Gender and Nature in Contemporary Neopaganism

In recent decades, several social and political movements have had profound impacts upon the popular Western psyche. Collectively, they pose a powerful challenge to religiously grounded relational paradigms which until recently have been accepted almost without question. These movements include the human rights trio (ethnic/racial civil rights, lesbian/gay rights and feminism) and environmentalism.

The last two of these, feminism and environmentalism, have been converging to the degree that a common discipline, ecofeminism, has been born. Although some affinities exist between these two and the others, the only solid connection seems to be the choice by some feminists of lesbianism on ideological grounds in spite of their personal sexual preferences. What could the women’s rights movement have in common with the attempt to preserve and protect our planetary ecology which the homosexual and nonwhite rights movements do not share? To answer this question, we must take a look at the paradigm they are all opposing, and in what ways each of them oppose it.

Our Present Paradigm

This paradigm is drawn from the moral laws set down in the holy texts of the religions comprising mainstream Western Monotheism. These religions mainly include Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism; their texts include the Bible, the Koran and the Zend Avesta. For purposes of simplicity and brevity, we shall call this the JCIZ paradigm.

JCIZ postulates a single omniscient, omnipotent and relatively benevolent male deity (Jahweh, Jehovah, God or Lord, Allah or Ahura Mazda), who created and populated the world but is essentially transcendent with respect to it. This deity is opposed by another somewhat less knowing and powerful, relatively malevolent male deity (Lucifer, the Devil, Shaitan or Ahriman), who is also essentially supernatural. These two opposed forces of good and evil, light and darkness, contend with each other by intervening in our affairs. Each of us shall spend eternity with whichever one he or she allies with; in any case this earth is a temporary inconvenience, unimportant in the greater order of things. It is in our interest to ally ourselves with the "good guy", and we know how to do this because He’s thoughtfully sent us a male savior or prophet or avatar (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed or Zarathustra) to so inform us.

We are now in a position to understand the special affinity between feminism and environmentalism. Homosexuality is condemned and slavery condoned in the JCIZ, but if these tendencies were reversed, it would not compromise the underpinnings of the theological structure; gay/lesbian rights identical to those of straights and white/nonwhite equality are no metaphysical threat to the integrity of the system. The religious ramifications of feminism and environmentalism, however, strike it to its very core. By criticizing the consequences of following the JCIZ, they indict as immoral or unwise the premises upon which it is based, and do so from the perspective of an alternative paradigm which derives from many pagan sources past and present, but which is crystallized in Wicca.

Feminism

In the JCIZ, all deities are male, the first human is male, and any central prophets or saviors are male. In the cosmic play, women are relegated to the roles of dupe, slave, rebellious whore, broodmare and submissive saint. Mary Daly’s dictum that if God is male, the male is God has the existential corollary, within the JCIZ, of reducing females to nothing. In order to follow God’s plan, women must submit to their husbands’ rule in particular, and to male authority in general. Men may have to attend the school of hard knocks, but women are stuck with their homework. They are to raise their many children but not their voices, for fear of getting knocked about themselves. This excision of the feminine from spiritual significance and their resulting societal subservience has provoked, within many contemporary women, a soul alienation of Marxian proportions. Revolt against the predominance of this divine chain of being has followed, and the guerillas have not been exclusively female. Some men have come to feel cramped and pigeonholed in the role of overseer on the domination plantation and degraded and ashamed of what is expected of them there. They have therefore joined the rebellion against the JCIZ gender hierarchy, agreeing with Martin Luther King that you can’t hold folks down in a ditch unless you climb down in there with them. As women and men come to the practical conclusion that only equality of rights, responsibilities and opportunities works, however, they also tend to come to the spiritual conclusion that this is true because the sexes equally approach divinity. This, however, would require deity to be comprised of masculinity and femininity in equal measure, which of course directly contradicts the JCIZ.

