Essentialism or Essence? Out from the land of theory

I am the incomprehensible silence
And the memory that will not be forgotten
I am the voice whose sound is everywhere
And the speech that appears in many forms
I am the utterance of my own name

Thunder, Perfect Mind, Nag Hammadi
Scriptures, circa 200 CE

They have lost sight of the Mystery.

For at least twenty years the Goddess movement has been assailed as “essentialist” by post-modernist theorists. They mean that an innate female essence is being claimed, in a biological determinism and rigid gender categorization. Alison Stone is not alone in noting that “within academic writing the charge of essentialism is used in a very adversarial way, as an allegation of the worst crime.” [“What is essentialism?” Online: (Link no longer available November 2015] Some theorists even equate talking about “women” with gender “essentialism,” although it is not biology but historical, cultural, political, social developments and patterns that are being discussed.

There is a fear underlying the “essentialism” charge: that gendered symbolism locks women into the very categories that lie at the root of their oppression. But why assume that femaleness itself is the oppression, or gender for that matter? The problem is domination, and absolutism. All human societies are gendered, with no exceptions—but there is a huge variation in how gender functions. It is the structuring of gender relations and cultural norms that need to be looked at. Are they rigid or flexible; are they colonizing or egalitarian, voluntary or forced?

Here we understand [human] nature as static. We think women can do certain things but not others. —Dr. A.A. al-Abdulhai, King Saud University, Riyadh, Nov. 29, 2006 []

Wives, on the other hand, were created to be ‘helpers’ to their husbands (Gen. 2:18). A wife’s submission to her husband does not decrease her worth but rather enhances her value to her husband and to the Lord (I Pet. 3:4). --Baptist Faith and Message Report, approved at Southern Baptists Convention, USA, June 9, 1998 []

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. –Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol II, part II, p. 327

We still live in a cultural setting that has long insisted on masculine deity, priesthood, and theology—and still does, within the predominant religions. But it is considered bad form to call male-dominant institutions essentialist, as they indubitably are, whether they are run by religious fundamentalists or sociobiologists or network executives. Traditional cultures, too, are rarely described in these terms, though many certainly qualify. Yet it is spiritual feminists who have been the primary target of “essentialism” accusations for the past two decades.

Goddess feminists are saying that the long-devalued female must be restored, recreated, and redefined in a liberatory way. Truth and justice demand it (and yes, we affirm that such things are possible). We embrace positive female story and symbolism as empowering to women, as a potent force in reshaping cultural values and behaviors. We reaffirm embodiment as sacred, in the face of a long history of deprecating the body—especially the female body, whose sacred symbolism has been expropriated, colonized in myriad ways, and reconfigured as “obscene.” To confuse this transformative reclamation with “essentialism” misunderstands and distorts its meaning.

It is not about essentialism but Essence: being, immanence, the soulful nature of things, including matter itself. This goes to the realm of Mystery: real experiences and insights that can’t be explained in words, only perceived by our right-brain consciousness. We don’t reject the rational, but wholeness demands that we learn to reintegrate it with the totality of our awareness, including its mythic and melodic aspects, the dream-consciousness.

Huang! Hu! Vague! Ungraspable! In the center, there are things.
Miao! Ming! Profound! Mysterious! In the center, there are essences, most true essences.
Hun Yüan Huang-Di Sheng-Zhi [in Schipper, The Taoist Body, 117]

Mmiri di egwu! Water is awesome! —Igbo praise to Ogbuide, Mami Wata

T-cho, the Sun, said: “You are my children, I am your mother. I will make the light. I will shine for you.” She went to the East. Suddenly light spread all over the Earth. As she passed over the Earth a drop of blood fell from her to the ground, and from this blood and earth sprang the first people, the Children of the Sun, the Uchees. [Yuchi creation story, in Swanton, John R., Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 88, Smithsonian Institution,1929:84]

These concepts of vital Essence represent something very different from the theoretical projection of “essentialism.” They are fundamental to indigenous spiritual philosophy, are being reclaimed in the feminist spirituality movements, and glints of them survive in mainstream religions also. They grow from the spiritual ground that predates the consolidation of the “major religions” that people are fighting over now, a division that separated the religious and secular, everyday life, sexuality and death, from the sacred. This splitting severed awareness of the Whole, or in Lakota parlance, the Sacred Hoop.

Essence is one way of referring to the innate power within living beings, which is described in much greater complexity in all indigenous philosophies of spirit. There is the Akan kra and Hawaian mana, the sielé of Lithuania, the earth-soul and sky spirit of the Haudenosaunee. The ancient Egyptians broke it down into seven different kinds of soul, from the ka and the name-soul to the heart-spirit and the ba which outlasts the body. There are the shen, qi and jing of Chinese philosophy. I’m not equating all these concepts, just spraying a shower of illustrations for the many categories of soul, spirit, or essence that are missing from modern thought. Scientism has unilaterally dismissed these concepts as superstition—but can’t account for precognitive dreams or dramatic cures by healers.

The jeremiads against essentialism treat the signs of woman as merely biological and irrelevant, forcing them into a narrow theoretical defile. It’s really a Catch-22: on the one hand, the authoritarian narrative of Western Civ posits the female’s insignificance in religion, directly or by omission; but now that the female figurines and effigy vessels, the vulva stones and breastpots have surfaced to wider notice, they are being ruled inadmissible precisely because of their unequivocal femaleness, now being read as “essentialism.” The discussion has not been about the classic icons of the neolithic, and a comparative study on an international scale, but about dogma, and who has the authority to challenge it.

The postmodernist view rejects the concept of “goddess.” It doesn’t fit with the rationalist gaze, or analysis wrapped in high theory, the leftbrain worldview. Postmodernism claims to escape and transcend all categories even as it practices creating new ones. (Where would it be without “essentialism”? “difference”? “subjectivity”?—but there can be no “women.”) In the extreme, some even say that nothing is possible outside the framework of constructed power. This is why feminist formulations are treated as necessarily derivative of earlier masculine ones. They can never be understood on their own terms, only reduced to previous categories. In the wake of supposedly “destabilizing” and “decentering” high theory, recourse to masculine authority has made a big comeback.

