Thursday, 30 October 2014

Three poems for Calan Gaeaf...





Northern Star (for my father)


                                                   Your journey is not mine to choose,

                                                         manipulate, to change or bend

                                                   Life’s spiral path must have its way

                                                         Its aim unclear until the end


 You drifted deep inside your mind

A second and the veil reached out

I stand upon the distant shore

My call a futile, wordless shout


                        I call to you my joy, my father,

                             as priestess, to the Blessed Isle

                        As daughter, call you ever homeward

                             to stay with me for just a while


My soul shrinks to a grain of sand

To see your hard-fought words unborn

And yet your smile, my northern star,

Would bring the honey to the dawn


                             I call to you my joy, my father,

                                  as priestess, to the Blessed Isle

                             As daughter, call you ever homeward

                                  to stay with me for just a while


Words lost in too many words

The meanings far from tongue or ear

But I will listen in my dreams

   and in my heart your words I’ll hear


For you have walked the bitter edge where

     fear and love entwine in wild embrace

And you have kissed Her blood red mouth

     and gazed upon Her stone deep face


                             I call to you my joy, my father,

                                  as priestess, to the Blessed Isle

                             As daughter, call you ever homeward

                                  to stay with me for just a while


A deep-root oak, your spirit stands

Around we spin in praying dance

To pull you back from dark confusion

To sing you home from endless trance


Will you surface from Her cauldron

   lost and caged or changed and healed?

Will life’s choices branch before you

Or has Her kiss your future sealed?


                             I call to you my joy, my father,

                                  as priestess, to the Blessed Isle

                             As daughter, call you ever homeward

                                  to stay with me for just a while


But heron comes to show the way

   through misty marshes of the mind

The edge of love, the edge of fear

The connection we were born to find


And when Crone Mother finally calls you

    to rest and change in dreaming womb

I will rejoice that you are with Her

But always feel you left too soon


                             I call to you my joy, my father

                                  as priestess, to the Blessed Isle

                             As daughter call you ever homeward

                                  to stay with me for just a while


               

                                                   
                                                  Your journey is not mine to choose,

                                                         manipulate, to change or bend

                                                   But it is my joy to walk with you,

                                                         my father-child, your daughter-friend


 (2004)


Grief Like Horses (for dad)


Cold autumn pavements carry mourning,
  
   your whispered voice drifts on the breeze,

but I can’t catch the words you send me,
  
   like dying leaves lost to the trees.


I stand like stone on this cold pavement,
    
   paralysed by all I feel,

but Dark Rhiannon surges past me;

   Her dark-eyed challenge tinged with steel.


For I have been scarred by your passing,
   
   your story carved into my skin.

Such beauty in the depths of leaving.

   Such fear to let these feelings in.


I dread these waves that tower above me,
    
   am threatened by the undertow,

but know that I cannot outrun them
   
   and in their tides my healing sow.


This grief like horses drags me onward,
  
   when I would rest and dream you whole.

For I would die to journey with you,
  
   but grief’s wild currents claim my soul.


And, if I dare, I will ride with them;
  
   allow this pain to wash me wild.

Or I could stay on this cold pavement;
  
  deny the woman, stay the child.


So you will journey with your dying
  
  and I will journey with my grief.

But we will touch on this cold pavement;

   love whispered in an autumn leaf.


(2008)


I am my father 

Walking his Woman spirit

Soul to soul entwined

(2013)



All poems ©Jacqueline Woodward-Smith


Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Death and Other Love Songs: On Midwifing the Death of My Father


This essay was first published in Goddess Pages: a magazine of Goddess Spirituality in the 21st Century in the Winter 2007 edition



In memory of Ronald Henry Smith, 14th September 1929 to 17th August 2007 and for ‘She who births us, and waits for us at the end of a life, to take us to another shore’1

And when life can no longer hold you let the red and white springs sing you home …2

I thought long and hard about whether to write this article; death is such an intimate, personal thing that I thought perhaps it would be a betrayal of my father, who I loved more dearly than I can ever say. And yet, when I think about the days and months before his death, about the honesty, openness, dignity, and humour with which he approached his final moment I know that he would say that it was ok. That if it helped others to be less afraid then his death should be shared. Ultimately, his final journey was his alone, and I can only relate my experience of it, so perhaps there can be no betrayal after all. The secrets of that journey have gone with him and I can only share what I know. From my own perspective I do know that death should not be hidden, as is so encouraged in our society, and that the strongest memory I have of those last hours, and the days following it, are of the savage beauty and fierce love to be found at the heart of the Crone.

My dad, Ron, was diagnosed with prostate cancer following a stroke in 2004. I don’t think that I had ever realised what a strong and determined man he was until I saw him fight his way back to health after the stroke but that was also the first time that I ever saw him cry and perhaps the first time that I really saw him as a human being and not just ‘dad’. In a way, I think that there are few things that have shocked me more than seeing my father cry but, through his recovery, we did develop a stronger and more honest connection, for which I am ever grateful. During that time he had many strange visions and in one he saw me shape-shift into a heron, which made him laugh, but made me think of the bird that guards the liminal spaces between life and death. It was then that I first began to consider the role that I might, as best as I was able, play in midwifing his death when the time came.

