I am the kind of Pagan that worships gods and goddesses. I know not all Pagans do, and even among those of us who do worship gods and goddesses, there is much debate over what exactly is a god or goddess. Do the gods exist because we believe them to be and so we create them; or do the gods exist on their own terms and we worship them but they actually have jobs to do? Whatever you believe is fine with me, I am not entirely sure how to explain what I believe. In fact, belief is difficult to define. No matter what you believe on issues of deity, the act of choosing to worship a god or goddess or even to accept them has its own implications.
One of the ways Paganism took off in the 1980s in the United States was through the Goddess. For many women, especially feminists, the idea of worshiping a Female deity was empowering. Women for centuries were shut out of the dominant Abrahamic religions in the US. To worship a representation of themselves as women was a radical thing. Revolutionary even for women’s personal lives: to have their bodies, and it’s cycles and reproductive functions honored not de-valued as a mark of sin or inferiority. On a personal level, embracing the Goddess (and the subsequent creation of a matriarchal golden age myth) empowered many women to embrace their bodies and enrich their lives. Fast forward to today, their daughters and maybe even granddaughters do not find this as empowering. For those of us growing up in a world with legalized abortion, access to birth control, a lack of immense societal shame about sexuality, The Gay-Straight Alliance organizations in schools, breast cancer awareness campaigns, and Title IX and X; the Goddess is a “given.” It’s expected that women be empowered, capable, sexy, pregnancy and childbirth are great undertakings and we can express the sorrows, joys, and horrors on Facebook (and we do in great numbers). We were raised to be empowered, educated, and we expect to be taken as seriously as our male peers. In many instances, we will accept no less even when these expectations continue to not be met. The current political debates on birth control seem to affirm this statement.
There are negative aspects of worshiping gendered deities. The main thing being a tendency toward fundamentalism and sexual dualism based on gender. In feminist and sociological discourse, gender is defined as “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” (Merriam-Webster definition). Sex is determined by our physiological bodies: do we have a penis or a uterus; chromosomes XX or XY? Gender is something we grow into while our sex is what we were given at birth. For many people, it’s one in the same but for some it is not. Where do these people fit in our dualistic, gendered systems? It’s true some gods and goddesses seem to embrace the trans communities: Dionysos is often embraced by gay men and Loki has a thing for cross dressing (once he even gave birth). As Pagans who embrace gendered deities, we need to commit to checking our expectations for gender, in ourselves and others, at the door. There are plenty of female deities who are “empowering” toward women and play roles in traditionally male realms of politics and war and there are nurturing gods at home in domestic “feminine” environments. We need to be careful to embrace these deities and allow ourselves to express our own gender in ways that we are comfortable with. I am a very girlie-girl kind of woman: I adore makeup, shoes, hair styles, and “all things pretty.” I worship and get along with Aphrodite but there is also a strong-willed warrior inside me – like inside Aphrodite. I am this way, but the young girls in my life some are and some are not. For those who are not, I want to make sure that they know there are other ways to be a woman. It’s important to allow young boys to see all variations of deities and allow them to discover their own identities as well: not all little boys like bugs and science. Finally, when we can do this with ourselves and our children, we will have a world where embracing the gods and goddesses as they are will be easy and acceptable. We must remember that we are only people, we do not have authority over what gods or goddesses others embrace. Those of us who many be in positions of influence have a duty to make exclusion of others who do not fit into our idea of “right worshippers” unacceptable.*
The more women gain empowerment and equality with men in society, the less defined gender roles become. Yes, women are still the ones who menstruate, give birth, and often as a result still do the brunt of child rearing. Many women relish these roles, and many do not. Many women, like myself, enjoy doing laundry and look forward to “laundry day”: many women do not. Some men also relish these tasks despite the “feminine” association. More and more men are opting to become stay-at-home-dads and househusbands embracing the nurturing and homemaking role. While American gender roles have changed in overall society, they have not in the workplace: the average workplace still functions on the assumption that there is someone at your home, running the household taking care of the children, and generally doing everything workers come to work to Work. The workplace is slowly making room for families but a decade into the new millennium, it’s still pretty antiquated. While the wage gap and second shift for women still exist, Gen Y seems to be making way at least in the second shift department. Over time, gender roles in the family will eventually evolve to include equal shares of household work and child rearing. Once this happens, what will happen to manly men gods and earth-mother goddesses? Will these deities disappear? Do they need to? In my opinion, it’s not a problem with the deities but with ourselves: surely they will evolve over time with us but more to the point we need to be especially careful about how our religious ideology influences our opinions and beliefs about our own gender display and our acceptance of others.
*Just a note: there ARE reasons to exclude people from your rituals I’ll get to that some other time.