Reflections on Researching the Goddess Movement in Britain by Kavita Maya


KavitaMayaI’ve been asked by both academics and Pagans what inspired me to pursue doctoral research on the British Goddess movement: of the many ways that people first click with feminist politics, a story entwined with a ‘spiritual’ impulse might seem unusual, given the slow-to-change secular assumptions of mainstream feminism.

When I reflect on my history, two threads at the core of my early feminist identity leap out: one, the value of thinking and asking questions; the other, ‘feminist spirituality’, which for me describes a profound emotional, intellectual and creative investment in the struggle for a fairer, more inclusive world. Two early ‘click’ moments: as a child, asking persistent questions about the sexist gender roles modeled by those around me (and being told “You’ll understand when you’re older,” which I now recall with a grim irony), and—perhaps unusually—coming across the concepts of patriarchy, feminism and the Goddess by way of 1990s teen fiction about witches.

It was probably a combination of issues which inspired me, including the idea that women could be powerful even in the margins of a patriarchal society, and the importance of relationships between women in ritual circles and in ‘sisterhood’ (noticeably, queer/lesbian narratives seemed implicit but not openly represented). I remember feeling like I’d come across something uncannily important, signified by ‘the Goddess’. Retrospectively, it was no accident that the story which most fascinated me included women of colour: I didn’t come across many such stories without apparent stereotypes.

While exploring London’s Pagan scene and later during my fieldwork year among UK Goddess women connected to Glastonbury, I was often surprised when, after asking about my religious upbringing, people would sometimes say things like “But Hinduism already has goddesses” or “You’re lucky, your culture already has Goddess.” Surprised—because these were moments of misrecognition. I would explain that in my early discovery of Goddess feminism, it had not occurred to me to associate it with “Hindu goddesses” or “my culture”—whatever that is assumed to be. (As a native Londoner from a diasporic background, the phrase “your culture” always perplexes me.)

In fact I think it is important not to regard an imaginary traditional “Hindu Goddess culture” as somehow continuous with contemporary North American and European Goddess feminism, not least because this obscures the complicated manner in which representations of goddesses interact with gender, shaping femininity in conservative as well as empowering ways in different social and historical contexts, as interesting research into goddesses in Hindu nationalism points out.

I do think that Goddess feminism holds vital emotional and cultural resources for women who are drawn to it, and it has made an important contribution to my feminist consciousness. However, although I might prefer to think of goddesses in terms of feminist spirituality, this desire cannot not be imposed through Western or Eurocentric stories on a complicated world, nor pursued at the expense of a feminist politics which addresses the intersectional inequalities of gender, class, disability, race and (post)colonialism.

Such misrecognitions are examples of assumptions about ‘culture’, ‘religion’, ‘race’ and ‘the Other’ that people make in everyday encounters, in this case highlighting my identity as a non-white researcher in ways that could be uncomfortable. It isn’t possible to summarise all the issues at stake in this article, but some of the work in my doctoral thesis is an attempt to untangle the politics of these encounters and the social narratives which produce them, through the framework of feminist and critical race theory.

The work of critical theories of gender, class, disability, race and postcolonialism is, I think, about asking difficult questions of the various communities in which we participate, always connected to politics and social transformation, and is as much a mode of ethics as it is an intellectual framework. Engaging in questions about the politics of race within predominantly white communities has been challenging—both with Goddess women, during and after my fieldwork, and with members of other Pagan groups. Race in critical politics is not an essential quality (people have sometimes used the phrase ‘other races’ in unclear ways), but rather it is a product of racialisation, of histories of racism and colonialism. Critical race politics is concerned with how structural racism passes unseen, appearing ‘normal’—often through social mechanisms of resistance, silence and erasure. It continues to be a marginalised topic in Britain in spite of anti-racist movements, including black feminism.

In the 1990s, Goddess feminists Asphodel Long and Monica Sjöö wrote about feminism and began to address racial politics in Goddess spirituality. While they are remembered as ‘foremothers’, it seems to me that their political work within the early UK Goddess movement is being erased from its collective memory.

