At the dawn of history, God was a she—or so it appears. Our paleolithic forebears, thirty or more millennia ago, conceived of Nature or the Divine as a cosmic female. They delighted in immortalizing her image on cave walls and in the form of statuettes carved out of stone, bone, ivory, or coal. Undoubtedly, they also used more perishable materials to depict the Great Mother, though these did not survive the ravages of time. The belief in the universal Female was deeply ingrained and vital. However, it underwent a significant transformation during the neolithic age. For, as human experience and conceptual capacities leaped forward, the Great Mother became increasingly personified. She was endowed with special characteristics, a personal if legendary history, and a name.
The Great Mother, or magna mater, appeared under different names in the villages of the Near East and Europe. We do not know her earliest names, but later, after writing had been invented, she was celebrated as Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Anath in Canaan, Astarte in Phoenicia, Isis in Egypt, Nu Kua in China, Freya in Scandinavia, and Kunapipi in aboriginal Australia. Thus, the Goddess became multiple, while retaining the universality that had been associated with her for countless generations. Each Goddess, while having her own name and distinct attributes, was hailed as the source of life, the life-granting power behind vegetation and fertility.
Her splendor was celebrated in many myths, and her favor was sought and her wrath appeased through numerous rituals. The Goddess was still supreme but no longer alone, for people’s imagination and religious feeling had made room for other personifications of the sacred reality. These included a virile male God, who was, however, at least temporarily still subordinate to the Goddess. Further anthropomorphic thought yielded the notion of the male deity as a lover of the great Goddess.
The term ‘Ideal feminine’ is adopted here to refer to the construction of the mythic feminine as a personification of the philosophical notion of the ‘Ideal’. According to Idealist epistemology, one can gain insight and knowledge of the Ideal through the contemplation of beauty as it is incarnate in the physical and is portrayed for example in paintings. The beauty of the feminine was understood to be a reflection of the Ideal and was thus understood to be the medium between the material order and the Ideal order of reality. An important implication of this is that the feminine was regarded as a guide between the two realms; conveying the artist or spectator from the physical to the metaphysical, from the natural to the spiritual and from earthly beauty to transcendental Beauty.
The image of the feminine is at the centre of many artworks which are constructed in dream-like ‘Ideal’ interiors or in Ideal landscapes or forests at twilight. The image of the feminine in these works, usually bathed in an etheric atmosphere of nostalgia, solitude and silence, evoke the theme, as will be suggested in this article, of the feminine as soul, the embodiment of spiritual knowledge.
The contemplation of a work of art affords an escape from the intolerable aspects of the material world. More specifically it is the realisation of the element of beauty in that object which, through the Platonic Idea it embodies, facilitates the transcendence of material reality. Schopenhauer’s aesthetic expresses an idea basic to all idealist theories of beauty that: ‘When we say a thing is beautiful… we mean that we recognise in the object, not the particular thing, but the Idea’. Ernst Caro, whose writings on Schopenhauer were instrumental in making accessible his philosophy to the Symbolists, expressed succinctly this component of Schopenhauer’s thinking and indicated, furthermore, the aspect of transcendentalism implicit in this position:
The object no longer exists, it is the idea that exists, the eternal form; and the subject likewise has been raised to a higher plane, has liberated himself: he is free from time, free from Will, free from striving, free from desire, free from pain: he participates in the absolute, in the eternity of the idea, he is dead to himself, he no longer exists other than in the ideal. This being so, of what importance are the conditions and forms of his transitory individuality?.. there is only pure intuition, a free vision of the ideal, a momentary participation in Plato’s idea, in Kant’s numen, once one has attained this forgetfulness of one’s transitory life, of the role one plays in it and of the everyday torment thus momentarily suspended.
The attempt to transcend the world of material reality constituted an intellectual effort to elevate oneself from the particular to the general and from the concrete to the abstract. This was attempted through the contemplation of the Beautiful which in itself constituted an attempt to draw the eternal from the transitory and hence to participate in immortality – much the same was attempted through the aesthetics of eroticism and death. In other words the attempt to disincarnate, to escape the limitations of the body (matter and the material realm generally) resembles a wish to die in so far as death can be perceived as the deliverance of the soul from the prison of the body. Moreover, the significance of the notion of Ideal Beauty in the Idealist tradition lies in the fact that it is the expression and manifestation of the primal source of existence. This is an idea expressed clearly in the writings of Plato and especially Plotinus.
The early philosophy of Plotinus is related to that of Schopenhauer in as far as he posits an Ideal realm which is regarded as true Reality. Plotinus expands the Idealist discourse on reality to include the notion of the ‘All-One’, that is, an abstract state of original unity towards which the individual soul is destined to return and which is seen, furthermore, as the highest condition of the Ideal Realm. The All-One, moreover, has various synonyms such as the All Good and Absolute Beauty. Furthermore, it constitutes the first hypostases in the differentiation of the All Being, the construct for ultimate reality. The second hypostasis is the Intellect, or Nous (Mind) wherein is contained the Platonic Ideas that constitute the intelligible world and the third hypostasis is the World Soul, or All Soul which animates nature and mediates between the material realm and the realm of eternal Ideas. The three hypostasis are in fact three aspects of a single transcendental being from which all reality proceeds by emanation and towards which all reality aspires to return to its primal source.
