Advocating Respect for Goddess by Susan de Gaia


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.  

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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

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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).



Categories: Books, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Goddess

Tags: ,

26 replies

  1. Capitalizing Goddess is a struggle in the Pagan community. Consistency even in ritual scripts doesn’t exist. As a writer of public ritual for children, teens, and adults, I am going to take your inspiration and always capitalize Goddess.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love it! Consistency on capitalizing Goddess is lacking between the writers and even within the writing of some particular authors. It is a good place to start, by making our own writing consistent in giving equal or greater respect to female divinities by always capitalizing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this excellent post! In my own writing I always capitalize the word “Goddess.” Glad to learn that you are persuading others in the publishing world to do the same. As you say, it is important.

    On the blogs I frequent, I habitually use such exclamations or interjections as, “Dear Goddess,” “thank Goddess, or “Great Mother!”

    The funny thing is, without perhaps consciously realizing it, my fellow posters on the blogs also use those terms now. It’s interesting to note the amount of influence a single individual can possess. To me, the statement, “Thank Goddess it rained, the flowers certainly needed it,” sounds perfectly natural.

    One day it may sound perfectly natural to everyone.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you for your comment. It is really interesting to me to learn of your experiences as a writer and blogger. I remember that it felt strange to me years ago to hear “Oh my Goddess!” or similar phrases. That is no longer the case for me, and that change was influenced by the way that others were and are using the language. I’m sure that some language experts could explain how language speakers and writers change the language over time and how this reflects evolving attitudes and ideas.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I have been using lower case for deities of both genders, including the first person of the trinity. Your post is causing me to reconsider. Thanks for this concise and thoughtful piece.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you Elizabeth. I look forward to seeing if your usage changes in the future. Using lower case for God was not an option in this project. This work is intended to give voice and bring into written history the faith practices of women throughout history in all religions (though we could not cover them all). The male deities that many women worship are highly revered. I could no more disrespect them by changing God to lower case than I could disrespect others by leaving female deities lower case. I get the revolutionary act of changing God to lower case in feminist writing. In this case, it would have been hurtful to many women.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a tendency to capitalize Goddess when I am talking about an individual ( feminine face of god) but to use the lower case when referring to goddesses in general…Hmm, like Elizabeth this excellent post has give me pause…Thanks

    I am also very curious to hear what others have to say.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, it’s interesting to me too to read the responses!

      The question I have for you is, Is Goddesses really a general term? I used in the article above, the term “grouped name” to explain why, for me, Goddesses is a reference to the many named female deities.

      This evolved from looking at how God is considered a name of a deity (as stated in the Chicago Manual of Style) and how the primary reason for giving Goddess/es lower case treatment seems to be because it is part of a plural system.

      Feminism promotes our evolution away from colonialism and into globalism. That evolution has already changed the way we recognize polytheistic religions as thriving and deeply sophisticated systems rather than the now outmoded view of them as primitive. Our language is often slower to change than our attitudes.

      Like

  5. Excellent! Good for you for making Goddess equal (at least) to God. I have always capitalized Found Goddesses, but when I use either goddess or god as a generic term, I leave it lowercase. I also decline to capitalize “the standard-brand god,” the appellation I made up about 20 or 30 years ago. The more we capitalize Goddess in our books and other works, the more people may pay attention to Her. Did you negotiate pronouns, too? Thanks for your good work and persuasive ways with publishers and editors. You get today’s gold star.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Barbara, for your kind comment. I’m glad you brought up pronouns. The first development editor, Anne, said that this publisher does not capitalize pronouns and I left it alone. I don’t mind leaving the pronouns lower case, and the blanket rule on this means that all of what is sacred to everyone gets the same treatment.

      Have you found that using lower case for what you consider generic results in equal treatment? In my experience, Goddess is seen as generic in a lot more cases than is God. This tends to result in greater capitalization for God and less for Goddess. If you are not using “God” as a name, however, as you mention regarding what you call the standard brand, that would not happen.

