Some years ago, I had occasion to read The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller. Eller, once active in the Goddess spirituality movement, apparently became disillusioned at some point and decided to put her energies into debunking the belief system she had once helped to promote.

The first part of the book is a welcome critical appraisal of the idea that human beings once lived in a more-or-less universal matriarchal (or matrifocal), peaceful, Goddess-worshipping culture. Eller traces the development of this idea through the decades, and demonstrates (convincingly, at least for me) that the concept has little basis in historical or archeological fact. (Her attempts to supply alternative interpretations of the archeological record are less compelling – I think this is an area where we simply need to accept ambiguity.)

The second part of the book, however, departs from critical scholarship and becomes a lengthy polemic on the subject of Goddess concepts and why they are bad for women today. Eller’s contention is that contemporary Goddess worship, like patriarchy, is based on gender stereotypes. Sure, the stereotypes are somewhat more positive, but they are still stereotypes. Eller argues that seeing women as quintessentially nurturing, relationship-focused, and maternal is very limiting for women and holds us back from progressing to a rational, gender-blind Utopia.

Her perspective certainly deserves careful consideration and attention. Modern Paganism uses God and Goddess concepts that tend to be quite specific in form and characteristics. The triple goddess idea, for example, can be seen as imposing a very particular role for each stage of life, and hence creating a kind of age stereotyping, on top of the gender stereotyping Eller warns of.

But trying to strip our concept of deity of all distinguishing characteristics is a problematic project too. There is a joke about a child who asks his mother “Is God a man or a woman?” The mother, striving to be politically and theologically correct, replies that God is both man and woman. The child then asks if God is black or white. The mother again replies that God is both. Finally, the child asks if God is straight or gay. The mother, now very uncomfortable, sticks to her story: God is both. The child, now delighted with having solved the mystery, exclaims: “Oh! I get it! God is Michael Jackson!”

I once believed, like Eller, that social progress would come from seeing all people as equivalent, regardless of sex, race, age, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other group identification. While this is undeniably a desirable goal for our legal, political, and economic institutions, I don’t think the principle can be extended very effectively to the more subjective aspects of culture. I don’t think we can deal with differences in a healthy and intelligent way by imagining that they do not exist. We are all individuals, certainly, but we also belong to groups and categories, and those group identifications contribute to our identity as well.

I think one of the things that makes Paganism powerful for many of its adherents is the opportunities it presents to connect with different archetypes, in the form of Pagan goddesses or gods, animal guides, and other figures of the psyche. Carl Jung conceived of these archetypes as being embedded in the collective human psyche, ready to find expression through whatever forms a particular culture or individual favored. The Mother archetype, for example, might appear in myths and dreams in different guises. She might not even be female in all cases, but can still be recognized by the role she assumes and the essential qualities she symbolizes.

Archetypes and stereotypes are connected, but they are not the same thing. An archetype is a primal psychological or spiritual energy. We encounter archetypes through symbols – the characters in a story or myth, the images of our dreams, or the pictures in church or temple, or a deck of tarot cards. The symbols can and do vary from culture to culture and from person to person, but they are not wholly arbitrary. The benevolent and mysterious guiding figure that Jung called The Wise Old Man may appear as Odin, Merlin, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Loki, Goldilocks, or Britney Spears are just never going to be effective as symbols that point us to this archetype.

Whereas an archetype begins as a core psychic energy and then finds expression in symbol or image, a stereotype works in the opposite direction. The image we see creates a cluster of psychological expectations in our mind. A man sees an attractive woman and views her as a potential mate, before knowing anything about her. Students see an older man taking their college class with them and assume he is wise and knowledgeable, before he says a word.

Stereotypes can impede and distort relationships between people. To the extent that we allow our stereotypes to write the script of our interaction with others, we lose touch with who those people really are and shut ourselves off from what they may have to contribute to our lives. Stereotyping, although I doubt that we can ever vanquish it completely, can be rendered relatively harmless simply by practicing open-mindedness. Being open to having your initial impressions corrected by future experience does wonders.

Archetypes, on the other hand, are not so easy to set aside. It is part of our nature to learn about life and ourselves through image, story, and symbol. Our modern, secular society is no less captivated by myth than was ancient Greece or Judea. We may not call them gods and goddesses now, but we still show the same obsession with them, as we encounter them in our actors, musicians, and other icons of popular culture.

In the context of Goddess spirituality and other modern Pagan practices, people are generally quite conscious of the psychological potency of the archetypes they work with. When the Goddess as Great Mother is invoked and explored, it is the Mother archetype that is coming forth. The imagery of a woman of middle years adds a concreteness that helps us to interact with the archetype. Because this image is used consciously, I don’t think there is a great risk of lapsing into stereotyping and believing that all real women of middle years must have children and must act out the role of the Mother archetype. Some people, I suppose, may literalize the imagery in such a way, but I think they are few and far between.

There is a danger that archetypes can become stereotypes, but I think this is something that happens to symbols as they become worn out and taken for granted, at which point they are effectively dead as archetypes anyway.

The archetypes used in Goddess spirituality and other forms of modern Paganism are far from worn out and taken for granted. They are very much alive, they challenge the thinking of mainstream culture, and they help open doors onto new perspectives. The key to getting past our stereotypes, it seems to me, is not to try to imagine that we can experience life through a bland, generic, rational objectivity that is devoid of imagery and symbolism. Instead, the key is to work with imagery and symbolism creatively, consciously, and to continually challenge our selves and our relationships with the archetypes that shape us.