Goddesses in Myth and Cultural Memory
- ISBN: 9780567697394
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: May 2021
Emilie Kutash’s Goddesses in Myth and Cultural Memory is an intellectual history of conceptions of the female divine in Western Europe, strongly influenced by the author’s reservations about the second-wave feminist Goddess and feminist spirituality movements of the present. The author sees the Goddess spirituality movement as using gender essentialist tropes derived from ancient literary sources with little understanding of the cultures from which they came, the circumstances of their composition, or the factors that drove their development. She concludes by stating that “remedying the injustices visited upon women in the twenty-first century lies in social action, not ancient mythology re-invented. … to seek social justice, we must focus on reality” (195).
Kutash explores the continuing use of symbols of goddesses in European-centred cultures from archaic Greece to the present. She argues that these symbols reinforce gender essentialism and binary thinking in the present-day feminist spirituality movements. The binary opposition of feminine and masculine as well as the assignment of the material world of change and impermanence to the female and the unchanging world of spirit and form to the male is an ancient binary that has proceeded through ‘cultural memory’ over 2,500 years.
Kutash’ approach, looking backward critically beginning with the feminist spirituality movement of the present day, does not make this a bad intellectual history. On the contrary, she deftly handles a thorough discussion of sources of the Western tradition in archaic Greece, the Levant, and Greco-Roman Platonist philosophers. Her discussion of the development of ideas of female divinity through a literature shaped by the Hellenization and unification of a pan-Greek culture in Hesiod, Homer, and particularly the Homeric Hymns, cementing a singular Olympian pantheon across the Greek world, is well done. The later developments in Platonism (Iambichus, Plotinus, and the influence from the Chaldean Oracles) which reduced the goddesses from persons to personifications and then to symbols for dialectical interactions between Being and Becoming, Spirit and Matter, as mythology was reframed as philosophy, are also quite well developed.
Kutash begins by making the important point that the principal archaic Greek sources—Hesiod and Homer —are literature reworking myth and interpreting ritual into the Olympian framework of a single unified pantheon. They are explicitly literary, not literal, and not directly based on worship practices. And the images of goddesses in these works are reworked from regional myth and practice to fit into the Olympian story, a narrative at the center of pan-Hellenic literature. In the same light the classical Greek plays, the Orphic and Homeric Hymns, and the Chaldean Oracles of the early Roman period are shaped by culture and are sophisticated literary products reflecting on religious themes.
The author’s contextualization of the composition of these key works, initially in the imposition of an Athens-centred singular Hellenism, and then the reinterpretations of Platonism under the intense pressure of Christianity in the later Roman Empire is also both thorough and illuminating. Platonism developed philosophical goddess triads to connect the dualisms of Being and Becoming / the One and the Many in a dialectic to enable change, growth and development beyond the static opposition. It seems to all come out of the dualism and monotheism prevalent in the West.
Kutash’s critical presentism is shown occasionally throughout but most clearly in the two digressive chapters on the Shakhina and Asherah as hypothetical Hebrew Great Goddess figures and as she deals with the Isis cultus of the later Roman Empire. These are tangential to the main line of her argument for the most part, except insofar as they are significant elements in the syncretic contemporary feminist spirituality movement.
Kutash’ polemical stance regarding the present-day feminist spirituality movement is weaker when we examine that movement and its evolution in detail. There are gods of nature that are widely acknowledged in the movement—the Horned God of the Animals, called variously Herne or Cernunnos, and the Greek god Pan, god of the untamed wilderness. Additionally, the divine feminine’s punishing and dangerous aspects are by no means glossed over and prettified. The Morrigan, Irish goddess of war; Kali/Durga; Hekate,goddess of cursing; and Artemis,goddess of female autonomy, are all venerated in the movement.
Kutash is reacting against second-wave feminist essentialism, less prominent in the current iterations of the feminist spirituality movement. What she has to say about archaic Greek literature and the Platonist philosophers is well developed and well-supported. Her sections on early modern and modern literature, illustrating the persistence of cultural memories of goddesses, are less deftly developed. It is a thoughtful and valuable work of scholarship and the issues she raises around cultural memory and the uses we make of images drawn from the past are important.
Samuel Wagar is founding dean of Edmonton Wiccan Seminary and high priest of Sacred Oak Temple in Edmonton.Samuel WagarDate Of Review:April 1, 2022