Excerpt from

Gloria Fenman Orenstein --- 1990

The Reflowering of the Goddess, Pergamon Press Inc.

My departure from the Jungian hypothesis first began to take shape in my mind when I interviewed Mary Beth Edelson about her pilgrimage to the Grapceva caves in Yugoslavia. She was a friend of Merlin Stone's, and they both had worked together on the Heresies Great Goddess collective in New York. It was then that Merlin Stone's book When God Was a Woman (1976) began to resurface in my mind, and pierce through the Jungian overlay. It was at that time as well that I realized that to describe the Goddess as an archetype in the psyche was both invalidating to the kind of historical research that Merlin Stone had done, and distorting to the literal genesis of the artistic work of Mary Beth Edelson. In her lecture at the Great Goddess Re-emerging Conference held at the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1978, Merlin Stone discussed the difference between reading about a "goddess cult" in a patriarchal historical text and actually visiting the archaeological sites such as Byblos, Ephesus, Paphos, Catal Huyuk. At an archaeological site or in museums such as those in Heraklion, Istanbul, Beirut, Ankara, Nicosia, and so forth, one might find hundreds of goddess figurines and artifacts. The actual scale of the site, its dimensions, its profoundly awe inspiring setting, often led one to realize, on the spot, that these were no small "goddess cults,'" but rather that this was once an important world religion that had existed over a period of many thousands of years. Mary Beth Edelson's readings about the Goddess and her travels to Yugoslavia convinced me that her artistic and creative imagination was fertilized both by feminist scholarship and by personal pilgrimages. The Goddess that appeared in her work did not emerge from 11 trance state or as an archetype from the collective unconscious. In fact, it emerged from a knowledge of history. Also, politically, it seemed to me that talking about archetypes emerging in the psyches of women was again relegating women artists to the problematic status of unconscious or mad visionaries, a myth from which they had every right to desire to be liberated. It would be only too convenient to discard this new artistic work as the work of women mystics and neo-pagans who were either mad or illuminated by the archetypes of the collective unconscious, when, in my experience, I knew them personally to be conscious creators, and scholars in their own right. This is certainly not to say that Goddess images did not spontaneously occur in their dreams or visions. It is simply to underscore the importance of the actual, lived experiences as well as of the impact of feminist scholarship on the creative works of women artists.

In "An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley" (1989), New York artist, Mary Beth Edelson, accuses critic Thomas McEvilIey of perpetuating the false notion of Goddess art as being essentialist by using the construct of "nature/culture," and, (in a lecture that she attended at the Artemisia Gallery in Chicago), of presenting "feminist work as a hierarchical progression from nature to culture, setting one against the other" (Edelson, 1989, p. 34). She continues to elucidate the patriarchally constructed confusion about this issue saying "you presented what you called "Goddess Art" of the seventies as nature, and deconstructionist art of the eighties as culture" (p. 34). "This construct", she adds, "also advances the idea that women artists working with nature have accepted their bodies and intuition at the expense of their cognitive minds, and that deconstructionist artists have accepted their intellects at the expense of their sensual bodies" (p. 35). Edelson reminds us that "patriarchy profits from the nature/culture construct because the dichotomy works to keep in place treatment of the sexes as they have been historically polarized with a reimposition of rigid notions of male and female" (p. 35).

Mary Beth Edelson, like Merlin Stone, Ursula Kavanagh, Monica Sjoo, and others, has studied the available archaeological and mythological sources about the sites and cultures of the Great Goddess that existed in prehistory and early history (i.e., from an androcentric perspective), and has drawn her own revolutionary feminist matristic conclusions, which then became the focus of all the energies in her art.

Today, in the late 1980s, when one can buy packaged tours to the Goddess sites, and, equipped with majors and minors in women's studies, one can arrive at Delphi or Eleusis in a tourist bus, it is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary it was in the early to mid-1970s for a woman like Mary Beth Edelson to make a pilgrimage to an isolated site like that of the Grapceva Cave on Hvar Island off of Yugoslavia. Yet, she went there as an artistic pioneer in order to perform private rituals of herself in a fire ring in the cave, so that she could reexperience the energies once felt by those who celebrated the Earth as the Great Mother and the cave as Her sacred womb.

The flamboyant image of herself seated within the fire ring in the cave has almost become an emblem of feminist spirituality, so often has it been reproduced. In a recent interview Mary Beth Edelson elaborated on the ecofeminist context, which had always been the larger framework of her art. Her oeuvre resonates with the new thinking represented by Fritjof Capra and Charlene Spretnak in that she defines her creative process as one that visualizes the interconnectedness of all things human and nonhuman. She talks about her process being liberatory, because it is one of "not yet knowing," a concept that was inspired by reading Susan Griffin's writing. She is not constrained by preexisting solutions, categories, or so-called objective observations. Rituals are the form par excellence, the perfect vehicle for getting at new knowledge through an attitude of "listening to the universe of other people" (Edelson, personal interview, Winter 1988). Within an overarching desire to save the planet and to challenge all myths about the inferiority of the female, Edelson tries to acknowledge the primal forces both of the dark and of the light in making her "descent to the Goddess." In some of her earliest works on the Goddess such as Old Myths/New Myths (1973) andWoman Rising/Our Story, Edelson installed story-gathering boxes in which she collected personal stories from the public that helped to reveal our mythology-in-the-making. They range from mother and father stories and tales of one's life, to Goddess stories, stone stories, and stories about women's lost herstory and women's feminist matristic future. These stories are exchanged through the piece and through publication, like the exchange of vital nutrients, or of pure, fresh air, that when inhaled, combats the toxins in the gynecology of the female system.

Two important ritual pieces that concern the cycles of history, and function to acknowledge both the cycles of lamentation and celebration are Your 5,000 Years Are Up (1977, Mandeville Gallery, University of California at La jolla) and Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era (1977-A.I.R. Gallery, New York City), In Your 5,000 Years Are Up eight shrouded figures lift off the back wall of a gallery, as they slowly become inhabited by women, who then glide into a room where other women are sitting in the center of a huge fire ring. The shrouded figures weave circles around the fire ring, as chants are sung of women's rebirth from their isolation, via the circle, where pain is exorcised and anger expelled. The ritual ends with chanting and dancing, as women celebrate their new-found solidarity, and join together to rise up against the injustices their sisters suffered under patriarchy. Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era, which was performed in conjunction with the exhibit of Proposals for: Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era, was inspired by Edelson's meditations on why Goddess worship was stamped out. The exhibit documented her pilgrimage to and ritual in the Neolithic Grapceva Cave on Hvar Island in Yugoslavia. The ritual installation included a great archway crowned by the Horns of Consecration, and covered with photographs of women's hands reclaiming symbolic gestures and signs such as the "mano cornuta," now understood in a positive way as a sign of the horns of the Moon, and indicative of the Goddess. The fire ladder symbolized both a hasty pyre on which witches were often burned, as well as transcendence, its more traditional meaning.

During the ritual, participants read aloud the names of real women and men who were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Then, everyone filed out of the gallery, and a procession wound its way through the streets of Soho in New York City to the chant of “The Goddess is here; the Goddess is us."