Many spiritual traditions refer to the “male-female”* polarity, which in Paganism is commonly represented by the Goddess/God. In modern times, many are put off by this concept of gender separation, seeing it as limiting and simplistic. The lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community, for instance, is at the forefront of these issues, making us redefine strict gender definitions through drag queens, butch lesbians, and transsexual culture. However, for the sake of understanding many spiritual texts, myths, and symbols in art and literature, it’s useful to understand what exactly the “male-female” polarity is all about. In this post, I’ll be discussing just the “female” or “feminine,” which can help us understand the Goddess in us all

Nurturing/Nourishment

Possibly the most obvious characteristic of the “female” or “feminine” is nurturing and nourishment. Women give birth, and their bodies are set up to nourish their young. This is basic biology. In all cultures, including the West, responsibility for children is still placed primarily on the shoulders of mothers. Witness the number of fathers who walk away from the care of their children versus the much smaller number of mothers who do this. It’s almost as if nurturing is programmed into the female mind.

As a symbol, however, the “female” or “feminine” is the nurturer in all of us. Men are no less capable of nurturing. Take a man in the health care profession. Male doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel nurture people daily by healing them, displaying compassion for their suffering, and making them as comfortable as possible, all nurturing activities.

We can also see the “female” or “feminine” as the self-nurturer. The image of a mother and child so popular in art can, on a personal psychological level, represent the nurturer within who nourishes the growth of new ideas, a new identity, a new self, etc. There’s something very soothing about seeing a mother nurturing her child, and this resonates on a deep psychological level. I think it’s because we all need to learn to nurture ourselves, and the mother-child imagery is a concise representation of that.

At the same time, the nurturer can become over-indulgent or smothering, and this is the dark side of her. An example of this is in the myth of Ilmatar and her son, Vainamoinin (a Scandinavian hero). She’s a goddess of creation and was impregnated by the sea. Vainamoinin, however, dwelt in her womb for years until he finally forced his way out because he couldn’t stand the narrowness of the womb. The over-protective nurturer keeps us where she thinks it’s safe, which really just means the familiar, and thus prevents growth. The loving nurturer, on the other hand, promotes growth by building in us the confidence to stray from our comfort zone.

Painting of mother and naked baby from early 1900s

"Mother and Child in the Conservatory" by Mary Cassatt (1906). From the New Orleans Museum of Art. In the public domain.

Intuition/Unconscious

The “female” or “feminine” is also a classic symbol of the irrational. She represents things we know without being able to explain how we know it (including intuition, gut feelings, and extrasensory perception). In myths, this aspect of the “female” or “feminine” is represented by the woman with secret knowledge or who outsmarts the hero or villain. The sorceress, for instance, is sometimes a representation of harnessing this irrational knowledge and directing it.

The unconscious is traditionally viewed as irrational and thus associated with the “female” or “feminine.” This is actually inaccurate. The unconscious has its logic, but that logic works completely differently from the conscious logic that we’re familiar with. The strength of the unconscious lies in the mysterious way it synthesizes information. Synthesis means combining different ideas. It’s like a super-computer that makes associations and connections that are so meaningful, they lead to inspiration and illumination. The “female” or “feminine” represents this process of inspiration or illumination.

However, irrationality can take control of us in extreme situations. As nurturer, the “female” or “feminine” is also protector. Combined with the powerful “behind the scenes” computations the unconscious performs, we’re sometimes driven to destructive behaviors without understanding fully why we’re doing what we’re doing. We see it’s destructiveness, but the irrational impulse is too strong for pure reason to overcome. This is the image of the “female” or “feminine” as life-destroyer (as opposed to the life-giving nurturer).

Emotions

The “female” or “feminine” is classically associated with feelings. This goes along with the irrational aspect, but just as the unconscious isn’t really irrational, so emotions aren’t really irrational. Andrew Seubert in The Courage to Feel puts it this way:

The feeling…is always doing its job [as a messenger alerting us to deal with something]. It is the erroneous perceptions, thoughts or beliefs that can set off an emotional response that misdirects us and prevents us from dealing effectively with our environment.

If, for instance, someone criticizes something we do and we get irritated, that irritation is telling us something about what we believe about this person and/or his criticism. Perhaps we believe he’s plain wrong. Perhaps we think he has something in particular against us. Perhaps we feel above him intellectually or morally and think he has no right to criticize us. The emotion is a nudge to investigate what’s really going on.

The “female” or “feminine” has by turns been associated with a higher morality and a lower morality than the “male” or “masculine.” I believe that the emotional aspect of the “female” or “feminine” is more closely linked to morality than immorality. This comes out of my personal experiences with emotional abusers. When we’re cut off from our feelings, we can rationalize anything. Emotions allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s place. The moment we feel what someone else is feeling, the rationale behind hurting them breaks down. Our behavior becomes more moral as a result, at least when dealing with others.

There’s great energy in emotions, which makes the “female” or “feminine” represent a hidden store of energy. Passion and desire move us to make things happen. Anger moves us to do something about a bad situation. Fear motivates us to avoid some threat. If you’ve ever held back your emotions for a long period of time and then suddenly gotten the courage or the chance to release them, you know the vigor it produces. Suddenly a burden has been lifted and we feel like we can conquer the world.

Physical Body/Sensuality

The “female” or “feminine” is often, though not always, associated with the earth. Certainly in Paganism this is so. The earth is symbolic of the world of the senses, which includes the physical body and sensuality (taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight). This is in direct contrast to male-centric religions, which emphasize the soul over the body. Paganism delights in the senses.

Last week, I wrote about Feraferia and its utopian philosophy of paradise on earth through a change in lifestyle. Although extreme in its idealism, we can see the celebration of the sensual as a way to experience paradise on earth. The vibrant colors of the first spring flowers is a joyful sight to the eyes. The smell of fresh basil when picked from the garden is a joy to smell. The gentle pricking of grass and the coolness of the shade of a tree are glorious sensual experiences on a hot summer day. This is all within the realm of the “female” or “feminine.”

As I noted above, the morality of the “female” or “feminine” is ambiguous. Sometimes, for instance, she’s seen as the guide to higher levels of moral greatness (for instance, Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy). Sometimes, however, she’s the temptress, the slave to her sensual desires. This comes from the association of the “female” or “feminine” with the material world. Because she represents delight in the sensual, she sometimes also represents enslavement to the physical world and a warning not to like it too much for fear this will prevent us from rising to the level of the Spirit.

By recognizing some of the layers of symbolic meaning of the “female” or “feminine,” we can gain a richer understanding of how the female figure has been represented in spiritual texts, myths, and artwork. We can also call upon the Goddess in times when we need the strengths that are particularly associated with the “female” or “feminine” (nurturing, healing, nourishment, soothing, etc.). Although there is no rule book that says we must turn only to the Goddess under such circumstances, it gives us some ways we can relate to Her.

* When discussing “male-female” polarity, I always place quotation marks around these words to emphasize that these are concepts and not to be taken literally. If there are no quotation marks then I’m referring to physical gender.

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, run by Rowan Pendragon.