The Author's Corner
Daughters of the Goddess:
TWPT: We will be conducting this interview in a narrative format with Ms. Griffin taking my individual questions and answering them as one long narrative instead of looking at the questions individually. I'm sure that you will find the resulting interview just as informative and insightful as many of the previous interviews here on TWPT.
When was it that the idea of Goddess spirituality first took hold of your mind and prompted you to investigate further?
Was this idea something that had been growing in you for some time or were you taken by surprise?
Prior to this point in time what had been the primary influence on your spiritual beliefs and how had this influence shaped your belief system?
Once you had been exposed to Goddess spirituality and Witchcraft what were your first steps towards making this new belief system your own?
For those who may not have a clear grasp of what is meant by the term Goddess spirituality, could you offer your personal view of what this means to you and how it affects the way that you live your life.
What was the state of the Goddess spirituality movement when you first started along the path?
Talk to me about the importance of the Goddess spirituality movement as it related to the women of those early days when it was being rediscovered by our generation.
What kind of impact do you think that Goddess spirituality will have on society in general and the patriarchal system in particular?
WG: I have always been a pagan. From the age of 2 until I graduated from high school, I spent every summer in the North Woods. My mother owned a camp for girls that bordered a national forest, and one of my earliest memories is walking through the silver birch trees down to the lake at sunset in a line of girls and women singing joyously. Sunday evenings we would gather for Vespers at dusk on a small point between two lakes. My mother would read aloud from writers like Kahlil Gibran or sometimes poetry that explored the beauty of nature, of female friendship, of creativity and love of life. In the weeks before the other girls arrived at camp and after they left, I had the woods to myself. Sometimes I would discover secret places deep in the trees where I would build small altars. I never wondered why I did this or what the altars were for. I just felt called upon to build them.
During the school year I lived in the suburbs outside Chicago and was a Christmas and Easter Protestant. I was briefly enamored of Christianity when I was a freshman in high school and decided to read the Old and New Testaments on my own. That was the end of my religiosity. The god of the Bible was not a figure with which I could or wished to identify. I became an atheist at 14. That didn't stop my occasional altar building, as I never considered that as having anything to do with religion as I understood it.
Years later, I first encountered contemporary witchcraft. I worked briefly with a group in Chicago, but although I was given instruction in magic, I wasn't given any theology or mythic framework through which to understand it. This was the very early 70s, and almost nothing had been published that addressed women and spirituality. I put this interest aside when I entered graduate school and focused on my studies, single parenting, and feminist activism - all very practical, concrete realities to me.
I saw my first feminist Witch at a conference of the National Organization for Women. She came into a crowded restaurant where we gathered between workshops, plopped herself down on the floor and began to chant a blessing. I must admit I was taken aback. It seemed to be the antithesis of the conference, about as apolitical as one could get, I thought mistakenly.
It wasn't until the late 80s when I learned just how wrong I had been. I was teaching at a university when a student in my Women and Power class stood up and announced she was a Dianic Priestess and Witch, and she invited the whole class to a ritual celebrating the Spring Equinox. I was so leery about attending that I invited a colleague, Tanice Foltz, to go with me. The experience was very interesting but didn't seem either magical or spiritual to me at the time. Nevertheless, and after considerable hesitation on my part, Tanice and I asked the coven members if we could study them for a research project. They agreed and the rest is history that can be found in several academic journals.
We were given permission to do our research with the caveat that we had to participate fully to the extent that we were comfortable. We trained for a year and a ritual, but didn't ask to become members of the coven. I was very comfortable with some of the beliefs and most of the practices. Nevertheless, I continued identifying as an atheist, something I still do occasionally, although my friends who are religious scholars tell me I'm not. After my training, I continued to attend rituals and study with a variety of groups. To date, I have done so in five countries. The city in which I live has a large Goddess Community with regular rituals and events that are open to the public. I have been very active in that community and have incorporated some of the history and teachings of Goddess Spirituality into my classes at the university.
