In his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain theorizes that literacy has a shadow side, that it may have promoted an imbalance between women and men. In the preface, he explains:
I was struck by the thought that the demise of the Goddess, the plunge in women’s status, and the advent of harsh patriarchy and misogyny occurred around the time that people were learning how to read and write. …When a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric ones, which manifests as a decline in the status of images, women’s rights, and goddess worship.
Goddess festivals may have different goals, but at their core is the righting of wrongs, the shifting of power, the balancing of desires, actions, and dialogue. In ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations, female deities were worshiped. According to Schlain, masculine deities replaced them in the 5th century CE and women were “prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.”
Festivals that celebrate the feminine divine are an ancient tradition that is experiencing a modern flowering. While they are not in the forefront of public attention today, they serve as a way for women to have alternative experiences to daily life in a patriarchal world.
Aurora Sommer, who lives in rural Northeast Oklahoma, remembers attending a Missouri festival for Gaia with a group of women from Oklahoma City. The festival had the usual vendors selling oils, herbs, crystals, and various divination services; however, Sommer said, “What I remember most are two things: the huge bonfire and drumming every night.”
“When I used to go to church,” said Sommer, “I knelt down, said the prayers, and followed the sermons, but I didn’t feel anything in my heart or soul.” The experience of goddess festivals and a different path changed her view. “Now I am aware and feel energy pretty well, and can tap into that energy easily. It feels so amazing. I’ve never felt so much love as when I tap into source energy.” The source, according to Sommer, is where we all come from, no matter what people might call it—God, Jehovah, goddess. “I believe our souls are that piece of God that is here to have experiences and will eventually return to the source.”
The goddess festival that takes place every year at the Omni Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is an event that offers a variety of ways for women to work together to raise personal and communal awareness.
Gladys Tiffany, director of the Omni Center said, “My personal view is that I feel women’s voices need to be heard a lot more in the culture, and this festival is one place where that can happen. And when it happens, it’s beautiful.”
The Fayetteville Goddess Festival, now in its eighth year, involves a weeklong series of activities and events, from poetry slams and labyrinth walks to divinations and spiritual discussions.
When the Goddess Festival takes over the Omni Center each year, it transforms the space. “If you come here any other time, it just looks like an office. But it becomes a temple to the goddess and has an intense and beautiful feel. We focus on women’s voices and attempt to include men, but it’s a women’s space,” Tiffany said.
A different type of goddess festival, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, founded in 1976 by Lisa Vogel, is an annual celebration and creation of women’s rhythms. The immensely popular festival’s growth might have partly led to its end, as 2016 will be the last year of this festival. In recent years, the festival had come under fire for allowing only women born as female to attend. Exclusion of transgendered women and other people identifying as women caused big names such as the Indigo Girls to stop performing at the festival and boycotts from other groups.
In a recent Facebook post, Vogel explained the festival is a rare occasion “where we experience validation for our female bodies, and where the female experience presides at the center of our community focus. A place to lay our burden down from the misogyny that pervades our lives from cradle to grave… a place to live in intergenerational community, and to live in harmony with Mother Earth.”
These festivals differ from pagan or psychic fairs by focusing on both the spiritual experience and the personal growth and education of women. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel a bit jaded wandering down the aisles at a psychic fair or similar festival and seeing endless rows of crystals, tarot cards, and ear candles. Even the public gatherings and rituals at such events fail to raise much energy.
I attended a presentation on heart-centered awareness, where the goal was to “take you on a journey of how we may tap into our electromagnetic field and align with the spirit found in living systems.” One slide was a columnar display of different animal photos, and the presenter asked us to pick one that first called to us. It supposedly had a spirit that aligned with ours. What I noticed, however, was that people who responded picked the photograph of the animal that was closest to their range of vision depending on where they were in the room.
Still, this impulse to connect the natural world with the practice of living in balance as humans, women in particular, is an idea that goddess festivals have always promoted.
While some people are derisive of the work of goddess festivals, the experiences they offer are in service to rhythm, energy, beauty, and balance. Perhaps these qualities are viewed as primarily feminine concerns or issues that are not intrinsically tied to the important work of building a healthy society. And that is the problem.
Tampa Bay musical duo Hecate’s Wheel, Vicki Scotti and LuAnn Morris, travels the country performing at various pagan festivals, but Scotti said that goddess festivals and “events that honor the divine feminine and women’s mysteries” are ones that resonate more with her.
A song, written by Scotti, which the duo performs at goddess festivals, was inspired by a passage from Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman. The last verse of the song develops an insistent rhythm, while emphasizing that theme of memory:
There was a time so long ago when God was not a he
All acts of love and pleasure were my rituals to keep
The priests they came, built churches tall, filled deep with guilt and shame,
Do you remember when I was? I’m known by many names
Do you remember? Do you remember? Do you remember?
I am She
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2015.