From +quot;New York+quot; Magazine, June 4, 1990. (Transscriber note- All expurgations are
From "New York" Magazine, June 4, 1990.
(Transscriber note- All expurgations are from the original in the magazine.
For those who don't know, "New York" magazine [not to be confused with the
"New Yorker"] is a biweekly journal for the New York metropolitan area, which
includes SE Connecticut and Northern New Jersey. Its readers are affluent
[read that- Yuppie], and look to the magazine for popular topics for
conversation as well as news on entertainment and nightlife.
The article is generally well-spoken, if somewhat flippant. The author's
attitude, frankly, sucks (until he, strangely enough, changes his tone towards
the end). Realise that lots of people who read New York Magazine wouldn't get
involved in anything unless it was "fashionable". May the Goddess deliver us
(Feminists and Witches create a new religion from ancient myths and magic.)
by Rusty Unger
In the Morristown, New Jersey, Unitarian Fellowship Center, in an attic
room lit by candlelight, thirteen women have assembled in a circle to
celebrate the full moon. That moon is particularly luminous tonight against
the rich, deep winter sky, its platinum glow visible from the dormer windows.
Among those gathered are a sculptor, a biologist, a professor, and a computer-
systems analyst, ranging in age from 17 to 68. On the large round mirror on
the floor in the center of the circle are a mass of flickering candles and
pieces of jade, coral, pumice, and lava. There is a huge conch shell filled
with water, a small bronze statue of a fertility goddess, and a long plastic
tropical flower. The shell is passed around, each woman annointing the
forehead of the person to her left: "I, Donna, bless thee, Tiffany. Thou art
The women begin to chant and tap tambourines and shake feathered rattles,
their voices occasionally breaking off from song to trill and hum their own
private arias to the glory of the Goddess, the divine female principle that
represents for them the mysterious and sacred and sacred procreative of women
inherent in the Earth and its cycles of birth and rebirth. You can almost
hear Helen Reddy: "I am woman- hear me roar."
Next, the plastic flower, a ceremonial "talking stick," circulates.
Whoever holds it is free to speak. But at least one stunned woman- a visitor
and a first-timer- is at a loss for words.
The ceremony is being led by the computer analyst, a well-preserved
grandmother with a striking resemblance to Shirley Temple Black. She is
wearing a grass skirt with a cowrie necklace with the shells "turned out, like
vulvas." In keeping with the Hawaiian motif she has chosen, her self-styled
ritual involves a series of hula dances and a taped selection of Hawaiian
songs. After the recitation of an ode to the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano,
the women are urged to rise and dance the hula on their own.
Donna Wilshire, a lithe, middle-aged writer and professional performer of
Goddess myths ("collages of song, dance, and dramatized verse and history"),
watches the performance with her mouth half-open. Since the mid-seventies,
Wilshire has been a devotee of feminist spirituality and an avid prosteletyzer
for the movement. She fears that tonight's Pagan pastiche could be enough to
convince a guest that Goddess worship is, well, a little off-the-wall.
By some estimates, more than 100,000 people across the United States
worship the Goddess. Notices of their moon circles are pinned to bulletin
boards in suburban supermarkets and near the checkout counters of health-food
stores. Recently, fliers announcing Goddess meetings have been taped to the
mirrors of the women's rest rooms at Merrill Lynch and at a nurse's station in
New York Hospital.
While adopting a religion based on the pagan worship of nature may seem
extreme, some of the practices have caught on. "You wouldn't believe the
number of cars and drivers sitting out on East 9th Street while some lady in a
Chanel suit was inside buying tarot cards or a copy of Robert Graves' "The
White Goddess," says Dee Kissinger, a fortune teller who used to work at
Enchantments, a Goddess store in the East Village.
Many of those who dabble become desciples. Since the rebirth of feminism
in the seventies and amid growing disenchantment with organized religion,
thousands of Americans have moved- to borrow the title of a book by
philosopher Mary Daly- beyond God the father.
For some, like Donna Wilshire, goddess worship is the spiritual aspect of
feminism. Viewing themselves as an oppressed class, these women have rejected
the patriarchal, hierarchal tenets of the Judaeo-Christian ethic. (Buddhism
is also on their hit list.) Their spiritual quest reaches all the way back to
the Stone Age worship of fertility goddesses, to shamanism and witchcraft,
where they find strong, holy images of women to revere. This "feminist
theology" or "feminist spirituality" celebrates a composite archetype: part
Neolithic fertility symbol, part Hera, part woman warrior.
