Deity, Gender and the Problems of Essentialism

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Before I post about the individual deities that I work with, I want to write a little about the problematic area of deity and gender. As explained in my previous post, I view personified deity as aspects of nature and the cosmos. One of the most liberating attractions of modern Paganism is that it offers us images of the Divine Feminine. Female images of ‘God’ have been woefully lacking in our culture for hundreds of years and this has undoubtedly had a negative impact for both women and men. Neopaganism, and particularly the modern Goddess movement, has seen a resurgence in the honouring of the Divine Feminine in a variety of forms. Being able to see oneself reflected in the Divine has been an immensely empowering experience for women, one which has for countless years been taken for granted by men. It is extraordinary to me that when we say the word ‘god’, the majority of us will automatically assume that figure to be male. Even if we haven’t been raised in an Abrahamic faith, the assumption is so deep rooted in our culture, that even the most secular of us will still perceive God as male.

Embracing the notion of a Goddess has enabled both men and women to challenge the restrictive essentialism that is entrenched in our societies, which can only be a good thing for all of us, but I recognise that there are problems when we attempt to determine what defines and differentiates the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine. One issue is that in trying to explain what these are, we inadvertently slip back into essentialist notions of gender. Many will respond by saying that there is a difference between gender – which is a cultural construction – and wider concepts of Goddess and God. This might be so, but a lot of the time it seems gender essentialism is still hard to shift when we attribute qualities to male and female faces of the Divine.

If I were a pure Pantheist, this wouldn’t be a problem for me because the Cosmos as Divine energy in action would be too vast, mysterious and complex to place a human face upon. However, I am drawn to work with individual goddesses and gods, so how do I approach the tricky issue of gender and deity personification?

I tend to work with deities as archetypes. When I engage with a particular deity, I am attempting to contact the energies of that archetype so that I can understand them better and express them more positively in my life. In my next post I will write in more detail about my relationship with Aphrodite, but for now, if we say that Aphrodite’s energies are love, connection, union, attraction, the first thing we might ask ourselves is, are these things specifically male or female in nature? Culture has given them a female face in the form of the goddess Aphrodite but if I am honest, I would say that these energies, for me, transcend gender. To me, the energy of the archetype is ‘pure’;  when we approach and attempt to engage with it, we bring to it all our own cultural conditioning. We can tend to view the archetype with a somewhat distorted lens. Aphrodite is a good case in point. She is often viewed as a coquettish sex kitten, which is a woefully inadequate perception of a deity of love and passion (as anyone of us who has been in love will attest). What we see in this image is the distorting of a powerful archetype that says more about a culture’s attitudes towards its female members (Classical Greek Society was notoriously misogynistic!) than it does about the full, flowering power of that archetype. Part of the joy and challenge of working with deities is that we each bring our cultural distortions to the table; working with deity is an opportunity to strip these away and see ourselves and the archetype more honestly.

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Another example might be useful.  Kuan Yin is a Buddhist bodhisattva who has also been embraced by many Neopagans as a Goddess of Compassion, Mercy and Kindness. For many throughout the Far East, Kuan Yin is perceived as female, however, Avalokitesvara is her male form, and although not as popular as her female manifestation, is still honoured.

This fascinates me because it suggests that the qualities that Kuan Yin embodies – Compassion, Mercy and Kindness – are here associated with both Male and Female figures, which further suggests that the qualities themselves are of greater importance than what personification we clothe those qualities with. I suspect that there will be many people who connect with those qualities more easily via a female form (and no doubt a little essentialism has influenced this – the gentle energy of this archetype being more in keeping with many people’s assumptions about women’s ‘innate’ being). However, we are all capable of compassion, regardless of gender, and that we connect with this energy is more important, ultimately, than the face we choose to give it.

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Having said this, I do recognise that there is a good deal of rebalancing that needs to be achieved, so giving expression to goddess forms is vitally important for challenging gender assumptions. However, we have to guard against a further essentialism by valuing the image over the quality. For me, the quality or energy of the archetype is central; what personification I choose to clothe that quality with is deeply personal. Basically, I have chosen the forms that, for me, make the most direct and potent connection.

