Thursday, March 15, 2007

Warrior Goddesses?

I’m concerned about the growing interest in and glorification of "warrior goddesses." I worry that if we continue down this road we’ll end up with the patriarchal God-in-a-skirt. Turning towards Goddess is more than a change of gender in deity – it is a change in understanding of the sacred that is related to a change in social structure. Yet here are just a few examples of what’s out there advocating for the "warrior goddess":
"The Goddess Speaks...Feeling Overwhelmed? Engage Your Inner Warrior Goddess," a Feb. 2005 column by Christine Thomas on the ezine Weed Wanderings
"Goddess Anat: Warrior Virgin of the Ancient Levant," an article by scholar Johanna H. Stuckey in the ezine, Matrifocus, Samhain 2003.
– a book about fighting breast cancer called, Waking the Warrior Goddess
– "Warrior Goddess" workouts and bellydances
– a Jan. 29, 2007 post on the writing blog, "Affairs of the Pen," called "Warrior Goddess," about how She inspires the author.

I want to make clear I’m not criticizing these publications or writers. In fact, that several of them are fine publications and writers is part of what makes this so disconcerting. I’m seeing a trend here and asking, what’s going on?!

A few weeks ago, I left a comment on a post on Radical GoddessThealogy, in which Athana wrote: "Big Daddy War God aka ’The-Lord-Is-a-Warrior’* isn’t cutting it. We need Mother Goddess to sweep back and calm us down." In my comment, I expressed my concern that

"affection for ‘warrior goddesses....calling some goddesses "warrior" goddesses may be related to the political reglorification (in the US) of war, soldiers, etc.
Athana replied (excerpted):

...war goddesses....sprang up when the War Gods did. Formerly peaceful goddesses were turned into backers of war. Examples: Athena, Astarte, Andraste among the Celts, Neith and Sekhmet in Egypt, Bellona and Minerva in Rome, Inanna in Sumer, Freyja among the Norse -- all were invented or transformed by the new War God peoples who swept over the world around 3000 BC....
Athana’s right. Here is more on what happened with specific Goddesses often referred to as "warrior goddesses":
Athena (Minoan/Greek)
An excerpt from Patricia Monaghan’s book, Goddesses & Heroines tells how the identity of Athena was changed from its original, in which she was a Minoan or Mycedaen household goddess symbolizing "family bond" and connected to "the mild serpent." The Greeks adopted her and adapted her mythology and identity to make her, among other things, a war goddess. For the excerpt from Monaghan’s book, go here.

Brigid Brigit, Brighid (Celtic)
You can find the language claiming She is a warrior goddess on this site. (it’s repeated almost word for word on a number of other sites, so it must be true, right?). Ah, but here is a more accurate account of Brigit as protector rather than warrior.
Durga (Hindu/Indian)
Well known today as a "warrior goddess," she also was transformed from her original persona. Originally she was a mountain Goddess associated with the Himalyas and or/the Vindhyas. By the 4th Century BCE she was shown killing an buffalo and then she becomes a warrior goddess The Goddess Kali is a mythological offshoot of Durga’s anger. But according to Patricia Monaghan in Goddesses & Heroines, even in war, Durga is not an aggressor, but rather a defender against evil.
Macha (Celtic)
This quote is from "Celtic Woman: Myth and Symbol" . No author is given but it appears to be a university student group project completed in 1998:

....The story of Macha is an instructive example of the "fall" of the Celtic goddess and in some sense the fall of the Celtic woman....The this story, violated the promises he made [to Macha and to women] and instead of being overthrown, is permitted to continue his reign with no apparent resistance from his constituents. This portrayal of Macha is actually the last of three major cycles. In the first she is a brilliant, strong mother-goddess. In the second she is a helpless (but wise) wife, and the third she is relegated to an existence of shame and forced to abandon her life-giving gifts, adapting to the new warrior ethos.... the war-goddess appears to develop as a result of the change in Celtic society to one of violence....
Macha evolves into a warrior-goddess...simultaneously the status of women decline in societies...where emphasis is placed on death and bloodlust rather than on life and respect for death....Goddesses were becoming as violent as the society that "created" them. They were raped, murdered and often died in child birth....
As far as I know the first publication showing how Goddesses were "transformed" to fit in with patriarchal paradigms, including being war-like, is the 1987 Crossing Press pamphlet Matriarchal Mythology in Former Times and Today by Heide Gottner-Abendroth (published first in the Journal Trivia, #7, 1985.) If you can somehow get a hold of this, look especially at Table 2: Transformations of Matriarchal Mythology. I believe Gottner-Abendroth is working on a multi-volume work (some volumes now available in German) so maybe there will be more from her on this. (If anyone knows more about this, please leave a comment.) A well-known work on the early characteristics of goddesses (and gods) is Marija Gimbutas’ The Language of the Goddess. And Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade details the change of both society and deities from being cooperative, peaceful, and matrifocal to being war-like, authoritarian, and woman-oppressive.

