Inspired by the Goddess

Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

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Sacred Feminine or Goddess Feminism?

In recent years “the Sacred Feminine” has become interchangeable with (for some) and preferable to (for others) “Goddess” and “Goddess feminism.” The terms Goddess and feminism, it is sometimes argued, raise hackles: Is Goddess to replace God? And if so why? Does feminism imply an aggressive stance? And if so, against whom or what?

In contrast, the term “sacred feminine” (with or without caps) feels warm and fuzzy, implying love, care, and concern without invoking the G word or even the M(other) word--about which some people have mixed feelings. Advocates of the sacred feminine stand against no one, for men have their “sacred feminine” sides, while women have their “sacred masculine” sides as well.

Nothing lost, and much to be gained. Right? Wrong.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa: Sacred Masculine?
Perseus with the Head of Medusa: Sacred Masculine and Sacred Feminine?

When Goddess feminism emerged onto the scene, it had a political edge. It was about women affirming, as Meg Christian crooned in “Ode to a Gym Teacher,” that “being female means you still can be strong.” Goddess feminism arose in clear opposition to patriarchy and patriarchal religions. It was born of an explicit critique of societies organized around male domination, violence, and war; and of the male God or Gods of patriarchal religions as justifying domination, violence, and war. In this context, “the sacred masculine” was not understood to be a neutral or positive concept. To the contrary, the male Gods of patriarchy were understood to be at the center of symbol systems that justify domination.

The terms “the masculine” and “the feminine” were floating around and sometimes evoked in early feminist discussions, but when examined more closely, they were rejected by most feminists as mired in sex role stereotypes. The psychologist Carl Jung, for example, associated the masculine with the ego and rationality and the feminine with the unconscious. True, he argued that modern western society had developed too far in the direction of the masculine and needed a fresh infusion of the feminine in order to achieve “wholeness.” This sounded good, but when feminists looked further, they discovered that Jung and his followers harbored a fear of the uncontrolled feminine.

Jungians consider the unconscious to be the repository of undisciplined desires, fears, and aggressive feelings that require the rational control of the ego. Though strong and intelligent women were among Jung’s most important followers, Jung and his male companions retained a fear of independent women, speaking of women who developed their rational sides fully enough to argue with men and male authorities as “animus-ridden,” a term not meant as a compliment.

Hades Abducting Persephone: Marriage of Sacred Masculine and Sacred Feminine?
Hades Abducting Persephone: Marriage of Sacred Masculine and Sacred Feminine?

Jungians, following Erich Neumann, understand the progress of history through an evolutionary model in which humanity began in a matriarchal stage in which the unconscious reigned. This period of culture, which spawned the image of the Great and Terrible Mother, was primitive and irrational. Matriarchy was naturally superseded by patriarchy, in which the individual, the ego, and rationality emerged. In the patriarchal stage of culture, male Gods and heroes were the primary symbols, and rationality reigned supreme.

The patriarchal stage of culture had its limitations, which were revealed in the two World Wars of the twentieth century and the nuclear and environmental crises that followed. Rational man, Jungians argued, had come to the point where he needed to reconnect with his feminine side. The unconscious feminine was now understood to be a nurturing matrix that included the body, nature, and feeling, from which rational man should and could never fully separate himself.

The great archaeologist Marija Gimbutas also spoke of two cultures within Europe, an earlier matrifocal one she called Old Europe and a later patriarchal one. The Jungian Joseph Campbell endorsed Gimbutas' work, leading some to assume that Gimbutas and Jungians hold similar theories of human history. In fact they do not: Gimbutas did not subscribe to an evolutionary theory of culture. She would never have said that the earlier matrifocal culture “had to be superseded” by the later patriarchal culture “in order for civilization to advance.” The clear conclusion to be drawn from Gimbutas’ work is that the patriarchal culture was in almost every way inferior to the one it replaced.

For Gimbutas, the agricultural societies of Neolithic Old Europe were peaceful, egalitarian, sedentary, highly artistic, matrifocal and probably matrilineal, worshiping the Goddess as the powers of birth, death, and regeneration. These societies did not evolve into a higher stage of culture, but were violently overthrown by Indo-European invaders. The culture the Indo-Europeans introduced into Europe was nomadic, patriarchal, patrilineal, warlike, horse-riding, not artistic, worshiping the shining Gods of the sun as reflected in their bronze weapons. Gimbutas did not look forward to a new “marriage” of matrifocal and patriarchal cultures. Rather she hoped for the re-emergence of the values of the earlier culture. Her theories had a critical edge: she did not approve of cultures organized around domination, violence, and war.

