FEMINIST WITCHCRAFT AND FEMALE
by Wendy Griffin
Sociology of Religion, Vol.
56. No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 35-49
Although individual feminists
in this country have long been concerned about the treatment of women in
mainstream religions (see, for example, Stanton, 1895), the first contemporary
indications of group challenges to mainstream religious misogyny appeared
in the early 1970s. In November of 1971, Mary Daly led "hundreds"
on an "Exodus from patriarchal religion" (Daly, 1992:7) by walking out
at the conclusion of a sermon she delivered in the Harvard Memorial Church.
A few months later, in 1972 in Los Angeles, the first coven of feminist
witches which practiced "the Craft" as a religion began to meet under the
guidance of Zsuzsanna Budapest. Within a few years, these witches were
gathering with several hundred women in the mountains to celebrate
their visions of female divinity in religious rituals (see Budapest, 1989).
To date, the Goddess
Movement, which evolved from these early initiatives, has been studied
primarily by theologians and psychologists, but has been relatively ignored
by sociologists (for rare exceptions see Jacobs, 1990; Lozano and Foltz,
1990; Neitz, 1990; Finley, 1991). As a result, relatively little
is known about the way these groups function, who participates and at what
level, and how the worldview of the practitioners is developed and shared.(1)
In this paper, I use a phenomenological approach and descriptive analysis
to demonstrate how those who practice feminist witchcraft and/or participate
in "goddess rituals" use consciously constructed mythopoeic images in religious
ritual to create a framework of meaning which seeks to define a new ethos.
This ethos is intended to "revision" power, authority, sexuality, and social
relations. As in many other New Religious Movements, the relationship between
the spiritual and the material is being redefined (see Beckford, 1986),
but in the Goddess Movement the material is firmly rooted in the female
body. In the discussion that follows, I describe this redefined relationship
and the significance it has for practitioners by drawing on three mythopoeic
images from local rituals and my interviews with feminist witches.
The arguments in this
paper are based on four years of research which began when one of my students
invited me to attend a religious ritual organized by her coven of feminist
witches. A colleague and I attended this first ritual together, and then
sought and received permission from the coven to do participant observation,
using a triangulation of ethnographic techniques which included written
and tape recorded fieldnotes on all events we were allowed to attend, semistructured,
in-depth recorded interviews and, when possible, original photographs and
videotape. These events consisted of both private and public (or open)
rituals, camping weekends, planning meetings, several religious services
marking significant life events for specific individuals, and occasional
social gatherings. We collected data for 1 1/2 years on this group
which we call the Coven of the Redwood Moon. Although it is clear we were
accepted as a peripheral members (see Adler and Adler, 1987), we did not
ask to apprentice and did not join the coven. After this time, my colleague
relocated and I began to do individual research on a local "goddess group"
I call Womancircle, returning to Redwood Moon only occasionally for public
The initial contact with
Womancircle was also made on campus, though I quickly discovered that I
had meet several of the core members or "circle sisters" at public ritual
and workshops with Redwood Moon. I used the same triangulation of
ethnographic techniques as with Redwood Moon: participant observation,
extensive fieldnotes, photography, and interviewing of core members.
Several of the members were also in a large, loosely knit group of women
drummers, which I joined. During the following year, many of
the original drummers drifted away and the scaled-down group began playing
occasionally at coffee houses, neopagan craft fairs, and Womancircle rituals,
which provided me with a different kind of entree and opportunity to collect
data. Although I am a core member of the drum circle, I am not a
core member of Womancircle. When "feelers" were sent out to invite me to
participate at that level, I discouraged them. I have attended a
few of their planning meetings in my dual role as drummer and researcher,
and some social events in my role as friend and drummer.
