On the summer solstice approximately 30,000 people gather at the iconic ruins of Stonehenge – the largest annual gathering of Druids in the world. English honors senior, Kathleen Cooperstein, was one of the thousands of onlookers at Stonehenge on June 21, 2008 – the capstone experience of a 15-day grant sponsored trip across Northeastern Europe to further her burgeoning research on the Divine feminine.
Cooperstein is interested in tracing the roles of women from prehistoric Celtic tribes through modern day and examining the affects of Christian influences on their changing roles throughout history. She is analyzing the transformation of cultural conceptions of women from powerful and wise to weak and subversive. This transformation can be seen in Arthurian Legend through the depiction of several female characters. The Lady of the Lake was a powerful, mystical woman representative of the old traditions. She was perceived to be generally good and bestowed some of that goodness and power on Arthur when she bequeathed the sword to him. On the other end of the spectrum is the pious Guinevere. She was Christianized and not affiliated with any magical powers. It is believed that Arthur marched into battle under the sign of the cross because of her influence. Guinevere was susceptible to temptation, much like Eve, and her weakness, exemplified in her affair with Sir Lancelot, ultimately led to Arthur’s downfall and the destruction of the round table. Finally, Morgana bridges the divide between the two extreme depictions of women, as characterized by the Lady of the Lake and Guinevere. Morgana retains the magical powers that were also associated with the Lady of the Lake, but she used her power for evil, causing Arthur to fall into sin. Cooperstein’s research aims to further explore this transformation in the depiction of women and its ensuing influence on the representation of women in the “old faith” as witches rather than mystical healers.
Cooperstein is also embarking on a comparative study of Appalachia versus Europe in modern perceptions of women and how they’ve evolved in the different locations. Most of the similarities between Appalachia and Europe are seen in the rural areas where their geographic isolation has protected the old legends and beliefs. It is through their traditional storytelling and healing practices, such as midwifery, that the Appalachian and European subcultures intersect.
Women were often believed to have a spiritual connection with the divine. This is seen in the longstanding tradition of midwifery. Midwives were a necessity, even as cultures gradually became more modernized. Consequently, they were able to maintain an “old world” perspective. The importance of their vocation empowered them to carry on the positive aspects of the old cultures. This perception of midwifery changed over time, and is evidenced by the stories and superstitions that still reside in those areas.
Cooperstein’s interest in the Divine Feminine began in a class on Arthurian legend taught by philosophy professor, Dr. Joseph Pitt. She studied women in literature and found facts about real women that related to her research. She also found several parallels to her Appalachian Literature class, taught by English professor, Dr. Jen Mooney. In the fall of 2007 she decided to make further explore the Divine Feminine and its roots in Appalachia for her honors thesis. She did independent research with Dr. Mooney and decided the best place to begin her research was in Scotland, Ireland, and England where its Celtic roots began. In collaboration with Dr. Mooney, she developed a research plan and proposed a framework for what she would do while in Europe. She received funding through the Honors Department, CAEE, and the Undergraduate Research Institute and embarked on her trip in summer 2008.
Cooperstein traveled through Northeastern Europe for 15 days, visiting museums, libraries, and archaeological digs relevant to the Diving Feminine and the portrayal of women in Celtic tribes. She looked for imagery of women, analyzing the things they were doing and how they were represented. She visited the Museum of History in Dublin that held designs of prehistoric Madonna imagery, portraying women as motherly and demure. Cooperstein attended an archaeological dig at the Hill of Tara in northern Dublin, a sacred ritual site where bones can be found dating back over 5,000 years. She went on another archaeological dig at the Hill of Igrainne, named after the mother of King Arthur, and visited the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Dublin, which is visited by both Christians and Pagans alike. Cooperstein visited the Hill of Kings in Perth and the National History Museum in Oxford, which houses the remains of the “Red Lady of Paviland” – the oldest human remains found in the United Kingdom, believed to date back to the Paleolithic era.
The capstone experience of her fifteen-day journey through Europe was attending the summer solstice at Stonehenge. 30,000 pagans gathered for the occasion. Many of these pagans also identify themselves as Christians, but their beliefs that women possess spiritual connections to life and death and are connected to the seasons and cycles that plug into the divine current associate them with pagan beliefs. Cooperstein met a woman at the solstice named Erika Devine who practices natural childrearing and is grounded in many of the old spiritual roots. She believes that these practices empower women with children because childbirth and childrearing are connected to the cycle of life. Cooperstein remains in contact with Erika who has shared personal anecdotes on the modern aspect of the Divine Feminine. Cooperstein plans to do a comparative analysis between Europe and Appalachia through the comparison of two women in each location, focusing on the act of reproduction as empowerment and the importance of spiritual equality and equilibrium between the sexes.
Through her research Cooperstein hopes to convey the value of Appalachian culture and the importance of recording its old legends and beliefs before they are erased by the influences of popular culture. It is a sub-culture that is heavily stereotyped and underrepresented in the scholastic field, and while it may not be a progressive culture, the Scots-Irish identity that heavily influences Appalachia and emphasizes the importance of family and procreation, is rooted to the Divine Feminine and has much to contribute to literature and other modes of cultural study.