                                                              'Heron Guards the Gateway', Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, 2011.

I saw him battle that stroke and win and he approached cancer in the same way; with dignity and a determination to be well. He was a fierce protector of his family and he would have considered it a betrayal of us to give in, no matter what the personal cost to himself. In the years to come I often wished that it were otherwise and that he would let go, but that was not his way. As time went on and I saw his health failing I, feeling the brush of the heron’s wing, found the courage to talk to him about death and what we both thought it would be like. He became more and more open to talking in a way that he never had, about the past and memories of his own parents and siblings, about his dreams and disappointments, and about how proud he was of my brother and I and I told him that I loved him many times (which was something that we had never really said). During this time my brother began to research our family tree and dad cried when he saw the names of all the relatives that he had never known but hoped that he would meet some of them when he died. He was also disappointed that no serial killers or highwaymen had revealed themselves! Over time I saw the masks that he wore melt away like autumn leaves and I saw the kind, funny, strong, wounded, and gentle man beneath. It was an honour to share that time with him.

Eventually, in July 2007, he was admitted to hospital with acute kidney failure and, although his kidneys improved, he was told that, as the cancer had by then spread to his bones and lymphatic system, there was nothing more that could be done for him. He received this news with courage and good humour (as he put it he had “both feet in the last chance saloon and Marlene Dietrich was singing ‘Boys in the Backroom’”!), and I think a degree of relief because the responsibility he felt to carry on fighting had been removed. He then went about giving us his final messages (mainly about looking after one another and telling us how proud he was of us) and preparing for death.

A week before he died I attended the Glastonbury Goddess Conference in honour of the Crone. It seemed so perfect to me that we would be journeying with the Crone this year and I learned much about Her nature, and my own, in that week. I had felt for months that our family was being held in a liminal space waiting for death and, through my own intuition and talking to others, found that to be very like the time of waiting for a birth. Both death and birth are transitions into another state of being and it was as though all my attention became focussed on that one thing. When I left for the Conference and said goodbye to dad in the hospital I thought that I might never see him again but I knew that we had said all that needed to be said (despite that fact that I would rather have been able to say those things to him over and over again until the end of time). At the opening ceremony I read out ‘Northern Star’, the poem that I had written for him at the time of his stroke and, by phone, asked the nurses caring for him to tell him that many people had cried. He was a man who never felt ‘seen’ and I wanted him to know that he was seen and mattered before he left.

Often as a priestess during the conference I found myself holding the energy around the doors in ceremony and reflected on my role as gatekeeper for him as he came closer to death. I felt unprepared for the task but hoped that my priestess training and some of the energy of the conference would stay with me and get me through what needed to be done. In the end though I think that it is love that helps us through; there really is nothing more that we need. Before I left the Conference I attended a ceremony where priestesses embodied the Goddesses of the Wheel of Brigit-Ana and gave oracles. I went to Cerridwen and asked Her to give my father a gentle death. Her reply has stayed with me; “he will have his own death with its own dignity” and those words seemed to free me from feeling that I was responsible for making it ‘alright’ and allowed me to let go of expectation and react to what was happening around me, rather than constantly worrying about what it ‘should be like’.

After the Conference I went straight to see dad and we talked about my experiences and his poem being read; he told me again that he was proud of me. It was a warm and lovely afternoon and, looking back, it was the last time that we shared that connection before he began to let go and journey into death. The next few times that I saw him were more difficult, as he was becoming irritated with life in hospital and frustrated that he was no longer able to help with some difficult issues that were happening in our family. He began to close down, becoming angry and uncommunicative and looking frailer by the day. I was saddened by, what seemed to be, the loss of the warm connection that we had found but reminded myself that it was his journey and that my role was as a witness. I had always felt that he would struggle to die, that he would find it hard to let go when the time came, so perhaps that ‘winding in of the threads of connection’ was exactly what was needed at the time. Whatever the reason I trusted the wisdom of his dying.

As a final gift I took a plastic box, which I labelled ‘Ron’s Box of Love’, into the hospital with some pens and paper and asked everyone to put their ‘love’ into it. On my last few visits I, with dad more often asleep than not, spent my time writing thoughts and memories on slips of paper and placing them in the box. My niece and nephew also placed things inside, as did my brother and even one of the nurses caring for dad. It felt important to spend the time expressing our gratitude for all the things he had given us, even though he was perhaps unaware of us doing so (after he had died his nurse told me that she had read some of the notes out to him and that he had smiled). One night in bed, after a particularly difficult visit, I pulled my ‘crow cloak’, which I wear to work with the energy of the Nine Morgens, over me and I heard their voices. They told me that the Death Mother was circling but that the time was not right for Her to descend. Instead they said that dad was “with the earth one”, learning about the experience of being in a failing body and how to let go of it. I also saw a vision of beautiful autumn leaves decaying back into the earth and felt comforted. The Morgens helped me to see that dad’s journey was unfolding as it should and I began to see the gifts that even something as seemingly terrible as cancer can hold in allowing us to fully experience letting go, if we have the courage to do so. I reflected on the added pain and fear that might come from a sudden and unexpected death and felt grateful that my dad had been able to, as much as possible, experience a gentle end to his life.

