Interview with Morwen Two Feathers on Goddess Spirituality and Drumming
April 16, 1998
Interviewed by Jana Anderson, Tufts University student
Jana Anderson: Would you say there is a Goddess religion in the United States today?
Morwen Two Feathers: Well, the short answer is yes, absolutely. The slightly more complicated answer is there's not A Goddess religion, that is it's not a single religion in the way that we tend to think about religions that have labels. It's got a lot of different diverse elements. I see Goddess religion as an aspect of a larger category that I call "Pagan," which has to do with being earth-oriented. Most of the Pagan earth-oriented religions acknowledge that divinity has both male and female aspects and the female aspect of divinity is conceptualized as "Goddess." I think that in terms of the way that Goddess-oriented spirituality is manifesting in religious or spiritual practice, in this country there is definitely what I would call a Goddess-oriented spiritual practice that you can find, but it's not organized as one religion at all.
JA: So what characteristics might identify or distinguish a Goddess tradition or spirituality?
MTF: Goddess spirituality acknowledges the feminine aspect of the divine -- however people conceptualize it, "Goddess" tends to be this catch-all that covers a lot of different ways of understanding that there's a feminine aspect to the divine. In some elements of Goddess tradition, the Goddess is really emphasized and the male element is somewhat subordinated to that -- the Goddess is seen as the prime creator. In others there's a balance -- a male/female balance -- and so to call it a Goddess tradition may be misleading to the extent that it implies it's to the exclusion of the male side.
JA: Does that apply equally to ancient and current Goddess traditions?
MTF: Archaeologically it appears that in very ancient traditions, divinity was first conceptualized as female, and I think that probably can be related to a lack of understanding of the male role in procreation. In the earliest years of human society, the connection between sex and conception was not all that obvious. And the theory goes that in the earliest years of human...um...I don't really want to use the word 'civilization' because that's used historically to refer to a particular thing -- but in the earliest years of human tribal life, the creator aspect of life was identified with the female because it was the female that appeared to spontaneously give life and to create life. The understanding of the male role came a little bit later, and not long behind that came the male desire to control procreation, because the only way that a man can be sure of who his offspring are is to control female sexuality, and we all know what happened as a result of that.
JA: You mentioned Paganism before; what is that exactly, and is it just an umbrella term for Goddess traditions, or...
MTF: The word 'pagan' comes from the Latin term 'paganus', which was the Latin term for country-dweller, and it originated when the Roman empire was spread all over Europe. Around 300 AD Constantine, who was the Roman emperor, adopted Christianity as the official religion of Rome. So Christianity was established in the urban areas that were the Roman centers throughout the Roman empire, which included most of northern Europe as well as southern Europe and parts of northern Africa. And particularly in Britain where, because it was an island it was somewhat isolated from the rest of the continent, -- and that's the place that I know the most history about what happened was that when Christianity was being observed in the urban areas, out in the rural areas where the country-dwellers were, they were still following the old religion. In fact, even after the priests went out into the countryside and established little parish churches out there, they found that the people's connection to the cycles of nature and their traditions was very strong... the Earth religion is based in the cycles of nature and also had a strong Goddess aspect to it, and it was much easier to continue to allow those things to go on, as long as people came to church on Sunday. And so for hundreds of years in Britain, people went to church on Sunday and then they were still doing all the old pagan things.
JA: So what's the time period here?
MTF: We're talking...Christianity first came to Britain it was really pretty widespread by around 5 to 600 AD, and for a long time and throughout the whole medieval period people in the countryside were still doing the Maypole, and even today a lot of those traditions still exist. Even a lot of the Catholic holidays are based on the wheel of the Pagan year. So, for example, Candlemas, which is February 1, was originally a holiday called Imbolc; it's the quarter day between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and the Christians put a saint's day there. They put a saint's day on Lammas which is the day half way between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox.
JA: So they converted Pagan rituals and traditions into a way that was acceptable to them.
