Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement

Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries
Edited by Miriam Robbins Dexter and Vickie Noble
Teneo Press, 2015

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Review by Barbara Ardinger.

Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries is a valuable historical document on whose cover is a beautiful painting of Xiwangmu (a Queen Mother and one of the eldest Chinese deities) by artist and historian Max Dashú. The book opens with a list of fifteen of our foremothers who are no longer with us. Next come introductory essays by the book’s editors, Vicki Noble (co-creator of the Motherpeace Tarot) and Miriam Robbins Dexter (a protégée of Marija Gimbutas). The body of the book presents thirty-one personal essays by women of significance today in the community of the Goddess. Part 1, “Scholars,” gives us ten essays, including chapters by Carol P. Christ (I remember swapping horror stories with her about being young and female in academia in the 1970s), Elinor W. Gadon, and Riane Eisler. Part 2, “Indigenous Mind and Mother Earth,” presents seven essays by women like Luisah Teish (her chapter will break your heart), Starhawk, and Glenys Livingstone, who lives in Australia. In Part 3, “Ritual and Ceremony,” ritualists like Z. Budapest (her story is especially germane today), Mama Donna Henes (whose website is inspiring), and Ruth Barrett (the best ritualist I’ve ever worked with) write about their work. In Part IV, “Artists and Activists,” Judy Grahn, Cristina Biaggi (another fascinating artist), Donna Read (her films are, alas, available on Amazon only on VHS), and Lydia Ruyle (have you seen her Goddess Banners?) write about their work. Part 5, “Philosopher and Humanitarian,” is Genevieve Vaughan’s essay about her work, which includes building the Sekhmet Temple in Cactus Springs, Nevada, and establishing the International Feminists for a Gift Economy network. There is also an appendix with thirty-eight illustrations.

The women’s spirituality movement (also called feminist spirituality or spiritual feminism) began in tandem with the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s, when women finally noticed how patriarchal and filled with war most of the world is and nearly always has been since the peaceful Neolithic civilization of Old Europe was wiped out. First we took political action. We founded the women’s liberation movement, consciousness raising groups, and the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1966 Barbara Jordan became the first black woman to win a seat in the Texas Senate; in 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives—and then in 1972 she ran for president; and Bella Abzug won her seat in Congress in 1970 when she said a woman’s place is in the home and in the House. Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine, and we read and reread the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Audre Lorde, Kate Millett, and Marge Piercy, among others. (If you haven’t read the ovular books by these women, the time to do so is now.) The women who looked more closely at religion and spirituality in the 60s and 70s were our foremothers. Many of them worked and taught us about the Goddess and goddesses in every culture right up until their deaths.

A paragraph in Miranda Shaw’s essay, “Dakinis Dancing,” captures the essence and rationale of women’s spirituality:

[It] gained momentum from the discovery of traditions in which deity is honored and envisioned as female, the earth is sacred, and women channel the holy elixir of life and spiritual blessings. When the maleness of God was no longer absolute, the foundation of patriarchal privilege crumbled, exposing gender roles as cultural constructs. We were freed to explore and esteem women’s qualities. We claimed the authority of our experience and wisdom. We rejected the dualism that values the life and creations of the mind over the life and creations of the body. … We glory in capacities once stigmatized, cherishing our capacity for bonding and empathy as an alternative and antidote for the greed, hatred, and violence that threaten our well-being and very survival (p. 79).

How to explain why women’s spirituality took root and bloomed? Kathy Jones, founder of the beautiful Glastonbury Goddess Temple, believes that “a large number of mostly women have incarnated at this time to bring awareness of Goddess back into the world again” and that we are “the same souls who were alive at the ending of the Goddess cultures in ancient times. We have returned to bring Her back to human awareness. … We have to build everything again from the group up… (p. 211).

But, she continues, “we also bring back with us buried memories of the painful and shocking experiences we suffered when the Goddess Temples and cultures were attacked and destroyed by patriarchal forces.” She goes on with an observation that is highly germane today. “We were not always the completely innocent victims of oppression,” she explains. “Sometimes we betrayed each other to save our own skins. … We had to hide who we were…. (p. 212).