Along the same lines, many worshippers see the Goddess as Mother Nature,
and they follow a pantheistic principle that calls for living in harmony with
the Earth and its seasons. Many men as well as women who are involved in the
anti-nuclear movement, ecological concerns, or animal rights regard their
activities as an outgrowth of this reverence for the Earth Goddess.
But there is another branch of Goddess worship, which has evolved from an
older, occult tradition independent of the women's movement. The men and
women in this group are followers of "the Craft," or Wicca- which is the old
English word for "witch." The good witches and wizards of wicca- who are in
no way related to satanism, Christianity's dark opposite- believe that theirs
is "the old religion" of goddesses like the Roman diety Diana, practiced
throughout Europe before the arrival of Christianity.
Despite these nuances, the two groups who worship the Goddess share a
basic worldview. As expressed in the movement's extensive literature,
prehistory is "her-story," a matriarchal golden age dreamily similar to
Woodstock- full of peace, love, organic meals, be-ins, and the kind communal
ecstasy one might have experienced at the feet of janis Joplin (though the
physical model here is more like Mama Cass).
Some give the Goddess political and social veils, but underneath them,
she is the Great Mother. Worshipping her- through dance and study, art and
herbal medicine, meditation and witchcraft- has resulted in a balanced natural
way of life for many women and quite a few men as well.
In a videotape made at a summer-solstice camp in the Sierra, Nevadas,
Charlotte Kelley, once married to a minister and now the director of the
Women's Alliance in Oakland, California, tells how embracing a feminine diety
validated her sense of self. "I took assertiveness training," she says, "but
there was no way in which I was embodying the power of my own womanhood."
Church rituals had no meaning for her: "I didn't have any place for the beauty
of my own soul."
In a documentary about the movement, dashiki-clad author and teacher
Luisah Teish recalls that as a child, "the more I listened to to what they had
to say about the great bearded white man in the sky, the more I realized he
was nobody I could talk to. You couldn't say nothing to the dude. He didn't
Jean Shinoda Bolen, a psychiatrist and author of "Goddesses in
Everywoman, says she sees the Goddess not as a figurehead but as a "life
force, as affilliation, as that which links us all at a deep level to be one
with each other and one with nature, and in that, we are all connected with
Gaia, or Mother Earth."
This grass-roots religious movement is a subculture with its own
politics, morality, aesthetics, and language. Its inhabitants have redesigned
the tarot deck, the calendar, astrology, medicine, ancient history, and the
dictionary. (It's feminist thealogy, not theo-," says carol Bulzone, the
owner of Enchantments, correcting a customer.) Words like "wimmin," "womon,"
and "womyn" are ubiquitous. Such elements have trickled into the mainstream,
enough to provoke riotous laughter from audiences when satirized in Off
Broadway's "Kathy and Mo Show." And to be sure, some of the activity
associated with Goddess worship is as wack as anything patriarchal societies
There is, or example, a book that invites the readers to find their
"goddess type." Are you Athena, Aphrodite, Hera, or Demeter? (This is even
more fun than being a Leo.)
In the summer solstice-camp video, a woman intones, "We are the teachers
of the New Dawn. We are the Ones." Other participants, wearing horned
headdresses, feathered masks, and wispy gowns, dance through the forest,
grunting and gesticulating, keening and moaning.
If that doesn't seem extreme, then how about one of the most influential
books on Goddess spirituality, Starhawk's "The Spiral Dance, which has
instructions for casting a "Spell to Be Friends With Your Womb":"Light a RED
CANDLE,. Face South. With the third finger of your left hand, rub a few
drops of your menstrual blood on the candle..."
But the Morristown full-moon circle is considerably more moderate. This
lunar luau is a warm support group, effusive in its praise for the swivel-
hipped computer analyst. Still, a nervous Donna Wilshire whispers loudly to
her guest, "This isn't typical!"
Actually, there doesn't seem to be a typical feminist spiritual group in
the New York area. Moonfire, perhaps the most famous Manhattan group, is not
meeting now because its leader, Amethyst, is "feeling burned-out." Goddess
worship in the city is a diverse, do-it-yourself proposition that borrows
freely from a variety of pagan traditions.
