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Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganisms - part 1

Page history last edited by Yvonne 13 years, 4 months ago

Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganisms - part 1


By Yvonne Aburrow © 2006 (short URL for this page: http://tr.im/LM4d )


Key dates (mainly in the UK)


1887 – 1899 The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
1899 Publication of Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches, by C G Leland
1873 – 1920 Publication of various works by Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), Pagan gay rights campaigner and poet.
1921 Publication of The Witch Cult in Western Europe, by Margaret Murray, expressing the view that pagan witchcraft hadsurvived into the middle ages.
1939 Publication of A Goddess Arrives, a novel by Gerald Gardner, about a pagan warrior priestess in Cyprus around 1450 BC
1940, 1945 Jacquetta & Christopher Hawkes publish textbooks suggesting that the ancient prehistoric religion of Britain was that of the Great Goddess of fertility
1948 Publication of The White Goddess by Robert Graves, an exploration of poetic themes around his muse, a “Celtic” goddess.
1949 Publication of High Magic's Aid, a novel by Gerald Gardner based on Margaret Murray's ideas
1951 Repeal of the 1735 Witchcraft Act (replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act)
1952 or 3 Initiation of Doreen Valiente into Wicca
1954 Publication of Witchcraft Today, a non-fiction work by Gerald Gardner
1957 Valiente breaks with Gardner and joins the Cochrane group
1959 Publication of The Meaning of Witchcraft, a non-fiction work by Gerald Gardner
1964 Founding of OBOD, a mainly Pagan druid order (founded by Ross Nichols, a close friend of Gerald Gardner)
Early 70s First Dianic (all-female) covens
1972 Icelandic government officially recognises Asatru (Norse heathenry) as a legitimate religion
1979 Publication of The Spiral Dance by Starhawk (a key text for feminist witches)
70s/80s Emergence of Heathenry (less emphasis on masculine/feminine duality, so more attractive to gay men)
80s / 90s Heathens begin to explore ergi and seiðr traditions
Late 90s (?) Emergence of other forms of polytheistic reconstructionism


Gender and sexuality have been key concerns for modern and contemporary Paganisms, ever since the first stirrings of the revival were felt in the 19th century. Two key ideas from the perspective of the women's movement were the reclaiming of the concept of “witch”, and the reinstatement of the divine feminine (recently re-popularised by Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code). Gay and lesbian practitioners were initially inspired by the idea of sexual freedom in ancient Greece, epitomised for women by Sappho and for men by the god Pan and the satyrs, and later by the discovery that many ancient cultures were accepting of a variety of sexual orientations.


A recent study, (Owen 2004), emphasises the importance of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn for the creation of modern occultism, and the centrality of modernist discourse in their views. The Golden Dawn was largely a magical order, but combined so many different forms of mysticism and magic that a wide variety of people got involved. The founder of the Order was married to Moina Bergson, sister of the philosopher Henri Bergson; WB Yeats, Arnold Bennett and other well-known figures were members. If you were anyone who was anyone and you weren't in the Golden Dawn, you were probably a Theosophist instead (Oscar Wilde was a member of the Theosophical Society). One of the stated aims of Golden Dawn practice was to achieve psychological androgyny (though this did not necessarily mean they were tolerant of homosexuality). Many of its most enthusiastic members were women (and treated as equals by their male colleagues) and were also prominent in the socialist movement and the suffragette movement, along with members of the Theosophical Society. The Order also created a highly eclectic synthesis of previous magical traditions, which became the basis of much subsequent magical and Pagan practice in the 20th century, including Wicca and Thelema.


In 1899, an unusual book was published: Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, by Charles Godfrey Leland, who claimed to have discovered a secret witch cult in Tuscany, worshipping Diana, Lucifer and Aradia (the pronunciation of Herodias in Italian; Herodias was alleged by the Inquisition to have been worshipped by medieval “witches”).


Another key source in the development of modern Paganisms is the writer Edward Carpenter (1873 – 1920). Although few remembered him until recently, he is enjoying a revival amongst gay Pagans. He influenced EM Forster and DH Lawrence, and thereby the wider culture. In 1889, he called for a return of cosmic consciousness to modern “Man”:


“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.” - Edward Carpenter (1889), Civilisation: its cause and cure, quoted in Hutton (1999)

Carpenter was a poet who campaigned against air pollution and vivisection, promoted mystical socialism, vegetarianism and rational dress. He was a pacifist, a campaigner for gay rights as early as the 1890s (he lived openly with his partner, George Merrill) and an advocate of Pagan and pantheist ideas.


In 1921, an anthropologist, Margaret Murray, published The Witch Cult in Western Europe, expressing the view that pagan witchcraft had survived into the middle ages. This was the beginning of the idea that the witch hunts of the Reformation period had actually been persecuting genuine pagan witches, as opposed to people who were accused by their neighbours of maleficent witchcraft, but were not actually witches at all. This view was very prevalent in popular discourse, and was seized upon with enthusiasm by Gerald Gardner, who used it to great effect in his 1949 novel High Magic's Aid and his 1954 non-fiction work Witchcraft Today, both founding texts of Wicca. It now appears, from research by Heselton (2003), that modern Wicca was effectively founded as early as the 1920s by three women drawing upon various classical and magical sources, and that Gardner stumbled upon this in the mid-1940s.


