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Goddess Feminists and the Body[1]

Introduction
The body remains a core concern for Goddess Feminists, despite individual differences. In their preoccupation with embodiment, Goddess Feminists “work through all the patriarchy… all the culturally acquired concepts… of the world and about the divine and about men and women,” as Tammy said [2]. The challenge is two-fold: to break down culturally acquired concepts of the body and embodiment and to celebrate women’s embodiment, even in its constant state of change. This work forces Goddess Feminists to reflect upon their “necessary relation to death, corporeality, animality, [and] materiality” (Grosz 1989: 73).

In my research with Goddess Feminists, participants spoke of the celebration of the body and female sexuality as among the most valuable and life-changing aspects of Goddess Feminism. Patricia said, “I saw female power and began to develop that — I spent time with that energy. I took that on, and it was very deep.” Similarly, Pam said that Goddess Feminism:

… affects how I view myself as a woman. …and particularly myself as a middle-aged woman. I have far more confidence in myself as a woman, rather than before I think I very much defined myself — however hard I tried not to — I managed to define myself within patriarchy. …and then I became a negative. … And I think it’s that confidence which very much had a huge impact on my life; actually about what I look like is just fine, you know.

Rose emphasized that it was in the area of sexuality that she had changed most since committing to Goddess Feminism: “I really felt that the goddess [Astarte] had allowed that to happen for me and [to have] a much more happy and fulfilled life sexually… I think all that came through her. It really did come from her.”

In Goddess Feminism, there is a willingness, perhaps even an imperative, to explore what Megan called “fleshiness.” Though Goddess Feminists often work out their thoughts about the body in print (in zines, books, private journals), in my experience the primary way of engaging with issues surrounding the body is through ritual. It is in ritual that participants both shape and perform beliefs about the body, though the participants do not necessarily discuss those beliefs directly.

Beltane
The meaning and sacrality of “fleshiness” in Goddess Feminism is often explored in ritual through extensive play on the senses, especially touch. In my experience with the ritual group Madron, the sheer physicality was most in evidence during a Beltane ritual. We were on a hill in a bluebell wood, site of an Iron Age ring fort. It was morning, and below us the valley was so full of mist that it felt as though we were on an island. When Rhiannon[3] appeared, she was veiled and dressed in deep pinks and reds, with a girdle of flowers and bells around her ankles. She was a very sassy goddess who shimmied and shook and drew each of us into her dance. She asked us to make a bed of fabric and flowers on the earth and each of us in turn was encouraged to lie upon the bed. While Rhiannon whispered in the reclining woman’s ears, the others caressed and stroked her, singing softly and scattering petals on her. There was much merriment in this ritual, but the experience of lying on the spring earth was a bodily awakening.

They were tickling me and stroking my bare legs and arms. Someone was massaging my feet. The mist had lifted and the spring sun was warm. I could hear the birds, and the others singing and susurrating softly. At one point, one of them started massaging my tummy in a spiral, which set off waves of energy in my body. Rhiannon came and enveloped me in her veil and whispered in my ear. Her breath was warm and a little tickly. Her veil smelled lovely. Then someone was playing with my bare kneecaps, which made us all giggle. It was sensory overload. It felt like it was the spring earth itself that was stroking me, and I suppose that since they were using flowers and feathers and other natural things, in a way it was the earth. The energy was almost orgasmic, but it was not coming from the women around me, it felt like it was participation in the earth’s Beltane energy. Eventually they stopped and I sat up covered in feathers and petals, as if I was rising out of the earth like some spring being.
My notes from my experience during a ritual with Madron, a Goddess Feminist group in the UK (Beltane, 2005)

Though the flowering of the earth was central to this ritual, the energy being celebrated was more sexuality than fertility. The ritual contained no reference to earth as mother, as pregnant, or even as lover. Instead, the group explored sexuality and sensuality as a driving force of change (for ourselves, but especially in the world and in the seasons) and a powerful goddess/energy in and of itself. The human, and specifically, female experience of sexuality was playfully explored and symbolically written upon/in our bodies as we each lay on Rhiannon’s bed. This ritual underlined that natural beings (and especially human beings) are sexual, and it modeled the joy to be found in embodied, sexual life.

In playing on all of our senses, the ritual emphasized that it is through our bodies that we know the world. Goddess Feminists have a strong sense of knowing the divine through body experience. The body becomes a locus for the divine, and a medium through which to experience and learn about the divine. The ritual was a coming together of human energies with other-than-human energies: Rhiannon, the earth, the trees, the flowers. This ritual exploration of the other-than-human allows participants to know and transmit these energies from within their own bodies.

The challenges for feminist women in celebrating the body are to avoid being entirely defined by it (the masculinist [4] position) or abandoning it in favor of “spirit”. Early Goddess Feminist and radical feminist writers were accused of biological essentialism, because of their “positive celebration of [female] otherness as a mark of holiness” (Raphael 1996: 35), and of “self indulgence” (Grey 2001: 34) in rituals affirming female sexuality. I argue, instead, that the Goddess Feminist preoccupation with the body reveals how they rethink culturally formed notions of human and divine bodies. Goddess Feminists reject masculinist and essentialist positions, and revaluate non-traditional body images.

Recent articles in Goddess Alive! (Nos. 10 and 11), for example, deconstruct essentialist (biological) constructions of motherhood. Similarly, the author of an article in The Goddess Pages calls for a revaluation of images of age and cries out against “a narrow definition of what is beautiful” (Woodward-Smith 2006: 3). Even where Goddess Feminists celebrate female identities such as “Maiden” or “Mother,” these categories are seldom taken literally. Goddess Feminists like to play with the diversity and new meanings within such categories. In the same way, they flesh out the particularities of goddesses rather than limiting them to only Mother or Crone. For example, Madron invoked Bloedwedd at both spring and autumn equinox in her materializations as spring flowers (Maiden) and as owl (Crone). [5]

Further, Pam was emphatic that thinking about body and Goddess must entail a critique of anthropomorphism:

It pisses me off a bit when the deity’s in human form and always seen in human form. I find it incredibly arrogant, you know, it’s really trying to break free from the idea that the deity is human. I mean, it’s not enough to break free from the idea that it’s male, but it has to go further than that if it’s to be of any use at all to actually change things at all.

This stress on the female body as a site of diversity, and on “body” as a contested, culturally defined and ever-changing construction, reflects the Goddess Feminist consciousness that the body is the site of what feminist geographer Doreen Massey has called “power geometries” (2005). [6] However, there is an almost inevitable tension between the Goddess Feminist desire to assert the importance of the body and its revaluation, and awareness of the history of biological essentialism. Some of my informants, for example, asserted that the category of “women” could be spoken of meaningfully as united through shared bodily characteristics, though they were highly critical of the reification of a category of “woman.”

I suggest that one reason that Goddess Feminists identify problems with traditional ideas about “woman” and the body is that a high proportion can be described as non-traditional. In my research, a high number of participants were single women, career women, lesbian or bisexual, single mothers, and combinations of the above. My Goddess Feminist research participants used their spirituality as a supportive framework for their non-traditionalism. As Patricia put it, Goddess Feminism allows her to explore “female power and [begin] to develop that.”

Samhain
Perhaps it is at Samhain that Goddess Feminists most revel in the celebration of non-traditional ideas of “woman,” as well as in non-human embodiment. At one Samhain ritual, a member of Madron embodied the Cailleach. Cloaked and hooded so that her face was not visible, she was more like an embodiment of the huge drum she used to call each of us, the heart-shaped stones she gave us, or the cauldron in which she lit a fire. She told us to close our eyes and guided us into a dark space in a disorienting dance on the border of life and death where there was “only possibility” (as she put it). A curious mixture of fragility and strength, she was definitely something other-than-human.

