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A Question of Origins: Goddess Cults Greek and Modern

  • Helene P. Foley

Abstract

Although Greco-Roman material has been of considerable interest to the creators of modern goddess cults, there has been little response to their claims from classicists, who apparently view their efforts as marginal and eccentric.2 Indeed, unlike the study of the evidence for the worship of goddesses in pre-history and in ancient civilizations, goddess cults and their theorists have found a marginal place in the academic world, but operate largely beyond its boundaries. Hence the study of these cults offers an opportunity to consider the relation of an important popular feminist movement in the U.S. to the concerns of feminists in the academy. In this essay I propose to take a look at some contemporary goddess cults and the claims of spiritual feminism from a classicist’s perspective. In an attempt to be selective rather than comprehensive, I have chosen to concentrate above all on the writings of Starhawk and Carol Christ as representatives of a diverse movement.3 I shall not address one major area of contemporary interest in ancient goddesses, the neo-jungian psychotherapeutic movement based on the use of goddess images as archtypes.4 The first half of the essay takes a critical look at the theoretical claims made in favor of this movement (rather than considering actual practice) ; the second half turns to classical material. An examination of archaic and classical Greek literary representations of the relation between myths and cults involving goddesses and women reveals, I shall argue, not only significant misappropriation of ancient sources, but missed opportunities for a fuller understanding of the religious project in which spiritual feminism has engaged.