MTF: Exactly. They took what the people were already doing and they just sort of grafted a Christian thing on top of it and... I'm simplifying it, it was much more complex than that, but essentially to get back to your original question - the word 'pagan' was a reference originally to what the people were doing in the countryside, which was still the old religion. Later it became really derogatory - from the Christian perspective, a Pagan is someone who worships the devil. The devil is... I mean Satan, of course, is totally a Christian construct. But the devil with horns that seduces women and all that is a reference to the god Pan, who was the youthful Goat God who had horns and seduced women! Now, there's something called the neo-Pagan movement, which in my understanding is sort of a generic umbrella term that refers to a great variety of spiritual and religious perspectives that are based on recognizing the natural world as sacred.
JA: Would you say it's more a way of life, then, not a structured religion?
MTF: Well, within the diverse neo-Pagan tradition there are some religions that are very structured, like for example there is the Wiccan religion in which there are organized churches that are recognized by the US government, that have liturgy and specific ways of worship. It tends not to be very dogmatic, but it does certainly have things written down and it's recognizable as more of an organized religion than some of the more eclectic, less structured Pagan things that people do. But the connection to the Goddess is that in the monotheistic religions, the worldview has separated humans from the rest of the natural world, separated mind from body and elevated mind as being part of spirit and body as not being part of spirit. The Pagan traditions recognize the physical world and all of nature as being sacred, and therefore it's much more hospitable to the notion of a female divinity complete with blood and birth and bodies and sex and all the rest of it, and recognize all those things as being sacred.
JA: Have there been Goddess traditions in this country since the arrival of colonials and whatever traditions they brought... aside from the Native American traditions with the arrival of colonials...
MTF: I would say probably not, because the Europeans that came here were despite the fact that they were leaving religious persecution in Europe when they came here, they were still very strongly within a Christian, Puritan perspective. They were not at all connected to the Goddess tradition. However, there is some dispute about how much the current Goddess or Pagan traditions have been passed on in an unbroken line, and how much they've been reconstructed or made up by modern people, and there are some claims that there have been certain elements of Goddess tradition and witchcraft that have been passed on through families, all through the Inquisition and through the Reformation and all through this whole modern period. There's very little in the way of actual proof of that -- there are people that maintain that that's the case, and there certainly were accusations of witchcraft and so on from the very beginning of colonial times. There are differences of opinion about whether those represented real vestiges of Goddess worship or something else... a lot of times it was just political.
JA: Why do you think there is growing interest today in Goddess traditions and religions?
MTF: It's the same reason why there was a rise in the women's movement...and by the way, the neo-Pagan movement is not new. You can trace its origins back to the 50s... and right around that same time the beginnings of the "second wave" of the women's movement and the environmental movement, the dawning recognition that the growth of the patriarchal, technological, capitalist system is destroying the planet we live on, and so it's all part of a values shift towards a more holistic way of looking at the world.
JA: So do you think that during those movements thorough the 50s, 60s and 70s that there was growing interest -- was it a resurgence -- or were these traditions always there and it was just with the more politicized movements and also the popular media that we're now more aware that it's there.
MTF: I think there is a real resurgence. I think there may have been a kernel of stuff there. I think that what those political movements did was to sort of prepare the ground for those seeds to grow. They weren't the direct cause but they did create the spread on a more general level throughout the culture of an awareness of women's power, and the complaints that women had about the ways that they had been excluded from the public sphere of life and also from religion. And so a lot of this whole preparing the ground thing came from women within the Judeo-Christian tradition who were starting to do feminist analysis of the Bible. They didn't necessarily start out from a Pagan or Goddess-oriented point of view but they ended up there. In Merlin Stone's When God was a Woman -- very powerful -- she went back and looked at the early history of the Hebrews and started to look at what was the larger social and cultural environment at the time, and it was totally Goddess oriented. And so when people started to criticize organized religion they started to look at the political implications of it, the political implications of spirituality and sexuality and childbearing and all these things that were just thought to be private and personal, not political. It wasn't a very big leap from there to looking at the Goddess and all that other stuff. I think that there has been a real rising interest. I don't think it's just that the media is paying more attention to something that's always been there. I think it's changing.
JA: What role does drumming play then in Goddess religions and paganism? Or does it?
