Sunday, September 14, 2008

It's true, we can find patriarchy anywhere...

I feel it is important to note that a goddess tradition is not inherently feminist. If the tradition in question elevates (brace yourself for awful jargon) patriarchal heteronormative gender roles, what have you really achieved?

For example, Hinduism has a lot of really strongly goddess-centered worship. It's still one of the most strictly patriarchal religions you'll find. Mentioning goddess figures like Kali as emblems that "empower" women is naive, and I seldom hear it from people who know how Kali is viewed in her native pantheon.

Gods do have a core of power in them that is inherently feminine. Their "shakti." Now, when there was a buffalo demon that the gods couldn't get rid of, and it was causing all kinds of issues. Mahisha's most obnoxious power was to generate more demons by bleeding. Every injury dropped his blood on the ground, and every drop of blood became a new demon. A real pain, that one. The gods, in order to deal with this, all pitched in from their shakti. Each contributed a piece of a new goddess so that she would be perfect. Her hair, her face, her breasts, her arms, her weapons, etc. each came from another god. Her name was Durga.

Durga went out to meet Mahisha on the field of battle. At first he proposed marriage to this beautiful goddess, but after a torrent of particularly vile curses from her he decided that fighting was also fine. During the battle, according to some tellings, Durga became so angry that her shakti sprang forward from her. Now, keep in mind that she was already made from the nastiest and most powerful shakti energy of the other gods. What came out of her was Kali.

A giant, long-limbed, black-skinned woman with dead babies for earrings, arms for a skirt, and a necklace of skulls burst forth and began tearing through the ranks of demons. She found a particularly gruesome way of preventing Mahisha from creating new soldiers. Whenever one of her enemies bled, she stretched out her long red tongue and drank the blood up before it could hit the earth and create more demons.

Well, the other gods all thought this was grand until the battle was over and they realized they couldn't stop her. They thought they'd distilled the destructive power of their shakti, and as it turns out it still wasn't pure womanly wrath just yet. What they created they could still control; you can tell Durga "enough is enough," but Kali has no such inclination to heed her divine masters.

It took Shiva, the destroyer, lying down at her feet to get her to stop. The realization that she was killing her husband finally triggered this raging shakti's better nature, and she calmed back down. Parvati, the aspect of the goddess who acts as Shiva's "good wife," (as opposed to Kali who tends to encourage him and instigate the destroyer) will still occasionally transform into Kali when she gets a little too angry and out of control.

What this tells us is that Hindu religion acknowledges female power. What this doesn't say is that female power is a good thing. It says that when you don't keep women on a short enough leash, the great power they hold inside them is a danger to the whole world itself. This is why you see Indian women with long braided hair. It is symbolic of keeping all that hot fiery power under control. Women in Hinduism have great potential within them, but there is a difference between strength and power. If a woman bends all her power toward enduring hardship and sustaining her family, she is good. If a woman drives her power outward upon the world, she is Kali. She is to be feared, and she must be stopped.

Indian feminists have been "reclaiming" Kali in a similar manner to western feminists reclaiming the figure Lilith from the Jewish Rabbinic tradition. The idea is to take a goddess who's supposed to illustrate why independent women are scary, and put a gloss of "but it's actually okay, really" over the whole thing. I think this is questionable, and I don't approve of it. However, lots of Indian women clearly do feel this is an empowering and positive thing, so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. It seems like a bad idea to me, but they've proven me wrong, so what the hell do I know.

I'm mentioning this to explain my reservations about western goddess feminism. The idea that all western women need is a goddess to replace the Hebrew God is, to me, an overly-simplistic way of looking at patriarchy. "Men have placed a god in charge of everything. If we replace it with a woman, everyone will acknowledge feminine power!" We've already seen that merely elevating a woman to godhood does not necessarily mean women will be empowered by the image, since Hinduism uses goddesses all the time to teach women their proper place.

So back to my reservations about Wiccan goddess worship. Does the goddess present a heteronormative gender role? Does the goddess present a new kind of femininity that is empowering to her followers?

