How Wiccan ‘Mother Goddess’ Worship Disempowers Women

Is emphasizing motherhood really reclaiming the agency we’ve fought so hard for?

When I started exploring feminist spirituality, I never expected my desire to remain childless would leave me feeling so ostracized. I turned to crystals, horoscopes, and tarot cards for empowerment, but what I found was a mother divinity who made me question the validity of my life choices.

I’d grown up in the Bible Belt, sneaking glimpses at books and message boards on astrology, auras, or indigo children when I had the rare opportunity. I’d heard of female deities, but the closest I’d ever been to veneration of a divine feminine was my rosary beads, a remnant from my late Catholic grandmother. Still, I was drawn to the idea. Even as a child, I remember asking my mom to borrow a book from the library about goddesses. She wasn’t happy.

My university was about an hour away from my hometown — far enough away from my religious past to explore new spiritual possibilities, but close enough to still be affected by the area’s conservative roots. In my South Carolina college town, my options for feminine spiritual discovery were limited to whatever books Barnes & Noble chose to stock. The array of titles in the New Age section ranged from the usual divinatory suspects to government conspiracy theories. Nearby, in its own section, was Wicca.

Thus Wicca, maybe the most popular contemporary spiritual movement of the last two decades, was my entry point into the world of goddess worship. In Wicca, the goddess has three forms: the young Maiden, the fruitful Mother, and the wizened Crone. Women would learn the mysteries of each as they moved through the poetic seasons of life. As a woman, I wondered which season I was in. Given that I didn’t fit the innocent Maiden description and that I’d have many years to come until I achieved Crone status, that left me with only one option: Mother. I recoiled at the thought.

The prominence of the Mother Goddess archetype in Wicca is not to be understated; in fact, she seems at times to be an intentional foil to the Father God of Christianity. In Doreen Valiente’s “Charge of the Goddess,” one of Wicca’s guiding texts, the goddess is referred to as “Great Mother.” As I branched out, I discovered that this line of thinking pervaded nearly every form of modern goddess worship: paganism, neo-paganism, witch, and so forth. Though many maintained that this motherhood could be symbolic, of creative works or businesses or your own life, I still couldn’t understand why the spiritual equivalent of the prime of my life had to be expressed by an experience I’d opted out of.

This cultural obsession with the goddess as mother isn’t new. Historically, many of the most prominent goddesses have been mothers and patrons of motherhood, including the Egyptian Isis, the Greek Demeter, and the Hindu Shakti. Even in Catholicism, devotion to Mary — the mother of Jesus — reigns. The modern Goddess movement reconstructed those early traditions for a new generation, with its back-to-nature ideals positioning the Earth as mother. Because the movement sprang out of the nebulous Neo-pagan philosophies of the 1970s, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact lineage for this set of ideas; some practitioners claimed to be sharing in an unbroken line of magical tradition, hearkening back to their ancient ancestors, but recent scholarship has cast doubt on these claims. There’s no question, though, that the idea of the mother goddess has deep roots.

It’s that image that draws people — especially young women — to the Goddess movement. We are caught in the orbit of a divine feminine who finally embodies the power we so long to possess. Despite shaky scholarship and reconstructionist philosophies, the promise of an inclusive spirituality that elevates us in ways that society still refuses to is potent. The foundation isn’t perfect, but patriarchal religion hasn’t given us much to work with. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.

The original purpose of the movement was a “reclaiming” of sorts — an idea so powerful it became a spiritual sect unto itself. Followers believed that through feminist spirituality, practitioners could reclaim the parts of themselves that had been lost to oppressive social structures. But this is a far cry from the Instagram-friendly version of Goddess worship that has become Harper’s Bazaar’s chicest cult, a utopia of immaculately dressed women in their 20s and 30s revering the Earth Mother and gathering for workshops on ovulation, doulas, and birth stories. None of these things are inherently harmful, but they become so when they exclude those who would not or cannot choose motherhood for themselves.

The growing popularity of spiritual accoutrements and consciousness on social media invites the question: Is emphasizing motherhood really reclaiming the agency we’ve fought so hard for? Feminists have fought for the right to flourish outside the home, yet feminist spirituality in many ways returns them to that sphere. The mystique of alternative spirituality is alluring, but as more women embrace Goddess-centered forms of worship, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that many of these practices emphasize the divinity of masculine and feminine archetypes, keeping traditional gender roles intact.

Feminists have fought for the right to flourish outside the home, yet feminist spirituality in many ways returns them to that sphere.