With regard to Aphrodite, I choose to see her as a goddess but she could just as easily be perceived as male in form. I know this because I see her and experience her through my partner (who is a man). For me, her energy is not confined by gender. This being said, I am also aware that as I work with her as a female image, as I challenge the sex kitten image and discover a deeper and richer expression, I am in some way liberating myself as a women from so much of the misogyny that underpins our attitudes to female sexuality.

I will now follow with some posts about those very faces of the Divine that draw, challenge and inspire me the most…

What is Deity to Me?

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Over time, I have become less and less concerned with spiritual labels. It’s not that I don’t think them useful but I have come to believe that we should remain as flexible and open in our definitions as possible. Fundamentalism is a frightening and limiting view to me. I am of the opinion that how we perceive and relate to the Divine is a very personal thing and will differ from person to person. Hearing others speak of how they relate to deity is fascinating; I might not agree with that person’s approach but I feel my own experience is enriched in the sharing. And so in this spirit, I will offer my own current take on the Divine. Having said labels are unimportant, I am now going to reel out some of my own; however, I am aware that all of these are subject to change as I walk my spiritual path.

I consider myself a Pagan and essentially a Pantheist – that is, I believe that the Divine is present in the Cosmos, in fact, IS the Cosmos and exists in all life-forms, both animate and inanimate. These days, I feel that I am probably a Panentheist in the sense that my Pantheism is also open to the possibility that there is something beyond the material universe, a spiritual force that transcends it whilst also being imminent within all existence, much in the way that Hindus might view Brahman. Once again, like Hindus, I believe that the Cosmos functions through the dynamic interplay between the complimentary forces of the Goddess and God, although I don’t understand these in terms of gender, more in the way certain energies – for instance creation and destruction – move in an endless dance that fuels life.

Awen RaysMy Pantheistic/Panentheistic sensibilities are the broad stroke, that is, they are a view of the Divine that for me cannot be contained or fully understood by my limited consciousness – the Divine at this level is a vast and unknowable mystery, one that inspires but is a little difficult to get to know in a human way. I get a little closer when I start to see this force as Goddess and God, but for me, it begins to get a lot more up close and personal when I view these forces in their expression of multiple goddesses and gods. To clarify, the Cosmos is a unified whole made up of a myriad of natural forces; the gods and goddesses are facets of that Divine whole. I recently heard someone refer to them as lenses that focus in on aspects of the Divine whole.  I seek my most intimate connection to deity through selected lenses, that is, through particular goddesses and gods. These deities are aspects of nature and by extension, human culture. I work with these as archetypes (more on this later).

By now, some of you will recognise that I am a ‘soft’ Polytheists. Polytheism is the worship of many gods but there are differences in the Polytheistic approach between what is now termed ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Polytheism. Hard Polytheists view their deities as distinct, individual beings who exist in their own right and are not seen as merely aspects of an overarching Goddess and God (who in themselves are aspects of an even greater overarching Universal Force).  Soft Polytheists are often accused (mainly by hard polytheists) that they are actually not Polytheists at all but Monotheists ; Monotheism is the belief in a single God (are you still with me!!) and for hard core Polytheists, Pantheist are seen ultimately to honour that Cosmic Oneness, regardless of how they might break it down from there.

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This all leads me back to my original point. All the labelling, trying to work out what we believe, can be useful in orientating ourselves and deciding what our spiritual practices will be, but in truth, defining the Divine is not nearly as important as the relationship we build with it. I have discovered that the methods are important only in so much that they have to work for you, they have to make possible an authentic and enriching relationship with the Divine. For instance, if you choose to be a Wiccan but discover that the Wiccan view of the Divine just doesn’t help you to connect, explore another way. Don’t be hemmed in by dogma or rules of any one belief system.

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating, and so, I will follow with a series of posts that explore the deities that I currently work with and how these impact on my spiritual understanding and practices.