The Goddess Movement
and feminist witchcraft are routinely criticized as being "white women's
movements," and while Caucasians are in the majority, the criticism is
not valid among the core members in the two groups I studied. Of
the seven women who were members of the Coven of the Redwood Moon during
the study, one was Chicana and another African American. Womancircle's
nine-member core also included a Chicana and an African American. Not surprisingly,
both groups made a point of including images of goddesses of color in religious
Although the age range was similar
in both groups, from the late 20's to mid 50's, there were marked demographic
differences between the two groups. Almost all of the Womancircle members
had at least a four year college degree and worked in professional or semi-professional
occupations. Most of Redwood Moon's witches did not attend or had not finished
college and had working class jobs. In addition, the majority of
the coven members tended to be lesbian, bisexual, or celibate. Only one
was in a heterosexual marriage and none of them had children at home. In
contrast, two of the Womancircle core were married and had small children
living at home and several others were married or were in heterosexual
live-in or dating relationships during the study. Only one was a lesbian.
All of the women in both
groups identified themselves at one time or another as feminist witches,
but there were organizational differences between them. Circle of the Redwood
Moon is a radical feminist coven, and members are trained through reading
assignments and discussions to do a radical feminist analysis of gender
and power. Called "Dianics," after the Roman Goddess Diana, they are similar
to other neopagan groups in the United States and Britain in that they
celebrate "sabbats" or holy days based on seasonal cycles, require an apprenticeship
and training in ideology and the practice of magic, value female leadership
and divinity, and share the one law of the Craft.(2) They
differ from most other neopagans in their feminist analysis, political
activism, and in that most of them acknowledge only an autonomous female
principal and reject the concept of a male divinity. Men are very rarely
invited to participate and are not allowed to become members of Dianic
During the time of this
study, Redwood Moon held occasional rituals that were open to the public
and an annual weekend camp which was locally advertised and attended by
35-60 women. In addition, they sometimes participated in gatherings with
nonfeminist neopagan covens.
Womancircle was much more
loosely defined and more typical of the larger Goddess Movement. Although
some of the women in the Movement belong to covens and some have even been
trained by or have been Dianics, others prefer less structured groups that
demand less commitment and may be less separatist. Still others belong
to no group but show up occasionally for public ritual, and some are active
members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which has a national educational
program on the goddess and feminist witchcraft.(4) There is no apprenticeship
or required training, although workshops are frequently offered on topics
that are believed to empower women, such as meditation and visualization
techniques or discovering the "Goddess within" (for examples, see Bolen,
1984). As in feminist witchcraft, the spiritual focus is on an autonomous
female divinity and the creation of powerful female images, and the group
holds rituals to celebrate the seasons. Many women in the Goddess Movement
practice witchcraft and magic in a manner similar to Dianics and neopagans,
although many of them tend not to call themselves witches and to prefer
the word "spirituality" to "religion."
Of the nine core Womancircle
members, one was formerly Dianic and another still identified herself as
such. Three more had taken structured "witch classes" conducted by
Dianics outside of their own group which used feminist analysis, and all
of them had attended Dianic rituals. The group organized public rituals
five times a year, two solstice fairs, and occasional workshops. Men were
welcome at almost all of these events. They also had retreats and workshops
for the core members, which I did not attend. Their rituals tended to draw
fairly large crowds, 40 was the smallest I observed and over 200 the largest,
while 1000 people may stop in at their Solstice Fairs. They have a current
mailing list of 1300 people who have attended at least one event and want
to be apprised of future ones.
Women in both core groups
appear to accept uncritically the belief in prehistorical "Goddess Cultures"
where women and "women's values" were a major part of the societal ethos
(see Eisler 1988). In Womancircle and, to a slightly lesser degree, Redwood
Moon, there was a tendency to consider femininity and masculinity as innate
characteristics rather than as social constructs. Many of the women have
been involved in feminist activities in the community, such as rape crisis
centers, family planning centers, and resource centers. Although the witches
in Redwood Moon are much more likely to discuss the political ramifications
of religion, all the women in both groups consider public ritual to be
a political act.
MYTHOS AND SOCIAL RELATIONS
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz
(1973) argues that religion actually shapes social order and psychological
processes, that the symbols in rituals and myths are believed to sum up
what is known about the world and teach people how to react to it. This
means symbols and myths have both psychological and political impact because
they create a framework of meaning through which people learn to accept
certain social arrangements and reject others. Geertz's argument is supported
by Sanday's findings that the secular power roles of women and men derived
from sacred concepts of power seen in origin myths of the 150 cultures
studied, rather than the other way around (Sanday, 1981).