Pomo* has a heavy literate bias, as the cliché about “texts inscribed on bodies” illustrates. Orature (orally transmitted culture) is always seen through the lens of “the literature.” It must be filtered through this external gaze, and analyzed by it. A positive reformulation of “female” is considered too subjective, suspect for its advocacy, and not transgressive in academically fashionable ways. It must be “troubled” and “decentered.” This last ignores the fact the female has already been marginalized for ages in the “great civilizations.”

The blasting away at this particular target is overdue for some “troubling” of its own, and in fact there are indications that this trend is beginning to implode at last. For example (and excuse a moment of arcane lingo), some writers have advocated “strategic essentialism” as a way for women to move through and deal with patriarchy. Others reassessed the condemnation of Luce Irigaray as “essentialist” for her advocacy of woman as subject, of the need to develop “female writing,” language and genealogies, and her critique of “phallogocentric” culture (“he is/she is not”). Naomi Schor blew away the whole game by declaring essentialism itself an “essentialist concept.” [Barnett, Hilaire, Introduction to Feminist Jurisprudence, London: Cavendish, 1998, p 159]

The late great Gloria Anzaldúa was one of the first to clear some space through the theoretical brush. She spoke to the way that inner, psychic reality gets discounted as “mysticism,” “New Age,” “utopian.” She said, “The dominant reality/academia wants to sever the dreamer’s connections; it doesn’t want to connect the personal and the academic, the spiritual and the intellectual, or the emotions and the body.” [Anzaldua, Interviews/Entrevistas, ed. Ana Louise Keating, New York: Routledge, 2000, p 144]

Anzaldúa said that the academic “high theorists” had declared it incorrect to talk about spiritual knowing “because they’re afraid it’s something innate and therefore they’ll be labeled essentialists.” [161] She herself was accused of being “essentialist,” but simply disregarded the complaint as irrelevant. [281-2] Anzaldúa was absorbed in a quest for Conocimiento, by which she meant awareness of all realms of consciousness and powers, encompassing not just seeing but spiritual action: “a little serpent for counter-knowledge.” [266] She asked, “How do we know? How do we perceive?” [178]

And other questions arise: how do we make meaning --and who gets to do that? The question of authority and having a place to stand, an authentic root, looms large.

Contesting and contracting the meanings of “Goddess”

Hilda Ellis Davidson expresses puzzlement at the allure of Goddess reverence: “We are faced with the question of why the goddess concept stubbornly refuses to die...” [Roles of the Northern Goddess, London: Routledge, 1988, p 12] Why should it die at all? Who wants that to happen, and why? And why are masculine deity concepts not challenged with equal fervor? As I described in Part One of this essay, the academic discomfort with the concept of Goddess goes back to its roots in the cathedral schools and the long European repression of folk religion.

“Respect for Women Yes, Worship of Goddesses No” is the title of a column that Wendy Doniger wrote for a web dialogue on religion sponsored by the Washington Post. A professor of South Asian Studies who has written many books on Hinduism, Doniger is acutely conscious of the patriarchal bias in that tradition (and has taken considerable fire for writing about it, including having eggs thrown at her by Hindu fundamentalists). But she equates the bias of the male-authored scriptures with the totality of the tradition, which I think is a mistake. Doniger states that men’s belief in female powers makes them all the more determined to control them, and concludes that “There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women.”

There’s certainly no question that India is a patriarchal society, but the persistence of goddess veneration there is unique among modern “great civilizations.” It’s hardly a typical case, and in fact India’s goddess traditions are enormously varied. Doniger’s inverse ratio proposition is easily falsifiable; if it were true, then the status of women in Christian and Islamic societies, or in atheistic Communist ones, would be exalted. Such a simplistic formula is unlikely to explain the complex cultural realities of India (or anywhere else). You only have to look at the immense popularity of Ammachi, who is overturning barriers to female ordination and bringing about other shifts in encrusted gender ideology.

Is God a man or a woman? The answer to that question is that God is neither male nor female - God is "That." But if you insist on God having a gender, then God is more female than male, because the masculine is contained within the feminine. [Mata Amritanandamayi, “The Awakening of Universal Motherhood,”] (link no longer active November 2015)

There are countless women giving voice to change within India, including religious change. Vasudha Narayanan calls for the perspectives of women and people of oppressed castes to be heard and included in any discussion of “Hinduism.” She urges, “listen to the goddesses—not the demure, circumspect ones but the dynamic ones who possess and who are progressive.” [“Who Speaks for Hinduism?” quoted in Dianne Jenett, “A Million Shaktis Rising: Pongala, a Women's Festival in Kerala, India. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21.1 (2005) 35-55, Online: ] (link no longer works - April 2016)

I recently heard Madhu Kishwar speak on Indian activists’ creation of a new goddess, Manushi Swacchanarayani (Manushi is the feminist journal that Kishwar co-founded, and the second name could be translated as “goddess of the broom”). She is a protector of poor street vendors, not only sweeping away refuse but also government corruption:  extortion and beatings of vendors who refuse to pay bribes, and confiscation and destruction of their goods. Like many classic Indian goddesses, Swacchanarayani has multiple arms, but she holds some untraditional items. One is a videocam used to document goons attacking the stalls, which has been a most effective tool in stopping the assaults. [Kishwar, “The Descent of the Broom Wielding Goddess of Good Government,” April 2, 2008, Radcliffe Institute, Cambridge] A shrine to this goddess stands in the marketplace, which has flowered as a site of popular empowerment under her watch.

