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The Goddess in America
The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context
By Trevor Greenfield
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Trevor Greenfield
All rights reserved.
The Influence of Matriarchal American Indian Tribes on the Goddess Movement
After our planet had been divided between water and ground, when the universe had begun to vibrate with the sound of the Creator, in the time when the First World was being born, Spider Woman made the plants, trees, flowers, birds and animals that would call Earth their home. She molded them from clay, wove each of them a white cape, and then sang their Creation Song to make them living. After this, Spider Woman made the first humans, in four pairs, from yellow, red, white, and black earth. She sang the first peoples their Creation Song, and their white cape was the mantle of creative wisdom. She introduced them to the Creator in the red light of dawn and told them always to remember the time of their creation.
— Hopi creation story
The story of Goddess in America is a story of beginnings, of a world being reborn as feminine power is reawakened. The Goddess speaks everywhere to everyone, and she is certainly not new, but it was in North America in the latter twentieth century that industrialized, Christianized people began hearing her voice in significant numbers. Some early sparks of inspiration came from the British Isles, through the work of people such as Dion Fortune and Doreen Valiente, yet this is where the Goddess Movement caught fire. To understand why it happened here and not elsewhere we need to look at the cultural influence of America's indigenous peoples.
The 'Goddess Movement' is a loosely knit international group of women, and a few men, who are making a female deity (or deities) the central part of their spiritual practice and belief. It is not a religion or group of religions per se. While various offshoots of Wicca are often assumed to be part of the Goddess Movement, groups that compulsorily invoke a God for every Goddess to achieve their perception of balance would not be considered 'Goddessian,' or part of the Goddess Movement. Similarly, while Christianity as a whole is antithetical to the beliefs and values of the Goddess Movement, individuals who center the Virgin Mary or Sophia in their spiritual practice may be considered Goddessian. Being part of the Goddess Movement does require, however, that the participant is feminist in their political/spiritual orientation. For most Goddessians, this means endorsing the concept of matriarchy.
As the term is used in the Goddess Movement, 'matriarchy' is not a feminine version of patriarchy, with women dominating and oppressing men: it is a complete antithesis of patriarchy, without exploitation on the basis of sex. Matriarchal societies are peaceful, devoid of class structure, and egalitarian in their distribution of wealth. They emphasize the importance of a mother deity, rather than enforcing the illogic of a father-god birthing the universe.
'Matriarchy' is perhaps an unfortunate word choice, because it tends to be applied in a general sense to situations where women have more power than men are comfortable with. Archaeologists in the nineteenth century, encountering a plethora of female votive images in their excavations of Neolithic Europe, concluded that the societies these images came from were not patriarchal and therefore labeled them 'matriarchal.' Today we understand that women in these late Stone Age societies were probably not dominating men, despite the preponderance of feminine iconography, and the Goddessian interpretation of 'matriarchy' has evolved. Other words have been proposed, such as gynarchy, gylany, gynandry, or gynocracy, but they have not caught on. I think the affinity Goddessians have for the word matriarchy stems from the root matri-, which means 'mother.' Appreciation for the creating/generating power of the feminine divine is integral to the Goddess Movement.
At the start of the colonial era none of the nations of the Americas perfectly conformed to the idealized Goddessian concept of matriarchy, yet all were considerably less patriarchal than the European cultures they came in contact with. Among the more matriarchal North American societies that early explorers and settlers encountered were the Taino of the Caribbean, the first tribe of the Western Hemisphere to receive the appellation 'Indian,' who entrusted considerable political power to women and were noted for their generosity; the Huichol of west central Mexico, who had a cosmology with a preponderance of feminine deities and who resisted Catholic syncretism; the Delaware communities of the mid-Atlantic region, who had an egalitarian social structure and a flexible understanding of gender; and the Iroquois Six Nations, who had a well-developed system of government with powerful women's councils. These are but a few of many examples.
Many are unaware of the impact of aboriginal peoples on American values and culture, and most believe Native participation in American history has been limited to waging war and relinquishing territory. It is true that European conquest imposed a patriarchal mindset on Native spiritual, economic, and political structures, and that it resulted in dispossession of land, population, livelihood, spiritual practices, self-governance, and even language, but it is a fallacy to believe the cultural impact always went one way. Areas of Native influence include loan words from the pidgin Algonquin that was the lingua franca for the first century of European settlement; medicine based on plants indigenous to North America; more liberal child-rearing practices; more positive attitudes toward bathing; and cultivation of unfamiliar foods that today make up a large proportion of the American diet.