Recently, much-needed discussions have arisen among UK-based Pagan activists. A blog post by Léithin Cluan emphasises the need to listen to the voices of Pagans of colour (with links to PoC writing); a piece by Yvonne Aburrow on inclusive politics in Paganism responds to an article on the Pagan anti-Capitalist site Gods and Radicals by Rhyd Wildermuth, about the presence of ideas associated with the New Right within various Pagan traditions; and last year, doctoral researcher Jonathan Woolley, Druid activist Elizabeth Cruse and I co-organised an activist-academic workshop on the politics of contemporary Paganism at the University of Cambridge. These are only some first steps in what need to be ongoing conversations about gender, class, disability, race and colonialism in UK Pagan groups. We need to acknowledge the value of critical questions, and keep asking them—even at the risk of discomfort to ourselves and those in our networks.

 

Kavita Maya is a final-year PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London. Her doctoral thesis deals with a feminist and critical race analysis of the Goddess movement in Britain, based on fieldwork among the Goddess spirituality networks connected to Glastonbury, Somerset, the UK’s hub for countercultural spirituality. Her broader academic interests lie in the area of gender, religion and politics.

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Categories: Activism, Black Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Gender, Gender and Power, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Postcolonialism, Power relations

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26 replies

  1. Very important and interesting research and topics, Kavita. I hope you will continue to share your work with us in more detail in other blogs.

    I believe the HIndu Goddesses like the Greek Goddesses were shaped by patriarchy and with it war, caste, class, etc. How this happened and if there are remnants of pre-patriarchal Goddesses in either tradition is also an important question. Neither tradition is feminist or egalitarian per se, nor for that matter are the Celtic traditions.

    I agree with you that some are not asking these questions today. To ask them means that no “tradition” can be accepted as “authoritative.” I think there is a great desire for something to be authoritative.

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    • Thanks, Carol – I do plan to write more for an online audience over time. The central issue for me is that the narrative of ancient Indian goddesses co-opted through patriarchy is a story primarily repeated by white western Goddess women, and this displaces a nuanced feminist relating to contemporary women of colour in the here and now, not to mention the ways that feminism and spirituality are mobilised among in India and in diasporic communities in the present.

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      • In my experience, white feminists attracted to Hindu Goddesses (I am not one of them) do not deconstruct the Hindu Goddesses, they embrace them as they are (or as they think they are). Looking forward to hearing more from your perspective.

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  2. Excellent post, great links. I second Carol’s request for more!

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  3. Thank you for your fascinating and thought-provoking post, Kavita. Yes, please post more! The fact that the voices of sisters of color have been suppressed and their ideas of spirituality unheard has driven me to write about them in my fiction.

    Lately I’ve been pondering the spirituality of some friends of mine. For the most part, they don’t know each other, but all seem to regard Goddess spirituality as a stage they’ve passed through on the way to regarding the Divine as neither male nor female.

    For my part, I am struggling with this. Reading “The Spiral Dance” was like coming home, twenty-odd years ago. It explained what I’d felt from girlhood. To me, the very notion of Goddess is empowering–liberating–whatever you want to call it. The idea that it’s a stage I’m going to pass through and leave behind is disturbing.

    It is true that I’ve discarded the outward trappings of the Craft of the Wise, the ritual tools and books and so on. (I’m at the stage of life of getting rid of material possessions, not collecting them.) But I still regard life and nature from a Goddess perspective. I’d feel lost without it.

    Do other women feel this way?

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    • Thanks very much for the encouragement, Diana. It’s really interesting that people you know have passed through Goddess spirituality as a stage to a neither-male-nor-female understanding. I also really loved Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, which I first read in the late 1990s. For me, in my first explorations, it was also primarily all about women, nature and feminism, and my consciousness as a feminist of colour developed gradually through an increasing interest in politics, and through recognising my experiences in the stories of other women of colour. Although in hindsight I think it was always there to some extent – as I mentioned above, coming across fictional witches of colour was a key moment for me growing up!