MTF: I think the easiest way for me to answer this question is to give you a brief sort of historical overview based on my experience. When I first became involved in the Pagan community in the Boston area, which was about fifteen years ago, there was not really a lot of drumming going on. There was a little bit of drumming and it came mostly from the belly dance, Middle Eastern traditions There was a beginning of a recognition of the spiritual aspect of belly dance, which has this aura of being kind of sexist and women performing for men and stuff, but it has an earlier history of being a dance about sacred sexuality. In fact some friends of ours, The Goddess Dancing, have been exploring this and doing research for years and they believe that it was originally a dance to do with birth. ..They believe that it's a sacred dance about the nature of sexuality and that it's ultimately about women's power. But at any rate, I don't know how conscious people were about that, but there started to be this drumming tradition and there was starting to be some interest among white people in general in drumming and specifically African drumming. What I think happened was that people discovered that drumming is a very profound way of accessing altered consciousness, particularly in groups.
In the Pagan community, one of the elements of Goddess worship, and particularly the Pagan tradition that's known as Witchcraft which traces its roots to northern European pre-Celtic cultures, has to do with what's called 'magic.' Magic is essentially the use of intentions and altered states of consciousness to effect change. Magic has to do with recognizing that there's the mundane world that we live in, and then there's another realm of energy. It's based on the belief that if you effect changes in the energetic realm, it has impact on the physical world because they're interconnected with each other. So the practice of magic has to do with accessing that not-ordinary realm through altered states of consciousness to effect certain energetic changes, in order to create change on this plane. If you think about that for a minute you recognize that there are some real similarities to the shamanic worldview there. The man that was my original teacher in the Craft, Andras Corban Arthen, believes that witchcraft as we know it today is the vestige of shamanism that was actually the pre-Celtic tribal shamanic way. And it stands to reason, because there's been shamanism all over the rest of the planet, and it stands to reason that the ancient Europeans would have had shamanic, spiritual practices as well.
JA: And that's distinct from witchcraft?
MTF: He's saying that witchcraft is sort of the descendent of that, that it is a shamanic practice by nature and that's where it has its origins but it hasn't been recognized as that. Within the Craft community there are also some traditions that are very ceremonial and liturgical and full of ritual in the sense of, almost like high Mass. There are people -- recovering Catholics I call them -- who are reproducing the piece of their childhood spiritual tradition that really touched them, which is the incense and the music and the high ritual. And so there are Pagan versions of that which have different content but some of the same emotional overlay, and these people are claiming that that stuff was Pagan in the first place because it affects all the senses, it involves all the senses in the worship, and the Catholic Church took it. In fact, I think thats the reason the Protestant Reformation was so vehement about getting rid of all that stuff... The Protestant tradition is really much more cerebral -- they said it was about rejecting the Pope, but that was just politics of the time. I think what was really going on is that they recognized that that high ritual stuff is very Pagan and it involves the senses and the body in a way that the Calvinists and the Lutherans didn't want.
JA: And the Catholic Church probably used it because it was a power base, because it was something that was familiar to the people so that people would participate in the Church.
MTF: Exactly, exactly. It was a way of getting people in. That's exactly right. So let's see, where were we. There's this notion that witchcraft as we know it today is really ... as opposed to being the high ceremonial thing, that it's really a descendent of European shamanism. I think that's right on. If you look at it that way, you can start to understand why it would make sense for drumming to be connected. What happened from my point of view was that when drumming came into the Pagan community, it greatly accelerated the growth of the community, and the power that was being raised there. It really had a big impact on the community. And I think its fair to say that Earth Drum Council was a major influence in bringing drumming into the Pagan community here in the northeast. Because before we started doing what we were doing, there was some drumming around but it was not really a major focus and most people didn't understand what it could do. At our Earth Drum Council gatherings we started bringing people together to drum with a very conscious intention of creating a container for raising energy into that space and going into that ecstatic realm with the drumming, in a group. Bringing people together, not just as individuals which is powerful too, but there's something about having everybody in a group go there together, and some really powerful stuff happens. Including some intense connections that develop as people do that together. We started doing that at our gatherings, and we were not calling it specifically Pagan but privately we understood that that was exactly what we were doing. Publicly we were just making the drum accessible to people, and then they come in and experience this energy and it starts to change people and change their lives and they want to know more. So then we started bringing people to the Pagan gatherings, and all of a sudden there was a major drum scene happening at the Pagan gatherings, many of which were people that we were bringing in. There's this gathering we go to, Rites of Spring, which is a large Pagan gathering, around 500 people, and it's one of the oldest in the country, this year (1998) is the 20th anniversary. Jimi and I have been going there for...this is the 13th year for each of us, and we met there originally, in 1988. It's organized by a group of people called EarthSpirit here in Massachusetts. At Rites of Spring, which is 5 days long, every single night there's a major scene happening at the fire with drums. Ten years ago, one night there would be a drum thing planned at the fire and it was not very together. Now you can't stop it. It happens whether you plan it or not, and it's really hot because these are people who have been drumming together for a long time now.
