The Reflowering of the Goddess

by Gloria Feman Orenstein


The Creation of the Birds by Remedios Varo

My appreciation to Gloria Feman Orenstein for her kind permission to post these excerpts from her book The Reflowering of the Goddess (Pergamon Press, New York: 1990), pp. 18-24. The author retains the copyright for this text.  It may not be copied without her permission.

*from Chapter 2.  The Secrets of Green Magic:

Radical Feminism, Ecofeminism, and Grandmother Gaia

In her painting The Creation of Birds, the surrealist artist, Remedios Varo, depicts a Woman/Bird Being who is both an alchemist and an artist.  Sitting in her laboratory, which is also her art studio, she uses the energies of the cosmos and the chemicals of the earth to sketch the image of a bird, which then flies off the paper and soars into the sky.  Dressed as a bird herself, she has created a being in her own image, and has given it both artistic and biological life simultaneously.  Indeed, many indigenous peoples all over the globe believe that to retell the story of Creation is to re-create the world.

Paul Gunn Allen, in The Sacred Hoop:  Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986) explains that when Thought Woman sang over the medicine bundles, she brought life to the twins.  It was her singing that brought forth life, not a biological act.  "A strong attitude integrally connects the power of Original thinking or Creation Thinking to the power of mothering.  That power is not so much the power to give birth, as we have noted, but the power to make, to create, to transform. . . .  Without it no practice of the sacred is possible, at least not within The Great Mother societies" (Allen, 1985, p. 29).

Thus, perhaps it can also be said that to tell any story propels it into some form of life (if only the life of the imagination of the reader), gives it energy, and enhances its possibilities for realization in some form.  Then we can conclude that women writers of the new Eve's (re)birth may be launching more than a mere fiction, for if, as the surrealists believed, "the imaginary tends to become real," and if, as many indigenous peoples believe, to retell the Creation story is to re-create the world, then the literature and the arts produced by feminist matristic artists over the past two decades, may actually and magically bring about amazing and surprising changes in the world.  As extreme as this statement sounds, there is no reason to believe that the project of feminist matristic artists is any less monumental than that--a project of ecological, political, social, and mythic proportions. . . .

I invoke Paula Gunn Allen's discussion of the native American Indian literary tradition in presenting the works of a feminist matristic vision, because I believe that their objectives, as well as their expressive forms of ceremonial and ritual, are often similar in function.  She writes that native American Indian literature is not about self-expression, that it is about creating ceremonies, and telling sacred stories that align humans with the energies of the cosmos, that integrate them into the larger community, and make all of reality sacred.  Thus, if the feminist matristic arts and letters have not only reinterpreted the Fall, but have also created new mythic paradigms for Western culture, it is because feminist matristic artists and writers believe, along with native Americans, that through the power of the word, originally the spoken word, now transmitted via the print media, they can bring humans into balance with nature and the cosmos.  For the word (its vibratory resonance) is real, and its magical utterance does produce materializations.  Feminist matristic writers and artists believe that all of reality is sacred, and that all is interconnected in ways that are not always obvious, but that the life of the mind and the life of matter are inextricably interrelated so that Creation is literal.

To argue that Creation is literal, that the energy of thought is integrally related to the creation of matter, is not the same as holding a Jungian belief in the collective unconscious.  On the contrary, rather than unconscious, in this case I see a close conscious interrelationship between mind and matter that heretofore has been put down as a "primitive" belief in magic.  The Jungian hypothesis of a collective unconscious also leads to ahistorical and transcultural conclusions that simply erase specific historic and cultural contexts.  I would also argue that the Goddess image, as it appears today in the works of contemporary feminist matristic artists and writers, symbolizes not just the nature-fertility and cosmic-creation  motifs, but also a new unification of women's roles, both as procreator and as creator (of culture, i.e., artist), based on a heightened awareness of the primordial unification of these roles in ancient cultures.  The prevalence of the re-emergence of the Goddess today, while it means different things to different women in different cultures, can also be seen, more generally, to stand for a conscious reclamation of a world view whose ethics, spiritual values, and social organization are deemed superior to those of today's dominating technocratic, non-ecological, androcratic systems. . . .

