The Concept of the Goddess

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The Concept of the Goddess.
Billington Sandra & Green Miranda (eds).
Routledge 1996 hb $35.

"What do goddesses from Japan and Ireland have in common?" This question, which may very well have irritated some of the contributors, is posed on the dust cover of this beautifully produced and immensely readable scholarly study of goddesses from a wide variety of cultures. The book is based on contributions to a meeting of the Folklore Society in Glasgow in 1994. It is presented as a tribute to Hilda Ellis Davidson past President and now Honorary Member of the Society and distinguished author, over a period of more than fifty years, of many influential works on the folklore of northern Europe.

I would like to give this book an enormous welcome. It comes at a time when its contents are precisely helpful in the growing debate on the subject which provides its title. Wood and Water (nos 53 and 54 )reflected the early phases of the debate under the title "The One or the Many": do we understand the term "the Goddess" to mean a single universal feminine divinity , worshipped in many guises and under many names, but actually the ancient and essentially unchanging mother goddess? Or does it indicate a relationship of the female with deity, a way of saying that the female as well as the male is normative as part of, as a reflection of , as containing divinity - so that "the Goddess" is not a single entity? In that case She is the "she" in deity, however we understand that word, and goddesses of different times and places need not be facets of the One. Yet again, is She both One and Many, and is this apparent paradox a reflection of the difficulties in expressing new ideas, or ideas which have been forgotten and are now re-surfacing.

In all the solutions outlined, there is a sense of women's self- empowerment, the discarding of the guilt and shame associated with the biblical "helpmeet/rib" view of their place in society, promulgated by the monotheistic religions, where God, however perceived, is addressed and referred to only in the masculine gender. Against this background "the Goddess" becomes a term of liberation and a rallying cry for justice.

However an adversarial position, which might be seen to be entirely a matter of misunderstandings, has sprung up between academics concerned to protect from misuse factual evidence derived from scholarly disciplines , and goddess followers who feel that the criticisms are designed to rubbish women's new understanding of their relationship to the divine, and to re-establish a patriarchal template. There is a further dimension: modern thought categorically questions the concept of universal themes dominating culture and society. Each area must be viewed separately and within its own circumstances. As Miranda Green, co-editor of the book and noted Celtic authority, writes in the introduction to The Concept of the Goddess:

"In a book which explores the veneration of the goddesses belonging to many different times and cultures, it is essential not to fall into the trap of using evidence from one area and period to account for the phenomena observed in another. If comparisons between beliefs and perceptions of differing peoples are made they must be based on genuine evidence for similarities rather than on generalizing theory" (p 1).

Miranda Green continues:

"The varied approaches that have been adopted embrace the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, mythic literature and folklore. Despite this diversity, two important general points emerge: first, the enormous powers and wide-ranging responsibilities of the goddesses; and second, the inadvisability of making inferences from the status of female divinities about the position of women in society....

In this review I want to look at both these points and suggest there might be possible congruities that need examination, but I will first give some idea of the actual material in the book which provides us with an outstanding source of information about goddesses not only of northern Europe , including Britain and Ireland, but also of Rome, the Caucasus and Japan. There are more than a dozen authors each a specialist in her/his field.

Miranda Green writes on the Celtic Goddesses as healers, examines their links with sacred water sites, and discusses the sanctity of water itself. She describes in some depths little known goddesses such as Ancamna and Damona, both she says "distinctive in their apparent polyandry"(p 30), Gaulish spring goddesses, and Sequana, Sirona, and Sulis. She devotes special attention to the last named, connecting her with the cult of the sun and rather surprisingly, naming her as "healer and avenger". If this title is surprising, it is based on material found at the shrine at Bath. These are lead or pewter curses, known as defixiones, addressed to Sulis, where she is certainly perceived as a righter of wrongs. Here for example are two:

"Docimedes has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints." "Docilianus , son of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis, I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, slave or free, that the goddess inflict death upon him, and not allow him sleep or children, now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity"(p 35).

It might be thought that the punishments sought are altogether too severe for the crimes, but it is interesting that there is what Green calls " a negative aspect to the Sulis cult".

Catharina Raudvere writes about female shape shifters in Scandinavian tradition. She discusses the mara, described as the "night riding hag" not a goddess or a mythological being, but a "temporarily transformed human being - more a witch than a demon"(p 42). Raudvere sees the perception of the mara as a method of understanding mishaps, illness and pain. At the same time, she concedes there is a link with earlier mythological material on shape shifting which is part of Icelandic culture. She gives a number of examples of Norse shape-shifting and also discusses how the "gods of the pagans became the demons of the church" (p 52) . She concludes: "We can never give any finite answer to the question whether the stories of the shapeshifters were believed or not. But the texts of widely varying origins are the sources from which we can construct a world view where shape shifting gods and humans were a reasonable truth....the mara was an experience of anxiety, a cause of illness and misfortune, a conduit for social frustration and an image for basic conceptions of cosmology and anthropology: i.e. the hag's ability to leave the body. Telling of the mara could therefore when part of a living oral tradition serve several functions at the same time."(p.54).

