Editorial Note: This essay was first published in Pantheon, the official journal of Chicago’s Life Force Arts Center, a gallery and performance space dedicated to literary, performing, and visual arts rooted in spiritual expression. I retain all copyrights.
“The Divine Feminine Propels Us Onward”:
The Legacy of 19th-Century Romanticism for Today’s Spiritual Seekers
How comfortable are you in describing yourself as a creator? Do you identify as one? Why or why not? Is that term solely reserved for artists? Or parents? Or the holders of patents? Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re breathing new worlds into being on a regular basis. Performing on open mic night. Whipping up an amazing quiche, baked from scratch. Delivering a solid presentation that ends up landing new accounts for your business. Creation is our divine mandate; it’s something we’re all called to do. It’s our divine birthright as creatures made in the image of God/dess/Spirit/Ultimate Reality—whatever you want to call It, that ineffable Source of our truest, highest selves. Now while we may comprehend, at an abstract level, that such a Source is beyond gender—beyond our narrow system of classifying and codifying and stacking concepts into neat little boxes—there is unquestionably a shift in energy, in consciousness, when we actively choose to see that Source embodied—literally—in Divine Feminine form. One method of understanding and appreciating the Divine Feminine is through an artistic movement dating from the nineteenth century, one which offers us great insights into still-relevant and related concepts of finding wholeness within ourselves and reframing the way that we relate to Nature.
As part of his signature line to his friends when writing correspondence, the great nineteenth-century German writer, Goethe, often wrote, “It is the Divine Feminine that propels us onward.” What was he referring to? The context of his writings was a vast intellectual, artistic, and literary movement that we know as Romanticism, which arose as a backlash to the scientific materialism of the Age of Enlightenment, whose legacy bore fruit in the Industrial Revolution that swept Europe and the United States in Goethe’s time and beyond with unprecedented social changes.
According to my own definition (and I pen these words as a former college English instructor who specialized in nineteenth-century world literature, so you know I’ve got street cred), Romanticism revolved around three central tenets: first, a reverence for Nature and the exalted, or sublime, states of consciousness that being in it evoked, as well as an understanding that the proper role of the human in Nature is to be its steward, not its conqueror or exploiter. The great English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley offers us a wonderful sensibility of the sublime in his masterful 1817 poem, “Mont Blanc”; in it, we see that the proper human response to Nature is first and foremost one of awe, of being in the presence of the Numinous:
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously
Its shapes are heaped around! Rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarred, and riven. –Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? Or did a sea
Of fire envelop this once silent snow?
None can reply—all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. [lines 61-83]
Second, Romanticism prioritized internal, subjective states of feeling—from wistful reverie to flights of fancy, from unbridled joy to abject terror—instead of the objective analyses of observable phenomena, which were the province of science. We see that at work in the abovementioned excerpt by Shelley with his experience of terror before the mountain’s might. (For the record, Goethe made an entire novel out of the concept of the agonized poet in his work The Sorrows of Young Werther.)
Third, Romanticism turned to earlier times and other cultures for inspiration and interpretation of the human experience precisely because the people in those societies—like the life of a shepherd in ancient Greece, or that of an “Indian” living on the Great Plains in the U.S. before the time of colonization—were known to have been in tune with the cycles of Nature. Often times, the poets and painters of the Romantic age had a great appreciation for the values of pre-Christian European cultures and infused their works with a rich understanding of mythology, often to draw a contrast between those cultures, whose worldviews were ones of harmony with nature, versus, say, England during the Industrial Revolution, a country whose formerly pristine ecosystems were suffering from the large-scale pollution caused by industries such as mining and textiles. The poet William Wordsworth best expresses this contrast—as well as a yearning to be transported back in time to a Pagan culture like ancient Greece—in an 1807 sonnet entitled “The World Is Too Much With Us”:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The Winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Clearly, these words ring true just as much for our age as they did for Wordsworth’s and Goethe’s. For Goethe, all of these forces coalesced into a palpable zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age,” and the way he understood it, orchestrating that zeitgeist was none other than the Divine Feminine, a Cosmic Patron with a woman’s face—not that of a male Messiah or Prophet advocating patriarchal monotheism as the One True Ordering Principle of the Universe/Multiverse.
I think there is much to be said in favor of the Romantic worldview, as its artistic concerns have obvious spiritual overtones that are very relevant today. There are definite parallels between the zeitgeist of the Romantic artists and ours in a Postmodern North America. First of all, while we’re said to be living in a Post-Industrial Age, where content/information is king (as opposed to a manufactured good, such as steel, which, believe it or not, we did actually export to other countries once upon a time!), our lives are caught up in a dizzying whirlwind of accelerated change made possible by advancements in technology. In effect, we’re as disoriented as our nineteenth-century forebears were. Instead of cultivating meaningful connections and sharing our experiences, we spend our lives chasing after things, and this manic pursuit only serves to ensure that our personal wellsprings of energy run emptier at a much faster rate. From a shamanic point of view, three simple words spell out a very grave social problem with far-reaching consequences: collective soul loss.
