The Goddess And God Of Modern Paganism

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The deities most commonly and fervendy revered in the classical ancient world were those concerned with aspects of civilization and society; there were certainly others associated with aspects of wild nature, but these were represented by conspicuously fewer temples, shrines, dedications and literary references. The pattern obtains m early Celtic literature, and it holds good for most of the Christian period, when the old goddesses and gods had become allegorical or mythical figures. A systematic survey of English poetry written between 1300 and 1800 reveals that the favourite goddess was Venus, patroness of love, followed by Diana, representing female chastity and (much more rarely) hunting, then Minerva, for wisdom, and Juno, symbol of queenliness. The favourite male deity was Jupiter, the pattern for rulers, followed by Neptune, patron of sailors, Mercury, sponsor of education and communication, and Vulcan, for smiths and metalworkers (Smith, 1984). A more impressionistic look at intellectual works, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, shows Minerva (not supnsmgly) to be apostrophized most often; she was hailed with equal dramatic eloquence by Pierre Abelard, Christine de Pisan and Giordano Bruno. Urban statuary in western Europe, from the Renaissance to the mnteenth century, seems most commonly to represent her, as a civic goddess, plus Jupiter, Mercury and Apollo.

There were slight traces of alternative traditions. In one classical text, the Metamorphoses of Apuleius which dates from near the end of the pagan period, the female deity was declared to be the embodiment of all other goddesses, and represented by the moon and the natural world. This, combined with Neo-Platomsm, produced a concept m a few seventeenth-century hermetic works, of a female figure identified with the starry heaven, who stood between God and the earth, and acted as a world soul. This was, however, by definition a tradition limited to a handful of specialists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher. It is more relevant to our present interests that the ancient Greeks spoke of the earth as being feminine in gender and the sky as masculine. As most western science was based ultimately upon Greek thought, this language became embedded in it. It was developed further in early-modern Europe, where the scientists were virtually all male and easily adopted an imagery of male investigation and exploitation of a female natural world (Merchant, 1980). Conversely, from the high medieval penod a few intellectuals and poets employed a female figure as an allegory of nature; the most famous was Geoffrey Chaucer, who cited as his source for the idea the twelfth-century scholar Alanus de Insulis. Like the 'world soul', however, she was a ranty compared with the more familiar, 'civilized', goddesses.

This pattern was completely reversed bv the Romantic Movement, one aspect of which was a self-conscious reaction to the mindset of early modern scientific rationalism. It included an exaltation of the natural and irrational, those qualities which scientific language had come to identify as 'feminine'. This accompanied a recognition that humanity could at last be suffering from too much civilization. For the first time in European history, mountains were seen as beautiful instead of frightening, and wild nature began to be valued over farms and cities, the night over the day, and the moon over the sun. These impulses first strongly manifested themselves in the late eighteenth century, and intensified during the nineteenth, as urbanization and industrialization spread across Europe. They were especially powerful m Britain, where both processes began earlier, and advanced more rapidly, than elsewhere (Nicolson, 1959; Thomas, 1983; and sources cited in these).

The impact upon the poetic imagination is very clear. Between 1800 and 1940 Venus and Diana (or Artemis) were still the two favourites. Juno, however, almost vanished, and after 1830 so did Minerva. They were replaced by Proserpine, as goddess of the changing seasons, and Ceres or Demeter, the Corn Mother. A reading of the texts, moreover, discloses a more dramatic alteration. Venus is now often related to the woods or the sea, while Diana is no longer primarily a symbol of chastity or of hunting but (overwhelmingly) of the moon, the greenwood or wild animals. Furthermore, the importance of Venus depended upon incidental references and metaphors. When a goddess was made the major figure of a poem, it was Diana who ruled, or a nameless female deity of moonlight or the natural world. Among the gods, likewise, the supremacy of Jupiter came to an end, and references to Neptune fell off even more strikingly; indeed, most of the classical male deities became less popular with poets, save for two dramatic exceptions. One was Apollo, the favourite god of the early Romantics, who saw him both as patron of poetry and male sovereign of nature in his capacity as solar deity. After 1830, however, his popularity also atrophied, to be overtaken by a god who had also been thrust to prominence by the Romantics and who continued to attract attention all through the nineteenth century until he became the most frequendy cited male deity in the whole canon of English literature. He was the one most intimately associated with the wild, disturbing and exciting aspects of nature: Pan (Smith, 1984, and sources there; Menvale, 1969: 118-19). -

