Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History

Rosemary Radford Ruether, University of California Press, 2005

Reviewed by Lori Eldridge

Rosemary Radford Ruether, in her book Goddesses and the Divine Feminine, traces the appearances of feminine expressions of the divine throughout Western history. In an ambitious project, she seeks to reexamine how the feminine divine has changed from prehistory to the present, paying particular attention, from an historical perspective, to those whom these images were serving. She argues that, contrary to a number of claims about the peacefulness and more utopian state of an “original matriarchy,” many of these divine feminine images were aimed at securing male power in various societies.

Ruether starts with a critique of Marija Gimbutas’ work to frame her analysis of the feminine divine and to highlight the ever-shifting politics of interpretation by different feminist and historical groups. Both in the introduction and later in chapter nine, she traces how supporters of an original matriarchy have used archaeological evidence to “prove” this idea and then touches on the political implications of supporting this notion. Many archaeologists have contested the validity of an original matriarchy; nevertheless, as individuals search “for a more life-sustaining deity and spirituality in the midst of modern dehumanization and threatened ecocide…disputing its details is treated as a treasonous heresy directed against feminist hopes, perpetuated by heartless academics” (21). Ruether uses this debate as the underpinning to the entire book, and centers upon two major questions: how has the past been interpreted by modern Western feminists, and what can a more nuanced examination of expressions of the divine feminine throughout history tell us about how gender was viewed in the past?

Chapters two through five explore the male shaping of the feminine divine, from the ancient Mediterranean, to the Hebrew Goddess of Wisdom, mystery religions and Gnosticism in Greco-Roman society, and then the further masculinization of female symbols in early European Christianity before the fourth century. Ruether argues that as female figures of the divine are used as resources for feminism, “we need to come to terms with the way that these goddesses and female divine symbols reflect male constructions of the female, at least in the form they have come down to us” (8). In chapter two, Inanna/Ishtar in Sumero-Akkadian society, Anat in Ugaritic myth, and Isis in Egypt all reflect “a construction of female divinity that sacralizes not only male but also royal or class-dominated societies” (7). In the Hebrew shaping of Wisdom, the female form is used to connect males with males, human men to a male God, fathers to sons, and teachers to students, as well as casting Israel as God’s bride to keep the male elites that ruled the area in line with God’s wishes. Ruether argues that in these cases, women are only agents of mediation between male powers, agents of wisdom but not teachers of the same. While the Gnostic movements Ruether examines do suggest “subversion” to the dominant patriarchal society of early Christianity, she also admits that the written text surrounding these movements is through male viewpoints and must be understood in that context. In early Christianity from the first to fourth century Ruether also looks at a shift toward a more masculine concept of Wisdom, alongside a shifting set of female images such as the Mother Church, the bridal soul, and the concept of Mary, the Mother of God (8).

Chapter six is, with its discussion of medieval Mariology, the first chapter to incorporate female accounts of the feminine divine. She explores Hildegard of Bingen’s work, contrasts Bernard of Clairvaux’s work on the Song of Songs with Mechthild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch, and Marguerite Porete and finally compares these views with Julian of Norwich. Throughout this chapter as well as chapter eight about the protestant mystical millennialism, Ruether tries to show varying viewpoints about the feminine divine as well as how women’s roles were shaped in society in part through religious assertions about the characteristics of both females and males.

In a deviation from her focus on European and American history, Ruether looks at the meeting of Christianity with Mexican indigenous female symbols in the early stages of Mexican colonization in chapter seven. While an interesting application of how the Catholic veneration of Mary “was and continues to be a vehicle for the assimilation of goddess worship into Christianity from the conquest period to today” (191), it seems awkward within a book that otherwise is looking at the Western historical roots of Goddess worship in the United States and somewhat repetitive of an extensive literature on syncretism by Mesoamerican anthropologists.

Chapters nine and ten explore the various interpretations supporting a vision of an early matriarchy followed by the rise of patriarchy. On the one hand, many 19th century historians and archaeologists used interpretations of the past as evidence of a natural inferiority of women followed by the natural rise of patriarchy. The other narrative from socialist and feminist movements in the same time period was the “fall-redemption story” of an idealized world falling into patriarchy that must be overcome by a return to a more ideal state. Ruether traces this redemption narrative through to the present and urges support of goddess and pro-woman spiritualities without the need to rest on the shoulders of restoring an original matriarchy.

Overall, this book covers a large scope of divine figures throughout Western history and would be helpful in the classroom to provide students with a background of theological trends and a familiarity with a range of divine female images which she links over time. However, where the book is strong on detail and historical scope, it is thin on analysis until the conclusion, leaving much of this analysis up to the reader. Nevertheless, while most of the interior chapters could have had more analysis throughout, the conclusions tie different historical periods together nicely. The accessible writing style combined with provocative questions about the political implications surrounding interpretations of the divine feminine should foster interesting discussions in the classroom and hopefully beyond academic circles.

Lori Eldridge is a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Currently, she is working on her dissertation exploring how Unitarian Universalists in Western New York understand their religion and negotiate an identity within the wider religious and political landscapes of the United States. She has previously conducted fieldwork in Cholula, Mexico.

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