'The Cailleach Bheure' by Jill Smith
“Female spirit, the goddess in us, is not fragile or new; not an invention of privileged women or an escapist New Age elite. We are tough and ancient: tried by a million years of ice and fire. On enormous and minute wheels of pain and beauty we have turned…we return to tell and respell our story.”1
So says Barbara Mor in the 1990 introduction to her powerful book ‘The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth”, written with Monica Sjöö. And so we return to respell our story and the female spirit, and the goddess in us begins to emerge from the mists of our forgetting after enduring and surviving several thousand years of patriarchy … or so we may tell ourselves. But there is a threat to our remembering, a threat from within what many would consider our own circle. It is the threat of the New Age and its writers and gurus who talk of ascension, of transcending human form, and of becoming one with our ‘light bodies’, and other similar concepts, and who are providing us with many of the contemporary ideas about, and images of, the Goddess. Theirs is not the language of the Earth, but of the dualism which has held us in chains for millennia. In our thirst for the rise of the Sacred Feminine, in our joy at sensing her return to human consciousness, many of us have ceased to consider the form in which She is being presented to us through the many New Age images and writings that grow in popularity by the day. Our connection to the Goddess is being subverted and torn from Her roots within the dark earth. She is being ‘intellectualised’, made all light and logic, and yet we are being encouraged not to think.
Before I continue I will say that I have nothing against the New Age and acknowledge that the term means different things to different people, just as ‘Goddess’ does, but there is a huge groundswell within New Age thinking that places light above dark, or possibly even worse ignores the dark altogether, and which turns the Goddess, and therefore all women, into a stereotype of femininity. The Goddess is both light and dark, with no separation between the two, just as we are, and if we ignore one side of Her then we do nothing but damage to ourselves.
In 1992 the wonderful Goddess artist, researcher, writer and activist Monica Sjöö published her book, ‘New Age and Armageddon: The Goddess or the Gurus – Towards a Feminist Vision of the Future’ (now republished as ‘Return of the Dark/Light Mother’), in answer to what she saw as the dangers of the New Age movement. She saw the movement as paying lip service to the Goddess and to the Earth whilst, at the same time, stressing the need to become more ‘highly’ evolved and leave the Earth behind. This is the very antithesis of the message of the Goddess who asks us to rejoice in our physical form and in our incarnation on this beautiful planet. Monica noted that Sir George Trevelyan, considered by many to be the ‘Grandfather of the New Age Movement’, spoke about a battle between the forces of light and darkness on a cosmic and human level. He said that this battle was led by Christ and the Archangel Michael, the ‘Dragonslayer’; the ‘dragon’ being the dark, chthonic Earth Dragon energies of the Goddess.
The Goddess is linked to the serpent/dragon in many cultures and a battle of the masculine and the patriarchal ‘forces of light’ to gain supremacy over Her is echoed in stories such as Adam and Eve, in which Eve is ‘seduced’ by the serpent into eating the apple of wisdom, against the instructions of the male Father God (the apple, of course being yet another symbol of the Goddess), and in many others. We should also remember that Athena, said to have been born from the head of Zeus rather than from the womb of the Mother, was once one with the serpent-headed Medusa, rather than being her victor and wearing her screaming head on Her shield as a trophy; we are asked to murder a part of ourselves and to celebrate, rather than to grieve. In separation we are weakened; only in embracing all aspects of the Feminine and of the Goddess within ourselves can we be whole; when we can claim our Medusa coils and wear them proudly as a manifestation of all that it means to be a woman then, perhaps, the tide against the Feminine will truly have turned.
