The Divine Feminine: an Iron Age Stepford Wife?

22 03 2012

Maybe you are one of them–women, and even some men, who have secreted away from the church pew to summon the goddess in the sacred grove. The trend is growing, it seems. More people are searching for spiritual fulfillment by exploring the “feminine” side of spirituality which is central to so many pagan and New Age traditions, including Wicca, and generally absent from the supposedly more patriarchal male-god religions. But is this “divine feminine“, which forms one half of a duotheistic theology, really such a fair-minded and forward-thinking alternative to male-dominated mainstream religion? As we will see, it might actually reinforce the very patriarchy it seeks to dismantle, and the implications are ominous for women and men alike.

To show how the “divine feminine” movement backfires in its attempt to overturn patriarchy, we must first establish what the concept means. Generally speaking, the “divine feminine” embodies a triad of female archetypes: the Maid, the Mother, and the Crone. Each archetype correlates with a different stage in a woman’s life. The Maid represents the pure and innocent virgin, the mother, the nurturing life-giver and care-taker, and the crone, the wise old teacher–or, potentially, the wicked witch. She is every important aspect of womanhood, or so it would seem, and people pursue the pagan priesthood specifically to pay her homage. She functions as the polar opposite to the male god in a binary which consists of an aggressive, rational, dominant “male energy” and a passive, emotional, submissive “female energy”.We worship her because she complements a strong, disciplinarian masculinity with a weak, nurturing femininity that males supposedly lack.

But, in the stereotypical binary of the weak goddess and strong god, we already see the failure of the divine feminine to dismantle patriarchy. An example of this binary in Chinese philosophy would be the yin and yang, in which a negative, dark, feminine principle complements a positive, bright, masculine one. The divine feminine movement attempts to reclaim female authority from obscurity by extolling the meek, nurturing, yielding nature of the goddess and ignoring her strong, confident, assertive nature—but this is oxymoronic, because it suggests that women’s power lies in their powerlessness. How can women gain power and influence equal to that of men if they are essentially less powerful and influential than men? It just doesn’t make sense. So, with its schizophrenically passive-aggressive, powerful yet powerless goddess, the divine feminine simply gives patriarchy room to flourish.

Now, critics of this view will argue that the binary isn’t really that black and white. “Each man has a feminine side, and each woman, a masculine side”, they will assure you, glowing with pride in their observation. They will point out, for example, that in the yin and yang model, each side has a little bit of the other within it. This is true, but it is also true that the yin is still overwhelmingly dominant and “masculine”, and the yang, overwhelmingly passive and “feminine”, so it doesn’t achieve much to say “there’s a little bit of the other in each”. Besides, it’s a circular argument. Arguing that there is no pure masculinity or femininity, and that each man is a little feminine, and each woman, a little masculine, is a homunculus fallacy, because it still relies on the use of the discrete terms “masculine” and “feminine” to explain gender. Once again, we see how the divine feminine fails to completely liberate male and female from oppressive sex roles.

In addition to the yin and yang model, the fact that the goddess exists almost entirely in relation to males and childbearing presents a problem for the “divine feminine”. The most important role of the goddess is that of the fecund, life-giving, heterosexual mother. She is constantly associated with the earth, fertility, menstruation, pregnancy, and child-bearing. After all, only women can give birth, right? Yes, male fertility is also celebrated in the form of gods like Priapus and phallic cults, but this fertility forms only one aspect of the male god, who is also warrior, judge, poet, and leader, among many other things. The goddess, though, is overwhelmingly associated with nurturing, life-giving fertility, and her sexual relation with the god, as in the sovereignty goddess, an earth divinity whose purpose is to bequeath the land’s power to a man through sexual relations. She is the pure Maid who is sexually desirable to males, as in the Teutonic fertility goddess Ēostre (related to “Easter” and “oestrus”), the Mother who bears her husband’s children, as in Gaia, and the Crone who is useful for nothing more than giving advice and recalling how many miles she had to walk in the snow, and who sometimes represents death, sinister magic, and even cannibalism, as in the child-eating Slavic witch Baba Yaga or the Greek serpent-daemon Lamia. When the woman explores life beyond the hearth and nursery, her unbridled energy necessarily becomes an evil, a transgression against her husband, children, and community. But this isn’t exactly fair. What about girls, sterile women, post-menopausal women, hysterectomized women, lesbians, and women who simply choose not to have children, or even to marry? Most of us would still call these people female, and the vast majority of them are not evil child-eaters, so obviously the “divine feminine”, with its inordinate emphasis on female fertility, fails to represent the many different aspects of female virtue beyond that of childbirth and nursing. It is hard, then, to see a feminist ideal in this Triple Goddess.

