Wednesday, October 29, 2008

GUEST POST: Separation of Goddess & Pagan Communities, A UK Perspective

(Note From Medusa: Shan Morgain wrote this fascinating guest blog in response to my post of July 11 to point out some possible differences in the situation between the USA and the UK.)

by Shan Morgain

Separation of Goddess and Pagan communities? Women's authority and influence in Paganism waning?

I agree with Medusa's "Trends in Feminist Spirituality" but my experience from the UK has been that Paganism and Goddess community has always been separate. The other issues have also occurred here but for quite some time now, not as new events. Perhaps this is a USA/UK difference.

The Goddess movement here began in the early 70s with "Shrew", an occasional Women's Liberation journal on a single topic each time."Goddess Shrew" brought together a small group of activists to work together.At the time ('73 I think) the main Women's Liberation Movement saw spirituality as a red herring, so Goddess Shrew was controversial. I am amused to remember that as a very active women's movement worker myself I too saw this is "irrelevant" – yet I was also having Goddess visions in my personal life! It was impossible to see this as 'serious politics' though. Women had a hard enough time taking our own needs seriously as it was: we were very much struggling to get women on the agenda at all, let alone our spirituality.

However Goddess Shrew sparked a very large response considering it was an obscure journal. Goddess UK was awakening! The MRRN (Matriarchy Reclaim and Research) network was established. But there was no significant link to UK Paganism at that time although of course the Goddess had been recognised on a small scale back to Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner's Wicca, Dion Fortune, Naomi Mitchison, the Golden Dawn, Helena Blavatsky, 19thC Romantics and 18thC antiquarians.

I myself initiated as a Dianic (women only Goddess work) in 1984-85. In late 1985 I accepted help from a male acquaintance to run a pioneering Goddess shop stocking Goddess books, posters, cards, silkrobes and incenses, some my own designs. I was utterly rejected by my Dianic teacher and her associates as a result, even though no one else was making these things readily available. The taint of male involvement was not acceptable.

Notable exceptions to my almost total shunning by the MRRN were Asphodel Long and Monica Sjoo who were always friendly and supportive to my work as a community priestess and Clan Mother of House of the Goddess.

In the first year or two of running the shop at the front of the House of the Goddess temple I met and worked with Pagans. The most prominent group was Wicca. I found that among Wicca I was markedly disapproved because I worked as a priestess without men around me. It seemed I couldn't win! However the Pagans were far less vicious than the Goddess people about disapproving of me, so I tended to link with Pagans much more from then on. In 1993 I published The Pagan Index, an A-Z of UK Paganism. One section was on Goddess people. This was not trying to say Goddess community was a subset of Paganism, rather an overlap. That is, there were, and are, Pagans who focus mainly on Goddess here, as well as other Pagans who merely accept Goddess as part of Paganism, though not very important for them individually, plus other positions in between.Then there are Goddess people who are definitely not Pagans, or some who are slightly - a sliding scale perhaps.

So rather than seeing a separation of Goddess people and Pagans happening here I would report separation from the outset with some blurring and crossings over here and there. By the way The Pagan Index, (1993, House of the Goddess), contributed a key element to the academic research which got going in the '90s.The first significant sign of this (UK) was Graham Harvey's"International Conference on Paganism in Contemporary Britain" in Newcastle, at which I presented a paper on Circlework ritual and darklight philosophy.

The diminishing of women's authority and influence in Paganism I would agree with, very much so, but again not as a recent event. I saw this begin at the end of the 80s. I think there are two reasons, one generic to most religions' development, and one specifically Pagan historic, at least in the UK.The generic reason is that grass roots spirituality can begin vigorously among women - and has done, including Christianity both in its first century and again as it took root in Rome. Women, to make a crass generalisation, are more exploratory around spirituality. But what tends to happen is that once small groups have established locally they start to connect and network. Or else a strong individual, or couple, generate a small number of groups. Clusters of groups form, and then large central events emerge (conferences,festivals).

At this point men become much more prominent. Centralisation seems to go with more male activity. This has been recorded in a lot of small cults and spiritualities, old and new. Possibly the greater demands of travel deter women: not having so much money, less likely to be vehicle owners, not enjoying the levels of safety around travel that men do, most of all, tied down with children. Sometimes there does seem to be a distinctive male desire to empire build which is quicker off the mark and more intense than it is among women - not that women don't feel it but not so soon and so urgently.

Whatever the reasons a successful spirituality will sooner or later move into the stage where it is more dominated by male networking than female. I saw this happen here (UK) in Paganism starting in the late 80s with the unhappy story of Paganlink's startup where mostly well meaning young men took over a national contacts network previously largely run by women.

