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The Goddess in Academia—
A Letter to Pagan Dawn.

I am delighted that Mark Kirwan-Heyhoe will be teaching a Goddess Studies course. The use of the word ‘Goddess’ may well be a milestone. I would be interested to know if he managed this easily or if it took hard work.

But it is by no means “the first time in this country that the study of the Goddess has been given official recognition as an academic subject and taught in an officially recognised academic institution”, as you state.

There have been many precursors over the last fifteen years, though they used such titles as “The female in deity”, only referring to the Goddess or goddesses in the course description. Some of these courses were in Adult Education, as Mark’s is, but others were examined options in university degree courses. It is important that recognition be given to the pioneers, and that their efforts should not be forgotten.

One of the first to bring goddesses to popular and academic notice is the teacher, writer and theologian Asphodel Long. Graham Harvey says that “Asphodel’s work has been enormously important. If we can do anything that might be called ‘Goddess Studies’ then Asphodel’s contributions are absolutely central.”

Her course “Female aspects of deity” was offered by the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex in an unbroken cycle from 1987 to 1994. The syllabus, included Goddesses of the World, Goddesses of Britain, and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East. She was joined by Magenta Wise who gave several classes on ritual and celebration in the same series.

From 1993 to 1996 she was a tutor in the Feminist Theology outreach programme of the University of Wales at Lampeter, again focussing on “Female aspects of deity”; the programme led to the award by the university of the Certificate in Feminist Theology, and was accepted at various colleges as credit towards a BA in Religious Studies.  She taught a similar course in 1996 as part of the  BA in Study of Religions at the University College of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth.

Her book In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: the search for the female in deity looked at goddesses in Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern traditions. It is now a commonplace among biblical scholars, though not yet known to the general public, that the ancient Hebrews were not monotheists, but worshipped both the god Yahweh and the goddess Asherah. Asphodel’s articles on “The Goddess Movement in Britain Today” (Feminist Theology, a scholarly journal published by the Sheffield Academic Press, January 1994) and “The One and the Many: the Great Goddess Revisited” (Wood and Water 53, Winter Solstice 1995 and Feminist Theology, May 1997) have also been influential.

A Web site containing many of her writings is here.

Another adult education course taught for several years in the late 1980s at the Camden Institute, London, was by Jocelyn Chaplin; its title for some years was “Psychology and Mythology”, but one year it was called “Return of the Goddess”.

At the University College of Chichester, a course on “The female face of religion” has been taught for the past five years, initially by Ruth Mantin and later by others, most recently by Jaki da Costa.

There have been courses with material on goddesses at Canterbury Christ Church University College. In the current year, one course will have a substantial goddess element to it, and a complete course on the goddess is planned for future years.

There are many other universities and colleges with goddess material as part of a course. Students frequently have individual work as part of their degree, and some have worked on aspects of goddess traditions. And then, of course, goddesses are studied in courses in Indian and other non-monotheistic religions — for instance, a course at the University of Lancaster is actually entitled “Manifestations of the Goddess in India”.

There is much more. Melissa Raphael, at  the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, has published a book Introduction to Thealogy: Discourse on the Goddess (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); “Goddess feminism” is included among the research topics which she supervises. In 1997 King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and the Roehampton Institute, London, jointly held a conference, organised by Graham Harvey and Beverley Clack, on “Ambivalent Goddesses”, and earlier this year a small gathering on “Goddess Studies Now”, organised by Shan Jayran,  was hosted at a university by a senior professor of theology.

All in all, one can say that Goddess Studies is flourishing in British academia, even though pagans seem unaware of it.

Originally published in Pagan Dawn 142, Imbolc 2002, also published in Wood and Water 78, Spring 2002
© Daniel Cohen

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