FEMINISM AND SPIRITUALITY: A Review
Feminists often react with hostility, or at least, with hesitation, to the concept of 'female spirituality', discussions about a female deity, or to 'matriarchy'.
Spirituality is usually associated with male domination and the male personages in heaven and elsewhere, whose kingdoms are paradigms for the totally oppressive situation on earth for women. Even with a class structure analysis, a hierarchy of male power exploits those placed in inferior positions with women's place lower than and subordinate to the 'lowest' of the positions allocated to any male. That this is inextricably connected with male theism has been obvious, and it has also been assumed that such male theism is the only spirituality available. Consequently a wholesale overthrow of the theist position has for some time been one of the steps on the road to liberation for women.
Recently, however, a growing groundswell of contrary opinion and practice has been making itself felt, most particularly in the United States, and to some extent in Britain and elsewhere. A new area of feminist research is delving into prehistory, history, theology, anthropology, archaeology and many other disciplines and showing there is ample room for reconsideration. They are claiming that female deities, reflecting women's culture and women's power, were universally accepted by humankind until the modern era of immediate pre-industrial societies; that women's lives were not subordinate, and that women's values were indeed uppermost. Such values linked the physical with the spiritual, and were monist and holist rather than split and dualist. There is, claim the researchers, a huge area of female-defined spirituality which generates and feeds into feminist philosophy and activity.
Side by side with this comes an explosion of interest in and participation in women's rites and rituals, both those assumed to come from the past, and others re-created for the present; and a number of books recently published in the United States deal with these and their place in feminism. I want to discuss a few of these and to point to a number of others since it is not possible here to do justice to them all.
Merlin Stone, author of The Paradise Papers (1976), published in the U.S. as When God Was a Woman, has produced a new two-volume anthology called Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, subtitled Our Goddess and Heroine Heritage (1979,1980). This spans the world and prehistory on a huge scale. We are introduced to the concept of universal female deities having like attributes, under different names. It is assumed that such female religion was accompanied at the very least by a much more powerful and significant social role for women than that they bear in patriarchal religion, while a corollary is that such female power and religion were overthrown by force in the interests of a male hierarchy and tyranny which has been upheld ever since. References which were universal to the previous situations are, it is assumed, destroyed, perverted or discounted. Stone writes:
'Many people... think of Goddess reverence as having existed only in prehistoric periods (some doubting its existence at all). Yet archaeological evidence attests to the fact that for at least thirty-five centuries after the development of writing that first brought us into the period of written history, the Goddess was not only revered but honoured in written tablets and papyri... the erroneous belief that worship of the Goddess existed only in prehistoric periods must be laid to rest in the light of the mass of actual written evidence'
It is a selection of this written evidence culled from worldwide sources and taking the author over a period of 20 years to complete that is presented in Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood. Volume I covers documents, prayers, invocations and rituals from China; the 'Celtic sections of England and Ireland, Scotland and Wales'; Middle and South America; the Semitic section of Canaan, Mesopotamia and Arabia; Africa; Australasia; and Anatolia. The second volume deals with the goddesses and heroines of the Native Americans of North America, and with material from Scandinavia, Egypt, India, Japan, Sumer and Greece.
We are struck immediately with the universality of many symbols and attitudes. There can be no diffusionist view that can link so closely such a diversity of geography and history and yet produce such similarity of symbol and concept:
'Symbols such as the moon, the sun, various stars and planets, volcanoes, caves, springs, rivers, lakes... Earth Mother, Sea Goddess, Queen of Heaven... images of the creator of the universe, the creator of life, the one who takes in death, provider of law and cosmic pattern, provider of herbs and healing... all have been known in the form of woman' (Stone, 1979; p.16).
She was also:
"anthropomorphic huntress, judge, warrior, inventor of writing, protector of animals, inventor of fire, teacher of carpentry and masonry, scribe of the tree of life-and [known] as the more transcendental metaphysical female principle" (Stone, 1979; p.16).
We are shown the connections between the early Goddess religions and their patriarchal successors and track back from male gods to their original female forms.
What is the point of all this? Is it to add to knowledge? Certainly useful, but is that the sum? Merlin Stone discusses the relevance of such work to feminism and suggests that it has a demanding dimension in women's struggle. This is spelled out in an article published in the Great Goddess issue of Heresies (Stone, 1978). Stone sets out three aspects of Goddess spirituality and feminism. The first deals with the emerging interest in Goddess worshipping, matrilineal, matrilocal and matrifocal societies and their overthrow:
'This aspect of Goddess spirituality within the feminist movement is motivated by much the same feeling that has encouraged us to rediscover and reclaim female artists, writers, scientists, political leaders... affording us an entirely new perspective... a broader view. The perspective which allows us to look into the past also allows us to see further ahead' (Stone, 1978; p.2).
