Book review: The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths that Shape Women’s Lives
The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths that Shape Women’s Lives by Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger J. Woolger. Not recommended.
The Goddess Within is an attempt to explore and explain contemporary psychological issues and social trends through the ancient Greek goddesses Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hera, Persephone, and Demeter. The premise is based on the idea that the whole goddess of more matriarchal times has been divided and wounded, that patriarchal society suffers due to the resulting imbalance, and that we need to restore the balance and the multiple roles and energies of the goddess (and women).
One problem with The Goddess Within is reflected in the subtitle. There are no goddesses that shape women’s lives; rather, humans shaped the goddesses — including their splintering. At times, the authors seem to forget that distinction, especially when they make such statements as: “. . . the two goddesses who are, so to speak, expressing their larger grievance through the two women.” Perhaps it is simply the two women expressing their own grievances, which they have in common with other women.
The most basic problem, however, is the division of everything into the masculine and feminine. Is the earth really female? The moon? Why is the sun male? The authors talk at length about the moon, but never acknowledge that, without the “male” sun, there would be no nurturing of life on earth. Why is intellect a male attribute? Emotion female? Are these the kind of labels that reveal human psychology or repress a deeper exploration? Since each goddess is held to represent certain traits, are they necessary at all? Can six goddesses represent the “feminine” in its entirety? Essentially, psychology can be made to fit into any system desired.
What is more troubling, however, is the authors’ claim that “balance” is missing in our patriarchal world and their insistence that a matriarchy should replace it. The amount of gratuitous male bashing leaves no doubt about how they truly feel about “balance.” For example: “Growing Athena soon learns to curb her frustration at male stupidity and ineptitude, however” and “All men have in them heroes, lovers, fathers, leaders, listeners, protectors of one kind or another and it is never too asking too much to make the long overdue sacrifice of the whining little boy that prevents their emergence.” The message throughout is that everything wrong with the world, from war to pollution, is due to masculine thinking.
The authors also bring a great deal of personal bias to their discussion. They believe that Demeter (motherhood) is undervalued and suggest that mothers be allowed to return to their jobs after being granted five-year leaves — a greater privilege than National Guardsmen have. They don’t point out that someone must fill Demeter’s shoes involuntarily — perhaps even a type who doesn’t want to work extra hours and who would like to experience life, too. (I’ve done my share of working late so mothers can get to day care and events on time — my own admitted bias.) They say that families with children are relegated to fast-food restaurants and blue-collar diners, another phenomenon that doesn’t fit in with my observations.
That leads to another problem — The Goddess Within seems dated. Writing in 1989, the authors discuss “movements” that the average American today has not heard of — suggesting they are not so much movements as the typical handful of people from each generation who deviate from societal norms. There has been no growing return to rural living; if anything, suburbs continue to expand. There is no growing sensitivity toward the “earth goddess” among the masses. What the authors label “patriarchal values” — war, conquest, corporate power, degradation of the earth — are even stronger today. If the question is one of balance of matriarchal and patriarchal values, as the Woolgers define them, the world is as or more out of balance than ever.
The Woolgers, however, do not seem to propose balance, but a return to the matriarchy, where patriarchal Christianity as practiced and rational science (which they tuck in together as odd bedfellows) are subject to the goddess — ignoring the benefits that Christianity and science have given western society and focusing only on the harm they have done. For example, science has brought us nuclear weapons, but it has also contributed cures, treatments, and surgeries for ailments that would have killed millions of us early in life.
Rarely do the Woolgers mention the gods — and then it is primarily as consorts to the goddesses (or, in Zeus’s case, as the ultimate patriarch). If balance of these values should be the goal of the individual and society, why not The Gods and Goddesses Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths That Shape Men’s and Women’s Lives? In their slavish devotion to the feminine (and feminist), the Woolgers devalue the masculine. To them, “no matter how much a doting father adores and is adored by his daughter, he is still far from a mother’s love of her little girl. He did not bear her in his body; he cannot experience that great mystery.” Is this really true? Does every woman who bears children experience it as a “great mystery”? And what of the great mysteries that men can and do experience? It is this lack of balance and wholeness that undermines the Woolgers’ claims.
Some women (and men) may find the goddess portraits very useful in assessing themselves and the women in their lives (for example, the Hera mother is easily identifiable) as well as their relationships. The goddess portraits and sidebars are also somewhat useful in the study of Greek and Roman mythology. Beyond that, however, The Goddess Within is little more than trendy, empty, male-bashing feminism of the worst kind.
My goddess scores:
Athena (goddess of wisdom)
Artemis (goddess of the wilds)
Persephone (goddess of the underworld)
Aphrodite (goddess of love)
Hera (queen of heaven)
Demeter (goddess of life)
5 February 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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