Environmentalism

In the JCIZ, the Creator packed a hostile and bountiful world like a reluctant lunchbox for fallen humanity (read man) to suffer, endure, dominate, subdue and exploit for his own benefit. This divine license for exploitation without regard to consequences in the name of greed has borne bitter fruit. Because we have not held our common home in reverence, or honored her as sacred to us, we have felt free to pollute, pillage, rape and otherwise profane her. Yet, after fouling our own nest, we seem surprised to find ourselves surrounded by human filth, with the blood of extinguished comrade species crying out inconsolably from the bleak bare ground. We are coming painfully to the understanding that the earth is our source and foundation, and that poisoning and impoverishing her can only hasten our own hollow demise. However, the grasping of the fact that we are only a part of something much older, wiser, grander and more complex than ourselves draws us inexorably to an experience of awe and sublimity in the presence of the sheer marvel of it. We begin to see ourselves as tiny threads, which, by some miracle, are able to sense the weave of a gigantic dancing tapestry (and the reality is much more wondrous than that). The earth becomes hallowed for us. But this contradicts the JCIZ premise that it is transcendent Deity which is holy, not a nature which, compared to the supernatural, must remain substandard.

Forbidden Fruit

Ecological degradation may be divided into natural resource depletion and biosphere pollution, but both have overpopulation as a root cause. Overpopulation drives us like lemmings to mow our global lungs for farmland, lumber and cattle pasture, sapping species diversity in the process. It drives us to strip-mine our eroding soil to build skyscrapers, cars and soda cans. It drives us to burn our fossil fuels, overheating our atmosphere and decimating our ozone sunscreen for the sake of light, mobility, plastic containers and air-conditioned comfort for a small percentage of our teeming billions. It drives us to turn our over-fished oceans into toxic cesspools when our rivers bear our pesticides, factory byproducts and sewage to the seas. Furthermore, the resulting competition for room and resources on a shrinking sphere has led our infant race to nurse the barrel of the nuclear gun.

It is ecologically imperative that we control our rate of reproduction generally, and the fundamental pillar of feminism that women must have the right to control their own reproduction individually. To this dovetailing of the calls of personal freedom and global necessity, the JCIZ responds with an iron demand frozen for thousands of years in the face of catastrophically changing circumstances; you must be fruitful and multiply.

Ecofeminism

The realization that birth control is both a feminist and an environmental issue is one of many pattern matches which ecofeminists have found. They follow the clue given by the phrase Mother Nature to the conclusion that women and the earth have both been victimized by the same attitudes of subjection, rapaciousness, violation, penetration of virgin territory, stripping, despoiling and defloration. They consider this an unfortunate result of the separation of the sexes into godlike, transcendent man and earthy, immanent woman, into man as mind and woman as body, found in the JCIZ. This partition, for ecofeminists, is based on the differing positions of the sexes with regard to childbirth; men observe, women participate. Women also, like the earth, produce food, and can be planted with seed when in season; hence the ancient occurrence of the term plowing for intercourse.

Sexist theological Cartesianism, however, is untenable; the JCIZ's gender-based spirit/flesh dichotomy has been an injurious illusion. Self-aware parts of nature are still woven into the web they perceive. Mind, whether abstract or concrete, and of either gender, is a bodily based, earthly and evolutionarily emergent phenomenon.

The main division within ecofeminism is between gender and nature ecofeminists. The gender ecofeminists believe that male-female relationships are the source of a domination pattern that is generalized to apply to culture-nature relationships, and that if we replace it with an egalitarian sexual partnership pattern, our environmental abuse will stop. Nature ecofeminists believe just the opposite; that replacing the egocentric, exploitative and uncaring attitudes underlying environmental abuse with valuing, consequence based stewardship will repair male-female relationships by osmosis. I think that the domination pattern is imprinted during child-rearing, and that to end it, we have to embrace non-coercive methods of socializing our young.