In The Great Cosmic Mother:  Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor (1987) speculate on the world view that predominated before the inception of patriarchal structures.  This cosmogony expressed itself differently in various cultures and civilizations all over the world, but fundamentally it held that the Earth was the Great Mother of all of life, and the cave was the womb of the Great Mother.  All life, both biological and spiritual, was considered to be sacred and interconnected, and cultures such as those of the Neolithic were, as we have previously stated, more egalitarian and less violent than our own. In addition, these cultures were matristic, and nonhierarchical; they affirmed life, and do not seem to have engaged in war.

Tracing the voluminous data about prepatriarchal, matristic societies, and contrasting those findings with what we know of the nature of most patriarchal societies in the past and today (i.e., that they separate spirit from matter, are nonegalitarian, and engage in war), the authors call for a new "global spirituality."  Their definition of this new spirituality can be considered the touchstone for what values feminist matristic writers and artists are reclaiming in invoking the image of the Goddess in their creative works today.  Sjoo and Mor write that "we need a spirituality that acknowledges our earthly roots as evolutionary and sexual beings, just as we need an ontology that acknowledges earth as a conscious and spiritual being; we need a new, global spirituality --an organic spirituality that belongs innately to all of us, as the children of the earth" (Sjoo and Mor, 1987, p. 421).

It is this new global earth-based spirituality that the symbol of the Goddess represents today.  The Goddess symbol reminds us of the approximately 30,000 years of human history in which those earth-based, pacific, nonhierarchic spiritual values existed in cultures that revered the Great Mother as the Creatress of all. However, the Goddess is not reclaimed today simply for the sake of role reversal.  She is reclaimed to provide the information and evidence lacking in general education in order for us to confront mainstream religious ideologies and to trigger our historic memory of times that were real. . . .

Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978, p. 17) reminds us, in her discussion of the dismemberment of the Goddess tradition by Christian and post-Christian myth, that just as the godfather has replaced the Mother Goddess in patriarchal societies, and silenced women's expression of their own spirituality relating to the pre-existing Goddess cultures, so too has nature's voice been silenced by the same patriarchal institutions, philosophies, and policies.

Daly refers to Rachel Carson as "an early prophet foretelling ecological disaster" (1978, p. 21) in her book Silent Spring, and sees Carson as a "mythic Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo ('the god of truth') to be disbelieved when she prophesied truth" (p. 21). She adds that "Ecologists today still deny her recognition, maintaining dishonest silence.  Meanwhile the Springs are becoming more silent as the necrophilic leaders of phallotechnic society are carrying out their programs of planned poisoning for all life on the planet" (p. 21).

Daly goes on to stress the fact that she is not suggesting that women have a "mission" to save the world from ecocide, nor is she "calling for female self-sacrifice in the male-led cause of 'ecology'" (1978, p. 21). She, however, does call for women to have the courage to break the silence and create a new spring. . . .

In linking the death of the Earth Mother (nature) to the death of the Great Goddess (prepatriarchal matristic cultures), Daly is not engaging in a reversal of the "woman is to nature as man is to culture" postulate.  Nor is she elevating women and nature above men and culture.  On the contrary, she is thinking in a web of interconnectedness . . . . Such a vision of the connection between nature and culture sees that cultures which revered the Great Mother did not destroy nature.  Daly's radical feminism was ecofeminism, for she  . . .saw the connections between human-created kinds of cultures and the way humans in those cultures treated the natural world. . . .

In the following discussion I will attempt to recount the ecofeminist political position.  However, I want to emphasize that ecofeminists do not necessarily require either a Goddess as symbol or a harkening back to the Neolithic for inspiration.  As a viable contemporary political movement, they seek to bring about a world whose ethics, practices, and values may, in some ways, resemble those of our ancient forbears in matristic cultures, but they neither agree on all of them, nor do they necessarily invoke prepatriarchal Goddess cultures as a model for the ecological future they envision.

However, some ecofeminists, such as Starhawk, are practitioners of Wicca, the religion of the Earth Mother Goddess; some, like Charlene Spretnak, also stress an inextricable bond between politics and spirituality.  Others do not embrace the Goddess either as an inspiration from the past or as a present spiritual value in order to carry out their important ecological and feminist political work in the world . . . .

