(Essay 1) Poet as Initiate: A Rebirth of the Goddess In Contemporary Women Poets of the Spirit by Louisa Calio

Poet as Initiate: A Rebirth of the Goddess In Contemporary Women Poets of the Spirit- I[1]

THERE IS SOMETHING wonderful happening. One could call it a reclamation of something lost or forgotten, certainly something distorted and suppressed. It comes by many names: Moon Goddess or Divine Mother, the feminine consciousness and yin spirit. It is the half of divine consciousness omitted in traditional worship of the Father God. SHE is reemerging today as the result of the in­ner work of a growing number of women artists who, while in search of themselves, amid confusion of masculine and feminine roles in their own time, came upon a larger vision for all time – a mystical feminine revelation.

Women poets of the spirit, as I call them in these essays often began their journey unconsciously. Whether the quest is for love in friend or mate, or to understand herself better in the context of feminine history. Each poet eventually finds she is locked into a spiritual initiation. Like mythic heroes of old, the poet ventures innocently into the cave of her own sleeping dragons and rouses demons of the soul. Once awakened, these denizens of the deep are not easily controlled or put back to sleep. They churn up unconscious feelings and chal­lenge the basic personality, the poet as she thought she was. Risking everything, the poet must go more deeply to face most ugly inner feelings. Although she has no mystery school to teach her and is therefore unprepared for a spiritual ordeal, she plunges ahead courageously, spurred onward by an energy larger than the self. If she passes the tests that often appear most difficult as she nears the end of her search, she will find, as these poets did, that the Goddess awaits her! Here she finds the true sources of the self. Thus, are the poems contemporary testament to the ex­perience of initiation into the feminine divine consciousness. [2]

The Great Mother or Moon Goddess, as this experience was once called, is a form of divine revelation. Although God is often described as beyond the polarities of masculine and feminine, one road the soul can take before reaching the supreme pinnacle is through the mastery of these polarities. Certainly, we cannot become whole while deny­ing the feminine aspect of the soul as is the case in Judeo-Christian tradition.

The feminine aspect of the divine is as real as woman and man and belongs to both. In ancient times, people were initiated into the rites of the Divine Mother or learned to experience divinity in know­ing her. This experience involves harmonizing our nature with the divine will, or the spirit made manifest in matter, and the aspects of the self that are creative and loving for divine intention.

Two modern pioneers in the journey into feminine consciousness are Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Plath and Sexton’s works appear ten years earlier than the new wave of women poets of the spirit. They did not yet have a contemporary collective group from which to draw sustenance. Like Sojourner Truth, each had to rely on her own reading of experiences of religious intensity. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel offers us a vision of a woman’s encounters with the destructive energies that precede the birth of the new. In her work, we meet the goddess in exile, a time characterized by a lack of appreciation and abuse of feminine qualities. As Egyptian legend tells us when she is exiled, SHE is filled with the devouring rage of a lioness who destroys all false gods who do not pay her homage. Feeling betrayed by many false deities: daddy, husband, children, even other women, the poet in Ariel is swamped by the voices of outer authority that have taken over her center, looming larger than her own life. How can she be herself, know a self, when she hears only the needs and demands of others, of past roles, the calls of biology, and not the still small whispers of her own soul?

Confronting this tyranny in a scathing poem: “Daddy” Plath writes with the pen as sword. Daddy symbolizes far more than a personal father complex, although he is there too. Daddy is all our inherited outer authority that denies the value of the individual and our right to choose. Seen within a spiritual framework, daddy is the devil stealing our spirit and making us serve the goals of materialism, patriarchy and war, even though it kills us. Politically, he is a Fascist who uses cold, cruel, violence to get what he wants and believes he is the superior controller. Daddy is the masculine counterpart to a feminine askew, the helpless, frightened victim in a shoe. Starting with the voice of the inner child, she writes in her famous lines,


You do not do, you do not do

Any more black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot, ..

