Seasonal Salon

Approaches to the Study of Goddess Myths and Images

Part III of IV

Goddess Studies is not a new field. For more than a hundred and fifty years, pioneering women have examined the role that religious imagery has on people, both men and women. They have taken variant approaches, from imagining a different world to critiquing the limited religious visions offered by monotheistic religions. This 4-part series describes the lives of these pioneers, as well as the approaches to goddess studies to which they gave rise. The series is excerpted from "The Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines" (Praeger 2010).

Dion Fortune: A new religion

The name by which she is known was not that bestowed on Violet Mary Firth when she was born in the seaside resort of Llandudno, Wales, on December 6, 1890 or 1891. She adopted the pseudonym later in life, deriving it from her family’s motto, “Deo, non fortuna” or “God, not fortune.” Yet the “god” that Violet honored was a dual divinity that included the goddess, whose image inspired her major works and whose lasting influence is felt on neopaganism today.

A mystical child, Violet saw sights invisible to those around her and spoke of distant lost civilizations. After a breakdown when she was twenty, Violet found solace in the study of comparative religions; she joined the newly formed Theosophical Society. After studying with the Irish Freemason Theodore Moriarity, she became active in the London Temple of the Alpha et Omega (originally called the Order of the Golden Dawn), where she met the novelist John Brodie-Innes whose books revolved around magical themes.

Although she held leadership roles in the societies of which she was a member, Dion Fortune’s lasting impact was through her novels. Bringing together personal visions with occult doctrines, she explored themes of magic and women’s power in a series of pagan novels including The Sea Priestess, which remains an influential statements of witchcraft. The vibrant character of Vivien Le Fay Morgan, the enchanting magician, reveals Fortune’s interest in depicting women as sexually active as well as intellectually powerful—not a common vision of women in the early 20th century. Fortune also wrote nonfiction books on magical topics, although these have had less impact on the contemporary goddess movement.

The tension between her creative writing and her religious affiliation came to a head in 1922. Then 32 years old, Dion Fortune had become one of the most publicly prominent members of the Alpha et Omega. Moina Mathers, ex-wife of founder Samuel MacGregor Mathers, accused Dion of revealing secret matters in her books. But that may have been only a precipitating cause, for Dion Fortune was gaining fame, or at least notoriety, for revelations she claimed to receive while astral traveling. These tensions resulted in Fortune’s being excommunicated from the Golden Dawn.

She found a new home in the Stella Matutina, another offshoot of the Golden Dawn that claimed as one of its members the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, a friend of folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory. When Fortune departed the Alpha et Omega, she retained control of a group that she renamed the Society of the Inner Light and ran from Glastonbury, where she lived with her husband Thomas Penry Evans. The organization still functions, although Fortune died of leukemia in 1946.

Many contemporary writers on the goddess derive their ideas from sources similar to hers, a combination of personal mysticism and organized occultism. Indeed, some researchers argue that aspects of contemporary Wicca were deliberately modeled after scenes in Fortune’s novels. Although typically rejected by scholars, writings by those personally involved in witchcraft and magic have an enormous public following. In addition, the joining of creative writing to goddess studies has produced a significant body of literature that ranges from popular genre fiction to highly crafted lyric poetry.

Mary Barnard: Finding ancient voices

Feminine divinity was not something the long-lived poet Mary Ethel Barnard (December 6, 1909-August 25, 2001) had in mind when she began to translate the great Greek poet Sappho. But her work, and that of others who have brought ancient and suppressed work to public view, has been important to contemporary goddess studies, providing textual evidence of goddess worship. Barnard’s translation of Sappho’s poetry, never out of print, is regarded as the definitive translation of the poet into English. Barnard came to the project as a poet herself, a well-known Symbolist who found in Sappho a poet after her own leadings.

Born in Vancouver, Washington, where she lived most of her life, Barnard graduated from Reed College at the height of the Great Depression in 1932. She went to work immediately for the Emergency Relief Administration, writing poetry in her spare time. Within a few years, she won the prestigious Levinson Award from Poetry Magazine, which championed newly emerging voices in Imagism and Symbolism. She moved to New York, where she met renowned poets including Marianne Moore and served as a poetry curator in Buffalo. Her work was widely anthologized and she was in frequent contact with the poet she considered her mentor, Ezra Pound.

After returning to Washington, Barnard was advised by Pound to stimulate her muse by translating—a task that she, who read Greek fluently, took up with passion. She selected for her work Sappho, the only woman still known among ancient Greek poets. Born on the island of Lesbos in the seventh century BCE, Sappho’s life is virtually unknown, except in the hints she left in poetry. She may have been of an aristocratic family; she may have had a daughter named Cleis; she may have been exiled at some point to Sicily. It is doubtful that she killed herself out of love for a ferryman. It is also unclear whether Sappho, the great Lesbian, was also a lesbian (a term for women-loving women derived from Sappho’s birthplace). However, many of her surviving poems describe passionate feelings towards other women, and her contemporaries described her as involved with women the way Socrates was involved with men, suggesting that she was sexually passionate with other women.

One thing is unarguable: Sappho saw herself as a devotee of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who appears more often than any other figure in her works. This may be an accident of history, for although Sappho wrote nine books of poetry, virtually all her work has been lost, possibly deliberately destroyed. The only remaining full poem is the “Hymn to Aphrodite,” in which Sappho addressed the goddess familiarly, pleading with her to bring a lover (assumed to be a woman) to her side. Sappho’s other poems exist only in fragments, although an almost-complete poem about aging has recently been discovered. For the rest, Sappho’s work was referred to by other authors, for she was considered one of the greatest poets of her time; some of her extant work survives only in short quotations found in other writers’ works.

However they were lost, her famous poems were indeed lost. Only fragments survive, including those found in an Egyptian rubbish heap, torn into strips as though for wrapping a mummy. This creates difficulties for the translator, who must either expand to fill in lacunae or find other strategies for dealing with phrases that cut off in the middle and poems with no endings. Barnard used skills honed over many decades to write spare yet passionate renditions that simultaneously captured the brevity and fragmentary nature of Sappho’s poems. The result was immediately popular at the time of publication in 1959. Embraced by the emerging women’s spirituality and lesbian movements as an inspiring voice, Mary Barnard’s Sappho appears as a passionate and sensuous woman with a devotion to a goddess who is both powerful and accessible.

Mary Barnard lived almost 50 years after the publication of her Sappho translations. They remain her best-known work and have inspired other women to translate early writers both for their literary and spiritual qualities.

Category: Winter Solstice 2009