Feminine Mysticism and The History of Goddess Art
The core intention and mission of Feminine Mysticism in Art stems from the heart of feminine mysticism--a deep passion to experience the feminine face of God through various levels of awareness--physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. While some of these experiences have occurred through religious institutions, most occurred through a direct, spiritual experience. They are mysterious, immanent experiences that originated in the heart of the individual as they were engaged in various creative endeavors. They give us a glimpse of the transcendent mystery beyond this universe and present us with more reality and truth than we ordinarily experience in everyday life.
To better clarify what I mean by feminine mysticism, I am referring to a spiritual movement devoted to the re-enchantment of the feminine principal or the feminine side of God. Mysticism is meditation, prayer, creativity or theology focused on the direct experience of union with divinity, God, or Ultimate Reality. This unity with the Divine is the heart of all mysticism's. It is awareness of nonduality and nonseparation, of no distance between ourselves, the ultimate mystery, and all other beings. Feminine mysticism a spiritual journey for women, as well as for men, which has been lost to many Westerners but is beginning to resurface in various ways. The great treasures associated with feminine mysticism are a part of a universal mystical tradition, and our evolution as a humans species depends on our willingness to not only integrate these knowledge's into our own experience as spiritual beings, but honor them gifts from the Divine.
If we examine the history of Goddess art, we find a number of mystics and artists who have made it their life’s mission to reveal the wisdom's' of the Goddess. For example, the feminist art movement in the 1970’s in many respects paved the way for contemporary female mystics and goddess artists, as they challenged the dominant patriarchal ideologies of Western culture. An important aspect of the feminist art movement in the 1970’s was to challenge the dominant patriarchal ideologies of Judeo-Christianity, particularly its overall subjugation of the feminine principle. As feminist and art historian Gloria Orenstein noted in her article, Recovering Her Story: Feminist Artists Reclaim the Great Goddess, the reclamation of the Goddess is situated at the heart of the second wave of the feminist movement (1970’s to the present) as well as within the newly developed field of women’s studies scholarship (Broude and Garrard, 1994).
Several feminist artists of the 1970’s, such as Ana Mendieta, Mary Beth Edelson, Donna Henes, Betye Saar, AfraShe Asungi, Monica Sjoo, Judy Chicago, Betsy Damon and so many others attempted to reclaim the ancient Great Goddess through images, rituals, and performance art in an effort to reestablish a female perspective that has long been absent in world religions. While there is no doubt feminist artists of the 1970’s were revolutionary and did an enormous amount of work for social equality, Gloria Orenstein reminds us that their work was largely influenced and inspired by a historical background of a powerful tradition of women mystics, heretics, and visionaries.
In her article on Goddess Art, Orenstein reveals that the “Goddess Awakening” in the 1970's was inspired by an assortment of cutting edge research in the social sciences, particularly feminism, psychology, sociology and archeology. Two of the more influential voices of the seventies were archeological scholars and historians Marija Gimbutas, who wrote “The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe: 7000 to 3500 B.C., Myths, Legends and Cult Images, and Merlin Stone, author of “When God was a Woman.” The work of these two female scholars documented an assortment of archeological images from pre-patriarchal Goddess civilizations which indicate that Goddess worshipping civilizations did indeed exist and that art is a potent transmitter of not only concealed knowledge, but truths that were omitted from the patriarchal record of western history (Orenstein, 1994).
One of the fascinating discoveries about our past is that for millennia, prehistoric societies worshipped the Goddess of nature and spirituality, our great Mother, the giver of life and creator of all. These discoveries also exposed us to a nature-based or “pagan” religion that honored the female and revered the earth as sacred. In these early societies the world was viewed as the Great Mother, a living entity who in both her temporal and spiritual manifestations creates and nurtures all forms of life. We also know that in these highly creative societies women held important social positions as priestesses, craftspeople, and elders of matrilineal clans.
Gloria Orenstein also points out that the reclamation of the Goddess art in the 1970’s was, to a large extent, inspired by the rediscovery of Carl Jung’s concept of the archetype of the Great Goddess. The word “archetype” was freely used in those days, and it had been taken from Erich Neumann’s discussion of Jungian ideas about the archetype of the Great Goddess in his book “The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype.” Jungian psychology had purported that the Great Mother represents the feminine in the human psyche, and that archetypes are internal images that exist in the collective unconscious and are at work in the psyche everywhere (Orenstein, 1994).
