Sunday, December 05, 2010

REVIEW: Book on Dianic Wicca by Kristy Coleman

Re-riting Woman: Dianic Wicca and the Feminine Divine by Kristy S. Coleman, Alta Mira Press/Rowman & Littlefield, 2010, trade paperback, 254 pages

What a fascinating book! As the author, Kristy S. Coleman explains in her Introduction, it is the "first in-depth ethnographic study of Dianic Wicca." It focuses on the form practiced by the Circle of Aradia (COA) in Los Angeles, mostly in the years that Ruth Barrett was high priestess (1988-2000). Coleman was initiated into COA during her 4-year study (1998-2002) of the group, which she undertook for her doctoral dissertation. At the time the dissertation was written, Coleman had been "investigating" what she calls "the feminine Divine" for 10 years. In defining her approach as "ethnographic," Coleman is considering Dianic Witchcraft as separate culture.

Though part of a scholarly series and thus having a scholarly approach, the book is written so that it can be understood by non-academics as well, with Coleman taking special care to define terms that might be obscure to non-academics and to explain Dianic and more general Pagan practices and views for those who unfamiliar with them. She even explains why she is capitalizing or not capitalizing certain words. For example, in the endnotes ("Notes") to the Introduction she explains that she capitalizes Goddess when referring to the "contemporary worship of the Divine in female form," while using the noncapitalized goddess or goddesses when referring to female deities throughout history worshiped in many cultures. She follows the standard for the publisher’s Pagan Studies Series, of which this book is a part, which capitalizes Witch, Witchcraft and Pagan when referring to today’s followers of these religious paths, but does not capitalize them when they refer to terms used, especially pre-20th century, for the purpose of persecution or denoting a negative connotation. The book also contains a glossary.

The undergirding thesis of Re-riting Woman is Coleman’s comparison of Dianic Witchcraft to the theories of French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray . Coleman finds that Irigaray presents theoretical concepts that support the Dianic approach: Irigaray theorizes that women should meet separately from men and create woman-identified space; Dianics do this. Irigaray suggests women image the divine in their own form; Dianics do this. In her Introduction Coleman mentions several other instances where what Irigaray proposes in theory Dianics do in fact. Coleman proposes that "Dianics create an alternative symbolic structure in their rituals" that causes a shift in the perception of reality, "and in particular re(w)rites the valuation and meaning of woman." (italics Coleman’s) She comments that she had wanted to use the term "re(w)riting" in the book title, but it was decided to use "re-riting" instead because some Internet search engines didn’t recognize parentheses.

Before going further, I need to tell you that I am not a Dianic Witch, nor do I identify as any kind of Witch or Wiccan. I have, however, attended Witch/Wiccan rituals of several types (but not in California) including Dianic, which I liked more than some of the others.

In the first chapter of Re-riting Woman, Coleman tells of her first experience attending a Dianic ritual and of the herstory and basic teachings of Dianic Witchcraft. In particular she gives portraits, in both words and wonderful big b&w pictures of Z Budapest and Ruth Barrett. She describes the beginning of the all-women form of Dianic Witchcraft in the United States as it was founded by Z Budapest, who, when she left Los Angeles in 1980, ordained Ruth Barrett high priestess charged with continuing the tradition in the LA area. She goes on to describe the formation, structure and teachings of the Circle of Aradia, incorporated as a 501(c)not-for-profit religious organization in 1993.

The second chapter is devoted to explaining "The Dianic Religion" including "what a Witch is and is not," ethics, hexing, and understanding of the Goddess. Coleman writes that Ruth Barrett rejects the idea of Goddess as archetype and quotes Barrett as saying that for Dianics, "the Goddess encompasses all: She contains the male." The chapter also has an introductory discussion of ritual and magic (but not how to do it). In this chapter and throughout the book, Z Budapest and Ruth Barrett are the only Dianic Witches whose "real" names are given. Others are identified by first name pseudonyms only. In various parts of the book, but perhaps most pointedly in Chapters 2 and 3, Coleman takes issue with Cynthia Eller, who has written controversial books that attempt to analyze Goddess spirituality groups. In chapter 3, under the subhead, "Religion," Coleman writes:

