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
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 Im calling performance thealogy.
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.
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
Introducing Giselle Vincett:
New MatriFocus Scholar-Editor
My name is Giselle Vincett. I am a post-doctoral
research fellow at the University of Edinburgh in the UK and
am pleased to have been asked to edit scholarly material for
MatriFocus, and to contribute some of my own work. I
am a sociologist of religion and as such am very interested
in contemporary trends in religion, particularly in the West.
Currently, I am doing research on the spirituality of young
people in the UK, but my Ph.D. work focused on the spiritualities
of feminist women (Goddess Feminists, Christian feminists, and
those who fell somewhere between the two). For those who are
interested, my thesis is available through the British Library
(Vincett, Giselle, 2007. Feminism and Religion: a Study of
Christian Feminists and Goddess Feminists in the UK. Lancaster,
UK: Lancaster University).
Though my Ph.D. work was limited to the UK, I am originally
from Canada and thus am also interested in religious trends
in North America.
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
Judith Butlers 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:
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
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
Invocation of Brigid
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.
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 womans self (or selves) does not disappear.
The Other becomes part of the womans 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 womens 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
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).
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
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 womens 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.
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 Haraways
suspicions about the rise of postmodernism just when women are beginning
to articulate a self-defined selfhood (Haraway
1997: 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.
- The name of the group
and the names of all of my research informants have been changed.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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