Goddess Politics and the Cauldron of Memory by Kavita Maya


KavitaMaya‘Someone needs to gather the stories, to keep the cauldron,’ said the late Goddess feminist artist Lydia Ruyle during one of the last times we spoke, at the 2014 Glastonbury Goddess Conference. I had hinted at my concerns around conducting doctoral research in the presence of ongoing conflict within the Glastonbury Goddess community (especially when my broadly-stated site of interest is ‘politics’), and in reply she had stressed the need to ‘hold space’ for the different voices and perspectives in the UK Goddess movement, and that conflict would be inevitable. ‘There needs to be a weaver,’ she said.

The following day I recorded an interview with Lydia and some of her friends at Café Galatea on the High Street, which she had been keen to ensure since the previous summer—with poignant foresight, given her death in March 2016. I’m not sure if she was expecting that I should fully take on the role of this ‘weaver’—there are more stories than one PhD thesis can claim to encompass—but the theme is present in my writing. Her words lead me to reflect on the weaving together of politics with memory and storytelling, and on the need to honour the plural histories of the British Goddess movement.

Several years ago, one of my first considerations when designing fieldwork was how to understand the role of the Glastonbury Goddess community, currently the UK’s most visible site for Goddess spirituality, within a longer history. At that point the development of what I tend to call the ‘early’ UK Goddess movement seemed far more obscure to me than it does now—my thesis discusses its formation within 1970s and 80s socialist-feminist networks through the work of Asphodel Long, Monica Sjöö and other activists.

During fieldwork in Glastonbury, I met both town residents and people within the Goddess community who associated my research solely with the Glastonbury Goddess Temple community itself (known locally as ‘the Goddesses’), with no sense of the feminist significance of a ‘Goddess movement’, its history within the UK, or its connections to a larger Western feminist spirituality movement. Not everybody—but enough to remind me of the need to represent multiple stories within and beyond Glastonbury, and to re-weave the threads of the movement’s feminist history.

A recurrent topic arising in conversations with participants from 1970s-80s Goddess networks was that women drawn to Goddess spirituality today are less likely to associate the movement with politics. One person even expressed nostalgia when I used the phrase ‘spiritual feminism’, saying she hadn’t heard it ‘for many years’. The importance of recording the history of various aspects of the Goddess movement, including the Matriarchy Study Group and the movement’s association with radical and socialist feminism, was raised by several Goddess feminists I spoke with, in particular Lydia Ruyle and Daniel Cohen (who has contributed here on FAR), a close friend of Asphodel Long and Monica Sjöö.

Also noteworthy to me is the fracture between present-day Goddess spirituality and contemporary feminist ideas and networks. Some research participants located their active engagement with feminism in the past, as a completed stage in their life histories, while a few saw feminism itself as belonging in the past, with ‘spirituality’ its successor. (For those disengaged from it, I want to emphasise that feminist movement has continued to flourish and diversify, contrary to reports of its 20th-century demise.) With one, maybe two participants I was able to hold lengthy conversations about racial politics in the Goddess movement, while for the most part feminist expressions were non-intersectional. (I have introduced my work within a framework of intersectional feminist critique in a previous post.)

The importance of recognising that our collective stories are never singular is central to my understanding of feminist ethics. Stories are plural, multi-faceted and always political—in the sense of historically as well as socially embedded, related to power in ways that are gendered, ableist, raced and classed. The changing way we tell our shared stories in the present—what we collectively remember or forget—deserves careful attention, whether or not individuals choose to define themselves as activists.

While ‘weaving’ my thesis, something I have tried to keep in mind is how the stories we tell include or exclude others, marginalise some narratives but support others, both within the plural histories of the UK Goddess movement, but also in terms of broader questions of race and gender. For example, since the history of Britain is highly racialised, how Pagans and Goddess feminists tell stories about Britain’s past, their ‘ancestry’, their relationship to the land in which they live and their understandings of spirituality are also often racialised, perhaps in ways invisible to them (depending on their socio-historical position).