It’s fruitful to examine where the diverse strands connect, contradict, and submerge, especially those that subvert the dominant Indian social order: the Dalit traditions of Yellama and Mariamma, for example, or the re-framing of old myths in the Devi Bhagavatam to restore the sovereignty of Goddess. In a body of revolutionary tales about the Mahavidya goddesses, Devi not only refuses to obey her husband, but freezes him in his tracks by revealing her infinite glory. [See David Kinsley’s wonderful Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: the Ten Mahavidyas, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997]

The sage Ananadamayi Ma dramatically enacted this full-bore overwhelm of masculine authority in her youth. She was sitting in meditation with a shawl over her face when her husband entered the room with a male guest. He sharply rebuked her for not immediately rising to attend to them: “Who do you think you are?”

Slowly the young woman lifted the cloth from her face. The energy emanating from her was so intense that, as they recalled later, both men involuntarily leapt backward. “Purna brahma narayana,” she replied. “I am the all-pervading reality.” [Johnsen, Linda, Daughters of the Goddess: the Women Saints of India, St Paul MN: Yes International, 1995]

The same question appears in a Shakta (Goddess-oriented) scripture, the Devi-Upanishad:

The gods, approaching the resplendent Goddess, asked her, “Who are you?” Devi replied, “I am the form of the Immensity; from me the world arises as Nature and as Person.”

This is one of many ways of conceiving the Divine, which some nowadays call panentheism: the divine present in everything. Carol Christ comments that “panentheism shares with monotheism ‘the intuition of unity,’ the sense that the divine power is a unifying principle in the world.” [Christ, She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine Into the World, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p 209] Or, to put it in scientific terms, Bell’s theorem proposes that the separate parts of the universe are deeply connected at a fundamental level. Einstein called it the unified field theory.

I’m reminded of a video clip that recently streaked around the Net, of a talk by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor. She suffered a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain that temporarily incapacitated her rational and linear mind. The experience changed her perspective on the nature of reality:

And I lost my balance and I'm propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can't define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. … And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there. [“My Stroke of Insight”, TED, Feb. 2008 (Video version); (Text version)]

Modern projections?

Lotte Motz charges that feminist spiritual writers are imposing 20th century notions on the ancients. [Motz, Faces of the Goddess, New York: Oxford, 1997, p 38] And she is not alone in making this accusation. Please, someone explain: in what way are any other modern historical interpretations, whether Marxist or post-structuralist or processualist, less tied to present-day cultural concepts? None of these interpretations account for the pervasiveness of the sacred in living indigenous cultures. That emphasis on the sacred as present in everyday life is likely to have been true for neolithic villagers, too.

It is not modern attitudes being projected on the ancients when women resurrect sayings recorded in ancient literature, such as the famous aretalogy of the Kemetic goddess Neith:

The Universe is the Goddess. She is not separate from it, She did not create it and then let it be. She is what is, what was, and what will be. [Cheryl Straffon, Daughters of the Earth, 2007, 55. Emphasis added. Aretalogy: praise litanies in the form “I am.”]

The symbolism of ancient female iconography itself has had a huge influence on women seeking a female Divine. Our very study of this symbolism—and our analysis of what sets it apart from male-dominant systems—has been made a centerpiece of the anti-essentialism argument. But that argument never names as “essentialist” the ancient societies that so heavily emphasized mythic symbols of femaleness: vulvas, breasts, women’s bodies, or living cultures for that matter. Enough of this quibbling. The overwhelming femaleness of the oldest iconography will have to be acknowledged as significant.

An online review of Motz’s book illustrates stereotypical ideas circulating about Goddess feminism: “Many contemporary feminists believe that early humans worshipped a nurturing Mother Goddess, who was displaced by autocratic male deities. This book examines the maternal deities of various cultures and religions but finds no signs of a common origin for a primordial Great Mother.” But that simplistic and reductionist model so often laid to our charge completely misses the point. Why does there have to be a single origin, other than our common humanity? (Maybe there is, as Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum posits in Dark Mother, though it is difficult to prove cultural origins at such profound time depths—and equally difficult to disprove them.) But few are claiming a great diffusion from a single great goddess. It is rather that feminist researchers have noticed what can only be described as a staggering amount of similarities in ancient ritual art, from the female figurines to ceremonial vessels.

These deep continuities resound between archaic cultural artifacts across the planet, in the absence of any clear, or even conceivable, historical lines of transmission. There is no reason whatsoever for drawing a diffusionist link between mother-pots in Bulgaria of the 6th millennium BCE and Argentina of the 16th century CE, over 7000 years apart in time and half a world away; and yet their thematic unity is striking. The women who made these artifacts had something in common in their way of looking at the world, at life and death and relationship, when they molded their female effigy vessels with the crying eyes to bury with dead kin, and their waterbird vessels with women’s breasts. [See “Icons of the Matrix”, for this and other instances of symbolic resonances.]

Here we are not looking at a common historical origin or cultural linkage through contact, but something more profound: a pattern of human response to, and inter-relation with, the living world of nature, that is communicated and enacted through signs and ritual. These striking patterns—or let’s call them concordances—arise independently and repeatedly in widely divergent cultural contexts.

We’ve been treated to repeated academic warnings of the dangers of “goddess monotheism.” None of the writers flogging this threat concern themselves with the historical monotheism that restricted divinity to a single male god, which remains wrapped in thick layers of authority and prestige. They can’t quite grasp that the Goddess movement does not adhere to monotheism, in present day practice or historical interpretation. Approaches run the gamut from polytheism to panentheism to (getting really technical here) henotheism, as well as non-theistic play with myths and symbols. Countless attempts to explain this have been passed over unheard. Heide Göttner-Abendroth spoke for many when she wrote,

[Goddess] does not mean an omnipotent, omniscient supreme Mother in Heaven, a counterpart to God the Father. On the contrary. This concept signifies nothing more—and nothing less—than the inherent spiritual capacity in every individual, which harmoniously expresses itself together with the totality of the intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities of the person. The Goddess does not exist independent of these capacities; she is something like the unifying thread, the vitality, the energy of life. In this sense, the Goddess is present in every person and in all creatures and elements that possess or impart the vital energy.” [Göttner-Abendroth, The Dancing Goddess, Boston: Beacon Press 1991 (1982), 217]

No mother goddess?


aluna pendantMany academic writers feel impelled to deplore the “essentialist” concept of a “mother goddess,” although goddesses were directly known by this title in numerous cultures. Isis notwithstanding, Lotte Motz insists that there was never any Mother Goddess, and goes so far as to claim that “mother” has nothing to do with Kybele’s titles of Great Mother (Magna Mater) and Mother of the Gods (Mater Deum). She writes, “no creature [!] could be further from the celebration of biological motherhood, and the title Magna Mater surely designates her as a great queen.” [Faces of the Goddess, p. 120] This is extreme even for goddess-averse academia, and in line with Motz’s other peculiarities, such as the usage of “men” to mean people, or defining “shaman” as “the man of visionary powers.” [61] But she is in step with the ruling trend of dismissing “mother goddess” as an irrelevant modernism—and a purely “biological” one at that.

