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Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neo-Pagan Feminist Spirituality
by Philip G. Davis
Dallas, Texas: Spence Publishing Co., 1998
(350 pages; $17.95, paper)
reviewed by Donna Steichen
In what is deemed a scientific age, in an incontestably materialistic society, the fastest-growing religion is one built on pure fantasy. Where is this movement coming from, and what does it believe? What can be attracting educated, politically correct, technologically proficient men and women, and their adolescent offspring, to a belief system that is intentionally irrational, even anti-rational? What is the goal of their spiritual search? Many parents, pastors, and educators in society’s mainstream are asking these questions, as the phenomenon of “neo-paganism” spills out of the local New Age bookstore and the weekend Renaissance Fair to the city high school, the parish youth group, and the retreat house staff.
The most popular form of neo-paganism seems to be Goddess Wicca or witchcraft, spelled with a capital W to distinguish its devotees from the traditional Shakespearean image of hags who cast evil spells in satanic rituals. Across the English-speaking world, people—especially but not exclusively adolescent girls unattached to traditional churches—are reportedly lining up to join local units of the Covenant of the Goddess. It has surfaced in some unlikely places: Wiccan services are now held on request at US military bases. Some scholars estimate the number of self-identified neo-pagans in the United States today at more than 200,000.
With this timely, intelligent book, Philip G. Davis offers invaluable aid to readers anxious about the goddess phenomenon. The author is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. His Goddess Unmasked is a work of solid scholarship that tracks goddess worship from Stone Age times through the Enlightenment and nineteenth- and twentieth-century occult movements rooted in European Romanticism, all the way to the writings of people like Carol Christ, Matthew Fox, Zsuzsanna Budapest, and Starhawk Simos, now living near me in California.
With careful clarity, Davis deconstructs the foundational myth of Goddess Wicca: that in Paleolithic times there existed a peaceful, idyllic civilization dominated by women who worshipped a single Great Mother Goddess, until it was overthrown by invading tribes of violent patriarchs. This legend at the heart of the counterfeit religion is not supported by archeology, anthropology, or the literary records of ancient times.
Archeological interpretation is a necessarily limited and often tentative business, but all the evidence indicates that ancient cultures worshiped multiple gods and goddesses. There is no available evidence that the presence of goddesses in their pantheon meant that women were dominant or even regarded as equal. This information is not new. In a 1980 article in Christian Century (9-80), even one prominent Catholic feminist, Rosemary Radford Reuther, cautioned her ideological fellows against embracing Goddess Wicca because ancient cultures with goddesses did not create “a feminist religion,” and medieval records provide “not the slightest evidence” that anyone regarded witchcraft as “centered in a female deity.” Later, under heavy peer pressure, Reuther ceased to mention these objections.
Promoters of Goddess Wicca do not draw on authentic archeological or anthropological data but on relatively recent speculations about ancient traditions. The story of the Great Mother is a fantasy rooted in the nineteenth-century Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment.
Eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy proposed a “religion of reason” to replace the old authorities of society and religion, pitting belief in human perfectibility against the doctrine of Original Sin. When the Enlightenment culminated in the violence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Enlightenment politics lost credibility, yet its individualistic empiricism survived among many intellectual and artistic elites.
Disillusioned about the possibility of constructing a rationally ordered society, yet shunning the constraints of religion, the Romantics embraced a new ideology. Romanticism held that emotional experience is the purpose of life, rejected “dead materialism” in theory if not in practice, and sought authentic community in the “blood ties” of primitive ethnicity. This was the seedbed of the neo-paganism expressed in both the contemporary New Age movement and Goddess Wicca.
Davis uncovers all the ideological and organizational strands involved in the fabrication of modern witchcraft, and they turn out to be those that traditional Christian believers have always blamed. Masonry, Rosicrucianism, Goethe and the German Romantic (and eventually, Nazi) search for a “pure Aryan race,” the Order of the Golden Dawn, satanist Aleister Crowley, Margaret Murray, Carl Jung, Robert Graves, and Theosophy, combined with Frederick Engels’s vision of feminism as an agenda for class warfare, led finally to the ideological feminist politics of the past 30 years, with its anti-rational “feminist spirituality.”
