Sunday, November 23, 2014

2002 Review of "Goddess Unmasked"

Editor's Note:  This is a review I wrote in the early aughts.  I've edited out some of the snark.


Unmasking the Unmasker:
A Review of Phillip Davis' Goddess Unmasked


The cover illustration of a green scowling visage of oldish woman looking out from behind a Botticelli Venus mask should have been an indication to me that Phillip G. Davis, author of Goddess Unmasked had a unsympathetic bias towards NeoPaganism. But I believed the reviews which indicated that Goddess Unmasked would be a neutral, scholarly review of Wicca, witchcraft, and NeoPaganism in general. I had hoped Davis would offer scholarly insight to such questions as "Why do NeoPagans celebrate on solstices and equinoxes?" and "What are the historical antecedents of The Goddess?" Alas, Davis's desire to save NeoPagans from the destructive cult he believes it to be interferes with his scholarship.

Goddess Unmasked attempts to show that feminist Goddess Worship specifically and Wicca generally are dangerous institutions with a subversive political agenda, and that Wicca is based on a foundation of historical and ideological feminist lies.

It succeeds in casting uncertainty on some of the archaeological theories behind popular myths of matriarchy, whom Davis traces back to Johann Jakob Bachofen's 1861 book Das Mutterrecht. Davis asserts that an incomplete 1967 translation influenced early feminist writers Elizabeth Gould Davis (The First Sex), and Merlin Stone (When God was a Woman). Other NeoPagan feminist writers Davis trashes are easy targets such as Margaret Murray, Riane Eisler, and Mary Daley.

Goddess Unmasked fails, however, to convince that Wicca is a dangerous lifestyle. It does convey the sense that Davis has a strong preference for monogamous, heterosexual relationships; transcendent spirituality; and orthodox scholarship. 

In the heat of critiquing female chauvinists with political agendas, Davis fails to make a distinction between the agendas of feminists (women and men are equal), NeoPagans(to practice an earth-based mystery religion), ceremonial magicians (to use magical tools to manipulate the environment), ceremonial mystics (to use magical tools to seek the divine spark, especially the inner divine spark) and environmentalists (save the earth). Although there does tend to be overlap between these groups, it is as appropriate to lump them together as it would be to lump Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Unitarian, and Russian Orthodox Christians together.

Part of the difficulty critically reviewing NeoPagan literature is that there's so much material to work with that is not scholarly, or uses questionable source material, or comes to patently silly conclusions, or was written to make a quick buck (I am waiting for Chicken Soup for the Pagan Soul to be released any day, now). Critical review needs to happen to weed out old information, fraudulent interpretation, and archaic values because the amount of entrenched misinformation makes it difficult to tease out clear thinking. [Editor's note, this review was written before the publication of Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon, and his later work, Pagan Britian.]  Davis's scathing observations on the robustness of NeoPagan research are neither impressive nor original, as NeoPagan writings of the last thirty years tend to be intuitive applications of their authors' experiences and the authors he tends to focus on are particularly woo-woo.

One problem I had with Davis's review of the literature is that it was not clear when he was attacking NeoPagan ideas or their authors. Davis spends much of his critique following the personal lives of the contributors of NeoPaganism with persistence worthy of Kenneth Star. The sexual exploits, straight and queer, are commented on. If Nazis or swastikas are associated with a text or an author, we hear about it -- that Nazis took an ancient symbol and used it for their own purposes is not commented on.  Near the end of Goddess Unmasked, Davis unsuccessfully attempts to disarm objections to his approach of presenting NeoPagan source authors as "unsavory characters."

Davis's bias undermines trust in his reporting. He misinterprets NeoPagan writers and he appears to be selecting sources based on sensationalism and low levels of scholarship. As an example in one of his early chapters, after scathingly quoting Elizabeth Gould, Merlin Stone, Rianna Eisler, and Mary Daly for pages, he follows with several quick paragraphs mentioning the work of the (usually) more scholarly Starhawk, Marija Gimbutas, and Margot Adler.  This tactic is like presenting the spiritual teachings of Jerry Falwell, Jim Baker, Pat Robertson and then mentioning Bishop Desmond Tutu as an afterthought.