Let me tell you how I see the goddess. The mother of us all--including the god, creator and nourisher and wise matron: maiden, mother, crone. She's a virgin until she chooses her lover, at which point they have lots of sex, she bears his child while he's off being dead in the underworld, and then through her he is born again. Cycle moves on. She is emotion, wisdom, maternity, the moon. Meanwhile, the god is the sun. He inseminates the earth, which bears forth all sorts of good fertile stuff, and then he goes out and goes hunting and shit while the goddess nurtures the earth.

Basically? She's a woman, in all the ways women have been taught to be women by men. She doesn't show up this way in all Wiccan practice, but looking at the myths of my own religion from the point of view of a religion scholar, I wonder how many other Wiccans think about this. When they talk about their great celestial mother, how conscious are they that they're boiling a woman down to one function: childrearing?

It's possible that I noticed this because I, like everyone else in my family for a few generations, have mother issues. I've had enough of being someone's child; I don't want another mother up in the moon with superpowers, thank you very much. So in rejecting this way of relating to the goddess, I am keenly aware of how seldom I see anything else. Because the maternal metaphor rings hollow for me, I notice the absence of other expressions of love for the divine feminine.

It was when I was considering this emotional block of mine that I noticed a sort of philosophical one as well. As a woman who is doing everything she can to avoid becoming a mother right now, I can't identify with a goddess who is so easy to reduce to that one social function. Not only can I not identify with her... I shouldn't have to. Why, in this day and age, should the first and most common option be a mother goddess?

I realize Dianic Wicca is the exception, but I don't feel like joining a tradition that thinks it can restore the cosmic balance by instituting a matriarchy as unfair and judgmental as any patriarchy. I couldn't embrace a tradition that believed excluding men would somehow rectify their exclusion of women.

So here's what I have to choose from, it seems. I can attach myself to a tradition that sees the goddess primarily as our mom (and who really thinks about their mother as being anything but their mother? As if she didn't have a life before her kids were born or after they left...), or a tradition that sees the goddess as the be-all end-all of worship and no use for men at all?

This is why my devotional practices, in private, are more centered on the god. This goddess everyone else loves so much... I don't know her. And I don't think she'd know me very well, either.


BarbRyan said...

I think that it's great that you find fulfillment in worshiping The God alone. I think that we should seek peace - no matter where it comes from. And I can see that as a man, you are closer to His mysteries.

But after reading your post, I must ask you - do you find true fulfillment through Him? Or do you worship Him because you are denying the Feminine?

I think that to limit the Goddess to just being a mother is denying Her reality and myths. While I think being a mother is a gift, the Goddess appears to us in many forms. To give some examples: Artemis and Durga are the warriors. Aphrodite is the seductress. Athena as the intellectual.

It would be like viewing the God as only a big, strong, hunter type. A "man's man", which is not true either.

Regulating the Goddess to only Her mother aspect, to me, is a truely patriarchal belief and a more damaging one, since it is not blatant. It's hidden and ignored.

Cobalt said...

Well, that's the thing. I'm a woman personally, and one of the comments I've made to people in my circle is that Goddess imagery (whether in jewelry or on altars) tends to be all wombs and breasts and things, but I already have those of my own. I don't need extra silver ones around my neck or on my altar. =P

But more seriously, I think it's that a lot of the time the Goddess is just spoken of in very traditional ways. Reducing her to her status as a mother is particularly distancing for me since I don't actually really want her to be any of the things that pop into my head along with the word "mother."

This is why I prefer the Hindu division of Devi (Lover/Scholar/Warrior) than the Wiccan Maiden-Mother-Crone division. The Wiccan perspective divides a woman into stages of life based on one thing: fertility. Maiden is pre-motherhood, Crone is post-motherhood, and then you have actual motherhood in between.

This is particularly problematic when you consider that women don't live in these stages if they have access to birth control. Used to be that pretty soon after you stopped being a "maiden" you transitioned into being a mother. But now for many women that's not the case. So it's not just regressive from the perspective of feminist activism, it's actually out of touch on a very basic level with the way women like me live.

Thank you for your comment. It was very thoughtful and helpful, and I hope you continue to stop by and share your thoughts.