The development of the two deity figures proceeded in parallel, and that of the goddess was more complex as it drew on no single classical character. Keats repeatedly apostrophized the moon as a female deity, and made her the subject of his first long and ambitious work, Endymion. Shelley preferred the image of Mother Earth, as m his 'Song of Proserpine. The identification of the divine feminine with the moon became ever firmer in subsequent decades. In 1831 the librettist of the century's most famous drama about Druids, Vincenzo Bellini's opera Norma, has the heroine stand in sacred grove and invoke a goddess m that form, in preference to the sun traditionally venerated by Druids. More remarkable still is the case of Charlotte Bronte, who was intimately associated with Anglican Christianity m her upbringing, home life and marital partner. She made her own most famous heroine, Jane Eyre, contemplate going abroad as a missionary. Jane operates emotionally, however, within a cosmology by which a single supreme god has created Nature to be a divine mother to living things. It is to this mother (and not to Jesus) that Jane turns for comfort when m trouble, and who appears to her out of the moon in a- dream-vision, to give her advice. It never seems to have occurred to Bronte that this view of divinity was not actually Christianity.

fane Eyre came out m 1847, and in that decade another celebrated wnter made the union of moon-goddess with nature-goddess, when Robert Browning wrote his poem 'Artemis Prologizes'- The next stage in the evolution of the image was to eliminate the creator god, leaving the composite goddess as the single mighty source of all being. Swinburne cook this m 1867, giving resounding voice to this deity under the name of a Germanic earth-goddess, in his poem 'Hertha\ There the mighty creatnx of later feminist paganism appeared fully formed. The precise form which she was to take m Wicca, however, was yet to appear, and did so through a route which although profoundly influenced by creative literature was qualitatively different from it: academic history and archaeology.

The beginning of the process lay, once again, in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, as one contribution to a debate over the nature of prehistoric religion. Put crudely, this took place between those who suggested that primitive religious belief was a superstitious compound of ignorance and fear, and those who viewed it as an embodiment of sublime truths, which had degenerated and been forgotten among modern tribal peoples. The former stance was taken most prommendy by the French philosophes, the latter by the German Romantics, especially Herder, Tiecke and the Schlegels. Most important of those truths, according to this latter school, was a monotheism linked to an instinctual understanding of the rhythms of nature and of human life. Given the increasing power of the identification of nature with female divinity, it is not surpnsing to find that in 1849 a German classicist, Eduard Gerhard, advanced the novel suggestion that behind the various goddesses of classical Greece had stood a single great one, venerated before history began (Gerhard, 1849: 103).

In the second half of the century more and more scholars, in Germany, France and Britain, began to adopt this idea, although it remained (and remains} controversial for lack of any conclusive evidence (Ucko, 1968: 409-12). One difficulty with it was the need to incorporate within a single ancestral figure historical goddesses as different as those who represented virginity and those who stood for sexuality or motherhood. A solution was proposed in 1903 by a Cambridge classicist, Jane Ellen Hamson; that as goddess-forms m the historic period sometimes appeared m threes (such as the Fates and the Graces), the prehistoric Great Goddess had been venerated in three aspects, the first two being Maiden and Mother. She did not name the third (Harrison, 1903: 257-322). A parallel classification was suggested by Sir James Frazer, in the successive editions between 1890 and 1922 of his enormously popular work, The Golden Bough. This postulated the former existence of a single fertility goddess responsible for cereal agriculture, who was later personified, according to region, as a Maiden, a Mother or an Old Wife.

By the Edwardian period, therefore, English literary culture had long been used to a broad notion that the divine feminine should be related to the mght sky and to the natural world. By then, also, this was being associated with another notion, that it should be conceived of as a single mighty, and very ancient, goddess. It would be easy, but unnecessary, to explore its history further in early twentieth-century literature; to examine, for example, George Russell's poetry about Mother Earth, or D. H. Lawrence's changing relationship with the concept of Woman as Magna Mater, symbolized by the moon, in his successive works. It would be almost as straightforward a task to document the growing consensus among professional prehistonans that Neolithic Europe had venerated a Great Goddess, which reached its apogee in the 1950s and caused psychologists, and especially Jungians, to declare such a figure to be an archetype of the collective unconscious. Within this broad concept, there was a more precise one, of a goddess in three aspects. This was to be given its final refinement in 1946 by Robert Graves's poetic reverie The White Goddess, which combined the deities of Hamson and Frazer, to produce a tuple female divinity in the aspects of Maiden, Mother and Crone, each corresponding to a phase of the moon. For present purposes, however, it is enough to note that by the 1920s the female deity of Wicca was already formed in the English consciousness.

