Depicting Rape Culture and Victim Shaming in Pagan Art

(Trigger warning: rape)

Nothing particularly untoward or shocking happened to prompt this. I saw a picture on social media in a pagan group. Loads of people liked it. It was the general run-of-the-mill neo-pagan piece of artwork, you will have seen them, a woodland scene, with a path running through the woods… at the far end of the path is a dark, mysterious, strong,  masculine antlered figure, and in the foreground was the feminine, about to step onto the path into the woods. She is young, slim, blonde and naked. This is how the feminine is often portrayed in neo-pagan art.

My first reaction to this, was that in ancient times, goddess figures were rounded, large, big breasts, bellies, hips and thighs. Ample. Strong.

Today the depiction of goddess figures, or indeed any feminine pagan ideal seems to be young, white, very slim, scantily clad or naked, long ‘windblown’ hair, both seductive and seemingly innocent, reminding me of the original Cadbury’s Flake ads in the 1970s – very much the same as the airbrushed depiction of women in mainstream fashion magazines today that peddle an image of femininity that very few women can actually achieve without surgery. Weak. Vulnerable.


Why is our depiction of the sacred feminine so very similar to the image peddled by mainstream consumerist society, used to sell anything from cars to shampoo to chocolate bars to aftershave?

But then, my second though was that there is also another undercurrent going on here…

Despite the masculine here appearing with antlers, this was a spring-time based scene. This is when stags lose their antlers.. so what are the antlers actually signifying here? The neo-pagan storyline is that the young maiden goddess is going to meet her consort in the wild wood, and they will make love, and the land will become fertile again. The neo-pagan storyline later in the year also has a holly/oak king battling for dominance, with one winner for the summer, and the other for the winter. The goddess figure takes whichever one is the winner as her new consort.

This is not a new theme. Looking at our native mythology, straight off we can see that Blodeuedd is created to marry a stranger she has never met, with no consent. She then falls for another man later on.  Similarly Rhiannon appears to Pwyll when she is betrothed to a man she does not want to marry, and he then eventually battles Hafgan so that Rhiannon can be with the one she actually consents to be with. Also the Morrighan is raped whilst washing clothes at a ford, but in her story, it is another man who she loves (but who spurns her advances)

So  we can look at this artwork through patriarchal eyes and put together a different scenario to the glossy romanticized version we are fed. We have the feminine going out into nature, into the woods. Along this path she will meet a stranger. He may be dark, mysterious and handsome. Or he may be hairy, ugly, strong, powerful and brutish. She will get fucked by him, whether she wants it or not. The significance of the antlers can be seen that our deer only have full antlers for a short time during the year, when they are full of testosterone, and all they aim to do is fight and fuck. There is no romance, no gentleness, no loving husband or father figure.

What we have in neo-pagan art is a glossy rose-tinted depiction of a much older rape story… How does this fit in with the airbrushed perfection of the feminine that we have today?

The feminine in this type of picture always relates to the maiden aspect of the triple goddess notion that comes with neo-paganism. It is never an old woman going through the forest, nor the mother aspect. And here we get to the heart of the matter of the change from the divine feminine being the willendorf goddess type figure to the airbrushed, youthful, slim, scantily dressed version of the maiden. The idea of a triple goddess is an old one, straight away Hecate and the Morrighan come to mind – but they were never in the modern format of maiden, mother and crone, which I believe to be a product of patriarchy, defining the divine feminine, and women, in terms of their breeding potential. Whilst it is true that many women go along with this definition and say it relates to their lives, it is equally true that this model is even more obvious to the misogynistic men in society, who without a thought weigh up women at a glance and classify them into child/jailbait, fuckable, or past it.

Back to the picture – the feminine in the picture is young, presumably the maiden, and in the wheel of the year it seems to be that she meets the divine masculine at the transition into the mother aspect of the cycle. Shes going to get fucked, and the bit we tend to ignore is that our mythology tends to say that this will be rape. Not romance. Not love. Patriarchal eyes have created this scene and presented it as something glossy and romantic, to make the masculine seem handsome and desirable, and not thuggish.