While some might see a profound difference between radical feminism and ecofeminism (claiming that the radical feminists [like Mary Daly] continued to maintain a dichotomy between nature and culture, while linking women to nature, only elevating that connection above men and culture), I argue that what both have consistently done is to show that culture is the creation of humans who are part of nature.  They have repeatedly shown how we have done a disservice to humans and to nature by considering only men to be the creators of culture.  When we look upon cultures in which women were creators, we are aware of a different attitude toward nature.

A young ecofeminist, Chiah Heller, has shed light on ways to reclaim both women and nature in their special association with each other . . . .  Chiah Heller points out that "the belief that certain subjects are more connected to nature than others is basically dualistic and patently reflects a lack of ecological sensibility."  What can we learn from ecology that can be applied to this problem?  Heller reminds us that "the study of Social Ecology shows us that all beings within an eco-community are interconnected" (p. 13).  Thus, as Heller continues, a radical ecofeminist critique of  the "woman and nature" question must articulate a way to break through this dualistic impasse.  Once we go beyond dualism, we see that the question becomes how we can account for women's different relationship to nature without reasoning that women are "more" connected to nature than men.  Heller's response is that "women are not more connected  to nature than men, but rather that women remember their interconnectedness to the natural world more than men" (pp. 13, 14, 15).

Heller calls men's lack of this primary awareness their "ecological amnesia."  Women's primary memory of human interconnectedness with nature is then termed women's "ecological memory."  Heller affirms that women and men are equally connected to nature, but that whereas men have forgotten this connection, women have remembered it.  She stresses that these inclinations are only "tendencies," for, naturally, there can be women who have also forgotten their interconnectedness with nature as well as men who remember theirs.

We might, at this point, look at the three kinds of amnesia we have discussed until now.

1.  Amnesia vis-a-vis a period of 30,000 years of history in which the vast realm of Creation was associated with a female Creator, the Great Mother.  (Matristic, historical amnesia).

2.  Amnesia vis-a-vis an ecological understanding of the interconnectedness of everything within the vast realm of Creation.  (Eco-amnesia).

3.  Amnesia vis-a-vis the models of Creation and of communication with the spirit world revered in nonwhite, non-Western, and tribal societies, both in the past and in the present.  (Shamanic amnesia).

It now becomes obvious that under patriarchy, humans in power (males for most part) have brought about a process of selective memory, and that what has been pruned from our ideologically constructed memory bank and from our educational systems is vast--its scope includes approximately 300 centuries of history as well as our interdependence with most of  the entire living, human and non-human, worlds. . . .

While I wish to remind the reader of the values and beliefs of a time that has been erased from our memory, a time referred to by the image of the Goddess as it reappears in women's arts today, I would also like to bring the discussion up to date by showing that the most contemporary scientific thought arising within our present patriarchal society resembles the cosmological view of ancient matristic cultures.

Here I refer to the "Gaia Hypothesis" as expressed in J. E. Lovelock's Gaia:  A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) in which he states that "the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment" (p. ix).  J. E. Lovelock and Lynn Margulis have elaborated the Theory of Gaia, that the Earth is alive, is sentient, has its own intelligence, and that we pose a threat to all life if we do not live in harmony with its Earth-Wisdom.

We can look upon native American religions and the practice of Wicca, the Earth religion of the Great Mother as reclaimed by Starhawk, as religions that link the original female image of the Creator to contemporary ecology.  Wiccan witchcraft teaches that the Goddess is the symbol of  "Immanence--the awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interfacing and infused with moving energies:  a living being, a weaving dance" (Starhawk, 1982, p. 9).

Whether we consult Starhawk, Paula Gunn Allen, Monica Sjoo, Carolyn Merchant, Irene Diamond or the Gaia Hypothesis, it is clear that what links all of these positions is a fundamental undercurrent of animism.  All of these cosmogonies, religious practices, mythologies, and ideologies concur in their belief that spirit does not exist apart from the entire cosmos, but rather that the Earth itself is sacred, and that since we are an interdependent part of it, we are sacred too.  In all of these living systems the Earth is the Mother, both of life and of death, but death is not viewed as a negative state or as the void within an ecological perspective where all living matter is recycled and reborn.  Death is merely one phase of a vaster process of life, death, and regeneration .  All of this is seen as part of a web of interconnectedness, part of the cycles of seasons, of day and night, of solstices and equinoxes, of the tides, the phases of the moon, and the menses in women. . . .

The End.


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