Goddess Spirituality, or sometimes Gaian Spirituality, is a generic term that has come to encompass the rather outmoded terms of "feminist spirituality" and "women's spirituality." Although Z. Budapest first coined the former to represent Dianic Wicca, using the term this way has been challenged by feminists within mainstream religions who seek to incorporate female imagery in their understanding of the Divine. Today, Goddess Spirituality may refer to any spiritual practice that envisions female deity as primary, with or without a male consort, and so may apply to various pagan traditions. The term also applies to people like me, who use female imagery as a metaphor for the Web of Life, but who don't believe Deity is wholly external to the self. I honor, celebrate and even revere the Goddess; I don't worship her. As I practice within a Dianic coven, I find the Wiccan sabbats help me reaffirm my place in the Web and serve as markers for what I seek to accomplish in my life. My spirituality is profoundly nature-based, though I know that is not true for some in Goddess Spirituality. But I am very much an Earthling and my spiritual practice is grounded in time and place. Goddess imagery awakens my creativity and allows me to temporarily suspend disbelief. This spirituality has allowed me to integrate various parts of myself - the serious academic, the activist, the musician, the actress, the woman, and the child who built altars in the woods.
As an adult, I was late coming to this path. In the 70s, it offered a profoundly radical and liberating vision to women who were struggling with religions made by, for and about men. By the time I discovered it, it could already be defined as a social movement. Ground-breaking research had been published that uncovered ancient sacred female imagery and made visible the erasure of the Female Divine from religious texts and the persecution of women as witches. Although the scholarship in some of this work was later challenged, its contribution in creating innovative models and allowing us to think in new ways can't be overlooked. And along with it came an overflowing of female creativity in the visual, written and performing arts.
Will Goddess Spirituality have an impact on the wider society? I would argue it already has. Why else would it be labeled by one Catholic bishop as, "the greatest heresy in the last 15 centuries?" Religion is one of the most powerful influences in shaping our gender roles. For 2000 years women have been told we are responsible for bringing sin and death into the world. For almost 5000 years we've been told we were somehow less than men and should rely on them to take care of us. But today, those on the Goddess Path are creating new definitions of appropriate gender behavior. Women are smart and strong, their menstrual blood is part of a sacred process, their sexuality belongs to themselves alone and is a wondrous blessing, ordinary women can do extraordinary things. There are new, positive understandings of what it means to be male as well, but that research awaits another scholar.
However Goddess Spirituality also has the potential to sink into the conventional, to understand what is sacred in very limited ways. To envision the Goddess primarily as the Great Mother and Nurturer is to accept a stereotype as old as patriarchy itself, and one that presents an extremely narrow view of what it means to be female. I believe to be transformative on more than a personal scale, it must be feminist to some degree. We risk giving away dearly won independence and responsibility when we rely on divine intervention, whether we ask the Father for something or a divine Big Momma. In addition, this is a stereotype that sees the female as good and the male as suspect, if not fairly irrelevant. When, in addition, it becomes disengaged from Nature, as it is in some Goddess groups, it allows us to abuse the environment the same way others do. If being on the Goddess Path means doing personal magic, dressing up like fairies, dancing through the woods and nothing else, it is pure escapism. Patriarchy should love it.
TWPT: Tell me about your academic career and how that has influenced you and the beliefs that you hold.
Have your beliefs ever presented a problem to you within the academic community?
What role do your beliefs play in the classes that you teach at CA. State University at Long Beach?
What kind of impact would you like to have on your students when they have finished with your classes and move on with their lives? What kind of lasting impressions would you like for them to take with them?
Does your community involvement stem from your spirituality or is that just naturally who you are? Tell me about some of the organizations that you work with and why they have received a place in your life.
When was it that writing manifested itself in your life and what kinds of works resulted from this initial manifestation?