Native influence on the establishment of American democracy is especially instructive in understanding later contribution to the Goddess Movement. The Founding Fathers who incited the overthrow of British monarchy and composed the documents that established the American government had a Classical education and were inspired by their idealization of the democracies of Greece and Rome. However, at the start of the American Revolution the Roman Republic had been dead for more than 1,800 years. It would be audacious in the extreme for any sane person to read about a remote democracy in a book and then proceed to organize a rebellion against the king, trusting that the installment of a subsequent autocrat was in no way inevitable. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others had that audacity, but they did not need to depend entirely on ancient history for support. British America had grown up alongside Amerindian nations that practiced self-government, in some cases through confederacies that encompassed large numbers of people. The degree to which specific Native governments modeled the American Constitution is contentious, but there can be no doubt that there was some influence. Most importantly, contact with Amerindian nations ensured that Americans fighting to establish a democratic government were not fighting for an ideal that was nebulous and abstract, but one they understood.
There were similarly strong Native contributions to the abolitionist and socialist movements, but Native influence on American feminism is especially pertinent to understanding the Goddess Movement. Colonial interaction with Iroquois and Algonquin tribes puts the words of Abigail Adams to her husband at the eve of the American Revolution in a more understandable context. 'If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies,' she wrote, 'we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.' The 'Laidies' knew that women did have representation in the aboriginal governments, which the Founding Fathers looked to for validation, but they suspected this was about to be written out of the next government. (John Adams wrote his wife back saying in effect that she was cute when she was angry.)
American women continued to foment, albeit below the surface, into the nineteenth century, and if the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 is taken as the official start of the American feminist movement, there was a long prodromal period. A taste of what was coming was presaged by the publication almost fifteen years earlier of Lydia Maria Child's History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations, which elucidated the differences between Iroquois cultures and European patriarchies. The abolitionist movement in general, and the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Michel de Montaigne in particular, are rightly credited as an inspiration for American feminism, but critical collaboration with Native women is often overlooked. Feminism received support not only through formal associations, theoretical writings, and individual heroics, but also through living examples. Native Americans lived what American feminists preached.
Many participants in what is now called the First Wave of feminism understood Christianity to be a major stumbling block for women's emancipation. The culmination of half a century of scholarship on Christian patriarchy was the 1898 publication of The Woman's Bible, in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the head of the Revising Committee, as it called itself, declared: 'The Bible in its teachings degrades Woman from Genesis to Revelations.' Matilda Joslyn Gage, responding to accusations of sacrilege on the part of the Committee, averred that 'our present quest is not what the mystic or the spiritual character of the Bible may be; we are investigating its influence on woman under Judaism and Christianity, and pronounce it evil.'
Gage went beyond biblical criticism to explore positive religious and social roles for women in non-Christian societies. She looked at pre-Christian Western societies and found what she termed 'the Matriarchate or Mother-rule.' In the matriarchate, woman embodied the foundations of religion: 'The primal priest on earth, she was also supreme as Goddess in heaven.' Gage further asserted that the matriarchate had survived into modern times:
Every part of the world today gives evidence of the system; reminiscences of the Matriarchate everywhere abound. Livingstone found African tribes swearing by the mother and tracing descent through her. Marco Polo discovered similar customs in his Asiatic voyages, and the same customs are extant among the Indians of our own continent.
That the same customs were extant in America Gage knew through direct contact. An advocate for Native as well as women's rights, she cultivated friendships was Iroquois women, as did other feminist spokeswomen. Gage was eventually adopted into the tribe's Wolf Clan and Council of Matrons.
Though Gage was considered a radical embarrassment by many in the suffrage movement, feminists of the twentieth century Second Wave were also cognizant of Christianity's link with women's subordination and were quick to dust off her work. By this time fresh scholarship was available, such as Robert Graves' analysis of how the Greek myths had been perverted under patriarchy and Marija Gimbutas' archaeological investigation of Neolithic 'Old Europe.' A huge backlash in academia ensued, which continues unabated to this day, dedicated to burying the notion of matriarchy. The term became defined in the most stringent of ways, with all historical and archaeological evidence supporting the existence of nonpatriarchal societies being dismissed as 'speculative' – this by scholars who had no problem positing theories on warfare with far more tenuous data. The vast work by Graves was submitted to a microscope, with each small error gleefully trumpeted, while his writing as a whole was derided as specious on the basis that his critics disagreed with it.
