That Which Is Sacred by Max Dashu


We are going through a huge cultural shift toward restoring the female to her full radiance. However you want to define that, it is rising now, through us.

That which is Sacred, what should we call it? We’ve been told to name it he, him, his. That it was blasphemy to do otherwise, to say she, even as they desecrated the Divine with comparisons to mortal overlords, those cruel masters, despoliators, persecutors. No. Reconsider. That fearful address to an authoritarian punisher takes us far from true reverence. Rather revere the roots of Being, manifesting in all Nature around us, within us. The profound silence, and the Deep calling to the Deep.

Deeply I go down into myself. My god is Dark and like a webbing

made of a hundred roots that drink in silence. ― Rainer Maria Rilke

There are myriad emanations of the indescribable Source, but Goddess women call it she, as medicine to what they have forbidden in us, to us. That Shakti, the effulgence that pours through all living beings, including the rocks. The Shekhinah, the ever-flowing waters of Nummo, of Anahid. The Tao that is “the mother of whatever exists under the sky, upon whom myriads of beings depend for their birth and existence,” as the Dao De Jing says.

“The Universe is the Goddess. She is not separate from it, She did not create it and then let it be. She is what is, what was, and what will be.”1 So the Kemetic people praised Neith, Mother of the Neteru, on her great temple at Sa in the Nile Delta. Inscribed magnificats exalt her in some of the greatest spiritual literature of the world:

Neith, Mother of the Neteru


Greater is her name than of all gods and goddesses

The primordial One, eldest of the primeval gods

She who made that which is

She who created that which exists…

Who gave birth to Ra,

Who brought forth in primeval time herself,

Never having been created.

But not all wisdom is written. In Colombia, the Kogi have passed down oral traditions about the Mother of Songs who bore all kinds of people in the beginning.

She is the mother of the thunder, the mother of the rivers, the mother of trees and of all kinds of things. She is the mother of songs and dances. She is the mother of the older brother stones. She is the mother of the grain and the mother of all things. … She alone is the mother of things, she alone… 2

The Nahuatl litanies of Mexico are resonant with the same majesty : In teteu inan, in teteu itah, in huehuetéotl. “Mother of the gods, father of the gods, the Old Spirit.” 3

So much confusion has been sown about Goddess reverence. Even the word “goddess” is contested today. It’s considered blasphemy by the Abrahamic religions that define religion for billions of people. In popular culture it has been totally desacralized, stripped down, and trivialized. People talk about a pop star as a “sex goddess” or diva—which means “goddess” in Italian, but is now used to describe performers with overinflated egos. “Goddess” has no cultural standing in mainstream society, except as a negative. Few people are conversant with the rich and ancient history of goddess reverence. Instead they see press reports about finds of an “8000-year-old sex goddess.”

Not many people understand what spiritual feminists mean when we speak of Goddess or goddesses. Many, probably most of us, conceive of

Spider Grandmother, detail from the Wisdom Scroll (Max Dashu, 2001)

Goddess and the Sacred Woman as a continuum, encompassing living beings, spirits, ancestors, essences, qualities and vast governing principles like Maat, Tao, and Wyrd—Fate being another name for divine Law, the Way. We see parallels in the pagan Gothic Halioruna (“holy mystery”) and the Great Mystery of aboriginal North America. For us Nature is holy, ultimate Reality, and the fount of wisdom.

That there are Mysteries does not necessarily lead to the mystification practiced in authoritarian institutions. Our reverence has nothing in common with abasement, or the submission demanded by  hierarchies and their doctrines. It flows toward what is valued and admired, what causes awe: a rushing river, wind moving through a great forest, the fire-patterns in embers. It is roused by powerful music and beautiful art, incantation and drumming and dance. There we enter into the Presence where knowing and healing come, into connection, wholeness, the Center.

We have deists and atheists and polytheists and panentheists among us, and adherents to many majoritarian religions too. Each aspires to follow the deepest truth she can uncover within herself. For that reason there are many different approaches: some pray, some invoke, some take the deities as symbols, others as beings, or as Being. Others ride the currents of mystic bewilderment, recognizing the impossibility of condensing their experiences into language.

We affirm the long-reviled Female, now expanding out of ancient cultural confinements. In her liberation males will be transfigured too. There is room for the gods, without the taint of lordship and oppression, and for co-gendered expressions of the Sacred. In the ultimate sense gender is ephemeral, and in a just world it would not matter, but we live in a world that is severely out of balance, afflicted with male domination to a high degree. So in our invocations it is She, as Afrashe Asungi says, the Divine She. As Judy Grahn has chanted for us, She, She Who.

