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Goddess Feminist Ritual Practices and Thealogy

I am standing in a ruined chapel on Imbolc night (January 31) about to celebrate a ritual to Brigid. The sound of a sacred spring is rushing away, loud in the stone walls of the chapel, as is the wind which is whipping about tonight playing with the trees and the clouties (ribbons and other offerings) tied upon them. The group is casting the circle and as we do so, I feel myself quieten. I feel a shift within myself. I feel very still amongst all the movement of the night. I am to embody Brigid tonight, my first attempt at goddess embodiment with the group, and even though Brigid has not yet been invoked, it is now that I feel a difference. It is as if my everyday self has gone to some deep place; I am still me, but I do feel some shift as well.

My notes from my experience during a ritual with Madron,
a Goddess Feminist group in the UK (Imbolc, 2005[1])

In Goddess Feminism, ritual is the most privileged way of learning and embodying individual and group thealogies and ideologies. Rituals are “body techniques which harbour the powers and potentialities of both our own subjectivity, as an embodied way of being-in-the-world, and those of the social world” (Crossley 2004: 46). Each new ritual re-creates and more fully develops Goddess thealogy. As such, Goddess thealogy is never static but always in flux, always being re-thought, and, importantly, performed and embodied. The emphasis on continual re-thinking and re-enacting Goddess, especially through ritual but also in everyday life, leads me to suggest that Goddess Feminists utilize what I’m calling “performance thealogy.”[2]

The Meaning of “Goddess”
Though Goddess Feminists are generally happy to have varied and changing meanings of “Goddess,” in academia one finds oneself constantly trying to explain “Goddess.” It is my contention that “Goddess” is increasingly personal (i.e., not simply a metaphor for “true self,” but referring to a deity or divine energy with whom one can interact).

“Goddess” also is usually treated as multiple. In my experience, Goddess Feminists tend to be what I call “functional polytheists.” Rarely have I heard “the Goddess” invoked in ritual as if she were a single entity. Instead, the many aspects of Goddess are most often invoked in both ritual and conversation.

In rituals such as I described at the beginning of this article, a goddess is called into a member of the group, who then “embodies” or “carries” the deity for the ritual.[3] In my experience, the woman who “carries” the goddess for the ritual may go into a light trance, but she is always aware of who and where she is.

This ritual technique is not simple role-play. Tessa, a member of Madron, described the experience, “I am always surprised by how other you feel. You are there, but at the same time your self feels very distant, and there is definitely someone else there too.” Charleen, another member, said, “It is like moving yourself to one side and allowing a particular energy of Goddess in.” She added that two different people carry the same goddess in quite different ways according to how they experience the energy. Patricia, an interviewee, best described the experience when she said that it was like “transmitting” a particular energy or power, being a “mediator” for it. In the embodiment and performance of deity, then, the carrier of the Goddess enacts or performs thealogy for ritual participants. In performing certain ritual actions, the individual and the group enact and affirm belief (Hollywood 2004: 61).

The Process of Gender
Another academic debate has to do with what one means by “gender,” “female,” and “woman/women.” Thinking through, and working with, these concepts is highly important for most Goddess Feminists. I am interested in how Goddess Feminist women in their everyday lives negotiate with, revalue, and subvert the social constructions of gender and embodiment, and through this how they perform gender and embodiment (particularly in their relations with, experiences of, and re-imaginings of the divine).

Gender theorists, such as Judith Butler, deconstruct the idea that “gender” is fixed. Butler argues that “‘the body’ [is] itself a construction, as are the myriad ‘bodies’ that constitute the domain of gendered subjects” (1990: 8). Butler insists that an individual acts out being a “woman” or a “man” according to how those categories are socially defined within a culture. More than this, our notion of our bodies is culturally constructed, so that “gender” and “sex” cannot really be separated: “woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing” (33, emphasis in original).

Judith Butler’s thought on gender identity rests on the notion of “performance.” She argues that we learn gender practices socially which are then inscribed and reinscribed upon and by us through processes of repeated performance (Butler 1990). Butler insists that gender performance is the “ritualized form” that legitimates the social meanings of gender (140).

