What is the Sacred Feminine?

Google ‘Sacred Feminine’ and you’ll find a mashup. A little of this, plastered over a little of that. Like all religious evolution, old forms given new meanings, meanings that serve ideological ends.

Depending upon which ideology is wielding the plaster-brush, she may be utterly conventional or horribly shocking – from divinely maternal and cozy, to primordially instinctive and  profoundly  erotic. An angel or a beast. She may be your tenderest desire for belonging, or your most gruesome nightmare. But how she appears to you says more about you than about her.

The Sacred Feminine is complex and mysterious, miraculous and paradoxical, all that a fully-lived woman is, but transpersonal, supra-human, divine – a cosmic force, a driving archetype.

The Active Feminine

Part of the confusion around the Sacred Feminine is that, like the moon, the feminine (sacred or not), has two faces, two essential aspects to her nature, superficially represented in the double-standard of the Madonna and the Whore.  The Sacred Feminine contains them both, but civilization likes to think of them as separate.

I think that the Madonna/Whore dichotomy can best be understood in the light of the passive and active feminine principles.

In The Feminine in Jungian Psychology and in Christian Theology, Ann Ulanov defines the passive feminine as  ‘the unchanging and stable factor that fosters feelings of security, protection and acceptance.’ That’s the maternal, the domestic, the madonna, the Great Mother, Gaia as Mother Earth. This is the conventional feminine, acceptable, good, sweet, adoring – the conventional version of every man’s dream.

I respect and honor that aspect of the feminine, it has a significant role to play in the world and in individual lives. The great mother, in any form, deserves all the worship people give her. But in this blog and in my personal story, I’m not writing about the passive feminine.  There is a vast literature and tradition around serving and honoring the great mother. Though still barely significant compared to the great male divinity traditions, the passive feminine/great mother image is far ahead of the active feminine.

So no, you won’t find much great mother talk from me – my life has been all about the less understood, less acceptable, not-sweet active feminine, about which Ulanov says:

The transformative, active side of the feminine principle accents the dynamic elements of the psyche that urge change and transformation. . . [It] invokes primeval forces that take us out of the limitations and conventions of social norms and the reasonable life. Eros in this sense produces ecstasy, a liberation from the conventions of the group.

Here’s another take on that split, from The Book of Lilith by Barbara Black Koltuv (another Jungian)

Originally, the Goddess ruled the magical life cycle forces of sexuality, birth, life and death. With the coming of the patriarchy, the power of life and death became the prerogatives of the male God, while sexuality and magic were split off from procreation and motherhood. In this sense, God is one, but the Goddess became two.

Lilith was Adam’s first wife –  his equal. But when she and Adam quarrelled, God decided to give Adam a more subservient mate, made from Adam’s rib, Eve, his subordinate. Lilith then became ruler of all the animals (instincts). Lilith is the mythical representation of the patriarchal repression of the feminine. It is said that she “derives her energetic force from opposition and suppression”.  Lilith is raging, and dangerous, but she is also the vehicle of awareness and completion. As the repressed element, Lilith represents wholeness – she is the missing piece of the puzzle. Lilith, the active feminine, is the final stage of psychological maturation (or ‘individuation’) for both men and women.

Thus, the Passive Feminine is represented and served by housewives and mothers – nurturing, generous, supportive, understanding, wise, long-suffering women everywhere.

The Active Feminine is represented and served by sluts and madwomen, witches and whores – challenging and erotic, demanding and angry, magical, transformative, her sexuality in service to herself and her goddess, not to any individual human.

Of course, everyone has both male and female aspects, and women embody (and men’s souls contain) both active and passive femininity. But I believe that at all levels: cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal, there is a definite hierarchy in which all forms of masculinity (scientific, religious, authoritarian, brute force) vie amongst each other for dominance, while the passive feminine sits well below the masculinities, and the active feminine is actively suppressed.

Inside of each of us, between us, and organizationally – the active feminine is banished and demonized, and at the same time lusted after and exploited – a denied yet potent driving force.

Individual women and men, compelled to honor her with their lives (those among us whom she chooses to represent her) become misshapen and traumatized by the repressive hostility with which civilization meets her. But as a sacred energy, a transpersonal force, the Active Feminine is whole, un-marred, beautiful and transformative. She is returning to us, emerging in us, with ever greater force and urgency. Every day I see greater evidence of her in the world.