Ancient wounds still hidden in our unconsciousness “can undermine” the work we do to try to change the world. “Unexpressed hurts are often projected unconsciously onto our Goddess sisters” (Jones, p. 212) and can lead to divisiveness and what some of us call “witch wars.” Ruth Barrett discusses the current debates about who can be a Dianic Witch. Barrett has always created and led rituals dedicated to the Women’s Mysteries,” which include the blood events in our lives. Now some transgender people want to join rituals created for “women-born women.” Here is a bit of Barrett’s comment on this extremely divisive issue:

Recent debates over sex and gender, who is a woman and who is not (and who gets to decide), feels [sic.] sadly, to me, like another version of woman-hating that our Dianic tradition has always had to deal with… (p. 220).

As you read her chapter, consider the implications of this issue. Read every chapter carefully and consider all the issues and the long history that women still have to deal with in a world that is becoming hyper-violent as, several chapters say, patriarchy has figured out that its time is about done and the boys are fighting as hard as they can to resist the return of the Goddess and Her strong, determined women. As Charlene Spretnak writes early in the book:

What did our movement accomplish? … We grasped that patriarchal religion—with its hierarchical institutions ruled over by a male god as Commander-in-Chief—was not simply “religion” but … a type [her emphasis] of religion that had evolved as a comfortable fit for the male psyche. This decentering of male-oriented religion freed women to evolve our own modes of deep communion with the sacred whole (p. 22).

Our work obviously has further to go. Just ask every one of our sisters who contributed a chapter to this book. Although some of the essays seem over-long and some are “I did this and then I did that and then I did something else,” every contribution to the book is well worth reading, especially by younger women who may not know about our history (which some spiritual feminists call our herstory). This book should be on the shelf of every woman in the world. (Well, at least shelves belonging to women who can read English.)

The only significant problem in this amazing book is that the illustrations are all in the appendix instead of where they are first mentioned, so we have to page through the book (or dog-ear the first page of the appendix) if we want to see what Max Dashú, Cristina Biaggi, and Lydia Ruyle, for example, are talking about. But except for this inconvenience, it’s a perfectly splendid book.

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Pagan Portals by Rebecca Beattie

Pagan Portals Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism
Rebecca Beattie
GoddessInk, 2013

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Review by Amanda Lonsdorf.

In the author’s mind “modern Paganism is a movement born from literature”. Rebecca Beattie’s book Pagan Portals-Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism exposes the reader to some of the historical and literary foundational individuals who helped to develop the modern Pagan movement through their lives and written works. These individuals are labeled “Nature Mystics”. Beattie describes Nature Mystics as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection to fuel inspiration”. Now, Beattie does not claim that any of the authors explored in this book are explicitly Pagan, but that they “contributed to the pre-Pagan cultural environment” that helped lay the foundations of modern paganism to develop and grow. She calls them “proto-Pagans”. The authors individually have attitudes, beliefs, practices, or themes in their lives and works that would echo modern pagan culture or personal experience. Beattie explores various authors: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, William Butler Yeats, Mary Butts, J.R.R Tolkien, and E. Nesbit. A reader might say that is a narrow list and Beattie would agree with you. Beattie freely admits there could have been more authors included, but states this book is meant to be an introduction into the topic.

Beattie divides the book by author. Each author is explored thoroughly. There are four sections to each author: 1) a description of the reason they were included in the book, 2) Putting their work in context with their life and time they lived in, 3) exploring their spirituality, 4) examples of their written work. Having selected examples of the writer’s works was helpful to not only get a feel for the author’s voice, but their connection to nature. This made them more relate-able. It was interesting to see where and how some author’s lives crossed and influenced each other. In addition, Beattie included how the authors crossed paths with other notable figures or groups in the history of modern paganism. If you are interested in history, whether it be world, literary, or pagan history, you will get a good dose of it in this book. Beattle does an admirable job of explaining historical events, terms, or people of import in the space available to her. The reader might need a little previous knowledge of Pagan or literary history to get the most out of this book. At the same time, I appreciated that Beattie didn’t drag down the book with too much historical explanation. She explains just enough to show you the significance of each individual author without belaboring the point. The only thing I would have liked to see in the book was in text citation. While Beattie does have a bibliography at the end of the book, which is appreciated and adequate, I would have felt more comfortable with accepting the historical information or personal details of author’s lives with the inclusion of in-text citations. Even so, Beattie freely admits this is not a “scholarly” book, but that she is “wearing the hat of practitioner, who is exploring our literary past and origins”. Thus, my one criticism is very minor over all.

