BOOK REVIEW by Eileen Haley, Sydney-based crone, poet and PaGaian:
Naming the Goddess. Edited Trevor Greenfield, Foreword by Cheryl Straffon, Introduction by Selena Fox. Moon Books. 2014.
Thanks to Moon Books for sending this book to Goddess Association in Australia for review. ‘Naming the Goddess’ is an eclectic collection of articles by over 70 contributors. It contains a wealth of information and viewpoints and is perfect for dipping into from time to time at random to see what unexpected gem you might discover – a Goddess famous or obscure, Irish or Mesoamerican, Egyptian or Mesopotamian, Norse or Hindu.
Moon Books is a UK publishing house that specialises in paganism and shamanism. The flavour of this collection is accordingly more neo-pagan than Goddessian but there’s plenty of diversity within it. There are two parts to the work, the first being what the editor Trevor Greenfield describes as ‘a series of critical essays reflecting upon contemporary issues’ and the second (and much much longer) part being a ‘gazetteer’ of Goddesses – 72 short appreciations of individual Goddesses from around the world, arranged in alphabetical order.
In the first part, the stand-out for me was Kathy Jones’s article on the Lady of Avalon. Jones recounts succinctly and inspiringly the reclaiming of the Goddess of Avalon. She acknowledges the influence of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s marvellous The Mists of Avalon and then narrates the ‘magical journey of transformation’ that has seen the (re-)establishment of a Goddess community in Glastonbury. She evokes beautifully the worship of the Goddess in ancient times, when ‘our communities celebrated the seasonal cycles of Goddess’ and ‘recognised Her in the shapes of the land, as Her paps (breasts) and womb hills, as Her body fleshed out in rounded hills, Her face carved out by wind and weather in rocks and mountains’. She also posits a key consideration for the reclaiming of Goddess in these times: there is ‘no-one to tell us’ how to be a priestess of the Goddess, because the ‘threads of Her memory in this land were cut’; accordingly, ‘we have to begin again to learn about Goddess in the same way as our ancestors, from experiencing Her many faces as they are revealed to us in the cycles of the seasons of Her nature’.
There are other goodies in this first part of the book, too. Selena Fox’s Introduction usefully distinguishes six different pathways of Goddess spirituality – the paths of universality, particularity, dyadicy, triplicity, multiplicity and inclusivity. The nomenclature is a bit clunky (dyadicy?) but I found it a handy guide for all that. Morgan Daimler addresses the issue of ancient Goddesses in a modern world, arguing that ‘human culture is a fluid thing that changes and the Goddesses change along with us, keeping the core of who they are as they move with us into the future we are shaping’. She points to offerings and visualisations as specific areas in which change has been experienced.
Hearth Moon Rising’s essay is a passionate defence of the existence and significance of the female body against what she terms ‘the new patriarchy’ which seeks to ‘reject feminine creative power – in word and concept – in favour of gender neutral constructs which divorce our creator from her capacity to give birth’. Susan Harper’s exposition of monism was a welcome addition to Selena Fox’s categories. I also appreciated her acknowledgement that ‘calling upon Goddesses from cultures and heritages not my own … brings up complex issues about cultural appropriation and privilege’. She puts forward that resonance with such Goddesses must lead to an identification with the people of the cultures which gave birth to these Goddesses, to a recognition that an injustice done to them is an injustice done to the worshipper, and to the undertaking of work for shared liberation and against injustice.
In the second part, I particularly appreciated Rufus Brock Maychild’s reclaiming of Pandora as the Earth Mother, ‘the all-giving’, and his castigation of Hesiod for transforming her into a ‘foolish, disobedient girl’ and her gifts into ‘things of fear and contempt’. It was also lovely, for me, to read of the COLLECTIVE revivals of so many Goddesses: the building of temples, the formation of organisations and traditions, the holding of rituals. Oh, and some individual revelations too: Barbara Meiklejohn-Free recounts how the Brythonic Goddess Arnemetia appeared to her while she was walking in the woods; Rhianna Nodens how the tutelary Goddess of the Islands of Britain came to her under the name of Prydeinia during meditation; Caroline Wise how she sensed the spirit of a genius loci at a group of springs, close to which was later found a Roman temple treasure, consisting of a small silver statue of a Goddess and votive plaques naming her as Senuna.
A possibly unintended delight of the book is coming to know a bit about the 70+ authors, their other publications and the traditions within they work. We learn of solitary practitioners; pagan group leaders; the Sisterhood of Avalon; the Covenant of Hekate; the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary; the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids; the Mesa Moon School of the Divine Feminine; and many many more groups and organisations which had me googling madly to find out more. Most contributors are from the UK or the USA – though GAIA’s own Frances Billinghurst has an article (Ereshkigal). And while most contributors are women, there are quite a few men amongst them, especially in Part I.
One of the blurbs on the back cover of the book claims that within its pages ‘Goddess Spirituality comes of age’. I must say I think this is an overstatement. To be a mature representation of the Goddess revival, I would expect a more thorough history of its origins, and a more extended analysis of key issues such as gendered deity, immanence, darkness and patriarchy. I would also expect greater overall consistency of quality: with some of the articles in Part II, I wasn’t sure I was getting anything more than I would have got from wikipedia. And there were various articles which could and should have given at least some acknowledgment of, for example, the possibility of patriarchal iconotrophy of Goddess story (particularly the uncritical use of terms like ‘vengeful’ for a Goddess in defender/protector mode), or the cultural appropriation issues touched on by Susan Harper in Part I. There is only one entry in the book that draws on Australian mythology: Yingarna, the Rainbow Serpent. I was uneasy about Rebecca Taylor’s instructions for ritual invocation of Yingarna, without any discussion of whether it is OK for people from other cultures/heritages to do this. The same applies to the entries for Lakshmi, Pomba Gira and the Inuit Sea Goddess Sedna.
I also had a bit of an issue with repetition: the story of the Descent of Inanna is told three times: first in the Ereshkigal article, then in the Inanna article and then in the one on Ishtar. Each version gives slightly different details, unco-ordinated and uncross-referenced, which left me a bit confused and annoyed at having to piece the jigsaw puzzle together myself. Something similar occurs with the Queen of the Faeries, who is the subject of three different articles (Faery Queen, Nicnevin, Queen of Elphame). Much as I love the fae, this seemed excessive. This is not the fault of the contributors; to me, it is a problem of the editing, or perhaps the format itself.
And I would not be me if I failed to mention that the book has, to my mind, more than the usual amount of grammatical, typographical, spelling and syntax errors – even the greengrocer’s apostrophe – AARRGGHH! And I do NOT think that ‘Tlazoteotl’ is an acceptable alternative spelling of the name of the Mexican Goddess Tlazolteotl.
Is ‘Naming the Goddess’ worth reading, is it worth buying? Yes, certainly; the introductory essays are interesting, the gazetteer packed full of information. On the whole, the contributors successfully tread the delicate line between scholarliness and popular writing, quite an achievement. And I haven’t even mentioned the haunting twist in the Epilogue. Go for it!