In the following days I returned to work but also made another short trip to Glastonbury, where I collected water from the red and white springs and communed with the landscape to gain further strength for the days to come. The morning after my Glastonbury trip I packed my bag for work as usual but also felt that I should pack the sacred spring water and some other items from my altar to Cerridwen (which I had created on my return from the conference). I had only been in my office for a few hours when I received a phone call to say that I should come to the hospital; dad had developed a chest infection and he, and those caring for him, had made the decision not to treat it. It took me two hours to get to the hospital and, by the time I got there, he was virtually unconscious, probably because of the drugs that he was being given. My mother was there, later my brother came, and we all sat together, not saying much but glad to have one another. Eventually mum needed to sleep and my brother took her home before he had to return to his own family. He said that he would return in the morning and so dad and I were left alone.

It is almost impossible to describe that night, although I still remember every moment. Dad had been moved into a side room that morning and so we were more or less left alone, the nurses only coming in a few times to check his drip. As soon as mum and my brother were gone I set up a simple altar on a side table. I felt right to create a sense of sacred, despite being in the hospital. If we had been at home I may have been more creative (lighting candles etc) but perhaps that simple collection of objects was all that dad would have wanted; he was a man who appreciated simplicity. I called to the Death Mother, Cerridwen, asked Her to be with us and sat wondering what to do then. I held his hand and told him that I loved him, that he had done all that he needed to do and had kept us safe, that he was brave and that I was proud of him, and I told him that when the time was right he could let go, that he would know what to do. I know that he heard me because I felt him squeeze my hand and a tear rolled from his eye. I repeated the same things several times during the night and also told him all the things that I had been too scared to say, knowing that this would be our last chance in this lifetime. Often I sang to him quietly but most of the time it felt right that my only role should be as a fully present witness. I wanted him to know that I was there but didn’t want to interfere.

What I learned was that death is hard work and is something that we do, not something that is done to us. The Death Mother is our partner in the dance of death and we do have our role to play. Dad was busy that night and was constantly moving his hands. I didn’t hold his hand for much of the time because it felt important that he should be able to move as he needed to. He appeared to be making something and mumbled that he had to go to work, a place perhaps where he had been most himself and had felt most creative and appreciated. He had been a toolmaker and a few days later I mentioned some of the movements that he had been making to an ex-colleague and she gasped and said that they were the movements that he would have made at one of his machines! A few times he appeared to take some food and ate it, at one point seemingly picking some fruit from a tree. I was reminded of Leslene della-Madre’s account of her mother’s death; that her mother had burrowed into the pillow as though searching for the breast.3 It seems that there is something that sustains us even in our dying and it was quite beautiful to watch. Dad worked, and I witnessed, for many more hours; he was sometimes peaceful, sometimes busy, and sometimes set his jaw with the determined expression of a small boy. I cried many times but I smiled many times too. He only opened his eyes once more and looked at me sadly, not as father to daughter but as friend to friend. I felt that that was when we truly said goodbye and I smiled at him for one last time.

Several hours later, when his breathing had remained the same, I began to think that he would live for another day and eventually slept for a few hours. When I woke his breathing was slightly shallower but still strong and I sat singing to him softly for several more hours. He continued to work with his hands and appeared to be having a discussion with someone, his face showing questioning or approval of what was being said. I began to sense that he might have become ‘stuck’ somehow; he was a strong man who had fought all his life to do the right thing and to protect his family and, although he had accepted death, it seemed that some part of him was not ready to go. It felt right to call all the goddesses of the Wheel of Brigit-Ana, which I work with as a Priestess of Avalon, into the room. I called the Mothers of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth and Maiden, Lover, Mother, and Crone, with Brigit-Ana in the centre. I asked each of them to bring their individual gifts to dad’s last moments and to help him let go when the time was right. I told them that he was a child of their soil, that his feet had walked their sacred land all his life, and asked them that they care for him and show him the way one last time. Finally I called to our ancestors and particularly to his mother, Annie, who he had spoken of so often in his final months. I asked her to come to him and take his hand. I told him again that he was brave, that he would know what to do when the moment came to let go, and that all our love would go with him to be joined with the love of our ancestors in the Otherworld; from love into love. I began to sing but, even as I began, he gave three breaths and died. The room was completely still and I felt a deeper peace than any I had ever experienced before. It was as though there was a presence of a great and luminous darkness that was both light and dark all at the same time. I believe that, at the end, the Goddess, who is Mother of us all, and his ancestors came to show him the way. There are things that I would have wanted to be different; he had wanted to die at home, perhaps there was too much sedation, perhaps there was more that we needed to say to one another, perhaps I could have been better/different/more but these are just questions and don’t matter now. All that matters is that his was a good enough death; Ronald Henry Smith died bravely and well and I was, and am, proud to be his daughter.

I sat with dad for another hour before I called the nurses and the great feeling of peace remained with us. I felt privileged to have been allowed to witness the death of another human being. Sometimes I also felt angry; if the Goddess could have taken him so easily why couldn’t She have let him stay? But I knew that all was exactly as it should have been and that She had come with love and compassion and taken him back to Her womb, which is ever changing and ever the same.