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Then shifting to the rage of the devouring goddess, she continues,

Daddy I have had to kill you …

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You  [3]

The rules of 19th Century perfectionism inherited from colonial Europe had so narrowed our forms of acceptable self expression and forced us into behavioral molds that made us play dead to the calls of our true nature, we lost ourselves and buried our feelings in a subterranean territory of the psyche until we exploded or imploded. Women were traditionally taught to nurture others and sacrifice personal desire in order to help the man out in the world so that the family could survive.  As many women obtained higher education, we began to assume new roles while still playing many traditional caretaker roles simultaneously and perfectly, receiving little outer support or genuine nurturing from family, friends or society. The toll of these crushing demands were imperiling as we pushed past all prior limits and identities and in so doing sometimes became initiated. Some of our predecessors were physically annihilated by the pain of warring parts and impossible demands we faced that led one to self destruction rather than transformation of “daddy.”

Sylvia Plath attempted suicide in her adolescence and later committed suicide as an adult. The pain of constriction overcame her. The poetry of her vulnerability is almost unbearable to read. She identifies with the outsider, the persecuted, “the gypsy, the victim, and the Jew,” in spite of her German-American heritage.  Her true heritage, our lost feminine ancestry was longing to be born.

Bursting into our awareness with a startling imagery of religious intensity, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel offers us the God­dess in her destructive aspect, the Goddess in the desert. In this phase, according to early Egyptian legend, the Goddess deserts civilization for the wilds of the Nubian desert because people no longer pay her homage. In her desert, the Goddess transforms into a fierce lioness devouring all who come in her path, but her rage is vital for it rises to destroy false gods who have replaced her. In Ariel it is woman who has many false gods before her: “Daddy” whether he is husband, children and even other women who have taken over her center and loom larger than her own life. How can she serve the Mother, the God in herself, when she is so busy serving the world about her? How can she even hear the God within when the outer world is noisy with demands that appear real and powerful- demands of the material world calling to the woman inside to comply?

How dare she be born in a world without support where other women can’t be trusted. Plath writes of alienating relationships with women and the feminine as well. Women were and still are to a large extent serving the gods of patriarchy. Many of us have known the pain and disillusionment we found at the work place, when other women as hungry for power as any man, would befriend us on the personal and intimate level and then be willing to exploit and betray us when the opportunity came along. And there were those who slept with husbands and thought nothing of it.

The goddess had not been named or celebrated when these poems were being created. SHE was still locked in stone, a distant intellectual collection of ancient history or distorted as a literal Virgin Mary or sinful Eve.  Seeing a false feminine mirrored outwardly and the shadow sides of being a wife and mother, the poet expresses the dark side of nurturing that can suck the life energy from you. Conflicted and transitioning from a time when women’s roles were seen as drudgery and servitude and fostered self hate, Plath dramatically voices the denigrating atmosphere among us here:

Viciousness in the kitchen!

The potatoes hiss …

You peer from the door

Sad hag. Every woman’s a whore

I can’t communicate [4]

Despite or perhaps because of her outstanding academic achievements in a “man’s world” and her marriage to a well known British poet, children, and “success” in what society holds dear, Sylvia Plath was filled with immense despair. These outer achievements when wrested from an inner tyrant are not a joy to behold, nor do they sustain life. Too often they are the result of killing our life force and true desires.

Perhaps these lines became famous, because they expressed the need to exorcise a long-held anger that cramped the female soul near to death under two thousand years of patriarchy. This is no ordinary anger. Daddy is the devil himself and must be seen within a spiritual framework. He is the masculine counterpart to a feminine askew. Tied to the terrors of fascism, daddy and other women are part of a world gone far astray from divine order.

The nar­rator identifies herself with ”victim, Jew and gypsy”. The gypsy may be part of her lost feminine ancestry that is recovered only by “killing” daddy, and the death of what he represents and his seeming power over the narrator is the ritual drama of the female soul reassert­ing her place in the world. The narrator recognizes she must conquer her conditioned fears, because they are a form of compliance:

Every woman adores a Fascist

The boot in the face, the brute…[5]

Part of the power of “daddy” derived from those who unconsciously continue to serve him and the rigid person within who responds mechanically to his show of force. In the world of Ariel, there is a false feminine exposed as well in traditional roles.

My husband and child smiling out of the family photo

Their smiles catch onto my skin little smiling hooks. [6]

The home is a woman-trap rather than expression of divine femininity and other women are not to be trusted either. The kitchen, the hearth the place of nourishment is “vicious.”
Self-hate and its reflection in our distaste for other women are extreme distortions of the feminine that along with other things of this landscape that must be tossed into the cauldron of transformation. These relationships no longer serve woman, man, or God; they do not sustain life just as the desert does not sustain it. From this desert of aloneness, she gathers her inner powers. She is “God’s lioness,” coming not as Mother Goddess but Ariel.