The forces that supress her range from gross hostility and overt violence to fundamental rationalist paradigms and very subtle interpersonal shaming. Everywhere we go, we find significant reinforcement for helping us keep that active feminine trapped on the bottom. We all know exactly what is necessary to remain on top.

The civilized know (like we know not to play in traffic) that if we mess with the Active Feminine, we will get burned. And we assume that’s as it should be. Lilith is associated, after all, with the earliest symbols of evil.

I find it helpful to understand all these suppression tactics as expressions of our innate survival instinct. Because however she presents herself, the Active Feminine will challenge the status quo – a status quo built to support everyone above her in the hierarchy.

Every pyramid needs a base – a population stuck at the bottom for the sole purpose of enabling an ‘above’. Whenever those at the bottom make a move, it upsets the status quo. And pyramids require not just a base, but stability. Shuffle the base and cracks will appear above, and if you’re anywhere above the bottom of a pyramid, those cracks are a threat – how can you be positive you won’t fall through one and end up at the bottom of the pyramid? A bottom is a prerequisite to a pyramidal structure. Hierarchies require a status quo. All movement is inherently threatening. Whereas, in a network (the natural ‘new science’ model of organization) there is no top and bottom, no subordinate position, and movement is a welcome, constant, creative ferment. No wonder it’s so hard to implement lasting change in organizations.

The point is – the Active Feminine is inevitably, wonderfully, terrifyingly, refreshingly, invigoratingly, a threat to every convention, all stability, to the status quo. Not just because she’s at the bottom but more essentially, because she is inherently anti-status-quo. She shakes things up, she catalyzes transformation, she hates stagnation, and she doesn’t believe in hierarchies.

Right now civilization is in need of transformation, everyone says so, and the Active Feminine not only brings about transformation, she is the principle you need in order to survive it. Therefore it seems to me that, even without consciously knowing her name, the Active Feminine is exactly the principle everyone is calling out for lately.

She is the principle lying (open and horrifying) at the core of so many new organizational development and leadership theories and methodologies – Disruptive Innovation, Theory U, Bohmian Dialog, Deep Change, Transformational Leadership, etc., etc., etc.. All are looking for dynamic transformation, escaping the limits of convention (“out of the box” thinking), deepening openness and vulnerability, dancing on the edge of Chaos, the magic of discovering new forms and solutions, the ecstasy of creation. And that’s her realm. Koltuv calls Lilith ‘the turning point’.

And if you think about it in this gendered way (which, I realize is not politically correct, but we’re not about rules here), most of the principles recently discovered and promoted for the new schools of organizational leadership are of a “Yin” (feminine), rather than a “Yang” (masculine) nature – networks not hierarchies, connectedness not isolation, supportiveness not controllingness, fluidity not rigidity, sharing not hoarding, etc., etc..

So, suddenly the Sacred Feminine (passive and active together) would be the belle of the ball. Everyone is calling out to her “Come, oh Goddess of transformation and renewal! Come and save us from what your absence has wrought!”. 

Yet those survival instinct/suppression tactics, designed to protect the pyramid from chaos – those knee-jerk reflexes (we all have them) meant to keep the Active Feminine on the bottom, supporting our position above her, (and our hope what we are not her) are still deeply ingrained and habitual. So subtle they are, in captivity, it takes a highly educated priestess of the Active Feminine (learned in the languages of both the top and the bottom) to consciously discern them and call them out.

Because those who carry the Active Feminine have been traumatized by their experience of her within the broader context, they need a lot of courage and strength in the face of those suppressive habits. And those who want her presence need to learn how they unknowingly perpetuate the trauma.

Those people in the ballroom are calling and calling for her, but as her acolytes peek around the column, all they see are rapiers and rapists, chains and blindfolds and bludgeons. They have been battered so serevely by now that most have forgotten how to access the power to defuse all that aggression, and they’re not dumb enough to enter the room without it.

But this is my personal leading edge at this time in my life, and this is where I see my role in all of this: to learn how hold a space for her in the ballroom. To teach those revellers how to recognize and abort those habits that re-traumatize her priestesses, and to help those priestesses unfold in their full glory in the space provided.

My job now, so says my Daimon, is to step out from behind my language books, and to face down and sabotage those habitual tactics.

Faces of the Active Feminine

More about Active vs. Passive

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"For a woman to explore and express the fullness of her sexuality, her emotional and intellectual capacities, would entail who knows what risks and who knows what truly revolutionary alteration of the social conditions that demean and constrain her."

-Louise J. Kaplan - Female Perversions