Iphigenia in Aulis

August 9, 2019

I was reading Iphigenia in Aulis this week, and another thought struck me about this myth.

The Greeks performed a ritual to Artemis prior to attacking Troy, offering Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her priestesshood, in order to secure favorable winds and other blessings from the goddess, who was venerated along the coast of Asia Minor. Buttering up the gods of the people you planned to attack, trying to get them to move over to your side, was an ancient war strategy. The story goes that Iphigenia was going to be killed at the altar, but by a miracle Artemis substituted a deer (or sometimes, a bear) at the last minute. This made a better story, but it (probably) was an embellishment. Maybe as part of the ritual to Artemis a deer was sacrificed. Maybe Iphigenia initially protested being relegated into chastity. Her mother almost certainly wasn’t onboard with the plan. But I’m not going along with the miracle substitution.

Photo: Elfer

I was thinking this week about how Judy Grahn and other feminists have viewed the Trojan War as a last stand against Western patriarchy, the defeated Trojans representing the matriarchy. The all-women priestesshoods were relics from the matriarchies, their continuation an uneasy truce, or even a condition of surrender. As patriarchy gained a firmer hold, the Witch hunts of the Catholic (later Protestant) church sought to eliminate these relics of female power. The persecution of Dianics by American Witches are a continuation of that quest to subdue female power under male domination. Thinking of the autonomous priestesshood as a term of surrender puts the attacks on Dianics within Paganism in sharper focus. The three major methods of maintaining female subordination under Patriarchy are violence, economic oppression, and religion. Destruction of religious self-determination for women is an essential part of patriarchal control on the left and the right.

I tell the story of Iphigenia in my book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess.

A Priestess for Artemis

Iphigenia means “mother of strong children” and is probably an early name for Artemis or another bear goddess who became merged with Artemis. It later became an honorary title for her priestess. There are conflicting versions to the following story, but this much is not in dispute: The hero Agamemnon, leading an offensive against Troy, made little headway with his fleet due to unfavorable winds sent by Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. After consulting an oracle, Agamemnon offered Artemis his eldest daughter Iphigenia, thus earning the implacable wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra.

King Agamemnon of Mycenae was on the wrong side of Artemis from the start. His father had failed to honor a vow that he would sacrifice a prized lamb to the Huntress, and there is no record that the son felt an obligation to make good the pledge. Agamemnon, so capable in manly pursuits, once slew a white stag with a single arrow and boasted that Artemis could do no better. So true this boast: the beast was a member of the Virgin’s chariot team, and she would never have slain it.

When Queen Helen ran away with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon took command of the retaliatory mission. Here was a chance to lead a great coalition and gain heroic stature. So much more the pleasure of Artemis, whose sympathies were inclined toward the Trojans, in thwarting Agamemnon’s plans. As the fleet readied to embark, an unfavorable northeast wind stranded them in the harbor of Aulis for weeks. Some say the goddess was miffed over the killing of a hare and cursed the whole expedition. Impatient to sail and bewildered by the persistent bad wind, Agamemnon called for an oracle. A chicken was gutted and the seer declared Artemis must be coaxed with a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s oldest daughter.

At first Agamemnon demurred. His wife would never surrender the girl, he protested. The military cohorts devised a scheme: send a messenger to the mother explaining that the demigod and prince Achilles wished to marry the princess, and she must come at once.

Clytemnestra, whose ambitions were wholly channeled in securing an advantageous match for her beautiful daughter, hastened to Aulis with Iphigenia, where a comedy of errors—or perhaps a tragedy of errors—awaited them. Agamemnon’s secret letter to Clytemnestra exposing the ruse had been intercepted, and the strong-willed matron arrived against her husband’s expectations demanding a marriage contract. Achilles, innocent and uninformed of the subterfuge (and married to someone else besides), was protesting there had been a mistake. Priests were completing preparations for Iphigenia’s dedication. The bamboozled daughter was balking at the plan, and her mother began begging Agamemnon and then threatening him. Surely there was a face-saving way out of the mess, by declaring Achilles an unknowing partner to deception if nothing else, but the fact remained that ships were stuck in harbor and men were itching for war.

