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Men and the Goddess.

(An ovular on Goddess Studies Now, organised by Shan Jayran and hosted by Professor Ursula King, was held in March 2001. The article below is a version of my contribution.)

My first conscious encounter with the Goddess as a living concept came in the mid-1970s, under the influence of some women friends in the Matriarchy Study Group (see my tribute to Asphodel for more about the MSG), which was a major source and inspiration for the Goddess movement in Great Britain.. I say “conscious” because she tends to turn up in surprising places — The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, a Victorian clergyman, was one of my favourite books as a child, and she is very definitely present throughout that book — as Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, as Mother Carey, as Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and others.

The metaphor of the Goddess applied to several aspects of my life. I have always enjoyed the countryside and the natural world, and the Goddess as Mother Nature encompassed this. I believe that the divine is indwelling in every particle of the universe rather than being separate from it. This can be expressed by saying that a Goddess gave birth to the universe rather than that a God built it. While the indwelling divine can be seen in Christian and Jewish thought, especially among feminists, the baggage of traditional views is so heavy that it can be more meaningful to talk of Goddess rather than God.

Thirdly, because of my family background (the views of my parents and the fact that I was a child during the Second World War when women were employed widely) have meant that I have always been a feminist, though my feminism has broadened out from simply regarding equal rights for women as the only issue. Again, the concept of a Goddess carries with it the view that women are divine just as much as men.

So this metaphor applied in three major areas of my life. But it was more than one metaphor doing three jobs. What became clear to me was that it unified aspects of my life that I had seen as separate, that my values in life were not a collection of independent ones but were expressions of a deeper unity.

Is the relation of men to Goddess similar to that of women to God? It seems that in the monotheistic religions where God is traditionally referred to as male, women often see themselves, and are seen by men, as not partaking of the divine in any way. There is a danger of the similar situation applying in Goddess religions, but I believe it is much less. First, because many forms of Goddess religion in fact see the divine as consisting of both goddesses and gods, though with the goddess as primary. Second, because a universe that is given birth to allows one to say that “We all come from the Goddess”, and hence share equally in divinity.

When I spoke to one of my friends regarding this subject, she said “What about the scary goddesses?” There are several responses to that, all meaningful. Firstly, the Goddess is seen as the source of all, scary and comforting, bringing both death and life, and her aspects cannot be separated out. As Rosemary Sutcliff says in her historical novel The Mark of the Horse Lord, “She is the Lady of Life and Death. When a man and a woman come together to make a child, she is in it, and when a pole-cat finds a thrush’s nest and tears the young to shreds while the parents scream and beat about its head, she is in that, too.”

Secondly, there is a tendency for people to object to the idea of goddesses because they claim that goddesses demand sacrifices of young men. This is very doubtful historically (much of the evidence for human sacrifice refers to the killing of criminals; as Ronald Hutton remarks, this appears to be a way of removing a stigma from the notion of execution). The issue was best addressed in another children’s novel, Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant. One of her characters says, after a war: “Oh, you lords of men, with your talk of right and wrong. You put on scorn like a robe and curl your lip, because in our worship blood is shed. Yet in one night you will spill more blood than would we in a thousand years, and no god has demanded this offering!”

Then there are the goddesses who are truly angry, such as Kali and Sekhmet. They seem to have been adopted by many women as a symbol of their anger against the injustices heaped on women by men. But their role in their own cultures was different. They were fierce and angry, but their anger was directed at demons, not at humans. 

Kali’s anger disappeared when she found herself treading on the body of her husband Shiva. This has been interpreted in many ways, some of them very patriarchal. I see a different way of looking at this, in line with the stories I write, reinterpreting old myths. Many women have said to me that what the want from men is simply an acknowledgement of what has happened, as a step towards making changes. I see Shiva’s action as such an acknowledgement, and its effect as being to calm Kali’s anger at not being given recognition. (See my article on Kali)

Finally, there are the questions of whether there is one Goddess or many goddesses, and whether the Goddess (or goddesses) are to be taken as individual beings, archetypes, or metaphors. As to the first, it seems there is a continual dance between seeing many separate goddesses with precise individual characteristics and seeing one Goddess of whom the individual goddesses are just aspects. This dance of views is so common that the same person will refer to ‘goddesses’ in one sentence and ‘the Goddess’ in the next. This isn’t a new approach. In the 1920s Dion Fortune said “All the gods are one god, and all the goddesses one goddess.” This has been discussed in Wood and Water and elsewhere, by Asphodel Long ("The One or the Many") and others.

As to metaphor or real being, I have certainly seen goddesses appear in my meditations, and they have often shown up in unexpected ways and times. We have to interpret reality in ways that we can understand, and I do not claim that these were necessarily objectively visible beings. All I am sure of is that I was seeing aspects of reality, and that these came through in ways that made sense to me. Metaphors, perhaps, but metaphors that increased my connection with the divine spark that shines in everything.

Wood and Water 75, Summer 2001
© Daniel Cohen

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