Meredith McGuire (1988, 1990, 1995), however, argues that the body is “part of the grounding of our human experience in reality: The ‘lived‘ body is our vehicle for perceiving and interpreting our world” (1990: 284), and as such is part of our self identity (284), but also that “the human body is both a biological and a cultural product” (285). She insists that the body must be taken seriously as the site of social inscription, of “knowing” (286), and of (re)constructions of gender and identity (288).

Thomas Csordas (influenced by Donna Haraway) points out that the contemporary rethinking of the body “[discerns] an ambiguity in the boundaries of corporeality itself” (1994: 3). Csordas argues that religiously the importance of body boundaries and boundary crossings is that members of a culture will construct particular body practices or performances that allow them to relate to “the kind of deity they posit to themselves” (1994: 3). Both secular and Goddess Feminists understand the body “as both the ongoing, alive critique of oppression and the site of struggles for liberation” (Isherwood 2004: 140).

Woman and Self-in-becoming
Some outsiders have accused Goddess Feminists of being essentialists — assuming that certain unchanging traits define any member of a particular group. (See Grey 2001, for example.) On the contrary, I argue that the emphasis in Goddess Feminism is on the deconstruction of given (traditional) notions of “woman” and “self” in order to reconstruct a diverse sense of what it means to be a woman and to constantly construct self-in-becoming.

In embodying a deity or spirit, a woman is not “just” her individual self during the performance of the ritual, but rather is “flooded” with the particular power of a goddess. This is a positive, empowering experience as the woman who embodies a goddess becomes that goddess for the duration of the ritual. In this way and others, the ritual is transformative.


Invocation of Brigid for Candlemas.
Photo © 2007 Gwyneth MacArthur. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The Madron ritual group underlines this shift by welcoming the goddess into the circle (by calling her name), and later when the goddess has left, welcoming the woman as herself back into the circle (again, by calling her name). Goddess Feminists have a strong sense of being able to know 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. As Amy Hollywood writes, “the goal of consciously pursued bodily practices and rituals is ultimately to render conscious training unnecessary” (2004: 63): that is, in repeatedly enacting the empowering transformation of embodiment rituals, Goddess Feminists render the empowerment permanent in the individual.

Embodiment rituals enable a woman to be not Other to the divine. At the same time, embodiment admits the Other and admits that the divine is (at least partially) Other.[4] This is especially so in the context of Goddess Feminist groups wherein the divine is personal rather than (or in addition to) psychological or archetypal. In embodiment, a woman’s self (or selves) does not disappear. The Other becomes part of the woman’s self and yet is not part of her. Hence, embodiment requires a woman to have a sense of self that can be multiple and can change.

Embodiment is an active opening of the self to the unknown Other, an opening to change and transformation. That each woman embodies a goddess in a different way reflects the Goddess Feminist teaching that no goddess can be fully defined because Goddess is always changing. For Goddess Feminists, the self lives in the simultaneous multiplicity or becoming with/in the divine. The becoming of self or selves and the becoming of the divine are intersecting, reciprocal, and particular or non-universal.

Re-thinking and Re-enacting Goddess
One purpose of embodiment rituals is to perform or enact Goddess and in the process to rethink the meanings of Goddess and self. Though many of the Goddess women I interviewed mentioned participating in various social or eco-justice movements, I argue that the general focus in Goddess Feminism is on politicization through women’s re-visioned gender identity that is modeled and supported by their spirituality. As Charleen put it, “I think my spirituality and my political beliefs are one and the same.”

Enactment of Goddess becomes a way of being in the world, and in particular, a way of being female without reference to male norms of femaleness, which participants emphasize is inherently political. Some Christian commentators have criticized Goddess Feminism for not being active enough in social justice (for example, Ruether 1992, Grey 2001) and perceive the movement as self-obsessed “navel-gazing.” Researchers of Goddess Feminists (and, more broadly, feminist Wiccans) and thealogians have defended the movement by pointing out the social and eco-justice activism within it (Raphael 1996, Christ 1997, Salomonsen 2002, Rountree 2004).[5] To me, both approaches somewhat miss the point.

