According to Melissa Raphael, the Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Gloucestershire, the contemporary Goddess movement consists of a spectrum of people committed to the celebration of female divinity. These include,
“Pagans, those on the fringes of Judaism and Christianity, those using the Goddess as a symbol of women’s liberation, and free spirits who celebrate the Goddess in ways peculiar to themselves. Most, but not all, in the Goddess movement are self-identified feminists” (1).
The Goddess movement includes, but is not limited to, Neo-Pagans, New Age spiritualists, and Wiccans typically unified in their rejection of patriarchal religion, and celebration of goddesses once worshipped by ancient peoples (2). Very ancient religious artifacts dating back over 20 000 years, such as the Venus figurines, depicting what many scholars believe is a goddess and thus a pre-historical goddess fertility religion has inspired proponents of the Goddess movement (3).
Foremother Carol P. Christ
A lead figure within this religious movement is religion scholar Carol P. Christ who views the Goddess as being connected to the Earth, the body, life, and typifies intelligence, inventiveness, and creativity (4). The movement attempts to establish a relationship between Goddess symbolisms and the valuing of women and nature (5). A number of the movement’s proponents were once a part of mainstream religions from which they became estranged. Many Goddess proponents feel that women’s roles are repressed, peripheral, and ultimately spiritually unfulfilling in many mainstream religions, and instead want to elevate, rather than diminish, the role women have within the spiritual life. The Goddess movement is also a reaction to masculine and male concepts of God; Christ explains,
“For me the most important reason to include female imagery for God or Goddess in worship is to give women and girls concrete evidence that we too are “in the image of God”… if divinity is understood to be impersonal, women and girls still need female images to counter the deep hold of male imagery for God in the unconscious of everyone brought up in our culture. This is especially true in religions with sacred texts that consistently refer to divinity using images of God as dominant, male, and often violent” (6).
Replacing Patriarchal Religious Symbol Systems
This task requires a replacement of religious symbol systems that are not to simply be rejected but fully replaced. What’s the rationale behind this? Christ refers to the symbology of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (d. 2006) who proposed that religious symbols not only shape a cultural ethos but also define the deepest values of a society and the persons located within it. Symbols thus have both psychological and political influences, because they create attitudes and feelings that lead people to feel uncomfortable with them or to accept social and political arrangements that correspond to the system.
Christ argues that Geertz’s work demonstrates that religion has an enormous hold upon the psyche of persons, which need not be dependent on rational assent because religious symbols also function on the level of the psyche not necessarily determined by the rational. Religion fulfills deep psychological needs, provides symbols and rituals that enable people to cope with crisis situations in human life, such as death, evil, and suffering. Religious symbols are therefore very powerful as they permeate the most important aspects of life and have a deep influence upon the unconscious mind. For Christ, this influence even impacts those (such as atheists and agnostics) who have rejected religious symbolisms on the conscious level. “Even people who no longer “believe in God” or participate in the institutional structure of patriarchal religion,” writes Christ, “still may not be free of the power of the symbolism of God the Father.” Such people are still under the influence of these symbols, “Even people who consider themselves completely secularized will often find themselves sitting in a church or synagogue when a friend or relative gets married or when a parent or friend has died.” Christ believes that should these patriarchal symbol systems not be replaced, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement, or defeat. Particularly one ought to consider the effect of male symbolism of God on women,
“Because religion has such a compelling hold on the deep psyches of so many people, feminists cannot afford to leave it in the hands of the fathers. Even people who no longer “believe in God” or participate in the institutional structure of patriarchal religion still may not be free of the power of the symbolism of God the Father.”
Christ believes that religions centered on the worship of a male God construct “moods” and “motivations” that keep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority. This extends much further than just the church or the institutional structure of patriarchal religions as it legitimizes the political and social authority of fathers and sons in the institutions of society. The religious symbol systems that focus exclusively on male images of divinity will continue to create the impression that female power can never be fully legitimate.
What’s the Goddess?
Christ identifies four aspects (although there are many more) of Goddess symbolism: the Goddess as an affirmation of female power, the female body, the female will, and women’s heritage. Goddess proponents believe that by looking back into the worlds of pre-Christian Europe, the ancient Mediterranean, Native America, Meso-America, Hindu, African, and other traditions, one will find rich sources for Goddess symbolism thought to encompass multiple forms of the Great Goddess as it is perceived today. But what actually is the Goddess? Christ identifies three major, although not exhaustive, ways proponents of the movement view the Goddess:
(1) The Goddess is a divine female, a personification who can be invoked in prayer and ritual
(2) The Goddess is a symbol of the life, death, and rebirth energy in nature and culture, in personal and communal life
(3) The Goddess is a symbol of the affirmation of the legitimacy and beauty of female power (made possible by the new becoming of women in the women’s liberation movement).
When asked what the symbol of Goddess means, feminist Goddess priestess Starhawk replied, “It all depends on how I feel. When I feel weak, she is someone who can help and protect me. When I feel strong, she is the symbol of my own power. At other times I feel her as the natural energy in my body and the world” (7). Christ and Starhawk urge women to engage in developing new symbol systems congruent with their experience. Sociologist of religion Jon P. Block studied Goddess spirituality and found a diverse interpretation of deity among proponents,
“The women I interviewed spoke of Goddess spirituality as a means of obtaining gender equality and self-validation by having a female image of the divine with which to identify. But they did not exclude other spiritual possibilities. The alleged dualism between male and female was acknowledged, and balance was sought by honoring both – rather than straightforwardly advocating androgyny… the women I interviewed were finding a sense of validation and equality through the Goddess movement. But they also were seeking a “balance” between the God and the Goddess to an extent that strays from purely-Dianic pursuits. The men I interviewed were seeking a similar “balance,” but saw the Goddess not in terms of gender inequalities but in terms of nurturing and assistance.” (8)
Unfortunately there currently exist no global statistics to inform us of the number of Goddess proponents across the world, but it has a certain presence in the United States and Britain, while movement growth can be expected within several European countries including Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark where feminists are conversing about female spirituality (9).
1. Raphael, Melissa. 1998. “Goddess Religion, Postmodern Jewish Feminism, and the Complexity of Alternative Religious Identities Melissa Raphael.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 1(2): 198-215. p. 198.
2. Bloch, Jon. 1997. “Countercultural Spiritualists’ Perceptions of the Goddess.” Sociology of Religion 58(2): 181-190.
3. Vandewettering, Kaylea. 2015. “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines and Interpretations of Prehistoric Gender Representations.” PURE Insights 4(1):1-8.
4. Christ, Carol., and Plaskow, Judith. 2016. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.
5. Christ, Carol P. n.d. If Goddess Is Not Love: Responding to Judith’s Chapter 10. p. 241-264.
6. Christ, Carol P. n.d. Ibid. p. 249-250.
7. Obtained by Carol Christ’s Personal communication with Starhawk. Ibid.
8. Bloch, Jon. 1997. Ibid. p. 186 & p. 189
9. Dijk, Denise. 1988. “The Goddess movement in the U.S.A. A Religion for Women Only.” Psychology of Religion 18(1): 258-266. p. 260