But even before this backlash had time to mobilize, spiritual feminists needed something more. It was one thing to read about matriarchy in a book; it was another to seriously propose it. Living forms of Goddess worship existed, such as the cults of the Virgin Mary or the Hindu and Buddhist Goddesses, but such deities were worshiped in a theological context that subordinated the divine feminine to the divine masculine, and the condition of women in societies that venerated these Goddesses contrasted sharply with these images. Matriarchal roots to these religions could and would be explored, but the immediate need was for models of worship in societies where women had power. Native American traditional societies were not the only models American feminists could have found, but these were the ones that were most accessible.
Discussing the contribution of a Native perspective to the Goddess Movement is perhaps objectionable to some, given that it is debatable whether cultures indigenous to this hemisphere, outside of Mesoamerica, even operate within a 'Goddess' framework. Part of the confusion lies with the stark demarcation in Western culture between mundane and divine, a distinction absent in most indigenous cosmologies. Words for woman in aboriginal languages may carry significantly different connotations than in the Indo-European languages. Native spiritual beings are usually translated into English with words such as woman, maiden, grandmother, or boy, when a gender is denoted at all. (Sex-specific markers may not be highly prevalent in the language or story, yet characters are often rendered as male in English.) Still, the divine persons in Native mythologies have analogous roles to Goddessian deities, even if the translations are challenging.
Feminists were drawn with most alacrity to indigenous concepts of female spiritual societies operating in tandem with co-ed and men's societies; menarche ceremonies and spiritual cosmologies dignifying menstruation; the mother clan rather than marriage operating as the basic family unit; respect for female authority rather than isolation and denigration of old women; and women as visionaries, dreamers and interpreters of myth. Native women elders spoke at Goddess gatherings, memoirs by Native women were enthusiastically received, tattered copies of collected Amerindian stories were passed along, and contemporary artwork depicting heroines from Native legends became popular.
It is important to understand Native American influence on the Goddess Movement on a comprehensive level rather than trying to trace specific ceremonies, symbols, healing practices, and myths. In many cases a ceremony or practice was never integrated into other frameworks because it was too culturally specific or unsuitable for an industrial society, but the ideas it carried nevertheless inspired reflection. Some legends had general appeal while others did not, yet there was still something to learn from them. The transmission of ideas, so taken for granted in the world of men, is often denied as a reality among women. Our world supposedly exists on the level of upholding traditions and trading recipes: we carry the family stories; we do not add to a body of knowledge or enable it to grow.
The Goddess Movement is no longer an American, or even a Western, phenomenon. It has spread around the world and has gained a foothold in places including India, Nigeria and South Korea. Matriarchal cultures are being studied in other parts of the world, such as western China, bringing new lived experiences to the concept of a matriarchy nourished by a loving Mother-Goddess. I wonder if the role of indigenous Americans in helping to birth this reawakening will be remembered, or if the Native role in this origin story is destined to become obscured like so many others.
A standard line in academia, perilous to cross, says 'there is no evidence' that matriarchies ever existed. Each aboriginal American culture can be scrutinized and found wanting in some respect, or when that fails dismissed as being too fragmentary to be conclusive. Yet the same cynical principle that is applied to matriarchy could also be applied to democracy. Extinct Stone Age civilizations could be ignored for not providing definitive data, the flaws in the so-called democracies of Athens and Rome could be magnified, the aboriginal self-government strategies of the Americas could be categorized as below criteria, and modern approximations of democracy could be dismissed as unstable and non-egalitarian. But we don't dismiss democracy as a whimsical chimera indulged in by flighty and unserious people. We treat it as something real, imperfect as it is, and take actions to improve participation in practice as well as theory. Goddessians see through the self-serving cynicism of the patriarchy and are not swayed from their matriarchal vision.
Excerpted from The Goddess in America by Trevor Greenfield. Copyright © 2015 Trevor Greenfield. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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