Mythos, then, may be partially
understood as a cultural vision of the world, one which "links the individual
self to the larger morphological structure" of society (Campbell, 1988:72).
If not reinforced through the regular performance of religious ritual,
myths run the danger of being forgotten or reduced to "mere" literature
or art (Priest, 1970; Campbell, 1988). Myths also lose their vitality when
they fail to reinforce the link between the self and the experienced world.
Sometimes in times of crisis, a new mythos is created that speaks to the
devitalized or faded myth, as Wilder (1970) has demonstrated occurred with
the rise of Christianity. The new myth and its symbols come into immediate
conflict with existing social institutions and authority.(5)
Feminist witchcraft sees
women's oppression and environmental abuse, which they argue are intimately
linked, as firmly rooted in patriarchal religions. They claim that the
mythos of God the Father and Creator of everything is a devitalized one
which fails to address the experience of women's lives, and so cannot possibly
link them to the larger social structure. In particular, they focus on
the differences between the mythic image of a female divinity who creates
life alone in an act of parthenogenesis by reaching within her own body
in a physical, material act and that of a transcendent, celibate male divinity
who created life with a thought or a word and who is above and apart from
his creation. They talk about the "patriarchal thought-form" based in the
latter image and point to how this influences the way we understand the
world and human experience in two important ways.
First, feminist witches
emphasize the similarities in the hierarchical structures of the world's
five major religions, reflected, for example, in angels, saints, jinn,
and demi-gods. Mageara, Redwood Moon's Priestess of Ritual Magic who does
occasional presentations on witchcraft, says this model trains people to
defer their power and responsibility upward. It is reinforced by hierarchical
value systems which rank the material, the emotional, the intellectual,
and the spiritual in ascending order. Women and femininity are identified
with the material and the emotional, the lower half, and men and masculinity
are identified with the upper and "superior" half, consisting of the intellectual
and the spiritual.
Second, feminist witches
point to the linearity of patriarchal myths and intellectual constructs.
It is because the material and emotional are devalued in relation to the
intellectual and spiritual, they say, that patriarchal religions teach
us that "Life is a vale of tears." In order to ascend the hierarchy
of values, the material and emotional must be overcome. The body must disciplined,
even mortified, they say, and desire conquered. These religions tend to
be salvation-oriented, speaking of a linear lifetime with the goal of moving
up and beyond to an afterlife, to a sacredness outside of the world. Even
when life is understood as a process of reincarnation, the goal is still
to move elsewhere, to move beyond the material and break free of the cycle
of rebirth. The enlightenment and experience of the divine is one of transcendence.
Mageara argues that:
Out of infinite possibilities, this belief system
creates social relations that will
THE MYTHOS OF FEMINIST WITCHCRAFT
conform with, reinforce, and maintain itself.
This thought-form conceptualizes power as power over, rather than power
to do or to be. It turns human activity into forced
productivity that leads to the abuse of the earth
and women because it compartmentalizes the material, separates it from,
and places it beneath the spiritual.
Max Weber wrote that the
world became "disenchanted" when sacredness was removed from everyday life
and moved out into another realm where the divine dwelt.
...the sense of sacredness was gathered up from the
countless tree and water spirits,
But, the goal of transcendence
and the concept of sacredness being separate and external to the self are
alien to feminist witches, who draw heavily on ideas explored by Chodorow
(1978) and Gilligan (1982) and emphasize the female experience of continuity
and connection. Instead of transcendence, the Goddess represents
immanence, which they visualize as the flow of energy that connects all
things. Through religious ritual and magic, feminist witches and women
in the Goddess Movement attempt to link what they believe is the divine
within them to the divine around them in the natural world. To them, the
Goddess is "the normative image of immanence" (Starhawk, 1988:9), the mystical
experience within of everything that exists without.
like so many scattered rays of light brought to focus
in a lens, and was concentrated in a nucleate...concept of the divine (in
Their concept of the trinity,
the dynamic cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth as represented by
the Goddess' three aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, reflects and reinforces
their belief in connection and immanence. The Triple Goddess is a metaphor
that supports cyclical time, like the seasons. As Mageara says:
What comes around goes around and everything is connected.