Keywords

Female Experience Traditional Religion Attic Version Religious Sphere Female Power 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 3.
    To my knowledge, no comprehensive study of the demographics of this movement has been made. For the purposes of this study, I shall respond, and only selectively, to the considerable and still growing body of published work on the issue. In this essay I neither deal with the spiritual feminist movement as a whole nor offer comprehensive documentation of the issues under discussion. Christ and Starhawk were selected because they played a formative and influential role in the movement. For further annotated bibliography, see Anne Carson, Feminist Spirituality and the Feminine Divine (Trumansberg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1986)Google Scholar
  2. and Patrice Wynne, The Womanspirit Sourcebook (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).Google Scholar
  3. For a representative anthology of seminal views from the 1970s, see Charlene Spretnak, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (Garden City: Anchor, 1982).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See, for example, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses in Every Woman: A New Psychology of Women (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984);Google Scholar
  5. Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger J. Woolger, The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths that Shape Women’s Lives (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987);Google Scholar
  6. and Patricia Reis, Through the Goddess: A Woman’s Way of Healing (New York: Continuum, 1991). Jungian analysis of goddess archetypes is another topic not directly addressed in this essay.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    See the representative work of Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 6500–3500 B.C., second edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982) and The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989),Google Scholar
  8. and Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).Google Scholar
  9. For a summary, see Carol P. Christ, The Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 161–80.Google Scholar
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    Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979, rev. 1989), 200.Google Scholar
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    See Carol P. Christ, “Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 277–79.Google Scholar
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    Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 4.Google Scholar
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    The question remains open. The recent Jungian study of myths and images of Western goddess figures by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (New York: Viking Arkana, 1992), for example, closes with a meditation on the possibilities of reclaiming a goddess myth without a goddess.Google Scholar
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    For a brief judicious critique of interpretations of prehistory in question here that specifically addresses Mycenaean and Minoan evidence, see Margaret Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory (Frome, Somerset: British Museum Publications, 1989), esp. 66–76 and 108–118. The larger issues raised by feminist archaeology and anthropology are beyond the scope of this essay, and I do not mean to suggest a quarrel with the overall enterprise of re-evaluating prehistoric evidence.Google Scholar
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    For a recent attempt to uncover such enabling pagan rites behind Christian practice, see Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993). “Z” (Zsuzsanna Budapest), The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries (Oakland: Wing-bow Press, 1989), postulates the existence of Dianic Colleges in which young women served Artemis or Diana before the Judeo-Christian genesis (Artemis/Diana appears in Greco-Roman mythology surrounded by bands of female companions and hunters).Google Scholar
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  35. 32.
    For a brief summary of women’s roles in Greek cult, see Louise Bruit Zaid-man, “Pandora’s Daughters and Rituals in Greek Cities,” in A History of Women I: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, Pauline Schmitt-Pantel, ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992), 338–76Google Scholar
  36. and Elaine Fantham, Helene P. Foley, Natalie B. Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy and H. Alan Shapiro, Women in the Classical World: Image and Text (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  37. for their role as priestesses, see Helen McClees, A Study of Women in Attic Inscriptions (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1920);Google Scholar
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  39. 34.
    For an attempt to imagine what went on in all female cults in Athens, see John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), 188–209.Google Scholar
  40. 36.
    Christ, “Laughter,” 201, and Charlene Spretnak, “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone,” in Plaskow and Christ, Weaving the Visions, 72–76. See also the discussion of the significance of the Demeter myth to modern women by Christine Downing, The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine (New York: Crossroad, 1988).Google Scholar
  41. For a spiritual feminist reading of the myth not discussed here, see Carol Orlock, The Goddess Letters: The Myth of Demeter and Persephone Retold (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987).Google Scholar
  42. For a discussion of other feminist reactions to the Demeter/Persephone myth, see Helene P. Foley, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary and Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  43. 37.
    Gunther Zuntz, Persephone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971) is here attempting to reconcile through the story of the rape two possibly separate myths, a putatively Indo-European myth about mother and daughter corn goddesses and a putatively pre-Greek myth about Persephone goddess of the underworld. This intriguing reconstruction is entirely speculative, but in any case there is no evidence that pre-Greek culture in southern Greece was pre-patriarchal or matrifocal.Google Scholar
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    See George Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens (New York: Haskell House, 1972), 119–23,Google Scholar
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  46. and Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 120–62. This supposition derives from the role of women in other Demeter cults, not from any certain evidence. If the Thesmophoria pre-dated the Mysteries, women probably did play a role in creating the Eleusinian myth and the cult at its earliest phases. The earliest physical remains at Eleusis are Mycenaean, although they may not be indicative of a cult at this early date. Only if the cult began at an earlier stage that was in some sense pre-patriarchal (a strictly hypothetical speculation), can the myth as we now have it represent a patriarchal re-shaping of pre-patriarchal material.Google Scholar
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    For a fuller discussion of these mythical variants, see Foley, Hymn to Demeter, esp. 97–103 and Jenny Clay, The Politics of Olympus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 224–65 passim.Google Scholar
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    See Jean Rudhardt, “A propos de l’hymne homérique à Déméter,” Museum Helveticum 35 (1978): 1–17, translated in an abridged form in Foley, Hymn to Demeter, 198–211.Google Scholar
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    For further discussion of the dynamics of the mother/daughter relation in the poem and the female confrontation with patriarchy, see Marylin Arthur, “Politics and Pomegranates: An Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” Arethusa 10 (1977): 7–47 reprinted in Foley, Hymn to Demeter, 21–42 and Foley, Hymn to Demeter, esp. 112–37 with further bibliography.Google Scholar
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    See especially Orphic frag. 49 Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta (Berlin: Weidmann, 1922) and Apollodorus, The Library 1.5.1–3.Google Scholar
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    In contrast to Bamberger, Peggy Reeves Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 179–81, 197 interprets these myths as, in some cases, a response to the disorder following Europeanization; in other cases the myths are produced by cultures in which women have considerable informal power. Bamberger’s interpretation seems to fit the Greek context better (see the use of Bamberger by Zeitlin in “Dynamics of Misogyny”).Google Scholar
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    Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot; Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 5–6; see also 102–03. The plot pattern of wrath, withdrawal, return was in fact common to both male and female stories in epic (e.g., Achilles in the Iliad), but the resolution of the Demeter/Persephone story marks its difference from the mortal and masculine version.Google Scholar
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    Nancy Chodorow, “Family Structure and Feminine Personality,” in Woman, Culture and Society, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), 60–62.Google Scholar
  54. Most contemporary feminist psychoanalysts (e.g., Luce Irigaray “And one doesn’t stir without the other,” Signs 7.1 [1981]: 60–67 and Speculum of the Other Woman [Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985]) would argue that the mother/daughter relationship is fundamentally and inescapably conditioned by patriarchy and its effects on the status of the mother.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

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  • Helene P. Foley

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