Review: O Mother Sun! A New View of the Cosmic Feminine by Patricia Monaghan

[The following review discusses topics that are NSFW and possibly triggery for rape and incest, you know, ’cause it’s mythology. Read at your own risk.]

As you probably already know (because you have been reading this blog, right?), Patricia Monaghan died on November 11th. She was like a spiritual mentor to me, even though I never met her in person.

Rather than post a review of either The Goddess Path or The Goddess Companion (both books that I still like even though, yes, the scholarship is shoddy) I decided to take a look at one of her older books through eyes that are hopefully a little more open to the bad scholarship than they used to be. Before I do get started, however, readers will note that this book was published way back in 1994.

So, maybe I should start with the stuff that I liked about the book (a short list) before going into what I didn’t like about the book (oh boy).

For starters, it’s nice to see a book that actually tries to dispel the myth that “woman = moon, man = sun. NO EXCEPTIONS!” and I do so wish we could tie every eclectic Pagan (especially the eclectic Wiccans) down and make them read this book, page by page, yes, in spite of all the bad scholarship, because I’m sick and tired of this “every goddess/god pair has a moon goddess and a sun god” thing. NO THEY DON’T, FOOLS! AMATERASU AND TSUKIYOMI WOULD LIKE A WORD WITH YOU! In that respect, it’s very refreshing, and I bet it was even more refreshing at the time it was written.

The work is also (by necessity) very multicultural. Monaghan includes stories from such diverse areas of the world as Japan, Korea, Central California, the Pacific Rim, Anatolia, Ireland, and Scandinavia (there are a bunch more, I just picked a few). I’m also not as harsh with her as I could be because she *gasp* actually acknowledges that colonialism is a thing, and that there are individual Native American tribes, with their own things (in fact, at one point she name drops so many groups of people that I think I need to take the time to look all of them up). Particularly in the section on Australia, she also acknowledges how male bias painted a really skewed picture of Aboriginal religion (because Aboriginal women obviously did not want to discuss their secret rituals with men, leading them to conclude that women obviously had no role in religious life) in addition to saying that the stories she relates in that section have all been previously published (YMMV on that point). My point is, this isn’t something you usually see in this type of work, which is usually like “Native Americans believe X and they were all in harmony with nature.”

Unfortunately, these good points are marred by some really bad scholarship. Some of it might be explained by the age of the book, as what was considered “current” then is now more than a decade old to us, or the fact that there just wasn’t a lot of good material around to work with. Not being an expert on any of the cultures discussed in the book (no, not even Scandinavia) I can’t vouch for the accuracy of many of the stories she recounts, though I have heard variations of a few of them from other places.

I’m going to focus on the Scandinavian section because that’s the area of the world that most of you are probably most familiar with (maybe I can give some more info on other places in the comments). She starts off by talking about labyrinths, and then about Helen of Troy, although she does point out that Troy Towns (Trojaburgen) have nothing to do with Troy, she kind of jumps around to discuss Helen’s relationship with the labyrinth because of some inscription, yeah, she goes off on tangents a lot. Then she starts talking about Hilda Ellis Davidson and the history of spinning in the area (including an interesting argument that “sun daggers” depicted on rocks in the area are actually spindles, because men looking for male sun cults like to assume that EVERYTHING CONNECTED TO THE SUN IS A WEAPON (more on the book’s treatment of men later). Then she talks about footprints, shoes (associated with the vulva), and from there, Cinderella (famous for one particular shoe), solar disks, wheels, and chariots, and from there, the bronze objects found at Trundholm.

From there, she finally gets to talking about Sunna, relating the myth everyone is familiar with (Mundilfari et al) and talking about some folk sayings about the sun being happy and whatnotm then she goes on to talk about Ragnarok, and how the sun will have a daughter, and this is somehow connected to the story of Little Red Riding Hood, because wolves. A bunch of paragraphs later, she starts talking about Alf and Alfhild, which is supposed to be a metaphor for the sun (Alfhild) being rescued from winter, but really, at this point I was like “THERE ARE WOMEN WIELDING SWORDS IN THIS STORY!” and apparently a big theme in all of these stories is the power of sex. (If this isn’t making any sense, I’ll explain later.) She goes on to discuss various kennings for the sun, among the names she lists are: Sister of the Moon, Bride of Glenr, Fire of Heaven and the Air, Sun, Glory, Ever-Glowing, All-Bright, Sight, Fair-Wheel, Healing Ray, Doubtful Beam, Luminary, and let’s not forget my personal favourite: “Glenr’s god-blithe Bed-Mate”. I have no idea what “god-blithe” means, sounds like god-bride, which actually makes sense. Healing Ray and Doubtful Beam sound like good names for a band, though.

From there, she spends a few lines of talking about the dwarf Dvalin and goes back to talking about mazes again, and then she finally gets to talking about goddesses I actually recognize. First, she devotes a section to Freya, and we learn that the cats that pull her chariot control the sunlight…

Bwuh?

Okay, whatever, so she goes on to discuss Freya’s association with the sun…because she slept with her brother, apparently, and she’s connected with jewels (particularly amber and gold), which, as shiny objects, are sun symbols. Oh, and apparently, Monaghan has discovered where the fuck Odr has been all this time. He’s just hiding in the tropics under a myrtle tree! It’s okay, she convinces him to come back North with her. No mention is ever made of her by name, “Mardoll” (sea-bright) which might actually connect the goddess to the sun.