Margot Adler, a Central Park West witch who is correspondent for National
Public radio and author of "Drawing Down the Moon," the definitive work on
paganism in the U.S., identifies two streams of the Goddess movement: "There's
the feminist stream and a slightly different one, the neo-pagan Wiccan
movement. They have different histories, really, which doesn't mean some
people don't move back and forth between them."
Alder, 44, the granddaughter of the psychiatrist Alfred Adler, lives with
her non-pagan husband in a comfortable, rambling apartment filled with books
and plants. With her dark good looks, earthy warmth, and sophisticated
intelligence, she makes being a witch seem as reasonable as joining Channel
13. [Transscriber note- New York's Public TV station]
Adler says she knows of about twenty good-witch covens in Manhattan (with
more than 200 members altogether). "As far as Goddess-spirituality groups,
there are fewer in New York than in a lot of other places."
Within the two streams og Goddess worship- the feminist and the Wiccan-
are further distinctions. Some Wiccan covens are open to visitors, some
closed. Some are heterosexual, some are feminist, others are lesbian-
separatist. Some followers worship in the nude.
Feminist Goddess groups, or circles, vary, too- with those in the Dianic
tradition emphasizing the Greek-goddess archetypes in their rituals and others
focusing on herbal healing. the latter call themselves Green Witches or Wise
Women. Still others concentrate on Native American teachings and dieties.
Naturally, there is some friction among the groups. Certain feminist
witches claim that the Craft is "wimmin's religion" and should exclude men, a
prospect that upsets traditional witches, who cherish the Wiccan ideal of a
"I do get upset and unhappy when people say Wicca should be exclusively
female," says a male witch known in the Manhattan Wiccan community as Black
Lotus. "There was a three-day Goddess festival at the New York Open Center
[in SoHo] last year that allowed men in only at night. Assuming the Goddess
is for women only is silly."
Christopher Hatton, another male witch, says, "My attitude toward the
very small group that wants to exclude men is the same as it would be toward
men who want to exclude women from religion. I have a very low opinion of
Beyond the sexist strife, some East Coast worshippers have problems with
the magical Native American branch of the movement. "The shamanistic
tradition isn't the Goddess movement," says one New Jersey woman. "Some women
are very adamant about not participating in Native American rituals, and now
the Native American followers are pissed off. But the medicine wheel is not
our symbol. Herbal healing is our tradition as North American witches." (She
admits, however, that she an her friends "have done sweat lodges.")
Part of the feminist stream, the New Jersey group was formed around
Barbara G. Walker, author of "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,"
and seven other scholarly works on the Goddess published by Harper & Row.
Women who first met at one of Walker's book-signings at a local store six
years ago make up the core of the full-moon circle and another "intellectual
support group," explains Donna Wilshire, one of the most enthusiastic members.
Wilshire is an intense, talkative mother of two grown children, with a
dancer's body and a mass of curly brown hair framing her heart-shaped face.
Her husband of 30 years, Bruce Wilshire, is a professor of philosophy at
Rutgers who, she says, "is into shaman journeys." He says that in his
marriage to Donna he has had three wives. "The first cooked for me. The
second cried a lot. The third is a goddess."
Donna Wilshire grew up in a Catholic boarding home, struggled to become
an actress, then spent a decade being "the perfect wife, garnishing every dish
with a palette of colors." When she realized in the late sixties that her
husband "didn't care about any of that," Wilshire became depressed.
Eventually, "he knew something was wrong and brought home books by Betty
Friedan and Merlin Stone." Stone's "When God was a Woman" is a seminal volume
for many. Published in 1976, it attempts to document the Goddess cults of
Stone Age matriarchal societies in the Near and Middle East and their
destruction by patriarchal, Indo-European bad guys.
"This is the best time of my life," Wilshire says. "I'm confidant. I'm
performing sacred work that combines all the things the world keeps separate.
I can use my whole self because that's what the Goddess is: whole."
The lives of Donna Wilshire's friends Nancy Blair and Lynn Peters-
slender, attractive sculptors in their thirties- also revolve around the
Goddess. The two run Star River Productions, a New Brunswick, New Jersey,
company that makes "museum quality" Goddess statues and jewelry.