But, I can just hear some of you saying or thinking, goddesses are not only nurturing fertility figures, goddesses are strong. Their strength is sometimes shown in their ability to fight and protect. Yes, I agree. What I have a problem with is using the term "war" or "warrior" to describe these traits and abilities.

Commenting on an article in August 2002 article in The Beltane Papers, "Walking the Warrior’s Path," in which Dr. Galina Krasskova refers to meanings in other languages to justify using "warrior goddess" in English, Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph. D. (linquistics) in Religious Language Newsletter writes:
"Warrior" is not just a metaphor that has grown dim with centuries of use; it's not like "breakfast." We don't say "break" and then "fast," we say "BREHKfust"; the word "fast" meaning to refrain from eating is uncommon in ordinary English; there's another word "fast" meaning "quick," and so on. "Warrior" is very different -- it's just plain "war," said as we always say "war," plus the "do-er/maker" morpheme, and there's no way to remove that semantic content from the word. Which means that using it activates the whole English semantic domain of battlefield combat telling you that your responsibility is to get out there and WIN, never mind what you have to do to accomplish the victory, as long as the war is just. The Christian soldier marching as to war has that semantic content to deal with, no matter how noble the "path of the warrior" may be in non-English-speaking cultures and languages. For speakers of English to choose The Warrior as their spiritual metaphor is, in my opinion, a serious error.
I agree with Elgin. Yes, we want to envision goddess(es) as full personalities, not limited to being ‘fertility symbols’. Yes, Goddesses are strong and assertive. They are definitely protectors, defenders, and guardians. But they are not belligerent and bellicose. They aren’t initial aggressors; they don’t authorize first strikes. My concern is that we are jumping on the war bandwagon, even though many of us are also involved in peace groups. I’d like us to be sensitive to the difference between being war-like (or liking war) and being able to defend ourselves and those close to us by being strong. Also, I think we need to be picky about which version of which Goddess in which era we venerate and emulate. (I’m suspicious of any imagery that originated after 3000 BCE–this definitely includes the classic Greek and Roman pantheons). Both the images and the words we use have power. Or as I think has been said elsewhere, you become what you love.

So let's call them what they are: goddesses of strength, protector goddesses, guardian goddesses, and even in some cases, healing goddesses. But you won't hear (or see) me invoking a Goddess because she's a "warrior." That word comes with too much negative baggage, is often based on patriarchal re-imaging, and really, it's just not what we mean.


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At Wednesday, May 14, 2008 1:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the most part I have no real argument in your tirade. But your primarily arguing semantics. One persons 'defender/protector/guardian' is another persons warrior. Same thing. Both entails combat of one way or another. And warriors are not necessarily belligerent or bellicose. Women are also not necessarily peaceful either. Some of the most horrific crimes in any history was committed by women. Some tragic wars and battles were not only started by, but maintained by women.

What I think is incredibly interesting is that the Japanese Goddess Amaterasu, the patron Goddess of a very Patriarchal society such as japan. Is not considered a 'Warrior' Goddess, but a Guardian Goddess..the Defender of the Japanese people.

Semantics in my opinion has very little to do with a valid argument, such as yours and Athana's. And is in my opinion, a poor way to make such argument. History wasn't peaceful. There weren't petitioned signs nor peace rallies in say Sumer or Babylon. War was inevitable part of everyday life. And religion flourished because of this. Once peaceful goddesses became war gods to show this change in political enviorns.

People went to war over politics, religion and simply wanting the greener pastures on the other side of the fence. People didn't need peaceful goddesses at the time. They needed strong warriors to protect thier spirits in those dark times.

Am I saying this is right. Maybe not. But thats how all religions started out. Often changed because if they didn't then the people would not desire to worship a goddess of the hearth like Hestia, When the Huns were pounding on their doors.

At Monday, June 23, 2008 10:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We use the word/title "warrior" meaning war and violence. The original meaning of this is one to prevent war.The job of a warrior is to defend and war is the last resort. Goddesses that have been titled "warrior" in truth are protectors and defenders. It is the job of the warrior also to right the injustices in our world, not through violence but through example. We have been brainwashed into perceiving 'warrior' from the patriachal world. From the Goddess it is a necessary for women to stand their ground and recover their rights as equals in the human race. We are to protect our Mother Earth and to teach peace through our stand as 'warriors'. This is how we heal the world.

At Monday, September 01, 2008 7:29:00 PM, Blogger Athana said...

Anon #1 says, "History wasn't peaceful. There weren't petitioned signs nor peace rallies in say Sumer or Babylon. War was inevitable part of everyday life."

