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How Shall We Study the Goddesses? Innovative Methodologies at the American Academy of Religion

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is one of the major professional associations of scholars of religion in the United States. Every year in November, scholars of religion from all over the world gather somewhere in the United States for the annual conference of the AAR, and perhaps the largest portion of the conference time slots is devoted to the delivering of scholarly papers. (For those of you who have never been to a conference like this, the delivering of papers consists in the scholar standing at the podium for about 20 minutes, and reading a scholarly paper, verbatim, that she or he has written. Presentations like mine, below, that included slides, are still a rarity.)

One of the largest divisions of the AAR, the Women and Religion Section, chose to devote one of its panels this year to a goddess-related theme, Innovative Methodologies in the Study of Goddess. Among the panelists were Patricia Monaghan and me.

This was probably the only panel wholly devoted to goddesses or a goddess-related subject at the huge four-day conference, although single papers on goddesses were presented here and there as parts of other panels. The panel wasn't designed to simply showcase papers about goddesses. The panel on innovative methodologies provided a forum for thinking about ways to research goddess and goddesses. How should we go about researching goddesses?

At this juncture, one might ask, why does it matter how we research goddesses? In the world of scholarship, the methods used, and theories that underlie those methods, will drive the way the researcher's ideas are formed and the conclusions reached. The choice of method often dictates the ultimate results of the research. Conversely, when scholars criticize the results of another scholar's research, often you will find them criticizing the methods and theories used to reach those results.

Sandra Harding, in her book Feminism and Methodology, provides some useful definitions for thinking about methods — ways of gathering evidence, and methodology — the theory and analysis of those methods. A researcher's methods might include talking to people, observing people or processes, and consulting historical records or artifacts. The papers in our session engaged feminist theories in narrative, the arts, mythology and sociology to present arguments on how research did or should proceed.

This whole question of how to research the goddesses has been one that has drawn some critical argument in recent years. Some scholars have criticized such giants as Marija Gimbutas for her methodology in studying the goddesses. Gimbutas created a methodology that she called archaeomythology, which widened strict archaeology into an interdisciplinary approch that also included mythology, linguistics, comparative religion, and history. Critics argued that this methodology caused Gimbutas to draw conclusions far beyond what the artifacts themselves warranted. Yet such interdisciplinary work is becoming much more common in all fields.

Discussions of methodology consume much scholarly energy. Describing our panel shows a constructive, respectful example of such discussion among five women scholars.

Our panel began with Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, from Claremont Graduate University, presenting A Method of Studying Mago, the Great Goddess from East Asia: The Mytho-Historic-Thealogy of Magoism. This work formed part of Hwang's Ph.D. dissertation from Claremont Graduate University.

Hwang developed her own methodology, combining the mythology and history found in long-lost Korean texts, such as the Budoji and the Handan Goji, with insights from thealogy, a religious view that acknowledges goddess-centered, pre-patriarchal pasts as real possibilities. Her mytho-historic-thealogy allowed Hwang to reconstruct an ancient goddess tradition, once widespread in East Asia but later suppressed; she terms it Magoism.

The second paper on the panel was my own Embodied and Arts-Informed Inquiry in the Study of the Goddesses, from my doctoral work at Union Institute and University. While Hwang used texts for mythological and historical information, my own research into the Germanic Matronen goddesses is based not on texts, but only on artwork, inscriptions, temples, and figurines. Again, as I studied other examples of collective female sacrality in Germanic Europe, such as the Catholic Saints die heiligen drei Jungfrauen, I found little text, but much folklore, church art, folk art, landscape, and music. The discipline of religious studies, like other disciplines, is beginning to acknowledge that much of our knowledge is passed along not through text, but through these more embodied, artistic artifacts. I posed the question, "Can we see our scholars as both embodied and intelligent?"