Many artists and scholars came to believe that the archetype of the Great Goddess is not only equally accessible to anyone, anywhere, but the images inspired or created transcend all patriarchal cultural barriers. As Orenstein noted, “Goddess art of the 1970’s was perceived to be the one symbol that could transcend difference, diversity, and division, and that could harmonize women from a wide variety of backgrounds on a level that penetrated so deeply into human history and the collective psyche that the contemporary patriarchal political and social constructions separating women from each other would be overcome” (1994:175). In other words, through the rekindling of the Great Goddess, women from all over the world could begin to unite their wills and break the chains of social inequality and oppression.
The most concrete evidence we have that recounts the demise of the Goddess cultures can be found in the archeological record. Marija Gimbutas's archeological studies have given the highest scientific authority to our knowledge of ancient Goddess civilizations. Her book, originally published in 1974 with the title The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe: 7000 to 3500 B.C., Myths Legends and Cult Images,30 provided a full iconographic lexicon of pre-patriarchal images and symbols.
By examining the surviving historical evidence, it has been ascertained that God was conceived of as female for at least the first 200,000 years of human life on earth, a far longer reign than that of the patriarchy. Archeological, mythological and historical evidence all reveal that for thousands of years matriarchal religions and patriarchal societies existed simultaneously in Old Europe, and that over a long period of time matriarchal or “pagan” religions were the victims of centuries of persecution and suppression by warlike patriarchal societies, usually referred to as Indo-Europeans, which imposed their male-dominated hierarchy and the worship of their sky gods on Goddess cultures wherever they settled.
Gimbutas summed up the difference between the two cultural systems: "The first was matrifocal, sedentary, peaceful, art-loving, earth and sea-bound; the second was patrifocal, mobile, warlike, ideologically sky oriented, and indifferent to art."31 Continuing waves of suppression by Indo-European culture eventually put an end to the Old European Goddess cultures roughly between 4300 and 2800 B.C., changing it from matrilineal to patrilineal. As a result of continual suppression, the Goddess religions went underground or were assimilated into Indo-European culture, but the old European sacred images and symbols were never totally eradicated. "Many of these symbols are still present as images in our art and literature, powerful motifs in our myths, and archetypes in our dreams."32
While there is speculation as to whether matrifocal societies were truly egalitarian, Gimbutas as well as an assortment of other archeologists profess that they were. Supposedly no archaeological, historical, or anthropological evidence can be found for any widespread female dominant cultures in which males were oppressed. Gimbutas suggests that Old European culture was "matrifocal"--that is, woman-centered--and matrilineal, where descent was through the mother. However, it's important to note that woman-centered does not imply a matriarchy that is the opposite of patriarchy, a society in which one gender exercised power at the expense of the other. As Gimbutas notes, "The Goddess-centered art, with its striking absence of images of warfare and male domination, reflects a social order in which women as heads of clans or queen-priestesses played a central part." 33
Archeologist Merlin Stone, in her book When God was a Woman,34 explains that studies of indigenous cultures over the last few centuries have led to the realization that some indigenous peoples did not yet possess the understanding of the relationship between sex and conception. Thus, the concepts of paternity and fatherhood would not yet have been understood. Though probably accompanied by various mythical explanations, babies were simply born from women. If this were the case, the mother would have been seen as the singular parent of her family, the lone producer of the next generation. There are a number of theories and lines of evidence that speculate as to whether or not matrilineal cultures were indeed egalitarian. However, if this theory is indeed correct, one might be led to assume that in putting the Goddess on a pedestal as the creator of life, men could have been reduced to mere protectors of her preemptive powers.
The historical shift from matrifocal cultures to patriarchal cultures is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating shifts in human history. While the transformation is fascinating and worthy of investigation, it is perhaps better left to more academic endeavors. There are a number of indigenous peoples, feminist thealogians, mystics, artists and scholars who have already made enormous contributions to the women's spirituality movement, ecological movement and the inter-spirituality movement. It is not our intention to repeat what has already been said, but rather, explore on deeper levels the meaning of feminine mysticism and how it has been expressed through various modes of knowing, particularly through art and creativity.