I have been asked to post my contribution to the Parliament of World Religions Webinar: Dignity of Women Across World’s Wisdom.
I am participating in this discussion as a representative of women who are on a Goddess path. I do not represent any established or newly formed religious or spiritual tradition. Rather I speak for an increasingly large number of women who are seeking alternatives to established traditions that celebrate and legitimate male power as power over or domination. We do not follow leaders or gurus and we place no trust in any sacred texts.
Most of us have grown up in cultures where the most prominent religious traditions feature male Gods, male teachers, and male religious leaders. We agree with Mary Daly who said that when God is male the male is God. In traditions where God is male, male teachers and religious leaders are viewed as reflecting or being in the image of the male divinity. We do not assume that images of God as male are never valid, but we do assert the need for images of God as female.
As I said in my often re-published essay, “Why Women Need the Goddess,” the most important meaning conveyed by the symbol of Goddess as the ultimate creative power in the universe is that female power is legitimate and good. This does not mean that female power is always good, but it clearly undermines the widely held view that female power exercised apart from male control is always evil or bad. This view is reinforced by images of women as evil in religious traditions, for example, Eve seduced by the snake.
While we have sought images of Goddesses that affirm female power, we have also discovered that many Goddess traditions have been manipulated in patriarchal contexts: Goddesses and the symbols and stories associated with them are used to affirm male power as domination as the only legitimate and good power in the universe. Thus, the Greek Goddess Athena asserts in the Oresteia that she sides with the man in all things because she was born from the head of her father Zeus.
If we are seeking Goddess traditions that affirm female power, we must excavate further. The archaeologist Maria Gimbutas coined the term Old Europe to refer to the peaceful, artistic, agricultural, matrifocal, matrilineal, and probably matrilocal cultures of the Neolithic period (about 6500-3500 BCE), cultures that worshipped the Goddess as the power of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. The peaceful Neolithic societies were overthrown by Indo-European speaking warrior groups that invaded Europe on horseback between about 4400 and 2500 BCE, bringing with them a patriarchal, patrilineal, and warlike culture that worshipped the shining Gods of the sky. Gimbutas’ hypothesis was rejected by classicists and archaeologists because—as I have argued—she asserted that the Greeks were not the first rational men and that the warlike male dominant culture they created and passed on to us is not the highest culture ever developed on the face of the earth. Gimbutas’ hypothesis of Indo-European invasions is now being confirmed by DNA research.
The Goddess we seek is not the mirror image of the all-powerful and dominating Father God. The Goddess we seek symbolizes the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all life processes, human and other than human, and is a symbol of the interconnection of all beings in the web of life. Images that affirm the interconnection of all beings in the web of life can offer guidance as we face the consequences of our false belief that human beings can and should control nature—consequences being played out in global climate change, extinction of species, and ecological devastation.
In Rebirth of the Goddess, I offer Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments.
Walk in love and beauty.
Trust the knowledge that comes through the body.
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what you need.
Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
Repair the web.
The first touchstone, “nurture life,” is the foundation of the others. Nurturing life is practiced by mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, aunts, uncles, and others the world around. It is not only a human value: nurturing of life is deeply rooted in the life experience of mothers, and in some species, fathers, in the animal world. Because mothering is rooted in our animal past, many consider nurturing life to be trivial or at best the physical foundation of so-called “higher” values. But I assert that to nurture life is the “highest value” and that all other values must be judged by whether or not they promote life, not only for ourselves and for those closest to us, but for all human beings and for the web of life as a whole.
As the inventors of agriculture, pottery, and weaving in the Neolithic period, women were honored for their wisdom. Women as a group were spiritual leaders, passing on the mysteries of transformation involved in agriculture, pottery, and weaving through songs, stories, and rituals.
I would like to share with you the meanings inscribed in an ancient Cretan Goddess vessel (most likely created by a woman) dated about 2200 BCE.
Gimbutas stated that “The beaked and winged figure has nipples that are actually spouts, she is covered in bands of white-painted zig-zags and parallel lines. Note her enormous eyes, another Divine Source.” When used in rituals, water or other liquid pours from nipples of the vessel connecting the breasts of mothers to the Divine Source. Female images from Paleolithic and Neolithic Old Europe frequently have “pinched” faces that represent the “beak” of the bird Goddess. This vessel has “wings” rather than “arms.” The “breasts” of this image are not birdlike, for birds are not mammals. But birds make nests, lay eggs, and feed their young.” “Breasts” and “birds” both symbolize the “Source of Life.” The zig-zag is one of the earliest symbols created by human beings. Gimbutas concluded that the zig-zag is a symbol for water. This connects the zig-zags on the vessel with “water” as the Source of Life. The “Eyes of the Goddess” are another Source from which water flows.
This vessel is also a symbol of the Mountain Mother. Crete is defined by high mountains that surround hills and valleys, framing the landscape as people go about their daily tasks. In her autobiography, environmental activist Wangari Maathai described her people’s traditional understanding of the sacred mountain: “Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or the Place of Brightness, and the second-highest peak in Africa, was a sacred place. Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. … As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing.” The triangular shape of the vessel suggests the shape of a mountain. Its color and patterning mimic the bedrock of Crete, a grey marl with cracks filled in with white mineral deposits. The rectangles with lines at the bottom of the vessel are the fertile fields at the foot of the mountain. We know that ancient Cretans worshiped on mountain tops. Some say the King ascended to a high place to survey his realm, but isn’t it more likely that the people were honoring the Mountain Mother as the Source of Life?
The full dignity of women is affirmed in the Goddess path I have described. What needs to be advanced is the understanding that not all wisdom is to be found in the religious and spiritual traditions of patriarchal cultures. We need to open our ears and listen to women who are seeking wisdom from the earth. Blessed be.
Parts of this presentation were previously published in blogs on Feminism and Religion.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.