Iphigenia, realizing her father’s ambitions and her country’s future revolved around her, finally stepped forward and declared she would go to Artemis. Iphigenia was as loyal, devoted and obedient as she was beautiful. Or maybe filial duty and patriotism were just a piece of it, and Artemis herself seduced the girl. Perhaps Artemis promised her adventure in a far flung country. She could be mistress of a great temple. The possessions of rich ladies who died in childbirth were sent to this temple, and Iphigenia’s beauty could be displayed against the finest fabrics and jewels.

Iphigenia’s acquiescence stirred a whirlwind. At the altar of Artemis the priests raised their knives to slit the girl’s throat, but at the last moment a bear cub was switched in her stead, and Iphigenia was swept on a red cloud to the land of Tauris. The same wind that whisked the new priestess filled the sails of the Greek fleet, and they were off to conquer Troy.

In offering Artemis the coveted maiden, Agamemnon was given the favorable wind he requested, but the act never improved the disposition of the goddess toward him. Later she abandoned him to the wrath of Clytemnestra.

It would be inaccurate to say the sacrifice of Iphigenia turned Clytemnestra away from her husband, for he had earned her hatred long ago. There comes a point, however, where dislike becomes disloyalty, and the proud mother had envisioned a greater future for her daughter than being exiled in a remote temple wearing dead women’s clothes. That the victorious Agamemnon returned from the war to be trapped in his wife’s net should surprise no one.

Iphigenia did not learn of her father’s fate for many years, until her brother Orestes was cast ashore at her temple under mysterious circumstances. As high priestess, Iphigenia presided over the slaying of refugees at the altar of Artemis, and during the pre-ceremonial interview learned of his identity.

What was Orestes doing in Tauris? Orestes admitted he was running from the horror of his actions. He had killed Clytemnestra, with Apollo’s approval, to avenge her murder of their father. After the filthy deed, Orestes was called to account before the Olympians, where Apollo spoke in his defense. The gods quarreled over his fate along political lines until the goddess Athena cast a vote with Apollo, tipping the verdict in Orestes’ favor.

An acquittal won through a brilliant defender and a stacked jury does not automatically erase the pangs of conscience, however, and Orestes had committed a horrendous deed. The Furies, sister deities who rule the conscience, tormented him for his crime until, driven to the edges of insanity, he consulted an oracle for a remedy. The oracle instructed him to steal the sacred statue of Artemis at Tauris and carry it to Brauron, where he was to build a new temple to the goddess. If he was unable to carry out this feat, Orestes declared, he might at as well die in Tauris; he could not go on living with this torment.

Surprisingly, Iphigenia decided to help her brother. She had grown tired of her exile and longed for the customs, faces and clothing styles of her native country. She told the Taurian king that Orestes and his companion were polluted by matricide and must be cleansed before sacrifice. That much was true; Orestes was not fit to have his throat slit on the altar of Artemis. She further told the leaders of her host country that she was borrowing the statue of the goddess for the purification rites. Iphigenia was certainly the double-crossing daughter of Agamemnon

Orestes consulting the oracle. Notice the snakes on the priestess hovering above the tripod. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculously, with much adventure and intercession of the gods, the brother and sister eventually reached the ancient shrine in Brauron. A new temple was built, with the sacred image installed therein, and Iphigenia was named high priestess of the complex.

The presence of an important temple to Artemis so close to the city was an honor that made the Athenians nervous, as the wrath of Artemis had already sparked so many misadventures. Every family that could spare a daughter for a year sent the girl to Brauron to attend the goddess and learn the Brauronia ritual. The girls were called little bears and charmed the goddess with their dances. In this way, Artemis extended her healing side to Athens, protecting against plagues and enhancing the survival of infants and their mothers.

Ruth Barrett De-Platformed at Goddess Gathering

June 8, 2018

Ruth Barrett reports that after being signed on as the featured speaker at Gaea Goddess Gathering in Kansas, she has been disinvited after at least one person objected. Ruth says she has not been given a reason for being ousted, but that she believes the person objected to an anthology she edited several years ago, Female Erasure, about the effect of trans politics on women’s lives. Ruth says she was open with the board of directors of this Pagan festival about her practice in Women’s Mysteries with natal females, and that her concert and workshop would not be about trans issues.

