Feminists and the Body
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
of the world and about the divine and about men and women,
as Tammy said .
The challenge is two-fold: to break down culturally acquired concepts
of the body and embodiment and to celebrate womens 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
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 its 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.
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.
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
womans 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 earths 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 Rhiannons 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 
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). 
Further, Pam was emphatic that thinking about body and Goddess must entail
a critique of anthropomorphism:
It pisses me off a bit when the deitys
in human form and always seen in human form. I find it incredibly arrogant,
you know, its really trying to break free from the idea that the
deity is human. I mean, its not enough to break free from the idea
that its male, but it has to go further than that if its 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).
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.
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 Kathys. 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,
Id always been terrified of dying and [Goddess] took me through
it. So Im not afraid of dying now
Shes 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
Woodward-Smiths 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
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 womens 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.
- 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.
- The names of participants
have been changed, as has the name of the ritual group, here known
- 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.
- “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.
- Bloedwedd is a Welsh goddess
whose Crone aspect is much less well known than her Maiden aspect.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- aspect, image collage © 2009
Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
- bluebells, courtesy of OldGreySeaWolf.
- stone-shaped heart, courtesy of