The taking over of the Earth Goddess Gaia’s oracle at Delphi by Apollo between the 11th and 9th centuries BCE is a powerful example of the battle between the Serpent and the patriarchal forces of light. According to myth, Apollo killed the Python which guarded Delphi and was Gaia’s daughter, or in some stories Her son, when He captured the oracle there; again St Michael/Apollo is seen slaying the dark Earth Dragon of the Goddess and Tim Ward, in his book ‘Savage Breast: A Man’s Search for the Goddess’, quotes The Hymn to Pythian Apollo, written around 650BCE, which says that Apollo boasted “Rot right there now, on the ground that feeds man … and the sacred power of the sun rotted her right there, which is why the place is called Pytho.” (which means ‘rot’).2
Here, ‘rot’ is seen as something to be defeated by “arrows and sunlight”3 and yet rot is all around us in the autumn and winter and is sacred to the Crone, the most vilified of all the Goddess’s aspects. Without rot there can be no rebirth; rot is transformation and is an example of the Earth working her magic. Fungus, which, in the right place, can make toxic earth healthy again, feeds on rotted organic material; rot is part of the cycle of nature. In turning away from rot and mud and shit and dirt we turn away from the wisdom of the Earth and from the Goddess. The monotheistic religions seek to banish rot and death and tell us that if we ‘behave’ we will have eternal life and ascend to ‘heaven’, or some other realm of light apart from the Earth, rather than to the dark Underworld of the ancestors. Apollo sought to find peace in the purity of the mind, and his slaying of Python and her rot was re-enacted and celebrated for more than a thousand years, but in intellectualising the Goddess and making Her all light we remove Her, and ourselves, from our roots in the soil.
The monotheistic patriarchal religions have always sought to destroy our link with the Earth and her cycles. They talk about the Earth as a machine and of human beings (men) as superior and removed from her processes. In Britain alone we have nine hundred stone circles and our footsteps fall on a landscape that has been shaped by our ancestors through millennia; a thread that connects us all to the sacred land of our birth and/or of our heart. And yet, for reasons of power, control and greed, patriarchy, often through the monotheistic religions, has sought to persuade us that there is no connection between us and the Earth; that she is our prison, rather than our Mother and protector. How else could we allow her to be destroyed and to contribute to that destruction ourselves? Smohalla, a Nez Perce Indian from the Western United States and quoted in ‘The Great Cosmic Mother’, says:
‘You ask me to plough the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear
my mother’s breast?’4
Have we in the West really become so far removed from the Earth that we no longer yearn for, or need, our Mother’s breast?
In 2002 I travelled to Goa and Karnataka in Southern India in search of the Goddess. I travelled in a mini bus with a guide and driver and, soon after I got there, we drove up into the mountains. We came across a roadside shrine that was visited by all the drivers who passed and stopped so that our driver could make offerings to the spirits. I got out of the mini bus to look out across the landscape and, in the distance, I could see a beautiful blue-green mountain range looking like a woman lying back on the land. It was then that I felt in my heart and belly the violence that must be used against a people in order to sever their connection to the earth on which they, and their ancestors, have lived and died. That violence may be physical or psychological, conscious or unconscious, or a combination of all those things, but it is still violence. To speak of transcending our human forms and leaving the Earth is just the next step in uprooting us from the planet that gave birth to us; it is a philosophy that does violence to us. By stressing the light, and a narrow definition of what is beautiful, in our interactions with the Goddess the New Age serves to keep us separated from the Earth and continues a process that was begun several thousand years ago.
There are many theories about what began this process of disconnection from the Goddess; some say that it was begun by powerful Indo-European warriors who swept westwards taking by force the gentle matriarchal cultures that came before them but even this theory reinforces dualism; matriarchy vs. patriarchy, feminine vs. masculine, and can be unhelpful when we try to move away from the separation in our own societies and psyches. What we do know, or may intuitively feel, is that the first cultures were matristic (centred in the feminine) and that, for reasons that are still becoming clear, a patriarchal system usurped that more holistic way of living. We also know that the monotheistic religions grew from, and were central to, that process and continue to reinforce it today; the New Age is, in many cases, doing the same.