Many say that this She is found in our own inner spark, a microcosm of the entire Vastness, and a gateway to it. We say She rather than It, rejecting the impersonal object in favor of a numinous and melodic approach to consciousness. In the same spirit, many of us say Goddess rather than “the Goddess,” which carries a sense of A Thing or Idea rather than Essence and Presence. However she is understood (and whether she is experienced in body-knowing or relational or conceptual ways) we address what we hold sacred through this mirror of Goddess. We know this will create a profound transformative impact on the patriarchal world we live in. The opening of cultural doors that have been slammed shut and tightly locked up, in some places for millennia, is momentous and hugely significant.

Andean Medicine Women. Detail from Lifegivers of Tahuantinsuyu (Max Dashu, 1984)

Women’s recognition of our mythic exile is powering a widespread impulse to revive and restore Goddess culture. Longing for a female face of the Divine is pouring forth from diverse cultural directions: women of European descent who feel cut off from their pagan roots by a long history of compulsory Christianity; Jewish women reclaiming the Shekhinah, and some the ancient goddess Asherah as well; African-Americans reaching for the pre-captivity sacraments of their ancestors, and sometimes back to ancient Egyptian wisdom; Koreans bringing forth Mago, Puertorriqueñas remembering Atabey, and Mexicanas affirming la Guadalupana as Our Mother Tonantzin.

Invoking the names and images of Goddess answers a deep hunger in women, and among a growing number of men, to restore balance, for justice and truth. This longing is felt beyond pagan circles. It’s a call, a cry mounting from women within the majoritarian religions, a movement that transcends traditional religious boundaries. A great expansion is opening, from the nuns who won’t be silenced, women in the gathering Islamic reformation, all the overturnings of decreed female inconsequence, of patriarchal frameworks and hierarchies, in the flowering of an interfaith movement centered in love, not authority.