The second aspect is concerned with a perception that refuses and refutes male-defined hierarchy and its appropriation of theological and spiritual considerations. In gaining a feminist concept of spirituality 'Women have gained an inner strength... that will help us to confront the many tangible and material issues of the blatant inequalities of society as we know it today' (Stone, 1978; p.2).
The third aspect examines specific ways in which male religions have maintained a secondary status for women, and helps us challenge this.
One of the major responses from feminists to the opening up of this region of knowledge comes in the reclaiming of traditions from the past associated with rites and ritual practices. There is reclamation of 'women's wisdom' which may be in terms of herbal and medical lore associated with nature, and also in the form of feminist Wicca. This is a growing area in the States and needs to be examined seriously.
A number of books have been published in the last two years that set out its principles clearly. These include The Spiral Dance by Starhawk (1979), The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries by Z. Budapest in two volumes (1979, 1980), and the chapter on feminist Wicca in a comprehensive survey of the general neo-pagan movement in the U.S. by Margot Adler, entitled Drawing Down the Moon (1979).
Adler sets the scene competently:
'In a society that has traditionally oppressed women there are few positive images of female power. Some of the most potent of these are the witches, the ancient healers, and the powerful women of pre-classical Aegean civilisations and Celtic myth. .. the witch is after all an extraordinary symbol-independent, anti-establishment, strong and proud. She is political, yet spiritual and magical' (1979; p.8).
In a way, this seems to describe the feminist Wicca movement of today.
It is a development from research and experience of spiritual identity within a female theism into actual practice of 'Wicca' or witchcraft. Starhawk defines the word Wicca as deriving from the Anglo-Saxon meaning to bend or to shape. The covens, she suggests, who preserved the knowledge of such subtle forces were called Wicca or Wicce. 'They were those who could shape the unseen to their will. Healers, teachers, poets and midwives, they were central figures in every community' (Starhawk, 1979; p.5). She goes on to record that such healers were wiped out in indescribable terror, the witchcraft persecutions set the seal on the destruction of the power of women in every form; through torture and gynocide women were at last, apparently, humbled and the traditions silenced. But Starhawk believes they were not lost: 'Somehow in secret, in silence, over glowing coals ... behind closed shutters, encoded as fairy tales and folksongs, or hidden in subconscious memories, the seed was passed on' (Starhawk, 1979; p.9).
Today they are re-emerging and being re-shaped. A leading figure, alongside Starhawk, is Z. Budapest, an exile from Hungary to the United States, whose mother was an artist-and carrier of the old traditions. Z. Budapest is identified with the Susan B. Anthony coven in Los Angeles, who have published her two volumes, The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries (1979, 1980). Their manifesto introduces the theme. I can quote only part of it here, to give its substance:
'We believe that feminist witches are wimmin who search within themselves for the female principle of the universe and who relate as daughters of the Creatrix. We believe that just as it is time to fight for the right to control our bodies it is also time to fight for our sweet womon souls. We believe that in order to fight and win a revolution that will stretch for generations into the future we must find reliable ways to replenish our energies. We believe that without a secure grounding in women's spiritual strength there will be no victory for us' (Budapest, 1979; p. 9ff).
I want to comment here before going further that the major aspect of feminist Wicca that contrasts it with the eco-pagan revival, is that it identifies a strong connection between spiritual and political action. Many - indeed most - of the neo-pagan groupings do not make this connection, or rather may make it on a spiritual plane, with which we are not concerned here. The Susan B. Anthony Manifesto sums up this difference in two ways.
'We believe in joy and self-love and life affirmation and are committed to struggling against patriarchal oppression ... we are opposed to teaching our magic and our craft to men until the equality of the sexes is reality' (Budapest, 1979; p. 9ff).
