At first glance Moonee Ponds, a suburb in the north of Melbourne on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land, is all suburban brick homes, main roads and supermarkets. But 10 minutes’ walk from the train station, across from a dental surgery, is a two-storey Victorian shopfront. This is where the Goddess is worshipped.
It’s an evening in mid November, and Beltane, the Celtic festival of fire, is taking place. This is also Buath Garru: grass-flowering season, a celebration related specifically to living on Naarm. Seventeen women from their early twenties to late seventies enter the building, where they are welcomed at the door by a smoke cleansing: a woman waves a smouldering bunch of fragrant herbs selected for the ceremony.
The Gaia Temple is a sanctuary of wooden floorboards, white walls and high ceilings. Translucent white blinds are lowered over tall windows, creating a soft enclosure. Altars for north, east, west and south border the large room, displaying statuettes and colourful art. In one corner is a library – four bookshelves filled with titles such as The Great Cosmic Mother, The Goddess Path and Women’s Rituals. “I am Kali Ma,” proclaims a poster of the Hindu goddess, blue lines radiating from her fierce dark face, “I destroy to create.”
Priestess and co-convenor of the temple Pia Gaia wears a long crimson ceremonial jacket, a golden-wire, triple-moon headband and a goddess pendant that she never takes off. An “earth-based spirituality practitioner”, she studied for three years at the Glastonbury Goddess Temple in England before spending two years initiating as a priestess of Rhiannon, goddess of love, sacred sexuality and sensuality.
“This is a season for celebrating the vitality and passion of life and love,” she says to the group gathered in a circle around a centrepiece of yellow flowers, red cloth and candles. “A time of year where everything is blooming, the smell of flowers is thick in the air, calling out to be pollinated.” Beltane, she explains, was a traditional ceremony where people celebrating would take many lovers in the night, going wild in the fields. She describes what is planned for the ritual, in order to explain “the energies we are working with”, and to outline what to expect. A trauma-informed practice, she later tells me, means giving an overview to help people feel comfortable and give consent.
After an Acknowledgement of Country, the circle is cast: instruments are handed out and the women present are invited to sing and dance to a chant Pia learnt from American witch and activist Starhawk: Air moves us / fire transforms us / water shapes us / earth heals us / and the balance of the wheel goes round and round. This is “calling in the elements”, a practice designed to ground each person in the environment. Then, each woman stands and acknowledges her “motherline” by naming her mother, and her mother’s mother. (The Gaia Temple welcomes all genders; but the flavour of the events attracts mostly cis-women.)
In the centre of the circle is a bowl of lush fruit: cherries, mangoes, strawberries. Grinning exuberantly, Pia invites every person to choose one, to hold it in their hand, notice its shape, colour, texture; to smell it, place it on their tongue, allow the taste to unfold, to savour. It is intimate, awkward, exciting. Some of the women giggle as they gaze at and stroke pieces of fruit.
A priestess-in-training (one of the students in the Gaia Temple’s two-year-long Goddess Studies course) hands out a range of soft silks and bright saris. Pia asks the participants to place these over their heads and retreat into their inner world. She guides a meditation for each person to invite the goddess of love, fire and passion to come and dance, and as they dance together she will reveal what is in each of their own hearts. A song by American neo-Celtic singer Kellianna plays – I choose life, yes! I choose courage / to dance among the flames – and the women throw off the veils to walk in a procession, drumming, into the garden, which has been transformed from a backyard with a shed into a ceremonial space with a row of flickering tea lights. Luckily, the forecasted thunderstorm is still several hours away, and the weather is clear for the outdoor ritual. “Jumping over the fire towards your lover is a Beltane practice,” Pia says. As women take turns to run-up and vault over the lights, they are invited to hold their passion in mind, and to leap towards what they most desire.
This sort of seasonal event happens every six weeks or so at the Gaia Temple, a collaboratively owned and newly renovated building. It’s a community space for people to connect to the Divine Feminine through personal development workshops or sacred rituals. Places such as these aren’t just in suburban Melbourne: there’s a Temple of the Global Goddess in Maitland, New South Wales; high priestesses conduct ceremonies in Perth. Every year groups from across the country unite at the Goddess Conference Australia.
According to Patricia Rose and Tricia Szirom in their 2011 book Gaia Emerging: Goddess Beliefs and Practices in Australia, the goddess community in Australia consists of “individuals and small groups who understand their lives to be connected to the earth and the seasonal cycles, and who use female language to describe this connection”. The authors – both also practitioners – call Western modern-day goddess worship a type of “neopaganism” that draws from pre-Christian philosophies, Pagan beliefs, feminism, Eastern religions and modern Christian styles of worship.
This is a truly postmodern spirituality, born in a century marked by popular fury at authorities’ betrayal. It’s also a pastiche of myth from the supermarket of globalisation, sometimes dripping with new-age sentimentality. There is no strict doctrine, organising power or governing bodies. Even so, there are common threads that crop up: idealisation of Anglocentric pagan roots, anguish at modern alienation from land; an attempt to connect to ancient lineage, both real and imagined. There is also the deliberate feminist effort to resist patriarchy by flipping the gender of omnipotent divinity. Drawing from feminist revisionist scholars such as Merlin Stone, Marija Gimbutas and Robert Graves, devotees believe that, in archaic times, cultures around the world originally worshipped female deities: Inanna the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility and war, the Snake Goddess in Crete, Pele the Hawaiian volcano deity and many more.
One might ask if it is possible to worship a goddess while understanding the political and racial implications of coopting tidbits of world religions. Resisting such a miscellaneous approach, however, could replicate values that mirror those of white supremacy. Decades ago, when Irish-American radical feminist Mary Daly made the case for goddesses as an alternative to Christianity, she referred to Roman, Greek and Celtic figures. In 1979, the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde famously wrote an admonishing reply to this Eurocentric white feminism: “Where was Afrekete, Yemanje, Oyo, and Mawulisa? Where were the warrior goddesses of the Vodun, the Dahomeian Amazons and the warrior-women of Dan? … I began to feel my history and my mythic background distorted by the absence of any images of my foremothers in power.” Working in the Australian context, the Gaia Temple holds a workshop every year called “Decolonising Magical Spaces”. It’s run by Raphael Lavallee, a Ngarigo-Buhlung person from the Ngarigo and Yuin nations. The closest thing to goddess spirituality’s central philosophy is that all life is precious – and lead thinkers of the movement have linked this to social justice.
Environmental concerns are also part of goddess worship. “The earth is alive and all of life is sacred and interconnected,” Starhawk wrote in The Spiral Dance, her influential 1979 guide to neopagan rituals. “We see the Goddess as immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep, spiritual commitment to the earth, to healing and to the linking of magic with political action.” While these words were written more than 40 years ago, their underlying philosophy has urgent validity in the face of the climate catastrophe.
Today’s Beltane celebration of fertility and sensuality, of desire and fruition, has provided a way to connect followers to the immanent goddess through the earth and its cycles. Tonight, after the ritual comes the feast: everyone has brought a plate to share. Those present include a PhD student researching Egyptian mythology, a sound healer, and some older participants who were part of consciousness-raising groups in the women’s lib movement. The Gaia Temple attracts mystics and activists, and pragmatists exploring alternatives; just as with the creation of any religion, people are responding to the sociocultural context of their time and place. Kali destroys to create. Goddess devotees are experimenting, integrating old stories with new, and giving fresh expression to the divine.
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