There's no deferring of power or responsibility upward, no linear plane
to transcend, no getting off the wheel. Instead of working toward
transcendence, the goal is to accept where in the cycle you are and really
BE there. You might as well. After all, this is it folks!
Instead of the basic hierarchy
of material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual of patriarchal religions,
the symbol used by feminist witches is a circle which contains and balances
the intellectual, emotional, material, adds energy as a fourth element
and sees the whole union as spiritual, because the whole is greater than
the sum of its parts.(6)
Having rejected "patriarchal
thought-forms" as failing to reflect their own experience of reality, these
women also reject the core values they grew out of and express. The
four core values emphasized by witches in my interviews were the same as
those discussed by Christ (1982) as being typical of Goddess symbolism,
including affirmations of female power, body, will, and of women's heritage
and bonds. Just as it has been argued that the symbols and mythos
in Judeo-Christian tradition have reinforced the interests of men in patriarchy
(for examples see: Daly, 1973; Stone, 1976; Christ, 1982; Baring and Cashford,
1991), the women argue that the symbols and mythos of the Goddess shape
a new ethos and cultural vision of the world. This mythos uses a definition
of power they believe to be free from the dynamics of domination. As Mageara
argues, "female power isn't about power over, it is power to do, power
to be." It is an articulation of power that, according to recent research
on gender differences (Hale and Kelly, 1989), is similar to the way that
many men and women tend to actually use power in the secular world.
Thus their gendered understanding of power and their cultural vision are
firmly rooted in the female body and experience, and they believe this
presents a serious challenge to patriarchal relations.
FEMINIST MYTHOPOEIC IMAGES
Traditional religious iconography
offers one major mythopoeic image for women, that of the Mother. Whether
she is portrayed as the young virgin with child or the grieving madonna
of the Pieta, she is young, she is beautiful, and she is defined by her
relationship to her son. In contrast, the Triple Goddess defines
herself, and each of her three aspects is a mythic image that is capable
of standing alone. This can be illustrated by examining the use of mythopoeic
imagery in three public rituals of Womancircle and Circle of the Redwood
The first was created by
Hypatia, Dianic witch and priestess in Redwood Moon.(7) The
coven sponsored a weekend of workshops, discussions and rituals in which
I participated along with a group of some 60 women camping in the mountains.
My notes describe the scene.
The second night out was a full moon and we waited
impatiently for the moon to crest the tall pines so that the ritual could
begin. Finally, we saw two flames winding down the
Hypatia told me later she neither
"became" nor "invoked" Diana, phrases which would suggest that the Goddess
was external to her priestess. Rather Hypatia "manifested that part" of
her that was Diana. But this was no fleet-footed, pony-tailed chaste young
goddess of the woods and dells. Hypatia is a powerful-looking, obese woman
whose presence in her secular life often intimidates people who don't know
her well. As Diana, this sense of power was dramatically enhanced. This
was a Diana who looked like she could strangle a boar with her bare hands.
But her strength was more than physical; there was a drama in her presence
and authority that seemed to stem from within. This is described by a woman
in her mid 20s who was a feminist new to Goddess ritual.
mountain path. As they neared, we saw that these
were torches, held by priestesses in
silver gowns that caught the light from the flames
and glittered like pieces of the moon
herself. The priestesses paused in the south, and
then I noticed the enormous shadow thrown against the hill. It is Diana
who comes behind them. Rationally, I know it is
Hypatia, but I also "know" it is Diana. A heavy green
cape is swept over her shoulders
and matches her baggy pants. Her huge breasts are
bare, and her chest is crossed with the leather straps that hold her cape
and the quiver of arrows on her back. She carries a
large bow and her face is hidden behind a mask of
fur and dried leaves. Deer horns
spring from her head. There is no face, not a human
one, anyway. ...The Goddess pauses
between the torches and fits an arrow to the bow.
She draws it back and with a "twang"
shoots it into the darkness. The sound is a catalyst.