This is something that happens, somewhere, every year. Last year, at the Fayetteville Goddess Festival in Arkansas, a group of lesbians had the temerity to offer a lesbian focused workshop for lesbians born with a vulva, and some trans women objected to the workshop being offered on the Festival grounds, then objected to the workshop being listed in the program, then objected to the workshop happening at all, then later tried to get the Festival organizer fired from her job for scheduling the workshop in the first place. The year before that, there was campaign to get Ruth fired from her job at Cherry Hill Seminary. Before that, there was a campaign by LGBT organizations to no-platform artists who appeared at The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a music festival attended by many Witches which allowed trans women to attend but refused to center trans women in the program. Pagan Spirit Gathering suspended rituals for bio women in response to trans activist objections. And of course there’s Pantheacon.

Ruth has asked that people contact the Gaea Goddess Gathering to express their disappointment in that organization’s cowardly unethical exclusionary sexist decision to withdraw their invitation. I want to suggest two more things. The first is to buy and read the book Ruth edited, which is well researched and well documented and does not anywhere argue that trans people are not entitled to life, safety, healthcare, or other basic human rights. Just read the damn book, listen to other points of view, and risk having a thought crime!

My second recommendation is to put something in place which makes it difficult for speakers/leaders of Pagan gatherings to be disinvited by a few vocal people. It should be standard in every contract to lead a Pagan conference, workshop, ritual, or gathering, that there be a very large financial penalty for cancellation. By “large” I mean much larger than the paltry sum usually offered to the leader. In order for this to work, it needs to be standard, meaning other people besides Ruth need to make that stipulation. Men and women need to make this demand, which is really in everyone’s interest. I have organized two spirituality conferences, and I understand that it’s a thankless job and a lot of hard work, but it doesn’t have to be so very sexist. Conference organizers have to ask themselves whether, at the end of the day, their hard work is really about catering to religious bigotry and further entrenching systemic sexism.

No-Platforming Hurts All of Us

November 20, 2015

In light of the attacks Dianic priestess and elder Ruth Barrett has been experiencing from transgender activist allies, I want to ask the larger community of Witches and other Pagans, the majority of whom disapprove of tactics being used against Ruth, to think about what we can do to put a stop to bullying in our communities.

The objection most Witches express about “getting involved” is that these campaigns by trans activists to silence and marginalize Dianic Witches are about a disagreement between between trans activists and Dianic Witches: it has nothing to do with them. Research on the dynamics of bullying, however, highlights that there are always three parties (at least) involved in a bullying situation. These three parties are the bullies, the victims, and the bystanders. The situation is complicated by the fact that bullies invariably see themselves as victims, and victims may or may not have insight into what is happening to them. You can’t go by what people say; you have to look at actions. Bystanders believe that by supporting bullies, by covert speech or careful silence, they will avoid being a target. In the short term, this is true. But the more effective bullying becomes, the more widespread and pervasive it becomes. Also, it is morally wrong not to care about the victims, just because they are not you.

The only way out of this morass is to move away from subjective feelings of persecution, subjective feelings like If you express disagreement with my belief system, I could kill myself or When I hear about men killing trans women, I feel like they must have been inspired by lesbian feminist witches or If I allow free discussion of ideas about gender, I am a poor trans ally and responsible for the murder of millions. We must stop validating feelings asserted without evidence or coherent analysis and look at specific behaviors. The behaviors that especially deserve scrutiny come under the heading of no-platforming.

No-platforming is a coercive set of tactics designed to silence an individual or group. It involves censorship, but censorship can be subtle or systemic while no-platforming is narrow and blatant. It utilizes strong-arm tactics promoted not by an authoritarian government but by a group of people. It is a more democratic way of shutting people up. The term apparently originated in the 1970’s in Britain, where it was at first narrower in execution and target (exclusively against fascists of the old-school variety). Like most social phenomena, the practice predates coinage of the term. Despite being purportedly progressive, groups that indulge in no-platforming tend to be white, college educated, and male-led.