      It’s fascinating to look at how our identities change and develop over time, and how that process can feel uncomfortable. Personally, my educational journey over the past six years has involved various changes in worldview. Looking at my copy of the twentieth anniversary edition of The Spiral Dance, there are two introductions detailing Starhawk’s own changes in perspective on gender and sexuality.

      My sense of feminist spirituality these days is deeply connected to my understanding of politics, and in my research I’ve found that Goddess spirituality doesn’t always relate to a feminist orientation in women’s identities. I also find myself drawn to the idea of ‘queering’ spirituality in a somewhat utopian sense, of breaking down the limitations in how we understand ourselves and each other. Can we envision a queer feminist spirituality inclusive of differences of race and gender? Can this involve the concept of Goddess without foreclosing non-binary gender? I am in the process of thinking about these issues.

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  4. As we “know,” it used to be “common knowledge” that goddesses, and the worship of them, wwere a primitive first step on the way to Progress, which equaled a paternalistic patriarchal culture that worshipped an invisible god. I’m glad you’re studying the Pagan scene and people and what they do. Who knows? Maybe the paternalism of the standard-brand god is a primitive step to the progress signified by the Great Goddess. Or maybe a lot of these terms have become meaningless. I, too, will be glad to hear more about your work.

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  5. Kavita so good to see you are posting elements of your doctoral work. I am always drawn back to the discourse between Mary Daly and Audre Lourde when I read this type of material and sadly I don’t think that much has really moved forward. The ‘whiteness’ of feminist spirituality is still a reality and our inability to move past this cultural roadblock is not one that we like to be reminded of, but it’s so important that we are and deep listening, questioning and openness to what often remains taboo and unsaid are I believe a few of the keys to change. Looking forward to reading more.

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    • Thanks for you reply, Louise. I love that you brought this up – while working on my current thesis chapter I re-read Audre Lorde’s letter to Mary Daly and what Daly and Lorde had actually said about their exchange, and I was struck by how much Lorde’s point has been ignored or misrepresented in online conversations on feminist spirituality. I agree with the following take on where Lorde was coming from: http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/04/un-womens-liberation/

      I agree that whiteness is still very much a problem within both feminist spirituality and feminism generally. I also think it’s important for white women to work to understand what this means and counter it among themselves, so it is not only women of colour taking on the sole responsibility of trying to dismantle exclusionary / racist social mechanisms – especially since there are very few of us within Pagan communities to do this. Hence the importance of black feminist theorising, and of encouraging critical questions.

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  6. As this post has been put on a public forum I have decided to comment. I have deep reservations around all forms of academic enquiry on any subject, where claims are made to detached observation from what is usually a personal point of view. I see this in Kavita’s work. I see academia as one of the pillars of patriarchy in its methods and practice as it encourages negative criticism, power-over, undermining, soul-destroyng viewpoints.

    Although I am a co-founder of the Glastonbury Goddess community, Kavita took the time to have just one interview with me – about 1 hour long, barely long enough to say ‘hello”. As far as I remember I talked a bit about my own feminist roots, but there was no discussion between us about feminism, racial identity, gender, cultural identity, etc.. There was no serious enquiry about we are attempting to do here in the Goddess community or about Kavita’s reservations. That tells me that Kavita has an agenda to push and it is very easy to observe from the sidelines and then react from one’s own prejudices.
    For me it is human to assume that people will have some awareness of their racial and cultural ancestry, in whichever country they live. That is not a crime. If I look like my British/Irish ancestors you will assume I know something about British culture, beliefs, identity, (always ever-changing). This is not the crime that is identified in Kavita’s article.
    I knew both Asphodel Long and Monica Sjoo personally. They were friends of mine and inspirations to me personally, as well as both being women who had lived through difficult experiences and who were hurt by those experience. We shared a love of Goddess, expressed in different ways. We have to find rounded views of what is happening.
    At the heart of what we are doing here in Glastonbury is our shared love of Goddess. We welcome people of all colours, shapes, sizes, genders, races, who want to share in our love of the One who is the Source of All That Is. She is lies at the heart of everything we do.. Every person who comes to us or trains with us wants to know that they are unique and special. Some identify their uniqueness with their gender or their race or their talent, etc., but what makes you special to us is the way that you express your love and devotion to Goddess, how you love and serve Her..