We are released like the arrow and
begin to cheer.(8) (August 24, 1991)
Other images of Diana are all sexualized from a male
point of view, kind of a scantily clad Playboy bunny in the woods. But
when she came walking up and I realized who she was, it was really different.
It was really kind of overwhelming and shocking. But after the
Later in the ritual, Diana asked who
was "on her Moon Time" or menstruating. On those women who were, she pinned
a sprig of herbs tied with a red ribbon. This same young woman found
initial shock, she was Diana. This was a female who
radiated power with her body and
costume. Her unselfconsciousness about her body was
powerful and the way she walked was almost majestic. I'll never forget
it. This was the Diana I want to relate to.
Moon Time! What a beautiful concept! If you were
menstruating you were special. You had this incredible gift that your body
has given to you, something to be proud of! And we got to wear red
ribbons so that everyone else would know and be proud of you too!
This was a Goddess who was a virgin
in Goldenberg's (1979) sense of being independent of her lovers, not one
who was necessarily by nature sexually inactive, a definition popular with
feminist witches. With her attire and gift of Moon Ribbons, She celebrated
the female body in a uniquely female way. This was a totally different
image of Diana than the one with which we are familiar. This was
the Goddess of the Moon and the Lady of the Wild Things. With this
powerful image, Hypatia manifested the strong, independent Maiden that
the witches argue may be found in all women, a natural part of the female
self that has been denied and suppressed.
The second mythopoeic
image was presented by a priestess from Womancircle. Almost 200 people
had gathered in a rented church hall to celebrate the Winter Solstice and
were seated on blankets and jackets on the floor in a semi-circle around
a large round altar decorated in reds and greens and many small goddess
figurines. About 2/3 of the people were female, 1/3 male, and infants and
small children were scattered in the crowd. Light seemed to
dance in the air around the altar from the many candles people had brought
as offerings. It was well into the ritual, when three figures stepped
out from the shadows. Like Hypatia's Diana, each figure was a priestess/Goddess.
The first was a Black Isis, with a large feathered shawl. The second a
Chicana Tonatzin with rattles and beads and feathers. The third was a pale
Virgin Mary, draped in white and blue. Each moved slowly around the altar,
explaining who she was and why she was there. The image of diversity, the
multiple faces of the Goddess was a striking one, and in itself part of
the new mythos. But it was the words and actions of the pale Mary that
present the particular challenge to patriarchy explored here.
As she circled the altar, her robes
swirling gently around her ankles, Mary smiled and said she too was the
Goddess. She told us that we had been taught many things about her. Some
of them were true, some of them were lies, that being the mother of a child
was not all that any female was, no matter how important the particular
child might be. There was much more to Mary then her chaste visage might
suggest. My fieldnotes record what the priestess/Mary said:
"The Church Fathers and their artists always dress
me in blue and white. What they never tell you, is that under my
robes I wear a red petticoat," and she lifted her drape to her knees, revealing
a bright red petticoat with flounces! People laughed. (December
The laughter was immediate and spontaneous.
Several people told me that they had been momentarily startled by the sight,
and that was why they laughed. Later, a young woman who had read about
the Goddess but was new to ritual told my why she laughed.
It was kind of shocking because it reminded us that
the Virgin had a body.
And a middle-age woman told me she laughed,
...in recognition. It's [the petticoat] a symbol
of joy and happiness and sexuality.
The priestess who had "been"
Mary was more specific.
Life under something else. It's there even if you
don't see it. It's like an inside joke.
I see many, many connections that can be made between
the image of Mary...and the
The small gesture of raising
her robe was intended to uncover a new Virgin Mary. Her red petticoat was
a metaphor that served to establish a link between the female body and
the divine, in other words, the material directly to the spiritual. Instead
of denying the body, this image celebrated it.
denigration of women. One of the things that they
have done to Mary, they've taken away her sexuality. She was a mother and
yet had no sex. She was not a woman, she was just a role. And I see this
personified in our relationships with our own earthly mothers.
We have this idea of what they should be, but we
don't let them be women. So when I said
that Mary had a red petticoat underneath, I meant
that under her image of serene mother and chaste virgin, whatever, she
was a woman with lifeblood, with sexual blood. Kind of reclaiming her sexuality,
it was symbolic of that to me.