It is seen that feminist Wicca is quite definitely linked to specific feminist political activity in the world of today. In this it certainly contrasts with the kind of 'witchcraft' and 'magic' that is generally known in Britain which has been revived by male leaders such as Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders (the latter currently styling himself 'King of the Witches'). Such magic, although deemed to be based on traditions apparently inherited through our grandmothers, in fact sets up a male orientated craft, worshipping a male god, and allowing to women a 'priestess' role and confirming heterosexual stereotyping on a patriarchal pattern. There is also, in Britain at least, deep distrust of the word witch or witchcraft, with subliminal consciousness of implications of Macbeth-like creatures mixing potions and luring people (usually men) to their doom.
Z. Budapest and her sisterhoods are far from such concepts. The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries gives a picture of celebrations and rituals for the seasonal festivals (the old Celtic calendar of New Year at Hallowmas (Samhain), Winter Solstice, Candlemas (Imbolc) Spring Equinox, May Eve, Summer Solstice, Lammas and Autumn Equinox). There is herbal lore, information on runes, and sabbats. But a major portion of the work describes rituals for more modern applications-in particular for freeing political prisoners as well as welcoming a new baby into a circle of mothers. The books make a strong political stand against today's oppressions of women, linking the systematic killing and tortures of the past with current forms of the same thing: clitoridectomy, rape and the multitude of oppressions against our sexual and personal autonomy. Male exploitation of the earth and planet is linked to male domination of nature and the desire to subjugate it-and women. This, says Budapest, leads to 'today's obsession with death - a direct result of the exclusive male value system and a degradation of the women of our species' (1980; p.15). She then contrasts this with the new view of women's spirituality:
'A Woman's Holy Book is but one of the utterances of the awakening Goddess in her many guises. The sense of prophecy, wonder and sacredness of women articulated through the Mysteries, as the Life Giver, becomes more visible in defense of our endangered species'
Starhawk, too, makes a similar point:
'The image of the Goddess inspires women to see ourselves as divine, our bodies sacred, the changing phases of our lives as holy, and our power to nurture and create but also to limit and destroy when necessary as the very force that sustains all life. Through the Goddess we can discover our strength' (Starhawk, 1979; p.11).
The worldview of the witchcraft she describes 'is one that values life' (1979; p.32). She makes a telling point about women's attitude to bloodshed:
'Women shed their own blood monthly and risk death in service to the life force with every pregnancy and birth. For this reason their bodies were considered sacred and held inviolate' (Starhawk, 1979; p.32).
Feminist Wicca is only part of a new spiritual dimension. Many women take up study research and reclamation of what has been loosely called 'matriarchy'. This is a word that needs re-defining, since most attitudes read it as what has been called 'patriarchy with an M'. The essence appears to be that this is just what it was-and is-not. Societies based on
Goddess religions with women-led cultures appeared to be organised in sharp contrast to the patriarchal world. Carol Ochs (1979) has, in quite a short book, produced an immensely useful account of these differences, categorised and supplied with scholarly references. Behind the Sex of God includes descriptions of categories of matriarchy contrasted with patriarchy. She says:
'The difference between the two contradictory models for formulating religion, matriarchy and patriarchy, is far greater than the difference of God the Father and God the Mother. The difference strikes at the very heart and meaning and value in life' (1979; p.82).
Her tabulated differences show clearly how one is not the mirror image of the other. Matriarchy, for example, views 'material creation as the model for all creation.. . the meaning of life is found in terms of life itself and contributions towards its renewal' (1979; p.86). Ochs is far from a Wicca position, dealing in academic research on the distortions and the instances to be found in history of the movement from women-led to male-led cultures and the implications for women. I am not able here to give a full review of the book which I found underlined my own need for more basic detailed scholarly research on our past.
Merlin Stone's two volume Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood discussed earlier is the outcome of twenty years of massive research, which is partially reflected in the bibliography attached to Volume II. But, she gives no reference, in either volume, directly from the material to the bibliography. There is no way of following the invocations and quotations; there is no overview, the material is presented as a kind of haphazard series. I agree with Anna Perenna's comment on this in her review of these books in Matriarchy News (1981) where she says:
'The common patterns underlying the myths and the legends and connecting them all are not examined, the symbolic logic is not heard, the grammar of the symbols is unlearned. The only theme connecting these diverse images is that of a female imagery and while we are hungry for these images we also want to know the secret of this timeless vision'.
It seems that Merlin Stone did not want to take an academic standpoint, although it was certainly available as a choice, in order possibly not to antagonize 'the ordinary reader', or perhaps as a revolt against male-dominated academia.