Blacklisting is the most familiar no-platforming tactic. It was used during the McCarthy era by the US government and unofficial anti-communist groups to deny writers, actors, artists, and academics the opportunity to perform, exhibit, publish, or teach. It has been used in recent years to ban Dianic feminist Witch Z Budapest from venues for leading ritual and to try (unsuccessfully) to keep Australian feminist Sheila Jeffreys from publishing her book Gender Hurts. A closely related censorship tactic is that of the organized boycott, which can be a mode of consumer speech about things like unfair labor practices and environmental damage, but which can also be used to suppress speech. An example of this would be the boycott many groups have organized against performers and vendors at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival over the years. To (try to) force the Festival’s expression away from women-born-women experience, a T-shirt vendor was denied lgbt business as punishment for printing shirts with a Festival slogan, and musicians lost gigs as punishment. One group that had stopped playing at Michigan found their concert disrupted by trans activists who insisted they apologize for having ever played there. Destroying venue has become a standard tactic for censoring feminists. A trans woman activist employed at a women’s studies department and others led a campaign to harass a 2012 London feminist conference that resulted in the group losing meeting space. The tactic was successfully repeated the following year by Men’s Rights Activists, getting venue canceled at the last minute for another London feminist conference. These conferences were ostensibly censored because trans women and men were asked not to attend as part of the women-only policy, but the following year a radical feminist event was held in Portland Oregon that welcomed trans women and men, and trans activists convinced the Quaker group renting the meeting space to cancel the venue. These trans activists evidently felt that what they had not yet heard should not be spoken. Several months earlier, a Canadian feminist conference met in an alternate location after having its venue pulled, when a trans activists issued a threatening campaign that raised concerns for safety. Violence and threats of violence are a time honored way of enforcing censorship. The Internet is infamous for suppressing the speech of women, feminist or not, with death and rape threats. This form of censorship, usually anonymous and unorganized, is way too extensive to go into here, but one thing that should be noted is how the larger communities reinforce this censorship tactic by their response to it. When Ruth Barrett disclosed in 2013 that she was receiving threats, one of the few Pagan news sites that reported on this said it would be a terrible thing “if it were true,” implying that of course she was probably lying. Needless to say there was no investigation by that publication or any other into her allegations. It was enough to imply that a woman, particularly a feminist, particularly a lesbian, particularly a Dianic, might be lying. This type of reaction encourages violence and even censors a woman’s impulse to talk about what’s happening, lest it be implied she’s a liar.

Then there is the targeting of advertisers with boycotts to get articles suppressed from magazines, the manufacture and mindless re-blogging of incendiary untrue accusations that can be easily researched, and the deletion of WordPress blogs, Tumblr blogs, Facebook accounts, and Twitter accounts that have not violated any stated policies but which nevertheless offended some anti-feminist. You’ll have to take my word for it at this point or will be here all day – there are too many examples even to fill a large book. Obviously these strong-arm censorship tactics cannot be blamed solely on the Pagan community but are part of a wider anti-feminist culture, with trans women usually the purported beneficiaries. Trans women who speak out against these tactics are strongly criticized or even no-platformed themselves. Yet if Paganism is not the source of this brand of anti-feminism, it is surely a participant, and it has become, like Christianity and Islam, a tool for women’s oppression. If we cannot speak freely, women’s liberation cannot move forward, and we will surely move backward.

While of this outlining of what no-platforming is, it’s important to delineate what it isn’t to avoid confusion and misinterpretation. First and foremost, choosing to meet with others of your kind, while it is exclusionary by definition, is not necessarily no-platforming or even censorship. The reason feminists have protested the male-only country clubs is that most business and political deals (in the US at any rate) are conducted on the golf course, with offices only used for working out details. No company mergers or party nominations occur in women-only space, I can assure you: women don’t have that kind of power. The issue with women-only space is that quite often, for reasons having to do with male versus female socialization, women cannot speak freely and comfortably to other women if men are present. The same dynamic holds with trans women, even if they identified as girls while they were being treated as boys during their childhood. If you feel bad for not getting a chance to speak in a group that isn’t about you, you aren’t suffering from no-platforming: you’re suffering from an outsized sense of entitlement.