Allatu Mater Deum is no isolated title, however, since it occurs in a broad and deep swath of religious tradition. “Mother of the Gods” is attested for Neith in ancient Egypt, Athirat in the Ugaritic scriptures (Syria), Aditi in the Rg Veda (V 1.111.19), Teteoinan of the Aztecs (or Coatlicue in other accounts), Nana Burukú of Dahomey and beyond, Allat of the Nabataean Arabs, Ninhursag of Sumeria, Kiririsha and Mashta of the Elamites (Iran), or Kasogoanaga of the Chamacoco (Chaco region of South America; in her case, named “mother of the spirits.”) There are also Grandmothers: Hannahanna of the Hurrians, in what is now Turkey, and the Grandmother Creator of the Shawnee, Kokomtheyna.

The title Mother of All yields similarly rich attestations: Nyame of Ashanti (Ghana); Terra Ops of the ancient Latins; Barbelo and several other Gnostic goddesses (as Mother of the All); Amaná of the Calinya Caribs; Aluna of the Kogi (Colombia); the Uralic Mother of Nature; Wu Sheng Lao Mu in China, or more conceptually, descriptions of the Tao as “creating Mother of whatever exists under heaven.” In Australia, this name belongs to Ngalyod, Mutjingga, and Kunapipi, who is described as “one mother for all people everywhere.” [Peggy Grove, “Myths, Glyphs and Rituals of a Living Goddess Tradition", in Revision, Vol 21 #3, p 12]

Nana BurukuSuch titles could be multiplied, with considerable overlap. For example, the Yoruba sea goddess Yemanja is Mother of the Orishas, and also called Mother of All. The Laguna writer Leslie Marmon Silko talks story about Thought Woman as Mother Creator, and also, with her three sisters, as Mother Creators. [Silko, Yellow Woman and A Beauty of Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp 63-64] (I refrain from enumerating yet more Goddess Creators, many also titled mothers or grandmothers, for reasons of length.)

None of this is to say that “mother” is the only signifier for Goddess, or a necessary one. There are creator goddesses, fates and lawgivers, immanent powers of land, sea, and sky, of fire or clouds, of animals and birds, and goddesses representing divine principles, cycles, or planets. However, none of these categories are exclusive of “mother,” and in a great many traditions, this attribute mixes freely and frequently with the others, including some, such as warrior or destroyer, that conflict with the more conservative images of what “mother” might signify. If we look to indigenous religions, “mother” is a truly expansive concept, and a divine one.

“The Mothers”

In aboriginal spiritual philosophies, it is extremely common to name spirits and deities as “mothers,” and by other kinship names. In South America, they are described as mothers of waters, of animals, of special power places. The Kamayura speak of mama’é, mother spirits of animals, fish, and food plants. The Guaraní venerate Ñandecy, “Our Mother,” who lives in the east, beyond the sea, in the Land Without Evil. She is First Woman, and also takes the form of a green snake. After the Spanish invasions,  Ñandecy inspired successive Guarani liberation movements seeking to end European domination.

In Brazil, the Tupí say that that every animal has its own spirit mother, and that Putcha Cy is “mother of animals,” who follow her thunderous roar. She protects them from hunters, and often takes the form of a tortoise or coatá monkey. She lives in the springs at the headwaters of rivers. [Otto Zerries, in Pre-Columbian American Religions, ed. Walter Krickeberg et al, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, pp 260-1]

In Colombia, a song of the matrilineal Kagabá people expresses their veneration of a Mother as the sacred source of everything:

The Mother of Songs, the mother of our whole seed, bore us in the beginning. She is the mother of all races of men [sic] and the mother of all tribes. She is the mother of the thunder, the mother of the rivers, the mother of trees and of all kinds of things. She is the mother of songs and dances. She is the mother of the older brother stones. She is the mother of the grain and the mother of all things. She is the mother of the younger brother Frenchmen and of the strangers. She is the mother of the dance paraphenalia and of all temples, and the only mother we have. She is the mother of the animals, the only one, and the mother of the Milky Way. It was the mother herself who began to baptize. She gave us the limestone coca dish. She is the mother of the rain, the only one we have. She alone is the mother of things, she alone... [in Neumann, Erich, The Great Mother, Princeton University Press, 1972 (1963), p 85. "Men" is likely to be the interpolation of the translator, not the sense conveyed by the original.].

Similar declarations have been recorded for the Kogi, who speak of a Great Mother as the origin of everything. She is Aluna, a name variously translated as spirit, vitality, awareness, reality, and also described as the primordial sea.

The eloquent Kagabá chant quoted above flatly contradicts pronouncements that no culture ever conceived of a Great Mother. In fact, among aboriginal South Americans, “mother” seems to be a primary way of talking about deity. In Quechua, Mama (“mother”) is also translated in sacral contexts as “goddess,” and similarly for Tata (“father”). Thus, Peruvians invoked and made prayers and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth; Mama Quilla, Mother Moon; Saramama, Corn Mother, and so on. Further south, the Mapuche prayed to the Grandmothers and Grandfathers of the Directions.