Ideas about the persecution of witches and how this linked in with the wider oppression of women fed into feminist discourse and the Goddess movement in the sixties, seventies and eighties.


Many writers (Jessie Weston, Jane Ellen Harrison, and Jacquetta Hawkes among them) influenced by JG Frazer's The Golden Bough were promoting the idea of a prehistoric cult of the Great Mother Goddess. Whilst this idea has long been discredited in academia, it retained its popularity in popular discourse until quite recently, when the work of Ronald Hutton rendered it an untenable position, as Pagans began to read his erudite, scholarly and beautifully-written books. Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol, a specialist in the history of the English Civil War, and the historian of the recent revival of Pagan traditions.


The early advocates of the Great Mother Goddess theory were social conservatives. Hawkes, a prominent enthusiast for the theory, believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that the role of women was to remain in the home and bring up children. This is rather ironic in view of the theory's next generation of advocates, the separatist feminists of the sixties and seventies. Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, was influenced by the idea of the Great Mother Goddess. This is apparent from much of the material that he wrote for use in Wiccan ritual. He was also (embarrassingly for most Wiccans who are largely left-leaning) a member of the Conservative Party. However, the women he portrays in his two novels are very feisty and independent characters.


It is not known when the members of the newly-formed Wiccan tradition first became aware of the book Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. Doreen Valiente began rewriting the Wiccan rituals around 1953, when she became Gardner's High Priestess, and drew upon Aradia for her extensive reworking of Gardner's version of the prose poem, The Charge of the Goddess. The piece also draws upon classical texts.


The Charge of the Goddess is a key text in Wicca, as it contains many of its core ideas, especially the line “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”, which is widely taken to mean that the Goddess approves of all consensual sexual interactions. The Charge also emphasises the nurturing aspect of the Goddess:


I am the Gracious Goddess, who gives the gift of joy unto the heart of man. Upon earth, I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal; and beyond death, I give peace and freedom and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice; for behold, I am the Mother of all living, and my love is poured out upon the earth.

It explicitly identifies a number of diverse goddesses with the Great Mother, as it begins with the words:


"Listen to the words of the Great Mother; she who of old was also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Athene, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Cybele, Arianrhod, Isis, Dana, Bride and by many other names."

In 1954, Gerald Gardner's book Witchcraft Today was published. It (and his 1949 novel, High Magic's Aid) drew heavily upon Margaret Murray's popular work, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Murray wrote the foreword to Witchcraft Today. Many people were attracted to witchcraft by both Murray's and Gardner's work.


Gardner felt safe to publish the book and start publicising Wicca because of the repeal of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. The 1735 Act was aimed at people who pretended to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods. The last person to be imprisoned under this act was Helen Duncan, a spiritualist medium, in 1944.


In 1957, Doreen Valiente left Gardner's coven when he produced the “Laws of Witchcraft” (a document that he claimed was ancient, but which he had clearly just written). Among the laws was the statement that a High Priestess must step down when she gets too old and is no longer glamorous. Valiente understandably objected to this Law. She joined the other form of witchcraft available at the time, that of Robert Cochrane, who, like Gardner, was inspired by Robert Graves' book, The White Goddess. Cochrane died in an unfortunate accident with some belladonna in 1966.


Gardner handed on his writings to three of his priestesses: Monique Wilson, who went on to found the Long Island Line in America (notorious for its fundamentalist attitude to tradition); Madge Worthington, who went on to found the Whitecroft tradition; and Patricia Crowther, who also has many initiatory descendants.


Doreen Valiente, Patricia Crowther and Lois Bourne now proceeded to write further books about Wicca, which made it even more widely known.


The witch archetype, the story of the “Burning Times” (the persecution of witches) and the idea of the Great Mother Goddess were enthusiastically advocated by sections of the feminist movement on both sides of the Atlantic, though mainly in America. A parallel development was the growth in popularity of the idea of the divine feminine in Christianity (via the Sophianic tradition, though it may also have been influenced by Goddess-oriented feminism). To demonstrate the centrality of these notions to the identity of adherents of the Goddess movement, Hutton (1999) quotes Cynthia Eller, a historian of feminist spirituality:


“the European witch burnings work both as a persecution history for women and as a symbol of the resilience of women and their goddess-loving religion. As a persecution history, the witch burnings intensify spiritual feminists' sense that they are anathema to the patriarchal powers; it bolsters their conviction that feminism is a question of life and death, of the very survival of women.”

Note that this passage refers to the centrality of goddess-religion, the idea that the victims of the witch craze were goddess-worshippers, and the idea that they worshipped a single goddess, not a multiplicity of deities. Fine sentiments (though the reader might feel a little manipulated by the appeal to her sense of persecution paranoia), but based on spurious history.


Spurious history notwithstanding, the idea of the witch is an empowering one for women, as many feel that it represents the aspects of women that are suppressed in patriarchal society: wildness, independence, magic, freedom, power, strength, intellect, intuition, sexuality and cunning.


Part 2: Gender and sexuality in Wicca; gender & sexuality in other contemporary Pagan traditions.


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