Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Goddess spirituality: from a Christian perspective

Several weeks ago I posted an article I had written on the religion of Wicca. I am going to follow that up with another related article Goddess Spirituality. I will post it in sections as I did with the Wicca article. The belief in a goddess extends beyond Wiccan covens, and is also a part of many neo-pagan groups and some radical feminist views.

Goddess Spirituality

the beginnings

Most Neo-Pagan groups have some concept of a feminine deity, including the more male centered Heathen groups, such as Odin and Asatru.1 However, Goddess spirituality is the central focus of Wicca, the fastest growing movement in the neo-pagan community.

It is generally Wiccans who have contributed to the neo-pagan's views about the Goddess. In 1979 Starhawk, wrote several descriptions and definitions of the Wiccan view of the Goddess in her book, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess, seeing her as, “the Mother, the turning spiral that whirls us in and out of existence,” a deity she believes can only be found through love. Such love includes the love of nature, others and ourselves.2

Several groups have contributed to Wicca's focus on goddess spirituality. In the United States the Feminist movement and the Wicca movement are in constant flux, influencing each other with various understandings of deity as feminine. While the radical feminist movement is fragmenting with diverse cultural visions of deity and theology, different Wicca groups also uphold a variety of views about the goddess. With so many movements and religious groups contributing to the development of the Goddess movement the history of goddess Spirituality is complex and filled with myth and speculation.

There is an academic history of the Goddess movement and a religious or mythological history.

In The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ronald Hutton provides a well-documented academic history of the movement. 3 He identifies the various groups and movements that contributed to the rise of the Wicca movement with their focus on a feminine deity. Hutton's book is a concise and thoughtful history, bringing together such topics as the Romantic Movement, literature, the Masons and various spiritual and occult groups of the last several centuries.

The history begins in Britain, a quite different location than the mythological version. After developing all the branches that contributed to the movement Hutton focuses on several people who contributed to the more recent development of modern Wicca. He includes a chapter that focuses on four individuals. Hutton writes that “many modern witches,” have “acknowledged,” Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Robert Graves and Margaret Murray, “as sources of inspiration.”4

Aleister Crowley was an occultist and a magician. His contribution to goddess spirituality was an understanding of the goddess having a triple aspect related to the nature of the moon. This view, very prevalent in Wicca today, sees the aspects as three supposed stages of women's life: maiden, mother and crone. However, for Crowley the vision of the crone, the older woman, was dark and forbidding. He also used some of the same tools in his magical rites as goddess adherents do in their circles today. 5

The second person, Dion Fortune, “incorporated the nineteenth-century vision of ancient matriarchy, by declaring that religion was the preserve of priestesses,” and in a novel “declares that the One God is the source of all nature, but Isis is Nature, and then proceeds to treat her effectively as the only deity.” Hutton writes that Fortune most influenced modern Wicca with her emphasis on the “magical power of polarity and the manner in which the whole world is constructed on binary opposites.” According to Hutton her concept of “female/male” polarity as sublimated “sexual attraction in acts of magic,” was her greatest contribution.6

The third person, Robert Graves, portrays the goddess in her triple form, “Maiden, Mother, and Crone,” in his book, The White Goddess. Graves gives a respectful notice to the Crone aspect of the goddess, but with a strange twist.

Hutton writes that Graves, “found that third, waning-moon personification the most fascinating and alluring of all, as it represented the divine feminine who gives pain and death in order to give reward and new life.” Hutton calls Graves' “fully formed,” picture of the goddess in her triple form “his great gift to modern pagan witchcraft.” 7

The fourth person is Margaret Murray. Hutton writes that, “she appeared to become the first person to provide apparent supporting evidence, based upon systematic research, for the long-rehearsed theory that the victims of the early modern witch trials had been practitioners of a surviving pagan religion.” Murray published her research in The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of The Witches. 8 This is one of the mythic views of the history that Hutton disputes in his book.9

The person most often linked to the beginning of modern witchcraft is Gerald Gardner. He was involved in ritual magic and developed rituals and ceremonies that are foundations for various Wicca covens today. Hutton writes that in the late forties Gardner “put together a book of rituals.” This was eventually called The Book of Shadows. While the initial rituals “consisted of a sequence of initiatory rites based on Masonic practice and Crowley, with some novel features, plus a blessing for wine, and set of ceremonies and declarations of theory drawn from existing published sources,” Gardner added to and changed these rituals over time as do other witches and covens today. 10

Hutton notes that some editions to the rituals move from “standard texts of ritual magic” preformed by a male “magician,” to those preformed by “a coven led by a high priestess and high priest. 11 He expands on the shaping of this “new” religion and its emphasis on the goddess explaining that the rites moved from “the nature-goddesses and the horned god who had arisen in the nineteenth century,” to a greater emphasis on the goddess. 12

An event that furthered the dominance of the goddess was the movement of the craft to the United States. Hutton writes that English pagan witchcraft arrived in the states during the “1960s and early 1970s.” He writes that, “America's most distinctive single contribution to that witchcraft,” was “its assimilation to the women's spirituality movement.” 13 American witchcraft in close alliance with radical feminism has largely shaped what is now accepted as goddess spirituality.

1 Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth, (New York: New York University Press 1997), and 84,5.

2 Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, tenth anniversary ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 29.

3 Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (New York: Oxford University Press 1999).

4 Ibid., 171.

5 Ibid. 179. Quoting Aleister Crowley in The Book of Lies (1913: repr. Samuel Weiser, York Beach, Maine, 1980) 187-8.

6 Ibid. 186.

7 Ibid. 192-94.

8 Ibid. 196.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. 232.

11 Ibid. 234.

12 Ibid. 235,6.


Tracie the Red said...

Begging your pardon, fellow blogger, but with regards to "the more male centered Heathen groups, such as Odin and Asatru," I wouldn't say they are male centered as they are more male friendly than is Wicca and feminist spirituality.

Take it from someone who, 20 years ago, became a feminist Wiccan, then began dating an Asatru man, and now is shading a bit more towards the Asatru path.

Asatru, as a reconstructionist pagan religion, is more interested in ancestor worship and making sacrifices to the Elder Kin (Aesir & Asynjur/Gods & Goddesses).

If you search for organizations like The Troth or the Asatru Folk Assembly or for names like Stephen McNallen, Diana Paxson or Dr. Stephen Flowers/Edred Thorsson, you can find a lot of really good information on Asatru.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

Viola Larson said...

Hi Tracie,

I think that is a good way of putting it. I won't quibble.

I do know about The Troth, and Asatru Folk Assembly as well as Stephen McNallen and others. I wrote on them several years ago. You can find that at http://www.naminggrace.org/id59.htm

But thanks for the information.

How did you become a feminist Wiccan?