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?