This is book offers a great introduction to our literary history as pagans. Often, when works are being critically analyzed they are compared to Christian religious topics, themes, and archetypes. In this book, the authors and their texts are explored with an understanding of broader Pagan references, beliefs, and symbolism. It was personally pleasing to see myself and my beliefs reflected back at me in these literary works and history. This book offers the reader a look at some of the individuals who helped pave the way of modern Pagan thought and practice to become more open and accepted. It is important for us as modern Pagans to understand the many directions and sources our spiritual roots stem from. This way we can feel more grounded in and have understanding of the complexity of our current modern Pagan culture. Through exploring our literary past, we become more connected to those who came before us and each other today. In addition, this book renewed a desired to re-explore old authors or introduce myself to new authors. This text inspired me to add their words to my own beliefs, practice, and spiritual path. These authors, just like myself and other Pagans, have a deep connection to the natural world around us and the magic within it. Their words allow me to become closer to my own spirituality and inspires me to continue to develop it. Reading their works, which echo those felt in my own soul, puts words to my own experiences and beliefs. Treat yourself and expose yourself to these fascinating individuals in our collective Pagan history by reading Beattie’s book.

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The Witch by Ronald Hutton

The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present
Ronald Hutton
Yale University Press, 2017

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Review by John Kruse.

Ronald Hutton — for the rare reader who isn’t already aware of him — is a professor of history at Bristol University. Hutton is as well known for TV appearances as for his writings on folklore, pagan religions, druidry, shamanism and folk festivals. This book, his study of the history of witchcraft, was awaited with anticipation because of his reputation for academic rigor combined with a balanced approach to his esoteric subjects.

I must start with a word of warning for potential readers. Hutton spends as much time comparing and contrasting other academics’ ideas on his subject as he does examining the evidence himself. Be prepared for a very scholarly format, and a great deal of reference to previous books and journal articles. It can be a bit daunting and, if you don’t have access to the sort of library holding these materials, a bit frustrating as well.

That said, if you are looking for a comprehensive overview of the practices of witchcraft and popular views about witches over the centuries, this weighty book is a good starting point. Hutton surveys witchcraft across the globe and from the earliest times, taking in the ancient Near East, African and Native North American cultures. After the first few chapters, though, his focus narrows to (mainly Western) Europe and a lot of his evidence on witch trials and on fairy lore is specifically British.

Hutton suggest five characteristics that help define a “witch.” Four beliefs are customary: that witches exist; that they can cause harm to individuals by uncanny means; ; that witches work within an inherited tradition; and that they are evil, but can be resisted. Hutton also introduces the concept of “service magicians” or what one might call “good witches,” magical specialists who fought against malicious witchcraft. Hutton’s definition of the word “witch” is based in history and folklore, and is quite distinct from that espoused by modern, nature-based religions, which he describes as “thoroughly worthwhile.”

The Witch contains fascinating information about the evolution of witch beliefs during the middle ages in Italy, France, and Germany. This period provided the foundations for many images (broomsticks and sabbats, for example) associated with witchcraft to this day. Of particular interest was the section on the “hosts of the night” who would visit homes, blessing or cursing the inhabitants dependent upon whether or not food and drink were left out for them.Hutton suggests these beliefs as the origin of the British idea of fairies who visited homes and would reward or punish according to whether the house was tidy.

Hutton describes the fact that the medieval church was a good deal more tolerant than its successors. Hutton suggests that this reflects the dominance and power of Catholicism in the middle ages, and notes that the Great Witch Hunts occurred during the chaos and uncertainty of the Reformation period.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on witches and ceremonial magic: I’m interested in spells for conjuring fairies but these are clearly linked to the work of magi like John Dee and may be traced back to Egyptian magical practices.

Turning to chapter 8 on fairies — my main reason for reading the book — Hutton offers an overview of the evolution of English fairy belief from 1200-1600 and examines the association between fairies and witches. His sketch of the development of British ideas as to the nature of fairies draws on a wide range of literary as well as folkloric sources, but underplays the native roots of the belief and is inclined to ascribe too much to quite late continental imports.

