Is “the goddess is alive and magic is afoot” racist?

Since my first volunteer day at WCBN, I’ve had Buffy Sainte-Marie on my mind (it also happened to be the Sunday prior “Columbus Day”, so maybe that had something to do with it?), and as I was writing today’s adventures in freeform radio for my Tumblr diary, I happened upon her ILLUMINATIONS album, which featured one of the songs that I got one of the DJs today to play on the air, today, though the particular album he played it from was a “best of”.

I noticed that the first track on ILLUMINATIONS (which is also one of the earliest examples of a synthesiser on a pop album, and one of the earliest and *finest* fusions of psychedelic and folk music, in my opinion) is “God Is Alive / Magic is Afoot”. The track was originally a poem by Leonard Cohen, but for those of you unfamiliar with Buffy Sainte-Marie, she’s a Cree folksinger and Red Power activist, a pantheist and Baha’i supporter, and generally totally fucking amazing.

I’m having a hard time pinpointing a year for “the Goddess” version of that phrase that became the title of Cohen’s poem, but considering that Buffy Sainte-Marie was a *very* prominent figure in folk music, at the time, clearly Budapest and everyone else who has written or uttered “The Goddess is alive and magic is afoot” AND who was also aware of things happening in 1969 had to be at least passingly familiar with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s musical rendition of Cohen’s poem. While true that the music press generally ignored ILLUMINATIONS (Sainte-Marie, herself, blames this on the fact that most critics at the time were uninterested in a synth-based record from someone who they preferred to maintain was little more than a “Pocahontas with a guitar” figure —which you gotta admit, is kinda racist), it would have been hard for people involved in the folk music and alternative-religion communities to have completely ignored it.

Now, I’m unsure who first wrote or uttered “the goddess is alive…”, and maybe I’m just too-eager to paint Zsuzsana Budapest in an increasingly-negative light because I’m very well-aware that she has famously uttered it on many occasions when addressing pan-pagan audiences. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this is a way for middle-class white pagan women to subtly undermine “that uppity Native woman”.

…now, there’s a chance, even if a slight one, that “the goddess is alive…” was first written/uttered in response to Cohen’s poem with no knowledge of (or before the existence of) Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song version, meaning it would be a response to and attempt to either compliment or undermine a man of Jewish background (and apparently a convert to Buddhism). That said, if my suspicions prove correct, and “the goddess is alive…” was first said *after* Sainte-Marie’s 1969 album, then the possibility of racist overtones in that phrase simply cannot be played down because few (if any) people uttering it now have explicit animosity toward people of colours….

But let’s think about this a moment:

“The Goddess”, of Dianic and Pop-Wicca traditions, is this all-benevolent Ur-Goddess that aims to compile the “best” qualities of all goddesses of all traditions, but most people who tend to write of this all-purpose Ur-Goddess have an absurd tendency to reference only European goddesses and white-washed Mediterranean and Middle Eastern goddesses. Moreover, “positive” and “healive” magic is “light” or “white magic” to a still-too-high number of people, and “dark” or “black magic” is that which is destructive or regarded as harmful. These terms, contrary to popular assumption, are also not necessarily just benign references to certain aspects of human nature, but can be loaded with racist baggage. As these standards of “white/light magic” versus “black/dark magic” are still too-common and, indeed, a standard in the alt-religion and “magical” communities, the potential for even subtle racism and a wealth of microaggressions based on race cannot be ignored, even in “Goddess spirituality” communities.

If Buffy Sainte-Marie’s record DOES, indeed, pre-date “the goddess is alive….”, even if by only a year, then the potential for racism lining the first utterance of “the goddess is alive…” is, indeed, great. While true that, even in the 1960s, the Trail of Tears was almost a century ago, racism against indigenous people of the Americas was still rather great —and (especially in certain parts of he country) is still great, today. The possibility for even subconscious racism in that first utterance of “the goddess is alive…” as a means of undermining one of the world’s most-prominent Native voices and silencing it with more attempts at “enlightened whiteness” in the women’s and alt-religion movements becomes too great to ignore.

So who first said “the goddess is alive and magic is afoot”? When did that person say it? In what context? How can we be certain that its utterance was without the possibility of racism?

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13 thoughts on “Is “the goddess is alive and magic is afoot” racist?