Wrong, Anon. The best evidence shows that before around 4000 BC the world didn't know institutionalized warfare. And many societies didn't seem to know it at all -- the ancient Indus civilization, the Minoans, for example. The Old Europeans are another. Read anthropologist Doug Fry's Beyond War (2007), archaeologist Ray Kelly's Warless Societies and the Origin of War (2003), or anthropologist Keith Otterbein's How War Began.

If war is in our genes, hows come there are any peaceful societies in the world? And yet there are. Go to to read about a whole long list of them.

So why would societies that didn't know war have war goddesses?

No, the war goddesses came later. They're mostly makeovers of peaceful goddesses.

You, me, all Westerners are so steeped in war, the idea of war, the idea that war is inevitable and even good, that it's hard to wrap our minds around the idea that war might not permeate everything -- including all of our past and all of our deity.

At Monday, September 01, 2008 7:47:00 PM, Blogger Athana said...

THNX Medusa for this fabulous piece. I'm sending my readers to it!


At Wednesday, July 28, 2010 5:23:00 AM, Blogger Kate Orman said...

Hi - stumbled across your entry on the "warrior goddess", which ponders similar issues as one I made a couple of years ago:

"Warrior goddess" is a pretty phrase, a dramatic bit of forsoothery. I doubt a huge number of Pagans would want to say they worshipped a "soldier goddess". I myself worship some pretty warlike goddesses. But the question is, of course, what are they waging war against?

At Monday, May 16, 2011 4:42:00 AM, Blogger MasterAmazon said...

I'm proud to be a Dyke Amazon Warrior/Amazon Witch, and a lifelong martial artist. I combined all these aspects of me to define my spirituality and the spiritual mysteries I teach as an Amazon Warrior/Amazon Witch/Amazon Priestess....I believe the ancient Amazons were the last defenders of the Matriarchy, those peaceloving cultures of the Mother that were being badly trounced by some of the more patriarchal Greek, Roman and other cultures....

As in the martial arts, when I see that energy in the Sacred Female, at least the dieties I personally work with, it is always and primarily IN DEFENSE, and Self-Defense, not in aggression and conquering of other peoples and other ways of being, but protecting ourselves as womyn, our Sacred Mysteries and our Sacred places and Female spaces.....

I have never been a pacifist, but neither do I support warmongering either and the support of constant warmaking. This is PRECISELY WHY I'm into Goddess worship and ultimately worship the Goddess of 10,000 Names as She comes in many forms and temperaments, connecting with those that fit for me and that I need in my life and connect best with. The whole concept of a matriarchal peaceloving culture like Catal Huyuk lasting 1000 years without war is amazing to me...and what I long for. But as a Butch Dyke, just to survive, I need to be an AmazonWarrior, a Warrior for women and myself as the type of woman I am, just to survive in a world that would just extinguish my kind.

The other side of me is Amazon Priestess, where I serve Her and Her beautiful Planet and womyn and She guides and moves through me...these are deep deep vows I have taken being on this Path of Goddess worship for 30 years, ever since the Dyke Witches brought me out in 1981!

At Wednesday, June 01, 2011 1:51:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Sorry for posting this so late, but I believe there's a general misconception about "warrior goddess" as if there was only one type of a war god to emulate.

In the mythology of Ancient Greece the cleverest immortal was the goddess Metis. Zeus was worried about her outsmarting them all so he married her, only to swallow her whole and absorb her wisdom in the process.

But Metis was already pregnant with Athena at the time, and she was born from his head. Like her parents she was as crafty as Metis and had the warlike nature of Zeus.

However, this mix meant she was the goddess of strategic warfare according to the Greeks, and her favorite mortal was the clever Odysseus.

Ares is the classical war god in its direct and brutal aspect. The Greeks hated Ares and worshipped Athena instead, because she fought with intellect and subtlety.It is not the violence or brutality or the waste of lives/resources, but the rationality and pragmatism that demands us to win wars without bloodshed.

Ares is always depicted as easily misled. The wisdom of Athena turns the violence and aggression of classic male type A against them and use brutality as the cause of their downfall. Athena was always a step ahead by making her moves indirect.

Thus the goddess of war was equal parts philosophy & war, wisdom and battle.

At Thursday, June 23, 2011 1:16:00 PM, Anonymous carisa said...

Goddesses such as Mesopotamian Inanna, the Canaanite Anat, and Egyptian Sekhmet were clearly presented as loving war and relishing wallowing in and even drinking the blood of the victims of their warmongering. Some of Yahweh's violent characteristics so often criticized in feminist circles were probably borrowed from the goddess Anat. I agree with Medusa that we should take great care in holding up these aspects of Near Eastern deities as positive. In fact these goddesses served patriarchy and patriarchal control. Sekhmet mass murdered commoners who failed to properly serve pharaoh. I think many of these goddesses were changed by the increase in war and the shift to glorification of patriarchal rule and its warriors which happened shortly before the invention of writing and the first written myths.


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Judith Laura

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