MatriFocus Home Page

by Kila-Rri

Free Subscription
Imbolc 2004, Vol 3-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
art: "peaceful warrior" in pastels (c) J. Zimmerwoman
Peaceful Warrior
© 2003 J. Zimmerwoman.
Resisting Universalism:
History, Epistemology, and Power in Goddess Thealogy

In this issue of Matrifocus, there is a letter to the editor concerning my last article. I am pleased that the article provoked thought and prompted a reader to write in. I was taken by surprise, however, at the subject of the letter. I had expected that those women with ties to the military would write in objection to my proposal of a thealogy of non-violence. Instead, the writer's challenge to me was to recognize the "thealogy" of non-violence that stretches back into prehistory to times when we shared a peaceful matriarchal culture. For those readers interested in my response to the letter, I direct you to the Letters to the Editor section of this issue. In this article, I feel it necessary to treat with greater scrutiny the commonly cherished theory of a universally claimed matriarchal past. What I will do in this article is make an argument about the appropriate place of history in a radical thealogy. And I will challenge the epistemology of the theory that we have a shared matriarchal past.

First, I want to discuss the question of whether history matters. What is the place of history in our current practice of Goddess Spirituality? Do we need to rely on a historical foundation to articulate a powerful, radical liberation thealogy for Goddess women? These are questions that I have wrestled with for a while. History is always important when it comes to making arguments and assumptions based on history. For instance, many of the rationales given for current traditions are historical. Even the Supreme Court of the United States relies on history and tradition as justification for its rulings.

Goddess religion is not based on belief, in history, in archaeology, in any Great Goddess past or present. Our spirituality is based on experience, on a direct relationship with the cycles of birth, growth, death and regeneration in nature and in human lives. ~ Starhawk

When it comes to thealogy, however, historical arguments can be difficult to sustain or articulate with any degree of persuasion. Let me use two examples: first, consider the various uses of the "Burning Times" by the neo-pagan community in supporting its outrage over current abuses and prejudice against pagans. For many years, the women's movement and later the Goddess movement claimed that 9 million women had been burned at the stake by the Church. Moreover, it is claimed that these 9 million women were our spiritual predecessors, our ancestors -- witches. Later scholarship and research found that no where near that many people had been killed. One-fourth of those people were men, many of them were old people, and almost none of them would have considered themselves witches as a matter of religion.(1) So, once this was falsified, it made those who bandied about this number and those who argued on historical grounds that current oppression was a grandchild of earlier and deadlier oppression look foolish. They were not only wrong; they were easy to dismiss as uninformed by the mainstream.(2)

My alternative approach is simply a recognition that there has been a great deal of religious persecution in human history, and it is insignificant who does it to whom. What is significant is that it still happens and that it is wrong because freedom of conscience, freedom to worship, ought to be coextensive with the right to exist. It is not even a human right as we currently define those rights; rather, it the same as the right to breathe. My thealogy does not require the fabrication of a historical provenance nor of a history of oppression. It is based on the strength of ideas and thought and on the current situation. It challenges historical arguments made by oppressors not on historical grounds but on moral and theological grounds. Thus, my arguments in my previous column challenged those who justified use of violence as a historical birthright to think more creatively and to change their practices.

The second example is similar to the myth of the Burning Times; it is that of a matriarchal past. We are in no position to categorically "know" whether the many goddess figurines that are found all over Europe are really devotional figures of a Goddess worshipping and homogenous culture or Paleolithic Barbie dolls. I'm glad that there are women archeologists articulating strong arguments that they are evidence of Goddess worship. And I am supportive of their work to present new interpretations of archeological finds. Certainly someone needs to offer something else than the hackneyed patriarchal set of stereotypes. But, these finds are limited to a geographic area, and the interpretations are not what was but what might have been. A thealogy that is justified by the existence of a matriarchal culture seems to be defenseless against a scenario where that culture is discovered to be false and an argument is made that because women have never been in power overall, they should never be in power. Moreover, the proponents of this new history seem to suffer a nostalgic desire to return to that era.(4) As we all know, we cannot go back, and a recreation of a matriarchy(5) in place of a patriarchy is not likely to be satisfying to those of us who imagine a different road.

art: "My Sister" tribal woman of many colors (c) J. Zimmerwoman
My Sister
© 2003 J. Zimmerwoman