In Living in the Lap of the Goddess, Cynthia Eller offers an example of the dismissive view. She draws on "deprivation theory" to explain (away) the empowering effects of ritual within Goddess spirituality.... Kimberly Patton criticizes this scholarly phenomenon of "methodological condescension".... [Eller] views feminist spiritualists as angry because they have not received the social and political advances they have thought would result from the feminist movement. Thus...they resort to magic and ritual.
Coleman gives examples of women in COA whose demeanor and reasons for being Dianic do not support Eller’s views and concludes:

The tradition and the feminist milieu that the [COA] tradition creates appear a far more convincing explanation for the attraction of this tradition or feminist spirituality at large, than Eller’s proposal that women are seeking the power the feminist movement failed to provide.
The fourth chapter discusses COA seasonal rituals, of which there are 8. Coleman agreed to give details of only the 7 public rituals. The 8th, Brigid, is held for members of COA only and is their initiatory ritual. These are the solar rituals celebrated widely in the Pagan community, but the Dianic symbolism and some of the practices associated with them differ from groups that include male deity(ies)—and even from some other groups in which female deity is primary. Coleman goes into a good deal of detail in her descriptions, and many readers will find this one of the more compelling chapters of the book.

The fifth chapter is an in-depth look at the Irigaray’s views and how they relate to Dianic Witchcraft. Coleman points out that the philosopher and Dianics have in common the goals of: "(1) exposing the system of oppression (2) acknowledging its effects, and (3) creating a new imaginary...."(Imaginary in this use refers to images and fantasy-like stories—we might say mything or re-mything). She finds, however, that Dianic practices effect change better than Irigaray’s writing because
an alternative symbolic is not merely imagined, nor do they [Dianics] so much ponder or theorize what it would or would not be, but on a number of levels they perform it.
In making Irigaray an integral part of this book, Coleman has adopted her use of the noun "the feminine" translated from the French,"le féminin". (Yes, I am now going to get all grammary on you.) In English, Coleman not only uses the term as a noun but also as an adjective modifying, for example, "Divine" (as in "feminine Divine"). She says that we are not to understand this English word "feminine" as meaning "femininity." OK, I can accept that the noun "the feminine," the noun "femininity," and the adjective "feminine" don’t have identical meaning. But I still am uncomfortable with the word "feminine" modifying divine for reasons previously posted here . Coleman says that many COA members are not fond of it either. I think that at least part of the problem is that the term, translated from French, shares the difficulties of translating from any language to another. In addition, Coleman is using Irigaray’s "le féminin" with Irigaray’s re-defining to mean that whatever the real (unsocialized, unrepressed) traits of women may be, women and women’s traits are devalued in Western (and I would add many Eastern) cultures, and that there is something missing, lost, unremembered in le féminin. Although Coleman doesn’t mention it, there may be a "hint" of this meaning in French grammar since the gender of this noun in French is masculine! Could this be interpreted as the language itself telling us that "le féminin" is seen through a masculine (male?) lens? No such "hint" is present in English, which doesn't gender nouns. Also, even before Irigaray's re-definition, le féminin does not translate exactly into the English "the feminine." For example, while the English,"the feminine" connotes socially contrived gender traits, the French "le féminin" includes most of what "female" means in English, that is biological traits. To go a little further, les femmes (n. pl) in French means both women and female; la femme (n. sing.) means woman; les hommes translates to both men and male, l’homme means man. (btw book editors: the French word for man, homme, is misspelled as "home" on p. 136 in a discussion of Irigary’s wordplay on hom[m]osexual.) My point is that one needs to be careful when taking a term from one language and translating it into another. Complicating matters further, Coleman appears to be taking a noun which Irigaray has given an alternative meaning, and then attaching it as an adjective to, for example, "divine" and assuming it can be understood by English-speakers as something other than it’s usual meaning . I question whether this is appropriate especially when speaking of Dianic understanding of the divine since Dianics, as Coleman explains in this book, integrate women’s physiology and biology into their understanding of Goddess and other parts of their religion. It's important to note, however, that that "feminine Divine" is not the only term Coleman uses to describe Goddess. Examples of some of the other terms she uses are quoted in this review.