It would be enough for me as a student of NeoPaganism to know if a key text from a NeoPagan source was based on archaeological evidence, limited information, or outright imagination.

To be generous, perhaps Davis has waded through so much Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic writing on magical theory, revolution, religion and gender roles that he has stopped looking for where 20th century writers have departed from old or silly ideas. As I only have exposure to materials written after 1900, I am not qualified to comment on the accuracy of Davis' reporting on documents older than a century.

His quotation of Starhawk is misinterpreted as a license to throw orthodox morality to the winds in a narcissistic spirit of situation ethics. A closer reading of Starhawk reveals that she is advocating integrity and pointing out that to choose a particular action is to also choose a particular constellation of circumstances. She goes on to argue that as a NeoPagan, one should know one's own value system (in Starhawk's example a clean environment) and to act in accordance with one's values.

Davis looks at the archaeological evidence and criticizes the goddess writers of coming to false (and in some cases fraudulent) conclusions. He is able to compare the writings of Daley and Eisler with the archaeological source text they are working from to demonstrate some of their questionable (and embarrassing) interpretations about a widespread matriarchal culture that worshiped a supreme Mother Goddess. He paints a picture of Gumbutas as a once-qualified archaeologist, but in the end lead astray by the writings of Eisler.  But based on his own arguments, Davis should conclude that the archaeological record is inconclusive and that any theory of ancient spiritual practices cannot be supported. Instead he pronounces the theories of preliterate Goddess worship as lies designed to promote a feminist agenda.

Davis objects to the elevation of sex as a sacred ritual, an idea whose popularity he traces back to Merlin Stone (1976) and Dion Fortune (1938). He seems to have forgotten that NeoPaganism is an earth-based mystery religion. Davis also takes pains to point out when NeoPagan authors express sexual preferences outside the normal mainstream. He does not mention NeoPagans with normative preferences.

Although Davis ascribes some importance to Fortune's writings as source materials for late 20-th century NeoPagans, a review of the endnotes in Goddess Unmasked shows no indication that Davis has read any Dion Fortune; it seems he is quoting quotations. This is too bad, as the prolific writings of Fortune range from the meticulously methodical to quaintly racist, and a solid review of her writing would be of service to students and historians of pagan thought.

For example, he quotes a quotation about Dion Fortune's fictional work, The Sea Priestess wherein the main female character espouses a sacred marriage. Davis makes no mention of her non-fiction works, Sane Occultism and Psychic Self-Defense.   Sane Occultism was written specifically to instruct neophytes about shysters and sexual predators in the occult biz. In Psycic Self Defense, Fortune takes great pains to instruct the reader to seek physical, earthly, or medical reasons behind occurrences before ascribing them to psychic malice. Davis' omission is akin to critiquing C. S. Lewis' theology based solely on quotes from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Davis instead focuses on Fortune's psychic battles with Moira Matthers.

As evidence of a female bias in NeoPaganism, Davis paints a picture of Janet and Stewart Farrar as exclusive Goddess writers. Although he focuses on their book, The Witch's Goddess, he makes no mention at all of one of their other books, The Witch's God.

As an example of an overlooked NeoPagan writer with normative sexual values is Vivian Crowley, who espouses magic works and NeoPagan rituals performed between a married man and woman. She describes the Great Rite not as a Davis-esque orgy of debauchery, but as a sex-positive celebration of the divine that is done as a pantomime if the couple is working with a group, or else done privately behind closed doors.

Davis even questions the validity of Jung in an attempt to discredit Joeseph Campbell and any writers who attempt to validate their work by citing Jungian psychology.

Goddess Unmasked takes a twist in the concluding chapter. The author describes the conflict of academic freedom with the political agenda of Women's Studies Departments in the Canadian university system. He also examines the university process of resolving complaints of sexual harassment.  The phrase "as a family man,"makes an appearance.   All of this gives the culmination of Goddess Unmasked a vendetta feeling. 

Goddess Unmasked is a general, far-flung attempt to provide historical context to goddess worship. Unfortunately its greatest contribution is the endnotes section that lists the source materials. Students of NeoPaganism will best be served by using Goddess Unmasked as a syllabus for their own studies.
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