Oh, Godess: Exploring the concept of the divine feminine

The divine inspiration in Leilani Birely’s life is definitely present, but she’s pretty sure of one thing – it isn’t an old man with a long white beard.

In fact, the spiritual presence in her life isn’t a man at all.

Birely is the priestess of the Daughters of the Goddess Temple, a group of women who meet regularly to honor “She of Infinite Names” – or simply the Goddess.

The 40 to 50 women who regularly attend the temple’s gatherings acknowledge goddesses such as Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and creation; Isis, the powerful Egyptian goddess of magic and motherhood; Diana, or Artemis, the Roman and Greek protector of women; the Buddhist mother figure Kuan Yin; and Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and rebirth.

“Daughters of the Goddess is unique in that it invokes multicultural goddesses,” says Birely (pronounced BYER-lee).

The concept of goddess reverence – or the divine feminine – was introduced to pop culture last year with Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (Doubleday, $24.95), which raised the possibility that Mary Magdalene was a spiritual heroine and that pagan traditions – which honored feminine as well as masculine divinity – were inextricably linked with Catholic traditions.

But for those, such as Birely, whose spirituality encompasses the assemblage of feminine deities from cultures around the world, the practice of her faith is no fiction.

Birely was raised Catholic, but she felt the faith had too much emphasis on masculine energies – the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. While she loved Catholic rituals, she simply didn’t connect to the church as a whole. After she had her two daughters, Birely says she became involved in the La Leche League, an organization that encourages women to breast feed.

“I started helping women reclaim their bodies,” Birely says. “It seemed sacred, that we have everything we need to feed our babies. I did feel a yearning connected to sisterhood and community, and I was looking more for that than I was looking for a religion.”

In 1994, Birely took a class at the New College in San Francisco on female shamanism, which explored healing by women through connections to ancient goddess traditions.

“It totally blew my whole world open,” Birely says. “Once I started taking classes, I knew I wanted to lead other women to this. This was so huge and so important – I want every women, child and man know that the goddess exists.”

Women’s prehistory

Marla Lowenthal, who teaches classes on women and culture, public relations and acting at Menlo College in Atherton, has been holding an event honoring goddesses each spring for the past six years.

The event, scheduled for March 23, is an acknowledgement of multicultural goddesses.

Lowenthal does a slide presentation giving a who’s who of goddesses from around the world, followed by Laura Strom of Half Moon Bay leading a ceremony. The evening finishes with a drum circle.

“I look at it as a women’s prehistory event,” Lowenthal says. “Once you get into the word `history’ you get into ‘his story.’ “

She says culture – which she defines as the time when humans started using language and creating art with pottery and cave-drawing – began about 35,000 years ago. History, on the other hand, generally begins about 6,000 years ago, with the ancient Greeks and the Jewish tradition.

“It’s a very limited time period,” she says.

Some of the most important artifacts from the “prehistory” period suggest the importance of femininity, such as the iconic Stone Age statue Venus of Willendorf, estimated to be 30,000 years old, a small, plump statue with a prominent belly and breasts, both of which are associated with traditionally female virtues of fertility and sexuality. “There are thousands of those (figures),” Lowenthal says.

She says modern perceptions of Greek and Roman religious cultures are shaded by the fact that most storytellers were men. Hestia, for example, the Greek goddess of the home and hearth, is considered by many to be a minor deity. “Even though she was worshipped daily in every home, there are no stories about her,” Lowenthal says.

Rather, mythology is filled with stories of wars and sexual conquests, a result of the fact that men were the storytellers. “If you’ve got control of the production of stories, you only tell the stories you’re interested in,” she says.

The ecology movement of the 1960s and ’70s was critical in a re-emerging interest in goddess culture, Lowenthal explains. “Ecology uses the term `Gaia’ and the `Mother Earth.’ “

Lowenthal, despite her years studying goddess culture, says she herself is not a believer.

“I use the goddess as a metaphor,” she says. “I don’t worship anything. I’m too much of a cynic.”

Contemporary goddess reverence

For Birely, her connection to the concept of the goddess isn’t a rejection of the more traditional monotheistic God.

“It’s not that I’m looking for something other than the masculine,” she says. “However, I do feel that as women it’s important for us to be intimately in touch with our roots and our heritage and our past, and the goddess is part of that.

And I do feel like the goddess in all her forms provides archetypes for us as women to embrace and grow and transform.” She simply never found goddesses of birth and creation, goddesses who protect women, or goddesses who destroy in order to re-create in monotheistic religions, she says.

However, her faith has nothing to do with Satanism, she stresses. She uses the example of the Hindu goddess Kali, who is seen by many of her Western devotees as a powerful, feminist goddess.

“Some of the goddesses – like Kali, with sharp teeth and her axe in her hand – she’s about serious transformation. If you’re willy-nilly in your life, she cuts the cords and sets you loose.

“It has nothing to do with the devil, but (some goddesses) deal with the deeper, darker emotions.”

Kali, it should be noted, is not solely a goddess of destruction. While her Western female admirers emphasize her fierceness, her Eastern followers tend to view her as a creator and mother. This multiplicity is one of the ambiguities Birely enjoys about her faith.

“For me, I think it’s expanding the level of options that we have in finding spiritual guidance, and I do think the female deities offer a lot more choices than we’re given in most male-centered traditions,” she says.

The Daughters of the Goddess organization is only for women, but that doesn’t mean they’re anti-men, says Birely.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with men, but it’s not against men,” she says. “It’s exclusive to women. I think we’re really dualistic in this culture. We think that if you’re into one thing, you automatically hate the other thing. I’m into multiplicity. I think there should be men-only spirituality groups because they need it as much as we do. We all need healing.”

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