JA: So how has that changed the Pagan movement or neo-Paganism and Goddess traditions if ten years ago drumming wasn't really happening or obviously wasn't significantly important?
MTF: What it's done is given people another tool -- a very concrete tool -- for connecting body, mind and spirit in one activity. It's provided a space, this ecstatic space, that's pretty easy for people to access, as opposed to some of the other techniques that you learn for altered consciousness and doing trance work, like meditation and yoga. They're just a little bit more difficult to access, they take more practice. Whereas dancing and drumming are very easy access.
JA: So is dancing a part of it as well?
MTF: Oh, totally, yes.
JA: Was there dancing before drumming or have they always come hand in hand?
MTF: You mean in the Pagan community?
MTF: Well there was dancing separate from drumming; like for example one of things we still do, we have a dance and people are encouraged to dress in costume and change their persona, their identity, and to experiment with different aspects of themselves, and its done with taped music. Dancing has always been there, it's been recognized as a way of accessing those different realms. But there's something very different that happens around the fire with drums. There's still more dancing than drumming -- more dancers than drummers. Not everyone drums, but everyone wants to dance to the drums. Jimi says it's because it's the original, primal... it's like the nightclub and the church all at once, it was the first place where people got together to worship and celebrate together, and so it really touches on very old, ancient memories.
JA: So do you think drumming was used in ancient times in Europe?
MTF: Absolutely yes, I do. As a way of bringing the community together, as a way of worshipping together, as a way of accessing spirit, as a way of healing. I absolutely do, yeah.
JA: Why was drumming absent for awhile from Paganism and Goddess traditions? Was it the role of the church?
MTF: Well, Paganism and Goddess religion went totally underground. It didn't exist at all -- in terms of European Paganism at that time. Because when it did it was totally squelched Well, it's probably not true to say it didn't exist at all, but it certainly didn't exist in any kind of organized or accessible way There are some claims that particular families maintained the traditions that were hidden and underground, especially during the burning times. Anybody who was suspected of having anything to do with it was burnt. It was the Church -- the Church was the all-powerful. And not just the Church but the fact that the Church was completely wed to the State. It was that marriage of Church and State, and the divine right of kings and the whole notion that political power was conferred by religion. And in that environment, not only did anything to do with the Goddess become completely repressed, but of course in popular culture what happened? People started to worship the Virgin Mary. You can't completely get rid of it -- the people always found a way to bring the Goddess in But the drum also was completely outlawed and repressed...
JA: Because it was associated with the Goddess?
MTF: Because it was associated with the body. Ultimately, it has to do with the rhythm in the body. The Church was denying that the body was sacred. That's ultimately where the repression of women came from, too, because women are of the body, much more connected to it, because of our connection to childbirth and all that. The drum was completely taken out of all official worship. In the Christian world, the only place the drum was used for hundreds of years was on the battle field, because it whips people into a frenzy, because of its power to affect the emotional and physical state.
JA: I looked up several books in the library on the resurgence of Paganism and Goddess religions and so forth, and I looked up 'drumming' and 'drum' in the index and none of them had a listing. One of them had one page -- it was a token mention of drumming. Why do none of them talk about it if it's so important?