    And this is just a point of view. with love and blessings Kathy

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    • Firstly, the interview I recorded with you was just over two hours long; the audio and transcript contain a good deal more than “hello”. I asked questions about feminism, politics and spirituality, as well as about your life history and the organisation of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple and Conference. In one of the questions I talked about my interest in writing about the politics of race and asked for your thoughts on the whiteness of the Goddess movement. As with all research participants with whom I recorded interviews, I gave you a form which makes clear my interest in researching the politics of the movement. Aside from recorded interviews, my ethnographic fieldwork in Glastonbury lasted nearly a year. To suggest there was ‘no serious enquiry’ is a rather ungenerous description!

      I find it disappointing when members of spiritual communities disparage all academic enquiry as patriarchal. Academia is not monolithic, and as anyone who has taken a class in gender or race studies will know, feminist theorists have been a growing presence in academic spaces over the past several decades, working to challenge patriarchal socio-political structures both within and outside the academy. It is important not to disregard this and erase the valuable work that has been and continues to be done by women in universities. My article explains my personal ethos and approach to my doctoral project, clearly making use of feminist positionality and reflexivity rather than any kind of ‘detached observation’.

      I have not identified any ‘crime’ in my article. My work is based in feminist and anti-racist theory, is concerned with structural inequalities in society, and furthermore is entwined with my sense of the importance of feminist spirituality. Here I am writing about one of the ways that structural racism is perpetuated within Goddess and Pagan communities, directly reflecting on my experiences as a woman of colour. The need for people not to resort to assumptions about ancestry, racial and cultural identity, but rather to think again and question them is precisely the point I am trying to make.

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    • Kathy, I don’t see why you think Kavita is accusing you of a crime. She is criticsing what she sees as a lack of awareness on the part of many pagans and Goddess people, but that is hardly a crime to her.

      Yes, it may well be human to assume that people will have some awareness of their cultural ancestry, but it is not necessarily correct. My family background is Eastern European Jewish, and I do have some knowedlge of and sympathy with this. But it is not my culture. I am English born of English born parents, and England means much more to me. My sipritual ancestors are not Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav, that great sotryteller, or the author Sholem Aleichem, but William Blake and, above all, William Morris.

      And even saying I am English born of English born parents does not really identify me. I am Manchester born of Manchester born parents. Though I have lived in London for over fifty years, and not been back to Machester for many years, it is still my heritage. My accent is northern, my landscape is the Peak District, not the South Downs or the Cotswolds, the artist who best expressed my landscape is Lowry, not Constable. The football team I support – not that I have much inteest – remains Manchester United, though I recall the glory days long ago when local players were the norm.

      You should no more assume that Judaism is a major factor in my life (or Hinduism in Kavita’s) than assume that Barck Obama has some special sympathy towards Kenya.

      Most pagans, including myself, feel that people can and do have a mystical/spritual connection with the land they live in. Facists have referred to the “blood and soil” of the fatherland, and justify anti-semitism by talking of the “rootless cosmpolitanism” of Jews. The gap between the two is less than one might think, and can be crossed without noticing by moving in small steps. I would not put my trust in the goodwill even of those who, like yourself, I know to be full of goodwill. What I feel is needed, and what Kavita is calling for, is a nuanced and critical look at race and identity.

      I would like to add that I know that Asphodel and Monica regarded you as a friend, and wlecomed your work with the Goddess conference. They were both policially minded, which I think you are not. As you say, the three of you shared a love of Goddess, but expressed this in different ways.