The Calinya Caribs speak of Amaná, a self-conceiving Mother whose essence is Time, existing through eternity, and who has borne all beings. Amaná lives in the waters of the heavens, in the Pleiades, in the form of a woman-serpent. She renews herself continually by sloughing off her skin, and can take any shape. Shamans commune with her and with the mothers of rocks at the headwaters of rivers for visions and healing. Amaná governs all spirits of the waters, and is also called Wala Yumu, “spirit of the kinds.” [Zerries, 245-6]

Bülbül In the far north, the Inuit speak of Takanakapsaluk, the Sea Mother, who created the great ocean mammals, and the Caribou Mother, who created land animals by speaking magical words of power, and made their skin from her own leather breeches. [Rasmussen, 1929, 69-70; Boas III:122] These Mothers are also old women, like the primary female spirit of the Cheyenne, Old Woman. The monolithic stone women scattered across the steppes of Central Asia are ancestors known as bülbül, “grandmothers.”

Sacred mothers also persisted in parts of Europe, most dramatically among the incompletely-christianized Latvians. They venerated over fifty mates, “mothers” of earthly and heavenly powers: of earth, forests, and fields, sea, waves, rivers, rain, fog, and wind, as well as threshing houses, markets, gardens, roads, linen, wine, flowers, and the dead. Traces remain in the faery faiths, too; the French with their bonnes dames, “good women,” the Germans their holzweibel, “woodwoman,” or in many places, simply “the ladies” who were often sighted near certain rocks or springs.

We could also look to India, where every village has own goddess, and even great cities are named for local goddesses of place: Mumbai (Bombay) and Calcutta (Kalighat, the “river-steps of Kali”). Devdutt Pattanaik writes that the Gramadevi (village goddess) “is perceived as the local manifestation of the cosmic mother-goddess,” an observation repeated by many commentators on rural Indian religion. [Nagar, Shanti Lal, Universal Goddess, Delhi: Atma Ram & Sons, 1988, p 152]

The pervasive Goddess veneration of India has made itself felt on the regional and national levels, too, on the tongues of seers such as Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar: “The Mother projects the entire world, moment by moment, from her own ecstasy. Simply remember that all comes from her, belongs to her, abides in her, and disappears into her…” [in Hixson, Lex, Great Swan: Meetings with Ramakrishna, NY: Larson 1997] (Beware of interpolating “goddess monotheism” here; from the same mouth came the praises of many other forms of deity, although Kali was most-beloved.)

Africa is one of the strongholds of mother-veneration. The Yoruba speak of awon iya wa, “our mothers,” who are seen on a continuum of deities and ancestors. Awon iya wa is “a collective term for female ancestors, female deities, and for older living women, whose power over the reproductive capacities of all women is held in awe by Yoruba men.” These mothers are also called “the owners of the world.” [Pemberton 1989 “The Carvers of the Northeast,” in Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, edited by Henry John Drewel et al., New York: Harry Abrams. 1989: 210] Their wrath in a patriarchal world must be placated through the masked gelede dances.

African women’s rites of the mothers often function as a base of their identity and empowerment, even in patrilineal and patrilocal societies. In Igbo country, even as Onitsha women married out, they brought with them shrines to “the mothers,” and made conical clay mounds as dwelling places for the Oma spirit of nurturing and maternity. [Amadiume, Ifi, African Matriarchal Foundations: the case of Igbo societies. NY and London: Karnak House and Red Sea Press, 1995 (1987), p 19]

Ifi Amadiume lays out a paradigmatic Igbo history of an indigenous matrilineage that preserved veneration of its ancestral goddess under “patriarchal incursion.” Nnobi oral histories feature a hunter, Aho-from-the-wild, who met the divine woman Idemili near a stream and married her. Idemili had more powerful influence than her husband, “and so she spread her idols everywhere.” This is one strand of the tradition.

Over time, writes Amadiume, as the Igbo shifted to a patrilineal and patrilocal order, conflicting themes of female subordination arose: “Thus, the all-powerful goddess Idemili was domesticated and made the wife of a less powerful god, Aho.” And a junior third wife at that. [59-61] Their much-courted daughter married out, taking a ritual pot with her, and she too spread her shrines around. [39] In spite of the formal “domestication” of these female powers under the new order, they remain the central mythic figures of the region.

More than that, Amadiume tells us, “The goddess religion provided an integrated administrative and judicial system, which extended from Nnobi to all the communities along the Oji Iyi Idemili stream…” [54] Nnobi is the major ritual center for the goddess Idemili, whose veneration was shared by other towns along the Idemili river. The patriarchal kings of Nri later assume rulership of the region, but Nnobi pays no tribute to them, and in fact the kings must make pilgrimages to the Idemili shrine. [Amadiume, 38-39] So the goddess still exerts considerable cultural and political pull, and so do the elder women who figure in her rites.

The Gouandousou statues of the Bambara display the various and multivalent meanings of Goddess, including the kind academics routinely reject as untenably “essentialist” because of their connection to body mysteries: menstruation, pregnancy and lactation. This is “dangerous” terrain, both in animist terms and in the sexual politics of patriarchy. In Bambara culture (as for countless others) it is a terrain of female potency. “For them these statues represent either Mousso Koroni the supernatural female creator, Gouandousou the gifted and powerful historical figure, or female ancestors as a collectivity.” The images also carry meanings of mother, milk-giver, child-bearer and worker. [Imperato, Pascal James, Buffoons, Queens and Wooden Horsemen, NY: Kilimi, 42-43]

A comparable spectrum of spiritual beings exists in Senufo thought: deities, ancestors, and wilderness spirits. Anita Glaze writes, “Central to Senufo religion is the conception of a bipartite deity called Kòlotyölöö in its aspect of divine creator, and Màlëëö or Kàtyelëëö in its aspect of protective, nurturing being.” The last two names mean “Ancient Mother” and “Ancient Woman.” The creator divinity is remote and cannot be approached directly, only through other deities. [Glaze, Anita, “Woman Power and Art in a Senufo Village,” African Arts, Vol 8, No. 3 (Spring, 1975) p 29]

Linguistic indicators points to a shift that masculinized this creator: “There is some evidence to suggest that Kòlotyölöö was originally considered female in nature (työlöö wii, for example, means ‘woman’ or ‘wife’ in Tyebara), although present usage suggests a neuter or even a paternal image.” [Glaze, 64] If so, it is one of numerous instances of female deity changed over to male within a patriarchal culture-shift. [See Paula Gunn Allen on the displacement of female spirits by males in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Beacon Press, Boston, 1986, p 41; or Tikvah Frymer Kensky on Sumerian goddesses being turned into gods, in In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Macmillan, Free Press. 1992] In the Senufo context, such a shift may well date to men’s takeover of the Poro society from its female founders, as described in oral histories.

