Beyond Mother Goddess Monotheism, Part 1

My introduction to feminism was via the Women’s Studies department at my alma mater. Actually, that isn’t entirely true, I was aware of something called “feminism” in high school, but I basically summed it up as “a movement which believes that women should be equal to men”.

It is that, but it is so much more, and is vastly more complicated than that simple definition would have you believe. My WS classes introduced me to the idea of intersectionality (A.K.A playing “oppression Olympics” is not helping). Unfortunately, my perception of feminism was largely tainted by the words and actions of some of my professors. One in particular would repeat the same tired old urban legend about the origin of the “rule of thumb” (a man could only beat his wife with something that was no thicker than his thumb). The most common origin for the phrase is as it relates to wood-carving, not beating the crap out of people. This same professor would also treat the term “popular culture” like a communicable disease, as well as critiquing concepts like marriage and romance. Now, that is not to say that these institutions and cultural ideas should not be held up for critique, but it was the way she went about it, declaring that these things were Always Oppressive to women, and that no woman could ever possibly enjoy something like pornography. Regarding religion, she was very interested in the activities of Christian women, but when asked about feminist Goddess worship or Paganism, would reply “I don’t like that”. When I expressed an interest in writing a paper on the movement, she insisted that the paper should be primarily a critique. In short, it bothered me how she (and some of the other profs.) could talk about women having “agency” and how “women’s experience” is not just white, middle class women’s experiences, and then turn around and say “but only these experiences are valid”.

Anyways, my point is not to bash my professors (they did teach me a lot) but to give you an idea of my mindset during my four years of undergrad. Through high school, I had been mostly interested in a very eclectic form of Wicca, but as I began to identify more and more as a feminist, I became more and more interested in Pagan traditions that explicitly embraced feminism as a political movement. For me, this meant exploring Goddess worship in general and Z. Budapest’s Dianic witchcraft tradition in particular.

I’ll get to my issues with “feminist Goddess worship” in a moment, for now, let’s just say that I found Budapest’s tradition attractive for a number of reasons. Although I’d hate to encourage the stereotype, I think I was a bit POed at men in general. There’s only so long that you can listen to the refrain of “Patriarchy, patriarchy, PATRIARCHY!” before you start to get a little miffed at menfolk (more on this later). I’ve already touched on how the melding of the personal with the political was another draw. Another appealing aspect of the Budapestian Dianic tradition was its de-emphasis on polarity. The Goddess represented wholeness in and of herself, there was no need for a “balance” of energies (based more, IMO, on stereotypical constructions of gender). The way in which it was female-body centric was yet another thing that was, if not entirely unknown to Wicca, was certainly foreign to the Catholicism of my childhood. Fun fact: Breastfeeding is one of the few “womanly” bodily functions that Mary was allowed to display. She is never depicted menstruating (menstrual blood is “unclean” after all) and if childbirth is shown in paintings, Jesus is pretty much always out already. The Goddess was different, menstruation and childbirth were not dirty or shameful, they were sacred. Imagine being told your whole childhood that your only options are 1) Marry a nice man and have lots of babies 2) Join a convent or 3) Stay celibate for the rest of your life. If you suffer from “same-sex attraction”, your only option is pretty much celibacy. These people, if they follow the teaching to the letter, will NEVER know what it is like to love and be intimate with someone of their own sex. Oh, they might feel desire for someone, but the proper response is to grin and bear it, to “take up that cross” or suffer eternally in Hell. Now imagine if someone comes along and tells you “You don’t have to be like this, you can be a mother, a priestess, a wise woman, be brave, be silly, be independent,” for all it’s flaws, Dianic witchcraft is one of the few traditions that is explicitly inclusive of lesbian and bisexual women  (we’ll get to the “T” in LGBT in a moment), although the focus is definitely on women who love women.