The divine feminine is a well-meaning attempt to correct the historical repression of females in mainstream Western religion and spirituality, and in some ways it may have made inroads, but it still falls short of the goal: it presents an oxymoron in the powerlessly powerful goddess, it creates a contradiction by using the terms “masculine” and “feminine” to assure us that there is no pure masculine or feminine, and it describes a goddess whose identity exists almost wholly in relation to men and reproduction. This divinely powerful goddess begins to look like nothing more than an Iron Age Stepford wife. Of course there is nothing wrong with women being compassionate and nurturing, but there is something wrong with women being more compassionate and nurturing than men, especially if all of us are supposed to meet the same, ultimate standard of enlightenment. To reclaim female authority in religion and spirituality, then, we should be exploring the many other aspects of the divine feminine: the warrior, the judge, the poet, the leader, and the good witch. In fact, we should be expanding this to the scientist, the doctor, the politician, and the professor. After all, we no longer live in the Iron Age, and these roles meet the practical demands of the modern day. Simultaneously, we should be exploring the more yielding and nurturing side of the god. By performing this kind of self-scrutiny, we learn from each other and become truly whole human beings.

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The “Divine Feminine” and New Age Sexism

11 12 2010

Greek Minoan Snake GoddessDespite my spiritual predilections and fascination with the occult and all things arcane, there is one current of thought within the New Age movement which I find irritatingly sexist. It is one of the reasons I can’t pick up a deck of Tarot cards. It is the concept of the “divine feminine”. In popular New Age thought, we find a strong tendency to revive the goddess, but this goddess is yielding, nurturing, life-giving, and emotional, in contrast with a god which is aggressive, disciplinary, life-taking, and rational. Not much different from the Iron Age. The concept of the “divine feminine” reflects a philosophy which simply recycles the old paradigm of male dominance over a female who is glorified for her self-sacrificing, self-effacing submissiveness.

The problem is that we attribute virtues such as emotion with one sex, and virtues such as logic with the other sex. All of these, however, are universal human virtues which one would think we would want to exploit as much as possible in either sex whenever the situation demands. If this is so, then the “divine feminine”, with its ostensible equalization of the sexes, actually inhibits this equalization and the realization of these universal virtues. In occult thought, the goddess is traditionally associated with various esoteric symbols, such as water (emotion) and earth (nurturance and fecundity); the god, on the other hand, is associated with symbols such as air and sky (logic) and fire (manipulation and authority). The result is a binary of characteristics consisting of these “feminine” and “masculine” attributes.

Already, many young modern people will view this binary as romantically archaic and saccharine, which is ironic since New\ Age thought is supposed to be more radical than that. At any rate, the New Age movement has attempted to balance out the sexual pre-eminence embodied in the monotheistic male-god religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) by reintroducing a female divinity. This I resonate with, for I was raised Christian, and all I imagined was a god with a penis and long, white beard telling me that sex was wrong. (It really is a literal image one has when God is constantly associated with all that is considered male.) And I was told the first human was male, and this male was created in the image of God, who was male (somehow). It left me feeling empty, and always questioning, wondering why this “other sex”–the other half of humanity–should exist at the periphery. If our prototype for humanity was the male, what, then, was this “female”? Where did she come from–other than a rib? And I believe a lot of New Age thinkers have asked the same questions, but I think that in doing so, they are accidentally reviving the mainstream paradigm.

Freja Norse Nordic VikingThis brings us to the crux of the problem of New Age sexism. New Age thinkers often claim that in each male there is a feminine aspect, and in each female, a masculine aspect. The problem is that the statement “in each male is a feminine aspect, and in each female, a masculine one” consists of a circular argument. By using the terms masculine and feminine to neutralize the sex binary, New Age thinkers inadvertently reinforce that binary, because the terms masculine and feminine themselves constitute a sex binary of male versus female. In other words, one cannot describe males as part male and part female, and females as part female and part male, without presupposing a male and female to begin with. (It should be noted that in typical New Age parlance, feminine is associated with actually being a female human being, and masculine, with actually being a male human being–whether this association is right or wrong.)

So what should we do? First, we should get rid of misleading terminology such as the “divine feminine” and the “divine masculine”, because a lot of people associate feminine with “being female” and masculine with “being male”, and yet a lot of women aren’t feminine, and a lot of men aren’t masculine. And if men are indeed more aggressive than women because of testosterone (which is questionable), so the fuck what? Maybe they shouldn’t be. (I thought y’all believed in spontaneous evolution, anyway.) To assume that they should be would constitute multiple logical fallacies: the is/ought fallacy and the appeal to nature fallacy. That a thing is true doesn’t mean it should be, and that a thing is natural does not mean it should be, either. Even if you proved that men are more aggressive than women, it doesn’t constitute a moral imperative.

To illustrate, we do not say that black people should be more susceptible to heart-attacks because they have higher cholesterol levels, or that Native Americans should be more susceptible to liver disease simply because they are more susceptible to alcoholism, or that East Asian people are well-organised. It is a very socially-influenced phenomenon–not a principle to be lived by. So why not prescribe estradiol supplements to males who are overly aggressive? We wouldn’t excuse rape or murder on the basis of testosterone. Their behaviour is maladaptive and needs to be fixed, although I believe the ultimate solution is allowing boys to be feminine.