MTF: Well, I think... because it's hard to explain why it's so important. It's not so much that it's "important" as much as it is that it just is everywhere. You can't go to a Pagan gathering now without hearing drums 24 hours a day, someone's drumming. I've been going to Pagan gatherings for 14 years and we've been doing Earth Drum Council for 9 years, and since we started doing that... The first thing that happened was people started asking us to come to gatherings because of the drums, they wanted us to bring the drums and to teach people how to do it. Now, everybody's doing that. People still want us to come because we bring a certain kind of attitude and approach -- we create a certain kind of space that's really sacred, and not everyone does that. But I will tell you that in the last, I don't know, 5 years or more maybe even, I've been to many, many gatherings, and at any Pagan gathering you go to, almost any time of the day, and I'm serious, 24 hours a day, someone is playing a drum somewhere. And why aren't people writing about it in books? I don't know. There's been very little in the way of actual research done on the Pagan community. There's been a little bit. The only real research project that Ive come into contact with was being done by this sociologist who came to some gatherings I was at collecting questionnaires and doing interviews, and she wasnt interested in the drumming. People who are doing the research are much more interested in things like, what's the religious upbringing of people who then find themselves in the Pagan community, and that's because...you know, kids who are teenagers now are really the first generation to actually be raised in this tradition in a long time. We are creating it. We have no elders. Our elders are direct contact with the ancestors, however that happens. A lot of us are making it up as we go along, guided by Spirit, we are creating our community so that we have a place to raise our kids, and to grow old. This is a brand new area of research and that's why no-one is really talking about it yet.
JA: What sort of drumming happens at Pagan gatherings? Is it just spontaneous, whatever sorts of rhythms people come up with or...
MTF: It really varies. If you go to a fire circle at night...Well, it depends on where you go. If you go to, let's say Rites of Spring, a couple different things happen. Depends on who's there. Now in this area, there's an extended family circle of us, many of whom have taken African drumming workshops together and learned some rhythms in common, and so if there's a group of us together at the fire, we will often play a rhythm that we all know. It provides a framework, and people that don't know it play along, join in, and the dancers do their thing. If a lot of people know a rhythm together, then it can get really loud and hot and fast. Sometimes the people that don't know a rhythm feel a little bit intimidated. Other times people are chanting songs and people are playing simple rhythms behind them, and then again other times it's much more free-flowing and improvisational, especially late at night. What tends to happen is that early in the evening, a small group gathers around the fire and drums, usually without dancers. Then between 10 and midnight or 1 o'clock, there are as many as 200 people around the fire and lots of loud, tight rhythms where a lot of people know the rhythm, and hordes of dancers. And then people go to bed and the die-hards take the third shift which is 2 am till sunrise. At that point there's all kinds of more improvisational, eclectic stuff, often quieter drums, percussion instruments. But people keep it going. There are other times not just at the fire, but people are just getting together and drumming for fun, different places. One place that that often happens, there's a merchant's row, a market place where people come and are selling stuff -- there's almost always somebody drumming down there during the day. Again, it's a combination of set rhythms or people just sort of jamming and playing around.
JA: Where do you think this is all going? Paganism, Goddess worship, drumming, awareness of the Earth and our need to be kinder and gentler...
MTF: Well, I should preface my answer by saying that I am a hard-core idealist. Some people would say I'm a naive idealist, but I like to think I'm an idealistic realist. I recognize what's going on all around me but I choose to hold onto the vision of how it should be because I think that this world needs people to do that. So I hold onto that vision and I articulate it every chance I get, and I'm way out on the fringe with that. I think that what the point is, where is this all going, why I'm doing it, is that we're building critical mass to make a serious change in the world paradigm, because I think that the old paradigm is completely self-destructive and unsustainable. What I've chosen to do rather than try and work within that paradigm to change its direction, which I think is self-defeating and a total drain of my energy, is to put my energy into creating an alternative and to create a space where that alternative way of being in the world is the reality in as many places in my life as I can, and to create a space for other people to come and experience that. It's about tribe, it's about the sacredness and interconnection of everything. Within that is the respect for women and the sacredness of the body and sexuality, female sexuality -- the Goddess for me is a really big symbol of that. For me personally the Goddess is very central to my work and my worldview and my whole being in the world.
return to edc home page