Tell me about your first book (or paper) that dealt with spirituality and what motivated you to write it.
Does writing come naturally to you or is it more of a chore than a joy?
WG: I have had a nontraditional academic career. I was a very early college drop out, back in the days when the administration locked females in their dorms at 9 pm every night. I went out the window on a ladder made of sheets and ran off to do Off-Broadway in New York. By the time I returned, I was a divorced single parent with more than a decade of real world experience. I was also very serious about my education when I returned, and was voraciously hungry for mental nourishment. When I experienced what I now recognize as "seethings of the spirit," I would go camping or, if there were no time, hiking in the canyons near home. I didn't yet understand that I was a spiritual person and this met a spiritual hunger. It wasn't until I finished graduate school and began to teach that I was able to acknowledge my reawakened spiritual side. I think my academic training has made me examine truth claims with much more care. I know it has made it more of a challenge for me to suspend disbelief and achieve natural altered states.
Although at times people have threatened to picket my talks, my spiritual beliefs haven't caused serious problems in my career, unlike some of my colleagues. But I've been slow in coming out to my academic peers. First, I've always been uncomfortable with labels, and none of them seemed to fit me perfectly. I still struggle with this. Second, people often jump on labels to dismiss the importance of your work. Hecklers used to target early Second Wave feminists by demanding to know if they were lesbians or not. This was so effective in refocusing the attention of the debate, women began to refuse to answer. I didn't and don't want this to happen with my work. It's ironic. Catholics can study what goes on in Catholicism, but pagans who study paganism are somehow suspect. On a larger scale, many feminist academics are still very opposed to Goddess Spirituality and dismiss it as an escapist waste of time and intellect. Changing these attitudes is an ongoing (and challenging) process.
I am fortunate that I teach classes where I can incorporate my beliefs at various levels. In my Women, Religion and Spirituality class, we look at how a variety of religions, including Goddess Spirituality, have shaped our ideas about gender and the resulting power imbalances. I often have a few pagan students who help broaden the debate. In Ecofeminism, we explore links among women, the sacred and nature, as well as look at issues of environmental justice and how consumption patterns in the USA contribute to environmental devastation. But even my large general education classes are exposed to some aspect of Goddess Spirituality, even though it may not be obvious. My beliefs and life experience are absolutely part of who I am as a teacher. That would be true regardless of my beliefs, and to pretend otherwise, as some academics love to do, is delusional. My hope is that my students leave my classes a bit wiser, but more importantly, able to ask the really significant questions and knowing where and how to begin to look for the answers. Of course, in women's studies, empowerment is an acknowledged goal for all our students.
I feel particularly blessed to be able to make a living as a feminist. I come from a long line of community activists; my great grandparents were temperance workers, and my grandmother and my mother were out there fighting for the causes that were important to them as well. I have been very active in the National Organization for Women, on the board of directors of a local women's shelter and involved in many short term projects for women in the community, such as housing, prenatal care, access to reproductive services, etc. I'm not sure why my activism is always focused on women, perhaps it is my mother's influence, as that is where her energy lay and I have always been surrounded by strong, interesting and interested women. When I began teaching, it felt like I was doing activism full time, and it was getting exhausting. Fortunately, this was about the time that I rediscovered my spirituality, and I found that it gave me energy and fed me. Since then, my activism has included public ritual and performance.
My writing is a kind of activism, although it certainly wasn't always. I can't remember when I first began writing, though I know I was writing short stories by the age of eleven. I've always loved writing. When I dropped out of college, my first stop was Greenwich Village, where I worked as an actress and wrote poetry to read in coffee houses. While I was married, I wrote lyrics for my husband's band. A couple of pieces were recorded, but never did very much. I wrote an historical romance as a lark a few years after my divorce. It was so much fun, I wrote another, and the proceeds from the two helped pay my way through graduate school. Then my life got serious and writing for pleasure (and money) stopped.
