Friday, April 11, 2008

Neopagan Bodies

Southern California, it turns out, is much like the stereotype. This stretch of coastline does indeed covet that lifestyle of sun, sea, sand, smoothies, fish tacos, and effortless yet immaculate fashion. Image-conscious and health-conscious, Southern California--like other coastal Mediterranean and subtropical cultures--prizes the body that is radiant, bronzed, athletic, and slender. This is particularly the case for the female body, which is almost perpetually called upon to expose itself to sunlight, ocean breeze, and the critical gaze of the onlooker. This body has become a reified thing, crystallized and reinforced (enforced, even?) by every image Southern California uses to speak to and about itself.

Therefore, I find it fascinating to note the existence in this same geography of female religious communities that purposely flaunt these images and, instead, envision a female body that is multiplicitous and diffuse, often finding in the ‘deviant’ female form a perfect expression of divinity. The goddess-centered neopagan communities of the southern coast locate the feminine divine in such culturally and chronologically diverse figures as Isis, Diana, the Virgin Mary, and Kali. They find divinity and power in bodies that are menstruating, pregnant, obese, aging. The feminine divine (particularly in Wiccan circles) can also be more diffuse, becoming what the famous San Franciscan witch Starhawk has called “the great forces of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that move through the universe. …[the Goddess] is immanent within us as well as in nature.” This boundlessness and multiplicity has meant that neopagan communities have created their own conception of the female body that mirrors this fluidity and shatters the restraints and boundaries imposed by majority culture.

Thus, the neopagan body, like the Goddess, is diffuse. Aniitra Ravenmoon of the Temple of Isis in L.A., for example, asserts that she can become dozens of goddesses in the span of a day, depending on her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs at any given time. Cathleen, also of the Temple of Isis, writes:

Well, we’re threading through togetHER, Moving in
and out and ‘round,
Weaving with COSMIC EARTH.
We’re growing all togetHER, Sowing underground,
Seeds about to give BIRTH.
Who are we WILD WORLD-WOMEN weaving
blood-red c(h)ords,
Cosmic Co-Creating FEMININE DIVINE.

The poem creates a linguistic and imagistic space where worshippers, in their spiraling movements, can actually create the body of the Goddess by weaving their own bodies together with fertile seeds, soil, and what seems to be the red blood vessels of living flesh. Here, the feminine divine, although diffuse, is not in the least abstracted—rather, it is actively ‘co-created,’ manifested, and embodied by the assembled bodies of the faithful.

The neopagan body, therefore, by expanding its boundaries and drawing inspiration from a variety of cultures and periods, seems to transcend the limitations imposed by majority culture and even time itself. For example, despite what many sociologists have identified as a stigmatization of the obese body in contemporary society, neopagan communities instead often locate in the obese female form a perfect expression of the feminine divine: they celebrate largeness as largesse, as abundance and fecundity. Such a body can, perhaps, be thought to be in a perpetual state of pregnancy.

Closely tied to this is sexuality, wherein neopagans celebrate voluptuousness as transcendently sensual and supremely powerful. Witness the popularity of ‘bellydancing’ in neopagan communities as well as the ubiquity of the prehistoric ‘fertility’ figurines.
Voluptuousness becomes, almost, a reclamation of a woman-centered sexuality: here, notions of the erotic radiate from within—and are not imposed upon—the embodied self. Feminine power arises bodily, through fertility, voluptuousness, and sheer monumentality.

For example, at a women’s retreat in the Santa Monica mountains, a priestess portraying (rather, embodying) Diana during a ritual drew her ‘goddess essence’ from her physical size. One participant in the ritual remarked: “Other images of Diana are all sexualized from a male point of view, kind of a scantily clad Playboy bunny in the woods. . . . [But] this was a female who radiated power with her body and costume. Her unselfconsciousness about her body was powerful and the way she walked was almost majestic. I’ll never forget it. This was the Diana I want to relate to.” You may notice that, according to the observer, the priestess/Diana drew her divinity from her “unselfconsciousness about her body”—the embodied feminine divine was powerful precisely because it defied the critical gaze that elsewhere permeates majority culture.

Elizabeth Reis has argued that accusations and self-affirmations of witch-hood (from the 17th c. to the present day) rest on a “fear of women’s power.” Contemporary witches largely define themselves against popular conceptions of acceptable femininity, proudly flouting expectations and transgressing boundaries, even with their own bodies. This is where a “fear” (or, perhaps, awe) of women’s power rests: self-affirmed witches often testify that rituals can shock them, surprise them, and catapult them into realms of female power they can only dimly comprehend, let alone control. By using their own bodies as tools of this power, they, I suppose, embody their own empowerment as a way to make it manifest.

Sociologist Tanice Foltz has argued that women come to Goddess spirituality “to heal their identities as female ‘others’ in patriarchal society.” Glory Vernon, for example, holds her Long Beach “Introduction to the Art of Spell Crafting” workshops for “those who wish to take a more positive approach to empowering their lives.” The Circle of Aradia, a Dianic community in L.A., pledges to “heal and empower women in their personal lives.” This empowerment goes hand in hand with the divinization of the female body. The female body is wrested from the realm of commodification--torn from the magazine page, the billboard, and the movie screen--and carried into the realm of the sacred. Neopagan women, through ‘magick’ and alternative conceptions of the body, ultimately acquire power precisely because they transgress, ignore, and destroy boundaries and expectations through the multiplicitous embodied self.

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