When the nurses eventually came I asked whether I could help them wash his body and was able to bless him with water from the red and white springs before he was wrapped in a shroud and taken away from me. My brother came and we went home to tell mum; life took over once more and I was deeply comforted by the feeling of family togetherness that we had for those few days. Eventually dad’s body was brought to the funeral home and I again requested to wash his body. I had expected them to say no but they seemed pleased and gave me everything that I needed. I was left alone with him and was able to bathe him and rub peppermint oil into his body. I also washed, dried, and combed, his hair, which felt like such a deep and tender act of love that it makes me cry just to think of it. When he was placed in the woven willow coffin that he had requested I was able to visit several times to sit with him and fill the coffin with fresh herbs, my mother offered a yellow rose, my brother photos of his children. Just before the lid was sealed for his funeral I marked dad’s brow with red ochre and wished him a gentle journey in the Cauldron of the Goddess. His coffin was decorated with daisy flowers and greenery, as though we had gone out into a meadow and collected them that morning. Rosemary was woven into them for remembrance. Someone who saw his coffin said that it reminded her of a Moses basket.

After the funeral I, and several of my dear friends and fellow priestesses, watched his coffin being committed, as he had requested, to the flames and the creative and transformative fires of the Goddess, and loudly sang ‘We all come from the Goddess’. It all felt very ancient, very right, and somehow comforting, and I like to think that dad would have been pleased (and probably highly amused).

I never believed that I could sit with someone in their dying, that I could wash their body after death, that I could stand and watch them taken by the fires, but I found that I could and I will be forever grateful to my father for allowing me to learn so much about both life and death. I wasn’t able to do this because I am a priestess but because I loved him and because I know that none of us can ever be whole until our lives, and within that our deaths, are touched by the Sacred Feminine, who has been so long denied.

I was ‘high’ for several weeks after dad died; as though the stardust that clings to those who have just given birth was also clinging to me, but now I journey with grief and mourning and sit in the cave of the Morgen Crows as they tattoo the story I shared with my father into my skin; I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. I don’t know how long I will stay with them but I do know that everything has changed and that I, like my father, have been through an initiation whose effect is not yet clear. There is much pain and fear in dying, there is much sorrow, but, if we can learn to see through that fear, if we can question all that we have been taught, if we can sit with the Goddess in our dying, then something deep and wounded will be healed; just wait for the brush of the heron’s wing.

                                                               'Heron's Winter Dreaming', Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, 2010.

 ©Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, Calan Gaeaf 2007
  1. Leslene della-Madre, Midwifing Death: Returning to the Arms of the Ancient Mother (Plain View Press, 2003) p.59.
  2. Jacqueline Woodward-Smith, unfinished poem
  3. As 1. p.56.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Goddess vs. the New Age: Singing the Sacred Land

This essay was first published in the Winter 2006 edition of 'Goddess Pages: a magazine of Goddess spirituality in the 21st Century'


                                                                                    'The Cailleach Bheure' by Jill Smith

 “Female spirit, the goddess in us, is not fragile or new; not an invention of privileged women or an escapist New Age elite. We are tough and ancient: tried by a million years of ice and fire. On enormous and minute wheels of pain and beauty we have turned…we return to tell and respell our story.”1
 
So says Barbara Mor in the 1990 introduction to her powerful book ‘The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth”, written with Monica Sjöö. And so we return to respell our story and the female spirit, and the goddess in us begins to emerge from the mists of our forgetting after enduring and surviving several thousand years of patriarchy … or so we may tell ourselves. But there is a threat to our remembering, a threat from within what many would consider our own circle. It is the threat of the New Age and its writers and gurus who talk of ascension, of transcending human form, and of becoming one with our ‘light bodies’, and other similar concepts, and who are providing us with many of the contemporary ideas about, and images of, the Goddess. Theirs is not the language of the Earth, but of the dualism which has held us in chains for millennia. In our thirst for the rise of the Sacred Feminine, in our joy at sensing her return to human consciousness, many of us have ceased to consider the form in which She is being presented to us through the many New Age images and writings that grow in popularity by the day. Our connection to the Goddess is being subverted and torn from Her roots within the dark earth. She is being ‘intellectualised’, made all light and logic, and yet we are being encouraged not to think. 

Before I continue I will say that I have nothing against the New Age and acknowledge that the term means different things to different people, just as ‘Goddess’ does, but there is a huge groundswell within New Age thinking that places light above dark, or possibly even worse ignores the dark altogether, and which turns the Goddess, and therefore all women, into a stereotype of femininity. The Goddess is both light and dark, with no separation between the two, just as we are, and if we ignore one side of Her then we do nothing but damage to ourselves.

In 1992 the wonderful Goddess artist, researcher, writer and activist Monica Sjöö published her book, ‘New Age and Armageddon: The Goddess or the Gurus – Towards a Feminist Vision of the Future’ (now republished as ‘Return of the Dark/Light Mother’), in answer to what she saw as the dangers of the New Age movement. She saw the movement as paying lip service to the Goddess and to the Earth whilst, at the same time, stressing the need to become more ‘highly’ evolved and leave the Earth behind. This is the very antithesis of the message of the Goddess who asks us to rejoice in our physical form and in our incarnation on this beautiful planet. Monica noted that Sir George Trevelyan, considered by many to be the ‘Grandfather of the New Age Movement’, spoke about a battle between the forces of light and darkness on a cosmic and human level. He said that this battle was led by Christ and the Archangel Michael, the ‘Dragonslayer’; the ‘dragon’ being the dark, chthonic Earth Dragon energies of the Goddess.