The Goddess has not always been acknowledged by the New Age; perhaps She is just too bound to the Earth and to the cycles of life and death? In ‘New Age and Armageddon’, written fifteen years ago, Monica Sjöö bemoans the fact that when she attended ceremonies in places such as Glastonbury the Goddess was never mentioned. When she suggested that She was acknowledged the organisers, who were generally men, would dismiss her request as though they had never heard of the Goddess. But the Goddess has refused to be ignored. She has continued to rise and Her presence can no longer be denied by those who follow an alternative spiritual path. And yet, rather than embracing the Goddess in all Her aspects and allowing her to balance the light of the fiery dragonslayer, who also has a place in our universe, and his arrows, the New Age chooses to subvert both Her meaning and Her image, stressing Her energies of light and love (which seemingly can only be found in the light) over those of Her chthonic darkness. To me, this is worse than ignoring Her and is a continuation of the patriarchal religious beliefs which sought to oppress and control Her, and us through Her, in the first place. Those who set themselves up as an alternative and as a cure have become the poison.
The Crone (like the Whore) has retained much of Her primal power because She has been ignored by Christianity, who were able to ‘use’ and (temporarily) pacify the virgin/maiden and the mother but were unable to subsume the cackling Crone, who has continued to terrify through Her association with death and destruction. Instead She became the evil witch, or the wicked stepmother, of fairy tales but at least She retained Her power within Herself until we were ready to commune with her again … it is never the Goddess who is changed, but our understanding of, and connection to, Her. The New Age has been able to (literally) paint the Maiden as pert-breasted, innocent and yet ever available, the Mother as ever abundant and giving, and the Crone as either non-existent or as a kind and smiling old woman, with all their other powerful and transformative aspects ignored … and all are seen defined by their relationship to others; the Maiden, independent but waiting for a lover, the Mother sacrificing Herself to Her children, the Crone as wise and kindly grandmother. None are shown as powerful symbols of the Feminine in, and of, themselves. I recently went to a talk in London where the speaker described the Crone as “ever beautiful, with an indigo cloak filled with moonbeams and starlight”! Where is the rot and death, the fucking, the shit and the mud; where is the Earth in that vision of Her? Where is the power? How are we to understand our lives being torn apart and changed when we are shown a kindly old lady, rather than a powerful primal transforming force? How are we to find a connection to Her in our experience of growing older in a human body if She stays young and beautiful as we age? How are we to change a society that values only youth when, instead of accepting old age as powerful and beautiful, we continue to see the Crone as ever-young and only beautiful because of that youth? We may age but the Goddess remains ever-young they say; always separation. The Crone is indeed beautiful, but She is beautiful in old age. She is what She is.
Even Mary Magdalene, who some of us have been able to look to as the untamed aspect of the Wild Feminine in Christianity, whatever the truth or not of her existence, has been turned into a dutiful consort and apparently tamed by Jesus and his light. Geraldine Charles in her article ‘Marrying Off the Goddess?’ says that the writings of Dan Brown and his ilk constitute “the co-option of the Goddess into a set of ideas that will serve only to uphold the status quo of patriarchal religion” and that, “the whore, redeemed or otherwise, is a powerful image; when we replace her with the dutiful wife we diminish ourselves and our culture. Risk is the new sin, after all, and so a little more wonderful wildness is gone; the safety of institutionalised religion shored up for a little longer”5 … and we accept it with open arms in our hunger to see the Goddess return. We think that we are shaking free of our chains when, in fact, they are twisting ever tighter around our throats, our wombs, and our hearts.