It was within the framework of the above threefold constitution of reality that Plotinus constructed his metaphysics of beauty. Plotinus poses the question: ‘What is it that attracts the eyes of those to whom a beautiful object is present, and calls them, lures them, towards it, and fills them with joy at the sight?’ An object, he claims, is made beautiful by ‘communicating in the thought that flows from the Divine’. In other words, the beauty of an object is derived from the Ideal-Form it embodies, an idea which would later be central to Schopenhauer’s aesthetic. This beauty is ultimately the reflection of the ‘Beyond-Beauty’, the ‘Authentic-Beauty’, as he terms it, or the One. This, according to Plotinus, is the principle that ultimately bestows beauty on all material things and he states, moreover, that: ‘Undoubtedly this Principle exists, it is something that is perceived at first glance, something which the Soul names as from an ancient knowledge, and recognising, welcomes it, enters into unison with it.’
Plotinus believes, in other words, that a correspondence therefore exists between the object of beauty and the transcendent, archetypal principle it embodies. The attraction to the beauty of an object is therefore, in reality, the attraction to that transcendental beauty: ‘Our interpretation is that our Soul – by the very truth of its nature, by its affiliation to the Noble Existents in the hierarchy of Being – when it sees everything that is kin or any trace of that kinship, thrills with an immediate delight, takes its own to itself and thus stirs anew to the sense of its nature and of its affinity.’
A notion of the Absolute beauty can be grasped, moreover, since it is communicated from its primal state through the various orders of reality, through the three hypostases, to the sensual world. What is perceived as beautiful in the sensual world is only thus in so far as it is a reflection of the Absolute Beauty which is communicated through it:
And this beauty, which is also the Good, must be posed as the First: directly deriving from this first is the Intellectual-Principle which is pre-eminently the manifestation of Beauty; Through the Intellectual-Principle, Soul is Beautiful. The beauty in things of a lower order – actions and pursuits for instance – comes by operation of the shaping soul which is also the author of the beauty found in the world of sense. For the soul, as divine thing, a fragment as it were of the Primal Beauty, makes beautiful to the fullness of their capacity all things whatsoever that it grasps and moulds.
Finally, art is thus seen as the embodiment of the Ideal-Beauty, or the One: ‘Art, then, creating in the image of its own nature and content, and working by the Idea, or Reason-Principle of the beautiful object it is to produce, must itself be beautiful in a far higher and purer degree since it is the seat and source of that beauty indwelling in the art, which must naturally be more complete than any confines of the external.’ The notion of Ideal Beauty was central to the Symbolists’ aesthetic. This has been emphasised in the literature on Symbolism.
In Symbolist art the image of the Ideal feminine was the embodiment and personification of this Ideal Beauty. The view that art was the means through which one could gain access to the realm of the Ideal was fundamental to Symbolist aesthetics. In the words of the Symbolist author and critic, Emile Vehaeren, ‘the effect of art, of our art is an influence of a vague attraction towards a melancholy, grave ideal’. In symbolist metaphysics, this was also the function of the Ideal feminine, as muse, who acted as guide or psychopomp between the realm of the ‘real’ and the Ideal. This idea is present in the poetry of Baudelaire, for example, The Living Torch. It is in the eyes of the beloved, the muse, through which the poet is guided to the Ideal, to Beauty: eyes that, ‘…clearly shine, / Magnetic with an Angel’s spell they blaze…They light my way to Beauty like a torch’. The muse as spiritual guide leads the poet eventually to the Awakening to the Ideal:
Ils célèbrent La Mort, vous chantez le Réveil; Vous marchez en chantant le réveil de mon âme, Astres dont nul soleil ne peut flétrir la flamme.
Moreover, in the Idealist tradition, the mechanism of this translation from one reality to another, from the material to the spiritual, is achieved through the principle of (Ideal) Love. This idea is emphasised in the philosophy of Plato. Plato also posited a principle of Absolute reality, equivalent to Plotinus’ ‘One’ and Schopenhauer’s ‘World of Representation’. Plato also suggests that the purpose of existence is the search for and attainment of this Ideal condition. Moreover, he expresses the notion that this is possible by means of a gradual ascent through an ascending hierarchy of stages. The fundamental character of this Ideal realm is based on the principle of beauty. The ascent through various levels of experience constitutes an increasing awareness of the character of the idea of Ideal Beauty, which manifests itself in various degrees at each level of the ascending hierarchy.