Only when she surrenders all roles and images does the poet enter the void to experience initiation and discover her Soul power. Plath is “God’s lioness, Ariel”

Stasis in darkness

Then substanceless blue …

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning. [7]

The initiate has journeyed to Hades and made a descent into spirit, her true nature. However, if the mother vessel is not ready or strong enough to bring Persephone back, she risks the seemingly endless void of depression where stasis appears to be the answer and death its messenger.  The collective rebirth of the goddess does not occur until the poets of the late sixties and seventies.

Ariel is the center and divine force that enters when all else departs, the Goddess in the desert of the soul and the sound of the voice throughout the collection of poems, a voice powerful enough to meet and overcome “daddy.” In Plath’s last poems, we see transformation, though not the resurrection of the gentle nature of the Goddess after she returns home to her rightful place. Although she was a respected poet and writer married to Ted Hughes a famous British poet she felt exiled in England and the world of men. One cold winter she turned on the gas.

In Anne Sexton, we come closer to meeting the Goddess in a more humble and benevolent aspect. 45 Mercy Street is one of the poet’s last works before her death by suicide and like Plath’s Ariel is complete with an environment of brutish men and a God so cruel he would not stoop to save the nar­rator’s six-year old godchild who is dying from a brain tumor. In “Praying to Big Jack” we hear a sardonic poem that laments in final despair the figure of a God who does not save but executes:

Mr. God,

you of the Cross made of lamb -bones,

you of the camps, sacking the rejoice out of Germany”

dear inquisitor… [8]
In twisted logic of a twisted world we see that if God is man, as he seems to be, then he is as evil as man’s deeds. Mercy, love and com­passion come through another source:

… great-grandmother

kneeling in her whale-bone corset

and praying gently but fiercely

to the wash basin

at five AM

at noon”…[9]

She may appear a little comical, this old female ancestor praying in a corset to a wash basin, but she is determined and loving and like the Goddess both gentle and fierce. She is 45 Mercy Street; and mercy is called for as the narrator struggles through a world gone hay-wire. She focuses on this ancestral figure her ties to nature repeatedly until in the book’s closing poem “‘Consecrating Mother” when she emerges full-blown:

Far off she rolled and rolled

like a woman in labor .. ,

The big deep knows the law as it wears its gray hat,

though the ocean comes in its density …

And in moonlight she comes in HER nudity

flashing breasts made of milk water…[10]

Following some ancient instinct from her feminine deep, the poet experiences an inner law as old and great as the sea. It is a new God emerging at one with the self and yet beyond it. In Sexton she is not yet named Goddess, though she is sacred, motherly, and passionate.

I am that clumsy human

on the shore

loving you, coming, coming


and I wish to put my thumb on you

like the Song of Solomon. [11]

It is not until the emergence of women poets of the seventies we hear the Divine Mother named and reclaimed as the ancient Goddess, One in herself’ and belonging to her own sacred rites. Like Egyptian Isis, she is a sym­bol of feminine consciousness in harmony with the masculine, capable of transforming both man and woman through her compassionate love. She comes to heal the pain and anguish of her predecessors.

(To be continued)

Meet Mago Contributor, Louisa Calio.


[1] A Version of this essay first appeared in STUDIA MYSTICA Vol.VII Spring 1984 under the title “Rebirth of the goddess in contemporary Women Poets of the Spirit.”

[2] R.T. Rundle Clark, Myth and Svmbol in Ancient Egypt. (London: Thames and Heedson. LTD., 1978) pp. 229-230. This is an excellent resource on Egyptian thought.

[3] Sylvia Plath, Ariel (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) p. 49

[4] Ibid ., p. 30-32.

[5] Ibid., p. 50

[6] Ibid., pp.10

[7] Ibid .. pp. 26-27

[8] Anne Sexton, 45 Mercy Street, ed. Linda Gray Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976) pp.18-19. In addition, see poems “Daddy Warbucks” p. 97 and “The Wedlock” p.50 for the male image.

[9] Ibid., p. 4

[10] Ibid., pp. 113-114

[11] Ibid ,. p. 114.

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