As for the relationship with fairies claimed by some witches, I believe that Hutton gives undue prominence to accounts given under duress by defendants in witch trials. The claims of special healing powers from the fairies are fairly unusual and I wonder if there are better explanations. Hutton also speculates whether a belief in fairies made a society less susceptible to a belief in satanic witches. Ireland might be cited in favor of this proposal, but the evidence is very complex; leaving this as a subject deserving of further study.

All in all, Ronald Hutton’s The Witch is an erudite and demanding read, packed with information and resources for further study.

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The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic by Owen Davies

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic
Edited by Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 2017

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Review by Jason Mankey.

This is a challenging — and mostly academic — look at magical traditions over the last 3,000 years. I’m a huge fan of Davies’ contributions to magical history, especially Grimoires: A History of Magical Books and Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, and this volume is a solid supplement to that work. But because it’s a collection featuring several different scholars, the tone throughout is uneven, and some essays feel far more relevant and enlightening than others.

While reading Witchcraft and Magic, I couldn’t stop wondering who the intended audience for this book is. It’s far too academic for casual readers, and probably not in-depth enough for academics. Topics I was intimately familiar with (such as the emergence of the Modern Craft) felt like they were given short shrift, while things I was less interested in seemed to take up more space. Often times I felt as I were reading a text-book designed for college students enrolled in Religious Studies 101.

Readers looking for a history of Modern Witchcraft along the lines of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon will be mightily disappointed. Modern spiritual Witchcraft covers just eight or so pages, with no mention of Victor and Cora Anderson nor of the rise of “Traditional Witchcraft” over the last ten or so years.

I also found a chapter on “Witchcraft and Magic in Anthropology” somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps it was fashionable to call the magic of the Azande people of Sudan “witchcraft” in the 1920’s, but I think we can do better today. I’m sure they have their own name for it, and translating native interpretations of magic to simply “witchcraft” feels limiting and reads as a desire to place everything in a Euro-centric box). We can and should do better.

Despite these criticisms, there are things about this book that I genuinely enjoyed. It’s an absolutely beautiful book: the images alone make this book worth flipping through, with many far outside the realm of “the usual” pictures one sees in books and articles about magical traditions.

The book is at its best when discussing the modern period, and the majority of the text covers the last 600 years or so. I once read that it takes about thirty years for new academic information to reach the masses, and anyone looking for up to date academic interpretations of Europe and North America’s Witch Trials will find them here. Davies’ own chapter on “The World of Popular Magic” is a welcome antidote to much of the unscholarly information currently floating around about cunning-craft and other forms of folk magic.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an academic approach to society’s views on magic and witchcraft over the last several hundred years.

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John Dee and the Empire of Angels by Jason Louv

John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World
Jason Louv
Inner Traditions, 2018

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Review by Barbara Ardinger.

Let’s begin with a spoiler. Although many Neopagans are interested in occultism and the work of the 16th-century astrologer John Dee, it’s important to keep in mind that Dee was nothing close to pagan. He and Kelly spoke to and were visited by angels and demons (or hallucinations), not classical gods or goddesses. Enochian magick and visits by angels and demons are concepts based on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy books, both exoteric and esoteric. Dee’s angelic work influenced the Golden Dawn, which sort of counts as pagan because the late 19th-century group added some (mostly Egyptian) gods and goddesses to the elaborate angelic names and calls, watchtowers, tablets, sigilla, and altar “furniture” the angels and demons gave Dee. (There are some nifty color plates of these things in the book.)

Many Witches and Pagans are interested in history, ceremonial magic, the occult world (which author Jason Louv calls “the occulture”) and its practices. These practices include operative magic, which Louv defines as applying the “intellectual streams” of the Renaissance to “uncover a working methodology for interacting with and manipulating the universe” (pp. 61-62) — i.e., pretty much what we do every day. If you’re attracted to the occult, this excellent book should be in your hands. It’s well written, insightful, sometimes witty, and thoroughly researched, with 60 pages of endnotes, bibliography, and index, plus numerous footnotes.

Louv, a writer and teacher of magick and spirituality, opens the book in the Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man. Next, comes the “sublunary world,” which is apparently the fallen world we live in. The stage is now set for Book 1, “The Magus,” which contains a biography of the frustrated and usually poverty-stricken Elizabethan mathematician, intellectual, astrologer/astronomer, and scientist John Dee (1527-1609), who spent much of his life aspiring to be an adviser to a queen or a king but with little success, mostly because the royal advisers considered him a quack. Also explained in the first seven chapters are the Christian interpretations of the Book of Revelation. Louv also asserts that Dee’s work set both England and America on their paths to empire.