The Virgin Mary in this
ritual was a Mother Goddess who had a material, female body, who birthed
and created life out of her own flesh and blood, who might still be sexually
active even after giving birth, and who, in raising her petticoat, metaphorically
redefined what it means to be female and to be spiritual. This Virgin Mary
did not give the impression she would ever utter the words, "be it
unto me according to thy word" (Luke, 1:38). Thus "re-visioned,"
she reclaimed her sexuality, her fertility, her autonomy, and her divinity.
The last image was consciously
constructed by several Womancircle priestesses and unaffiliated women in
the community. An announcement had gone out to the community that
a six-month series of workshops would begin to focus on the Crone aspect
of the Goddess. The culmination of these was a ritual in late October,
where the women who had attended the workshops publicly "claimed their
Inside the dimly lit rented
church, almost all of the 100 attendees wore black. There were men and
children here and there in the crowd that circled two round tables in the
very center of the hall. These tables had been placed together and
draped in purple velvet, and the effect was a horizontal figure eight,
the symbol of infinity. One lone white taper burned on this dark altar;
other than that, it was bare. The community of celebrants had been dancing
to a small group of drummers, a wild, wide spiral dance that filled the
church as people awaited the coming of the Crones. The "handmaiden" who
had been sent to invite them into the hall returned, and the dancers stopped
in place, forming a large double spiral that led up to the altar. The drums
beat slowly as the handmaiden scattered rose petals in the path of the
Crones. First came two together, carrying between them a large cauldron
symbolizing wisdom, death and rebirth (see Walker, 1985). Behind them,
the other Crones glided in one by one. They were dressed entirely in black,
their faces partially hidden behind black veils. They carried candles
specially made for the occasion, beeswax dipped in black, purple, and red.
Some of them carried flowers in their arms, several had small Goddess figures
in their hands. The veiled figures circled twice through the human spiral
as people spontaneously cried out small encouragements. "Welcome Crones!"
"Hail Crone!" "We love you!" "The world needs more Crones!"
One of the Crones told me:
It was close, very close. People didn't touch
us as we passed through, but we felt
The line of Crones reached the
altar and encircled it, forming a circle within a circle. Several "called
in" their favorite Crone Goddesses, Hecate, Lilith, Medusa, inviting them
to join the circle. One by one the women went to the altar candle and used
its flame to ignite their own, which they placed around it, along with
any flowers and statuettes they carried. When they had all completed this
act, they lifted back their veils and turned around to face the community.
Singly, each then announced who she was, where she came from, and what
she had to offer the community. A typical presentation was:
emotionally touched....It felt like we entered the
body of the Goddess and were
birthed as Crones.
I am Marilyn, daughter of Dorothy, granddaughter
of Judith, great granddaughter
The crowd cheered each crone's declaration.
Some of the "gifts" they offered were fairly traditional - wisdom,
love, healing. But there were also crones who promised laughter, sexual
love, and political power. The last offering evoked a loud, "Grandmothers
of Laura, who was a daughter of Hecate. If
you would seek wisdom with a Crone, seek me.
In claiming their cronehood,
announcing their matrilineage, and declaring themselves valuable, these
women shattered the stereotypes of aging females, both for themselves and
those attending. A 22 year old woman confided:
It was really an exciting, emotional thing. Many
of them went back three and four
And a 24 year old said,
generations. That was amazing. And the power in their
voices! In my family the women don't raise their voices and announce who
they are. To see such strong women! One said, 'if you would seek
ecstacy with a Crone, seek me.' I've never seen older women in a sexual
light before. It was really uniting and empowering.
I felt really connected with the joy and power in
these women who were saying, 'This
And what this ritual represented
to her was that she could look forward to an old age where she could be
respected and valued by her community, an old age where she could be serious,
playful, sexual, wise, powerful, political, and humorous, should she so
choose. In other words, the image is one of a woman who is old and whole.
The Crones rejected the limitations imposed by a culture where female power,
such as it is, is tied to youth, beauty, fertility, and male-directed sexuality.