Name-calling, which no one really defends, is not the same as no-platforming. Hurt feelings are simply hurt feelings, and grown-ups don’t try to control others to defend their fragile egos. Demonstrations or protests are not a no-platform tactic, unless they disrupt an event with their aggressiveness to the point police need to intervene, as occurred when author Christine Benvenuto appeared at a bookstore to plug her memoir about her divorce from her transgender spouse. Starting a petition, even a petition you disagree with, is not censorship unless that petition is promoting censorship or contains errors of fact. Truthfully calling attention to someone’s lack of credentials, lack of competence, or unethical behavior may result in loss of platform but it is not no-platforming. Taking legal action against someone for no-platforming tactics, assuming the plaintiff has the facts straight, is not no-platforming. In fact, all of the no-platforming tactics I’ve enumerated are illegal in the United States. Every one of them. Some of them are difficult to prove or prosecute, and the role of social media has not been delineated by the courts, but the higher courts have taken an extremely dim view since the McCarthy era of tactics designed to suppress political speech.

Yes, but, what else can be done about this, since nobody likes the courts except on TV? We need to concretely, coherently, explicitly condemn no-platforming tactics. Every Pagan organization, tradition, school, conference, gathering, publisher, and news blog needs to issue a statement condemning the practice. It is long past time. Pagan conferences and gatherings need to extend invitations to controversial speakers and performers. Pagan news blogs need to do some real journalism and move out of he-said/she-said reporting by actually doing interviews and fact checking what people say. Facts have become offensive in the current political climate, but the more no-platforming tactics are catered to the more widespread they become. People keep using a tactic because it works for them.

Beware of gadflies: people who attract attention by spreading lies or pulling stunts to silence others. I’m not saying to no-platform the no-platformers, exactly, but don’t reward someone with a place in the debate solely because they tried to silence someone else. Most people build a media or activism platform through years of work; libel and censorship should not be rewarded as a short-cut.

Finally, don’t assume that anyone knows that you support a person who is being silenced if you don’t speak up. Comment on social media or on a blog, or send a private message if you are too afraid. You can say something simple like “I honor Ruth Barrett’s contribution to Witchcraft and feminism and like hearing what she has to say.” Supporting someone who is being targeted doesn’t mean you are seen by any sane person as endorsing everything they have said or done or might do. You don’t have to qualify it or justify it. Bullying is something you don’t have to go along with.

Imagine what it would be like if we could all speak our mind knowing that if people disagree they cannot retaliate with the implicit endorsement of other Pagans. Imagine what it would be like if feminists could get back to the work of helping women instead of fighting just to meet on our own terms and set our own agenda. Imagine what it would mean for people doing the thankless work of putting together conferences and gatherings to stop getting these demands to remove so-and-so from the program because somebody got offended over somebody else’s opinion. I wonder what these organizers thought when the trans ally mafia called last week warning them not to have Ruth Barrett on any program, in case they might be considering it. If Ruth does decide to sue, the subpoenas are going to start flying and every Pagan who has organized anything is going to get one. Lawyers are like that. Imagine our sordid lunatic Pagan communities under the spotlight for public scrutiny (and judgment). The media circus would make Z’s arrest for reading tarot cards look like a child’s birthday party. Even if this particular incident doesn’t end up in the courts, that is where things are heading, unless Witches and other Pagans put the brakes on this no-platform game and make it clear that the rest of us are NOT playing along. Even now, it may be too late.

Ruth Barrett Keynote at NWMF

August 21, 2015


Ruth Barrett’s keynote address at National Women’s Music Festival on July 4th in Madison, Wisconsin is worth a read. She talks about the relationship of women’s spirituality to the female body. She asks:

If you are not living inside your body, where are you living? And who has taken up residence inside you in your absence? Whose stories do you believe? And whose agenda does that serve? If you are divided from your body, you are divided against yourself. You are homeless in the most dire sense of the word.

Reflections on Recent Events in the Dianic Community

September 5, 2014

Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin by Angelica Kauffman
Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin by Angelica Kauffman

It has been reported on a few of the more popular (non-Dianic) blogs that Z Budapest and Ruth Barrett are at odds over Z’s decision to ordinate Brazilian Claudinay Prieto as a Dianic priest in the Kourete tradition, which is a matriarchal men’s path parallel to women’s mysteries. There have been press releases, official statements in protest, and responses to the official statements. I am somewhat bemused at the interest in our disagreements and squabbles to those outside the Dianic tradition; it is further proof that what we do is important, however much others claim to dislike us.