Unlike the goddess-image, that of Pan has already been the subject of a full-length academic study (Menvale, 1969). Its development was a simpler matter, in that the ancient world had bequeathed it to the modern imagination m an already complete form. Nonetheless, its reappearance was dramatic, and it did undergo; certain alterations of emphasis. Between the time of Milton and that of Wordsworth, the goat-foot god did not feature in a single work of English literature by a major author. With Wordsworth, however, he resurfaced m a form reproduced by the other Romantic poets, and m which he was to be celebrated in verse and prose for the next 150 years; as the embodiment of an idealized past of rural tranquillity, suffused into the English landscape. As such, he was also hailed by Keats, Shelley, Hunt, Byron, William Hazlitt, Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, Roden Noel, Lord de Tabley, Wilde, Flecker, John Cowper Powys, Walter de la Mare, Gordon Bottomley, Geoffrey

Sephton, Eleanor Faqeon, and a host of poetaster whose verses never rose above magazine publication. Whereas to the early Romantics he was still one deity among several, between 1895 and 1914 he was, in Patricia Menvale's words, 'the one fashionable subject on which every minor poet thought that he could turn out a dittyf (Menvale, 1969: 118). This concept of the god was also expressed notably between 1880 and 1930 in the prose fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, E. M. Forster, Maunce Hewlett and Lord Dunsany.

During this same period m which the benevolent, rural. Pan became such a cliche, other aspects of the god were expressed. Keats, Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt had already, in the 1810s, suggested that he was the fount of poetic inspiration (Hazlitt, 1931: vi.192; Menvale, 1969: 65-6;). In 1910 Pachard le Gallienne powerfully restated this idea in his Attitudes and Avowals, with the gloss that as poets were beyond conventional morality and constraints, they required a deity who shared that characteristic. In asserting this, he was giving expression to that aggressively neo-pagan language which has been described as one product of the Fin de Siècle, and m which Pan was turned into a more exciting and disturbing deity than the embodiment of rural nostalgia. This dangerous, radical, Pan, the personification of the animal aspect of humanity, was given artistic form in the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. As a cathartic force, shattenng the prison of bourgeois conformity, he was celebrated in E.M. Forster's first publication, The Stoiy of a Panic (1902), and then predictably, at several points in the work of D.H. Lawrence. He liberated an entire English village m Lord Dunsany s novel The Blessing of Pan (1927), while in the preface to Dion Fortune's The Goat Foot God (1936), he is destined to 'wake up the living dead' of contemporary Britain.

What he could awake most spectacularly, of course, was sexuality, and in particular those kinds of it which had been either repressed or proscribed. Into the former category could fall the female libido, and Somerset Maugham's short story Cakes and Ale (1930) could look back to the time around 1900 when 'literary ladies in Surrey, nymphs of an industrial age, mysteriously surrendered their virginity to his rough embrace.' One female writer who evoked this aspect of the god with especial fervour, and beauty, was Teresa Hooley, whose 'Prayer to Pan"' may stand as an exemplar of the genre.

He was also, however, the deity of forbidden, which in this context meant gay, sex. Victor Neuburg and Aieister Crowley, themselves lovers, produced a pair of poems between 1910 and 1914, 'The Tnumph of Pan! and 'Hymn to Pan', which remain literary monuments to homosexuality and bisexuality respectively. It is Pan who is invoked by a schoolboy m Forrest Reid's novel The Garden God (1905), as he struggles successfully to come to terms with his love for a male friend. The same decade witnessed a crueHer and more subde employment of Pan m a gay ideology, by Hector Munro ('Saki') in his short story 'The Music on the Hill': the deity causes a stag to gore to death a forceful and Philistine woman who has persuaded a contented bachelor into marriage with her.

More subde still, and more profoundly significant, was an expression of E. M. Forster's about his hero Maurice, m the novel of that name which he wrote in 1913—14 as a means of acknowledging his own homosexuality. Having committed himself firmly to living out the truth of his sexual orientation, Maurice feels detached from all the rest of the Londoners about him; instead he now realizes that he is at one with 'the forests and the night'. Those domains were the traditional Otherworlds of the civilized imagination; they were precisely the realms of the two pagan deity forms which had emerged most powerfully in the English literary imagination by the eariy twentieth century; the homed god of the countryside and the wild woods, and the goddess associated with the green earth and the white moon among the stars.

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