Fortunately, there are spiritual leaders in the goddess movement willing to push the social envelope. As my search for a female divinity neared a dead end, I called on Bri Luna, owner of popular mystical shop The Hoodwitch, for advice. She’s a social media luminary who’s been featured in Vogue and other magazines, bringing feminine spirituality to the masses. She explained that, in her belief system, the goddess is a concept far more vast than traditional archetypes allow. She describes the goddess as “a raw primordial energy. She is fluid and capable of taking on many forms,” a foil to the rigid Judeo-Christian God. Luna also calls for more diverse representation in spiritual circles: “Let’s expand past Eurocentric goddess archetypes and traditions. Let’s see more representation for the stories of women of color as goddess, share her stories and traditions.” It’s true — despite centuries of goddess worship the world over, people of all experiences and backgrounds still struggle to find goddesses in their own image.

I took my questions about diverse feminine representation to Courtney Weber, a Wiccan high priestess in New York. “In traditional Wicca,” Weber told me, “there is a God and a Goddess but in Progressive Wicca, we understand the Divine as far more complex — being multi-gender or no gender at all.” She went on to explain that not all Wiccans subscribe to the strict goddess identity that’s set out in popular books. “I don’t connect as much with the Maiden-Mother-Crone identity that has a grasp on contemporary Wicca,” she said. “I recently read the book Jailbreaking the Goddess by Lasara Firefox Allen, [which] reveals a fivefold Goddess model that really resonates with a more holistic view of the Feminine Divine. ”

Weber told me that the conversation around femininity and religion is beginning to shift in a more progressive direction among people of multiple faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, and Wicca. She directed me to a popular adage among her seminary contemporaries: “God is not a boy’s name.” She wants to make goddess-centered spirituality more inclusive by “breaking the idea of motherhood down into its possibilities. Giving people without children, without uteruses, even without vaginas, the opportunity to define for themselves what motherhood can mean.” It’s a hopeful sentiment that echoes both the purest ideals of feminism and the current symbolic interpretation of mother as creator. She finds aspects of motherhood in “the supportive, instructive, nurturing, and disciplinary role in communities and activist work.”

Still, the idea that a nurturing instinct is embedded deep inside the human DNA leaves me troubled, as I have never felt that call within myself. I gravitate more toward power and achievement than to an innate sense of caring. My deepest hope is that it doesn’t reflect a lack of kindness or goodness on my part, but its inextricable link to the divine feminine has left me feeling deeply flawed. I wonder, must we insist that humanity has a maternal instinct or a desire to act on it — much less a desire to revere it?

For help in cracking this difficult spiritual case, I went to Briana Saussy, a spiritual counselor and former teacher of mine, as I have done many times in the past. Saussy sees the issue of a maternal drive more simply: “Insofar as there is a maternal instinct, I would have to say that instinct is made up of generosity.”

The idea that a nurturing instinct is embedded deep inside the human DNA leaves me troubled.

A sought-after practitioner of what she’s named the “sacred arts,” Saussy balances her metaphysical qualifications with academic credentials — she has a B.A. and an M.A. in classics and philosophy from St. John’s College. When I asked her about emphasis on the mother goddess in modern spiritual circles, she spoke passionately and directly: “In my own work, one group that I have been called to serve are women who cannot or choose not to have children.” She views the spiritual marginalization of those who choose to remain childless as unacceptable. In her words, “The fact that some of our sisters and brothers have been cut out of the conversation because they cannot or choose not to have children is a travesty that flies in the face of the very ideal of motherhood.”

An acolyte of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, whose feminist psychoanalysis treatise Women Who Run With the Wolves has become something of a sacred text among modern-day mystics, Saussy approaches the mother goddess in much the same way as her mentor: with a mythical reading rather than a literal one. She says what’s striking to her about these goddesses is “not the fact that they are mothers so much as the fact that they come to know crippling loss.” She’s referring to the experience that nearly every major mother goddess has faced, regardless of their origin. Isis had to knit her beloved Osiris back together. Demeter had to search the Underworld for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped and raped. Mary watched Jesus suffer a violent death.

For Saussy, it isn’t the motherhood that takes center stage; it’s the survival of trauma. Unlike generativity or nurturing, losing something we hold dear is an experience that transcends every social construct. A less literal interpretation might have the “mother” be that which puts us back together again. Saussy agrees: “What these various goddesses really tell us is how to move through those losses and see them for what they are.” This is true whether or not someone has the ability or desire to create. We all let things slip away — our innocence, our dreams, our former selves — and this aspect of our psyche arrives to guide us through that grief. She ushers us out of denial and into acceptance, where we can feel right and whole again.

Perhaps this new paradigm of the feminine divine can become a battle cry for a new generation of spiritual seekers — and it will be a battle, because what we’re fighting for is more than political. The archetype of the woman as goddess and goddess as mother has woven itself deep into our society’s intellectual and spiritual fabric. But when we acknowledge the meaning behind those archetypes — the traumas we’ve overcome — maybe then, we can rise above a simple choice and find the lost pieces of our philosophies, and ourselves.