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Goddesses, Yes
Goddess No!

The Feminine and the Multi-Centered God Image

by Stephan A. Hoeller

In his delightful neo-Gnostic novel Monsieur, Lawrence Durrell writes that there are four "M's" that characterize our age: monotheism, messianism, monogamy, and materialism. Enlisting Freud's scatological interpretation of money, he adds that all of these equal another "M" - merde.1

Extreme as this statement may sound, it contains a powerful and often overlooked truth. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have fixated their spiritual imaginations upon the image of God as a unitary supreme reality - an image which excludes diversity and plurality. The rising feminist consciousness of our era has identified one result of this view of God as "Patriarchy" and taken exception to it. The remedy suggested for this is the replacement of the solitary male God with a Goddess, or, as she is frequently called, "the Goddess."


The question I wish to ask here is, what if the principal fault should not so much be with the gender of our God, but with the fact that he is seen as single and solitary? One might even argue that the masculine orientation of society and religion is but a result of a much more fundamental issue, that of monotheism. It may be that the one-dimensional norm of our culture can be traced not to the fact that we think of the deity as male, but to the fact that we think of it as one. Perhaps monotheism has produced the other "M's" listed by Durrell.

If we concede some of the merit to this question, we might also ask whether the replacement of a monotheistic male God by a monotheistic female Goddess would accomplish any more than replace one evil for another. Ever since the beginning of the modern era we have seen old tyrannies be replaced by newer, even more fearsome ones. Quite possible the same thing could happen in the sphere of religion.


The Death of God

The monotheistic God has been dying for some time. In the last century, Nietzsche coined the phrase "God is dead." In the 1940s and '50s, the American theologian Richard Niebuhr began to question the authenticity of what he called "radical monotheism" and asserted that the natural religion of the human being is polytheistic.2 In the 1960s and '70s two other theologians, Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, renewed Nietzsche's declaration of the death of the monotheistic God and pointed to the emergence of a radical polytheistic theology.3 In more recent times the Jungian psychologist James Hillman and his exegete David L. Miller have continued to build a powerful case for what they call "multicentered images of psychic reality," which they regard as the psychological equivalents of the ancient polytheistic pantheon.

The demise of the monotheistic God cannot be asserted without arousing the often violent opposition of those who are wedded to such shibboleths as "The Lord our God is One" and "There is no God but God." And even those who evaluate their traditions in terms that are chiefly mystical are rarely disposed to give up their monotheistic fixations. Thus many devotees of mystical Islam intend to elevate the image of the singular personal God to the status of a universal and all-encompassing Oneness. But monotheism, even when disguised as monism, still tends to retain its original shortcomings.

The best way to surmount such difficulties, it would seem, is the way offered by psychology, which by detheologizing metaphysical concepts and by demonstrating their reality in the psyche, lifts them out of the realm of dogma. This was the way taken by C.G. Jung, who not only discovered the psychic reality of the archetypes (which are neither more nor less than the gods and goddesses of the psyche) but also stated that he could find no psychic equivalent of the monotheistic God:

So far, I have found no stable or definite center in the unconscious and I don't believe such a center exists. I believe that the thing I call the Self is an ideal center, equidistant between the Ego and the Unconscious…As nature aspires to express itself, so does man, and the Self is that dream of totality.4

The God image (imago Dei) that is so closely related to Jung's construct of the Self is thus not a definite point in the psyche. Instead it resembles an ideal of wholeness, which ought not to be confused with a psychic equivalent of a monotheistic God. Archetypes, on the other hand, behave very much as gods and goddesses might be expected to behave, and it must be remembered that many of these archetypal images are female. In this way the goddesses of the soul have reentered the arena of contemporary interest. Their triumphal march, initiated by Jung and acclaimed by mythologists such as Kerényi, Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, is taking place before our eyes.


What to Do with Goddesses

If one grants that there are gods and goddesses in the psyche, the question then arises of what to do with them. David L. Miller proposes on answer:

We enact many myths in the course of our lives. We feel deeply the configurations of many stories. We are the playground of a veritable theater full of Gods and Goddesses. What do the Gods and Goddesses want with us? Our task is to incarnate them, become aware of their presence, acknowledge and celebrate their forms, so that we may better be able to account for our polytheism.5

Artemis, the virgin huntress

The task of incarnating deities within our very personhood raises another important issue. As long as a deity is constructed along the monotheistic pattern, its characteristics are bound to be undifferentiated and therefore ambiguous. Many Christians and Jews continue to be puzzled by the radical contradictions evident in the God of the Old Testament. Mercy and cruelty, wisdom and capriciousness, and many other conflicting traits coexist in this God. Similarly, religions and cultures which were attached to a single (or at leas preeminent) image of a Goddess found themselves involved with a religious archetype that was at once life-giving and devouring, alluring and repulsive.

The reason for these ambiguities is to be found precisely in the unitary and hence undifferentiated nature of the monotheistic deities of either gender. Thus, if we are sick of the vengeful and jealous God of our fathers, we should also take heed of the shadow side of the solitary Goddess whom some would resurrect.

Polytheism offers a way out of this dilemma. Gods and goddesses are in fact differentiated personalities. As such they have individual characteristics, which may attract us at certain points in our lives and which we may embody for longer of shorter periods without being victimized by their darker components. Let us set out some ways in which we today can embody the manifold images of the immortal goddesses.