Book II, “The Angelic Conversations,” tells us how to rise up along the paths of the Qabalistic Tree and how to prepare a proper altar for the angelic work. Louv trudges through the magical Books (which all have Latin names), Watchtowers, and Aethyrs. We also meet angels and demons and the god that inflicts suffering on us to teach us how to behave ourselves. There’s also some alchemy, but very little gold in the monetary sense. It’s all metaphorical gold.

Book III, “The Antichrist,” is mostly devoted to the life and works of Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, and other occultists who followed them in working (magically and with the help of drugs and lots of sex) to become as evil as possible so that they can become as holy as possible. Chapter 15, “The Invisible College,” introduces us to learned men from the 16th to the 21st century and describes the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons and Masons, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), and the founding of the Golden Dawn. Chapter 16, “Crowned and Conquering,” is mostly about Crowley the 666 Beast and takes us in scrupulous — not to mention almost endless — detail through all thirty Aethyrs. These are visions and words of power. Chapter 17, “In the Shadow of the Cross,” introduces us to Crowley’s organization, the A..A.. and gives us more Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and assorted people who wanted to meet Babalon, who is (to oversimplify) sexual Woman as the Supreme Evil.

Finally, Louv asserts that the work of John Dee initiated a line that reaches from the Reformation through 18th-century rationalism to the 20th century — hippies, the New Age, every strange and wonderful movement away from middle-class mores — and into the 21st century and the election of Donald Trump (really! See pp. 458-59). We’re in the middle of the modern Apocalypse now, and the last words in the book are “Christ is coming, and with him he shall bring an Empire of Angels.” (p. 462) The book, incidentally, was written in the City of Angels.

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Santa Muerte by Tracey Rollin

Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death
Tracey Rollin
Weiser, 2017

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Review by Holli Emore

A saint for criminals? A goddess who accepts everyone? A holdover from the blood cult of the Aztecs? It seems that everyone from the New York Times to Reza Aslan (Believer 2017 television series) to the Roman Catholic Church are either intrigued, enchanted or upset about Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Santa Muerte for short. Our Lady of Holy Death, the skeleton in a colorful dress, is rapidly acquiring new followers throughout Mexico and the southeastern United States. The Bony Lady, as some call her, is either a folk saint unauthorized by the church, or a goddess, depending on who you talk to. Either way, she is beloved and revered, particularly for her power to answer the prayers of her devoteés.

Tracey Rollin has written what might be the definitive Pagan book about Santa Muerte, skillfully weaving the bright colors of personal experience, history and lore, and suggested modern practice. Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death is beautifully-written. Rollin begins with an account of her Catholic childhood then goes on to provide fascinating details about the presumed origins of Santa Muerte, who is arguably based on the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl (also connected with the goddess Tonantein, who many believe to be the source of Our Lady of Guadalupe.) The church already had several patron saints of the dead, but Rollin notes that Santa Muerte is a haven of last resort for the marginalized such as prostitutes, addicts and, yes, drug cartel members.

This is the dark underside of Santa Muerte devotion which leads law enforcement to dread cartel followers who they feel act with more abandon and violence, thinking that they are under a special protection by the saint-goddess. It is even murmured that some will kill as an offering to Santa Muerte. Rollin does not apologize for this unfortunate connection, but relates it as being a natural outgrowth of Santa Muerte’s universal acceptance of all who come to her for protection and favors. In that aspect, she closely resembles many mother goddesses associated with death such as Kali, Hela, Oye or Sekhmet, or even the earth itself, which both gives and reclaims life with apparent disregard of status or even goodness. Neither death nor Santa Muerte discriminate; they come for each of us eventually.

If you are up to the challenge of looking into the compassionate but unyielding face of death, Santa Muerte (the book) may be your best introduction to a relationship with the saint-goddess. You will read about color aspects, using candles and novenas, rosary, incense, oil– even chocolate offerings. Rollin shares a number of prayers, blessings and other liturgical elements, even a banishing ritual à la the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. While ending with a helpful glossary and a recommended reading list, a glaring omission from this otherwise excellent volume is the complete lack of references. Perhaps a future edition will add citations to satisfy those of us with inquiring minds.

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