Like porn films from the 1970s, where the male actors were all scruffy unmanicured ‘guy-next-door’ types and the women were all drugged up models gagging for it (a scenario unlikely to happen in real life but portrayed so that the male audience wouldn’t feel intimidated), now we have neo-pagan art where the masculine wants to be seen as dark, romantic, mysterious, rather than a rapist at the end of a dark alley – the girl in the picture has to be depicted as ‘wanting it’. She has to look like the kind of young girl that men want to screw. Wanton, naked or wearing flimsy revealing clothes. ‘Asking for it’…. Hell, he’s practically doing her a favour.
The willendorf goddess type figure hardly fits this bill.  Much more likely to be seen the rape as what it is. Nobody wants to think of their mother getting fucked by a stranger in the woods, so the  patriarchy uses  its other weapon of victim shaming, slut shaming to make this acceptable and rosy-tinted.

I’m wondering how this sits with us today. Many neo-pagans say they are following ‘the old ways’, so if this is the case, then this modern artwork is portraying a potential rape victim as free, desirable and available to the male desire. This is the same scrutiny that many survivors of rape have to go through in the court system, where their manner of dress and previous sexual experience seems to be as much of an issue as whether they actually gave consent or not. I’m not suggesting we should re-write our ancient mythology to fit in with modern sensibilities. These stories are there for us to learn from, so maybe this is one such opportunity.

Should neo-paganism admit to itself that this is not ‘the old ways’ if it wants to portray romanticism? Or should neo-paganism look more to the old myths and actually portray the feminine in a more realistic form and drop the ‘fuck me’ image that would be equally at home on page 3?

The feminine in our myths are fully rounded figures in more than just a physical sense. At times the victim, and at others terrifying and powerful. I am more concerned at how these figures have been manipulated in modernity to be little more than personification of a reproductive cycle. Are we, in the greater scheme of things making rape an object of fantasy? Has the patriarchy enslaved our divine feminine and sold her back to us as a sex object, along with women in general – now seen and understood in terms of her sex appeal to men, her ‘fuckability’ value. How has this happened underneath the radar? How do we say “NO MORE” and free her from the confines of patriarchy, to be fully herself? Should we move away from the mother/maiden/crone way of describing her?

Has our collective view of the sacred feminine been moulded by the male gaze, instead of the feminine view of herself? If this is not what has happened, why do we describe the goddess in terms of her sexual availability to men? Is that really how women think of themselves?


Ancient Myth and Modern Problems

This post follows on from the previous blog article about the creation of story and myth and the layers within them.

Here is a youtube video where Gwilym Morus-Baird goes through his own interpretation of the fourth branch of the Mabinogion and explains how the story of Blodeuedd works on one level as simply a story,  there is also common understanding that this is also a story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes as a sun-god and the changing of the seasons. Gwilym studies the narrative and also brings out another layer that sadly,  is also relevant to today’s society – toxic masculinity.

So we have now seen how modern story and ancient myth although very different on the surface, can both be used in the same way, still conveying very similar messages for us to learn from. Bardic study is not simply learning information and skills that have no use in our modern world. Quite the contrary, this can be one method that changes the way you see your world.

Writing With My Heart in My Mouth

I found this lecture by Australian author Tim Winton enjoyable for several reasons. The book that the lecture is based on is, of course, a form of bardistry – a story that works as simply a story, as well as having an underlying narrative that illustrates something else that is happening within the society that it is based in.

In the lecture itself Tim Winton, although not using the terms explicitly, describes the creation of story as channelling from both the Awen,  and characters themselves –  they are both created and limited by him, yet have their own life and spirit.

During the course of the talk he also shows how he can talk around and through the story to pick out the ‘bigger meaning’ behind the obvious, how the story/myth is used as metaphor for something else, which is what we try to achieve through our bardic training in druidry.

The lecture takes the storyline into conversation. Maybe this is something that is lacking today, as we tend to read our stories solo from books. I can imagine older times when our myths and stories were spoken, to groups so that they became a shared experience, and conversation happened later on to pick out the elements of how the myth is played out in current life, what lessons there are to be learned from it, what societal values are repeated and re enforced by understanding the allegory.

Today we look at our myths as takes from the past, something to learn and perhaps repeat parrot fashion. The stories that last through the ages, although set in different times and values can similarly be dived into, as a lived experience. Look beyond the surface, what are the deeper meanings, how do we see them repeated in our lives today, what insight do they offer us into our lives today? What values do our stories illustrate? What should be be trying to achieve? What is the message beyond simple entertainment that is inside the narrative?