She talks about Freyja some more (because no chapter on Freyja is complete without brisingamen) and from there she jumps to Frigga, where she relates an odd story about how Frigga stole a gold statue of Odin, and then got the dwarves to melt it down and make a necklace for her, and then Odin found out about where the necklace came from and started bothering the dwarves about it. The dwarves refuse to tell him, at which point Odin gets the bright idea to cast a spell on the statue (WTF? I thought it was melted down) and give it the power of speech.

But don’t worry, Frigga sends her trusty sister/confidante Fulla to find a dwarf willing to destroy the statue, and then Odin is all “Fuck this!” and runs off, and then Frigga searches for him, weeping golden tears and DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR, ANYONE? Here I should note that much of her source material comes from Jacob Grimm, who is apparently very, very outdated in practically every field that he ever dabbled in.

Right, let’s just skip a whole bunch of stuff about the perils of doing housework on the Winter Solstice and go to a discussion about Mother Holle. Mother Holle, Monaghan says, is a German form of Freyja (where the fuck did that come from?) and spends a whole lot of time talking about her, Berchta, and St. Lucia (no, not all at once). There’s an obligatory mention of Ostara, and then she switches to talking about Finnish deities, ending the chapter with the story of Paivatar, who was apparently imprisoned in a mountain by a witch.

If this isn’t making a lot of sense, it’s because she jumps around talking about so many different things that I can’t possibly keep track of them all. It’s all part of this cultural diffusion theory she discusses, namely, that similar elements in myths across cultures mean that there was once One Original Sun Goddess but then the kyriarchy (specifically, but then Apollo). There are a bunch of themes in these stories that you will see repeated over and over in this book, these include:

  • The idea that the sun is associated with the eye, and therefore the breast, because they look like eyes
  • Cats, especially tigers, and snakes
  • Brother-sister incest (sometimes consensual, other times not)
  • Dismemberment (especially cutting off the breasts or decapitation)
  • Cannibalism (associated with the breasts in particular)
  • The sun and moon switching places because the moon goddess was disgusted by people having sex at night
  • Castration (especially in later chapters)

In other words, this book is pretty much a smorgasbord of the oddest myths ever, in which a goddess, disgusted by the incestuous advances of her brother, cuts off her breast and tells him to eat it. The thing is that the connections that she draws between the myths just seem so spurious. No, really, just because two cultures have the same kind of myth does not mean that everyone worshiped the same sun goddess. Basically, because the Japanese have a goddess with a necklace and the Norse have a goddess with a necklace, OMFGs SAME GODDESS GUYS! This completely ignores the fact that Japan was pretty much completely closed off from outsiders until comparatively recently. The myths themselves seem to be reasonably accurate, but the way she tries to connect them all is just SO. MUCH. FAIL.

Right, so, on the treatment of men in this book. It’s very interesting to me, reading this and then reading her later works, because she doesn’t seem to have quite the fixation on castration that she does in this book, especially in the last chapter, which discusses Cybele, for obvious reasons. She relates a curious myth of Agdistis, who was intersex, and the gods were freaked out by it, so they castrated hir, and then sie (she?) falls in love with Attis, and Attis is all “No, I’m going to marry the king’s daughter.” and Agdistis is all “RAGE!” so sie causes both the king and Attis to castrate themselves. Apparently, this is related to Dionysus, because he castrated one of them by tying their naughty bits to a tree, and they’re all related to bees, and from there, the Hittite sun goddess (also associated with bees). Oh, and apparently Dionysus himself was castrated once, by Titans….

Wat. MY Dionysus, my virile, wine-drinking, madness-inducing god who carries around a stylized penis (the thyrsus) are we talking about the same god, here? Nonono, Monaghan, there is a limit to the amount of ass-pulling I can tolerate, and you just CROSSED. THE. LINE!

*coughs* Also, the book uses some incredibly dated language (particularly in reference to intersex and transgender people) which, while likely not intended to offend, is, well, dated, like most of the book. Once again, it was published in ’94, so it’s definitely showing it’s age.

I guess the one thing I can say about this book is that it’s not quite as bad as Barbara Walker’s work. In fact, Monaghan actually includes notes in her book. The problem is that the footnotes all contain several works, all with incredibly unhelpful “for more information on [broad topic] see these” and she doesn’t reference the specific claims she makes in the book (which, IMO, would have made the book a little better). The one saving grace is that there’s one book in there that was published by my alma mater which I, quite frankly, did not expect to see. I mean, that’s not saying much, but look, it’s my university, I was edumacated there!

Anyways, tl;dr version: Great ideas, horrible, dated execution.

If anyone actually has sources for anything I mentioned, let me know in the comments. Unfortunately, the used copies of this book in the U.S. are very expensive, but I bought mine for the reasonable price of a penny plus unreasonable shipping costs. TBH, I’ve paid more money for worse books. (I bought one of Barbara Walker’s books for like, $10. There, you see? I’ve bought worse.]

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One thought on “Review: O Mother Sun! A New View of the Cosmic Feminine by Patricia Monaghan

  1. Great review, I feel that book would have confused me, maybe even do some research to figure out what she was writing about.

    It’s nice to hear about a book that identifies a female sun deity though. Personally I identify the moon as male(Mani). I’m inspired to do an entery on female sun, male moon, and intersexed deities. Do you have any suggestions?

    I got curious as to what “god-blithe” ment so I looked it up. Didn’t find it but I did find blithe, it means a happy/lighthearted character or casual/lacking due thought.

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