    • *snorts*

      You know, I’m almost *hoping* that Gus deZerega stumbles upon this and pulls his typical arrogant bullshit when someone tries to highlight what can be wrong with the pagan (and especially Pagan) community. Seriously, the Pagan mainline has only made the most basic attempts to ’embrace other cultures” but in this fetishising, highly appropriative manner –“Native spirituality” was trendy amongst Pagans in the 1970s and ’80s, and some of the most appropriative forms of that trend never left cos of the excuses offered by poor research. Then in the 1990s, it was India and SE Asia and Japan, and Kwan-Yin got practically rendered into “vaguely Chinese Jesus with tits” and the Pop Dharmic appropriations continue to get more and more watered-down and continue to lousy up Paganism with that appropriation. Then after a couple news items about Santeria and an episode of Law & Order: SVU, it was like someone amongst the some tier of BNPs remembered “oh hey! Black people exist, too!” and the African diaspora became all the rage, though it seems to be petering now.

      It would be cool if most of these people were actually engaging the cultures on some meaningful level, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at least 85% of the time. For every white Pagan who actually dives past the surface and starts to engage these cultures, you’ve got at least ten bozos who only take a superficial glance, cherry-pick a few of the *cough!* “goddess forms” that they don’t think look too “scary” and force it into their Pop Wicca mould. Cos white privilege gives them the go-ahead to do so.

      In contrast, I’ve actually been kind of impressed with the fact that amongst the polytheist community, not only are more white people credited as being dominant voices willing to address that privilege, but a few of the more recent movers-and-shakers on the blogosphere have been people of colours. With the exception of Daughters of Eve, the Patheos Pagan Portal is one of the whitest conglomeration of pagans I’ve seen on the Internet, and the absurdly high amount of racism in the comments on DoE not only *repulses* and *saddens* me, Christina Hoff-Kraemer clearly has her priorities ass-backwards, cos she’d rather ban polytheists from making challenging comments on Agora posts than even acknowledge that the most prominent voice for African American pagans is victim to a constant influx of racist comments.

      ….but hey, at least she’s assured that the “real BNPs” don’t get their stupid fee-fees hurted by the Big Bad Polytheists.

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  1. I’ve heard of Buffy- beautiful and very magical indeed!
    I’ve noticed over the years the “women’s spirituality” corner of pagan-dom tends to be among the worst at spiritual strip-mining and blurring the lines between New Age and Paganism. Frankly I’ve in general been pretty disappointed by the lack of commitment most pagans I encounter towards social justice/environmentalism, there’s a lot more talk than action. Or a lot of protests or rituals to do magic which aren’t very effective.

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    • No argument from me on any of this. What saddens me most about your observations is that I *do* consider myself supportive of women’s spiritual spaces and the rights of women, both cis and trans and all manner in-between, to address their realities (physical, emotional, and so on) on a spiritual level, but at least from my admittedly outside perspective, the “women’s spirituality” community seems to be one of the most broken sectors of the pagan movement, and I really am disappointed to see that suspicion confirmed. It’s like when Mark Mothersbaugh was asked if he feels vindicated by The Attery Squash’ s song “DEVO Was Right About Everything” –it’s a really depressing thing to be right about.

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      • Oh, I definitely think there are many individuals who get things and are interested, and take action or make a stand when they can, I certainly count you among those folks! I’d like to see a third/fourth/fifth wave feminist spirituality that is more intersectional, though I’ve noticed most feminists of those types seem to be more secular (or more likely, discussion of religion is ghettoized to specifically religious websites or offline groups)

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  2. You should read ‘The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth’ by Barbara Mor and Monica Sjoo. They discuss that the Goddess is both Light and Dark, creative and destructive. They discuss how there is a false dichotomy that patriarchal religion has created where there are sons of light/father god against the dark/children of the Mother which helps to foster racism against people of color. They mention African goddesses as well as European goddesses and indigenous ones too. Perhaps in some instances the white washing of the Goddess that you talk about does occur in white middle class America however to characterize the entirety of the Goddess movement in that way is unfair.

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    • That really says nothing of the factions of the “goddess spirituality movement” that I specifically addressed. Not everything is the same, sometimes it’s different. Sometimes those differences are totally ok, sometimes those diffrerences need to be examined and their worth evaluated.

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    • Again, you really need to explain your reasoning, here. Then there’s the fact that M. Fleitas’ comment never really addressed the factions of which my piece addressed. Your dismissal is what’s absurd, and in my experiences, it likely speaks *volumes* about what faction you belong to.

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