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Mythic Passages - the magazine of imagination

Reading the Mythological Feminine
by William G. Doty

Images of women including ancient Roman, Greek, Wollencroft, Simone de Bovier, and Betty Friedan

Most of us began to feel the millennial shift in the 1960s, when the ensconced values of hundreds of years were suddenly called into radical question. The events of the sixties were the culmination, however, of a change in collective consciousness that started with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the revelation of the full extent and intention of the Holocaust after World War II. In the past fifty years societal structures and attitudes have been shaken to the point that we cannot always find solid ground. Changes we cannot explain are occurring underfoot (Meador 1996:37-38, reviewing Baring and Cashford 1991). It was joked about in the 1960s that the feminist movement in New Brunswick began in the living room of our large house near Douglass, the women's college of Rutgers — The State University of New Jersey. Certainly my partner and I and a renter, Kay F. Turner, were deeply involved along with many other women and men who tolerated my tanks of soup and home-cooked bread. An amazing, lovely journal, Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night, was Kay's collectively-produced project from 1976 to 1983.

All this became a legacy that spread throughout Rutgers as it did across the States. And into my own psyche and scholarship (acknowledged explicitly in Myths of Masculinity 1993: 11-16) and Joan Mallonée's repeatedly teaching a Women and Religions course at the University of Alabama some years later. But now I am astonished to find among my students little awareness of what transpired then, little sense of the difference between the patriarchal status quo and the possible social reconfigurations in which women do not earn (as to this day) considerably less than men, where women are not assumed to be the primary gender to which is relegated the weight of child-rearing, caring for infirm or aged parents, and nurturing. The "family values" touted by conservative politicians still consistently refuse to fund health insurance for children, or to provide release time to deal with family illnesses, or to underwrite childcare for working mothers.

But my task here is not so much political agitprop than sketching some of the materials of the second half of the twentieth century that provided depth-mythological grounding for the politics that inspired many of the movements which have, indeed, led to at least some dismantling of the female:male dualisms that always left the masculine dominant, the feminine subservient. Note Baring and Cashford's observation in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.(1991: 668):

In collective consciousness, also, perhaps we should see the habit of thinking in absolute and fixed oppositions as a symptom, a sign that something is out of balance. There seems to be no reason why we should not talk of a collective complex as well as an individual complex, where a complex is defined as an unconscious and unresolved conflict that cannot move into the next stage of growth. [...T]aking a transitional, and so provisional, division of a unity into two opposing aspects for an absolute definition about the opposing nature of the two aspects — seeing all life finally in dualistic terms — also prevents genuine relationship with what is actually "there."

At my most recent tape-measuring, our bookshelves held just over 3.5 linear yards of relevant books, and that's after pruning quite a few volumes over time. Hence the narrowing down here to a baker's dozen or so, recognizing that easily three or four times as many titles might have been cited. Several of the volumes could be categorized variously, so I trust aficionados will not be put off by my less-than-strict cataloguing than might satisfy a librarian.

Minoan Snake GoddessFirst, some works especially relevant to the re/discovery of Goddess strata of ancient-and contemporary-aspects of Western culture. The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine by Christine Downing (1981) was a very important introduction for many folks — not least because of the quite personal tone of the author sharing her own path and intense experiences and her ability to show parallels between ancient figures and contemporary situations. And that approach also appears in Carol P. Christ's 1987 work Laughter Of Aphrodite: Reflections On A Journey To The Goddess, where chapters of Dialogues with God and Tradition are followed by those on the Journey to the Goddess. She shares the response of the pastor who baptized her goddaughter, referring only to "his" baptism into the "fellowship" of Christian "men": the pastor felt her remonstrations were tiring, as he longed for the day "when women like me would not feel the need to impose their personal problems on the Christian liturgy" (28). Both authors have led study tours in Greece, often emphasizing Goddess-relevant sites.

Erich Neumann's 1963 version of The Origins and History of Consciousness (1st ed. 1955) provided hundreds of illustrations (185 plates plus many in-text drawings) as well as a conceptual (Jungian) framework that was highly influential. Certainly he shows how archetypal analysis cannot remain purely abstract, cut off from specific socio-historical contexts. This and his 1954 publication may be regarded as unrelentlessly universalizing, but they can also provide a useful perspective on mythic materials common to many different cultures.

South Bihar GoddessAncient Mirrors of Womanhood: A Treasury of Goddess and Heroine Lore from Around the World by Merlin Stone (1979) surveys a wide range of goddess figures from around the world, from China to Ireland, Mexico to Africa, Turkey to Japan, Scandinavia to New Zealand, with excellent comparative materials and citation of many texts. And in dictionary-entry format, Robert Bell's 1991 Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary is truly exhaustive for women in classical mythology. Imagine tracking down "Gaeeochos, Holder of the Earth," (mentioned in Sophokles' Oidipous Tyrannos) that was one of the many names of Artemis at Thebes (207).

