The Beauty Way by Carol P. Christ


When I learned about the Navajo Beauty Way, I understood it to be a path in which human beings respect all beings in the web of life and live in harmony with them. But I didn’t understand why this path was called the “Beauty Way.” As a young woman, I knew that my worth was defined by many in terms of my ability to conform to ideals of female beauty promulgated in movies, tv, and advertising. I didn’t believe the Navajos were talking about beauty in that sense, but because of my conditioning, I was not yet able to fully grasp what they might mean by beauty. I would have called the way they were describing a “Way of Harmony” or a “Way of Respect for Life.”

Still, I wondered: why the Beauty Way?

Marija Gimbutas described the societies of Old Europe as peaceful, settled, agricultural, highly artistic, matrifocal and probably matrilineal, and worshipping the Goddess as the power of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. Though I am impressed with the beauty of the many small works of art Gimbutas reproduced and interpreted in The Language of the Goddess, I sometimes inadvertently omit the words “highly artistic” when repeating in her definition of the culture of Old Europe. I have tended to view the fact that Old Europe was peaceful and matrifocal as more important than the fact that it was highly artistic.Yet this judgment is wrong. In calling the cultures of Old Europe “highly artistic,” Gimbutas was trying to convey her understanding that appreciation of the beauty of life was fundamental within them.

We have been taught that “high” or “great” art is most often monumental in size. The Pyramid of Giza is over 230 meters (756 feet) tall. The Great Sphinx of Giza is 20 meters (66 feet) high. The Parthenon rose to 14 meters (45 feet) and the statue of Athena inside it was 9 to 11 meters (35-40 feet). It is telling that we use the words “high” and “great” (originally measures of size) to describe the value of artistic creations.

Statue of Athena in Parthenon reproduction in Nashville, Tennessee

The purpose of monumental works of art is to diminish the viewer, to make the her feel small, to induce her to bow down, to worship, and to obey a power or powers greater and higher than herself.

In contrast, the small scale of the art of Old Europe does not diminish anyone or anything. Its purpose is not to make anyone one want to bow down. Instead small works of art make the viewer feel comfortable, welcomed, and part of the beauty of life that is depicted.

Goddesses of Old Europe c. 5000 BCE

Marija Gimbutas viewed ancient Crete in the Bronze age as the final flowering of the culture of Old Europe. In Crete too, everything is on a small scale. Though the so-called Palaces or Sacred Centers are large, the rooms within them are small. There is not a single room where crowds could have bowed down to a King or Queen. Nor are there images of deities larger than life. The famous Minoan Snake Goddesses are less than 15 inches tall and the well-known pitcher Goddesses are even smaller. Such objects would have been held in hands during rituals or set on low benches in small rooms lit by oil lamps.

Snake Goddesses of Bronze Age Crete c. 1500 BCE

When my friend’s daughter Klia was seven years old, she spent her afternoons collecting stones by the sea. One day I asked her if the stones spoke to her. “Of course,” she replied. “What do they say?” “They say, ‘we are very beautiful.’”

Heart of stones in Lesbos

Klia intuited the meaning of the Beauty Way. It has nothing to do with artificial beauty standards. It has nothing to do with size. It is recognizing beauty everywhere and in everything. When we do so, we walk in beauty, in the grace and joy of life. And yes, the Beauty Way has ethical implications, for no one who truly recognizes beauty could want to harm it. This was understood by the Navajos, the Old Europeans, and the ancient Cretans, and many others. Only we seem to have forgotten. We can remember.

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator living in Molivos, Lesbos, who volunteers with Starfish Foundation that helps refugees, assisting with writing and outreach. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Join Carol  on the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Feminist Theology, General

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18 replies

  1. Imagine what our world would be like if everyone practiced the beauty way! Thank you for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a thought-provoking essay, Carol. You have drawn a distinction that I’ve never thought of before—the use of monuments to diminish the human sense of worth. That’s one of the aspects of patriarchal religion I’ve always despised, although without articulating it as you have done. In one of my novels the protagonist repudiates the religion of her childhood for making her feel “worthless because she was human and evil because she was female.”