The critical component in my work has to do with examining the patterns woven through the movement’s historical and present forms, explaining how they carry traces of the past, and how they might shape the future. The point is that individually and collectively, turning away from the plurality of our communities and our shared, complicated histories tends to result in the repetition of harmful patterns, the repetition of silencing and marginalisation.

While writing this article I found myself thinking of the mother of the Nine Muses of creativity, Mnemosyne, Greek goddess of memory, a figure representing the capacity for profound re-imagination: what we remember and how we remember shape the politics of the present, but could also offer us the creative resources to tell stories differently, to transform the future—whether of a community, a movement, or a country.

 

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, Gender, Gender and Power, General, Goddess Movement, Goddess Spirituality, Power relations, Race and Religion, Relationality

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18 replies

  1. Expanding the conversation to the US, I have noticed that some of the younger pagan women who write on Witches and Pagans are devoted to male warrior Gods, with no apparent recognition that such Gods not only promote male dominance in all its forms, but also legitimize warfare. Severing Goddess and Pagan spirituality from a comprehensive feminist analysis not only precludes analysis of multiple forms of domination within societies (including those that were or are “Pagan”), but also erases the Goddess feminist opposition to all forms of warfare. Just because a Goddess is female does not make her a truly liberating figure, as many Goddesses have been shaped to support patriarchy with all of its isms and war. And this is even more true of Pagan Gods. Zeus is a serial rapist, for example, and an uncritical adoption of Hellenism or Greek deities does not even begin to criticize the ways the Greek deities were shaped in the image of patriarchy, war, early colonialism, racism, and on and on.

    And no the patriarchal deities are not archetypes of the psyche. They are propaganda created to shape the psyche to accept male domination, all domination, and war as eternal and in the nature of things.

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    • I agree, there needs to be much more feminist analysis in Paganism generally. It seems to vary a lot among the Pagans I’ve met, some are politically aware, others talk about a lack of “balance” and seem unaware of the history of feminist politics, and there are people who are somewhere in between!
      I also think we need to discourage the idea that myths and ‘archetypes’ are somehow timeless and eternal, rather than shaped by the power structures in which their stories are told and retold.

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    • Right on, Carol! Especially about the serial rapists.

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      • I agree completely. My last article for SageWoman concerned how patriarchy deformed Devi, usually known as Durga, making Her into a battle goddess. This issue will include my retelling of Her myth from a (speculative) pre-patriarchal perspective. And in earlier SageWoman articles I looked at how patriarchy diminished Demeter/Persephone and Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess.

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  2. Another tantalising foretaste of your research Kavita. Your engagement with Lydia Ruyle’s exhortation is profound. The theme of the weaver is an excellent one to incorporate into any ethnographic account; univocality almost never exists in reality, and attending to the complexity of public discourse is a vital step before critical analysis can be undertaken.

    Your remarks on the (often implicit) figuring of race in British Paganism and Goddess Feminism are well made, and I think has a significant role in constituting certain kinds of imaginaries that – as you rightly point out – serve to simplify our common history and obscure the our plural identities. I’ve often found in my own research that this also serves the purpose of letting Druids escape, rather than confront, the racist legacy of colonialism, and the implicatedness of white people (almost all British druids I’ve met are white) in that legacy. A further eddy of complexity in my own fieldwork, and a further site of comparison, might be the relationship between Druidry and Irishness; many Druids are Irish, and Irish heritage has influenced Druidry quite a bit. Naturally privilege and marginalisation intersect quite differently in this case, and the contrast with the notable absence of black british people, and of their history, in Druidry is quite stark.

    Food for thought!

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    • Thanks for commenting! I’m happy to encourage discussion about race in contemporary Paganism. What I wonder (and write about) is, why the attraction to a cultural imaginary almost exclusively associated with an idealised ancient past, that seems determined to evade recent histories and the way these histories have shaped contemporary British / European / Western identities? Colonialism happened and it can’t be ignored or whitewashed without excluding the present-day political realities of people of colour.
      I also think the relationship between Druidry and Irish identity might be slightly more complicated in that respect and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

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  3. Thank you Kvita Maya. I am moved by your expression, “feminist spirituality.”