Blair, a petite brunette, is passionate about her beliefs. "We used to
do full-moon rituals with women we knew from the local co-op and through our
business, gathering together to raise energy," she says. "But we've taken it
more private. Groups can drain you. In the morning, we arrive at our studio,
light candles, maybe write affirmations about our growth and pray to the Great
Goddess to allow divine energy."
As an art student in 1984, Blair saw the Venus of Willendorf, a famous
archaeological relic and one of the oldest sculptures of a human form yet
uncovered, for the first time. "All art-history courses begin with her, but
they describe her as just another fertility goddess," Blair says. "Connecting
with the Goddess, I got the most incredible feeling right up my spine. It
really felt like coming home."
Peters, who is fair-skinned, with dark hair piled atop her head, says, "I
feel like Ceres [the Roman goddess of agriculture] some days, or else more
like Lilith [a Talmudic demon], or this day I can feel like Willendorf, an
Earth Mother. They're all aspects of the One, so I can really flow with who I
am that day."
Four years ago, with $200 seed money, the artists decided to start a
business that would "make images of the divine female available to other
women," says Blair. "Last year, we grossed more than $100,000. Now we even
have an 800 number." (Feminist spiritual hunger is apparently almost
insatiable: A Saugerites, New York, company ships bite-sized chocolate
Willendorf goddesses around the world for $9 a dozen, plus postage.)
Blair and Peters consider themselves part of the Wise Woman, herbal-
healing tradition in which female intuition is the guiding force. Manhattan
leading Green Witch is Robin Bennett. Pale, wiry, and articulate, Bennett,
32, teaches an herbal-healing course and hold monthly open gatherings of women
in her home to celebrate the new moon. The tiny kitchen in her small high-
rise apartment near Union Square is stocked with jars of every imaginable
herb. Bennett began studying them at nineteen to find relief from periodontal
disease. ("I have perfect trust that my mouth needed to do this for me," she
I was working with healing already on an intangible level," Bennett says,
"emotional, spiritual, psychological kinds of healing with one of the human
potential groups: Let's Go & Live. My picture of what spirituality was was
totally tied up in what organized religion was, and it didn't speak to me.
"When I met Susun Weed in 1985, the person mot behind the reclaiming the
Wise Woman tradition around the world, it changed my whole relationship with
spirituality and healing, bringing it more onto the earth. Susun helped me
put a name to all the things I was doing and to learn there was this whole
history of traditional women working this way. To me, the wise woman behind
it all is the Earth Goddess."
Susun Weed, the author of "Healing Wise," runs the Wise Woman Center- a
"safe space for deep female healing...nourished by woman-only space/time,"
according to its pamphlet- in Woodstock, New York. In her forties, Weed looks
like a rock superstar- tall and willowy with long, flowing auburn hair, fair,
unlined skin, and a dazzling smile. At a workshop called, "The Spirit and
Practice of the Wise Woman Tradition," held at the New York Open Center last
October, she wore an elegant turquoise silk outfit with matching bandana and
exotic jewelry. Twenty women of all ages sat in the familiar circle among
candles, baskets overflowing with leafy branches, a black cauldron, and a
rubber snake in the spiral shape that symbolizes the Goddess.
The day began with "nourishing" chants to the Sacred Corn Mother. Weed's
morning lecture on the failings of both scientific and alternative medicine
displayed her encyclopedic knowledge of herbs. Participants then used Weed's
beaded, witch-hazel-wood talking stick to explain why they were there.
Several in the "healing professions" felt disaffected with the medical
establishment. A few had cured themselves of painful physical "female"
problems. One had come because she was interested in "owning myself since the
marriage ended." A fortyish woman- in tears "because [here] I'm allowed to
speak"- was attending because "I really love trees." A video producer said,
"If we respect ourselves, the we can respect our environment, the rain
forest. I know plants have tremendous power." Two young nannies on their day
off seemed to be there by accident.
"A lot of women who come into the women's spirituality movement," says
Margot Adler, "come into it for reasons that are very personal. They feel
like s--- (sic), they hate their bodies, they hate themselves. They come come
into these groups which basically say to you, 'You're the Goddess, you're
wonderful.' And that's really a personally important experience for a certain
period of time. But then comes the question of where do you go from there?