In the mysteries of Eleusis, countless mortals incarnated the persons of Demeter and Persephone and relived their story. In doing so, these initiates found that their psyches underwent an essential and irreversible change from which they benefited till the end of their days. Cicero, in fact, called the Eleusinian mysteries the greatest ennobling influence that was ever made to bear on the character of humankind. From this we can learn that the artful conjoining of a mythic motif with an experience of altered consciousness can benefit both the individual and the culture. Moreover, we need to remember that the mysteries of Eleusis were open to both sexes. The goddesses were not for "everywoman" only, but for "everyman" as well.

Similarly, when invoking the ever-delightful presence of passionate love into our lives, we may turn to Aphrodite-Venus. In her, love and sexuality are powerfully conjoined. She may teach us that love and sex need not be separated in our lives. And again, Aphrodite gladly helps both men and women.

We could proceed in this way to many others: to Artemis, the virginal huntress who pursues her prey but is never caught herself; to Hera and Hestia, embodiments of maternal and domestic felicity; to Athena, the martial and intellectual heroine of victorious feminine talent; to Hecate, dark mistress of dreams and nocturnal sorceries of the unconscious. For every occasion, for every phase of life we may find a mighty feminine deity, ready to assist us, bless us, indeed to be incarnated in us. And most important, we may discern clearly what we may expect from each, for their personalities are distinct, open, and unambiguous. They are many, not one, and thus their natures and gifts are individual and unique.


"Sophia" from the Book of Wonders by David Jors, sixteenth century.

Goddesses and Today's Culture

To revive gods and goddesses is no small task. Above all, it is not a task that reason or personal motives can accomplish or even assist in. One cannot construct archetypes on the basis of recognitions reached by the personal complex of mind and emotions. David L. Miller rightly observes:

The Gods and Goddesses are not cute allegories and analogies, figures of speech for evangelizing and moralistic orators, just as they are neither psychological nor social roles. Rather, they are worlds of our existence; the deepest structures of reality.6

If we conjure up the presence of such structures of reality primarily or even partly because we would like to advance our own purposes, we commit sacrilege and invite the cruel retribution of the Olympians. Our watchword in these matters must never be "I want," but rather "do as Thou wilt." Ideologies, politics, "isms" of all kinds, as well as personal hurt and anger, must be left behind in the outer court. They must not be smuggled into the sanctuary where the deities reside. Of course, much of the contemporary "paganizing" and "Goddess talk" will not pass muster by these stringent yet essential standards.


Polytheism and Christianity

A scene of the Virgin Mary memorialized on innumerable holy cards

Some may ask if it is realistic to expect people who were nurtured by the Christian myth to shift allegiance to the deities of Homer and Xenophanes. Yet many early Christians, especially those of the Gnostic variety, saw no contradiction in recognizing the gods and goddesses as carriers of valid imagery and power. The Church Fathers described how Alexandrian Gnostics carried the statue of Persephone in procession from an underground crypt to their church on the eve of the Epiphany. Even orthodox Christians accepted the form of Bacchus as a legitimate disguise for Christ. To this day Catholicism is chastised by Protestants for worshipping Mary as a pagan goddess, and it can be argued that early Christianity represented an attempt to substitute a sacred polyarchy for the tyranny of the Old Testament God. We must also remember that the kabbalah (called "Jewish Gnosticism" by Gershom Scholem) possesses a polytheistic myth in its ten sephiroth, at least three of which qualify as goddesses by any reasonable standard.

The discovery and assimilation of early heterodox Christian scriptures (such as the Nag Hammadi library) will also facilitate the revival of goddess figures within a new Gnostic Christian mythos. Goddesses such as Barbelo and Sophia, demigoddesses like Eve-Zoe and Norea, and heroines such as Mary Magdalene are emerging from exile and are awaiting reincorporation into Christian scriptures and liturgy. Things have never looked so good for a recovery of our polytheistic heritage and of our beautiful and mighty goddesses of old. One even feels that Christ, the incarnate paradigm of the Fullness, who assured us that in his Father's house there are many divinities7 would be pleased by the coming of a new polytheism.

Aeschylus, in his tragedy Aetnae, writes of Talia, daughter of Hephaestus. Having received the amorous attentions of Zeus, this divine maiden was persecuted by Zeus's divine consort, Hera. To save her from harm Zeus hid Talia in the depths of the earth, where she gave birth to two sons, the Palikes, who to this day are responsible for emitting destructive streams of volcanic fire into this world. Marie-Louise von Franz reminds us that if we forget the goddesses and gods they will burst forth from the depths of the unconscious in destructive ways.

Our attachment to the monotheistic god image has caused us to repress many splendid archetypal deities. The wholeness, not only of our souls but of the world, requires us to invite these numinous beings to take their places in our religious and cultural lives. It would be best if in doing this we could refrain from trying to evoke a monotheistic feminine deity fashioned in the image of Jehovah, our long-time afflictor. Nietzsche's Olympians exclaim in Thus Spake Zarathustra, "Is not just this godlike, that there are gods but no God?" To which we may add, "and that there are goddesses, but no Goddess!"



  1. Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1976) pp. 145-46
  2. H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1970) p. 119.
  3. Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).
  4. Quoted in Miguel Serrano, C.G. Jung and Hermann Hesse: A Record of Two Friendships, Frank MacShane, trans. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 50, 56.
  5. David L. Miller, The New Polytheism (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 55.
  6. Ibid., p. 80.
  7. John 14:1-3. In Gnostic exegesis, the multiple "mansions" or "dwelling-places" are understood to be the Aions.
The article first appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 13, Fall 1989),
and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

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