Other considerations

Because of the stereotypical bracketing of “mother goddess,” I have to emphasize spiritual feminists’ wariness of restricting Goddess to this form, all the way back to the early 70s. We repudiated the old doctrines that said motherhood was a woman’s only proper place, and that a subordinated one, or necessarily a heterosexual one—but we did not deny the sacral value of motherhood. What we rejected was the coercive pressure to eliminate all other female identities, and the prescriptive colonization of women’s bodies and labor. We rejected the idea that the sacred female was a merely a vessel for a superior masculine power: “Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

Marija Gimbutas too explicitly foreswore this patriarchal bracketing, while never denying cultural importance to the mother aspect of deity. She called “Mother Goddess” as a catch-all term a “misconception,” writing: “It is true that there are mother images and protectors of young life, and there was a Mother Earth and Mother of the Dead, but the rest of female images can’t be generalized under the term Mother Goddess.” [Language of the Goddess, p 316. Thanks to Judith Laura for calling my attention to this quote, which of course doesn’t resemble the stereotyped profile of Gimbutas, but then, few of her detractors have actually read her.]

But reacting to pressures to deny any mother goddess, as some kind of loyalty oath to anti-essentialism, would be a mistake. We don’t have to affirm the narrow, colonized definition of “mother” insisted on by the dominant culture to recognize the importance of mothering. It represents a shared ground of deep experience, relationship, and love—and does not have to exclude other images of the Sacred Woman. Even the Amazons venerated Artemis the many-breasted Mother of All.

Most women become mothers, and the entire society rests on their foundational work. But precious little authority remains to them nowadays. Although society pays lip service to mothers, in practice they are disregarded and disempowered — economically, politically, and legally. In the USA, no law protects mothers from hiring discrimination, so  “maternal profiling” is rampant, and mothers are paid less on average than women without children. Maternity leave is ridiculously short, and single motherhood remains a major predictor of poverty. Divorced mothers who work in the home lose custody of their children more often than not in court custody challenges. Meanwhile their authority as educators has been vitiated by the mass media. So mothers are mobilizing in a growing social movement and redefining this identity, yet again.

A powerfully down-to-earth Goddess as a Jewish mother is evoked in comedian Sherry Glaser’s performance “Oh my Goddess.” She features Ma holding forth on the fate of creation since she took a 5000-year-long nap, leaving “your father” in charge of the kids. “He started acting like he’s the only God in the universe… and let you play with guns and bombs and missiles. Not in my house!” [“God’s better half just woke up, and boy is she mad.” Jessica Werner, San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 2006] Glaser told an interviewer that “we are way out of whack on earth, so if we restore the mother and serve, honor, protect, pleasure her, everything will be all right. I do believe that.”

So do lots of women in the Two Thirds world, where maternalism is an important element in the women’s movements as well as in the traditional cultures. Nigerian feminist writers have especially emphasized this. Maternalism can have its drawbacks in patriarchal societies, which create misery for women who can’t bear children and for divorced women where children are by custom given over to the fatherline. But the spiritual aspects of motherhood as a female sphere of power are not to be overlooked, as African and American Indian women have been pointing out. As Paula Gunn Allen writes, “To address a person as ‘mother’ is to pay the highest ritual respect.” [The Sacred Hoop, p 16]

In India, Ammachi is spreading her message of “The Awakening of Universal Motherhood” which recalls the aboriginal value placed on social motherhood as the highest good:

Anyone - woman or man - who has the courage to overcome the limitations of the mind can attain the state of universal motherhood. The principle of motherhood is as vast and powerful as the universe. With the power of motherhood within her, a woman can influence the entire world. The love of awakened motherhood is a love and compassion felt not only towards one's own children, but towards all people, animals and plants, rocks and rivers - a love extended to all of nature, all beings. Indeed, to a woman in whom the state of true motherhood has awakened, all creatures are her children. This love, this motherhood, is Divine Love - and that is God. []

Re-enchanting the world

In so-called “Western” culture we are living with the loss of the mythic. Or to put it more accurately, it has been bound, twisted, displaced, and appropriated for commercial ends. Our imaginal life is in the hands of the movie industry, TV network heads, advertising and media conglomerates. Female leads, or even decent parts, have dropped precipitously, and it is common to see movie ads with five or seven male characters and one sexualized female. The big studios are run by men, the big directors are male, and they give us anorexic female prototypes, most of whom who age out by 40, often paired with male leads several decades older. Sexist obsessions rule the music industry, too, propagating the toxicity of ho’dom and gyrating female trophies. The single most profitable Internet industry is online porn (and its outliers, like the spam that came across my email last week: “Drive your weapon into her until she screams.”)

Coexisting on another misogynist extreme are the fundamentalist religions that demand women stay in their place and submit to male authority. But what passes for the marketplace of ideas is not so different, if you look at the handful of women who make it into the New York Review of Books (on terms), or the outnumbered and outshouted females admitted to sit with the white male punditry, to say nothing of the unchecked misogyny of cable anchormen like Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson. These tightly-wound cultural phantasms are completely man-made, drenched in toxic whiteness, and hurtling toward a dead end. They have no reference to women’s reality, to the experience of most humans on the planet, or to the natural world.

