Thousands of years ago, the Goddess was viewed as an autonomous entity worthy of respect from men and women alike. Because of societal changes caused by Eastern influence, a patriarchical system conquered all aspects of life including religion. Today, the loss of a strong female presence in Judeo-Christian beliefs has prompted believers to look to other sources that celebrate the role of women. Goddess religion and feminist spirituality have increasingly been embraced by men and women as an alternative to the patriarchy found in traditional biblical religion.
Within a few thousand years the first recognizable human society developed worship of the Great Goddess or Great Mother. For these people, deity was female. The importance of fertility in crops, domesticated animals,wild animals and in the tribe itself were of paramount importance to their survival. Thus, the Female life-giving principle was considered divine and an enigma. This culture lasted for tens of thousands of years, generally living in peace. Males and females were treated equally.
Their society was matrilineal–children took their mothers’ names, but not a matriarchy (Christ 58-59). Life and time was experienced as a repetitive cycle, not linearly as is accepted today. However, Easterners soon brought modern civilization to this culture, including war, belief in male Gods, exploitation of nature, and knowledge of the male role in procreation. Goddess worship was gradually combined with worship of male Gods to produce a variety of Pagan religions, thus losing some of its singular focus on the female as a deity.
Goddess Worship during the Christian Era was molded by more dominant outside forces. As Judaism, Christianity & eventually Islam evolved, the Pagan religions were suppressed and the female principle was gradually driven out of religion. Consequently women were reduced to a level inferior to men. The God, King, Priest & Father replaced the Goddess, Queen, Priestess & Mother. A woman’s testimony was not considered significant in courts, women were not allowed to speak in churches, and positions of authority in the church were (almost without exception) limited to men.
A feminine presence was added to Christianity when the Virgin Mary was named Theotokos (Mother of God). However, her role was heavily restricted and included none of the fertility components present in Pagan religions. A low point in the fortunes of women was reached during the Renaissance, when hundreds of thousands of suspected female witches were exterminated by burning and hanging. These combined factors propelled women who did not find traditional structures, views, and rituals fulfilling to return to a feminine based spirituality more suited to their specific needs.
At the turn of the century, scholars began writing about a Mother Goddess. By the 1950s, Gerald Gardner claimed initiation into a coven of English witches in England. He began publicizing this \”Old Religion\” of Wicca. Gardnerian Witchcraft recognized a Goddess of Earth-moon-sea as well as the Horned-hunt-sun God (Corbett, 290). Women could be High Priestesses, but much sexism still prevailed. Wicca schismed after Gardner’s death, but these traditions continued to be founded by and named after men.
Meanwhile, women in the US and elsewhere were beginning the feminist movement. Defining patriarchy as the oppressive force they were battling, they began reexamining all aspects of their lives, including religion. In the 1970s, women began using the concept of \”Goddess\” as part of the feminist movement. DianicWicca began: a women-only version that eliminated the God and all male aspects, as well as many traditional Wiccan elements such as hierarchies, secrecy, and formality.
During the 1980s, while the name Wicca remained, many groups began using the term \”neo-Pagan\” which retains the God as well as the Goddess, but incorporates the increased status given to the Goddess and women. The Goddess is oftenidentified with the Earth and elements in nature explicitly. It has been referred to as \”eco-feminism\” to reflect this increased emphasis. This stems from the Wiccan ideology that people have a unique responsibility toward the environment because of our ability to make conscious choices (Corbett 292).
Goddess worship broadened to include African, Asian, and Native American ideals beyond the classic Wiccan deities. It became\”politically correct\” by beginning to include gays and lesbians (formerly neglected with the emphasis on male-female fertility) as well as the ecological movement and an openness to people of color and other minorities. Now considered the fastest growing religion in America by some scholars, neo-Pagans were represented at the World Council of Religions in 1993. Despite the spread of feminist and goddess belief, many witches still face discrimination because of their faith.
People outside the neo-Pagan community still often confuse Wicca with Satanism, feeling that witchcraft is not a valid religion and should not be afforded the same protections as more ‘mainstream’, consensus religions. However, Wicca and other goddess religions are not Satanistic. Satanism focuses on the Christian idea of the devil, whereas these spiritualities predate Christianity and have no link to those beliefs (Corbett 292). Another common misconception is that witches cast spells in order to hurtothers for their own or someone elses benefit.
This myth has developed through years of media and literary misrepresentation. While Wicca does not have many concrete beliefs, a universal code for behavior does exist. Best exemplified in the Wiccan Rede (An ye harm none, do what ye will) and the Threefold Law (Whatever we do returns to us three times over, be it good or ll), personal freedom and choice are essential to Wiccan morality and ethics (Corbett 292). Modern Goddess worship today can best be described as a renaissance of Paganism.