Reclaiming The Pagan Origins of Easter

Here we are at that time of year again where the pagan (and other) communities enter into online spats and debates on social media about the origins of Easter, with modern pagans insisting that Easter has been appropriated by Christians, and vegans criticising the eating of babies (lambs) by psychopathic uncaring carnivores with a lust for blood.

So, my offering into the mix is that both are right, and both are missing the point of what lies behind Easter – an iron age, possibly bronze age ritual, for community healing  and cleansing, the elements of which have survived right to the modern day, hidden but in plain view.

To ‘reclaim’ the pagan origins is a bit of a misnomer as it has had continual practice in one way or another for thousands of years, what we are actually reclaiming is our knowledge of it. Seeing the wood through the trees. The answer is neither to throw away the entire concept in an anti-christian or atheistic manner, nor is it to invent a modern day goddess that seems basically to re-enforce the notion of the feminine role as a fertile womb-on-legs, surely this has had its day by now, a cutesy re-hashing of the patriarchal view of a woman’s place being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.

The Bronze/Iron Age Background:

“The king would perform sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people, taking on the burden of sin, sprinkling blood upon the altar and making burned offerings. This was an annual communal rite. Two identical goats were selected, and their fate decided by lot, as described in Leviticus 16:

“And he shall take the 2 goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the 2 goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon the Lords lot fell and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness”

One goat is sacrificed in the Temple, the other is given to the wilderness…. The priest places both hands on the scapegoat and a woolen scarlet thread is fastened about its head. As is said in Isiah 1:18: ‘Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord:though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’

…Once it reached the mountain top, the red thread was divided. One half tied about a stone and the goat ceremoniously thrown to its death. The passage sited in Isiah alludes to the miraculous changing of the colour of the wool from red to white… there is evidence that the king was once identified with the sin offering of blood, but that a substitution was made…

… To close, the ritual of atonement is designed to carry the sins of the people into the desert. It is propitiatory and cleansing. It is a sacrifice that replaces a human offering, which was once the King and/or a priestess or a woman.”

Quoted from Peter Grey : Lucifer:Princeps

The ritual elements I am seeing in this are sacrifice (substitutions can be made), offerings, sending ‘sins’ away and a colour change from red to white to indicate its completion.

The Biblical Background:

This is probably common sense but there are similarities that seem to indicate the same ritual being carried out in an adapted form… Jesus being the lamb of God, the last supper with his disciples/community/family after which he is sent away along with the sins of mankind. Flogging and crucifixion staining him red with blood and a colour change to shining white three days after his sacrifice at the resurrection.

Obviously Jesus was crucified around the Jewish Passover and the story is that the last supper was part of the passover ritual and celebration for Jesus and his disciples. The Passover is talked about because it influences the event in all of the 4 first books of the New Testament at the point of Jesus’s crucifixion. Its relevance is contextual to the story.
These rituals of the Passover are from the Jewish Torah.  The ritual quoted above may go back to iron /bronze age middle Eastern regions and was Cannite in origin,  prior to the exodus story according to some theologians and historians. The old testament is a skimmed down version of the Torah (without some the commentary).
It has had relevance to our British culture over the past 1500 years.


The Traditional Folk and Modern Background:

It is long accepted that during a conversion process of a population, it is easier if similar festivals/rituals are overlaid upon each other. Generally speaking the population continues much as before , but aligning with the ideology that provides the more powerful magic. For this ritual to have survived in some form from bronze age to iron age through conversion to modern Christianity in this country, I believe there must have been something very similar already taking place here that just needed overlaying and adapting

So here, we look at what has survived and what that can tell us.

Here we get a date of the first full moon after the equinox. Here we also find the notion of  ‘spring cleaning’. Here we also get the power of a whole community (or population) synchronizing in a shared ritual meal of the same food ( sacrificed lamb) at the same time (lunchtime)

Here we have the elements of traditional Easter, without the going to church bit, and without the consumerism of chocolate eggs. I am now wondering if the eggs (white) were originally painted with blood of the sacrificed lamb and taken away and hidden outside, there could then be an egg-hunt to find them again as divination/omens depending on whether the egg is still red, or has been taken (by the faeries?) or has been turned to white again by the elemental forces rain etc (this is pure guesswork on my part)

The Reclaimed Modern Context:

We can reclaim the pagan origins of Easter by taking the the bronze age and surviving folk traditions and combining the shared elements in a way that makes sense in a modern framework. Even the Bronze age version shows signs of adaption and substitution, so it need not be taken as a fixed unalterable text. The vast majority of us cannot make animal sacrifice in the modern world, but we work around this.