I have nothing to add about the disagreement between Z and Ruth, because I know nothing other than what is in their statements. Though I have been a Dianic Priestess for a very long time, I live in an obscure corner of the universe trying to keep a small number of worshipers nourished in the wilderness. I am saying a few words because I also have a modestly popular blog, and I want to address the speculation about “what this means.”

I try, as much as my integrity will allow me, to avoid telling priestesses in my tradition what they should do, or even making judgments about whether they are taking the right or wrong path. This is part of my practice as a feminist witch. Therefore, I am not going to comment on, or even try to decide, whether Z was correct in ordaining a man, or whether Ruth is correct in breaking with Z over this issue. My most immediate concern is for healing between Ruth and Z and their closest supporters, as their statements reveal that there are personal issues tied up with these disagreements over ideology and strategy. It is difficult to sort things out on the intellectual plane when there are uncomfortable feelings lying in the heart.

It may well be that over time Z’s decision will be proven to have been beneficial, but I think we do need a long, in-depth, and measured discussion about the ordination of Kouretes. The pros and cons need to be weighed both ideologically and strategically. I am mindful that this issue has arisen in the context of a persistent and at times vicious attack on biological women’s intentional space. The commitment of all parties here to women’s only space is strong, but we need to be conscious about the effect of our actions on our ability to keep this commitment, given the realities of the world we are living in.

I do not have a position on the ordination or participation of Kouretes, and I am resisting the impulse to form a conclusion at this time. I look forward to reading more and speaking more with other priestesses over the months and perhaps years ahead before reaching a decision. I think one of the most baneful habits of humans on the planet right now is the tendency to form quick judgments and take positions without allowing thoughts to ripen and many sides to be explored. If I can add anything to the discussion right now, it is not by producing an argument or a strategy, but by offering a reminder to take things slow.






Witchcraft Today: 60 Years On (Review)

June 27, 2014

This anthology, published today, is a look at the major branches of witchcraft that have emerged since the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today 60 years ago. The branches examined in this book have been heavily influenced by Gardner, reflecting to varying degrees not only the practices of the coven he was initiated into, but Gardner’s own reflections and innovations.

The first section of the book explains many of the most popular traditions, while the second section is a collection of personal reflections by practicing witches. There is also a brief biography of Gerald Gardner and a discussion of the climate from which his groundbreaking book emerged. You do not need to have read any of Gardner’s work to follow the articles. This book aims to give an overview of what “witchcraft today” has become and how it has matured.

I have written the chapter on Dianic Witchcraft for this anthology. It is not surprising that the Dianic tradition is included here – we usually are mentioned in any overview of Paganism and Witchcraft – but this is the first time to my knowledge that the section on Dianic Witchcraft in an overview has been written by a Dianic priestess. There has been so much misinformation propagated by those outside the Dianic tradition over the years that I think it is an important read not only for women who may be considering finding a Dianic coven, but for all witches. I think this background on Dianic Witchcraft is also important for all feminists, even those who do not consider themselves spiritual. Like it or not, a large part of the battle for women’s rights is occurring within religious institutions and frameworks.

Witchcraft Today: 60 Years On is edited by Trevor Greenfield and published by Moon Books. It can be purchased in bookstores or on Amazon.

The Dianic Religion: What We Believe and How We Practice

February 22, 2013

Aphrodite. Photo by Shakko.
Aphrodite. Photo by Shakko.

Often women contact me for instruction in witchcraft who are unfamiliar with the Dianic Religion. One of the first things they want to know is whether they will have to worship naked with men present. I have also been asked about the practice of self-flagellation or scourging. In Dianic worship we usually practice in all-women groups, and we certainly do not practice naked with men. Women’s experience with sexual violence and subjugation under patriarchy makes mixed nudity and scourging questionable practices, whatever their inherent benefits. But there are many traditions that do not practice nudity or scourging. What makes Dianic witchcraft different from these traditions?