Patricia Monaghan, of DePaul University, was the third panelist, and gave a paper entitled, Partial Truths: Narrative Scholarship and the Personal Voice. Criticizing the supposedly-objective "god-voice" in which scholars are supposed to deliver the results of their research, Monaghan offers the vision of scholarship written in a personal voice, using the tools of narrative (characters, dramatic action, conflict) where the scholar can allow her full experience to inform her writing. Monaghan suggested two forms of personal voice narrative scholarship, the odyssey and the quest, and gave examples of each form of writing from the goddess literature. An odyssey clearly knows the point of final destination and describes the journey there; the quest is less certain of its end point and focuses more on the process and the journey itself.

The final panelist, Lauve Steenhuisen of Georgetown University, presented Feminist Theology and Backlash Fundamentalism: Re-Imagining Reconsidered. In 1993, an ecumenical feminist Christian group hosted a large conference called the Re-Imagining Conference, which included Sophia/goddess language, replaced the Christian communion ritual with a milk-and-honey ritual, and used openly frank language about the female body. This conference shocked and angered Christian fundamentalists, who organized a successful backlash. To help understand the conference and its backlash, Steenhuisen created a methodology called sociotheology, which combines the insights of sociology with those of theology, including biblical analysis.

After the four papers were presented, we heard from a respondent, Min-Ah Cho, from Emory University. Cho's paper drew together the four papers, commenting on them as a group and individually. She noted first how well the papers went together and built on one another. My paper dealt with the problem of the resources themselves: what to do when there is no text; can there still be research when there is no text? Hwang's paper showed an innovative methodology, mytho-historic-thealogy, being brought to bear on the text. Monaghan's paper showed us what to do with the research during the writing process, personal voice narrative scholarship. Steenhuisen showed what can happen with the outcome of research, when it is presented to an audience, and how to analyze what happens during that presentation.

Cho also raised questions about each paper. In my paper, for instance, did I address the scholar's ethical and cultural biases toward what might be found in the artwork? Might the scholar's bias intervene in selecting artwork for study? Some goddess traditions include graphic images, violent myths and exploitative rituals. My description of arts-informed inquiry might have been made stronger by addressing some of these issues.

Since Cho and Hwang are both Korean feminist scholars, Cho raised some interesting questions about Hwang's use of the Korean texts Budoji and the Handan Goji. Evidently these texts are steeped in Korean nationalism. Cho also questions, as others have done about the thealogical enterprise, are we in danger of romanticizing the past?

About Monaghan's paper, Cho wondered if the idea could be extended, and used in other ways. For instance, could the power, voice and vulnerability of narrative scholarship be extended far enough that marginalized sisters, or even the goddesses themselves, might have a voice in our scholarship? Giving the goddesses a voice in our scholarship hearkens back to an ancient ideal of, for instance, the poet as Oracle, which is an idea that Monaghan is pursuing in other work and scholarship.

Cho questioned Steenhuisen's combination of two such disparate disciplines as sociology and theology into one research methodology. Cho wondered if theology wouldn't end up being subjected to the norms of sociology in the analysis.

Cho commented graciously that the papers were "bold, imaginative and critical" and the panelists offered diversity and unity, "critical challenge and tolerant embracing."

The four paper panelists had the opportunity to respond to the questions that Min-Ah Cho raised, and then to field questions and discuss with the audience, which was, needless to say, full of Ph.Ds. For a novice scholar, the entire experience was highly stimulating, fun in its way, and not a little nerve-wracking. In dialogue with peers and senior scholars on the highest level, I felt that my work was under a very powerful microscope.

Many members of the audience expressed appreciation that there was at least some forum at the AAR for the study of goddess-related material. Younger scholars sought advice from the more established scholars on pursuing goddess scholarship within the academy. I'm grateful for the experience of feeling that goddess scholarship is not isolated from the wider scholarly community in the study of religion. May we find many more such meeting-places in the days and years ahead.


  • Harding, Sandra G., ed. Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

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  • tool set, courtesy of Cheryl Rankin.
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