Opinion: Goddess in Times of Horror

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“My spirituality has always been linked to my feminism. Feminism is about challenging unequal power structures. So, it also means challenging inequalities in race, class, sexual preference. What we need to be doing is not just changing who holds power, but changing the way we conceive of power.”Starhawk

I first became a Pagan because it promised me enchantment, wonder, a break from the dull Midwestern monotheist underpinning of where I grew up. A world full of magic, and gods. A world that I was taught was long dead, a superstitious delusion by ancient ancestors too dim to conceive of the One God’s true nature and full expression (ie Christianity). However, I stayed a Pagan because it also promised me a world, a culture, remade. A world where multiplicity, diversity, was honored. A world where a singular, all-powerful, male-pronouned, deity was replaced with innumerable pantheons of powers. A world where there was Goddess. Not just one Goddess, but a million goddesses.

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis.

When I first embraced modern Paganism in 1990, I entered a religious movement that was already several decades into the project of changing the face of religion. After the first rush of basic instructional books, as religious Witchcraft crossed the pond from Britain to North America, the inherent radical nature of there simply being a living Goddess easily cross-pollinated with a still-vibrant second-wave feminism and influenced a generation of still-influential writers like Starhawk, Margot Adler, Carol Christ, and many more. Some scholars predicted that the rise of feminism within a religious context, both from within the dominant monotheisms, and from the rising “new” faiths, spelled the end of Patriarchy as a system of cultural control.

“The women’s movement will bring about religious changes on a massive scale. These changes will no be restricted to small numbers of individuals practicing nonsexist religions within a sexist society. Society itself will be transformed to the point that it will no longer be a patriarchy. For if men are no longer supreme rulers on earth, how could one expect them to retain sovereignty in heaven?” – Naomi R. Goldenberg, “Changing of the Gods: Feminism & The End of Traditional Religions”

Goldenberg, a professor of religious studies, wrote that in the late 1970s, at a time when it seemed like feminism really would permanently shift Western culture. However, while some important advances for women were made, the dismantling of patriarchy would hit a cultural and political backlash in the 1980s. Since then, the feminist movement was slurred as extremist, with the very term becoming contentious in some circles, and every further advance by women seemed to be met by an increasingly crazed and angry subculture of men. The more this culture of harassment and abuse was pointed out, the more the discussion turned to the reality of a rape culture, the more toxic the responses seemed to get.

It is within this current atmosphere that the horrific shooting massacre in Isla Vista, California, claiming six victims, plus the alleged shooter, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, takes place. In online videos and a manifesto the alleged killer is very clear as to why he feels he must go out and kill women.

“The Second Phase will represent my War on Women. I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away. I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts. I will attack the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender.”

As Dr. Jill McDevitt points out, this is a hate crime against a gender, carried out in a culture where “many men are socialized young to believe they are owed sex and attention from women.” 

“This was a hate crime. This was an act of violence committed against victims that were were, or were sympathetic to, a group of people (in this case, women) in which the motivation for the violence was simply that they were a part of that group. That’s a hate crime. A gender based hate crime.”

It all seems like a dark, twisted, verification of author Margaret Atwood’s assertion that “men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Here is the exposed underbelly of cultural control of women exposed at its most raw, its most violent. Here are the violent fruits of misogyny laid bare. This is not mere mental illness, as there are millions of people who live with mental disorders who do not murder, this burrows into something atavistic that we don’t like to talk about. The fear, violence, and scorn necessary to uphold a silent system of power-over. The churning core of woman-hate as a belief system

“We like to think that violent misogyny – not sexism, but misogyny, woman-hatred as ideology and practice, weaponised contempt for one half of the human race – isn’t something that really happens in the so-called West. No matter how many wives and girlfriends are murdered by their husbands, no matter how many rapists are let off because of their “promising careers”, violence against women is something that happens elsewhere, somewhere foreign, or historical, or both. So anxious are we to retain this convenient delusion that any person, particularly any female person, who attempts to raise a counter argument can expect to be harassed and shouted down.” – Laurie Penny, NewStatesman

Which returns me to the Goddess, to all goddesses. To deity with a multiplicity of genders and forms. In the face of such horror, is the only sane reaction a radical re-embrace of female divinity? In a time when hate towards women seems at a fever pitch, do we not need to answer with: that which you hate and try to destroy is sacred. That which you try to control is beyond your control. That which you try to define and shame is beyond your definition or judgement.

Pallas Athene by Gustav Klimt

Pallas Athene by Gustav Klimt

As our community absorbs the ramifications of this latest tragedy, I hope we can return to the roots-radical nature that sits at the very core of our faiths. That divinity is not limited in counting, form, gender, or role. That the numinous is all-embracing and anticipates our every shift and turn. That simply being who we are in this time of crisis can remake society, because who we are acknowledges that woman, in all permutations, can be divine. That the god with a woman’s face is worthy of worship and respect.

If I had a prayer, it would go out to all those affected by this violence, this murder, and it would be a prayer to my Goddess. Please, pray to yours.