Ellen Reeder's 1995 work, Pandora: Women in Classical Greece, encompasses a range of comprehensive essays exploring aspects of gender in classical culture, as well as carefully annotated illustrations from an exhibition entitled Pandora's Box: Women in Classical Greece. Froma Zeitlin's 1996 work, Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (Women in Culture and Society Series), broadly focused upon gender issues across Classical Greek literature that gathers materials by this classics professor at Princeton dating back to 1970 — fairly technical, but of great value for indicating the deep imbrication of gender issues in mythological materials (she was back there with us at Douglass in the 60s!)

HestiaTwo very well-received volumes by Ginette Paris Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia (1986) and Pagan Grace: Dionysus, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in Daily Life (1990), offer extremely prescient analyses of Greek goddesses and a couple of gods. What pleases Aphrodite, for instance, is an "equilibrium between nature and art" (1986: 20); Hestia "is the Goddess who chooses stability over change, who welcomes the adventurer into her house and feeds him well on the condition that he wipes his boots on the doormat before stepping on her shining kitchen floor and into her peaceful domestic realm. She offers focus (foyer or hearth) to the volatile dispersion of Hermes-Puer" (1990: 112).

Marta Weigle's "Reflections" from her Creation and Procreation: Feminist Reflections on Mythologies of Cosmogony and Parturition (1989) are profoundly challenging arguments against purely-patriarchal views of cosmogony. It is impossible to read creation myths in a pre-feminist manner after working through this important (if unfortunately now out of print) book, which includes a very comprehensive appendix of texts (177-246). Her compendious earlier work, Spiders & Spinsters: Women and Mythology (1982) also treats subjects such as myth and symbol, women and mythology, and goddesses, quoting many critical texts and helpfully annotating the bibliography.

Carolyne Larrington's The Feminist Companion to Mythology (1992) scans world mythology region by region with strongly feminist re-readings of much traditional material written by scholars as competent as Weigle — and indeed she contributes here the chapter on Southwest Native American Mythology. I can imagine using this volume as a core resource for a course entitled Feminist Approaches to World Mythologies. While many world mythology collections include attention to the feminine divine, the relatively small book of David Leeming and Jake Page, Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine (1994), collects retellings of what they consider archetypes of the feminine, ranging from the Earth Goddess and the Great Mother to Fertility Goddesses and even Goddesses Abused. It echoes their later volume, God: Myths of the Male Divine (1996).

Kiste bearerThe wide-ranging scope of Barbara Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983) is extremely impressive — it has often given me a fresh slant on materials with which I was long familiar. Walker has uncovered many obscure female figures — and some pretty unusual male ones as well, such as Saint Guignole, a French name for the phallic Priapus; after his acceptance into the Christian canon, women scraped splinters from his ithyphallic statues to use in conception charms (357). The same author's 1988 reference work, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, provides fulsome guidance to symbols, images, and rituals.

While I have not included a number of classic works on the recovery of Goddess cultures in the first half of the twentieth century (and earlier), I will list as an excellent starting point to study the backstory an extensive work that focuses approaches to the ancient world (Baring and Cashford 1991). These authors present a synthesis of earlier findings by Marija Gimbutas, James Mellaart, and others, and are especially concerned to trace the decline of the primary Goddess culture from as early as 2000 BCE (xii).

With respect to one important figure, see Marina Warner's Alone of all Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976), an extensive cultural history of this and related figures in the West (with a number of color illustrations). A brief but stunning, beautifully illustrated account in Ajit Mookerjee's Kali: The Feminine Force (1988) surveys this strong Indian figure from antiquity through contemporary ritualizations. Further discussion might include especially several volumes by the author Starhawk (see for instance her 1982 publication Dreaming the Dark : Magic, Sex, and Politics) and other Wiccan practitioners of the Old Craft.

Kali and the Virgin Mary

Online resources such as Mything Links mounted by Kathleen Jencks (www.mythinglinks.org) will lead to many resources beyond this elementary survey. My focus here has been upon post-mid-twentieth-century materials — several of which recall earlier gestures, as in the works of Johann Jakob Bachofen, Robert Graves, Robert Briffault, and E. O. James. Baring and Cashford's bibliography, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, is compendious for tracing such figures, and their perspective completely in accord with my own, namely that "mythic images are the fundamental inspiration for the evolution of consciousness" (1991: 669).

Works Cited

William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.

Read more articles in this series by Dr. Doty

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