crone. The “potentiality of the young girl,” is equated with the maiden; the mature aspect corresponds to the mother who gives birth both to children and to creativity. The older woman or crone is, “The wise old woman, the woman who knows from experience what life is about, the woman whose closeness to her own death gives distance and perspective on the problems of life.” 17 So the goddess corresponds to women's basic being and supposedly affirms them in a way that other religions cannot.
The Rituals: Most adherents of goddess spirituality are deeply committed to celebration, ritual and traditions. Many of the rites of witchcraft include drawing a circle and a ceremony referred to as “drawing down the moon.” Graham Harvey, author of Contemporary Paganism: Listening People Speaking Earth, writes of this: “In ritual the Goddess is `drawn down' into the High Priestess or female leader. Sometimes the God is “drawn down” into the High Priest or male leader.” Harvey explains that in the ritual of drawing down the moon, “The invocation allows that which is already immanent, innate and incarnate to be seen, revealed and experienced. It makes those involved-both invoker and invokee-aware, and permits a shift of consciousness. The Goddess becomes manifestly obvious.” 18 The deity who is everything is revealed in a special way in the rituals of the circle.
The circle drawn in goddess groups is meant as a “sacred space.” Margot Adler in, Drawing Down the Moon, writes that it is “a place where time disappears, where history is obliterated. It is the contact point between two realities.” 19 One of the uses of the circle is to raise energy. It is called, “raising a cone of power.” Adler writes, “This is done by chanting or dancing (or both) or running around the circle.” She explains that, “The `cone of power' is really the combined wills of the group, intensified through ritual and meditative techniques, focused on an end collectively agreed upon.” 20 The ceremonies may be participated in skyclad, (the nude) or otherwise. Starhawk writes of this: When we take off our clothes, we drop our social masks, our carefully groomed self-images. We become open. The mystical meaning of the naked human body is “truth.” 21
Ethics and Death:
The whole of the material world is seen as a web of life that is interconnected and also as a manifestation of the goddess. So goddess spirituality and ethics are tightly bound together and focused on nature. Nature is the authority, and that kind of authority has its basis in experience, not dogma or rules. As Harvey explains, “Paganism is not a revealed, scriptural, priestly, supernatural or dogmatic religion. Its chief sources of authority are in Nature: the observable cycles of the planet and the experienced cycles of the body.”22 Since nature involves both tragedy as well as the rich joys of being alive, ethics for those who embrace the goddess will include both experiences. Harvey suggests that just because such things as cancer or violence are in nature does not mean they should be used as imperatives for action.23 Aligning with this is the “the Witch's rule” or “Wiccan Rede:” “An it harm none, do as you will.” However, the goddess is still seen as fang and claw as will as rose and bird call, and with experience providing the real authority there is no stable ground for a defining view of good and evil.
A person's religious world-view usually draws together their moral outlook as well as their view of death. As Harvey writes, “The keynote of Pagan dealings with the dead is the attempt to accept what is natural. Hopes and beliefs about some sort of life continuing beyond death do not entirely overwhelm these concerns.” 24 Goddess spirituality holds both ethics and death in tension. In her book, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over, Starhawk writes, “Death is not an extinction, a final end. It is transformation, a dissolution of one form so that new forms can be created.” According to the author it is also, “the loss of that consciousness which makes us who we are.” 25 Tied to this are some rather Eastern views about reincarnation, but the point for Starhawk and others is that death is the way nature, seen as the goddess, replenishes her being. Carol P. Christ, author of Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to The Goddess, explains that Goddess's adherents do not deny death, as she believes the Christian does since the Christian believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Stating her own beliefs she writes, “ Death is implicit in life. The cycles of nature include birth, fruition, and decay. We all die so that others may live. This is neither punishment nor sacrifice. It is simply the way things are.” 26
The Christian Answer
Those involved in goddess spirituality hold some views that should be commended. They value nature and find goodness in the created world. They also attempt to give significance and wholeness to the lives of women. The adherents of goddess spirituality seek out the good experiences of women and attempt to affirm those experiences with ritual; they also provide ritual for the tragedies of life. Unlike many New Age adherents they do not deny the dark side of life, rather they attempt to embrace or make room for the darkness. But here lies the problem. They do not understand that without the One true Light the darkness overwhelms all of life and in the end brings the creature down into the depths of its darkness.