I now want to turn to the epistemological(6) problems with the theory of a matriarchal culture that has been articulated by some proponents of it. Oftentimes, members of the Goddess community use a shorthand to avoid the complexities of the various groups that make up the movement. We use "we" and tend to raise an umbrella up under which everyone who is self-identified as a Goddess worshipper falls. But in some instances, it is vital to keep in mind that "we" are actually a group of differently placed women, particularly in regards to the power afforded by this society along race, class, and gender lines. Moreover, if we follow the trail of power, race, class and gender themselves break down into smaller and smaller groups until we end up with individuals. Those who have the most power have the ability to dictate the information that is created and disseminated in the world; they have the power to speak and to be heard; they have the power to write out the knowledge produced by the less powerful. And in doing so, they are able to recreate the power differential, keep it going, and to co-opt the less powerful into a system of knowledge production that does not challenge the dominant order.(7)

Those who argue that we had a matriarchal past without acknowledging the vastness of human experience and history, the differences between the African, the Asian, the Australian, and the European experience, simply reduce the less powerful in the Goddess community to the least common denominator of white European women's history. Those who claim without differentiation that all of prehistory looked the same (that Gimbutas found THE culture of the prehistorical world) export a particular ideology, a particular philosophy to the rest of the world that is nothing short of epistemological imperialism, no matter how well-intentioned or benign. In this one elegant move, dominant women can write out the histories of the Latinas, the Africans, the Indians, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Native peoples of the U.S., the Maori, the Aboriginal, the Tungus, the Inuit, and the others who don't fall under the "we" of White Western Feminism. Those of us who have differing histories are no longer allowed to have them because they don't fit into the ideological design that posits a woman-dominated system in prehistory that was then overthrown by evil men and that we must now regain.

As you can imagine, I don't take kindly to having myself put through the homogenizing machinery of such an ideology. That is why I resist describing history in such a generalized fashion and I resist using history to weave a new thealogy. I would rather not try to fit everyone under a Grand Theory of Everything. As I said to my reader in my response, I like diversity. I am comfortable with diversity. I have no issues with the existence of a matriarchal prehistory in some parts of the world, should that turn out to be proved. I'm just not interested in trying to show that all human history at a particular time was the same. My thealogy accepts the idea of difference with the understanding that we are all in the same cauldron. But just because we're in the same soup, doesn't mean we all have to be carrots. And it certainly doesn't mean we all have to be carrots from the same patch of land either!

In conclusion, as we go forth into the year, at Imbolc we plant our hopes and desires. The hope that I have cherished for these last several years is that we as a community begin to develop thealogies that speak to our current situation and to the diversity, albeit small, within our community. I hope that we learn to respect each others' traditions and that we continue to probe the systems of power that play among us. Most of all, I hope that we go forth with an open attitude particularly to those ideas that challenge us and make us examine our most closely held beliefs.

(1) Since when is the Devil a character in Goddess/Witchcraft tradition? We continually deny this Christian connection but completely fail to take account that so-called witches who were burned fully understood and did not deny the existence of the devil, they didn't make the modern argument that the devil is not part of our mythology, rather they denied being in league with him. These people were wise women and men and healers and the outcast who were in most part Christians, not pagans by religion. See Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, (New York: Penguin, USA, 1998).
(2) And I do care about the mainstream. The only way we can ensure fairness and a change for the better in our world is by becoming the mainstream which means building bridges and teaching those who are in the mainstream different ways of knowing and being.
(3) This is a paradox that I toy with quite often, we are indeed in that area of the Venn Diagram where the natural and the unnatural overlap.
(4) Note that many fundamentalists of all stripes often refer to a Golden Age that they wish to either recreate or return to. I see the reliance on a fabricated past (where the history is not well-established) to be very dangerous to the project of creating an equitable religion.
(5) And this matriarchy would only work if we again accept the stereotypes of women that are sometimes unthinkingly propagated by women themselves. Do we really believe that women are the gentler sex? Do we really believe that women are not warriors? Well, those who do will find themselves in bed with some rather unsettling people: the Patriarchs. And those people will also find women serial killers, women who kill their own children, women who are abusive to be "unnatural" -- a very dangerous position that reverses the use of essentialist arguments about women.

(6) Epistemology is the study of knowledge, how it is formed, how it is propagated. A deconstruction of the epistemology of this theory reveals where it comes from and who developed this knowledge, it challenges objectivity by revealing the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of knowledge.
(7) For instance, what does National Geographic tell you about a Maasai tribeswoman, and what does that tribeswoman know about herself? Who do you believe? And how would you be able to value this knowledge? Also, what do you believe about your own body and experience as opposed to what you're told by someone with a PhD or a M.D.? We value knowledge differently and that can be critical in determining which knowledge gets passed down.

Graphic Credits
+ Peaceful Warrior, © 2003 J. Zimmerwoman. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
+ My Sister , © 2003 J. Zimmerwoman. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
Previous Issues
Submission Guidelines
Link Partners
Contact Us