They were aging and aged postmenopausal women who symbolically redefined
female beauty and worth and so reclaimed their autonomy and power. They
clearly believed they had something of value to offer, and their community,
in turn, rejoiced.
is where I am. This is what I want to do, and this
is where I'm going.' They were like
older sisters, and what they gave me is what I have
to look forward to.
Clearly, each of these examples
offers a celebratory vision of female power, female will, the female body,
and of women's bonds. Rather than presenting role models for women
that are defined and limited by their relationship to divine and secular
male authority, as witches claim patriarchal religions do, each seeks to
legitimate female power and authority. But instead of being based in dominance
or hierarchy, the model of power and authority is rooted in strength and
self-knowledge. The Crones said "this is where I am...this is where
I'm going." Mary "had a body" and apparently delighted in it. Diana
"radiated power with her body" and provided a source of pride and identification.
Each image presented a physical manifestation of the connection between
the material and the spiritual and then went on to not only liberate female
sexuality from concepts of sin, but actually celebrate the erotic. Taken
together as images which contribute to the new mythos, they offer the possibility
of what Spretnak calls "an embodied way of knowing and being in the world,"
which possibility she described as:
..the empowering realization that being is being-in-relation,
that we come to know the larger reality of humanity, Earthbody, and cosmos
through the body, not by escaping the personal to an abstract system, and
that apprehending our dynamic embeddedness in the unitive unfolding brings
wisdom and grace to our subjectivity-including our conceptualizing and
theorizing (Spretnak, 1991:149).
This embodied epistemology provides
a spiritual dimension to feminist critiques of epistemology explored in
fields as diverse as psychology (Benjamin, 1980), political science (Hartsock,
1985), and biology (Keller, 1985).
Of course, whether or not
the women involved can sustain these feelings of power and celebration
outside the ritual setting in a world that does not share their beliefs
is problematic. But this difficulty is not limited to feminist witchcraft
or the Goddess Movement, as many individuals experience conflict living
up to their religious beliefs in a secular world. In addition, the power
of mythopoeic imagery and religious symbolism in post-modern society may
be open to debate. Yet regardless of intellectual debate, the women have
felt the need to replace one set of mythic images with another, and have
created religious images and symbols that have special significance and
meaning for them. And as no two rituals are ever exactly alike, they continue
to engage in this process of creation each and every time they do ritual.
This is a setting that offers
rich material for further study. Do women who experience feelings of personal
empowerment in Goddess rituals feel empowered in their daily lives? If
so, how are these feelings manifested and do the women attribute them to
their religious beliefs and practice? Are they different for women
who experience different kinds of oppression, such as women of color or
women with physical disabilities? In sum, specifically how do the
spiritual beliefs and practices of these women help them to survive in
a male-dominated world? What is the relationship between women in
the Goddess Movement and those who choose to remain in traditional religions
but work to incorporate into them the female experience of the divine?
Another area for study involves
the differences in the Goddess Movement between essentialists, who believe
there are universal and specific feminine and masculine qualities rooted
in biology, and social constructionists, who argue that gender roles and
distinctions are artificial, that they are socially constructed and imposed.
How do these frameworks affect the understanding and analyses of patriarchal
religious oppression experienced by women and how do they address the issues
of race and class in the Goddess Movement? Do they affect the religious
worldview or how the new cultural vision is articulated? Are their
demographic as well as ideological differences between the two groups?
It is clear that the Goddess
Movement is successful in providing a new framework of meaning for some
women who, in growing numbers, are alienated from patriarchal religions.
Although it supports other feminist approaches to change, such as in the
legal, educational, and political arenas, it is radical in that it argues
that the roots of gender oppression are deeper than these changes alone
can reach. Religion defines the deepest values of a society, and, as Spretnak
Efforts to radically transform society must fall
short if the deepest informing
As these core values are challenged,
new questions arise for sociologists. Not the least of these will
deal with growing political tensions which are already visible. Feminist
witches claim that more and more women are "coming out of the broom closet"
and making public demonstrations of their faith. Evidence to support this
can be seen in a proliferation of recent mainstream media articles on witches
as well as in the list of sponsors and participants for the 1993 Parliament
of the World's Religions held in Chicago.(10) Evidence of
the tension can be seen in the denouncements of feminist witchcraft and
Goddess worship by some leaders of traditional religions, and the tendency
of these same leaders to link feminism and all its issues to witchcraft.