Tim Ward writes that:
“Jesus and Buddha, they urged me away from the world, taught me to resist the ways of the flesh and seek a Kingdom of God, heaven, nirvana, a higher consciousness. It’s different with her. It’s visceral, immediate, a matter of heart, balls and belly…"
Years ago I caught my first glimpse of her in India as Kali, the black Goddess who for hundreds of millions of Hindus is both Mother and Destroyer. Her statues there have four arms. The upper right is raised in blessing; the lower right is extended, palm out, as if offering a gift. But the upper left holds a bloody machete and the lower left a freshly severed human head. I once asked one of her devotees how one could get to the blessing and avoid the machete. “No, that’s not the point,” she replied fiercely. “The blessing is only won when you accept both sides of Kali, including pain, sorrow, loss and death. The real death is trying to hold your tiny ego safe from the pain caused by desire and love. Flee from the dangers of life, and you will miss her blessings too. But embrace Kali as she is, kiss her bloody tongue and feel all four arms around you, and then you have life, you have freedom…”6
We have to learn to accept the Goddess in all Her aspects before we can really receive Her blessings. If we pick and choose and only accept those parts of Her that we feel are ‘pretty’, or ‘easy’, or ‘acceptable’, if we attempt to tame Her wildness, then we will only ever know Her, and ourselves on a shallow level. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’, “Eventually, we all have to kiss the hag”.7
As an example of the fear of and subversion of the Goddess in the New Age I come to Doreen Virtue, who has previously concentrated on writings on angels but has begun to include the Goddess in her ‘Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards’ and her books ‘Archangels and Ascended Masters’ and, most recently, ‘Goddesses and Angels’. I particularly mention Ms Virtue because when I have gone into occult and witchcraft shops in recent years most of them have been filled with her books and oracle cards, with little alternative provided, and everywhere I go people seem to be talking about them. It’s clear that something in her work appeals to people and yet it seems to me that what she offers are comfort (“There are no frightening cards in this deck”8) and easy answers. Admittedly we all want those sometimes but do we really want our lives to be based on them, and do we believe that that is all that the Goddess has to offer us? It seems to me that once again this is an, either conscious or unconscious, attempt to remove us from our connection to the Earth, both by propagating shallow images of the Goddess, such as the ones found in this pack, and by suggesting that, in a perfect world, everything would be ‘nice’. Nature is not nice; it is “red in tooth and claw” and we are part of nature, not apart from it. It is what it is. There may be things that we would wish to change about our human behaviour but we can only do that by seeing ourselves as we really are and by being fully present, not by retreating into a world of ‘niceness’.
One of the things that most concern me is that, although Doreen Virtue is becoming more and more popular in Goddess circles, she seems to consider the Goddess to be easily slotted into monotheism. In ‘Archangels and Ascended Masters’ she writes:
“In ancient times, many of the deities listed in this book were worshipped in the way that many of us currently worship our Creator. Today we don’t worship deities – we appreciate them. They have small g’s in front of their god and goddess titles to show that they’re aspects of the God with a capital G …
"Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this isn’t a book promoting polytheism…the deities in this book are aspects or creations of the God…I’m not encouraging you to engage in worship of divinities, but to appreciate them as gifts our Creator has given us to help us love more, heal in all ways, and evolve on our spiritual path. When we accept their help we’re saying thank you to God.
"The world’s three major religions are monotheistic … Christianity divides God into three aspects: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit but emphasizes that these are all aspects of one single Creator. In the same way the angels, archangels, and ascended masters are one with God and fit into a monotheistic system.”9
I am not suggesting that there is no place for the Goddess in monotheism; indeed She has always been there for those with eyes to see, but it must be the Goddess in all Her aspects, light and dark, and accepted as the Creatrix of the Universe, not as a shadow of Herself, designed to fool us into thinking that the Sacred Feminine has truly returned when all we are seeing is a phantom.
We are visual creatures and to find our connection to the Goddess in an image or a symbol is a powerful experience and one that can change us forever. Barbara Mor notes that:
“Ancient people believed that power resided in images themselves – or rather in the resonance between an image and the thing imaged – and this belief still lives in all of us; symbols continue to have great power over the human mind and heart”.10
It’s interesting that in the British Isles we have very few anthropomorphic representations of our deities prior to the Roman Invasion in 43CE, when some, such as Sulis Minerva in Bath, became linked to Roman deities and were imaged in human form. Cheryl Straffon in ‘The Earth Goddess’ suggests that this was because the Celtic and pre-Celtic tribes expressed deity through the land itself, rather than seeing them as ‘human’ figures.11 This is similar to the West African Orishas, who are seen as forces of nature, and to the Indigenous Australian beliefs in the Ancestors of the Dreamtime, who are often visualized as animal spirits, as well as humans. I believe that the beliefs of our pre-Celtic ancestors, as far as we can imagine them, had much in common with the beliefs of these ancient cultures.
Indeed, just as indigenous Australian belief speaks of the first Ancestors creating the land and then becoming part of it, so we have similar legends about the creation of our own sacred landscape in the British Isles, which is often said to have been formed by “The Old Woman of the Mountains”, or the Cailleach, who can be found in the folklore of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. She is imaged as a terrifying giantess who dances across the land dropping rocks from Her apron and is often described as “blue faced” and “one eyed”, with red teeth and matted hair. She isn’t ‘pretty’ or ‘nice’. She is what She is.
Today we can still find ‘Landscape Goddesses’ who appear to be sleeping on the Earth. One is the Sleeping Beauty Mountain on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, which is believed to be a representation of the Maiden Goddess Brigit. Once every 18.67 years she is awakened by the moon, which is viewed as rising to sit at her brow, turning the surface of the mountain silver and refreshing the fertility of the land. The most recent example of this was in July 2006 when hundreds of people travelled to the Hebrides to connect with Her energy. Another can be found in Glastonbury, where the hills that create the town and its surroundings take the form of a woman lying in the landscape and also of a swan flying to the South West.12 The shape of the Goddess Rhiannon can be found in the rocks of Carn Ingli in the Preseli Mountains of West Wales, and it’s said that if you sleep on Her belly you will be sent prophetic dreams. Everywhere we find tales of an Ancestor/Goddess creating the sacred land and forming a relationship with these landscape Goddesses can help us to attune to the Earth Goddess as She manifests wherever we are. As the Goddess Holda once said (to Her Priest, and my dear friend, Jack Gale), “All Goddesses are the land”.
Just as the Cailleach is seen as ‘monstrous’ so we have our terrifying Sea Goddess in Domnu; said to have been the Goddess of the Formorians, the first tribal ancestors of Ireland. They were the offspring of Chaos and Old Night and were described as ‘ugly and monstrous’, often with one leg and living by the sea, or on islands, where they could swim daily in the ocean. Domnu’s name has been translated as ‘abyss’ or ‘deep sea’ and She is one of many monstrous Sea Goddesses throughout world culture, such as Tiamat of Sumer, or Sedna of the Inuit. Yet even a monster can be ‘prettified’ by the New Age; Sedna is the powerful Goddess who the Inuit shamans petition for a good hunt, diving to Her realm on the sea bed to massage the bloody stumps of Her fingers, which were chopped off by her father in an attempt to save his own skin and became all the creatures of the ocean. Doreen Virtue says in her 'Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards that they were ‘severed in a tragic boating accident’!13 Just as the Earth Goddesses connect us to the land, the Sea Goddesses are primal forces that sing to us of our origin in the sea and our deep unconscious; our task is to understand the meaning of their image, not to turn them into ‘pretty mermaids’. Why paddle in the shallows when we can have the depths?
Which brings me to New Age images of the Goddess; how is this primal power of the Goddess depicted? When looking at Doreen Virtue’s ‘Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards' the first thing we might notice is that there are no Crones, but there are other omissions: no big women, no old women, no ‘ugly’ women, no challenges, no real power. Even the African Goddesses have honey-coloured skin and Western features. This is cultural appropriation of the worst kind, where we take an image that we find powerful but unacceptable in some way and change it to make it more palatable to our own eyes, rather than examining in ourselves what it is in that image that moves us to fear, or anger, or repulsion. I have always considered it a great mistake to over- anthropomorphise the Goddess, to see Her in purely ‘human’ form, and yet we do experience Her through our bodies and She is inside all of us, with all our frailties and weaknesses. If the images we have of Her become too distant from our own experience of our bodies we may no longer be able to find Her in our own reflections and become separated from Her. We have been separated from her for too long as it is! When we reject the Venus of Willendorf, that powerful creation of our far off ancestors, as a ‘negative’ depiction of the feminine, when we reject Medusa’s snake-headed anger, or Blodeuwedd’s screeching owl-self, when we begin to only see the Goddess in paintings of pneumatic-breasted women wearing diaphanous clothes, we lose something of ourselves; we make ourselves ‘less’ than Her and we lose Her in the process.
Again, Monica Sjöö says that: “ … to my dismay, I find that images of women and of the Goddess that are popular and acceptable in the New Age movement are the very sentimentalised and sickly sweet ones that I had rejected years ago as sexist, racist and heterosexist … I find that what passes for ‘art’ and ‘music’ in the New Age is uninspired, lacking in honesty and passion and is primarily meant to soothe and please…they want docile and non-threatening Virgin Marys, sweetly smiling while the earth burns”.14
Whenever we attempt to define the Goddess in prose then we perhaps distance ourselves from our personal experience of Her but an image, like a poem, can speak directly to a part of us that can never be found through intellect, or logic, or through being ‘nice’. We may see an insistence to connect the Goddess with the Earth as a negative thing, limiting Her and us and playing into the hands of patriarchy, rather than freeing us from it. After all, the Earth and women are equated one with the other in patriarchy and both are seen as ‘less’. Of course She is more than that. She is everything; the stars, the earth, the waters and the depths of our souls, but when there is such a fight, through millennia, to remove Her from consciousness and to sever our connection to the Earth we have to wonder why and to think that perhaps that is where our power is to be found. I gave the Goddess my darkness and She showed me my deepest magic. She stripped away my skin and showed me the power in my bones. I looked into Her eyes and She reflected all that I am back to me and I fell in love with what I saw there. That is what we are being asked to sacrifice to the sword of the dragon slayer and the New Age is pressing it to our hearts with a comforting smile.
We have come so far, and She is within our reach, but we must not forget how hard the journey has been, nor how much we have to lose in allowing Her image and nature to be subverted by the New Age. We must continue to examine and question the forms in which the Goddess is shown to us and, as we do so, remember Her roots within the dark soil, that aspect of Her that is most rejected and most feared. She is in everything, not just in those things that we find ‘acceptable’. We must embrace the rot that we find there as a symbol of our own transformation, which is to be found not only in the light of the intellect but in the wisdom of the body and its changes, and we must challenge the New Age that only accepts one side of Her, and our, nature. They are the shadow but She is the darkness and the light undivided.
‘On enormous and minute wheels of pain and beauty we have turned…we return to tell and respell our story...’
©October 2006, Jacqueline Woodward-Smith
- Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), xvi.
- Tim Ward, Savage Breast: A Man’s Search for the Goddess, (O Books, 2006), 6.
- Ibid, 6
- Quoted in Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), 86.
- Geraldine Charles, Marrying off the Goddess?, in Awakened Woman Magazine (Summer 2006 Edition)
- Tim Ward, Savage Breast: A Man’s Search for the Goddess, (O Books, 2006), xi.
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves, (Rider Books), 141.
- Doreen Virtue, Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards (Guidebook) , (Hay House, 2004), 7.
- Doreen Virtue, Archangels and Ascended Masters, (Hay House, 2003), xvii.
- Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), 76.
- Cheryl Straffon, The Earth Goddess: Celtic and Pagan Legacy of the Landscape, (Cassell Illustrated, 1997).
- Kathy Jones, The Ancient British Goddess, (Ariadne Publications 2001), 48.
- Doreen Virtue, Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards (Guidebook), (Hay House, 2004), 98.
- Monica Sjöö, New Age & Armageddon: The Goddess or the gurus – towards a Feminist Vision of the Future (The Women’s Press, 1992), 85.