There is no money in academic writing, but it is a requirement for an academic career. There is a real hierarchy involved; articles in academic journals count more than chapters in a book, some publishers and journals count much more than others, etc, etc. I had gotten my doctorate and needed a new topic for research and publication when I met my first Dianic Witch. Coincidence? During the time I studied with her coven, her father died and the coven presided over the funeral. It was a perfect opportunity to study how the Craft functioned as a religion in dealing with death. I think this is when I really began to understand it as a spiritual and ethical belief system. I wrote an article with Tanice and it was featured in a journal called Qualitative Sociology. Then there was another coincidence. The editor's young daughter had just done a crayon drawing of a witch flying on her broomstick, and that became the journal's cover, a unique approach for an academic journal. It was one of the first articles of its kind to appear in a major journal.
TWPT: You've spoken about your academic writing, lets take a look at your latest book Daughters of the Goddess. When was it that you decided to begin collecting the material that eventually made up this book?
Did you have some goals in mind that you wanted to achieve as you edited this material into the book?
How did you go about choosing the voices that would be heard via the authors that appear in this book?
The book is divided into two parts, Part 1 is the research and Part 2 is the teachings, tell me about why you used this division.
As you worked through all the authors and their submissions were there threads of similarities shared by all concerned?
How did your own beliefs play a role in the final shape and form of this book?
What kinds of feedback and reactions have you had to the book since it was published?
I hear tell that you play a mean frame drum and are just a tad irreverent, care to tell me a little bit about that side of your personality? <g>
Ultimately isn't it better if your spiritual path can be one of laughter and fun as well as worship and ritual?
Any final thoughts or wisdom you would like to share with our readers before we close this out?
WG: When I first began writing on Goddess Spirituality, I planned on publishing a series of articles and then turning them into a book. That is fairly standard operating procedure in academia, because you can turn out articles faster than a book and you can "mine" your research quickly in order to have enough publications for tenure and promotion. But the anthology, Daughters of the Goddess, grew in an entirely different way. I sent out two proposals to publishers, one for a book woven together from my research papers and another for an anthology of chapters by a variety of American scholars who were doing research in this area. The second proposal was what caught the publisher's eye, especially since I suggested including a few chapters by women who taught Goddess Spirituality and were not academics. The idea in this was to explore different ways of knowing.
When the publisher called me with a contract, I was on sabbatical at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was a dream sabbatical; I was spending my time following Druids through the woods, doing ritual with Witches in stone circles in Scotland and in the mountains in Wales, camping out in the New Forest, and interviewing women who had been instrumental in shaping the British Goddess Movement. As soon as I got the offer, I knew I had to include British scholars and their research as well. Fortunately, I had made some wonderful contacts and immediately asked a few of my new colleagues to participate.
By that time, I had been awarded tenure, so the goal of the book wasn't quite as instrumental as it might have been otherwise. Tenure also allowed me to be comfortable about being a bit more open. Earlier, concerns had been raised in our respective departments when Tanice and I published that we had played "spin the Goddess" in a Jacuzzi with naked lesbian Witches as part of a Beltane ritual. With Daughters.., I wanted to demonstrate how wide-spread Goddess Spirituality is, how it meets spiritual needs and the challenge it offers to patriarchal structures. I know pagans don't like the word "religion," but as a sociologist I would argue that Goddess Spirituality functions like a religion does in creating community and providing a framework of meaning for significant life events, and teaching us our relationship to the rest of the universe, only with much more flexibility and less dogma and hierarchy. I hoped the book would help nonpagans understand that it is as legitimate as any other spiritual tradition. And I hoped that feminists who dismiss Goddess Spirituality, would see its potential for radical social change.