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      • Thank you, Daniel. Speaking as a Geordie, I have a fondness for the place of my upbringing. I am spiritually attuned to different places on the planet through my incarnations and have quested in those places and cultures for the pieces of my personal Soul jigsaw. I am not saying there should not be a nuanced look at race and identity, but I am asking that its really a quest for truths rather than prejudices. with love to you

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  7. I very much look forward to reading Ms. Maya’s work particularly the use and appropriation of non-European female deities in an overwhelmingly white spiritual milieu. I would also urge any other potential researchers to revisit Glastonbury and speak to ex-members of the Goddess cult who are victimised, shunned and otherwise marginalised for speaking out against abuses.

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  8. I can’t wait to read your work Kavita. Your presentation at EASR was excellent, and I think your project of tracing the intersections between race, culture, feminism, and othering within Goddess Spirituality is intensely valuable. My own experiences of Druidry and Shamanism indicate that your findings will have wider relevance within other Pagan religious communities, too.

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  9. Hello Kavita :) I´m a Priestess and work strongly with the (various) Indian, British and Scottish spiritual traditions and heritages. Glastonbury is one of spaces that I continually return to to do ritual work, but of an different variety than what is practised more commonly there. And – in some of the same way you´re headed – I have a PhD from the UK as well :) Always nice to see a woman scholar-pracitioner straddling both worlds <3 It would be lovely to get in touch as it seems that we´re doing similar things in the world. I have written my own critiques of the (one the one hand) the ethnocentricity and (on the other) the level of cultural appropriation within the movement, published in a lovely anthology edited by Trista Hendren (you might know her from ´The Girl God´. Blessings to you as you move through the world. I would love to see your thesis once it´s published, if that´s the route you´re taking with it.

    Much Love,

    Bairavee

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  10. Kavita, I think you are doing a good job and raising questions obviously has had an effect – so well done. This is your personal journey and these are your questions to which you have every right. I always believe that the goddess is open to everything and everybody – each path of each individual is unique and the way of the feminine for me is to embrace that. Would love to read more, thank you for work and raising more awareness.

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  11. Wonderful to see Kavita’s summary of her work. Her papers and presentations have challenged me, as a Pagan and an academic, to bring those two identities closer into deconstruction and self-criticism. I have particularly found her inclusive feminist methods interesting – I use an emancipatory disability studies approach in my own work, and it is really good to see how many academic fields are now abandoning malestream concepts such as false claims to ‘objectivity’ in favour of community-focused, empowering critical research.

    It is so important that members of these movements (Goddess spirituality, Paganism and others that draw on the concepts around race, gender and other intersections that Kavita critiques) begin to look honestly and critically at the ideologies and concepts they work with – even if this is spiritually and emotionally challenging. It is particularly important that people in these movements who are white, and/or privileged in other ways, look at the ways our spiritual practices oppress others. I do not personally want to be involved in spiritual approaches that exclude and marginalise people of colour. I hope other members of the Goddess and Pagan movements feel the same.

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  12. Hi Kavita, we met briefly at the Goddess conference a couple of years ago and I was really interested to read your comments. As someone who has recently become a part of the Goddess community in Glastonbury (and finding it very life-affirming) I have been struck by the artistic aesthetic on display there. For a community claiming to celebrate the beauty in all women it is a very narrow interpretation – usually white, young, long-haired, women of generic ‘attractive’ appearance. You would be hard put to find other interpretations either on sale or on display in Goddess spaces. From my limited knowledge the exception would be the work of Carolyn Hillier who has created images of women elders – but interestingly that is in the context of women from ethnic groups in other parts of the world.

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    • Hi Mary, what a great comment! You’re definitely not alone in noticing this about the Glastonbury Goddess aesthetic – others have remarked on it too. It’s quite a contrast to the work coming out of the 1970s & 80s feminist art movement, including Monica Sjöö’s figurative paintings. It’s also very interesting to consider Carolyn Hillyer’s work in that context – she was once a protégé of Monica’s, I believe. I think the way race and ethnicity are taken up in the Goddess movement has always been a slightly problematic, complex issue; there’s so much more I plan to say about it in my thesis. This article is in part a way of introducing the politics of race, and the need for critical politics generally, to those in the movement who might be less familiar with that way of looking at the world.

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