Nature versus Jesus Christ: Those involved in goddess spirituality see all of nature as deity and envision deity in terms of nature, but Jesus Christ is the final, and complete revelation of God. “In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” (Hebrews 1:2,3b) Nature reminds humanity of God's “eternal power and divine nature,”(Romans 1:20) but only Jesus Christ can reveal the very personal loving sacrifice of God for humanity.
The adherents of goddess spirituality seek for the divine in nature, rejecting a transcendent God. They do this because they believe a God who is separate from nature is uninvolved with creation. But scripture teaches that God is both transcendent and immanent. Although, not a part of nature, God is both beyond and involved with creation. The God of Scripture is personal and loves the world, which is His creation. More then this Jesus Christ is the incarnate one. That is, God came to dwell in human flesh for the sake of humanity. Jesus Christ, fully God, and fully human, came to live and die for humanity. He experienced the darkness that is in the world, by suffering the abuse of others and dying on the cross. In the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ death is not denied but it is overcome. Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” (John 11: 25b) As the poet John Donne so aptly put it, “Death, thou shalt die.” 27 Nature can give some joy, a glimpse of God and finally death. Jesus Christ gives eternal joy and a relationship with God forever.
Christian Ethics Versus The Ethics of Experience: Because goddess spirituality sees all of creation as deity it holds a place for darkness in deity, but in Jesus Christ there is no darkness. (John 1:4,5,9) The Christian's ethical view is to be formed within a relationship with Jesus Christ. The Christian's ethical priority list is based, not on what is experienced in nature nor what is best for nature, but on what the will of God is in Christ. This is set in scripture, the Old and New Testament and has to do with God's will for both humanity and all of creation. Intertwined over and over in Psalm 119 is both the goodness and mercy of God and the importance of keeping His commandments. And this is the reality of living in Christ; He brings salvation by His death on the cross and we are to live in obedience to Him because of such mercy.
Nature is not left out of Christian ethics, but since it is creation just as humanity is, it is subject to the will of God and waiting also for redemption. (Romans 8:20-24) The biblical mandate is to tend and care for nature, neither worshipping it nor using it as a source of spiritual power. In the same manner men and women in the Christian faith are called to care for one another, not elevating one gender over another but respecting each other. (Ephesians 5:12) Paul touches on this when he tells Timothy to appeal to older men as fathers and younger men as brothers, and also to treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters. (I Timothy 5:1,2.) The Christian adhering to scripture is led to absolute truth allowing them to see with clarity the division between light and darkness. Those who elevate nature to the status of deity will fail to find ethical answers for contemporary problems and in the end may find themselves honoring some present day evil that will shatter their world-view.
Picture by Brad & Viola Larson
1 Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth, (New York: New York University Press 1997), and 84,5.
2 Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, tenth anniversary ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 29.
3 Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (New York: Oxford University Press 1999).
4 Ibid., 171.
5 Ibid. 179. Quoting Aleister Crowley in The Book of Lies (1913: repr. Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1980) 187-8.
6 Ibid. 186.
7 Ibid. 192-94.
8 Ibid. 196.
10 Ibid. 232.
11 Ibid. 234.
12 Ibid. 235,6.
13 Ibid. 341.
14 This mythological history is outlined and expressed in various books and articles. See, Harvey, Paganism, 72-74; Vicki Noble, “Marija Gimbutas: Reclaiming the Great Goddess,” Snake Power, vol. 1 (October 31), 1989; Denise Lardner Carmody, Women & World Religions, second edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1989), see chapter two, “Women in Primal Societies.”
15 Ibid. 22.
16 See, Judy Harrow, “Explaining Wicca: an Overview of the Teachings of Today's Predominant Form of NeoPaganism,” Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Tradition, no. 48 (Summer 1998), 23. And Harvey, Paganism, 75.
17 Carol Christ, “Why Women need the Goddess,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, Carol P, Christ and Judith Plaskow, Eds. (San Francisco: Harper & Row 1979) 281.
18 Harvey, Paganism, 39.
19 Margot Adler, Drawing Down The Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, Revised and Expanded edition, (Boston: Beacon Press 1986), 109.
21 Starhawk, Dance, 60.
22 Harvey, Paganism, 187.
24 Harvey, Paganism, 203.
25 Starhawk et al., The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over, (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers 1997), 72.
26 Carol P. Christ, Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections On a Journey To The Goddess, (San Francisco: Harper & Row 1987) 218.
27 John Donne, “Holy Sonnets,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Alexander W. Allison, et al., eds. Revised, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1970), 250.