      Liked by 3 people

      • As you might guess, the standard-brand god refers to Jehovah, Yahveh, Allah, and, well, the biblical god. God. As I remember, Chicago says don’t capitalize “he” referring to God. I’ll stick with that directive, but my habit is to capitalize Goddess pronouns to show I’m not talking about just any female in any pantheon, but about the Mother Goddess in any of Her forms or incarnations. It’s probably a (minor) protest against the Abrahamic religions. Does this make sense?

        Liked by 3 people

    • Barbara, I refuse to capitalize male god anything … maybe that’s why I was going with the lower case for goddesses in general…hmmm

      Liked by 1 person

      • Do you also use lowercase to refer to the old gods like Osiris or Zeus? I like the former, but I don’t much like the Greco-Roman gods because most of them were rapists. I don’t know enough about the Germanic and Norse gods to have a sensible opinion. But, yes, I agree that lowercase pronouns for gods is right, at least for people like us. Haha.

        Who else in this community cares to join this conversation? We need more opinions.

        Liked by 2 people

        • yes, we need lots of opinions – Naming is critical – to answer your question Barbara I do use capital letters for gods like Zeus and Osiris and didn’t even realize it… like you i find most of the Greco – Roman gods repellent….same is true for Germanic and norse gods – have a background in mythology – but coming to this point was a long process. I am deeply grateful for having alternate gods to consider – it helped me break the – Judeo – Christian spell. And I am still learning… in the future I am going to try to be a lot more careful about captitalizing

          Like

  6. Susan, I went through the same thing with my editor of Sacred Places of Goddess back in 2005. We went round and round as you did. Ultimately, my male editor put it to a group of editor peers of his. Maybe he just wanted some “cover” because I put up a strong fight! It was interesting the replies ran along gender lines. All the female editors voted to capitalize Goddess. We capitalized Goddess in the book.

    And I might mention a peve of mine…..I hate when She is referred to in writing as the Goddess. We don’t ever say the God. Appreciated your interview on Voices of the Sacred Feminine….where readers can go if they want to hear more about your process of writing this wonderful book!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for your comment, Karen. And thanks for being part of the change.

      Regarding Goddess vs. the Goddess, I found that the more I worked with the terms, the more I dropped the “the.” Again, it seems to be a matter of getting comfortable with something that is still new, and yet very very old.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Surprised me, my American Heritage Dictionary (on my computer) uses the lower case goddess, but in the meaning of the word, it says:
    “A female being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people…often Goddess.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, it’s interesting to me too to read the responses!

    The question I have for you is, Is Goddesses really a general term? I used in the article above, the term “grouped name” to explain why, for me, Goddesses is a reference to the many named female deities.

    This evolved from looking at how God is considered a name of a deity (as stated in the Chicago Manual of Style) and how the primary reason for giving Goddess/es lower case treatment seems to be because it is part of a plural system.

    Feminism promotes our evolution away from colonialism and into globalism. That evolution has already changed the way we recognize polytheistic religions as thriving and deeply sophisticated systems rather than the now outmoded view of them as primitive. Our language is often slower to change than our attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I thought about this when I researched my thesis on the Goddess movement. I decided to capitalize the word “Goddess” in my thesis. The librarian at my seminary was the one who edited the theses and she didn’t have a problem with me capitalizing the word Goddess.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. In my book _The World is Your Oracle: Divinatory Practices for Tapping your Inner Wisdom_,I used “God,” Goddess,” Gods,” and “Goddesses.” I remember needing to give some reason for this, but there wasn’t much push-back from my publisher Fair Winds Press.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. great analysis Susan. I always capitalize and did throughout my book PaGaian Cosmology, for similar reasons as you explain so well here. I also avoid “the” Goddess, since I consider Her a name for Deity. One little excerpt from p.39
    “… I will at times speak of many particular Goddesses with a capital ‘g’ – Demeter or Persephone for example, all of whom for me partake in the Female Metaphor; they are particular conflagrations of, are holons of, the Female Metaphor. I will use a capital “g” even for these particular Goddesses, partly for political reasons, that is, so Their Divinity is remembered; but also signifying that I am not simply speaking of an archetype of the Olympian pantheon. As evidence suggests, long before the Goddesses were colonized, married off, raped and caught in sordid plots against each other, they were faces of a Matrix and a Cosmic Power….”

    Liked by 1 person

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