The Challenge of Neopaganism

Neopaganism Generally

The Neopagan alternatives to the JCIZ paradigm trace their roots to prehistoric Eurasian and African tribal and shamanic nature religions, and count the Amerindian and Australian aboriginal traditions as siblings. From them, Pagans have taken their reverence for the earth and their celebration of the more feminine principles of divinity. They generally create sacred space by casting a circle (which is the intersection between a sanctified sphere and the ground), and calling the four directions, which correspond to the four elements, and to the divisions of a day, a moon cycle, a year and a lifetime, and much else. Their holy days fall on the solstices and the equinoxes, on the midpoints between them (the cross-quarters), and/or on full moons. In addition, they honor personal rites of passage; such as birth, a naming of the child (sometimes called wiccaning), puberty, marriage (known as handfasting), menopause (croning), and death. Contemporary neopagan groups include the Fellowship of Isis, Ar n Draiocht Fein (Our Own Druidism), the Church of all Worlds, Asatru and the Church of the Eternal Source.

Wicca Specifically

All the above is true of Wicca, but when casting their circles most also call the Earth Mother, Sky Father, and Center, this last representing both the individual selves of the participants and the common center they create by joining together. They also thank and dismiss them when they open their circles upon the conclusion of their ritual workings. Wicca follows a gender-complementary immanent duotheism comprised of a God and a Goddess; for Wicca, deity is double and non-transcendent. The distinctions between them entail neither mutual hostility nor the subservience of either to the other, but instead require the co-presence in dynamic symmetry of these differing yet equi-primordial principles for circumstances to proceed. The fundamentalist belief in the actual existence of these deities is not a prerequisite for becoming Wiccan. In fact, many, if not most, Wiccans view the Earth Mother and Sky Father as archetypes in the Jungian sense, and as lenses through which to apprehend, and grasp in concrete, human-friendly terms, a totality which is too vast and ineffable to be circumscribed by finite minds. Wiccans consider all Goddesses and Gods throughout history as cultural manifestations of these principles, revel in the diversity of expression that they find, and borrow whatever they find that works for them. In this sense, Wicca does not enslave and use its adherents; rather it is the case that Wicca is made use of by them, as a spiritual tool with which to focus their passions and intentions upon the realizations of their plans and desires. The conceptions and attributes surrounding these deities are not inscribed for all time in any holy text, but are flexible, for Wicca is an evolving, pragmatic religion with little dogmatic baggage.

Wicca's central ritual, the Great Rite, consists of dipping a dagger in a chalice of wine in symbolic intercourse. The Christian Communion, in contrast, is symbolic cannibalism. Wicca has one major law, the Law of Three (any action, whether well or ill intentioned, is returned to its source threefold), and one commandment, the Wiccan Rede (if it harms none, do what you will). While these admonishments do emphasize personal freedom, they link it to personal responsibility, and the consequences of following them are a strict self-discipline, since one is expected to strive not to harm oneself, others, or the biosphere we share. Their more magickal practices include a Santeria-like invocation of the masculine principle by the priest and of the feminine principle by the priestess (the Drawing Down of the Sun or Moon), and Raising the Cone of Power. This practice involves an entering of the group into a shamanic state of consciousness, usually by means of some combination of dancing, chanting and drumming, preparatory to attempts at divination or spellcasting.

The Earth Mother represents the foundation or substrate of change; the matter underlying form, the being beneath becoming. She is omnipresent, although aspects of her may undergo periodic change. She never dies. The feminine principle of divinity encompasses the cyclical-intuitive, synthesizing, fecund-formative, nourishing aspect, with its emphases on the personal and collective dream worlds, and on relatedness. The Sky Father represents the changes of form that must occur in the life cycle and food chain. He withdraws and returns, and never lingers. He is the God of the inseparability of hunter and prey, and of the cycle of vegetation. He is born of the Mother, grows, flowers and dies, to be reborn of his own seed the following year. The masculine principle of divinity encompasses the linear-logical, analyzing, fertilizing aspect, with its emphases on ego, task and individuality. A combination of these traits is preferable to either alone, and all people are considered to have their own particular ratios of these attribute sets; their own yin-yang or anima-animus blend.

Modern Wicca publicly began in 1949 when Gerald Gardner published High Magic's Aid, a book of Wiccan ritual disguised as historical fiction. He then, in collaboration with Doreen Valiente, published Witchcraft Today in 1954 and The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959. Although other Wiccan forms exist, Gardnerian Wicca and an offshoot (Alexandrian Wicca, after its founder Alex Sanders) remain the core Wiccan traditions. Other important Wiccan theorists include Janet and Stewart Farrar, Starhawk and Z Budapest.

Wiccan Theo/alogy and the Foundations of Feminism and Environmentalism

In a religion in which the God and the Goddess are equi-potential (possess complementary and equal status), gender equality is mandated rather than forbidden. Freedom of societally and planetarily responsible choice belongs to all. In a religion that urges its adherents to love the earth as a mother, rather than resenting and coveting her as a rich, conquerable hostile kingdom, children would be raised from birth to treat her with restraint and respect, and to pass her on to their children in as pristine a condition as possible. There is, in fact, a kind of Wiccan Eden myth; a vision of a prehistoric peaceful eco-friendly agrarian matriarchy which was overthrown by males banished for violence, who banded together to conquer and enslave their former society and pillage its lands. This Edenic vision is more admired than believed. Most Wiccans desire a return to this Eden, even if humanity has never in reality been there.

Feminists and environmentalists, particularly ecofeminists and deep ecologists, share this vision for the future; it is what they strive for. It is therefore to be expected that many of them would appropriate a belief system possessing sensibilities so in harmony with their hopes, goals, desires and dreams. If the Wiccan Utopia is theirs also, adoption seems eminently reasonable. In fact, these movements receive both support and guidance from Wicca, and give both in return.

Wicca and ScienceWicca's attitude toward science is one of intense interest and positive regard, for Wicca's perspective of pragmatic self-conscious evolution and its anti-dogmatic character resemble scientific ideals. Science, for Wicca, is attempting to reveal the underlying nature of immanent divinity, and as such is performing a sacred service. In addition, Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, that the entire biosphere is an evolving, self-regulating totality, appears to be to Wiccans the beginning of the confirmation of their ecological suspicions, and the recent comparisons of gender, brain structure and cognitive style bolster the validity of their chosen deity attributes. They for the most part accept that humanity creates divinity in its own image, and feel flattered that science is indicating that they in particular are doing it rather well.

Difficulties

Wicca’s deities form a heterosexual couple, and sex with one's significant other is regarded as a sacrament. This has caused gays and lesbians to sometimes feel uneasy with the energy in the circle. For this reason, some gay men have formed Faerie circles and some lesbians have embraced Dianic Wicca. Straight women will also meet in full moon circles, or esbats, and straight men in wild man groups. Although there are some differences, for instance in the deity or deities invoked, the thaumaturgy, or ritual structure, remains similar throughout. General meetings are held on the sabbats eight times a year, and networking is constant. Wicca and Neopaganism remain far more gay-friendly than JCIZ.

Although racial diversity endures as an ideal in Wicca, it is sadly lacking in reality. This failure to rainbow the Craft is deeply disturbing to its members. It is almost certain that the reason for the phenomenon of white bread Wicca is that, for racial minorities, the intensity and immediacy of their oppressed condition drives gender and ecological concerns to the periphery if their awareness. Also, it only stands to reason that they would feel uncomfortable participating in ritual as the token minority, or at best as one of the few. It is very likely that, despite the best intentions of the other participants, such an experience serves to reinforce, rather than relieve, the awkwardness and sense of difference for which racial minorities would seek religious comfort. Wiccans, having experienced discrimination themselves on the religious front, understand these impediments, and continue to remain open and hopeful.

Lastly, the Wiccan division of deity has inadvertently had the corollary of evolving lists of masculine and feminine gender attributes that seem disturbingly similar to those of the JCIZ, only wrapped in positive-regard packaging. Also, in some cases, the Wiccan backlash against patriarchy has swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, subjecting men to the same ridicule and discrimination that the phallocentrists previously reserved for women. Wiccans must be on guard that they do not pigeonhole individuals into these archetypes, and thus descend the slippery slope into the very bigotry and gender expectations that many have joined Wicca to escape.

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