By Jhenah Telyndru
I have been blessed to walk a Goddess-centered path since 1986, and in that time I have come to feel that the most pervasive misconception about Women’s Spirituality is that it requires a complete rejection of the Divine Masculine and engenders a hatred of men. While I cannot and do not speak for all Goddess Spirituality traditions, the Avalonian Tradition embraces a focus on female divinities and gathers in all-women hearth groups as part of our ongoing quest to understand the sacred and sovereign nature of our womanhood. Our immersion in the Divine Feminine is not reactionary nor specifically political, although global issues of women’s equality and personal autonomy are of prime importance to the majority of our Sisters, as are other social justice issues. I do have to add that, in spite of being involved in Goddess Spirituality since the mid-eighties, the overwhelming majority of women I have encountered in the movement have similar goals as the Sisterhood; the prevalent stereotype seems more of an exaggerated caricature than anything resembling the truth.
Living in a male-centered world, and growing up in Father God-centered religions, many women feel the need to explore the Feminine Aspect of Spirit. It is a big step to begin to see Woman as a reflection of the Divine, rather than as the carrier of sin and vessel of temptation painted in broad strokes in Judeo-Christian thought. Those who seek God the Mother do so in the myths and religions of the past, in the spiritual expressions of indigenous peoples and of the East, as well as from the spark of inspiration within — creating new forms and new paths for the women of the future. Women’s Spirituality seeks to uplift women to become their Sovereign and authentic selves, as well as to reclaim and honor the traditional roles of women which do so much to support the fabric of our society. There is power women’s sexuality, beauty in motherhood, deep mystery in childbirth, sacredness in maintaining the hearthfire, wisdom and honor in cronedom. I believe women need to rethink their worth, as well as reframe that which society deems worthy of respect – women should be valued for more than youth, beauty, and success in previously male-dominated fields.
Many women begin seeking alternative spiritualities when they come up against teachings in their birth religions that foster a sense of subjugation or limitation in their religious lives because of their gender. Either they are called to be submissive to men, or they are barred from aspects of their religions – such as service as clergy – because they are women. Others are drawn to paths that are dedicated to a Divinity they can relate with – whose sacred stories reflect an understanding of the women’s experience – a God in whose image they were truly made. Most monotheistic religions marginalize women, making them carriers of sin or uncleanliness. Goddess religion empowers women, sanctifies their bodies, encourages their direct experience of the Divine, and teaches acceptance of all peoples and paths – a communal perspective with which most women find themselves at home.
I am often asked why it is that the Sisterhood of Avalon is a women-only organization; after all, cannot men also feel called to the Island of Avalon? The Sisterhood of Avalon is inspired by the enclaves of Celtic Holy Women which are known to us through Classical historical sources, and are found in Celtic myth and local folklore throughout the British Isles and Europe. While we know that both men and women could serve their communities as Druids – that elite caste of priests, judges, and teachers which has intrigued scholars and fired the imagination for millennia – it appears that there also existed groups of women who dwelt apart from Celtic society, yet who, nonetheless, served their people. These women were famous for their healing arts, divinatory skills, the ability to shape shift and control the weather, as well as for tending sacred precincts and being learned in the sciences, mathematics, language, and music.
There are Neo-Pagan paths which are inspired by, or attempt to reconstruct, the Druidic path in particular and aspects of Celtic religious practices in general. Not much is known about what the Celts believed or what the Druids knew, in no small part because they – while not illiterate – chose not to write any of these things down. The Sisterhood of Avalon shares in common the same source materials that other Celtic Pagans and modern Druids use to inform their work. However, our focus is on Celtic Women’s Mysteries as represented by these ancient groups of women who chose to live set apart from men. We are interested both in remembering the lives and practices of these ancient women, as well as in reclaiming and renewing their wisdoms – both literally and metaphorically – in a way that is relevant and transformative for the women of today.
Women are the Guardians and Bearers of the Cauldron of Rebirth or Grail, while men must embark upon a Quest for the Holy Vessel and be renewed by drinking its transformational elixir. This difference defines, in my opinion, the reason that the path for women and men who choose to engage in Gender Mysteries are separate – different, yet equal. Looking at the mythos and meaning of the Quest for the Cauldron, as seen, for example, in the ancient Welsh poem Prieddu Annwn, from a depth psychology perspective, we see that women find the Divine when they acknowledge their inner Sovereignty and come to honor their innate wisdom, while men must seek the Divine Feminine to heal their inner landscapes and revitalize the Wounded King within them – that essence of Divine Masculine that has been co-opted in the name of power-over, not power with, for so long.
As a woman, I can only speak from the perspective of the female experience, and so would never presume to define that experience for a man — though it is my hope that someone will, and will share that path with other men who are drawn to walk this sacred path.While the majority of modern Pagan paths are mixed gender, and those that are Wiccan-based embrace an ethic of Balance as manifested in the honoring of the Goddess and the God, we believe there is also a place for Gender Mysteries – and indeed, in many ancient cultures, gender-specific temples were the norm, not the exception. We realize that there are men who are drawn to the Avalonian Tradition, and it is both to honor these ancient communities of women, as well as the soul process of modern men, that only women are able to join the SOA. For men who wish to walk this path, I will say that many of the techniques and tools presented in my book Avalon Within will certainly be accessible to you, and will go a long way in your personal work and in your quest for the Holy Isle. However, I do think that the nature of this journey is different for men and women.
I think that there is great value in walking a Gendered path, and exploring those things that make us inherently Male or inherently Female, or flowing dynamically between the two. There is sacredness here, and it certainly has precedent in the ancient cultures from which many of us draw our inspiration. In fact, most cultures featured same-gender priest/esshoods dedicated to one specific Deity; the Sumerian Naditu and the Gallicenae of Sena spring immediately to mind. The concept of gender-balanced paths is a new one — not that it makes this any less relevant — but it certainly doesn’t make it the only acceptable manifestation of Pagan Spirituality in modern times.
Gender Mysteries play an important role in Spirituality, especially since the power of the Feminine has been so very devalued and men who do not conform to the accepted stereotype of “maleness” are rejected and ridiculed. Reclaiming the true nature of what it means to be an empowered man or woman has little to do with cultural gender roles; and since these wisdoms have become so deeply buried in our psyches, it can take much work and inner processing to reveal the authentic Woman or Man within us.