Celebrating the feminine: ur doin it rong
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.
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.