Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women
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The entry under Goddess is by Asphodel Long
Goddess. The concept of deity or deities as female is a controversial but powerful symbol in contemporary feminism. It introduces a spiritual dimension at variance with perceived ideas in both secular and religious thought, and it raises a problem. "Goddess feminists" claim that much of the rational for the subordination of women is linked to a tradition that expressed God in the masculine gender only (denying women spiritual equality in the image of God), but others point to women's oppression in societies that have long-established non-monotheistic religions whose pantheons include goddesses.
For modern spiritual feminists, the concept Goddess is a symbol of self-worth. It involves rediscovering female divinities and reclaiming characteristics that affirm female abilities, thoughts, achievements and spirituality. Thus, texts concerning a female deity such as Isis of Egypt may show her as creator of the universe, as immanent in the world, and as an expression of morality and judgment (Englesman, 1979). This last attribute applies only to deities in the past. Wotogebe-Weneka (1988:50) reports that goddesses worshipped by African peoples today have played a significant part in the ethical rules of society. He notes that all over Ikwerre land there is a common saying, Nye Krakwatru, Eli chekwetaa ("The Earth Goddess protects the just"). Eli, Earth Goddess, also means land. If evil is done, it is felt that the Earth itself is violated. In other societies, goddesses are usually understood as sustaining the universe, keeping the forces of nature in harmony, and helping human beings understand the world.
Goddesses in antiquity were also venerated as teachers of humankind, introducing and expounding the arts and sciences. Demeter, of the Hellenistic world, is credited with the introduction of agriculture, and medicine was the province of many ancient goddesses. Perhaps the most famous of these is Gula, of the Babylonians, called the Great Physician. Here temples were hospitals as well as places of worship, and her country, also known as Chaldea, was famous for its medicine throughout the ancient world. It is recorded that priestesses were doctors here and also in the temples of healing in Egypt. A recent study of the female figure of Wisdom (Hochma or Sophia) in the biblical tradition found some evidence that she is an alternative divine figure with God and functions as creator, sustainer, teacher, healer and even savior (Long, 1992-1993). Inclusion of the female in divinity was combined with an overarching theme of the Goddess as Nature herself, and Lady of its various parts. In contrast to traditional monotheism, there appeared to be no need for a dualist split between the spiritual and the material. Gaia, or Ge, the Greek goddess of the sacred earth, was addressed by Homer as the mother of all, who feeds all creatures that are in the world. Pele, goddess of Hawaii's volcanoes, is in modern times, as in the past, portrayed as a fire deity, who is both friendly and dangerous to humankind, and whose fiery talent and fiery rage are both replicated in the female human being. Rivers, springs and fountains have been revered for their powers of refreshment and healing. The moon and the planets were among the major female divinities: Ishtar or Astarte, of the ancient Near East, became the Roman Venus, giving her name to the morning and evening stars.
Phases of the moon - new, full, and declining - are today often understood as being a paradigm for three phases of women's lives: maiden, mother, and crone. Connections of this kind are made with the many depictions throughout the ancient world, from the Indus Valley through Asia Minor to the Celtic lands, of triple goddess figures. The association of the moon with deity and also with menstruation leads to a new appreciation of the sacredness of women's bodies and their functions; the concept of uncleanness is reversed.
The belief that a nature goddess can provide or destroy the prosperity of the land and of human beings appears as a theme in both ancient and extant goddess-oriented cultures. From prehistoric times Mother Earth has been pictured as a fecund female, and rites were established to propitiate her and to ensure prosperity, which meant good harvests from land and sea and thriving youngsters, both human and animal. Such rituals often had overtly sexual features, which were denounced in the Bible and also became the object of hostile comment from later religious thinkers. Thus, traditional scholars have referred to goddess figures as merely "fertility idols", focusing only on their sexual aspects. Consequently, the female aspects of deity became lost, as did their association with care for nature and an appreciation of the ethics this entailed. Ecofeminism is regaining some of this understanding in the interests of ecology; it is a widely growing insight in the modern goddess movement.
However, there is room for debate concerning the worship of goddesses and its connection with the status of women in society. India, for example, is a country where, according to a survey by Ajit Mookerjee, the Goddess is still widely worshipped today, in a tradition that dates to 3000 B.C.E. or earlier. Mookerjee (1988:16) writes: "Evidence of feminine ultimacy is widely prevalent in India - whether venerated as Nature or the life-force, as Mother or Virgin, as the Great Goddess or as Ultimate Reality." In particular, he describes the worship of Kali the Mother, who is responsible for both creation and destruction and who ultimately preserves the universe. Throughout his work Mookerjee discusses female energy, Shakti, the energizing force of all divinity and of the universe, and suggests that female strength or power is the real moving force in society. Many Indian women challenge rules and customs that are especially hard on women; the same women will often declare that it is only Shakti that gives them the strength to help one another and carry out life's onerous commands.
Obviously there is no simple formula to connect veneration and acknowledgment of female divinities with women's place in secular society. Attempts to link such divinities with ancient matriarchies have been generally discredited, although there is a school of thought, led by Marija Gimbutas (1991), which suggests that there was a goddess-centred civilization in "Old Europe" before the sixth millennium B.C.E. that was more peaceful and certainly less androcentric than later societies, reaching down to those of modern times.
See Also DEITY; ECOFEMINISM; EARTH; GAIA HYPOTHESIS; MATRIARCHY; MOTHER EARTH; SHAKTI; SPIRITUALITY; OVERVIEW; THEOLOGIES; FEMINIST WOMANSPIRIT
References and Further Reading
Engelsman, Joan C. 1979. The Feminine Dimension of the Divine. Philadelphia: Westminster. For a full English translation of the Isis hymn of self-praise dated to the second century C.E., see pp.64-66.
Gimbutas, Marija.1991. The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Goodison, Lucy, and Christine Morris, eds.1998. Ancient Goddesses. London: British Museum.
Husain, Shahrakh.1997. The Goddess. Boston, Mass: Little, Brown.
Long, Asphodel P. 1992-93. In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: The Search for the Female in Deity. London: Women's Press; Freedom, Calif.: Crossing.
Mookerjee, Ajit. 1988. Kali: The Feminine Force. London: Thames and Hudson.
Wotogbe-Weneka, Wellington O. 1988 Eli (Earth Goddess) as a guardian of social morality among the traditional Ikwerre of Rivers State, Nigeria. King's Theological Review 11(2): 50-54. King's College, London.