Lee Maracle of the Stoh:loh nation writes from Canada, “Western society is an alienated society. Its individuals have come to accept the estrangement of spiritual belief, emotional wellness, physical existence, knowledge, and intellectual development from the central fire from which they arise…. Everything is present in a mold that began shaping before the Greco-Roman cultural ascendance some 2,000 years ago.” [“Decolonizing Native Women,” in Daughters of Mother Earth, Westport CT: Greenwood, 2006, p 33] Maracle lays out how colonization has brought this fragmentation to Indian country. One of its most momentous consequences has been the stripping away of the mothers’ authority in these original cultures.

Such losses are incalculable. Even in the crucible of modern Western Civ, centuries ago, some visionaries understood how mistaken that cultural and personal fragmentation was. We only know of the philosopher Anne Conway (1631-79) thanks to her resurrection from historian by feminist researchers. The title of her posthumous book reaches back beyond the classical authorities to a much older worldview: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. She wrote, “the distinction between spirit and body is only modal and incremental, not essential and substantial.” [in Paula Findless, “Ideas in the Mind: Gender and Knowledge in the 17th Century”, Hypatia, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter 2002, p 191] In other words, it’s a continuum, an energetic field.

Some fragments survive containing residues of older ways, notably in the faery faiths. Folk accounts of a banished goddess preserve traces of the long struggle between the christian priesthood and popular animism in Europe. The folklorist Grimm commented on the “white ladies” (faeries, land spirits, omen-giving ancestors) who often appeared to European countryfolk, beseeching them to perform some ritual act to free them from a long-standing curse:

Now the pervading thought in all of this of being banned and longing for release I take to be just this, that the pagan deities are represented as still beautiful, rich, powerful, and benevolent, but outcast and unblest, and only on the hardest terms can they be released from the doom pronounced upon them. [Grimm, 968]

These oral traditions retain a defiant affection for the outlawed deities. They speak to the spiritual uprooting, splitting and severing that was inflicted on European cultures, a legacy we are living with today, and attempting to work through. It’s crucial for those of us who are deracinated Europeans to reclaim our own deep cultural roots, before christianization, feudalization, romanization, and find an authentic place to stand, where we are not colonized as females, nor colonizers as whites, in this imperialized global society.

The biggest challenge facing the Goddess movement now, as it expands and is popularized, is to avoid unconsciously reproducing the dominant culture’s biases and exclusions founded on ethnicity and class and colonization. It is crucial to address these issues, for the larger feminist movement, and no less so for its spiritual expressions. Without clear, firm, conscious effort to overcome patterns of privilege, they replicate themselves. Our movement cannot allow itself to be defined by access to resources, whether ownership of land or media, or the ability to conference-hop around the world. Conferences, anthologies, events need to be inclusive and representative of the range of women who actually are creating this resurgence.

I believe we will succeed only by addressing injustice on all levels, including the colonial and imperial. And that requires becoming allies to indigenous women. Issues of appropriation must be addressed, the insults of New Age rip-offs that have been piled onto the weight of historical injuries. Much has been written about “spiritual hucksterism” and “shake and bake” shamans. One must-read essay is “For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life,” written by Andy Smith, a Cherokee feminist who co-founded Women of All Red Nations. [ . Also see “Respect and Responsibility,” 1994, at] Becoming an ally means learning about indigenous women’s spiritual perspectives, as they define them, and respecting their authority to do that. Much more is owed, including solid support for sovereignty issues, but it would be a good place to start repairing relations.

It’s not all open road. I’m alarmed about New Age commodification in general, as Goddess culture gets popularized and marketed. Consumerist trendiness and prosperity consciousness corrupt what is genuine, and threaten to overwhelm it. In many people’s minds Goddess already means New Age, which means trouble. In more than a few cases, the rush toward “the divine feminine” literally does mean feminine in its most retrograde media form: recently I’ve seen a lot of art depicting thin, pretty, young, longhaired females, usually white, sticking their breasts out in unnatural positions, and looking like something out of Esquire. They don’t appear powerful or present in their bodies, but tense, posed, and decorative.

I’m concerned about the recasting of Mary Magdalene as a vessel for the divine seed, like the Virgin Mary only-this-time-with-sex. I worry when women believe anti-historical claims that MM was really an acolyte of a Goddess temple, or other kookeries making her a “sacred prostitute” or the progenitrix, by Jesus, of the Merovingian dynasty (vicious, misogynist, slaving murderers that they were), a la Holy Blood, Holy Grail. [A new book by Stephanie Budin debunks the canard of “sacred prostitution.” As for MM in this role: no sooner has the church’s malicious invention of her hookerdom been exposed as a fraud, than it reappears in a new-and-improved version. Bah.] This kind of stuff feeds the idea that feminist spirituality is based on phony history.


Women’s recognition of our mythic exile is powering a widespread impulse to revive and restore Goddess culture. Against the background of patriarchal religion, with its insistence on deity, prophets, saviors, and clergy in a masculine image, “‘the Goddess’ becomes a term of liberation and a rallying cry for justice,” as Asphodel Long wrote. [Online review of Concept of the Goddess]

Longing for a female face of the Divine is pouring forth from diverse cultural directions: women of European descent who feel cut off from their pagan roots by a long history of compulsory Christianity; Jewish women reclaiming the Shekhinah, and some the ancient goddess Asherah as well; African-Americans reaching for the pre-captivity sacraments of their ancestors, and back to ancient Egyptian wisdom; Koreans bringing forth Mago, Puertorriqueñas remembering Atabey, and Mexicanas affirming la Guadalupana as Tonantzin.

