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Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality
by Philip G. Davis
Spence, 418 pages, $29.95

It is a dogma of feminist mythology that before there was God, there was Goddess. A very long time ago (so goes the story), when war, agriculture, and patriarchy were just glints in male chauvinists’ eyes, human beings universally worshipped a Great Mother who was as fecund as the earth, as wise as Grandmother Willow in Disney’s Pocahantas , and as religiously latitudinarian as the faculty at the Union Theological Seminary.

Goddess worship is everywhere in the literature and praxis of feminism. It shows up among the Paleo lithic flint-chippers of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear novels set in circa 40,000 b.c. It shows up in Marion Bradley Zimmer’s Mists of Avalon , which reconstructs the “historical” King Arthur as a sixth-century chieftain surrounded by blue-painted, free-thinking priestesses who specialize not only in communing with the Mother but in pre-RU-486 herbal abortions and assisted-suicide potions for the terminally ill. Feminist biblical scholars have found traces of the Goddess or her devotees in Lilith, in the Shekhinah, in the personification of divine wisdom (Sophia) in the Book of Proverbs, and even in Mary Magdalene (although not in the Virgin Mary, who is considered too nice).

Nowadays, with phallocentric traditionalist Christianity presumably on the wane, devotion to the Goddess seems to be back: in the “feminist spirituality” movement that has permeated even the mainline churches, as well as among the “Wiccans” and self-styled “pagans” of the white-collar West who don Druid robes and light bonfires to keep the fertility festivals of the old Celtic calendar (minus the human sacrifice). An advice column in the Washington Post recently featured a query from a bride-to-be whose Christian fundamentalist parents refused to attend her Wiccan wedding. An article in a scholarly journal pondered the question: Can you be Jewish and a Goddess worshipper?

In Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality , Philip G. Davis, a professor of religious studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, traces the current preoccupation with the Goddess all the way back to its roots. Those roots, he argues persuasively, turn out to be planted not in the misty terrain of prehistory but in the well-mapped soil of the early nineteenth century, when neopaganism itself was born, along with other manifestations of Romanticism, in reaction to the rationality-obsessed Enlightenment. Davis surveys the archaeological remains of the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age cultures where feminists claim to have found signs of Goddess worship”caves in Western Europe, the Catal Hayuk settlement in Turkey, prehistoric Malta and the Balkans, and Minoan Crete”and finds little hard evidence to support their theories. Whereas anthropologists of a generation or so ago tended to assume that every painting or carving of a female image at an ancient site depicted an object of worship, their present-day successors are far more cautious about such ascriptions.

The ideologically driven scholarship of Gertrude Rachel Levy, Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, Elinor Gadon, and Elizabeth Gould Davis”which has extrapolated from these artifacts not only a widespread cult of the Goddess in preliterate times, but an entire pacificist, egalitarian, woman-centered civilization”has been either dismissed outright or severely criticized by virtually all serious archaeologists working in the field today. Those sites have actually turned out to contain defense fortifications, masculine symbols, indicia of hierarchical social organization, and other evidence that life back then was neither so utopian nor so gynocentric as the feminists have made it out to be.

Furthermore, Wicca itself, the array of Goddess-centered, feminism-tinged, “good witch” religious rituals (no satanic pacts for them) practiced by such high-profile American witch-authors as Margot Adler ( Drawing Down the Moon ), Miriam “Starhawk” Simos ( The Spiral Dance ), and Zuzsanna Budapest ( The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries ), dates only to the 1950s. Although Wicca holds itself out as a primordial Stone Age religion that somehow survived centuries of Christian persecution, it is in fact largely the brainchild of Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884-1964), an English autodidact who dabbled in nudism and seances before falling in with a group of Rosicrucians that styled itself a witches’ coven carrying on a secret and nearly extinct tradition. Gardner had himself initiated into the coven in 1939, and in 1954 he published a book, Witchcraft Today , that serves as the Wiccan Baedeker. Gardner claimed merely to be passing on the secret lore he had learned from a witch named Old Dorothy (who was conveniently dead when his book appeared), but the consensus, even among his disciples, is that he more than likely made it all up or appropriated it from literary sources.

At any rate, such commonplaces of today’s Wiccan practice as casting the circle, drawing down the moon, the ubiquitous epithet “blessed be,” and “skyclad” ceremonial nudity all seem to be pure Gardnerian inventions. A lover of archaisms, Gardner even coined the name “Wicca,” which he erroneously believed to be a cognate of the Anglo-Saxon word wis for “wise” ( wicca is actually the Anglo-Saxon word for a male wizard” wicce , “witch,” is its feminine equivalent”deriving from wigle , meaning “divination”). Gardner probably borrowed the Wiccan Golden Rule, “An ye harm none, do what ye will,” from his friend the black-magician and sexual ritualist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), whose maxim was “‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law.” (Crowley, an early avatar of Marilyn Manson, was famous for baptizing a frog Jesus Christ and crucifying it onstage during one of his orgiastic rites.)