Goddess Feminists take the position that they must ... change gender identities and roles if they are to change the world.

Enacting Goddess for Goddess women means living out new ways of being a woman (or a gendered being). Goddess Feminists take the position that they must also change gender identities and roles if they are to change the world. The theory here is that individual actions can have larger consequences and that symbolic material changes can have larger consequences for women’s agency and performance of gender. Participants were emphatic that Goddess enables them, as Penny said, to not “define myself within patriarchy.” Thus Goddess Feminists live out their refusal to be confined to traditional roles and norms.[6]

Goddess Feminists are determined to re-imagine what selfhood is, particularly female selfhood. They are not so post-modern as to abandon the notion of an autonomous self — they might agree with Donna Haraway’s suspicions about the rise of postmodernism just when women are beginning to articulate a self-defined selfhood (Haraway 1997[1991]: 39). However, the concept of a coherent, masterful self is as contested by Goddess Feminists as it is by other feminists. Goddess Feminists embrace the unstable subject, corporeality, and marginal or boundary positions.

Goddess Feminists have no problem holding together a notion of womanhood that is fundamentally plural and diverse without falling into mere individualism. For Goddess Feminists, the natural world and Goddess embody diversity, constant change, transcendence and immanence, and Otherness. Through a plurality of deities and performance, Goddess Feminism models new ways of being a woman, as well as identities which are not dependent on cultural norms or expectations (which they tend not to fit anyway). This process is continual. The Goddess Feminist sense of self is always in becoming, never complete. This must be so because the underlying Goddess Feminist worldview is based upon constant change.

With such a worldview, it is not surprising that Goddess Feminists prioritize the experiential and ritual practice. This, coupled with the desire to revalue and re-imagine female embodiment, leads to strongly embodied rituals that stress body practice and performance. For Goddess Feminists, the body and ritual performance become loci for the divine and mediums through which to experience and learn about the divine. Ritual embodiment of Goddess is thus performance thealogy; a constant process of experiential learning and thealogizing about Goddess.

Notes

  1. The name of the group and the names of all of my research informants have been changed.
  2. In the West, “performance” is often taken to mean acting or illusion, with the implication that it is not real or true in a similar fashion to the way we often use the word “story.” I do not mean that here. Here I am building upon the work of Edward Schieffelin who writes that performance is “the expressive dimension of the strategic articulation of practice” (2005: 130). Rather than not being real, performance here is almost hyper-real; a condensed and intense expression of that which is most important in the thealogy of Goddess Feminists.
  3. Participants were quite clear that what they did was not the total take-over of self by a spirit or deity as in possession trance or channeling. As Patricia said, “No, I never go away [during embodiment]!” It makes sense that most Goddess feminists should not feel comfortable with the idea of “channeling” or “possession”: such a lack of control over their own bodies is not something feminists would be likely to consider.
  4. Some Goddess feminists would argue that the Goddess is always part of ourselves, but a goddess such as Brigid is also thealogized as specific outward energies (fire, for example) and so is, at least, partially transcendent.
  5. Berger et al. (2003) lend credence to the arguments of thealogians with their systematic study of contemporary Pagans in the US when they argue that “Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess Worshippers, like the general Neo-Pagan population, are involved in political activities. Goddess Worshippers have a higher percentage of their membership that claim to have participated in events such as marches and rallies than either of the other two sects. Approximately half (49.8 percent) of Goddess Worshippers and 51.5 percent of women Goddess Worshippers have participated in marches and rallies” (95).
  6. Though Goddess Feminists may start at the level of individual change, they are convinced that individual change happens in the context of interconnection: for example, the metaphor of a web of interconnection is common (see Christ 1997 for a thealogy using the web as metaphor). As important to Goddess Feminists, then, as developing a notion of self (a self or selves, which are self-defined rather than imposed from without by others), is the notion that the individual only really makes sense when community is taken into account — a self-in-relation.

Bibliography

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  • 1997[1990]. “Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory and Psychoanalytic Discourse.” In McDowell, Linda and Joanne P. Sharp eds. Space, Gender, Knowledge: Feminist Readings. London and New York: Arnold, pp.247-262.
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  • 2003. She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
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