Contributions on Scandinavian goddesses Freya and Frigg come from two authors - Britt-Mari Nasstrom and Stephen Grundy. Nasstrom looks at the many names of Freya and suggests that these represent her multifarious concerns; Grundy enquires whether Freya and Frigg are variants of the same goddess or distinct entities, but sees them very much in their relationship to the god Odinn. Samuel Pyeatt Menefee provides a stimulating account of Long Meg and her Daughters who turn out to be not only the well known megalithic site in Cumbria but also Long Meg of Westminster "heroine of several ballads and chapbooks dating from the 16th century" (p 80). Added to these are various other folklore references to Long Meg which includes the names of cannon guns situated both in Edinburgh and London.

Hilda Ellis Davidson writes about the connections between milk and the goddess, citing first the ancient world where for example Hathor appears as a cow goddess; and then surveys in depths the variety of evidence from northern Europe. She makes the point that the dairy was always the women's responsibility and she suggests that there may have been, in Romano-British culture an indigenous dairy goddess. This is a wide-ranging and fascinating survey that will also provide new researchers with a wealth of material for further enquiry.

Coventina, described as a purely British goddess, is the subject of Lindsay Allason-Jones study. The well situated at Carrawburgh on Hadrian's Wall proclaims Coventina as a water deity, but Allason-Jones citing numerous texts, artefacts and pictures concludes that she was not a typical Celtic healing deity but was concerned with all aspects of her worshippers' lives.

Two authors deal with classical goddesses. Glenys Lloyd-Morgan with Nemesis and Bellona - whom she names as "two neglected goddesses", and Sandra Billington with Fors Fortuna in ancient Rome. Lloyd-Morgan indicates widespread acceptance of both her subjects in the Roman empire acknowledging their earliest origins and continuing their veneration down to the rise of Christianity. Nemesis, first known by the Greeks as born of the night later became the "daughter of justice" and "keeper of the scales" and associated with Themis goddess of law and justice. Bellona , a later deity, is oriented towards the concerns of the military- goddess of war and patroness of success in battle.

Fors Fortuna is Goddess of fortune and of luck. Billington comments that "the way Fortuna has been conceived over the centuries has changed according to need and preference".p.129.

Fors and Fortuna are different aspects, or possibly different divine entities who became conflated. Worshipped at midsummer with offerings of wheel cakes indicating her association with the seasons, she is the giver of good and bad luck, but not as others have suggested as a fertility goddess. She presides over the turning wheel of fortune.

The Banshee in Ireland as an aspect of the earth goddess is discussed by Patricia Lysaght. She is the supernatural death messenger. Many accounts are quoted of her foreboding and lamenting deaths of rulers and common folk, but she is never, says Lysaght, considered as an agent of death. Her connections with sovereignty and the land are discussed as well as those with the Badb and the Morrigan. We are reminded that folk belief in the Banshee carries with it a survival of the ancestral goddess both in her benign and caring and her sovereignty and war-function aspects.

Two contributors range further afield. Anna Chaudri discusses traces of the hunting goddess in Ossetic folklore concerning the Caucasian hunting divinity male and female; Carmen Blacker writes on Yamanokami, the Mistress of Animals in Japan. There is much of powerful interest in both: the Caucasian hunt is sacred and is an aspect of the human interaction with divine nature. Female and male divinity cannot, says the author, be considered separately. However, there are particular traditions for each and often the female divinity appears to be guardian of the game, and also may be Sovereign of the Forest. The Goddess Yamanokami as Mistress of Animals and ruler of wild nature is presented most sympathetically by Carmen Blacker, who also points out that a similar figure has been discovered in a number of other cultures. She, too, is mistress of the forest and the animals, and is specially concerned with the game hunting communities of the forest. The goddess is also a shape shifter, often appearing as an animal of the forest "large, royal, mysteriously majestic and of a pure and holy whiteness".

We have been presented with a huge thesaurus of precious information. The opening chapter, which provides the book's title, discusses its philosophy. Juliette Wood overviews the "upsurge in the study of the feminine aspects of the sacred"(p8),discusses the work of Robert Graves, Marija Gimbutas and other proponents of the universality of the Goddess. First against a background of New Age and of feminist thought and then in the light of modern scholarship, she warns that "modern Goddess studies resemble influential nineteenth century models of culture in their use of archaeology, anthropology in the assumptions they draw about early society, in their definition of myth, and in their conception of the relationship of the past to the present". (p9).She also makes a distinction between those who view the Goddess as an historical entity and those who perceive her as a metaphor or poetic image. She challenges what she sees as inaccurate historical assumptions used to substantiate the construction of a modern divine female principle. It is important also that "negative" as well as "positive" qualities are recognised in goddesses.