In this, no single influence was more important than that of Gerald Gardner, an English civil servant with exotic tastes, who admired the Romantics, associated with Crowley, joined a Rosicrucian group called the Fellowship of Crotona, and, in the 1950s, wrote a spurious account of having met, in that fellowship, members of a “hereditary witch cult” who taught him their rituals. In fact, he devised them himself, drawing on elements of Masonry, Rosicrucianism, and the Order of the Golden Dawn. In other words, the fantastic beliefs of Goddess Wicca emerged only in the 1950s, largely from Gardner’s eclectic imagination.
What about the other questions? On the cusp of the twenty-first century, why does this intentionally irrational belief system attract educated, culturally integrated men and women and adolescents of both sexes? What are they seeking from it?
Are they drawn by the human hunger for the transcendent? The short answer is “yes.” Organized feminism soon realized that it could not survive without a spiritual component. Gloria Steinem’s MS magazine devoted its December 1985 issue to such compatible religious “traditions” as attenuated Christianity, dissenting Catholicism, feminist Judaism—and goddess spirituality.
According to some estimates, a third of all neo-pagans are men; what attracts them to a goddess-centered religion? Power is part of the attraction, and curiosity. A disproportionate number seem to be declared homosexuals or bisexuals, and the rest, insofar as they engage in the “traditional” nude rituals or the exhibitionism of the “Great Rite,” apparently see no need to confine their sexual thrills to their matrimonial beds. So while Goddess Wiccans are probably attracted by hunger for the supernatural, they, like their predecessors among the nineteenth-century Romantics, are not concerned with truth, only with “feeling.” They seek a spirituality without the moral constraints a religion would impose on their personal autonomy. That game is dangerous for players and innocent bystanders alike.
I find Goddess Unmasked irresistible for several reasons. First, because I live in Ojai, California, a sort of Vatican of the New Age movement, anything that helps to explain the prevailing mindset is naturally of interest. This may be the only town in the world with a street named for Annie Besant, a feminist convicted of indecency and sentenced to a three-month prison term for distributing birth-control devices in Victorian England. So diverse were her radical activities that her biographer, Arthur Nethercot, needed two volumes to tell her story, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant, and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. During one of her “lives,” she was a member of the same Crotona Fellowship to which Gerald Gardner belonged. It was not for birth-control activities but for her involvement with the theosophical movement that her name was affixed to Besant Road, a street that winds below the Krotona Institute at the center of Ojai’s theosophical colony. It is the home of the Krishnamurti Foundation, devoted to promoting the thought of the late Jiddu Krishnamurti, a child protégé of Annie Besant, who in 1926 proclaimed him to be the new Messiah. He later repudiated the role but remains renowned among theosophists for his lectures. The Oak Grove School he founded still operates here.
Scattered across Ojai like seeds in raspberry jam are other theosophical shrines: the Liberal Catholic Church of Our Lady and All Angels, a theosophical-Catholic religious chimera; Meditation Mount, a center of Alice Bailey’s “New Group of World Servers”; the Ecumenical Ministry of the Unity of All Religions; the Symphony of Life Religious Science Church, and tiny World University of America, housed in a former motel, where one can earn a Master’s degree in theosophical philosophy. The community Art Center offers open participation in monthly sessions of the Sufi Dances of Universal Peace. Within a mile of my home, a Goddess Center used to offer Wicca classes, but the property is presently on the market, and I don’t know whether the center is closing or merely moving to a plot with better vibrations.
Another reason the book resonates so strongly with me is that, nine years ago, I wrote a book about the emergence of the goddess phenomenon among feminists within the Catholic Church. I wrote it because I needed to understand the bizarre behavior I was observing among women religious professionals, and I could not find a book to explain it. If Goddess Unmasked had been available then, it would have made my background research for Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism a great deal easier. Now, it is gratifying to see that the results of my own research on the origins of Goddess Wicca mesh with the account of an academic authority in the field.
But readers do not need these personal reasons to appreciate Davis’s book. Engrossing in itself, and a service to the common good, Goddess Unmasked is not a hysterical tirade against neo-paganism, but a lucid examination of its antecedents and recent manifestations, and a fascinating, encyclopedic history of a perennial strand of human folly, delivered in a tone so academically dispassionate that even some Wiccan reviewers concede its accuracy. It will, I think, be depressing only to readers convinced that man’s course is ever upward, on a path of inevitable moral, cultural, and intellectual progress. Goddess Unmasked is certainly a bracing antidote to starry-eyed notions about human perfectibility.
Donna Steichen is the author of UnGodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press) and Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church (Ignatius Press).