The embodiment of this unpredictable border energy — which is neither good nor bad, nor here nor there, but is a kind of framework for all of life and death (like bones in a human or rocks in the earth) — shapes the Goddess Feminist worldview. It is very common for Goddess Feminists (and Pagans in general) to relate stories like Kathy’s. She told me that her spirituality has:

…brought me face to face with my own death through the possibility of dying from breast cancer. Before that, I’d always been terrified of dying and [Goddess] took me through it. So I’m not afraid of dying now … She’s helped me deal a lot with my fear. You know, I have fear. I think anyone [does] who is trying to do anything different in this world, against the wind of patriarchy — so I have fears, but I trust her.

The Crone goddesses, of whom the Cailleach is but one, represent in Goddess Feminism a conscious reworking of the Western devaluing of aged and mortal human bodies. A recent article in The Goddess Pages passionately contends that Goddess images need to reflect the real world. Speaking of the Crone, the author argues for images of her that are based in embodied reality: the “rot and death, the fucking, the shit and the mud” that help us model the Earth and “the power” of earth and Crone. Such images, she claims, reveal the “powerful primal transforming force” of the Crone as a model for aging women. Powerful alternative images of women, argues the author, can help to “change a society that values only youth” (Woodward-Smith 2006: 4).

Woodward-Smith’s examples of the Crone are outside of social “acceptability”; they represent the border between death and life and the life that feeds on death. They are powerful examples of the Goddess Feminist tendency to challenge convention and to thealogize the earth, the body, and the lifecycle in all its forms (with “a composting mentality,” as Alison called it). These goddesses, as I said above, force Goddess Feminists to consider their own and the Goddess’ “relation to death, corporeality, animality [and] materiality” (Grosz 1989: 73).

For Goddess Feminists, the earth, our bodies, and the goddesses embody diversity, constant change, transcendence and immanence. One of the most prevalent narratives in Goddess Feminism is the narrative of difference and diversity modeled by women’s bodies, other-than-human bodies, the plurality of Goddess, and the multiple and non-traditional identities of Goddess Feminists themselves. Engaging with this diversity and change is a key effort in Goddess Feminism, with the aim of reconciling the historically denigrated (women, age, embodiment, mortality) with life and the divine.

Notes

  1. As with my article in MatriFocus, Imbolc 2009, this article is based upon research for my PhD. thesis (2008, Lancaster University, UK). The research involved interviews and participant observation with both Goddess Feminist and Christian feminist women in the UK.
  2. The names of participants have been changed, as has the name of the ritual group, here known as Madron.
  3. The group practices ritual embodiment — that is, a goddess is invoked into a member of the group at each ritual. In this ritual, E. embodied Rhiannon, emphasizing her “sexual, sensual energy,” as another participant put it.
  4. “Masculinist” is a term used by some feminist theorists (see for example, Haraway 1988) to describe a male standpoint that is blind to the female point of view or that only sees the female in essentialist terms.
  5. Bloedwedd is a Welsh goddess whose Crone aspect is much less well known than her Maiden aspect.
  6. By “power geometries” Doreen Massey means that our bodies are symbolic of larger power struggles, which intersect in each of us in varying ways (gender, race, class, and so forth), and which are played out in the ways we are either free or constrained in our movements through our environments (natural, built, and social).

Bibliography

  • Straffon, Cheryl, ed., Goddess Alive! Nos. 10 and 11. Boscaswell: Meyn Mamvro Press.
  • Grey, Mary, 2001. Introducing Feminist Images of God. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
  • Grosz, Elizabeth, 1989. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
  • Massey, Doreen, 2005. For Space. London: Sage.
  • Woodward-Smith, Jacquie, 2006. ‘The Goddess vs. the New Age: Singing the Sacred Land’. Goddess Pages Online Journal. Retrieved 3/26/2007 from http://www.goddess-pages.com/issue1/articles/goddessvsnewage.html.

Graphics Credits

  • aspect, image collage © 2009 Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
  • bluebells, courtesy of OldGreySeaWolf.
  • stone-shaped heart, courtesy of S. Migol.
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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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