    When I read “The Spiral Dance” for the first time I felt I had come home. All my life I have been conscious of beauty, usually the beauty of nature. Having had the privilege of visiting many countries, I’ve had the opportunity to feel the impact of beauty in many forms.Now that I’m old, one of the joys of my daily life is finding beauty in old women, babies, and children as well as in the natural world.

    Blessed be.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you Karolina for this reminder of beauty everywhere. I shall start singing the Navajo song as I walk through nature as we used to do together on pilgrimage in Crete and on our happy walks in Lesbos. I want to walk the beauty way again with you!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beauty!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I hadn’t thought before “of the use of monuments to diminish the human sense of worth”, but it is so true and explains so much! Thank you, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Carol — that heart carefully assembled with small stones from nature absolutely priceless in our time — nature, the environment, is what we need to worship, love and care for always.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The way is indeed beautiful, and the artifacts of the civilization of the Goddess small and beautiful enough to be approachable and holdable. I, too, have a bunch of reproductions and a whole collection of stones. Thanks for writing this. It’s a good reminder that there is and always has been beauty in our world, a reminder we desperately need in these awful, ugly days. Brightest blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this, Carol. Now I can explain more articulately why I prefer Avebury to Stonehenge. I love the Neolithic figurines, and this explains why.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A beautiful post with so many insights to think about. I’ve been considering architecture recently, so I’m glad you mentioned about the small rooms in the “Palaces or Sacred Centers.” Like the art you mention, so much of our public architecture was built to convey a message that the institution is what is important and the humans inside the building are not. I’m thinking especially of the classical architecture of so many of the Victorian public buildings that many people find majestic, but I just find oppressive. What kind of a world would we live in if architecture had developed to follow the example of ancient Crete and feature small rooms, especially if they were designed in a way to connect people with each other and the environment, rather than to create larger buildings to overwhelm and isolate people!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fascinating post, Carol. I never thought about statues being large so viewers would feel insignificant, but it makes sense, especially in patriarchal societies that value those people and institutions that have power over others.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your thoughts on the Beauty Way are so beautifully put. And your articulation of the meaning behind monumental works of art expresses what I have felt without words in place for a long time. In fact your statement “The purpose of monumental works of art is to diminish the viewer, to make the her feel small, to induce her to bow down, to worship, and to obey a power or powers greater and higher than herself.” can be looked at even more deeply when we look at Contemporary Art and what makes its way into museums, etc. I have felt for a long time that much of contemporary art makes the viewer feel small and stupid because it is so obscure and hard to understand. Your thoughts give perfect words to my feelings.

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  11. Wonderful essay Carol. And, as usual you hit the nail on the head.
    “It is recognizing beauty everywhere and in everything. When we do so, we walk in beauty, in the grace and joy of life.” Thank goodness for you and for FAR.

    Like

  12. Is the answer matriarchy? Sometimes I wonder if traditional cultures are considered matriarchal simply because they were balanced, as in, not patriarchal, as some Native American Indian cultures have been described to me. Not patrilineal economics, either. Maybe beauty is in balance? Thanks for the interesting post.

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    • I have some blogs on this issue, if you are interested, search matriarchy on this site. The short answer is that matriarchies are egalitarian and that they place maternal values such as care and generosity at the center.

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      • It sounds as though the term ‘matriarchy’ does not mean that women are in charge, but rather, the term is being used to describe balanced and egalitarian societies, in which people of all genders share leadership and other roles. I sort of wonder if matriarchy is actually an accurate term. I will check out your other posts, as well, thanks.

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      • Tallessyn, the key is that these societies place mothers and maternal values at the center. They teach everyone that caring and generosity are the highest values, not reserved for women, but for all.Boys are not to be different from girls, but to be as loving and caring as mothers.

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  13. This is beautiful, Carol. Thank you for sharing.

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