Because then they become very political."
Attunement to nature and to one's own inner wisdom, the idea that "every
woman is an extension of the Earth mother," as Weed proclaims, is an
attractive idea to harried, fragmented urbanites, especially at a time when
the death of nature is being prophesied.
Some of the events at Weed's Woodstock center are earthy, indeed. At
last year's "Blood of the Ancients" retreat, held over Labor Day weekend, "we
re-created the sacred moon lodge, or menstrual hut," recalls Weed, "and
reawakened the old blood mysteries of woman's creativity- pregnancy, birth,
lactation, menstruation, and menopause. We reclaimed the blood of peace,
thereby bringing an end to war." Living conditions at the center are said to
be less than idyllic. It "is really just a shack on a former stone quarry,"
says one participant, "but there's a beautiful stream and waterfall- you
should have seen us, about twenty women all nude at the waterfall."
The plumbing is problematical. "You can't flush the indoor toilet often
because it will overflow and there's just one portable toilet outside, so
women have to squat on the ground," she says. "After a few days, they stop
wearing underpants. There are lots of goats, so you're walking in human and
goat s--- (sic) all the time. For dinner, it's great- Susun just goes out and
picks all sorts of greens and flowers for a big salad."
Such mellow weekend flashbacks to Woodstock '69 are hardly typical of the
classic Wiccan covens. "We're more oriented to the balance than just the
Goddess," explains Judy Harrow. A plump brunette who is a health worker and
sometime radio producer, Harrow is the high priestess of a Gardnarian coven
based in her narrow, homey apartment in Washington Heights. (The Gardnarians
are descended from a coven founded in Britain by Gerald Gardner in the early
Harrow has lived with the large, bearded man in the photographs on her
living-room wall for seventeen years. He and the others in the photographs
are all middle-aged, jolly- and nude. Gardnerians almost always worship "sky
In her sot voice, Harrow says she "resents the term 'feminist theology'
because 'feminist' is often equated with 'separatist.' There are plenty of us
feminists who aren't separatists. You don't have to disrespect men in order
to respect women. Separatists are part of the picture, though. Certainly a
lot of the art and writing comes out of those groups."
Harrow traces her involvement with witchcraft to being "a forest-
oriented, nature-oriented sort of person, more than you'd expect from someone
who grew up in the city. And when our consciousness began to raise about
ecology, that also became important to me. I heard from friends that there
were people who made a religion out of this."
Wicca has given Harrow "a framework. It's become the focus of my life,
which was pretty scattered and unfocused." As a high priestess, Harrow says,
"I got much more confident and assertive from the experience of being a model
for other people, teaching and mentoring." She notes that a support group of
coven leaders meets once a month. "It's a very little pond, okay?" she says.
"But I'm a descent-sized fish."
There are seven men and women in Harrow's coven: an X-ray technician, a
housewife, a student, a secretary, a copy editor, a computer technician, and a
computer consultant. During a typical meeting, Harrow says, they will "cast
the circle- creating a focus and sense of differentness- and then work on a
particular theme. The second half of the meeting will be whatever anybody
wants to work on- magic or personal issues."
To work magic, Harrow explains, "we focus our will, our attitude, our
personal energy, on our goals- through visualization, through chanting,
affirmations, lots of different techniques. If someone is ill and wants to
get better or wants some other changes in their life, wants to change jobs or
have a new relationship, whatever. It's a way of making transference of
consciousness. I've seen results again and again: people getting jobs,
getting better from illnesses, against the odds. For me, a lot of the magic
is completely explainable in terms of psychology, okay? That's a big heresy,
but it' the truth."
As for black magic, "I'm sure it goes on," Harrow concedes, "but it's a
whole other world." Harrow's group belongs to the Covenant of the Goddess, a
federation of covens incorporated as a legally recognized church. "In every
way, [Wicca] is deepening and growing as a religion and as a culture," she
says. "There's more interaction because of the development of weekend
gatherings that allow groups to share techniques more than before."
Harrow would like to see "more communication between the academic-
feminist-theology community and us. Some of the academic stuff is pretty
disconnected with what's going on, and some of what's really going on is
pretty short-sighted because there's a philosophical and historical
Margot Adler agrees that the split between Wicca and the Goddess-
spirituality movement is a problem. "Most of the Goddess-oriented groups,
particularly the lesbian-feminist ones, [are] much more open [than covens] on
one level, but they also don't care about the society at large, or certainly
the male society." Yet Adler believes that "the whole separatist movement is
lessening. Even lesbians are working with men more."
