I don’t think it’s groundbreaking or controversial at this point to say that all three Abrahamic religions are mostly patriarchal. Sure, we can talk about the veneration of the Virgin Mary, or the woman prophets in the Tanakh, or women saints in Islam. At the end of the day, though, we cannot overlook the fact that in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, God is a man. Since 31% of the world’s population identify as Christian and 23% identify as Muslim, that means over half of the people on Earth are completely disconnected from the feminine side of divinity.
Ironically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are among very few religions that don’t embrace a feminine aspect of divinity. Patriarchal religion is treated like the norm in most modern cultures (again, largely because of the dominance of Christianity and Islam), but it has definitely not been the norm throughout human history. The Goddess, the Divine Feminine, has been a prominent part of human spirituality since before recorded history.
In ancient Sumer she was Inanna, the Queen of Heaven. In Egypt she was Isis, Lady of the Sky, Great of Magic, and Hathor, Lady of the West, and Sekhmet, Mistress of Fear. In Hinduism she is Shakti, the feminine principle that moves the universe. In Japan she is Amaterasu, the Great Illuminating Deity, and Izanami, the creatrix who rules the underworld. The Divine Feminine has taken all of these forms at different times and places, among many, many others.
Even the Abrahamic religions haven’t always been solely focused on masculine divinity. There is significant evidence that the Abrahamic God was originally part of a larger pantheon before becoming the sole object of worship in Israel and Judah. As part of a polytheist system, he had a consort, a goddess named Asherah. Rabbinic literature refers to the divine presence of the Jewish God as “shekinah” — interestingly, this is a feminine word, implying that this aspect of God is feminine.
The removal of feminine divinity from Christianity largely occurred during the fourth century, when Roman Christianity beat out other traditions as the sole “correct” Church. Before this some Christian groups, notably those in North Africa, had worshiped God as both Father and Mother — a masculine/feminine dyad, rather than the masculine trinity worshiped in Rome. Other groups identified the Holy Spirit as feminine, creating a trinity of Father, Mother, and Son. (Interestingly, these family triads were also common in Egyptian paganism.) When the Nicene Creed was created in 325 to standardize Christian belief and practice, it excluded these interpretations by affirming belief only in “God, the Father Almighty” and “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and removing all mentions of God the Mother.
All of this does not invalidate the genuine, life-changing spiritual experiences people have had with modern Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. It does, however, prove that patriarchal religion is the exception, not the rule.
Modern paganism’s acceptance and veneration of the Divine Feminine is a large part of its appeal for many converts, especially women, genderfluid, and nonbinary people who do not see themselves represented in the mythology and art of patriarchal religion. The Divine Feminine is present in all pagan religions, though She takes different forms in different faiths.
In monist pagan paths like Wicca, the polarity of Goddess and God is seen as one of the primary ways deity makes itself known to mankind. In the words of Scott Cunningham, one of Wicca’s most influential authors, “The Goddess and God are equal; neither is higher or more deserving of respect… The Goddess is the universal mother. She is the source of fertility, endless wisdom, and loving caresses… She is at once the unploughed field, the full harvest, and the dormant, frost-covered earth.”
The Goddess and the God balance and compliment each other, and this balance is at the core of many neopagan religions. (There are some traditions that exclusively worship the Goddess, but we’ll talk more about that in a future post.)
In polytheist paganism, the Divine Feminine is present in the form of various goddesses who rule over different aspects of life and nature. It is not uncommon for polytheist pagans (or monist pagans, for that matter) to work with multiple goddesses, even goddesses from different historical pantheons. Some goddesses are explicitly associated with certain aspects of womanhood — for example, the Greek goddess Artemis is associated with virgins and young girls, while Demeter is associated with motherhood.
In many (but not all) polytheist systems, there is an emphasis on balance between gods and goddesses. One of my favorite examples of this is the marriage of the Morrigan and the Dagda in Irish mythology. The Morrigan, goddess of war, magic, and death, is married to the “good god” of life, fertility, and knowledge. Their union represents a balance between opposite, complimentary forces.
This brings us to another point I want to make, while we’re on the subject of the Divine Feminine: not all feminine divinities are passive, maternal, fertility goddesses.
In Western culture, women (and, by extension, feminine deities) are seen as the passive or receptive sex. This is largely a product of Victorian England, not an ancient truth.
Without knowledge of sex chromosomes, hormones, or the complexities of gender, Victorian thinkers developed a theory that men had a “katabolic” nature that was constantly releasing energy, while women had an “anabolic” nature that was constantly receiving and storing up energy. This concept of gender greatly influenced Western occultism and can be seen, for example, in Gerald Gardener’s conception of the Goddess as the passive recipient of the God’s energy.
This is a relatively new and very Western idea. In Hinduism, for example, Shakti is both the feminine principle and the energy that moves the cosmos. In the words of author Kavitha Chinnaiyan, “there is nothing in creation that isn’t a manifestation of Shakti.” Shiva, the masculine principle, is unchanging awareness — it is Shakti who possesses the dynamic energy necessary for creation.
I am by no means encouraging pagans to appropriate Hindu concepts. My point here is that no gender is entirely active or entirely passive, which is why so many cultures interpret gender in so many different ways.
Even within systems like traditional Wicca, which operate within a strict gender binary, neither gender can be completely tied down. In their book A Witches’ Bible, traditional Wiccans Janet and Stewart Farrar acknowledge that the “masculine = active, feminine = passive” model is an oversimplification. They use the example of an artist and muse. The (feminine) muse “fertilizes” the (masculine) artist, who “gives birth” to the resulting art.
Personally, I see the masculine/feminine polarity as a constantly shifting dynamic, with both sides giving and receiving energy all the time. Which side of the polarity is more active or passive depends on the situation.
Being pagan does not mean dedicating yourself to the worship of gender binaries, and it does not mean you need to uphold those binaries. God and Goddess are only two of many possible expressions of the Divine, just like man and woman are only two of many possible gender expressions.
Monist pagans see the God and Goddess as two halves of a greater, all-gendered whole. Polytheist pagans may worship gods and goddesses who fall outside of the gender binary such as the Norse Loki or the Egyptian Atum. In either case, divinity is seen as encompassing all possible gender expressions, not just cis man and cis woman.
The erasure of the feminine from Western religion and mythology means that the nonbinary nature of some deities is often downplayed or erased completely. (You’d be hard pressed to find a mythology book that doesn’t use he/him pronouns for both Loki and Atum.) Reconnecting with the Divine Feminine opens the door for other divine expressions of gender.
The end result of this acceptance of feminine and nonbinary divinity is a religious community built on equality between all gender expressions. No one is closer to the gods because of the anatomy they were born with or the gender they present as.
This paves the way for a religion where no one’s worship is restricted because of their gender expression. It allows for priests, priestesses, and priestixes. It allows everyone to fully participate in the rites of their faith, on equal footing regardless of gender or pronouns. It also creates an environment where practitioners feel comfortable exploring issues of gender and sexuality, knowing that they will not lose the support of their community if their identity changes.
- The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
- Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
- The Morrigan and The Dagda by Morgan Daimler
- “Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality” by Elizabeth Lee, Brown University
- Shakti Rising by Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan, M.D.
- A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar
- Casting a Queer Circle: Non-binary Witchcraft by Thista Minai
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