Its worship of Goddesses and Gods occurred in the middle of this century with the reemergence of Wicca. With the rise of feminism, new traditions within Wicca were created in which the Goddess grew in importance, and the role of the God shrank into obscurity. The Goddess in both Goddess Worship and Neo-Paganism is often visualized in three aspects: Maiden, Mother and Crone (Corbett 290). Her aspects are mirrored in the phases of the moon: waxing, full and waning. The Maiden represents youth, emerging sexuality, and the independence from men found in virginity.
The Mother symbolizes feminine power, fertility, and nurturing. The Crone is the wisdom and compassion which evolves from experience, and the one who guides women through the death experience. Although not all followers of the goddess are Wiccan, virtually all Wiccans are worshipers of the goddess (Corbett 291). Beliefs of Goddess religion and Feminist Spiritualities are not absolute or definite. No official doctrine exists uniting the many branches and forms falling under these categories of faith. Almost all include a female creator, usually with some male counterpart.
Feminist spirituality acknowledges that female power is independent from all outside forces. It is an important and intense entity that can be called upon through rituals, dance, prayer, chants, or meditation. Its message clearly states female ambition will not be subjugated in a mans world. Images are of paramount importance to these religions. The portrayal of women in a positive way reinforces autonomy, beauty of the female figure, and elegance of each womans soul. It calls participants to recognize the goddess within and celebrate their own connections to time and nature.
Goddess images resacrilize the female body, enabling women to take pride in themselves and encouraging men and children to respect their feminine power (Christ, 165). Symbols and rituals are an essential component in goddess religion and feminist spirituality. They demonstrate our interconnectedness to all that is, and also how diversity and difference should be celebrated. Symbols evoke respect for the Goddess, Her role in nature, and the female form in general. Rituals reinforce these values as an outward sign of commitment and remembrance.
This combination of rituals and symbols brings Her power into believers lives. Ritual also creates long lasting moods and motivations which shape wisdom and become second nature for practitioners (Christ, 25). A very ancient tradition which creates a sacred space for the Goddess is the creation of a home altar. Images, candles, books, and symbols can be incorporated to personalize and add meaning to the space. Rituals may be done in solitude or within a gathering of believer to invoke the power of the Goddess.
Other times, pilgrimages are taken to sacred places which have made a personal impact on the believer. Because there is no liturgy or official order of worship, these rituals can be molded to suit individual needs. The rituals may change each time to allow for innovation and spontaneity. Certain groups follow an established traditional pattern for times, dates, and practices of the rituals (Christ 29). Holidays and festivals are integral to goddess worship. They are special times of reflection on our connection to the cyclical patterns of nature and time.
Some Goddess holidays and festivals are celebrated at corresponding times and dates to Judeo-Christian feast days and holidays. This correspondence originates from the alignment of religious holidays to the natural rhythms of seasons and nature including the equinoxes, the solstices, and the holidays falling exactly in between, dividing the year into eight seasons. Others are held in relation to new and full moons, recognizing the nexus between womens cycles and the position of the moon (Christ 28-29). The ethos that these symbols and rituals create provides a sense of reality and a plan of action to live by.
Individual choice and societys reactions and decision making are heavily emphasized. Carol P. Christ lists nine touchstones which can be consulted when attempting to maintain the ethics held in Goddess worship: nurture life, walk in love and beauty, trust the knowledge that comes through the body, speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering, take only what you need, think about the consequences ofyour actions for seven generations, approach the taking of life with great restraint, practice great generosity, and repair relations between all people peacefully (167).
These touchstones are not commandments, only a guideline for virtuous and moral living. Organization and practices often coincide. Since there is no official leader or hierarchical system, counting members is nearly impossible. Reluctance to identify with the feminist spirituality movement stems from the negative associations people make with witchcraft. However, an estimated 50,000 American believers have been recorded (Corbett 294). Practitioners often gather in small groups (between three and twenty people) called covens.
Others are solitaries who practice alone depending on location, personal choice, or other circumstances. Covens are usually all female, but some are mixed or male only. Many of the larger organizations have adopted home-study programs, museums, libraries, and stores for those interested in learning more about the beliefs of Goddess religion. Others hold conferences and celebrations to join the smaller, fragmented groups. Some groups strive to emphasize one specific aspect of their beliefs, such as Dianic Wicca does with feminism (Corbett 294-95).
Although the popularity and acceptance of feminist spirituality seems to be increasing, Wicca and other groups are still not afforded the same status and recognition as other religions. Many misconceptions still exist today about the beliefs, practices, and organizations which are categorized as Goddess religion. The followers of these traditions do not see themselves as contradicting more mainstream religious beliefs. They view their spirituality as a refocusing and reprioritizing of values forgotten by a patriarchical society over thousands of years.