The Goddess is linked to the serpent/dragon in many cultures and a battle of the masculine and the patriarchal ‘forces of light’ to gain supremacy over Her is echoed in stories such as Adam and Eve, in which Eve is ‘seduced’ by the serpent into eating the apple of wisdom, against the instructions of the male Father God (the apple, of course being yet another symbol of the Goddess), and in many others. We should also remember that Athena, said to have been born from the head of Zeus rather than from the womb of the Mother, was once one with the serpent-headed Medusa, rather than being her victor and wearing her screaming head on Her shield as a trophy; we are asked to murder a part of ourselves and to celebrate, rather than to grieve. In separation we are weakened; only in embracing all aspects of the Feminine and of the Goddess within ourselves can we be whole; when we can claim our Medusa coils and wear them proudly as a manifestation of all that it means to be a woman then, perhaps, the tide against the Feminine will truly have turned.

The taking over of the Earth Goddess Gaia’s oracle at Delphi by Apollo between the 11th and 9th centuries BCE is a powerful example of the battle between the Serpent and the patriarchal forces of light. According to myth, Apollo killed the Python which guarded Delphi and was Gaia’s daughter, or in some stories Her son, when He captured the oracle there; again St Michael/Apollo is seen slaying the dark Earth Dragon of the Goddess and Tim Ward, in his book ‘Savage Breast: A Man’s Search for the Goddess’, quotes The Hymn to Pythian Apollo, written around 650BCE, which says that Apollo boasted “Rot right there now, on the ground that feeds man … and the sacred power of the sun rotted her right there, which is why the place is called Pytho.” (which means ‘rot’).2

Here, ‘rot’ is seen as something to be defeated by “arrows and sunlight”3 and yet rot is all around us in the autumn and winter and is sacred to the Crone, the most vilified of all the Goddess’s aspects. Without rot there can be no rebirth; rot is transformation and is an example of the Earth working her magic. Fungus, which, in the right place, can make toxic earth healthy again, feeds on rotted organic material; rot is part of the cycle of nature. In turning away from rot and mud and shit and dirt we turn away from the wisdom of the Earth and from the Goddess. The monotheistic religions seek to banish rot and death and tell us that if we ‘behave’ we will have eternal life and ascend to ‘heaven’, or some other realm of light apart from the Earth, rather than to the dark Underworld of the ancestors. Apollo sought to find peace in the purity of the mind, and his slaying of Python and her rot was re-enacted and celebrated for more than a thousand years, but in intellectualising the Goddess and making Her all light we remove Her, and ourselves, from our roots in the soil.
                                       

The monotheistic patriarchal religions have always sought to destroy our link with the Earth and her cycles. They talk about the Earth as a machine and of human beings (men) as superior and removed from her processes. In Britain alone we have nine hundred stone circles and our footsteps fall on a landscape that has been shaped by our ancestors through millennia; a thread that connects us all to the sacred land of our birth and/or of our heart. And yet, for reasons of power, control and greed, patriarchy, often through the monotheistic religions, has sought to persuade us that there is no connection between us and the Earth; that she is our prison, rather than our Mother and protector. How else could we allow her to be destroyed and to contribute to that destruction ourselves? Smohalla, a Nez Perce Indian from the Western United States and quoted in ‘The Great Cosmic Mother’, says:
‘You ask me to plough the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear
my mother’s breast?’4
Have we in the West really become so far removed from the Earth that we no longer yearn for, or need, our Mother’s breast?

In 2002 I travelled to Goa and Karnataka in Southern India in search of the Goddess. I travelled in a mini bus with a guide and driver and, soon after I got there, we drove up into the mountains. We came across a roadside shrine that was visited by all the drivers who passed and stopped so that our driver could make offerings to the spirits. I got out of the mini bus to look out across the landscape and, in the distance, I could see a beautiful blue-green mountain range looking like a woman lying back on the land. It was then that I felt in my heart and belly the violence that must be used against a people in order to sever their connection to the earth on which they, and their ancestors, have lived and died. That violence may be physical or psychological, conscious or unconscious, or a combination of all those things, but it is still violence. To speak of transcending our human forms and leaving the Earth is just the next step in uprooting us from the planet that gave birth to us; it is a philosophy that does violence to us. By stressing the light, and a narrow definition of what is beautiful, in our interactions with the Goddess the New Age serves to keep us separated from the Earth and continues a process that was begun several thousand years ago.

There are many theories about what began this process of disconnection from the Goddess; some say that it was begun by powerful Indo-European warriors who swept westwards taking by force the gentle matriarchal cultures that came before them but even this theory reinforces dualism; matriarchy vs. patriarchy, feminine vs. masculine, and can be unhelpful when we try to move away from the separation in our own societies and psyches. What we do know, or may intuitively feel, is that the first cultures were matristic (centred in the feminine) and that, for reasons that are still becoming clear, a patriarchal system usurped that more holistic way of living. We also know that the monotheistic religions grew from, and were central to, that process and continue to reinforce it today; the New Age is, in many cases, doing the same.