In Dianic witchcraft we focus on the female. We worship the mother of all things who is all gods and all goddesses. She is many and she is one. We see the great mother as whole within herself: she gives birth to the god but she is the original and first creator, as a male cannot give birth to one creature let alone a whole universe. We see woman, born with the capacity to give birth, as a divine reflection of the goddess and therefore whole and complete within herself. The Dianic Religion centers on the reproductive life cycle of the woman. We see this as divided into three phases: maiden, mother, and crone. We are born in the maiden phase which is girlhood and adolescence, we reach the mother phase with the birth of our first child, and the crone phase commences at menopause. Each of these phases has their own powers and their own focus. They are not equal: the crone is the most powerful because she has experienced maidenhood and motherhood. Sometimes women say to me, I went through menopause in my early 40s or I have had a hysterectomy. Do I have to see myself as a crone if I’m still young? In these cases, and in cases where a woman does not have children or delays childbirth until late in life, we set the commencement of the mother phase at the first Saturn return (which is roughly age 30), and the commencement of the crone phase at the second Saturn return in the late 50s.

As females virtually all of us are born with the expectation that we will someday have children, and much of our socialization revolves around this expectation. Although attitudes are slowly changing in this regard, women who do not raise children are often considered to be unfulfilled or incomplete. The Dianic tradition teaches that we can use our mothering abilities in a variety of ways, whether or not we have children, and all priestesses in maturity are considered mothers. At the same time, we recognize that nurturing is something we must accept as well as give, and ritual with other women is a way we can be nourished and recharged.

Body acceptance is an important goal of the Dianic path. Most women struggle with feelings of inadequacy because their body does not meet a certain ideal. Worshiping with other women in a non-judgmental setting helps a woman come to terms with the body she has, and this is one of the reasons we may encourage nudity in our circles, according to situation and inclination. Many of our rituals are geared toward helping women to become more embodied. Dianics reject the idea prevalent in modern Western culture that mind and body are separate entities. Paradoxically, in becoming more aware and accepting of our physical bodies our ability to do psychic work is enhanced.

The existence of the Dianic Religion is very important not only to Dianic priestesses, but to all religious women. Women in the more progressive Christian, Jewish, Sufi and Buddhist sects, as well as other Pagans, are aware of our philosophy and borrow from our tradition. Some have even formed women’s traditions of their own. I also think the knowledge that women’s religions exist (and function well) helps women negotiate greater power within religious structures that include men.

Further Reading

Barrett, Ruth. Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2007.

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time: A Women’s Book of Celebrations, Spells, and Sacred Objects for Every Month of the Year. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

And What About The God?

June 1, 2012

Shiva lies on his funeral pyre while Kali prepares to straddle his erect penis. Note the sword, the necklace of skulls and her hanging tongue symbolizing her devouring nature. Painting circa 1800.

Sorry to be late in posting. Something came up that I had to attend to.

Many years ago the god Shiva appeared to me in a startling vision. This was not a fleeting glimpse of the deity, which I have frequently, but a long sojourn in his presence. I have since learned that when Shiva appears in this way, it is a sign that you may ask for any boon you wish, and he will grant it. If only I had known this, I would have asked for lots of money, but since at the time I didn’t know any better, I asked for knowledge. Specifically, I had a question that had been provoked by a recent trip to the art museum. The special exhibit on classical Indian religious painting depicted Shiva and Kali Ma, with Kali in coitus with Shiva, or Kali devouring Shiva, or Kali in coitus with Shiva while devouring Shiva at the same time. Like medieval artists who painted the Madonna with Christ Child again and again, Indian painters seemed obsessed with the theme of Kali devouring her mate.

So I asked Shiva, “Do you love Kali?”

“Of course!” he exclaimed.

“But she stood on your stomach,” I protested, “and she ate your intestines.”

He replied, “Everything belongs to her.”

Everything belongs to her. Something to think about for a week. Or a year. Or a lifetime. To me encounters with the God are about understanding, appreciating and accepting the Goddess. He is the model of devotion.

One of the things that is frequently said about Dianics is that we “don’t honor the God.” Consciously or unconsciously, this is meant to criticize us, and repeated over and over again, without reflection, it has become a form of slander. It reflects not only a lack of understanding of our tradition but a lack of understanding of the nature of worship itself.