The world’s largest female ceremony, Pongala, is carried out annually in Kerala, India. A million women assemble to boil rice porridge for the goddess Attukal Amma, Bhagavati. In this massive Goddess event, women of all religions and castes make offering and blessings together, in a spirit of reverence, sisterhood, and generosity. 4 We are going through a huge cultural shift toward restoring the female to her full radiance. However you want to define that, it is rising now, through us.

~~~~~

1   Cheryl Straffon, Daughters of the Earth (2007), p 55

2   From Neumann, Erich, The Great Mother, Princeton University Press, 1972 (1963), p 85.

3   From Miguel León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind (1963), p 32

4   Dianne Jenett, “A Million Shaktis Rising: Pongala, a Women’s Festival in Kerala, India. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21.1 (2005) 35-55

Max Dashú teaches global women’s history and heritages through images. She founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970 to research mother-right, female spheres of power, goddess veneration and shamanic arts, as well as patriarchy and the history of domination.  Her acclaimed dvd Women’s Power in Global Perspective was released in 2008, and a second movie, Woman Shaman: the Ancients, is now in production. For articles, image gallery, and video clips, see http://www.suppressedhistories.net .

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Categories: Art, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, General, Goddess, Goddess Movement, Goddess Spirituality, Herstory, Naming

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17 replies

  1. Wonderful, as usual. Max, you know more about goddesses than anyone else on the planet. I’m so glad we’re friends.

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  2. Thank you for this wonderfully holistic sharing!

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  3. Reblogged this on Journeying to the Goddess and commented:
    This was a wonderful read! This is especially true, “Not many people understand what spiritual feminists mean when we speak of Goddess or goddesses…Invoking the names and images of Goddess answers a deep hunger in women, and among a growing number of men, to restore balance, for justice and truth. This longing is felt beyond pagan circles. It’s a call, a cry mounting from women within the majoritarian religions, a movement that transcends traditional religious boundaries. A great expansion is opening, from the nuns who won’t be silenced, women in the gathering Islamic reformation, all the overturnings of decreed female inconsequence, of patriarchal frameworks and hierarchies, in the flowering of an interfaith movement centered in love, not authority.” Max Dashu

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  4. So be it, the loving she is not the judgmental he. Of course both males and females have the capacity to be dominating, but Goddess is not another name for the God who is a dominant male Other.

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  5. In ancient Greece it was Goddess who revealed the Mysteries to the initiates, She taught them to do everything, the pre-historic Greeks were Goddess worshippers up until the influence of middle-eastern and north-african cultures, who essentially brought with them their patriachal ways. Still Goddess remained very important to the ancient Greeks (ancient Greek is before Christianity, Byzantium Greek would be after Christianity).
    Fabulous piece Max, inspiring thank you.

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    • You have this turned around. West Asia was patriarchal, true, but North Africa was far less male-dominated than the Greeks, who were always mythologizing “Libyan” (read anywhere in North Africa outside of Egypt) women as having terrifying powers, from Lamia to Medusa. And not to forget Greek accounts of the Libyan Amazons! They created lots of conquest narratives, with stories of Apollo and others raping Libyan women, as they colonized the coast of (modern) Libya. But as patriarchal as Greece became, the sphere of the priestess remained a stronghold of female authority. You might be interested in an excerpt from my book that talks about internal changes in Hellenic sexual politics, centered around the Pythias and other female oracles. http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/Pythia.pdf

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      • Well I was really talking about Egypt but yes conquest does tend to get pretty nasty, killing and raping being common place in such instances and that these stories get woven into mythological fabric is not surprising. But these instances do not minimize the great role that Goddess played in the lives of the ancients, as you most certainly emphasis yourself.

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      • The Greeks considered the soul to be feminine and the body or flesh to be masculine. The feminine was the divine part of man. This is where all the confusion takes place. The natural mate for a feminine soul was a masculine god. This 5000 year old concept has ruled theology and spiritual practice up to the present day.

        We now know that the soul is both masculine and feminine. Another way to put it is that we are right-brained or left-brained. We each favor one side or the other. It depends on whether you are animus-based (masculine) or anima-based (feminine) as to whether god is male or female. Both scenarios are valid.

        The road runs both ways.
        May each find the way that benefits their spiritual development.

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  6. Beautifully done, Max — you cover so much history with such grace, ease, and depth!

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  7. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I gave 30 years to the Christian fundamentalism I was raised in… my spiritual recovery from that, my reclaiming of self and spirituality, has come through the initially quaking thought that God might be the Goddess…that the deity who was thoroughly male might not be the real deal. What once was a horrifying thought has become life to my bones.

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  8. “We affirm the long-reviled Female, now expanding out of ancient cultural confinements. In her liberation males will be transfigured too.” Max Dashu
    Women’s validation and self-validation is on the plate — or shall we say — altar, here? There is no ‘going back’, only moving forward. We are all in a form of ecdysis, the shedding of old skins that contain us. These old skins will drop away leaving new growth and a new society of broader ideas of the sacred, the spiritual and life itself. Our silence is no more as move from the imbalance that male domination has had for over 2,000 years—the Greeks, the Romans, the Northern Tribes—wherever they have come, is not the point. The point is that, we as educated women are now realizing the damage that this imbalance has caused, especially to women, but also to men. As we stand and speak about this, we heal the damage that has been done.
    As women in connection expand, increasing the humming of their unified voices in articulation of the message of this damage; the world will change, is changing and retrieving the lost part of itself that has been trivialized, de-sanctified, polarized, Eve-il-ized, objectified, suppressed, oppressed, depressed, other-defined and dictated to by males for before our memory. We are now remembering and in this re-membering of what has been lost, a redefinition of our sacredness as humans is re-assembled in living consciousness of our true Being which truly supersedes gender categorization.

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  9. A powerful and gorgeous summation that is truly inspiring! Thank you! And deep thanks to all who share their wisdom here. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for having found this space, these articles, you amazing women. Bright Blessings!

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  10. Thank you Max, as always you come up with intelligent discussions, and observations that are well researched. LOVED this read. I would like to share it on my blog if I may. Really succinct and to the point, and speaks to my life’s work as well! I’d like to share this at EWF as well.

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  11. What a beautiful essay, Max!

    Interesting medieval Christian mystics, such as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen celebrated the Feminine Divine, even though the established religion they practiced could not have been more patriarchal and othering to women.

    Julian of Norwich called God Mother while Hildegard compared God to a cosmic egg, nurturing all of life like a womb. Masculine imagery of the creator tends to focus on God’s transcendence, but Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine celebrate immanence, of God being present in all things. Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.

    O power of wisdom!
    You encompassed the cosmos,
    Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
    With your three wings:
    One soars on high,
    One distills the earth’s essence,
    And the third hovers everywhere.
    Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

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  12. I am skeptical about the proposed etymology of haliurunna, although I don’t have a better etymology to suggest. It’s possible that haliurunna is a transcription of *hailaruna. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with Jordanes, an unreliable and hostile source, who says that Filimer drove out the haliurunnae.

    This probably corresponds with the increasing importance of *Woþins, if not of the *Ansos [Aesir] in general, and the attempted suppression of an older Gutisk religion, which may correspond with the *Wanos [Vanir].

    D. H. Green argues that hailags was associated with prosperity, power, and military victory. It is attested on the Pietroassa ring but distinctly absent from the Wulfilan bible-translation. Even if hailags wasn’t exclusively associated with the warrior-religion of *Woþins, I don’t see hailags being the name-giving attribute for anything except a warrior-religion.

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  13. Thanks for putting the re awakening of Goddess consciousness into such beautiful words!

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