This critical edge is exactly what is lost when we begin to substitute the terms “sacred feminine” for “the Goddess” or “Goddess feminism” and “sacred masculine” for “patriarchy” and “patriarchal Gods.” When we allege that we all have our “masculine and feminine sides,” and that it is important “to reunite the masculine and the feminine,” it is easy to forget that in our history, the so-called sacred masculine has been associated with domination, violence, and war.

If we hope to create societies without domination, violence, and war, then we must transform the distorted images of masculinity and femininity that have been developed in patriarchy. We must insist that domination, violence, and war are no more part of masculinity or male nature than passivity and lack of consciousness are part of femininity or female nature. It may feel good to speak of reuniting the masculine and the feminine, but feeling good will not help us to transform cultures built on domination, violence, and war.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Early Bird Special until February 15. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.

Published simultaneously on Feminism and Religion.

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Carol P. Christ is a author of the much-loved books Rebirth of the Goddess, She Who Changes, Weaving the Visions, and Womanspirit Rising, and forthcoming in 2016. Goddess and God in the World and A Serpentine Path. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall.


  • Lisa Sarasohn
    Lisa Sarasohn Monday, 25 January 2016

    Carol, I appreciate what you’ve said here (as well as the news from my friend Susan Foster of her recent travels with you through Crete).

    What leaves me perplexed is that the word “Goddess” seems to be the diminuitive form (as cultural conventions have it) of the word “God.” I have the same trouble with “priestess.” To my ear and eye, these words seem relative, rather than in-and-of-themselves.

    I wonder: What are your thoughts on that pesky "-ess" ending?

    I have a hankering to call the All-That-Is by name — Kali, or Danu, or Demeter. By a word and with a name that stands in its own power of being.

    Blessed be!

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 27 January 2016

    ess is feminine, not diminuitive. I think in practice it does not feel at all diminuitive. It feels more female and powerful that God-She to me.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 26 January 2016

    Carol, I agree with Lisa - but I'd like to add that as a former Viet Nam war protestor, it's very hard to feel safe expressing your well-expressed sentiments against violence and war today. Some of my favorite lyrics were written by Buffy Sainte-Marie and sung by Donovan:

    He's a catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain
    A Buddhist and a Baptist and Jew
    And he knows he shouldn't kill and he knows he always will
    You'll for me my friend and me for you

    And he's fighting for Canada, he's fighting for France
    He's fighting for the usa
    And he's fighting for the Russians and he's fighting for Japan
    And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way

    ...But what can one do today to promote that clear expression of sanity, with radicalized sociopaths killing civilians all over the world? We need our military to protect us - right? Or don't we?

    As the king of Siam says in The King and I, "Is a puzzlement." A much bigger one than I seem able to solve.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 27 January 2016

    Siggghhh. Here's another song "You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." There are at least two of us... "Imagine all the people living life in peace."

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Thursday, 28 January 2016

    Yes, let's imagine it every day. By the way, I was moved to tears by your piece about washing the clothes of the children who had drowned, to give to those who survived. It was a dark twist on the image of the Morrigan washing the clothes of adult warriors - who at least chose to march into death.

    Thank you for bringing the strong & compassionate Mother energy to everything you do.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Friday, 19 February 2016

    I am proud to embody the strong and compassionate Mother energy, even though I am not a physical mother. Thanks for the compliment.

  • Lisa Sarasohn
    Lisa Sarasohn Friday, 19 February 2016

    And for a stirring performance of the song, see

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Friday, 19 February 2016

    Thank you, Lisa. I'm glad that young people are still singing it, in all the languages of the world.

    And thank you, John.

  • Lisa Sarasohn
    Lisa Sarasohn Friday, 19 February 2016

    Thanks again for your elucidation, Carol. In the past, I've titled my workshops "Embodying the Goddess" and "The Goddess In Our Midst," not quite comfortable with that -ess ending. With this discussion, my comfort zone expands!

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Friday, 19 February 2016

    Thanks Lisa.

  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis Monday, 22 February 2016

    Carol, thanks for encouraging the idea that making readers comfortable is not necessarily the honorable thing for a wordsmith to do.

    As a writer, I might, in fact, feel more comfortable if I buried my head in the sand and just wrote "nice" feel-good pieces. Heck, I would not risk attack were I to do that.

    But, as you know, when we choose to unapologetically state facts that are despicable, instead of skirting around them with current palliative terms, we create an opportunity to change those facts into a better reality. That's one of my jobs as a writer.

    Not saying all writers should take on that job—we all have a different part to play—but unless some of us do, no positive change can happen. Atrocities do not stop if people ignore them. I'm preaching to the choir; it's my way of endorsing your words. Thanks again.

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