This public challenge to core values and the resulting potential for conflict
is another area where research may be fruitful.
assumptions and core values are not challenged (Spretnak,
In creating mythopoeic images that
are rooted in material manifestations, such as the seasons of the year
and the female body, feminist witches and women in the Goddess Movement
seek to shape a new cultural ethos. In presenting them in public
rituals which are highly experiential, they attempt to share the worldview
that informs this ethos in the belief that, eventually, this will lead
to social change. Whether or not this goal is likely to be realized
is beyond the parameters of this paper. What is clear is that these
women have rejected the ethos they believe is present in patriarchal religions
and, through the conscious construction and enactment of myth, seek a new
cultural understanding and vision that will reconnect and, in the Weberian
sense, "reenchant" the world.
1)Even less is known concerning numbers of practitioners
as authority and records have never been centralized. Kelly (1987) extrapolated
from subscriptions to pagan journals, attendance at pagan gatherings, registered
coven membership, book sales , etc., to estimate 50,000-100,000. Neitz
(1990),however, believes that these figures leave out most feminist
witches. In 1991, Budapest asserted to me that there were hundreds of thousands
involved. Eller (1991) points out that for every woman who is actually
initiated as a witch, many others read Budapest's books, participate
in a study group, or attend a Goddess ritual. Typically, these individuals
are not counted, as sociologists describe New Religious Movements "in terms
of their most intense manifestations" (Eller, 1991:280). What is
clear is that the movement has grown dramatically since 1971.
2)This one Law is sometimes considered two,
as it basically says do whatever you want to do as long as it doesn't hurt
anyone. If you do hurt someone, be prepared to accept the consequences
because whatever is "sent out" will return increased.
3)There is also a smaller, non-separatist
Dianic Tradition based on the teachings of Morgan McFarland, which acknowledges
both divine female and male principles. It is not represented in this paper.
4)Called "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,"
this eight week course, written and designed by Shirley Ann Ranck, makes
heavy use of slides of representations of ancient goddesses, feminist consciousness
raising, and experiential workshops.
5)The reactions of mainstream religious leaders
to feminist witchcraft and the Goddess Movement are a good example of this.
See statements made by Pope John Paul, reported in the New York Times,
July 5, 1993:1-4, and Pat Robertson's fund raising letter from August,
6)Each element also represents a cardinal
direction and associated concepts and characteristics. For example, the
East represents the mind, thought, air, hawks, speed, beginnings.
The South is fire, energy, action, heat, stars, passion, childhood.
The West includes water, dolphins, intuition, emotion and friendship.
And the North is earth, harvest, body, stones, growth, and endings.
7)Dianic witches may choose to undergo specialized
training of at least a year and a day after initiation into the coven in
order to become priestesses. In Womancircle, however, women
who believe they are "called" by a particular aspect of the Goddess may
consider themselves her priestesses and use the title without further training.
8)Before being shot, the arrow had been passed
around the circle so that we could touch it and focus our "will" or "do
our own magic" on it After ritual, women praised Hypatia for her skill
and many of them told me they had seen the arrow hit the bull's eye and
heard the thud as it hit. Some knew that Hypatia's hobby was archery.
But as the target that night was lit only by the full moon and a distant
torch and because of the arrow's symbolic importance, I investigated. Hypatia
admitted to me in private the next morning that she had thrust the arrow
into the bull's eye by hand before the group woke up. The arrow hadn't
come anywhere near the target!
9)This was a clear reminder that it was only
a few weeks before the elections, in the Year of the Woman, and Diane Feinstein
was using her role as a grandmother in her California television
campaign for the US Senate.
10)The Covenant of the Goddess, one of the
national umbrella groups that provides legal recognition of witchcraft
and neopaganism as a religion, was one of the Parliament's sponsors. Witches
attending the meetings conducted a full moon Goddess ritual one night in
a nearby public park. Among the leaders, was Devi Moonsong, a witch from
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was originally published.