The Goddess has not always been acknowledged by the New Age; perhaps She is just too bound to the Earth and to the cycles of life and death? In ‘New Age and Armageddon’, written fifteen years ago, Monica Sjöö bemoans the fact that when she attended ceremonies in places such as Glastonbury the Goddess was never mentioned. When she suggested that She was acknowledged the organisers, who were generally men, would dismiss her request as though they had never heard of the Goddess. But the Goddess has refused to be ignored. She has continued to rise and Her presence can no longer be denied by those who follow an alternative spiritual path. And yet, rather than embracing the Goddess in all Her aspects and allowing her to balance the light of the fiery dragonslayer, who also has a place in our universe, and his arrows, the New Age chooses to subvert both Her meaning and Her image, stressing Her energies of light and love (which seemingly can only be found in the light) over those of Her chthonic darkness. To me, this is worse than ignoring Her and is a continuation of the patriarchal religious beliefs which sought to oppress and control Her, and us through Her, in the first place. Those who set themselves up as an alternative and as a cure have become the poison.

The Crone (like the Whore) has retained much of Her primal power because She has been ignored by Christianity, who were able to ‘use’ and (temporarily) pacify the virgin/maiden and the mother but were unable to subsume the cackling Crone, who has continued to terrify through Her association with death and destruction. Instead She became the evil witch, or the wicked stepmother, of fairy tales but at least She retained Her power within Herself until we were ready to commune with her again … it is never the Goddess who is changed, but our understanding of, and connection to, Her. The New Age has been able to (literally) paint the Maiden as pert-breasted, innocent and yet ever available, the Mother as ever abundant and giving, and the Crone as either non-existent or as a kind and smiling old woman, with all their other powerful and transformative aspects ignored … and all are seen defined by their relationship to others; the Maiden, independent but waiting for a lover, the Mother sacrificing Herself to Her children, the Crone as wise and kindly grandmother. None are shown as powerful symbols of the Feminine in, and of, themselves. I recently went to a talk in London where the speaker described the Crone as “ever beautiful, with an indigo cloak filled with moonbeams and starlight”! Where is the rot and death, the fucking, the shit and the mud; where is the Earth in that vision of Her? Where is the power? How are we to understand our lives being torn apart and changed when we are shown a kindly old lady, rather than a powerful primal transforming force? How are we to find a connection to Her in our experience of growing older in a human body if She stays young and beautiful as we age? How are we to change a society that values only youth when, instead of accepting old age as powerful and beautiful, we continue to see the Crone as ever-young and only beautiful because of that youth? We may age but the Goddess remains ever-young they say; always separation. The Crone is indeed beautiful, but She is beautiful in old age. She is what She is.

Even Mary Magdalene, who some of us have been able to look to as the untamed aspect of the Wild Feminine in Christianity, whatever the truth or not of her existence, has been turned into a dutiful consort and apparently tamed by Jesus and his light. Geraldine Charles in her article ‘Marrying Off the Goddess?’ says that the writings of Dan Brown and his ilk constitute “the co-option of the Goddess into a set of ideas that will serve only to uphold the status quo of patriarchal religion” and that, “the whore, redeemed or otherwise, is a powerful image; when we replace her with the dutiful wife we diminish ourselves and our culture. Risk is the new sin, after all, and so a little more wonderful wildness is gone; the safety of institutionalised religion shored up for a little longer”5 … and we accept it with open arms in our hunger to see the Goddess return. We think that we are shaking free of our chains when, in fact, they are twisting ever tighter around our throats, our wombs, and our hearts.

Tim Ward writes that:
“Jesus and Buddha, they urged me away from the world, taught me to resist the ways of the flesh and seek a Kingdom of God, heaven, nirvana, a higher consciousness. It’s different with her. It’s visceral, immediate, a matter of heart, balls and belly…"
Years ago I caught my first glimpse of her in India as Kali, the black Goddess who for hundreds of millions of Hindus is both Mother and Destroyer. Her statues there have four arms. The upper right is raised in blessing; the lower right is extended, palm out, as if offering a gift. But the upper left holds a bloody machete and the lower left a freshly severed human head. I once asked one of her devotees how one could get to the blessing and avoid the machete. “No, that’s not the point,” she replied fiercely. “The blessing is only won when you accept both sides of Kali, including pain, sorrow, loss and death. The real death is trying to hold your tiny ego safe from the pain caused by desire and love. Flee from the dangers of life, and you will miss her blessings too. But embrace Kali as she is, kiss her bloody tongue and feel all four arms around you, and then you have life, you have freedom…”6

We have to learn to accept the Goddess in all Her aspects before we can really receive Her blessings. If we pick and choose and only accept those parts of Her that we feel are ‘pretty’, or ‘easy’, or ‘acceptable’, if we attempt to tame Her wildness, then we will only ever know Her, and ourselves on a shallow level. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’, “Eventually, we all have to kiss the hag”.7