Thus, the aspirant begins through the contemplation of physical beauty of which it should eventually be realised that: ‘Physical beauty in any person is akin to physical beauty in any other, and that if he is to make beauty of outward form the object of his quest, it is a great folly not to acknowledge that the beauty in all bodies is one and the same.’ In realising this, the aspirant passes on to the love of beauty of the soul which is to be regarded as more valuable than the beauty of the body, then, to love of beauty as it exists in activities and institutions – and then to morals and the sciences and knowledge generally. The final stage is the love and union with the Absolute (or Divine) Beauty – the ideal state of original wholeness and perfection. Plato defines the qualities of this condition:
This beauty is first of all eternal, it neither comes into being nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes, next, it is not beautiful in part and ugly in part, nor beautiful here and ugly there, as varying according to its beholders; nor again will this beauty appear to him like the beauty of a face or hands or anything corporeal or like the beauty of a science, or like the beauty which has its seat in something other than itself, be it a living thing on the earth or in the sky or anything else whatever; he will see it as absolute, existing alone with itself, unique, eternal, and all other beautiful things partaking of it, yet in such a manner that while they come into being and pass away, it neither undergoes any increase or diminution nor suffers any change.
Moreover, in Plato’s terms, it is through love that this spiritual transformation is possible. Love is the driving impulse that draws one to the state of Ideal Beauty and original unity through the ‘desire’ for and attraction to the beauty of that ideal condition. This idea is echoed in Plotinus who asserted that, ‘the emotional state for which we make this ‘Love’ responsible rises in souls aspiring to be knit in the closest union with some beautiful object’. And furthermore he believed, ‘It is sound… to find the primal source of Love in a tendency of the soul towards pure beauty’.The teleological climax of this longing and desire constitutes a form of ‘spiritual procreation’.
In this regard, Plato writes:
‘…there are some whose creative desire is of the soul, and who long to beget spiritually, not physically, the progeny which it is the nature of the soul to create and bring to birth. If you ask what that progeny is it is wisdom and virtue in general; of this all poets and such craftsmen as have found out some new thing may be said to be begetters.’
These ideas on transcendental beauty and metaphysical love are to be found in the thinking of Joséph Péladan. Péladan advocated the virtue of Ideal love and beauty as an aesthetic imperative:
It is fatal and illegitimate that our desire is awakened by beautiful forms: it is necessary to be subordinated to beautiful sentiments: it is better still if it submits to the supreme charm of beautiful ideas. However, aesthetically, to manifest an idea it is necessary to sentimentalise it by the expression: and the beauty of mystical ideas is expressed by the beauty of the forms… perversity would consist in addressing one’s self to instinct, to animal emotions; but in that sense, the patriotic picture is an operation resembling that of a lascivious picture; both aim at the brutal portion of the public.
Moreover, Péladan believed, as did Plato and Plotinus, that physical beauty and love are reflections of Divine love and beauty and hence our attraction to the physical is actually the attraction to the Divine hidden in the physical (as in a work of art): ‘The only poetic form comprehensible to all men is love; and within love they sense concupiscence above all. Faced with a work of art they comport themselves as if they were face to face with reality: This is no reason to clamour against sexual nudity, because it constitutes the intermediary which permits the common man to have suspicion of beauty.’
One of the central attributes of the ideal feminine, as personification of the Ideal, is its essentially spiritual nature. In other words, not only is the feminine seen as the personification of this interior spiritual realm of the Ideal but, moreover, the feminine is conceived as a spiritual force itself. This aspect of the feminine was expressed in various ways in Symbolist imagery. Most explicitly, this is expressed in the image of the Angel. This motif is fairly widespread in Symbolist art and is the subject of several prominent Symbolist paintings. The spiritual aspect of the mythic feminine is furthermore alluded to in the specific way the image of the feminine is constructed in Symbolist imagery: either in interiors which are altered in some way to suggest a different order of reality or, on the other hand, in landscapes or forests which are regarded as sacred precincts reflecting the internal spiritual realm. The image of the veiled feminine and the image of the Mother Goddess are further constructs which refer to the spiritual character of the positive feminine.
The notion that the feminine acts as a transpersonal force for the artist was a common theme in Romantic art and literature and continued into the Symbolist period. The image of the feminine in non-Realist art served as a vehicle for the expression of states of experience peculiar to the inner subjective realm of the imagination and the dream and embodied the essential philosophical principles which powered the non-Realist aesthetic programme, specifically, the fundamental opposition between Idealism and Materialism.
Today many seek the healing and empowerment of the Goddess. Our yearning for her presence and her blessings extends back to the origins of our being. We are hungry for a connection with the past, with ancient mysteries and the wisdom of lost cultures. This hunger stems from our own disconnection from relevant spiritual traditions, connection with the natural world, and with the tribe and community. In searching for our lost roots, we must embark upon the hero or heroine’s journey. This quest for knowledge and inspiration will ultimately connect us with ourselves. It bring us into direct knowledge of self and source, the internal sanctuary wherein the Divine Feminine has always dwelt.
This article is an excerpt from the books:
- The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe : Goddesses, Sacred Women and the Origins of Western Culture, By (author) Sharon Paice MacLeod
- The Mythic Feminine in Symbolist Art: Idealism and Mysticism in Fin-de-Siecle Painting by BRENDAN COLE