A second parallel between Romanticism’s zeitgeist and our own is the concern with the effects we’re having on Nature and the need to reframe our relationship with it so that we become stewards of the earth instead of its destroyers. (I’ve often wondered how Goethe, Wordsworth, or Shelley, if they were catapulted into our time, would have reacted to the 2010 devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf or the nuclear reactor meltdowns in post–tsunami-ravaged Japan.) There’s a profound calling, both then and now, to celebrate our connection with All That Is. Those of us who have come to consciousness know that the legacies of both patriarchal monotheism, which has taught us to see Nature as a corrupt entity to “subdue” (per God’s injunction to Adam in the Book of Genesis), and scientific materialism, which has taught us to see the world as inert and ripe for the picking until its finite resources are wholly depleted, have not just left us morally bankrupt but have brought our planet to its most critical juncture in its evolutionary history. We are presented with the choice to preserve life or render it, ourselves included, extinct; the actions we make, individually and collectively, accumulate and bring us closer to this ultimate decision of affirming life and perpetuating it or denying it. On which side of the spectrum do you want your actions to fall?
The third pillar of Romanticism—finding artistic inspiration and spiritual renewal by turning to earlier historical periods or to cultures different than our own, since both are perceived as being more attuned to the natural world—sounds as though it could have been formulated for modern-day folks with Pagan spiritual leanings because we’re already doing those activities (especially if we’re involved with a Reconstructionist tradition like Hellenismos, Heathenry, or Kemeticism, to name but a few). And not surprisingly, we’re actively evoking the presence of the Divine Feminine in our worship and our workings. We’re looking to restore balance—and, dare I say it, justice—to the distorted view of the Divine that patriarchal monotheism bequeathed each and every one of us as inheritors of the Western tradition.
And the good news is that there’s plenty of room for diversity in belief and approach when you’re playing for Team Pagan—Team Abraham can’t claim that! Some may choose to celebrate the Divine Feminine solely as an archetype, and are content to have it function in their lives on a solely psychological level—an impersonal mental abstraction that they may identify with from time to time (e.g., a parent mourning the loss of a child may identify with the tale of Demeter grieving the loss of her daughter Persephone at an archetypal level). Others (such as Dianic feminists) may be Goddess Spiritualists who subsume all culturally known expressions of Divine Feminine energy as different rays emanating from one light of Great Goddesshood (e.g., historically known goddesses like Athena, Yemaya, Kwan-Yin, and Ishtar are seen as different “aspects” of one universal Goddess energy). Still others (the majority of Wiccans) may be duotheistic and see the Divine Feminine as a necessary complement to Divine Masculine energy (with both being emanations of a gender-neutral sacred Source). And others still—and I place my own beliefs firmly in this camp—are hard polytheists who see the Divine Feminine embodied in different goddesses as discernable, separate, living entities who are embedded in their own cultural and ritualistic contexts, and who have different needs of their worshipers at different times, different likes and dislikes, and so on. (For example, while both Freyja and Oshun are goddesses of sex and witchcraft who happen to both appreciate honey as an offering, they are not one and the same deity; a one-size-fits-all ritualistic approach is more than likely to get them pissed off at you, and the last thing you want is to have a valkyrie goddess or an orisha pissed at you!)
However we do it, when we honor the Divine Feminine around us and within us, we invite changes for the better. And I want to stress the importance of creating change within. Many of us are familiar with the theories of the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist (and mystic), Carl Jung—he devised the notion of archetypes and the theory of the collective unconscious of the human race. He also taught that a high-functioning individual was one who integrated the energy, at a soul level, of the gendered opposite of her or his biological sex. Thus a biological man’s task in life, in order for him to become a fully-realized or integrated human being, is to recognize and partner with his anima, his inner divine feminine. Similarly, a woman’s task in life is to recognize and partner with her animus, or inner divine masculine. In a culture that is witnessing an acute crisis of masculinity (itself the topic for a whole other essay), it is refreshing to see that there are increasing numbers of men, regardless of their spiritual affinity or sexual orientation, who are befriending the inner Divine Feminine and making themselves whole, strong, and present to themselves and their communities. Brothers, may your numbers grow!
It just might be that Plato was right after all and all learning is remembering. If we can remember the Divine Feminine, remember not just cognitively but as an active mode of re-fashioning (re-membering) and incorporating into our moment-to-moment thoughts, words, and deeds that which is best and truest about our Selves, then I think we’ll all ace the exams we’re being required to take in order to move on to higher levels in this great Schoolhouse of a Universe/Multiverse. We’ve already got the information we need, thanks to a little cheat sheet devised two hundred years ago by Goethe. All we need to do is take his wise words to heart, especially when we’re called to create: “It is the Divine Feminine that propels us onward.” I would add on to his words the following blessing, if I might be so brazen: May you manifest with ease, by the grace of your guiding goddess, all creations that are aligned with your highest good and the good of all! It is so!
- 19th Century
- Age of Enlightenment
- BP oil spill
- Carl Jung
- collective Unconscious
- Divine Feminine
- Goddess spirituality
- Industrial Revolution
- Kemetic Reconstructionism
- Life Force Arts Center
- Mont Blanc
- moral bankruptcy
- patriarchal monotheism
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Reconstructionist religions
- scientific materialism
- soul loss
- the Numinous
- the Sublime
- United States
- William Wordsworth