In Memory of Asphodel Long.
This has been a sad year for the Goddess movement in Great Britain. Asphodel Long, who was born in 1921, died at Imbolc, and Monica Sjoo died just after Lammas.
I once described Asphodel as “a grandmother of the Goddess movement in Great Britain”. I was thinking of Monica as the other grandmother. They were both members of the Matriarchy Study Group, and this seems to me the origin of the British Goddess movement of the last thirty years. The group was founded in 1975 to investigate the origins of women’s oppression and to determine whether this had always existed. They soon discovered the existence of many goddesses, priestesses, and ordinary women who led autonomous lives. They produced three pamphlets, Goddess Shrew (Shrew was a feminist magazine published occasionally, each issue being by a different collective and on a different topic), Menstrual Taboos (which received a negative review on the Women’s Page of The Guardian that nevertheless led to over five hundred letters to the Group), and The Politics of Matriarchy, to all of which Asphodel contributed under her former name of Pauline Long. She also contributed articles on various goddesses to feminist spiritual magazines such as Arachne and Panakeia.
The group suffered many put-downs by academics not willing to consider evidence for women’s past power. She decided that it was time for her to engage in formal study of these issues, and to take up a place at university that was not financially possible for her in her youth. She chose to take a degree in theology at King’s College, London. She once said that her interviewers asked her why she wanted to study theology, and seemed very pleased when she said that it was to discover the roots of Western civilisation — she did not tell them that it was to discover why things had gone so wrong!
After completing her degree she went on to do research. This would have led to a Ph.D. if the formal technicalities had not been too much effort (and if her supervisor had had the experience and understanding to support her). She was, though, able to present her work in the book In a Chariot Drawn by Lions, which emphasised goddesses of the Ancient Near East, and in particular the divine figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew bible. As always, her work was scholarly but accessible to the general reader.
She continued theological work, publishing both in academic journals such as Feminist Theology (which devoted half of the September 2002 issue to her work and influence) and Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and also in popular journals of the Goddess movement including Wood and Water and Goddessing. Her important paper on “The One and the Many” first appeared in Wood and Water and was later expanded for Feminist Theology; it dealt with the interplay between “the Goddess” and “goddesses” that is an essential part of the Goddess movement and is so little understood by outsiders (see The One or the Many).
She was a founder member of the European Society of Women in Theological research, and presented papers at conferences of the Society and also at other academic conferences on Goddess Studies. At one conference, another participant commented “In the early stages of your paper we thought you did not know what you were talking about. But as your talk continued, we realised that you knew your material thoroughly, but were presenting it in a way we were not used to.” She took this as the compliment it was intended to be, that she did not conform to academic conventions.
Both before and after her book was published, she gave many slide shows and talks on aspects of the Goddess, including seven years of courses for the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex, and as a tutor for the Feminist Theology Certificate of the University of Wales. These courses were a great inspiration to many women, several of whom continued further with their own work. Always when she presented such material she was greeted with a response of “Why was I never told this before?” This held even when she gave, to people mostly in their late eighties, one of her talks at the beautiful retirement home where she spent her last four years.
Brought up as an Orthodox Jew, she rejected this fairly quickly and became an atheist. Initially her interest in goddesses was primarily intellectual, but she took part in various rituals which led her to develop her spirituality. Some rituals associated with a course on “Goddesses in the Landscape” were particularly important. She wrote, “I felt an enormous sense of one-ness with our foremothers. It went with a feeling of awareness of union with a universal force that contained a powerful female element, divine and cosmic, made out of heaven, earth, the oceans, rivers, trees, animals and all natural objects and all those who had gone before and were yet to come.”
She was always a political activist, from the anti-fascist movement of the late 1930s, and left-wing politics during and after the war, through to being part of the collective of A Woman’s Place (Women’s Liberation Workshop) in the 1970s. She insisted that ritual was not just for personal growth, and that research was “not just to make some scholarly point, always because finding out about our history empowers us for the present and future struggle against our oppression, and for a just and rightful way of living.” She also wrote of the developing interest in and remembrance of the Goddess, that “In raising her we raise ourselves, and in raising her we raise ourselves.”
Her attitude to men was critical but supportive. She said “My first feeling is for all women. My attitude to men is that they must change.” In her article on “Women’s Sexuality” in Goddess Shrew she wrote “Some of us, indeed many of us, in perception of wholeness, would wish to share with men.” In that article, with a mixture of hope and despair, she repeatedly asks “Where are the men?” She called on men to be the best they could be, not rejecting them as fundamentally flawed, but demanding much of us that is hard but ultimately valuable. The demands she made on men (In a Chariot Drawn by Lions 198–9) was that they “must stand, and some now have brought themselves to stand, at the bar of history. They are not there to be judged or condemned: they are not there to plead guilty or not guilty. But they should remember the soul’s Negative Confession to Ma’at [the Egyptian goddess — see p.85 of Chariot. Daniel]. Have they caused any to weep? Have they falsified the balance between themselves and the women in their lives and community? Can they realise that, even if their own lives are exemplary, women are likely to hold men responsible for the abuse of the past and the present? Can they join with women to look at this abuse and say ‘Yes, this is how it was and this is how it is’? If men can do this, it is in such companionship, such partnership, where men can accept the reality of women’s hurt and start to change themselves, that healing can take place. I understand that for men this is a very hard and painful task. They have to relinquish their sovereignty and accept everyday humanity on a par with that of women, neither more nor less.”