What we should do is attend to the demands of the modern-day environment, not the ancestral one. This may require more men to take care of children, and more women to work outside the home. (Women are working outside the home anyway, but men aren’t picking up the pace when it comes to domestic chores.) Concomitant to this, more people demand a female presence in their religion. But Western religion lacks the multitude of female figures available in the typical pagan pantheon. What is our recourse? In the Christian West, it is the Virgin Mary. Initially, it would seem as though Mary is a new goddess. But Mary is non-sexual, and a mother. She performs her duty as a mother by conceiving the Christ-avatar, but she does so without having intercourse. She is defined contrarily by her maternality and her virginity. Mary does serve as a crucial figure of feminine authority and divine intercession in the Western world, but most women need or want to have sex (for every male who wants to fuck because of testosterone, there has to be a consenting female–and hopefully an excited one), and many also undergo childbirth as a direct consequence, so Mary is an impossible archetype to live up to. If we want to identify the “divine feminine”, we must seek further. We must discover the woman who is equally sexual, maternal, aggressive, and strategic. . This brings us to the sovereignty goddess of pagan lore. The sovereignty goddess was basically a goddess of the earth who granted fertility by bestowing kinghood on the man who drank from a well occupied by her, or from her chalice of menstrual blood. Something which constituted fertility, or a male union with the feminine land. The idea was that the aspiring king (male) would unite with the earth (female) to render the land fertile, hospitable, and long-lasting.  The most famous sovereignty goddess of all is probably Medb (pronounced literally as MATHV [Medhbh] in Old Irish, or as MAV in Modern Irish) of Iron Age Ireland. Medb might be either a humanized goddess or a euhemerized (deified) heroine. In the great epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), pronounced as Toyn Bo Cool-nya, Medb, Queen of Connacht (a region in the west of modern-day Ireland), seeks to outdo her husband, Aillil, in terms of number of cattle. In anticipation of her triumph, she consults with Fedelm, a fili (a learned poet) and powerful druidess, a mistress of law and decision-making as well as divinatory lore, who, ironically, prognosticates her own mistress’s defeat. This might seem feminist except that, during this long, drawn-out battle in the Irish countryside, Medb basically pimps her own daughter, Finnabair, out to various enemy suitors–including the most ferocious of them all, the infamous Cú Chulainn, of Ulster–in order to win a battle over a bull which would make her property equal to that of her husband, Aillil. (In actuality, neither side won [the bulls on either side killed each other], highlighting the futility of avarice, in my opininon.) Finding out how she is being used, Finnabair dies of  shame. Showing her sovereignty goddess potential, weirdly enough, at the end of Táin, Medb is desribed as fighting in battle and having all of a sudden to take an exit because her bladder is full. Cú Chulainn finds her urinating behind a bush, but doesn’t slay her since she is a woman, and the scribe describes her motioning him off as she actually creates furrows in the ground with her urine. According to traditional scholarly lore, this was either a very humorous, or very mistaken, interpretation of her menstrual potential as an earth-goddess. You can see how ideas get distorted when one plays telephone, as oralists did in the olden days. (Personally, I find the story of Scathach more interesting. Scathach is a master warrior queen of northern Britain [Pictland] who is assigned the task of training Cú Chulainn in the arts of war on the condition that he help her defeat a rival queen. But that is another story which falls outside the scope of this article and its theme of sexism. Indeed, this particular story challenges traditional sex roles and attracts my attention for the same reason.) Medb has been described as a virago, based partly on the Latin vir, or man (hence virile) First, why is it manly to be strategic? Second, how loyal is she to her own sex if she pimps out her own daughter to get a cow? BIG ego. So, Medb may be a trailblazing goddess of fertility and war, but she is basically an avaricious egoist who prostitutes her own daughter to get what she wants. She is ambiguous at best. But still I want to imagine what this goddess might be. It may not be complete in its mythology, nor is it necessarily the foremost example (there may be others, like Athena), but I think of the Norse goddess Freja (after whom the English day Friday is named). Freja was neither just a fertility goddess, nor just a war goddess. Rather, she was the realization of both. She was fertile and war-like, capable of nurturance and of destruction when required. And she didn’t pimp her own daughter for a cow. This, to me, is redolent of sexual possibility, which I believe is most important. Usually, the revival of the goddess has consisted of a revival of traditional sex binaries–the logical, barefaced, aggressive male and the emotional, invisible, clever female. I do not agree with this duality. It assigns some virtues to one sex, and other virtues to the other sex, when all virtues should be present in every person. Why shouldn’t men be more sensitive when they can be? Again, it is environmental stimuli which should mould our behaviour, and not genetic ancestral precedence. What do you think about the “divine feminine”? Do you think it hearkens back to an age when a sun-based god fertilized an earth-based female, or do you think it reflects a potentially multi-faceted, and truly new-age, archetype of womanhood?