Dianics do worship mainly the Goddess, in her many forms. Most (but not all) of the images on my alter are of feminine deities, and though I do ritual to the Goddess twice a day, months may go by when I do not invoke a male deity. Yet Dianics also believe in and acknowledge the God. As in many traditions of witchcraft, we consider him the lover of the Goddess, who gave birth to him along with the rest of the universe. Because the Goddess gives birth to all things, and takes all things back to her at will, she is complete within herself, and we see no need to summon God and Goddess together in order to connect with creative power. At the same time there is no taboo about mentioning or connecting with a god. Even the purportedly extreme defender of feminist witchcraft, Z Budapest, talks about the God at times and discusses him a bit in her books. Admittedly, there are a few Dianics who are absolute about not admitting male deities or images into their personal space, and many non-Dianics disapprove of this, yet the compulsion I see in other pagan groups to never invoke the Goddess without the God or vice versa is its own form of extremism. Regardless, worshiping the Goddess alone is not equivalent to “not honoring the God.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

Like me, the God holds the Goddess in highest reverence. She is his entire world, as she is mine. To view the creator of all things as incomplete does not honor the divinities within her creation. And to misrepresent her priestesses, to mischaracterize the living tradition dedicated to the Goddess–how do you suppose the God feels about that? Has he been honored by willful disinclination to understand and accept those who worship what is most precious to him?

There is a great deal of fear and resentment about the presence of a women’s religion, and the reasons are complex. Dianics do not demand that others feel comfortable with us. It would be better, however, if criticism were not cloaked in the hypocrisy of “honoring the God.”

Defining Ourselves

March 8, 2012

Abigail Adams, 1766 (Benjamin Blythe)
I am taking a break from the broom this week. In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to post something about American women’s political history as it relates to worship.

Women have not always been women. We’ve been (among other things) wenches, maidens, girls, damsels and, of course, ladies. These words have usually referred to status as well as gender, but whatever her status, the definition of the word and the word itself was one in which the poor wench had no voice.

Abigail Adams, first lady to the second president of the United States, addressed the topic of women’s voices in 1776, as the principles of the new nation were being formed. In a letter to her husband she admonished, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” The use of “ladies” in such a strongly worded feminist statement sounds jarring, but “lady” was the word in vogue at the time. “Woman” was impolite or dehumanizing, implying low status, referring to bodies and therefore vaguely acknowledging sex. “Lady” was the genteel, civilized, respectable, well-mannered ideal.

Seventy-five years later, the first wave of American feminists rejected the word “lady” as a construct imposed by men, affirming instead the word “woman.” This took the definition of the female sex away from the realm of behavior, putting it back on the body and enabling women to do unladylike things. Even labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones, who had her own disagreements with feminists, got the importance of this when she admonished young women, “No matter what the fight, don’t be ladylike. God almighty made women, and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.”
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1902 (Bertha Howell)

In the second wave of feminism, beginning in the late 1960’s, women reaffirmed themselves as women, pushing back against the “lady” and “girl” monikers and celebrating the being and the body that God almighty made, only this time we called her “Goddess.” “Lady” was increasingly being limited to a polite means of addressing a female stranger (although “gentleman” was rarely used in this context). “Hey lady! Zip up your purse–you’re in New York!” a man yelled at me once. The upper class connotations of “lady” had long been a point of discomfort in a society that rejected the idea of class in principle, if not in practice. The word “lady” continued to be embraced by conservative women as an affirmation of the old male-imposed ideals or even as a code word for anti-feminist. The eighties street theatre group “Ladies Against Women” parodied these anti-feminist ladies.

For all its baggage of snobbery and oppression, the word “lady” remains ensconced in certain pagan traditions, particularly those that are an offshoot of British traditional witchcraft. The most conservative traditions worship a “Lord and Lady,” not a “God and Goddess,” and the high priestess may be addressed in circle as “lady.” A woman who has completed the highest level of training may also be addressed as lady. Once in awhile, a high priestess will publish a book under a pen name of Lady SomethingOrOther, but the title is not used outside of Craft business.

Hungarian-born Dianic leader Z Budapest tried unsuccessfully to persuade Dianic priestesses to accept the word “lady” in sacred context, arguing that the word originally meant “maker of the loaf” and has not always been a label of oppression. In feminist circles, resistance was too high to continue this traditional form of reference. For Dianics the word “woman” continues to be preferred, a way of affirming that we are not to be defined by outside forces.