She empowered women by sharing her knowledge and her point of view, and also by applying her skills as an editor to support others in their writing and in the production of magazines and pamphlets.
She was a fine poet (some of her poems have been compared to those of Robert Graves) and her poems have been collected in the book Athene Revisited.
Asphodels are the unfading flowers of the Elysian Fields, the home of the dead in Greek mythology. She took the name Asphodel in her late fifties as a symbol of renewal, when she was preparing to go to university. Those of us who knew her under her birth name of Pauline are concerned that Pauline should be remembered, and not just Asphodel. As she herself said, “I give credit to myself for all my years, all my trials, all the happenings, some of them, yes some of them, joyous” and also “As an old woman, I know that I am no other than that young woman, that nymph, who started so trustingly and found life so cruel, yet so rewarding.”
Pauline’s birth surname was Ornadel, and the echo of this in the name Asphodel was an additional reason for her choice of that name. It was Pauline who read The Jewish Encyclopedia as a child, and found in its pages that there had been powerful goddesses in the past. Pauline left school having passed Matriculation, the school-leaving exam that guaranteed admission to London University. Her step-mother was too poor to afford the five shillings necessary to have this recorded, so her headmistress paid. This record enabled her, at nearly sixty years of age, to take a place at King’s College without the need for any special tests of her ability.
Dodie Craik, who was her managing editor at Manufacturing Clothier wrote a reference for her in 1980 when she was applying to university. It said “Pauline Long is widely recognised as the leading writer in clothing textiles in Britain. Hers is the most authoritative voice in this field today and her contribution to expanding the knowledge and understanding of many people, both inside and outside the industry, is unique. This record can only have been achieved by someone capable of the clearest expression of the often complex conditions. As Fabrics Editor since 1977 she has always produced lucid, concise articles, which frequently have been far ahead of the current trends.” Her skills as a journalist, her ability to learn enough about a subject to be able to ask significant questions of the experts and communicate the results to others, all served her well in her theological writings. Pauline’s experience as journalist and editor enabled Asphodel to give critical support to others in developing their writing. As an example of being ahead of the current trends, her Sophia Fellowship lecture in 1996 on Asherah, the Menorah and the Tree of Life was based on the latest scholarship, presented for a general audience. Only this year, the famous biblical archaeologist William Dever has produced a book Did God Have a Wife? about the place of Asherah in Hebrew religion.
She was my dearest friend and partner for over twenty-five years. We led very independent lives, and I usually visited her about one day a week. Our discussions, theological, spiritual, political, literary, enlivened my life and deepened my thinking. Our travels together were a delight. She was always a bad typist — she often said that had she known how to type properly she would have ended up as a secretary and not a journalist — and I am proud to have acted as her secretary, retyping her work on my computer.
Fifteen years ago we were on a goddess tour of Turkey (which was repeated in 2005). Her talks with other participants had a considerable effect on their lives. The enthusiasm generated by her and by our tour guide Resit Ergener, a Turkish man devoted to the goddess, led to a campaign to persuade the Turkish government to re-open the excavation of Catal Hoyuk, and this was successful.
She was delighted by the birth of female members of her family, a great-granddaughter aged two from the elder of her two sons and a granddaughter aged nearly ten from the younger. She hoped that her spiritual legacy would inform their lives and interests, and she gave her large collection of goddess images to her granddaughter.
When she made for me a collection of my mother’s articles, she inscribed it with a quotation from the biblical Book of Wisdom of Solomon, on which she had worked for her book. Verses 22–23 of Chapter 7 give a long list of attributes of divine Wisdom. I was touched that she used these words for my mother, but the person to whom they are most applicable is Asphodel herself.
“In her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle …beneficent, humane … loving the good.”
© Daniel Cohen
Those of Asphodel’s shorter writings that she wished to preserve, and some of her poetry, are on her Web site at www.asphodel-long.com. Her books, In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: the search for the female in deity and Athene Revisited (a collection of poetry) are available in the UK from Daniel Cohen, 77 Parliament Hill London NW3 2TH, price including postage £6.50 and £7.50 respectively. For non-UK purchases, please contact Daniel through the link on this Web site.
(This is an expanded version of the tribute I gave to Asphodel at the Goddess Conference in Ephesus, Turkey, in July 2005. Its organiser, Lydia Ruyle, dedicated the conference to Asphodel, as Lydia had been on the earlier tour to Turkey and had been greatly influenced by her.
This tribute will also appear in Goddessing).