Wood concedes that the Goddess as metaphor is powerful and often productive. "If we look at the Goddess-paradigm as an exercise in creative history then we are looking at a view of the past , which however it may fail academic criteria presents a powerful image of feminine cultural identity. In the case of the Goddess, the fact of survival, followed by suppression and transformation, is extended to the gender she represents". (p.22).

OK. Here we are back home on my own ground of survival repression and transformation: and also of pursuing academic material in as scholarly a manner as I can. At the same time I follow Carol Christ's warning concerning the ethos of objectivity when she writes: "feminist analysis reveals that scholarship that has been presented to us as 'objective' 'rational' 'analytical', 'dispassionate', 'disinterested' and 'true', is in fact rooted in irrational and distorted assumptions...while presented under the guise of 'objective fact' patriarchal thinking employs a number of ..unnamed and unexamined assumptions. A male-centered perspective functions to legitimate a patriarchal society, to make it seem 'obvious'"(1996:27-28). I am also much influenced by Margaret Conkey and Ruth Tringham, feminist archaeologists, who when discussing the work of Gimbutas affirm that although in many respects they profoundly disagree with her methods and conclusions, she has caused a paradigm shift in the way archaeologists view their own discipline. I feel that Juliette Wood has not addressed such issues, nor has she taken into account the highly regarded work of biblical archaeological scholars ( Ruth Hestrin, Judith Hadley, John Day for example) which while researching goddesses of the period brings to the fore the possibility that anti-goddess polemic is the basis of much Western religious tradition. The fall-out from this kind of scholarship cannot be swept away from gender politics. And here two vital points emerge.

One has been described by American theologian Richard Grigg as "enactment theology. He proposes that the traditional God is no longer part of the workings of history but if He exists at all, it is in personal relationships with individuals. His role as source and sustainer of justice has been taken over by Goddess and brought to life by Goddess followers who work in the world to enact justice.. the Goddess is a relationship which humans may choose to enact - and in so doing they are both creatures of this relationship and its creators. "To enact the divine is to actualize the self's creative powers at the same time as the self is formed by something else." (Grigg 1995). We cannot here discuss the "something else" - what in fact we mean by Deity generally - but emphasise the enactment- the political- factor. Part of Goddess politics is to work for justice - in the first place for women, but proceeding from that justice for all oppressed of the earth. And this takes me straight to the second factor, and I must say a few personal words.

I have been continuously researching, teaching and sharing goddess information for over two decades, usually but not always with women, and in widely divergent circumstances. From women's groups to adult education, and to university first and second degree students, from Unitarian church to pagan groups, to feminist theologians, from young students to pensioners, within the UK, in continental Europe and in the US: however troubled I might be ( and indeed I am troubled a good deal) by the criticisms that come to the goddess movement from academics and however much I take the points that are being made, I have the unassailable base of my own experience for what I know and this is it: that almost every woman everywhere on being presented with goddess material leaps out and grasps it, is then overcome with a passion of anger and joy. Anger that she had not been told of it before, and felt she had wasted her life not knowing it (although many will say they knew within themselves but could never justify it): joy that the burden of guilt and shame for just being a woman has now been lifted. "It's like breathing oxygen" said one many years ago, echoed by another " it's like a pinhole in the darkness and another ( who recently celebrated her 87th birthday)"I shan't be able to visit all those goddess places now, but I'm glad to know before I die that they existed , it makes the struggle worthwhile". These are only three out of thousands, who have made similar responses. .

The point I am making is that it is not a metaphor that they are talking about, it is their own life experience. Not failed academic criteria, but the facts of gender conditioning based on monotheistic patriarchal traditions.

Some of these women grasp and convert goddess material into a religion of their own, others attempt a popular synthesis, and much of this must bear criticisms such as those by Juliette Wood. But it has not been such a mortal sin as has been assigned to them: until recently goddess research has not been an academic subject that found its way to the public. What has come the way of the seekers has been material by other seekers, often not academics of any kind, or sometimes, coming from disciplines other than those involved in this particular research. It is books like "The Concept of the Goddess" with its brilliant material that will help remedy this situation.

Wood and Water 58, Spring 1997


Christ, Carol P . Thealogy Begins in Experience in: Metis, Spring 1996 vol 1 no. 1 pp 25-42

Conkey, Margaret & Tringham Ruth Archaeology & the Goddess. in : Feminisms in the Academy. Stanton D & Stewart, A. (eds) Univ. of Michigan Press 1995

Day John Asherah in the Hebrew Bible & N.W. Semitic Literature in Jnl of Biblical Literature 105/3 1986 pp 385 -408

Grigg, Richard When God Becomes Goddess. Continuum 1995

Hadley, Judith The Khirbet-el-Qom Inscription in : Vetus Testamentum xxxvii 1 1987 pp 50-62

Hestrin, Ruth The Cult Stand from Ta'anach and its Religious Background. in Studia Phoenicia V. Peeters Press 1987. pp61-77


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