One of the unexpected twists and turns of raising a child is becoming very well-acquainted with popular culture. I hadn’t really seen much commercial television or many movies for a good 15 years before I started watching them with my son and being occasionally surprised and delighted to see goddesses popping up in the oddest places. Most recently I’ve been thinking about double, sister, or mother-daughter goddess pairs. This archetype could be one goddess with both destructive and creator sides, like Kali, or goddesses of both the underworld of the dead and the upper world of the living, like Inanna and her sister Ereshkigal or Demeter and Persephone, or any of many other similar traditions from around the world.
I grew up watching the Wizard of Oz movie, but I hadn’t thought about the two witches as goddess archetypes till recently. They are identical sisters, one “evil” and bent on death and destruction and the other “good” and helpful (with a really great sparkly dress). This past year, I also found a very delightful time traveler by the name of River Song in the British science fiction series “Doctor Who,” one of my son’s favorites. River Song has two aspects – she can be a gun-totin’ avenger who wreaks havoc and beats up evil aliens when she needs to while being at other times a deeply wise, profoundly loving and transformative figure who sacrifices her own life for others. All of these characters strike me as having elements of the double goddesses, as being both “wrathful” and “compassionate,” life-giving and life-taking. As I think about the witches, they seem as if they could be caricatures of the double-goddess, the trappings of the dualities of these goddesses without the depth and spirit, battling rather than transforming and expressing the dualities of life. At the same time, River Song seems to me to be a 21st century version of the double-goddess–well-integrated, powerful, and able to effectively navigate our century (and the future). I doubt that either the witches or River Song were written with any ancient goddess figures in mind, but their similarities and differences, given that they were written about 100 years apart, seem telling to me.
Both the witches and River Song obviously have this double component and each are part of fantasy fiction. Both are theoretically aimed at families with kids. Both, I think, have deeper messages than most entertaining fiction, whether the political issues that supposedly underlie the Wizard of Oz or the Doctor Who values of non-violence (mostly…) and kindness. Quite importantly, both are portrayals of real female spiritual power. In the Wizard of Oz, it is the witches who really can make things happen, whereas the male wizard is just a charade. River Song’s influence is more usually more subtle, making significant transformations in situations and other characters with a few words or a well-placed gift.
At the same time, both have very significant differences. The Oz witches are fragmented into two beings and neither one has any component of the other, rendering them so one-sided as to have no relationship to real women’s lives. In contrast, River Song’s two aspects are well-integrated. She was brainwashed as a child to be an assassin (she has a lot of backstory…), but rather than completely denying that experience, she has made it critical to her ability to both defend herself and others and her wisdom that comes from deep and sad life experience. She is in control of her two aspects and can choose which to express depending on which is needed. This seems to me to be a fairly good description of how real women use their power – acknowledging all aspects of themselves and being able to call on whichever they need to reach their spiritual and worldly goals.
In addition, the witches and River Song seem to me to be moving in opposite directions in terms of stereotypes of women. The two Oz witches reinforce the image of women as “good” or “evil” that has caused so much destruction and repression over the millennia. While again, that was not the intent, the reinforcement, especially given the wide distribution of both books and movie, was real. River Song moves the stereotype towards oblivion by being complex, emotionally human (if not strictly biologically human), and able to use both aspects of herself for good. She also has a healthy sexuality, loving the way she looks and going after who she wants to be in a relationship with.
Of course, the characters were created at very different times. The Wizard of Oz was written in about 1900 before women could vote, when women had few career or life choices, and when only a few pioneers in the western world like Matilda Joslyn Gage considered the importance of female spirituality or ancient goddess archetypes. River Song follows on decades of research, publications, and more public awareness of female divinity in history and in contemporary women, whether any of these consciously went into her creation or not. I like to think that this speaks well of how much more openness to and acceptance of women’s spiritual power there is now than 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago, since I really can’t see a River Song-type character in popular television turning up much before that.
To me, a major task of our generation is to find ways to translate the rich heritage of female divinity, including those goddesses that are millennia old, for our own times. River Song and other characters reflective of positive female divinity are, to me, fresh voices in how to do that, even if this was not an intent of their creation. (The witches in the Wizard of Oz are, to me, reminders of how far we have come. ) I would never have placed a complex wrathful goddess in a science fiction tv show, but she works wonderfully and subtly speaks to the social and ecological issues addressed in the episodes. She and other similar characters may not be responsible for major transformations in how people experience and express their spirituality, but they can be cracks that help open the door to new ways of thinking.
Where are you seeing goddesses in places you didn’t expect?