The first element is the community/family/tribe coming together and unifying. This means quitting the ‘pagan vs christian’ or ‘vegan vs omnivore’ arguments about the details. Whether you are Christian, pagan or atheist makes no difference, it is the whole community – your family sitting down and eating a shared meal together on the same day, at roughly the same time as everyone else in neighbouring communities and being at peace with each other. If you don’t eat lamb, substitute it. The lamb is a substitution in the first place. Forget blaming Christians for stealing a pagan festival – they have helped preserve it for you for the past 2,000 years. Put your differences aside, and just be together.

The second element is the ‘spring cleaning’ – sending away your disagreements/sicknesses. Your negativity. Call them sins if you like, but you get the drift. ‘Sin’ can also be taken in the context of some misdemeanour or something you have done wrong (offending the gods if you like)  that has brought bad luck/bad health upon you or your family .  This is the part that we have lost in conversion as priestly duties were confined to the church.
But we have the elements from old testament…
Take some white wool or acyrilic yarn and soak it in water based red paint – it is the colour change that is important.
You don’t need to sacrifice a goat or sheep, as in the original ritual this was a carrier for the red thread that held/entangled the ‘sins’. A work-around can be found by taking a prepared forked stick so you have a horned Y shape. If you can, get a stick with 3 prongs, like the Algiz rune (protection, spirit guide, cleansing) and wind the thread around the horns, putting into it your negativity, your quarrels, your differences within your family/tribe/community. Do this how you want, whatever makes sense to you such as using intent, speaking the ‘sins’ into the thread and tying a knot, writing them on pieces of paper and tying them in, or speaking into the wound thread within the horns at the end.
You could use the words from Isiah 1:18 quoted above.
Take these horns away from your local area (to the wilderness) and divide the thread into 2, discard half (throw it away) and tie the other half around a stone. Walk away and leave it. If you have used water based paint or dye, then it should wash out in the rain and the wool turn to white again. You may want to return at a later date to observe this.

Above all, remember this about cleansing your family/tribe/community. It is about unification and putting your differences aside. Removing sickness. Some things may be difficult to clean away, this may be reflected in lack of colour change within the thread. Repetition is the key.

Looking at this from a humanistic point of view, this is the first month after the spring equinox. People in the past will have had to spend the dark winter months cooped up a lot indoors and in each others faces. This still happens today, that people get ratty and fed up with each other. We get a lot of sicknesses through the winter, our vitamin D levels drop and make us more vulnerable to illness. Winter is still the time when most deaths of the old and the young occour. It was a time of dwindling food reserves and eking things out to make sure you didn’t starve.
Around us, at this time of year the plants are just starting to grow now, there is still little new growth to eat, but there is a glut of food in the way of lambs, livestock and wild animals having their young. This, is what I see the pagan origins of Easter are, stripped right back to the roots, it is a time for the family/tribe to come together, to count our losses, to be glad we have got through the hard time of hunger and sickness. We have made it through and this is a ritual to send away our sicknesses, to banish them from our homes and families. Re-enforce our bonds with each other. As the sun grows stronger and the days warmer and longer, the simple act of surviving will become easier. This is a ritual act for the community. It is deep rooted enough to have continuous use in one for or another, for thousands of years.

In Summary

  • The timing of this ritual follows a lunar calendar rather than the solar festivals – this is the ritual for the 4th full moon of the solar year.
  • This assumes the druid/witch/shaman in a functionary position within the family or community, contrasting with the modern assumption of us being observers of nature and using paganism to enrich our personal lives
  • In rural times people would be cramped together in a more communal setting to get through the winter. Arguments, coughs, colds etc are more common and more quickly spread. In modern times winter can be a lonely time in our isolated lives as we tend to travel less, stay indoors – this can lead to older generations today feeling isolated. This time marks the coming of better weather,  we can disperse again – or conversely, we are more likely to go visiting our relatives with the better weather and longer days.
  • Even today this is marked by spring cleaning, and everyone seeming to disperse, to visit family, or have a break or days out over the bank holiday weekend.
  • The basics of the ritual are a family get-together, putting differences aside so we can all disperse for the summer on good terms. The druid uses a spirit trap to take away the dis-eases and quarrels from the tribe to help keep them united and heal rifts.

Try it.