Men are drawn to Goddess worship for many of the same reasons women are.
Black Lotus says that as a child, he was "interested in the idea of
polytheism, relating to Godhead as just not exclusively male or one particular
image. In Wicca, we're used to relating to God the Father and also God the
Mother, God the Child and God the Lover, God the Servant and God the Master.
This very much enriches one's view, to see divinity in all things."
Christopher Hatton's "pagan awareness" began, he says, "when I was reading the
old myths and I encountered the concept of Mother Earth. By that, i mean the
biosphere- it felt that this should be treated as a goddess."
Since becoming involved with Wicca in 1971, Margot Adler has seen "the
odd acceptance of it. It's permeated mass culture to a certain extent." She
points to a new $45 coffee-table tome on witchcraft and five different related
volumes she's been sent in just the past month. "Hundreds of pagan magazines
are flourishing," she notes. "Some of these newsletters going for years have
500 [subscribers]. Some of them also have 10,000."
Adler sees further evidence of her religion's growth: "There are all
these straight museums having Goddess exhibitions. There was a Goddess
festival at the New York Open Center in March of 1989 with 200 people. That
was where Olympia Dukakis 'came out'" (When she announced her affiliation,
Dukakis says, "I felt very vulnerable and tentative sharing with people my own
yearnings." Dukakis became involved with Goddess worship when she acted in
"The Trojan Women" in 1982. Her character, she says, "rejects the god of Troy
and goes back to a more ancient time." Now Dukakis develops improvisational
theater pieces based on Goddess myths. Her most recent is called "Voices of
Despite its growth, the future of Goddess spirituality is uncertain. "Is
it going to take directions that are really going to be exciting and
interesting?" asks Adler. "I think that's still really up for grabs." At a
festival held in the Berkshires last fall, she says, "they wanted to create a
new women's synthesis, [and] create some kind of new alliance calling on the
pagans, the Goddess people, the environmental people. I don't know if that
meant it wasn't time yet or whether they just f--ed (sic) up."
Serinity Young, an adjunct professor of religion at Hunter College, says
.that there is a great deal of "cross-fertilization going on between orthodox
religions and the Goddess movement. Reformists within the church and the
synagogue visit Goddess groups and take the rituals back with them." Young
believe that, "if the movement can keep its political focus, it will last. If
it just becomes about sitting around in the woods and feeling good, it won't."
In New York today, the Goddess movement lacks cohesion- and that may be
its most appealing attribute. There is room for the most individualized
styles of worship, whether enacting or sculpting powerful feminine images,
communing with herbs, or casting spells for success. What can be bad about a
belief system that includes women and joy? Celebrating nature's mysteries and
women's connection to them clearly feels right to many.
Perhaps only those who are particularly wounded or angry will respond to
the more strident and excessive elements on the movement. And sophisticates
would probably wince when Robin Bennett tell her New Moon circle to "go with
the flow." But the low, modern coffee table in the young Green Witch's simple
downtown apartment makes a fairly descent altar. And to the assembled
faithful, the guided meditation she leads is as much of a religious rite as
Sunday mornings at St. Pat's are to others.
The ages of the ten women- early twenties to early forties- are as
diverse as their vocations, which include nurse, photographer, young mother
and writer. They are asked to picture a spiral staircase with a cave at the
bottom. The cave is inhabited by their Wise Woman, who has a message for
them. The women focus on what they want to get rid of as the moon cycle ends
and what new seeds they want to plant in the coming one.
With a feather, each woman wafts the smoke from the smudge pot- a rich
blend of cedar, sage, and mugwort- over the body of the person next to her
sending "supportive wishes." Then everyone drinks herbal tea and, holding the
talking stick, says what's on her mind.
Rituals like these- part seder and part consciousness-raising group- may
strike some outsiders as silly or strange. But the fact is that these
disparate women- who want to connect with something more eternal than "L.A.
Law"- are all immensely likable and intelligent. And it's just possible that
with the tea, the chants, the good wishes, and the Goddess statue, they'll
have a pretty good month.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank