views updated


Prayer has been addressed to the Mother of God in Roman Catholicism and Christian Orthodoxy and to God the Mother in Shakerism and Christian Science, but until the 1970s the Goddess was notably absent from the American religious scene. The second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s sparked a renewed questioning of the part played by religion in shaping women's roles. In 1971 American theologian and philosopher Mary Daly argued that when God is imaged exclusively as male (Lord, King, Father, Son, He, Him), it follows that society will be male-dominated.

In 1974 the first issue of WomanSpirit magazine (published quarterly until 1984) began to document a grassroots women's spirituality movement that rejected the male God of inherited religious traditions, celebrating instead the female body; the Earth and its cycles of birth, death, and renewal; daring to name the divine power "Goddess." In 1974 archaeologist Marija Gimbutas published The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (later revised and reprinted as The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe); with numerous illustrations and a vision of Paleolithic and Neolithic "Old Europe" as a Goddess-worshiping, egalitarian, ecologically balanced, and peaceful civilization, it became a kind of "sacred text" of the emerging Goddess movement. The year 1975 saw the publication of Z. Budapest's Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows (later revised as The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries); the Hungarian-born Budapest urged women to revive the pre-Christian European religion of the Great Goddess, which she called "Dianic Witchcraft" (for women only) and offered examples of contemporary rituals. Merlin Stone's When God Was a Woman (1976) popularized the thesis that "in the beginning God was a woman." In 1978 more than five hundred women celebrated "The Great Goddess Reemerging" at the University of Santa Cruz extension, where feminist thea-logian (from thea, "Goddess") Carol P. Christ presented what has since become a widely reprinted essay, "Why Women Need the Goddess," as the keynote address. The Spiral Dance by Starhawk (Miriam Simos) appeared in 1979, providing a ritually oriented feminist reinterpretation of European Witchcraft as the ancient religion of the Goddess (for women and men). The 1980s and 1990s saw the publication of scores of books and hundreds of articles, scholarly and popular, that uncovered the history of the worship of the Goddess in prehistoric times, connected the dominance of male gods with the rise of patriarchy, and argued that the return of the Goddess would promote women's equality and ecological survival. In 1997 Carol P. Christ published The Rebirth of the Goddess, the first full-fledged thealogy of the movement.

Though the above-named authors could be called "leaders" of the movement (Starhawk in particular has done extensive teaching in retreat groups called "witch camps"), the movement is for the most part non- (and anti-) hierarchical, arguing that priesthoods and "great man" and "guru" systems are hallmarks of patriarchy. The most common mode of initiation into the movement is through personal experience and reading, followed by experimentation with prayer and ritual, either alone or in small groups. Participants are encouraged to trust their own experience.

Z. Budapest and Starhawk adapted the ritual cycle of the contemporary Neopagan movement to emphasize the Goddess and women's concerns. Celebrations are commonly held on the new or full moon and at equinoxes and solstices, and on February 2 (Brigid's Day), May 1, August 1, and October 31 (Halloween). Rituals invoke the Goddess as the power inherent in the cycles of birth, death, and renewal and celebrate the connection of all beings in the web of life. In contrast to biblical religions, Goddess religion names the body, especially the female body, as sacred, accepts a life that ends in death, and finds healing energy in darkness as well as light.

In a typical ritual for the spring equinox, participants journey to a local park or wildlife refuge, bring flowers to make crowns, invoke the Goddess as life and renewal, meditate on whatever is being renewed in their own lives, pray for peace on earth, and share a meal. At Halloween an altar might be created for ancestors (dead relatives, friends, and others) and the Goddess invoked as She to Whom All Return, while participants meditate on the gifts they have been given by the ancestors and on the connections between life and death.

Other rituals in the Goddess movement address women's life cycles, with rituals for menstruation, pregnancy, birth, abortion, menopause, and "croning," or becoming a wise old woman. These rituals have been created to counter the sense of shame with which patriarchal religion and culture shroud the female body. A typical menstruation ritual claims that "our blood is the blood of life."

The ethics of Goddess religion are based in the root metaphors of the earth and the body as sacred and all beings as connected in the web of life. Carol P. Christ offers nine touchstones of the ethics of Goddess religion: nurture life; 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; and repair the web. Participants in the Goddess movement have demonstrated for equal rights and reproductive rights for women, against the opening of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and for other environmental and social justice issues.

The Goddess movement is numbered in the hundreds of thousands (mostly women, but some men) in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Because the movement has no central organization or membership lists and "Goddess/Neopagan" is not an alternative on census lists, estimates of numbers are guesses. Anthropologist Susan Starr Sered in Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister (1994) cites the Goddess movement as one of a handful of religions worldwide created and led primarily by women. Inroads have been made into traditional religions: Unitarian Universalists acknowledge the predominately Goddess-oriented "Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans" (CUUPS); Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish women are experimenting with female names for the divine, including "Sophia-Wisdom" and "Shekinah—She Who Dwells Within."

See alsoAllah; Feminist Spirituality; Feminist Theology; God; Magic; Neopaganism; Priestess; Sophia; Starhawk; Womanist Theology; Women's Studies.


Christ, Carol P. The Rebirth of the Goddess. 1997, 1998.

Eller, Cynthia. Living in the Lap of the Goddess. 1995.

Gimbutas, Marija. TheLanguageoftheGoddess. 1989.

Starhawk (Miriam Simos). TheSpiralDance. 1979, 1989.

Carol P. Christ


views updated

Goddess. The source of life and being, once prevalent in religious imagination, but much suppressed during the millennia of male control of religions. The same observations about the provisionality of language and symbol apply here as in the case of God: they are compounded in the case of feminine imagery of the divine by the insistence on their inadequacies in the major monotheistic religions: see FEMININE SYMBOLS.


views updated

god·dess / ˈgädis/ • n. a female deity: a temple to Athena Nike, goddess of victory. ∎  a woman who is adored, esp. for her beauty: he had an affair with a screen goddess.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic