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Celebrating the feminine: ur doin it rong

August 4, 2010

Rhiannon and I and Graham dropped by our local hippy shop yesterday to find we’d arrived just in time for its closing down sale. One of the proprietors was in and we had a good natter whilst Rhiannon and I browsed (I think Graham felt a bit out of place) and apparently they’re happy enough to be moving on, but still sad that the old place is having to shut up shop.

I bought an Arthurian tarot deck; more for the Arthur than for the tarot, because the artwork looked nice and because I was curious about how they’d mapped the various strands of the Arthurian mythoi onto the traditional tarot framework. And while I’m unconvinced of the problem-solving abilities of a deck of cards, I appreciate the extent to which the mind finds its own meaning in essentially random phenomena (see also the cento generator and this post.) Also, tarot-for-lulz is fun:* trying to tie the stated meanings of the cards into whatever question you asked can be a puzzle-like exercise in ingenuity, and sometimes throws up angles you hadn’t thought about before. As a means of stimulating the brain into solving its own problems, there’s value there.

Rhiannon bought an incense burner and a singing bowl (which I’ve been playing with more or less since – the sound is mesmerising) and a copy of Pagan Dawn and a deck of “Goddess Guidance Oracle Cards” as conceived by Doreen Virtue PhD** and illustrated by various artists. Apparently this deck has quite a good reputation in the community of people who own these things, both for its selection of goddesses and its artwork.

A closer inspection last night, however, ended up turning into a team effort at sporking everything wrong with both of the above. In brief, it’s full of racism, misogyny, theology fail, and really bad art. (Some of the pictures are technically accomplished but singularly unfortunate in implication or just iconographically wrong; some are more accurate to the religious/cultural context but technically awful; and some are just all-around terrible.)

Let’s start with their selection of goddesses, and the rationale given for same.

The back of the little booklet that comes with the cards declares cheerily that “All the cards are loving and positive, reflecting the powerful love that the goddesses bring to us.” On the back of the box itself, we find the assertion that “The goddesses are angelic, powerful, loving beings who want to help you with every part of your life.” Well, except no. The idea of divine figures as a) loving and b) willing to help you out is by no means universal; here, it seems to be rooted in Christian ideas of divine love and answered prayers. Transferring those attributes onto goddesses from other cultures – some of which didn’t/don’t regard their deities as especially loving, or believe that the gods are there to help you out – is liable to lead to some serious theology fail. A second axis of fail is the inclusion of a number of figures who aren’t goddesses at all. Now, for some goddesses (like that of Rhiannon), the line between ‘powerful mythical figure’ and ‘deity’ is kind of blurry; I’m not talking about such marginal cases, though, but about outright wrongness. Neither Guinevere nor Isolt (Iseult/Isolde) is or has ever been a goddess: they were both inventions of the early Middle Ages. (If you wanted an Arthurian goddess figure, Morgan la Fay is right there. Oh wait, she’s evil. Can’t have that.) Also in the ranks of the not-divine – and in both cases their status as normal, human women is kind of the point – are ‘Mother Mary’ (the Madonna) and Mary Magdalene.

The emphasis on All Love All The Time (it’s enough to make you ill) also means that the deck has been carefully stacked and tuned to make sure that unlovely, uncaring figures are nowhere to be found. In a deck that purports to offer you guidance on every conceivable sort of problem, nowhere is there a single goddess whose card associates her with sex, or death, or war. Hecate, Juno and Hera, Morrigan, Macha and Nemain, Frigg, Skaði, Hel, Minerva, Bellona, Venus, Demeter and Persephone are nowhere to be seen at all; and others who are included have been pacified and sanitised to bring them within the narrow view of goddess-as-universal love. Athena’s portrayal hurts. I loved Athene when I first read the Greek myths – a major goddess who went around dispensing wisdom and asskicking? Yes please. Here, though, she’s painted as a flowing-haired maiden looking pensively off the side of the card, and stands for ‘Inner Wisdom’, apparently. No helmet, no aegis, no spear. And why a Greek goddess is in a Renaissance gown is beyond me. And Kali is a floating blue face with a really badly photoshopped third eye (and nose ring) whose text is ‘Endings and Beginnings’. Kali has to be one of the most misinterpreted deities ever – thank you, Indiana Jones – but whilst painting her as solely a goddess of blood and death is inaccurate, completely erasing those associations is also wrong. Maeve (Medhbh, Medb) is made patron of ‘Cycles and Rhythms’, with no mention of her murderous ambition, her many lovers, or her kingdom-ruling. Ishtar (Astarte, Ashtaroth) is now a goddess of ‘Boundaries’, apparently – where, exactly, is her status as possibly the best-known goddess of sex and desire?

Quite apart from grossly sanitising particular goddesses, denying the reality of sexual passion and violence (emotional or physical) in women’s lives is absurd and dangerous. Firstly, how is the deck supposed to speak for actual problems related to sex, or death (or bad shit in general) if it’s been purged of everything not sweetness and light? Secondly, it plays into over-mysticisation of the female that happens so often in New Agey things: women are no more inherently kind, loving, spiritual (non-physical) or peaceful than people of any other sex, and to assert that we are is just a new kind of sexist essentialism. And thirdly, excluding goddesses of sex and goddesses of war as somehow inappropriate sends a pretty clear message that sex and martial or physical strength are not womanly, which is an old and oppressive line and one that excludes women who find power or self-expression through their physicality, in whatever way. I think Virtue’s views on this are confirmed by the epigraph to the fluff-book, which says “May our feminine strengths of intuition and nurturing fully reemerge.” God(dess) help you if your strengths lie elsewhere.

The careful exclusion of all hints of sex from the flavour text and goddess attributes sits remarkably uneasily with the art, which is dominated by a kind of intensely sexualised gaze that’s made all the more creepy by the incompetence going on in the Photoshop department. There are many upraised arms and several pubic triangles on display, yet none of these goddesses have any kind of body hair, despite their abundantly flowing locks on top. They’re all thin with unrealistically narrow waists, and a substantial minority have anime-standard Antigravity Breasts™. (Except Aine, who doesn’t seem to have breasts or nipples at all.) For a set that purports to depict earth goddesses and mother goddesses and goddesses from at least a dozen cultures, the amount of conformity to a beauty standard that is specifically modern and Western – and causes all kinds of grief – is astonishing. What happened to celebrating female beauty in all its forms? (Was that ever an aim?)

And the art is really terrible. This might be less of an issue if it didn’t fail in so many other ways, but, well. It does. Yemanjá (Brazilian via Africa, associated with the sea) is depicted as a sort of red-skinned mermaid. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: that her torso is anatomically impossible or that she appears to be being molested by a dolphin with a gramophone horn for a head. I think it’s supposed to be her tail coiling over itself but . . . yeah. Freyja is wearing a Princess Leia-esque metal bikini, except it looks more like she has a flat piece of metal which she is pressing into her chest so hard her breasts squash out flat behind it. It looks painful. (And the background appears to be Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.) Isis‘ legs are at an impossible angle, Magdalene’s arms appear dislocated, Diana’s bow is missing its lower end (and is a recoloured image of a standard modern training bow and arrow – the fletchings on the arrow are obviously rubber), Artemis’ robe has a mysterious bulge, Lakshmi’s hair hasn’t been coloured properly and on and on and on.

Ahem.

It’s not exactly surprising, given the conformity in the areas of shavenness and thinness, to observe whitewashing going on as well. To a ridiculous degree. Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary (Middle Eastern Jews, surely), Athena and Aphrodite (Greek), Sekhmet and Bastet (Egyptian), Sedna (Inuit) and Ishtar (Assyrian) are all portrayed as white women – pale skin, Caucasian facial features. There’s a lot of lightening going on elsewhere, too: while Mawu (Dahomey), Ixchel (Mayan) and Butterfly Maiden (Hopi) aren’t washed all the way to white, their skin tone is still way off.

The racist implications don’t stop with the art. There’s no discussion in the flavour text of the specific cultural context of each goddess figure: you get a name and an approximate location, but no more. There’s no acknowledgement given in the description booklet to any kind of religious community, which suggests that nobody who actually worships these goddesses in their original setting was consulted. And I don’t know enough about most of these figures to know whether the attributes they’re given and  iconography with which they’re portrayed are accurate; but I’m pretty sure that most of these figures can’t be boiled down to a single unequivocally positive attribute as they are here.

There’s a debate to be had as to whether borrowing the spiritual material of cultures not one’s own is ever okay, especially if the borrower has more sociocultural privileges than the borrowed-from. It’s a murky issue. This kind of borrowing, however, without context and without respecting the complexities of the borrowed figures, is much less murky: it’s disrespectful, it misrepresents the spirituality of cultures probably unfamiliar to its intended audience, and it does all these things without the consent of the people whose spiritual signifiers are being co-opted.

This is one item of one strand of Goddess veneration: I’m not out to indict the entire movement as a cesspit of awfulness. But neither is this deck an isolated case of fail: Rhiannon’s just finished an MA thesis on Christian and Jewish feminists’ appropriation of material from other cultures (it happens quite a lot, apparently), and the amount of cultural appropriation going on in New Age spirituality especially is sufficiently large that at least one of the groups so exploited – the Lakota Nation – have gone so far as to declare war.

The saddest thing about this is that the Goddess movement was dreamt up as a way of reclaiming religion for women, in an attempt to leave behind the patriarchal baggage of older faiths. The figure of the Goddess was supposed to represent womanhood as something glorious and worthy of celebration in itself, rejecting the narrowness of patriarchal ideals of what real/good women did or were. That’s a dream I can get behind, regardless of my views on the existence or otherwise of the goddess figures in question. It’s a shame that this particular bit of Goddess paraphernalia falls down so spectacularly.

*

*Except for the time when Seamus et al. got hold of a deck and the first few spreads were all so bad they ended up putting it in the fridge where it couldn’t hurt them.

**I am kind of sceptical as to the exact nature of Virtue’s doctorate, as her website does not say, and the webpage for California Coast University (where further research has established she got it) is not, and never has been, accredited to award PhDs.

Athena’s portrayal hurts. I loved Athene when I first read the Greek myths – a major goddess who went around dispensing wisdom and asskicking? Yes please. Here, though, she’s painted as a flowing-haired maiden looking pensively off the side of the card, and stands for ‘Inner Wisdom’, apparently. No helmet, no aegis, no spear. And why a Greek goddess is in a Renaissance gown is beyond me. And Kali is a floating blue face with a really badly photoshopped third eye (and nose ring) whose text is ‘Endings and Beginnings’. Kali has to be one of the most misinterpreted deities ever – thank you, Indiana Jones – but whilst painting her as solely a goddess of blood and death is inaccurate, completely erasing those associations is also wrong.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    August 4, 2010 9:54 pm

    The problem there is that you didn’t stop at the point of realising some fraudulent person had been pretending to know stuff* and just throw them away**. It’s like analysing the content of the Daily Mail. There’s no point. It’s written by ignorant people (or worse, knowledgeable people purposefully inciting hatred). Just put it down and focus on the nicer things of life like the thunder and lightning I had here today which I haven’t seen in ages and I sat and watched for a bit***.

    *See also Dr Gillian McKeith (while Wikipediaing her I found she’s in yet another row. See here.

    **or better yet, not buy tosh about mythical things in the first place *cough*personal opinion ahoy*cough*

    ***Dear God I need a job.

  2. August 4, 2010 10:10 pm

    Re the second set of asterisks, I think you missed the bits at the beginning and end regarding my actual views on the efficacy of tarot/existence of goddesses (‘highly unlikely’, in both cases.) And I don’t buy the idea that we can ignore people peddling harmful ideas and make them go away. These things have to be refuted, and in depth, in order that people coming to them for the first time don’t swallow the bad stuff along with the good.

    And I think there is good stuff to be had in the Goddess movement; as I say in the final paragraphs, the broad ideal behind it – finding forms of spirituality free of patriarchal baggage – is a laudable one. It’s a shame that that ideal is being contaminated with the huge doses of misogyny, racism and colonialism on display here, and I think it’s worth taking the time to deal with the errors.

  3. Paul Skinner permalink
    August 4, 2010 10:45 pm

    I was only ribbing you really, about the not buying tosh.

    You’re right about refuting stuff. Having thought about it I actually just hate people who attempt to refute things while in apoplectic states and end up simply arguing, like the debacle with the BNP on Question Time last year.

    Also, following on from your previous blog post I’ve just spotted this http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/10817657
    Will be interesting to see how badly they handle it.

  4. August 10, 2010 1:26 am

    Fantastic review. Some of the names not included strike me as being essential to any serious attempt to understand goddess figures!

    Just one point, though: my understanding is that both in Roman Catholicism and Islam, ‘Mother Mary’ is definitely a figure of divinity in a feminine form. While Islam is very strictly monotheistic (so in Islam Mary couldn’t be an actual Goddess), she is certainly revered in the Qu’ran as a figure particularly in tune with God, to whom miraculous things occur (for instance, the virgin birth). In Roman Catholicism, Mary’s Assumption into Heaven is described in similar terms to the Ascension of Christ and other key Old Testament figures who were considered particularly close to God, and there is of course the stereotype of Irish Catholics appealing to “Mary, Mother of God!” in times of extreme stress. So at least in the sense of “the line between ‘powerful mythical figure’ and ‘deity’ is kind of blurry” I would say that Mother Mary qualifies for inclusion.

  5. August 10, 2010 5:14 pm

    @Snowdrop: The strict monotheism (of both Islam and Christianity) was mainly what I had in mind there – though Mary is accorded exceptional honours amongst the various holy figures, classifying her as a goddess is by definition incompatible with either religion. (Whereas it’s not entirely clear from the Mabinogion whether Rhiannon is supposed to be a divine figure, or have her origins in a divine figure, or what.)

    To be fair(er), I don’t know how precisely Virtue is using the term ‘goddess’. The description of them as “angelic beings” seems to indicate a weaker and more general meaning than the dictionary definition of the word.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. August 11, 2010 12:25 am

    Okay, I can see that argument. I would guess that possibly Virtue substitutes other figures of worship (e.g. saints or angels) from the monotheistic religions, which is how I would approach it if I were trying to create such a deck, with the stated aim of celebrating the feminine (though I hope I’d do a better job of it, and probably wouldn’t, which is why I wouldn’t try!).

    “Angelic beings” – is that really a description used? That in itself is an incredible level of appropriation right away!

    (BTW I followed down the links of the cento generator, and found the “Translation Bardy” post, had some fun this afternoon with that idea!)

  7. August 11, 2010 4:35 pm

    “angelic, powerful, loving beings” is the phrase on the back of the box. Never mind that angelic =/= divine even in the faiths that do have beings describable as angels (only the Abrahamic faiths really have them, if I recall rightly.) This is turning into some sort of fractal fail: the closer you look, the more of it there is . . .

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