I know almost all the chapter authors, some through professional work, some are personal friends. Almost all of them practice or have practiced some form of Goddess Spirituality. I posted a call for chapters on a list serve and contacted everyone I knew who was doing this kind of research. I would have liked to have more chapters than I had, but the pool of academic scholars who study this particular aspect of the phenomenon and use the kind of rigorous methodology I wanted is still fairly small. I love the fact that so many pagan graduate students are doing this work. I expect a wonderful proliferation of scholarly publications in the very near future from all different academic disciplines.
I divided the book into two sections called research and teachings. This was very important to me because, even though some of the researchers also teach Goddess Spirituality, their academic training allows them to explore it differently than the teachers who are not academics. It is almost like language. You may be bilingual, but there are some words and concepts that derive from your culture and simply don't translate easily. I also intended the book for classroom use, and I wanted to stimulate a discussion about different ways of knowing and understanding. The section on teachings represented in part the explosion of women's art that coincided with the birth of the Goddess Movement. I selected the three teacher/practitioners because 1) they all stress experiential, bodily knowing yet teach different aspects of Goddess Spirituality, 2) among them, they have influenced literally thousands of women, 3) they are all amazing artists, they both write and do, and 4) the three women are personal friends of mine.
I had originally planned to arrange the chapters around four themes: women's bodies, women's bonds, women's history and women's power. But projects take on a life of their own. Once the chapters came in, it was clear that the patterns weaving through the writings were healing, identity and empowerment, not the ones I had selected. I threw out the index cards I'd been using to organize my thoughts and started all over again. The new themes became the subtitle of the book. It was really rather wonderful, because it forced me to open up and listen carefully to the voices of the other authors.
One of the challenges of academic publishing (besides the lack of money) is the lack of publicity. The publishers typically include every book in a catalog of all their publications that goes out to other academics once a year. They don't have the kind of budget that publishers in the trade or commercial press do. So they usually don't advertise individual books and they print in limited numbers, which is also why they are expensive. They don't even print the cover in full color, a disappointment to me, as the painting that was used was originally done in full glorious color by my sister, Gay Riseborough. Because of these constraints, Daughters of the Goddess hasn't gotten the amount of publicity I would have liked, but I understood that it wouldn't going in. That means there hasn't been a tremendous amount of feedback about the book. Most of what I've gotten has been favorable, although some academics believe I'm not critical enough, that the book is too positive and ignores a dark underbelly.
On the other hand, some pagans don't understand why I don't self-reveal more and why I take an analytical stance in the first place. But just today I received an e-mail from a man I met once at a university event, who wrote, "I particularly like the ecumenical manner in which you use Gaian in your essay in Daughters of the Goddess, which I'm re-reading for the second time this week. It's a wonderful book." As I also received your question about feedback to the book today, I'll consider that another one of those lovely coincidences.
When I told my sister about this interview, she warned me to let my real self show through. According to her, sometimes I get so serious and academic that its hard to recognize me. (Some of my academic colleagues, on the other hand, would probably say that sometimes I'm not serious or deep enough!) My sister said I should talk about the years before I got a Ph.D. when I was a puppeteer, a diamond courier, an Off-Broadway actress, a folk singer, a Tarot reader, a romance novelist and a bartender. All true. I was even a Beat poet for a while in Greenwich Village, but I looked so young they wouldn't let me read my own poetry in public.
When I started back to school, I was a single parent with only one quarter of college to my credit. I really had to settle down and channel all this creative energy into my studies. I felt like I had to ignore the creative, playful, irreverent parts of my personality. I wasn't totally successful in this, I might add, but I was fairly narrowly focused for many years. One of the wonderful things about my life today is that I feel I am an integrated whole; my choice of research topic has helped revive those denied aspects of myself. I am a serious scholar and an artist. I publish my research and present at academic meetings, and I write poetry, compose music and am a founding member of a women's frame drum performance group called Lipushau that uses rhythm, spoken word, music and movement to create a link between the mythic past and the mythic present. How blessed can one woman be?
TWPT: Thanks so much for talking to us Wendy and I wish you the greatest of success with both your academic and your writing career. Blessings to you.