But I feel this attitude is unsatisfactory. There is - if we are to take the spiritual feminists at their word - massive material and information waiting to be examined. There is plenty of evidence easily available to suggest that the language of religion itself has been perverted in male interests. Who, remembering from Old Testament creation stories that God created Adam from the dust of the ground and woman to be a helpmeet to him, has realized that the Hebrew tells us that Gods (plural) made a masculine person from a female person whose name also meant earth? And that in the same story, the spirit of the God(s) was female, as was 'the chaos' linked philologically to the Babylonian Mother Goddess?
Who is aware of the significance of the female Wisdom figure of the Old Testament, who created God and the whole of creation? We need feminist scholars to work accurately and independently on a new translation of our traditional conditioning resource - the Bible. Certainly a start is being made and the New Testament is receiving a new look. Elaine Pagels (1980) has brought us a clearer picture of early Christianity than was ever available, showing a Mother-Father God and the power of the 'female deity that was before all things' (1980; p. 50ff). Carol Christ (1979) and Naomi Goldenburg (1979) are among other feminists in the States, alongside, of course, the splendid Mary Daly (1973, 1975, 1978) who are working out a feminist theology. But much more is needed.
There can be bio-feedback between research and spirituality. As we become more surely aware of woman's history, her power and how it was overthrown we are able to communicate with ourselves and other women with more confidence, more strength, re-inspiring and renewing our energies. The Goddess we know from material already available was a symbol of all aspects of woman - intellectual as well as spiritual, emotional, physical, technological, practical, all at once.
We may look at the titles of some of the Egyptian Goddesses to give us a clue to their characters. Sekhet was 'Goddess of Fire and Heat, Goddess of Bone-setters, The Gracious One, The Mighty One of Enchantments' (Durdin-Robertson, 1975; p.260). Isis, whose name also bears the meaning 'woman' and 'moon' (Durdin-Robertson 1975; p.284) was 'Queen of the Earth, Goddess of Life and Healing, Magician, Mother of the Seasons, Mother of the Corn, Chief of the Divine Powers' (Durdin-Robertson, 1975; p. 312). With her sister Nepthys she is said to have invented the loom, and taught the arts of spinning and weaving to humankind, and made known the methods of curing disease by medicine and magic.
Pat Whiting (1976) has shown that Egyptian priestesses in the House of Life in Hieropolis at about 3000 BC dispensed entirely adequate and scientific methods of contraception. The intellectual and the spiritual were aspects of the same whole.
If feminist spirituality is to realise its potential of re-energizing and re-inspiring women to make use of the past to redraw the future, it must also reclaim our right to our intellectual status. But this need not be redrawn on standards set and approved by male academic hierarchies. If there is a message from the books that I have discussed that for me overshadows all else, it is that women's ways and women's cultures, women's methods must be autonomous. To regain our full personhood we need scholars working on our history but scholars who are orientated towards acceptance of the female as a standard, not as St. Augustine's defective male.
Then and only then can an integration of mind, body and spirit be achieved, and, as many women now come to believe, the goddess within ourselves re-emerge.
Adler, Margot. 1979. Drawing Down the Moon. Viking Books, New York.
Budapest, Z. 1979 & 1980. The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries, Vols. I & II. Susan B. Anthony Coven No.1, Los Angeles.
Christ, Carol and Plaskow, Judith, eds. 1979. Woman Spirit Rising. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
Daly, Mary. 1973. Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. Beacon Press, Boston.
Daly, Mary. 1975. The Church and the Second Sex: With a New Postchristian Introduction by the Author. Harper Colophon, New York.
Daly, Mary. 1978. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Beacon Press, Boston (and The Women's Press, London, 1979).
Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. 1975. The Goddesses of Chaldea, Syria and Egypt. Cesara, Eire.
Goldenburg, Naomi. 1979. Changing of the Gods. Beacon/Harper & Row, New York.
Ochs, Carol. 1979. Behind the Sex of God. Beacon/Harper & Row, New York.
Pagels, Elaine. 1980. The Gnostic Gospels. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
Perenna, Anna. 1981. Review. Matriarchy News. Spring.
Starhawk. 1979. The Spiral Dance. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
Stone, Merlin. 1976. The Paradise Papers. Virago, London.
Stone, Merlin. 1978. The three faces of goddess spirituality. Heresies No.5, Spring.
Stone, Merlin. 1979 & 1980. Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, Vols. I & II. New Sybilline Books, New York.
Whiting, Pat. 1976. 'Article.' In Matriarchy Study Group, eds. Goddess Shrew. Matriarchy Study Group, London.