As an example of the fear of and subversion of the Goddess in the New Age I come to Doreen Virtue, who has previously concentrated on writings on angels but has begun to include the Goddess in her ‘Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards’ and her books ‘Archangels and Ascended Masters’ and, most recently, ‘Goddesses and Angels’. I particularly mention Ms Virtue because when I have gone into occult and witchcraft shops in recent years most of them have been filled with her books and oracle cards, with little alternative provided, and everywhere I go people seem to be talking about them. It’s clear that something in her work appeals to people and yet it seems to me that what she offers are comfort (“There are no frightening cards in this deck”8) and easy answers. Admittedly we all want those sometimes but do we really want our lives to be based on them, and do we believe that that is all that the Goddess has to offer us? It seems to me that once again this is an, either conscious or unconscious, attempt to remove us from our connection to the Earth, both by propagating shallow images of the Goddess, such as the ones found in this pack, and by suggesting that, in a perfect world, everything would be ‘nice’. Nature is not nice; it is “red in tooth and claw” and we are part of nature, not apart from it. It is what it is. There may be things that we would wish to change about our human behaviour but we can only do that by seeing ourselves as we really are and by being fully present, not by retreating into a world of ‘niceness’.

One of the things that most concern me is that, although Doreen Virtue is becoming more and more popular in Goddess circles, she seems to consider the Goddess to be easily slotted into monotheism. In Archangels and Ascended Masters’ she writes:
“In ancient times, many of the deities listed in this book were worshipped in the way that many of us currently worship our Creator. Today we don’t worship deities – we appreciate them. They have small g’s in front of their god and goddess titles to show that they’re aspects of the God with a capital G …
"Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this isn’t a book promoting polytheism…the deities in this book are aspects or creations of the God…I’m not encouraging you to engage in worship of divinities, but to appreciate them as gifts our Creator has given us to help us love more, heal in all ways, and evolve on our spiritual path. When we accept their help we’re saying thank you to God.
"The world’s three major religions are monotheistic … Christianity divides God into three aspects: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit but emphasizes that these are all aspects of one single Creator. In the same way the angels, archangels, and ascended masters are one with God and fit into a monotheistic system.”9

I am not suggesting that there is no place for the Goddess in monotheism; indeed She has always been there for those with eyes to see, but it must be the Goddess in all Her aspects, light and dark, and accepted as the Creatrix of the Universe, not as a shadow of Herself, designed to fool us into thinking that the Sacred Feminine has truly returned when all we are seeing is a phantom.

We are visual creatures and to find our connection to the Goddess in an image or a symbol is a powerful experience and one that can change us forever. Barbara Mor notes that:
“Ancient people believed that power resided in images themselves – or rather in the resonance between an image and the thing imaged – and this belief still lives in all of us; symbols continue to have great power over the human mind and heart”.10

It’s interesting that in the British Isles we have very few anthropomorphic representations of our deities prior to the Roman Invasion in 43CE, when some, such as Sulis Minerva in Bath, became linked to Roman deities and were imaged in human form. Cheryl Straffon in ‘The Earth Goddess’ suggests that this was because the Celtic and pre-Celtic tribes expressed deity through the land itself, rather than seeing them as ‘human’ figures.11 This is similar to the West African Orishas, who are seen as forces of nature, and to the Indigenous Australian beliefs in the Ancestors of the Dreamtime, who are often visualized as animal spirits, as well as humans. I believe that the beliefs of our pre-Celtic ancestors, as far as we can imagine them, had much in common with the beliefs of these ancient cultures.

Indeed, just as indigenous Australian belief speaks of the first Ancestors creating the land and then becoming part of it, so we have similar legends about the creation of our own sacred landscape in the British Isles, which is often said to have been formed by “The Old Woman of the Mountains”, or the Cailleach, who can be found in the folklore of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. She is imaged as a terrifying giantess who dances across the land dropping rocks from Her apron and is often described as “blue faced” and “one eyed”, with red teeth and matted hair. She isn’t ‘pretty’ or ‘nice’. She is what She is.

Today we can still find ‘Landscape Goddesses’ who appear to be sleeping on the Earth. One is the Sleeping Beauty Mountain on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, which is believed to be a representation of the Maiden Goddess Brigit. Once every 18.67 years she is awakened by the moon, which is viewed as rising to sit at her brow, turning the surface of the mountain silver and refreshing the fertility of the land. The most recent example of this was in July 2006 when hundreds of people travelled to the Hebrides to connect with Her energy. Another can be found in Glastonbury, where the hills that create the town and its surroundings take the form of a woman lying in the landscape and also of a swan flying to the South West.12 The shape of the Goddess Rhiannon can be found in the rocks of Carn Ingli in the Preseli Mountains of West Wales, and it’s said that if you sleep on Her belly you will be sent prophetic dreams. Everywhere we find tales of an Ancestor/Goddess creating the sacred land and forming a relationship with these landscape Goddesses can help us to attune to the Earth Goddess as She manifests wherever we are. As the Goddess Holda once said (to Her Priest, and my dear friend, Jack Gale), “All Goddesses are the land”.