    The term could indicate any religious or mystical path, which at the same time advocates or supports the rights and equality of women. And that’s why I love the yin-yang in Taoism, it’s the closest I think we could come to a spiritual path with that kind of consistent gender balance. And if you look at the TAO symbol, with its “S” shape division through the middle, the two sides are absolutely equal.

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    • Apology, misspelled your name, sorry Kavita!

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      • Thanks for your comment, Sarah. Feminist spirituality does indeed encompass a broad range of paths and ways of doing spirituality/politics. It tends to be associated with the concept of the ‘Goddess’ in the Western world in a lot of writing, but doesn’t have to be exclusively associated with this…and I think it is increasingly important to understand it as an inclusive term.

        I am wary of associating it with the idea of ‘gender balance’, because this can normalise the idea of a natural, complementary masculine / feminine, which often still supports sexist ideas (the idea that certain things are inherently feminine, or masculine, etc.), and it marginalises non-heterosexual people and non-binary gender identities, and anyone who doesn’t conform to socially dominant ideas of what women and men should be. To me, feminist politics has more to do with an ongoing movement towards liberation from the traditional gender structures which support sexism (and its intersecting forms of oppression). But then again, I haven’t studied Taoism, so perhaps this idea of balance is open to a gender-fluid interpretation, depending on the practitioner!

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  4. Great post, Kavita. Thank you. I immediately thought of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian writer, thinker, speaker. In a recent Ted talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en#t-31643, she addresses the subject you also write about. Many think the institutionalized story is THE story. She expounds on the reality that there is not just one story.

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    • The talk by Adichie is brilliant – thanks for the link! This is very much what I’m trying to get at when writing about race and culture in Paganism and the Goddess movement. I saw some bizarre stereotyping and ‘Othering’ going on during my fieldwork – I’ll think about how to share on this topic in more detail in a future post.

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  5. As an older goddess and feminist, I think it’s very important NOT to separate the two – goddess and feminist – because as Carol Christ mentions in her response it is too easy to fall into old patterns worshiping male and female warrior deities that are patriarchal constructs. I see this happening with younger women who, without realizing it, are acting out and passing along patriarchy’s domination themes.

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  6. Thanks for interviewing, writing, thinking, and posting. I’m hoping you will turn your thesis into a book. Our younger women will need to read that book.

    Do you see “spiritual feminism” and “feminist spirituality” as the same thing? I do.

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    • Thank you! It’s still some way off, but I would love to publish a book eventually.

      Language can be tricky but yes, I see them more or less as the same thing. I tend to use ‘feminist spirituality’ more often, though.

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  7. Good post, Kavita. Privilege blinds people. You don’t have to know about the “other” if you don’t want to. In fact, it takes quite a bit of work to begin to understand the perspectives of people who aren’t like you. That being said, it’s important for us in the Goddess Movement to make that effort and not unthinkingly reproduce the dominant biases of our own culture.

    The conversation here about reproducing patriarchy’s themes of domination reminds me of a fascinating discussion that I facilitated when I was teaching the Women and Science Fiction class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Our main question in this class was whether or not the various subgenres of fantasy and science fiction were able to be used as vehicles for feminist exploration. When we got to “sword and sorcery,” the class was divided. Most of them believed that a narrative that was based on warfare was incapable of being feminist. But a sizable minority — those who also were football fans (I knew this from our daily check-ins) — disagreed. I sided with the majority, but it makes me wonder about the breadth of feminism, because I KNOW that all of the women in this class considered themselves feminist. I.e. must we be pacifist to be feminist?

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    • “Must we be pacifist to be feminist?” Interesting question here, Nancy!

      I think we don’t have to agree as feminists always and a good back and forth dialogue can be helpful. But also there comes a time when your partner gives you a reminder that maybe you are messing something up foolishly. And because you know your partner is looking out for you, that reminder can be very helpful. That’s how I see the give and take in feminism also, we don’t all have to take the same side, though we do need certainly to dialogue.

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      • I would say that feminists should recognize the connections between patriarchy and war, war and all forms of dominance. And that rape is an ordinary part of war, and that slaves are taken during wars. Enough said?

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