Apart from the usual tendency for centralisation to favour men, there has been another contributor to increasing male influence in Paganism, and this factor was one generated by Paganism itself. This is the pubmoot. Until the end of the 80s, or as the 90s began, Pagan meetings were mostly home based. Or else held in a library, or community centre, or arts centre room. I had much to do with nurturing such new groups starting up in the second half of the 80s and through the 90s.Sparking and supporting such groups was part of my work through my House of the Goddess temple in London.There was also a strong existing Pagan tradition of Craft/Wiccan covens meeting in the house of their leading priestess and priest. House based meetings, or gatherings held in small local arts centres, favoured women. Children could be nearby either at home or using a creche. The domestic context was familiar to women: indeed it wasconsidered largely their domain so they felt comfortable in it. People could open out fairly sensitively in a comfortable setting,comfortable both physically and emotionally. It was PRIVATE. As young male leaders emerged, keen to support and strengthen networking, the pub moot took over. This became the norm everywhere within a few years by the mid '90s. The main reason I heard was that people were shy or reluctant to open their homes for a meeting. Why I don't know as this had not arisen before and it's a view alien to me so I find it hard to explain. I did used to find people needed a bit of help and advice on how to handle a house meeting, but they also need a bit of help to run a meeting in a pub. So I consider there was/is an agenda working, particularly as any comment now triggers strong denials of any problem – and I continue to see family, a lot of women and some men deterred and excluded by pub moots.

Pub moots did exclude an awful lot of women when they began. Mothers were instantly disadvantaged, and still show up on our email lists saying they'd like to come but ... childcare. Not only that but the recent trend of heavy drinking by women was yet to come. Until the later 90s there was still a sense that pubs were mainly for men. They weren't seen as very safe for women, certainly not going alone. That has changed as the brewers have courted women's purses but there are still a lot of women, and some men too, who heartily dislike pub culture so a pub moot puts them off. Next, pubs don't encourage sensitive or serious encounters. They foster at best a jolly occasion, or else argumentative debate. Neither carry a spiritual meeting well, except as a components among others.Sadly much of contemporary UK Paganism is now bar based. Many rituals or other events are a quickie thing almost like a preface to the serious business of getting into the pub. That is very different from family based, or women based connecting.

Well there you are. Some points for USA and elsewhere comparison I expect. My own work right now is coming out of retirement since 2001 and establishing a new permanent Pagan temple to honour the Goddess. I have bought a huge old club building, the oldest part is 16thC! Seven rooms on the ground floor make a temple suite while my family live on the floor above in a comfortable apartment. By selling my home and using the proceeds I am making available a solidly based temple. Not rented. Not mortgaged. Completely ours. Sacred space indoors – which in the long months of the British winter is sorely needed as well as our uncertain suimmer weather.

My hope is to renew the focus on house based Paganism which I find much healthier. As well as championing house based/family based work,my new * House Morgain temple * also aims to confront 'packagePaganism' - the consumer cult of buying spirituality in packages, either products as objects or events. This also ties in with pub moots as pubs mean a commercial transaction of hired space where punters are expected to buy drinks. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against money. Far from it. I run a successful business and I used money, quite a lot of it, to buy House Morgain's building. But money has to be the servant kept firmly undercontrol: not a mistress.

I do not agree with one comment here that Goddess only or women only devotion is extreme. It would be - if a whole large society was dominated by it. That is most unlikely to happen, certainly not a problem for the forseeable future. Instead we have a flexible web where individuals and groups can honour Goddess alone, God alone, Goddess and God, the gods, a whole pantheon in whatever balance appeals, the Old Ones, the Ancestors, personal allies or guides, abstract forces or metaphors ... dum dee dee. It is extreme is to condemn anyone's needs as placed within this spiritual geography, as extreme.

Living devoted to the Goddess can mean living in a web of women and women's work, reading women, listening to women's music, wherever possible talking only to women. Separatism – a whole hidden herstory. It's a mighty healing for modern women. I did it for years and it forged my strength. It also paradoxically purged me of manhating because I found most of what I detested in men, in women! Separatism even if only practised for a few days, a week or a month, is a profound medicine. Nor did I move out of separatism because I 'outgrew' it, or needed a man or men. I found after a period of separatism I simply liked some men and was now willing to work with them. I personally find NEEDING a man, or men, is as unbalanced as the Wiccan credo of polarity considers separatism. Becoming complete in myself (cf. Esther Harding's Women's Mysteries), being able to work withother women and find our own complex polarities without maleness being necessary, is a completeness and a joy. For myself I also enjoy the high qualities of some Pagan males, one of whom I handfasted 20 devoted years ago, another I have mothered to glorious adulthood, others I love and work with. I don't NEED any of them, though it is my choice to love them.

Shan Morgain
Samhain 2008

House Morgain


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