I served as general editor for the recently published Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture Across History (2018/19 ABC-CLIO). It was an honor and a pleasure to work with a hundred and thirty wonderful scholars, many with expertise in female divinities. In working with a publishing house on this project, I negotiated for the capitalization of Goddess and other terms for the Female Divine.
‘I recommend not capitalizing “goddess”’ – was the first reply I got on this question. It came from Anne, the development editor assigned to the project. Negotiations ensued.
Three years later, when entering the final stage of production, I drafted an email to the then-current development editor (the third since the project began). “It is especially important to our contributors that Goddess/es be capitalized,” I wrote. All 287 articles had been accepted and I was finishing up the Introduction. The prospect of sending the manuscript for copyediting made me nervous. What would be changed and how much say would I have in the final edits? I added a note to my message, saying I had an agreement with Anne about capitalizing Goddess/es, and clicked “send.” The reply came: “Please send the email from Anne.”
There are rules to the use of language that in general we must use if we want others to understand us. These are conventions and they can be changed. The capitalization of Goddess in the English language is not yet a rule, though it should be. Two randomly selected examples demonstrate common usage. The first is Inventing and Reinventing the Goddess (Lexington Books, 2014). Taking Chapter 8 as a sample, there are 80 instances of either goddess or goddesses, all in lower case. In the second example, “The Ancient Women’s Olympics by Harita Meenee” (May 20, 2019, Magoism.net), Mother Goddess is capitalized but the goddess is not.
As editor of the Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions, I saw it as one of my tasks to raise up Goddess/es in the minds of readers, and to honor the reverence held by many of our contributors and readers for female divinity. It was clear to me that conventions reflected a devaluation of Goddess. Writers would capitalize names of Goddesses due to the rule of capitalizing proper nouns. But for many reasons Goddess was not capitalized. Both by convention and by rules set out in style guides, Goddess was not equal to God.
Though my first exchange with Anne was not promising, ultimately all the editors I worked with were open to finding a solution that worked.
Anne and I did some research. I consulted the Chicago Manual of Style, early contributors to the project, and conventions for capitalizing divine beings and references to them in google and library searches.
One of the first examples I saw illustrated why lower-case goddess was so entrenched. It was a community college English Department handout which instructed,
Deity references: Ex: God; the Messiah; Allah. Note: Do not capitalize god or goddess when referring to pagan deities.
Since Goddesses are typically found only in polytheism, I wondered – are the goddesses here Pagan because they are from the ancient world, or are they Pagan because they are not the one God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? Does this rule – either intentionally or practically – lead to not capitalizing references to all deities of the past, present, and future other than the one God? This practice seems to effectively colonize polytheistic religions.
A good example for capitalization was the 10th edition of Many Peoples, Many Faiths (R. Ellwood and B. McGraw, Routledge 2013), which capitalized Goddess and God, singular and plural, in almost all instances. As a university textbook, it shared something in common with an encyclopedia intended for university libraries. I praised it to Anne as a good example and hoped it would hold some authority in favor of capitalization.
Anne tried to stick to the style manual but was forced by its limited examples to expand her view: it included God as the name of a divinity but did not include Goddess or the Goddess in any context. Was Goddess a name, a title, or something else?
In the end, Anne and I came to an agreement that would serve us well: we would apply to Goddess the ways that God is capitalized. This “rule” gave strength to later arguments for a variety of ways to capitalize, and therefore honor, the Goddess.
The Chicago Manual of Style allowed for capitalization of “alternative or descriptive names for God as supreme being.” Examples included the Trinity, the Good Shepherd, the Supreme Being. This could be applied to Mother Goddess, Goddess of the Underworld, and other descriptive names for Goddesses. The manual also allowed the option of capitalizing revered persons and included Mother of God and the Blessed Virgin as examples.
I sent my agreement with Anne to editor #3 and included some notes. I argued that “God” is capitalized in most contexts, and it is therefore disrespectful to not capitalize “Goddess” in various contexts simply because doing so is confusing for the author/editor.
One claim made by those who argue against capitalization is that Goddess is a common noun. However, with minor exceptions (a goddess, many goddesses), Goddess is a name just like God is a name. Likewise, Goddesses is a grouped name. And, just as God is a stand-in for Yahweh or Allah, Goddesses, the Divine, and the Divine Feminine are all stand-in’s for the many named deities.
Editor #3 replied. He agreed to give the copyeditor the information I sent, along with instructions to follow my suggestions.
Conventions for the word Goddess are in flux, but lower case is still the norm. As with many issues, feminists are obliged to take a pickaxe to the frozen ground, one stroke at a time. References to Goddesses in the Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions number in the thousands, all capitalized. These are thousands of small and one large victory.
The encyclopedia received the award Best Reference Book of 2018 — Library Journal. Book reviews are welcome! Hardcover: 978-1-4408-4849-0; eBook: 978-1-4408-4850-6
Susan de Gaia teaches Religion and Philosophy online for Central Michigan University and is General Editor of Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture across History (ABC-CLIO, 2018/2019). Susan lives in California and is active in social and environmental justice, peace, and women’s spirituality movements. She works locally to promote environmental sustainability, cultural diversity, and political action. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion-Social Ethics with a Graduate Certificate in the Study of Women and Men in Society (USC), and B.A. in Women’s Studies (UCSB).