Loss of the Feminine Divine

If you met a goddess-worshipper, would you see her (or him) as odd? I probably would look twice.

We tend to think of those who worship the feminine divine as pagan witches or New Age kooks who are ever-so-slightly off their rockers.

But as I reflect upon my upbringing in the Christian church, I missed the presence of strong females in the stories I heard on Sunday mornings. The Virgin Mary always seemed sweet, but she never had the sass or intrigue of Jesus, and she definitely didn’t wrestle with any angels.

For hundreds of years, men and women in the Western world haven’t had a healthy, independent female divinity to connect with, and perhaps have started to suffer for it. Athena, Aphrodite and Demeter used to rule alongside men, and historical evidence contends that Hera once was more widely worshipped than Zeus. But Western religion has become increasingly patriarchal as female associations subtly moved aside to make room for the heroic males conquering the pages of our holy texts.

Religions do more than provide us with a set of morals. They give us archetypes and role models. Author Tim Ward explored the loss of the divine feminine in his book, “Savage Breast.” He quoted Carl Jung: “Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definite feminine image … an imprint or ‘archetype’ of all the ancestral experiences of the female.” If he’s right, consider what this means. Throughout school we absorb chosen relics of society’s mythology, from “The Odyssey” to Noah’s Ark to “Romeo and Juliet.” If we passively soak up all these depictions of men and women, our definitions of gender roles are going to evolve accordingly.

For example, in “Savage Breast,” Ward suggests that the utterly non-sexual purity of the Virgin Mary gives men and women an unrealistic ideal of purity. The Virgin Mary, from what I understand, is worshipped largely for obedience to her god, while God appears in fiery bushes and Jesus knocks over tables while yelling about society’s wrongs. The Virgin Mary just stays put. I don’t think purity and obedience are negative traits, but I wish the writers of our cultural mythology had provided a few strong female figures to balance out her passive nature, like a warrior, prophet or priestess. (There are a few, but no one tells their stories in Sunday school.)

Some, like Ward, suggest many men idealize purity because of the Virgin Mary archetype. I recall a story I read in Russian literature class – a dashing man falls in love with a girl named Liza. He adores her innocent nature but as soon as he takes her virginity he loses interest in her and leaves her. She consequently commits suicide. Sound vaguely familiar?

For all the reverence our largely Christian country pays to Mary, the very word “passive,” a trait traditionally associated with the feminine, implies negativity and weakness in America. We don’t take too kindly to vulnerability in our society, despite the fact that Jesus – our most prevalent religious figure – claimed in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” To illustrate the dominance of the active over the passive, consider this: When was the last time you were making small talk and couldn’t think of anything to say? Maybe your heart beat a tad faster as your mind raced for words. There’s a certain assumption in our society that if we don’t fill every moment with speech – utilizing the active force – we are inept or weak. I always have wondered whether all humans similarly regarded conversational pauses as “awkward silence” or if Americans were especially antsy about it. Apparently, other cultures like the Maori of New Zealand revere silence within conversations. Long pauses signify reflection and appreciation of what was said rather than self-blame. Perhaps it is a pure coincidence that Maori worship includes both male and female deities, but I wonder if that diversity promotes an embrace of passivity – a “feminine” trait.

Passivity – associated with the yin, or the Taoist feminine energy – is an underutilized treasure in Western society. Sure, Americans work hard, we’re efficient and we’re productive. Those things are not exactly evil, because if no one worked to fulfill their dreams we wouldn’t change a thing. But how would we know what to work toward if we never introspected? What’s the use of efficiency if it costs us our gentleness and temper? When everybody wants to talk instead of listening, then what’s the point of conversing? If you’re all Yang – the male energy – and no Yin, then you’re all action but no substance. Most people consider the ideals of “surrendering” and “giving up” as negative values. But sometimes surrender helps you to lose your own agenda and simply experience the divine, which is basically the point of spirituality.

I do not, by any means, intend to subjugate women by reducing them to gendered descriptions like passivity. However, I realize almost every major world religion associates women with earth, darkness, passivity, receptiveness and nurturing. The male energy typically recalls the sky, activity and aggression. Thus, I object that our society represses a whole set of healthy traits because they are associated with femininity. Maybe once we broaden our religious archetypes to make room for the goddess again, we can let everyone bask in the warmth of the “feminine” gentleness and passivity while offering women the cultural legroom to try on some new roles.

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3 Comments

  1. Brian McEuen said,

    April 17, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    A lotta good points!

    I just wanna say a couple things. It can easy to confuse femininity with being female, male with masculinity. When we talk about figures that represent femininity being passive, that is a very acute representation of that ideal or energy. The virgin mary did not just not do anything, she is the loving mother figure, being a loving feminine embrace for a couple thousand years for those in the Christian tradition. Not simply not doing anything, but lovingly doing nothing. It is an ignorance of our society that we feel that this feminine ideal is not as important as butt-kicking jesus and the 12 henchmen. I agree that our society is extremely out of balance and out of touch with the feminine, but the female is to be respected for the very reason that she is usually by nature more familiar with that feminine energy. I have nothing against the idea of butt-kicking mary either, except that doesn’t really work very well as a representation of the feminine energy. That past hundred years has really seen an infusion of masculinity into females. Perhaps the next hundred will see femininity infused into males.

    I know I quote Ken Wilber a lot, but in his “Brief History of Everything” he mentions that, looking back in ancient cultures, Goddess worship was much more prevalent in Horticultural societies, (where tubules and other plant foods were able to be dug with a stick) where pregnant women could work on equal footing with men in the production of food. When agriculture came along, the work was much more demanding, pregnant women would have a much higher rate of miscarriage in participating, and were phased out, becoming childbearers and homemakers. At this point, God worship took over. I find this fascinating.

    Anywho, great post.

  2. michellegm15 said,

    April 18, 2010 at 1:28 am

    I mentioned this to you earlier today…but thing is, are our representations of female/male energy socially conditioned? There are societies where women are the hunters and farmers while males keep house. Thus, I’m reluctant to say that yes, females tend to be more passive/emotional/nurturing. Though we probably do have those instincts in greater quantity because of our child bearing…it would be a positive trait evolution-wise to have. So it’s probably a little bit of both…

    However, what would this say about homosexual relationships? I mean, Taoists condone them, as long as you keep your balance in check. Two males might have one more yang and one more yin, EVEN IF they are male by nature. We have to take that into account.

    Most of my beef, though, lies with the fact that the traits associated with females are ignored by our very “yang” society. Also, I don’t think the Virgin Mary has a BAD role that doesn’t have importance, but there aren’t many other major women, and the female energy is WAY more multifaceted than that. Come on, you have the male trinity, twelve tribes, Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and all the women are sidekicks. And that is not how it has to be. We should celebrate not only obedient, passive, nurturing women but also the priestess, the sorceress, the sexual ones, the powerful and cunning ones, and the ones that disobey the norms! Christianity is, some argue, a critique of power structure in and of itself, so why aren’t there more Christian women in the Bible who exemplify that quality?

  3. D someone said,

    October 8, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    You completely ignore the historical context. Ideal women of the Early Middle Ages were expected to behave very differently from modern women. What you consider interesting in a woman today, was absolutely despised then. Truly and deeply despised.


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