The Earth Goddess: Celtic and pagan legacy of the landscape. Cheryl Straffon. Blandford 1997. hb. £16.99
The Sun Goddess: myth, legend and history. Sheila McGrath. Blandford 1997. hb £16.99
The Body of the Goddess: sacred wisdom in myth, landscape and culture. Rachel Pollack. Element 1997. pb £9.99
Here is a welcome triplicity of new Goddess books. They are each informative, passionate and involved. The Blandford two - The Earth Goddess and The Sun Goddess obviously complement each other while the Body of the Goddess melds well with the material from both.
Cheryl Straffon has provided us with an excellent gazetteer to Goddess sites in Britain and Ireland - something we have badly needed for a long time (Susan Evasdaughter's pamphlets on the same subjects being long unobtainable). We are indeed grateful to Cheryl for her hard work, which makes it easy for us to find sacred sites and the locations of goddess figures, even down to museum and site opening times. In addition her scholarly research on the history, myth and folklore in the background of each goddess and site and her account of the continuity of goddess celebration in these islands are valuable and inspiring.
Sheila McGrath's book The Sun Goddess pursues a more polemical tone. In demonstrating that the sun was widely worshipped as female (following the excellent books on the same theme by Janet McCrickard (1990) and by Patricia Monaghan (1994), her context, like theirs, is a contradiction of the commonly accepted gender bias that a sun god portraying masculinity is more active and more "important" than a female moon goddess who would (for patriarchal reasons) be portrayed as passive and receptive. She has chosen to provide an account of the sun goddesses of the Indo-Europeans together with some material on the background, civilisation and beliefs of these peoples.
There is a great deal of interesting and useful material here, which is extremely knowledgeable and readable. McGrath also includes a section describing moon gods of the Indo-Europeans and another on celebrations and rituals. All of this is helpful and useful; but I am left now, at the end of the 1990s, after two decades or more of goddess research and spirituality, with a feeling that we shall have to reclaim the moon. She is no mere receptor of the sun's rays; she controls the huge tides and waters of the world, the weather and our female bodies: possibly even the psyches of both women and men. Do not let us fall into competition as to which is the "greater" or more powerful. There were sun goddesses and moon goddesses, as well as sun gods and moon gods. It has been patriarchy (which to my mind includes the works of Jung) which has demeaned the moon and over-applauded the sun with consequent symbolic effect on human gender relations. Incidentally, while McGrath's book makes it clear there were many goddesses - indeed each people or nation had its own, there is a tendency to speak of "the sun goddess of the Indo-Europeans" as if she were the One and the Only - a tendency only too easy to fall into, but one which I feel we must resist. That is, of course, unless the author really does think there is one Sun Goddess only, of whom the many names are aspects or guises or whatever, in which case, she must say so.
The Body of the Goddess is part of the emerging new Goddess religion, which not only provides information about female deities but also maps out ways of their celebration and worship. In this book we are presented not only with actual artefacts and constructions related to ancient goddesses, but identification of the landscape as the body of the Goddess. This in turn is linked with our own female bodies. Rachel Pollack makes clear that she is speaking of a religion. Describing how "something new and wholly modern" has emerged she writes that it "does not just substitute Goddess for God. Instead it explores the possibilities of a religion based on the body. For while a God must create the world out of pure thought, a Goddess will do so the way women have always done, through giving birth out of Her abundant womb". (p. 2) With this in mind, the author looks at the hills and valleys of many of Europe's landscapes, its megaliths, temples and groves, and points us to specific goddess figures as well as female configurations.
This can be life-enhancing and inspiring, though again I think a little caution is advisable. I started the book enthusiastically but gradually began to feel that there was too much over-simplification: we need to keep our brains handy as well as the rest of our physical properties, and so we need to test some of the assumptions. This is a well written well illustrated book, to be read with care, in every sense of the word.
© Asphodel P. Long (Wood and Water 61, Winter Solstice 1997)