However, my enchantment with Goddess-centric traditions ultimately did not last. I could just list the reasons why, but each one probably deserves an essay of its own, so I will go into a bit more detail. These are in no particular order of importance:

Poor Scholarship

I think to say that the Goddess movement relies on scholars whose research has now been thoroughly called into question is a bit of an understatement. For a quick and dirty summary of some questionable research that is still being taken as fact (not just by Goddess worshipers, mind you), I recommend the site “Wicca for the Rest of Us”.

For a good example of this sort of research in action, here is a quote from Barbara G. Walker’s The Essential Handbook of Women’s Spirituality and Ritual (previously published as Women’s Rituals: A Sourcebook):

Two or three thousand years ago, women’s rituals were conducted in splendid temples dedicated to their Goddess. Women’s holy dances were performed on marble floors among beautiful carved pillars, illuminated by jeweled lamps, before magnificent statues of the original Queen of Heaven, crowned with stars, enthroned on the moon, holding forth her gifts of fruit and flower, animal and child. She was invincible, subject to no god. On the contrary, all gods owed filial devotion to her and swore by her name. Priestesses governed her worship, settled legal and moral problems by her authority, taught and counseled and administered her religion throughout the ancient world.

Most of that was destroyed in several centuries of relentless attack by the early Christians, who were adamantly opposed to every manifestation of the Goddess, and determined to set up a wholly male-identified religion. Christians tore down her temples, passed laws to make her worship illegal, persecuted and killed her priestesses, burned the books from her sacred libraries, melted down her gold and silver lamps, stole the jeweled eyes and adornments from her images and battered the remains to powder. (p 28)

This is from Z. Budapest’s Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries:

“The Runic language is all that is left of the ancient Wiccan language that existed in the time of the matriarchies…” (2007 edition, p. 214)

I’m going to give my Northern-based Pagan readers time to stop laughing.

….

….

Done? Good.

I could go on about bad scholarship (this calls for another post) but for now, I really should move on.

Gender Essentialism

This particularly applies to the Budapestian Dianic tradition, but isn’t exclusive to it by any means. In a nutshell, this is the idea that women are inherently “nurturing” and “cooperative” whereas men are “aggressive” and “competitive”, men should therefore only be taught the basics of the Craft, because, being men, if they are taught anything more powerful, they will attempt to steal it from women (because all men are “He Man Woman Haters”). To be fair, I don’t think it is unreasonable for women to want their own niche (living as we are in a patriarchal society) but there’s no need to paint such a diverse group of people with such a broad brush.

Transmisogyny

This was something I didn’t really catch onto until it was mentioned in one of my religious studies classes, but Budapest has always specifically noted that her tradition is for “women-born-women” (or “genetic women” to use the term she used at Pantheacon) only. It strikes me as very hypocritical to say that “all women are daughters of the Goddess” and then to say that some women can’t join in because they weren’t born with the right bits. What makes a woman? Is it the presence of a uterus? Breasts? A vulva? My cousin lost one of her breasts to breast cancer and my mother had a hysterectomy, are they “half-woman” and “not a woman” respectively? What about these people?

Every single person in that photograph has androgen insensitivity syndrome. Genetically, they are XY.

That’s right, folks, genetically, everyone in that picture is male.

Anyways, I’m digressing a bit, but the point I’m trying to make is that the relationship between sex and gender is much more complicated than simply “men have penises and women have vulvae”, which is the kind of thinking I was seeing over and over in Dianic circles. These were just a few of the reasons I stopped referring to myself as Dianic and began referring to myself simply as a Goddessian.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I’m writing a couple posts on this topic. The fact is, as much as I am repulsed by the awful scholarship, the essentialism, the assertion that trans women are “mutilated men”, feminist Goddess worship has had a big impact on how I have developed spiritually, and I think it’s time I start unpacking the reasons why it appealed to me  and the reason it no longer appeals to me–yet I still pick up Patricia Monaghan’s The Goddess Path from time to time.

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