In the fifth chapter, Coleman discusses the relevance to Irigaray of Hegel’s and Heidigger’s philosophies, Freudian theory, and the views of Jacques Lucan, Mary Daly, Margaret Miles, Grace Jantzen, Drucilla Cornell, and others. She concludes that both Irigaray and the Dianics:

First, recognize that the dominant patriarchal system of representation is perilously limited and inaccurate. Second, realize that this system is founded upon the erasure—repression and devaluation—of the maternal/feminine....Third, return to the maternal origin, clearly inexpressible or unknowable at this stage....Dianics took consciousness-raising and feminist politics of the 1970s into the realm of the spiritual. Irigaray...lugged an intellectual history...into the realm of mystery.
In the sixth chapter, Coleman uses a number of "theoretical tools" to take a further look at the significance of Dianic rituals. She finds the rituals highly effective, and explains why rituals "can be a powerful choice...for the achievement of the Dianics' goal: to eradicate patriarchy ‘within and without’." In analyzing rituals through semiotics (study of the arbitrary relationship between words and their meanings), Coleman writes:

[Dianic] practice is not just an affront to patriarchy, but arguably destabilizes Western metaphysics....This potential is, in my view, the impetus behind the vicious attacks on both scholarship and practices that seriously consider a historical or contemporary conceptualization of the Divine as female.
In chapter 7, Coleman takes a look at the "problems and potentials" within COA. The most troubling to her is the disconnect between the COA’s rejection of hierarchy in theory and the presence of hierarchy within COA—at least at the time of her study. There have been changes since then. After Ruth Barrett ordained the next high priestess before she leaving for Wisconsin where, with her life partner she established the Temple of Diana, and after the appointed COA high priestess resigned, COA decided by consensus to not ordain or appoint another high priestess but rather embark on a shared leadership model. Circle of Aradia is now an affiliate of the Temple of Diana, also incorporated as a 501(c)3.

The discussion of COA’s coping with hierarchical tendencies may be instructive to other groups struggling between a desire for equality within its membership and the need for leadership, between the desire to give everyone equal opportunity to participate in significant roles and the feeling that excellence should be rewarded and spotlighted. Other issues explored in chapters 7 and 8 include power, control, and perceived favoritism. The material in chapter 8 includes additional interviews with COA participants on these subjects. Such issues will be familiar to many of you who have established or are attempting to establish a consensus, or partnership , or sharing model—whether it be in a religious/spiritual organization, at work, at play, or at home—and establishing it in a society in which most of us were raised in the hierarchical competitive model and which still supports that model. As Coleman observes:

CoA is not unique in failing to uphold this egalitarian ideal. However the very presence of a critical awareness of the tendency for power to be used hierarchically seems to be progressive.
In her "Conclusion," Coleman takes a look back at her dissertation research several years after its completion. Among her observations is that

a thealogical move to Goddess does not of itself dispel an active...system of power-over....
Re-riting Woman is a wonderfully useful text for college-level courses, especially in women’s studies, philosophy, religion, and probably some other areas I haven’t thought of. It is also likely to be valuable to groups and individuals outside the academy who, like me, find the subject matter and the approach taken by Coleman absorbing, intriguing, and yes, fascinating.

A hardcover edition of Re-riting Woman was published about a year ago at a much higher price, as is common with academic texts. I want to commend the author, series editors, and publisher for making it available in this more affordable trade paperback edition, which emerged last month. It is part of Alta Mira’s Pagan Studies Series, whose editors are Wendy Griffin and Chas S. Clifton. Kristy S. Coleman received her Ph.D in Religion and Culture from Claremont Graduate University and is now an adjunct professor at San Jose State University.

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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.