Like Wicca, the Goddess herself was largely a male creation. Davis locates her origins in the Romantic exaltation of emotion over reason, leading to an idealization of women as repositories of pure emotion and, hence, an intuitive higher morality that superseded the legalistic systems devised by men. Women were also sources of awesome spiritual power”“the eternal feminine.” Goethe’s Faust featured “the Mothers,” nameless but potent female deities linked to a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In 1861, Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887), a law professor at the University of Basel, published a vastly influential book, Das Mutterrecht ( The Mother-Right ), which postulated that human society had once been both universally matriarchal and devoted to the worship of powerful agricultural goddesses who survived as minor deities of earth and moon in the polytheistic patriarchies that supplanted the matriarchies (the Greek goddess Demeter”“earth mother””being a prime example).

A year later, Jules Michelet (1798-1874), a historian at the College de France, published La Sorcière ( The Witch ), contending that witchcraft had been the original religion of Europe, a priestess-led cult of nature and fertility that flourished underground throughout the Middle Ages as a refuge for women, especially peasant women, oppressed by their husbands, their feudal overlords, and the Church. La Sorcière was read widely for decades, feeding into a taste for the occult, the esoteric, and the anticlerical that thrived among the nineteenth-century intelligentsia.

Between them, Bachofen and Michelet were the intellectual progenitors of Goddess spirituality generally and Wicca specifically. Bachofen’s ideas influenced not only Friedrich Engels, who incorporated the defeat of the matriarchy into Marxism, but Carl Jung and later, Joseph Campbell, who viewed the myth of the powerful earth or moon goddess as a universal human archetype. James Frazer used Bachofen’s suppositions about matrilineality and the early supremacy of agricultural goddesses in his famous Golden Bough , as did Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), who contended in her 1903 book Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion that all the goddesses of Greek mythology had been just one goddess during pre-Hellenic, matriarchal times. The Prolegomena and The Golden Bough were the chief sources for Robert Graves’ White Goddess (1947), arguably the most influential work of Goddess theology of all time. Graves painted an idyllic picture of prehistoric Mediterranean life in which the Triple Goddess (virgin, mother, and crone) was the sole deity, women ruled, and human beings of both sexes were in tune with nature, poetry, and the life-force.

Michelet, for his part, influenced Margaret Murray (1863-1963), an anthropologist and historian who combined the theories of La Sorcière with those of The Golden Bough in a series of books (the most famous was The Witch-Cult in Western Europe , published in 1921) arguing that the rituals of witchcraft embodied those of primitive Celtic sacrificial cults, and that witchcraft rivaled Christianity until the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries decimated its ranks (but did not destroy it entirely). Murray in turn influenced Gardner and his Wicca; she wrote an enthusiastic foreword to Witchcraft Today .

Like the work of other Goddess-advocates, Murray’s witchcraft studies have been thoroughly demolished by mainstream historians, who agree that some pre-Christian folklore survived the Christianization of Europe, but nothing resembling an organized pagan religion. This has not prevented her theories’ enthusiastic incorporation into feminist mythology. “Nothing about the Goddess myth correlates with what we know of the ancient civilizations which her devotees claim as their foremothers; everything, however, has clearly identifiable roots in the modern subcultures which began with Romanticism and the nineteenth-century occult revival,” Davis writes. “It is not Crete, Malta, the Balkans, Lycia, and Greece that bequeathed the Goddess to us, but . . . Michelet, Bachofen, . . . and Gardner.”

Davis’ book has its flaws. His is a history of ideas, but he takes a topic-by-topic approach that makes it difficult to trace some of the intellectual fashions he discusses from their Romantic beginnings to their Wiccan culmination. Even more annoyingly, he regularly introduces us to books before introducing us to their authors. His concluding chapter consists of a digressive if perhaps worthily motivated polemic against “diversity” politics, the violence-against-women industry, and other topics unrelated to his larger subject. In general, Goddess Unmasked has a superficial, off-the-cuff tone that reads more like a romp through Davis’ lecture notes than a probe of the occult-obsessed corners of nineteenth-and twentieth-century intellectual life.

Nonetheless, he has done his homework and knows his arcane material thoroughly. I closed his book hungry to read more about the eccentric passel of poets, mountebanks, magicians, and philosophers (mostly men) who created the Goddess and passed her off to the feminists as prehistoric. Blessed be.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor at Lingua Franca and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her book, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press), was published last spring.