The Unitarians have been going through this portal of opening to Goddess, and other progressive churches too. In the ‘90s at the breakthrough Re-Imagining Conference, Christian women invoked Sophia in richly sensual terms (and faced a vicious backlash for it). Wendy Griffin told me about radical nuns who are using goddess figurines to represent the sacraments of Earth in their observance of Stations of the Cross. Christian women are embracing Mary Magdalene as a female prophetic figure. Some of the old Gnostic scriptures attributed to her sound very much like Buddhist or Hindu mysticism: “All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots.” [Gospel of Mary, 4:22]

Pongala, the world’s largest female ceremony, is carried out annually in Kerala, India, with a million women boiling rice porridge for the goddess Attukal Amma or Bhagavati. Dianne Jenett emphasizes the transformative power of this massive Goddess event, where women of all religions and castes make offering together in a spirit of reverence, sisterhood, and generosity. [See Jenett, “A Million Shaktis Rising: Pongala, a Women's Festival in Kerala, India. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21.1 (2005) 35-55, Online:] (link no longer works April 2016)

We are going through a huge cultural shift toward restoring the female. However that is defined, it has been disempowered and negated, and it is rising now, through us. We are recreating the arts of invocation, of incantation, of drumming and sacramental dance. We are beginning to expand into litanies of sacred names, processions, banners, and temple-building. “Make processions for me,” said the Lady to Bernedette of Lourdes.

There’s an expansiveness going on. Goddess reverence and earth-based spirituality is bursting out in music and art and theater, video and blogs. Women are dancing for Tara, celebrating Kali pujas, reaching for the Mother Luminosity or Adi Parashakti. Asungi is painting African goddesses, Ubaka Hill is drumming them, Arisika Razak is dancing them, along with countless others. The Korean mudang (women shamans) are holding kut for the spirits of women who endured sexual slavery to the Japanese military. These cultural acts not only have tremendous unifying force, they are healing and transformative. They have everything to do with the decolonization of womanhood that is necessary to fully inhabit our bodies and voices, our breath and movement.

Countless women are “resacralizing the female body through Goddess spirituality,” in the words of Wendy Griffin. [“Crafting the Boundaries,” in Griffin, Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Healing Identify and Empowerment, Walnut Creek CA: Altamira, 2000, p 76-77]  If anything has been a central theme of the Goddess resurgence, this is it. The dancer Vajra Ma calls it “BodyKnowing,” authentic wisdom arising from deep within. Louise Paré writes of how conscious movement, sound and breath practices resonate powerfully within the body, throughout all the multiple layers of consciousness. This “morphic resonance” connects with all that is living, and from it arise stories of the female Divine:

I suggest that through intrinsic movement one can experience consciously and directly in one’s body the unfolding energy of the lifeforce which ancient peoples symbolically represented in spirals, circles, and coiling snakes as the Sacred Feminine. …It is my experience that in the conscious expression of each story as it presents itself through woman’s body, transformation is realized, integration develops and consciousness is expanded. [Paré, “Moving Between the Worlds She Brings Forth All Things From Within Her Body: Intrinsic Movement as Transformative Spiritual Practice and Expression of Women’s Spirituality,” Doctoral Dissertation, CIIS, 2002]

The Moving Power of the Mythic

The insights of Carol Christ on the tremendous power of the symbolic and mythic explain why so many women see it as a primary arena of transformation: “A symbol’s effect does not depend on rational assent, for a symbol also functions on levels of the psyche other than the rational.” Christ notes that symbols create cultural contexts experienced even by those who do not adhere to them, as for example at marriages, funerals, or holidays. She makes a most astute observation about the nature of human culture: “Symbol systems can not be rejected, they must be replaced.” [“Why Women Need the Goddess,” 1979, in Womanspirit Rising, 274-275] This pivotal principle helps us to understand why attempts to create social change often falter. They have not yet touched the depths where psyche and culture are transformed.

We are mythic beings. However rational we are on the surface, we swim in a cultural sea of magnetized signs and stories which affect us on multiple levels. Memes, as anthropologists call them, have a power created by the collected sum of cultural consensus—or in the case of dominance systems, by coercion and submission. Memes acquire a force of their own, fed by naming, repetition, artistic and ritual enactment. They replicate and spread beyond their original context, long after their creators are dead, and go on to shape new contexts. They have been described as cultural genes or programs, which can be positive or negative, inspired or oppressive, or complex mixtures.

Myth and ritual have transformative power. Ifi Amadiume describes how Igbo women use them in their oaths of solidarity at shrines, in women’s strikes and collective actions of calling men to account by making them eat fufu and swear oaths at the shrine of the goddess Ala. The Igbo Women’s War of 1929 drew extensively on ritual forms— processions, carrying wands, ceremonial dress of leaves—in its mass protest of British colonial taxes and puppet chiefs, which also included tearing down telegraph lines and storming jails to free prisoners. [This union of spiritual and political is not unusual. Many examples are given in my slideshow Rebel Shamans: Indigenous Women Confront Empire, 2006]

The Igbo women’s use of ceremonial regalia toward political ends is one instance of “how metaphor translates into genuine cultural power,” in the words of Judy Grahn. She has delved into the spiritual uses of metaphor: “In examining the power of verbal metaphor, I began to see that we surround ourselves with living, interacting, physically embodied metaphors.” Grahn has named these cultural patterns “metaforms.” She explains, “Some metaphors are so powerful they become translated into physical form…” This goes to the very heart of ritual, whether it is acts or masks or sacred objects that carry that potent meaning. [Grahn, Blood, Bread and Roses, Boston: Beacon, 1993, p 19]

Pagans often talk about how intention can be clarified and magnified through the use of symbols in ceremony. Ruth Barrett writes, “Within ritual, it is through the vehicle of symbols that we give our psyches the messages we choose to internalize.” [“The Power of Ritual,” in Griffin, p 189] Thus the saying, Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will. The symbols become conduits for awareness and ways of directing energy, which can be potentized through chant or sounding, drumming, dance, ritual theater.  These are also ways for experiencing energy and being transformed by it.

Through ceremony—Essence invoked through symbol—we wash our minds, revitalize our spirits, harmonize our bodies. Through story and myth, we affirm what we value and how things in the world are connected. The meanings of Goddess speak to what we revere, what we are reaching toward, and how, in our deepest core, we know the ultimate nature of reality.

©Max Dashú

* Pomo, shorthand for Postmodernist, see also post-structuralism, deconstruction in Wikipedia.