Just as the Cailleach is seen as ‘monstrous’ so we have our terrifying Sea Goddess in Domnu; said to have been the Goddess of the Formorians, the first tribal ancestors of Ireland. They were the offspring of Chaos and Old Night and were described as ‘ugly and monstrous’, often with one leg and living by the sea, or on islands, where they could swim daily in the ocean. Domnu’s name has been translated as ‘abyss’ or ‘deep sea’ and She is one of many monstrous Sea Goddesses throughout world culture, such as Tiamat of Sumer, or Sedna of the Inuit. Yet even a monster can be ‘prettified’ by the New Age; Sedna is the powerful Goddess who the Inuit shamans petition for a good hunt, diving to Her realm on the sea bed to massage the bloody stumps of Her fingers, which were chopped off by her father in an attempt to save his own skin and became all the creatures of the ocean. Doreen Virtue says in her 'Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards that they were ‘severed in a tragic boating accident’!13 Just as the Earth Goddesses connect us to the land, the Sea Goddesses are primal forces that sing to us of our origin in the sea and our deep unconscious; our task is to understand the meaning of their image, not to turn them into ‘pretty mermaids’. Why paddle in the shallows when we can have the depths?

Which brings me to New Age images of the Goddess; how is this primal power of the Goddess depicted? When looking at Doreen Virtue’s Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards' the first thing we might notice is that there are no Crones, but there are other omissions: no big women, no old women, no ‘ugly’ women, no challenges, no real power. Even the African Goddesses have honey-coloured skin and Western features. This is cultural appropriation of the worst kind, where we take an image that we find powerful but unacceptable in some way and change it to make it more palatable to our own eyes, rather than examining in ourselves what it is in that image that moves us to fear, or anger, or repulsion. I have always considered it a great mistake to over- anthropomorphise the Goddess, to see Her in purely ‘human’ form, and yet we do experience Her through our bodies and She is inside all of us, with all our frailties and weaknesses. If the images we have of Her become too distant from our own experience of our bodies we may no longer be able to find Her in our own reflections and become separated from Her. We have been separated from her for too long as it is! When we reject the Venus of Willendorf, that powerful creation of our far off ancestors, as a ‘negative’ depiction of the feminine, when we reject Medusa’s snake-headed anger, or Blodeuwedd’s screeching owl-self, when we begin to only see the Goddess in paintings of pneumatic-breasted women wearing diaphanous clothes, we lose something of ourselves; we make ourselves ‘less’ than Her and we lose Her in the process.

Again, Monica Sjöö says that: “ … to my dismay, I find that images of women and of the Goddess that are popular and acceptable in the New Age movement are the very sentimentalised and sickly sweet ones that I had rejected years ago as sexist, racist and heterosexist … I find that what passes for ‘art’ and ‘music’ in the New Age is uninspired, lacking in honesty and passion and is primarily meant to soothe and please…they want docile and non-threatening Virgin Marys, sweetly smiling while the earth burns”.14

Whenever we attempt to define the Goddess in prose then we perhaps distance ourselves from our personal experience of Her but an image, like a poem, can speak directly to a part of us that can never be found through intellect, or logic, or through being ‘nice’. We may see an insistence to connect the Goddess with the Earth as a negative thing, limiting Her and us and playing into the hands of patriarchy, rather than freeing us from it. After all, the Earth and women are equated one with the other in patriarchy and both are seen as ‘less’. Of course She is more than that. She is everything; the stars, the earth, the waters and the depths of our souls, but when there is such a fight, through millennia, to remove Her from consciousness and to sever our connection to the Earth we have to wonder why and to think that perhaps that is where our power is to be found. I gave the Goddess my darkness and She showed me my deepest magic. She stripped away my skin and showed me the power in my bones. I looked into Her eyes and She reflected all that I am back to me and I fell in love with what I saw there. That is what we are being asked to sacrifice to the sword of the dragon slayer and the New Age is pressing it to our hearts with a comforting smile.

We have come so far, and She is within our reach, but we must not forget how hard the journey has been, nor how much we have to lose in allowing Her image and nature to be subverted by the New Age. We must continue to examine and question the forms in which the Goddess is shown to us and, as we do so, remember Her roots within the dark soil, that aspect of Her that is most rejected and most feared. She is in everything, not just in those things that we find ‘acceptable’. We must embrace the rot that we find there as a symbol of our own transformation, which is to be found not only in the light of the intellect but in the wisdom of the body and its changes, and we must challenge the New Age that only accepts one side of Her, and our, nature. They are the shadow but She is the darkness and the light undivided.

‘On enormous and minute wheels of pain and beauty we have turned…we return to tell and respell our story...’

©October 2006, Jacqueline Woodward-Smith


References

  1. Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), xvi.
  2. Tim Ward, Savage Breast: A Man’s Search for the Goddess, (O Books, 2006), 6.
  3. Ibid, 6
  4. Quoted in Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), 86.
  5. Geraldine Charles, Marrying off the Goddess?, in Awakened Woman Magazine (Summer 2006 Edition)
  6. Tim Ward, Savage Breast: A Man’s Search for the Goddess, (O Books, 2006), xi.
  7. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves, (Rider Books), 141.
  8. Doreen Virtue, Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards (Guidebook) , (Hay House, 2004), 7.
  9. Doreen Virtue, Archangels and Ascended Masters, (Hay House, 2003), xvii.
  10. Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), 76.
  11. Cheryl Straffon, The Earth Goddess: Celtic and Pagan Legacy of the Landscape, (Cassell Illustrated, 1997).
  12. Kathy Jones, The Ancient British Goddess, (Ariadne Publications 2001), 48.
  13. Doreen Virtue, Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards (Guidebook), (Hay House, 2004), 98.