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Spring into Dance: Easter, Ishtar and Belly dancing

And there it is again, the figurine of an ancient Goddess, circulating on our social networks, attracting hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. The author of the meme claims that the roots of the word Easter come from the goddess Ishtar, and that the roots of Easter come from the ancient rites in honour of this once powerful deity. But is this ‘the truth of Easter’?

The symbolism of Ishtar is powerful. It is easy to see the attraction of the image of the beautiful figurine, and understand the appeal of this feminine, corporeal, new-yet-old representation of Easter.

However, the information passed on by this meme has been widely questioned. For example, anthropologist Krystal D’Costa in Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter warns us not to take the meme at its face value and gives useful insight into the symbolism of eggs, Easter and Ishtar rites.

Rather than dwelling on the debate on ‘the truth of Easter’, I would like to explore the symbolism of this ancient Mesopotamian Goddess, digitally re-born from its 5000 year-old slumber by our communal ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’.

Is it a coincidence that this digital rebirth of Ishtar taps into the wider rebirth of the feminist movement that has been happening largely via social media, such as #MeToo and EverydaySexism campaigns?

The ‘Goddess culture’ and feminist movement have intersected before. Emerging from the grass-roots women’s movement in the 70s, the Goddess culture is associated with spiritual feminism. In 1978, Carol Christ published the essay Why Women Need the Goddess, and presented it as the keynote address at the ‘Great Goddess Re-emerging’ conference at the University of Santa Cruz in the Spring of 1978. In it she said that:

’The simplest and most basic meaning of the symbol of Goddess is the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of female power as a beneficent and independent power’ (Christ 2006: 45).

In a fascinating, thriving subculture of belly dancing, consisting largely of women from all corners of the world exchanging tips and videos on this globalised dance practice via digital networks, the power of the Goddess symbolism has long been recognised and used.

For example, Ishtar, a ‘belly dance artist, writer and musician’ based in Liverpool, UK, says that by connecting with a ‘divine feminine archetype’ women can connect with universal, spiritual power through dance. On her website she addresses those who wish to connect to the powerful feminine Ishtar archetype like this: ‘Call on her to make your dance command the attention of the audience and when you want to be treated like a queen’.

Christ argues for the need for women to establish a system of symbols and theory congruent with their experience, in clear opposition to patriarchy and patriarchal religions. She emphasises that ‘the Goddess is a symbol of the affirmation of the legitimacy and beauty of female power’ (2006:46), and writes:

'The affirmation of female power contained in the Goddess symbol has both psychological and political consequences. Psychologically, it means the defeat of the view engendered by patriarchy that women's power is inferior and dangerous. This new "mood" of affirmation of female power also leads to new "motivations" it supports and undergirds women's trust in their own power and the power of other women in family and society.' (Christ 2006: 46)

However, symbolism of female power represented in the image of a Goddess can too often be taken at a surface value. Some belly dancers have commented in my research that, within the subculture of belly dance, the over-emphasis on what is superficially feminine, such as body parts like hips and breasts, can lead to a trivialisation of Goddess culture. It can lead away from the original empowering intention of adopting the Goddess symbolism, which, in Christ’s words, is ‘to support women’s trust in their own power and the power of other women in family and society’.

There are many different ways to celebrate the re-birth of this valuable idea, and I invite us all to take those that are most congruent to our own experiences, or desires. Whether it is by taking yoga or a belly dancing class, joining a campaign, recalling an ancient Goddess in a ritual, or going for an Easter service, if these personal paths support our growth as powerful women, they are all precious. - Edina

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