Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Leave It to Dever

A few weeks back I took archaeologist William Dever to task for his unwillingness to extend to contemporary Goddess-worship the same sympathy that he clearly feels for ancient Goddess-worship in his 2005 book Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. I'd now like to return to this topic with greater attention to specifics.

Dever describes himself as a “former Christian now turned secular humanist” (46). He distinguishes between “mainstream”—i.e. secularist—feminists and “doctrinaire” feminists, for whom ideology trumps scholarship (xiii). These latter are the “more radical secular feminists” (309) who “style themselves [sic] 'Neopagans' or 'Wiccans' (witches)” (310). This “'Goddess movement'” (a phrase which he consistently delivers in quotes) preaches “without any evidence” a monolithic primal Great Mother who prevailed until dethroned by male deities in early historic times, evidence of whom was later suppressed. The prophet of these “various New Age Goddess cults and 'Neopagan' religions that selectively resuscitate the beliefs, images, deities, and practices of ancient religions” is Marija Gimbutas, whose “pseudo-scholarship” he dismisses without discussion (307). This movement, while it may have “comforted some women superficially, has left them still in need of the truth, not a naïve Utopia where all is women's supposedly unique 'strength, beauty, fertility, love, harmony, and peace'” (308-9).

This is pretty virulent stuff, coming as it does from someone who has worked hard for years to convince his colleagues in academia 1) that ancient Hebrew religion took many forms, some of them overtly polytheist, 2) that the Goddess Ashera was widely worshiped in ancient Israel, and 3) that what remains of her cultus offers a posthumous voice to the silenced women of ancient Israel.

Clearly Dever has little sympathy for “religionists” of any sort. That said, he does have a soft spot in his heart for the Goddess herself (although exactly what he means by this is unclear, to this reader at any rate). He titles chapter 9 of his book, “What Does the Goddess Do to Help?” Apparently the answer is that She gives voice to those heretofore-voiceless ancient Israelite women and “redresses the balance” in androcentric Biblical religion (311). “Appreciation of the Goddess in the history of religions should bring warmth, caring, and healing to religion, as well as joy in the sexual union ordained and celebrated by the gods,” he writes (309). Actual worship, however, apparently goes beyond the pale.

Dever's treatment of ancient Israelite religion is not unproblematic. While it is true that traditional societies, and traditional Middle Eastern societies in particular, often equate the public sphere with men and the domestic sphere with women, Dever's attribution of “folk religion” (and hence “Goddess religion”) to women and “official” religion to men seems to me to press the evidence beyond what it will bear. Was it really only women who made use of the “family shrines” (with their female figurines) that stipple ancient Israelite settlements? Did men never pray or offer there at all? The assumption that in a polytheist culture women (and only women) worship goddesses and men (and only men) worship gods is demonstrably wrong. In addition, his insistence on speaking of a (unitary) Goddess of Israel flies in the face of evidence for multiple goddesses (Anat, Shemesh, and Ashteret, in addition to Ashera) in the old Hebrew pantheon. All in all, this center simply will not hold.

At the end of the lunar month, though, Dever's disdain for the modern people of the Goddess, objectionable and unnuanced as it may be (and even in 2005, his caricature of the Goddess movement's excesses was already laughably outdated), is really only an afterthought to what is otherwise a well-reasoned and well-researched book.

And the answer to the title of said book is still a resounding “Yes.”


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Tuesday, 25 March 2014

    Mr. Posch,

    I suppose that in the world of academia, where the purse strings are controlled by people often deeply hostile to Pagan beliefs of any kind, it's a wise career move to trash our faiths.

    The only thing that Muslim-friendly Leftists, Christian-friendly Rightists, and atheists can agree upon is that our religions do not deserve real respect, and that the Goddesses and Gods we honor are false.

    We may buy their books, but we are not the ones who are giving them tenure.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    I'm not sure, Posch, if the world of academia is still deeply hostile to Pagan beliefs. For example I would point to the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA), a Regional branch of the Modern Language Association (MLA). MLA and their regional branches are the premier academic organizations and annual scholarly conferences for those who study English, Literature, and other languages. They are Professors, Graduate Students, etc. PAMLA in particular focuses on scholars from the Pacific Rim nations. This year the 112th annual conference of PAMLA has a theme "Familiar Spirits" Their conferenced announcement says, "We invite participants to consider papers and sessions on magic, conjuring, spirits, hauntings, Spiritualism, and manifestations as well as presentations that treat the familiar, familial, and the commonplace in relation to the paranormal, strange, and uncanny." - See more at: Among the topics listed in their Call for Papers is "Magic and Witchcraft." This isn't the first year that PAMLA (and other similar organizations) have welcomed scholarship on Magic and Witchcraft, but its the first time that the whole conference theme is focused on it.

    I'm sure that there are some academics who are still hostile to Pagan beliefs but that is far from universal these days. Some very respected academics are welcoming, including, and even focusing on the study of Pagan beliefs.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    My impression is that this change in attitude is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it's a sea-change that one can only welcome. I need to keep reminding myself that "academia" is no more a single, monolithic entity than anything else in this Wonderful World of the many is.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    Steven, thanks for this. It is amazing to me that "academics" continue to caricature the Goddess movement and to disparage the work of Marija Gimbutas. This continues to be done by feminist scholars as well in the fields of both Religious Studies and Archaeology. Of course there have been unscholarly statements made about the Goddess and Goddesses in the ancient world by modern day devotees, but not nearly as many unscholarly statements as have been made by adherents of patriarchal religions.

    Gimbutas was no wild-eyed romantic. Her painstaking research into the symbolism of Old Europe continues to be caricatured rather than engaged.

    I think the "lesson" to be drawn from this is that God can have a wife only so long as this knowledge does not upset the patriarchal apple-cart or status quo. The idea that there could have been any cultures that might be considered "better" than our own (in relation to women or peace, for example), simply cannot be tolerated

    If you have not done so already, please send your blogs to Mr. Dever and ask him to respond.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 27 March 2014

    I should add that he cites your anthology Womanspirit Rising as an example of a "much more radical" "'school' of feminists" who "espouse a sort of 'generic' religion which sometimes appeals to a Goddess mystique to inspire female spirituality."

    Condescension: the new condemnation.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    Several years ago the Museum of Russian Art here in Minneapolis hosted a breathtaking exhibit of recently-found Trypillian (Ukrainian Copper Age) ceramics, which caused me to rethink my critique of Gimbutas' work. Although I remain skeptical of many of her overarching theories, I found that her interpretation of "Old European" glyptic art again and again produced cogent and internally-consistent readings.

    My position continues to be that regardless of whether or not her interpretations of symbolism are ones that the ancestors would have recognized, her work provides us the new pagans with a grammar and vocabulary of symbolism that we can use to articulate our own experience of this Many-Colored World: a "Language of the Goddess" indeed.

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