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New Time Religion Part One – Goddesspalooza: Hera, Aphrodite, Persephone, Joan of Arc, and the Virgin Mary — together in the same room! An evening with trance mediums from the Berkeley Psychic Institute.
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 09.22.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro October 2018 here.


YOU’D THINK that Hera, Aphrodite, Joan of Arc, Persephone, Athena, and the Virgin Mary might have something better to do on a Saturday night than offer vague advice to 150 people in a stuffy room in Golden Gate Park. Still, the Berkeley Psychic Institute’s forum, called “Goddesses Speak,” brought together 12 of the Institute’s own mediums to “channel” said personalities for a small but devout throng of New Age pantheists “to speak and to heal.”

Now, I’m not a total realist: if the moon can direct the tides, then the day you were born might conceivably influence your personality and moods. If acupuncture can heal, then chi, auras, and chakras might really be energy forces that have yet to be detected by scientific means.

If I can instinctively know when the phone rings that it’s my best friend, someone else could probably train to become a practicing clairvoyant.

I’m not even averse to the Anne Riceology that suggests spirits in various states of development cruise the stratosphere causing mischief and “miracles.” Far be it from me to call for the banishment of anything that makes anyone feel good without hurting anyone else, especially if those people are in dire need of some support.

But eight or nine of the world’s most renowned “goddesses” (half of them historical and the other half mythical figures) converging in one place, speaking English, adhering to a specific, jingoistic format, and even talking in turn? Damn if that isn’t reaching a bit.

The scenario at the old Hall of Flowers is benign, if a bit creepy: rows of folding chairs containing a quiet, markedly peaceful-looking audience (meditating, hands turned upwards and eyes closed, smiling beatifically) face a stage with two rows of same, except same has a few sentries that pace back and forth and wave their hands around the tops of same’s heads.

The articulate, easy-going Reverend Susan Hull Bostwick, head of the Berkeley Psychic Institute, welcomes the throng and narrates the proceedings, telling us that these accomplished trance mediums are getting ready to heal us by “running energy, finding their space, and exploring their aura.”

The sentries are actually “energy management experts,” and the hand-waving is meant to control and direct the “beings” (Bostwick doesn’t refer to them as “spirits”) entering the mediums’ bodies. When it’s time to begin the healing, the experts are instructed to “bring the energy up,” or open up the portals to another dimension, or something.

They wave their hands with more fervor. My heart has been pounding since I walked in, but I’m not sure whether it’s because some sort of mystical energy is being conjured or because I’m afraid of being busted as the only skeptic in a room full of psychics.

“We don’t know who’s coming tonight,” Bostwick says during the hush. “We’ve invited several goddesses.” She explains that the mediums on stage aren’t simply sitting there in apparent inactivity; they’re watching us with their third eyes, spreading out over the ether to heed the call of those in need of healing. The audience members concentrate on vibing the goddesses-to-be — they breathe, some roll their heads, and for some reason, yawning (loudly) seems to be a popular activity.

“Hello.” says a stocky male medium, his echoing voice the result of electronic amplification and not divine authority. “This is Aphrodite … I’ve never dressed like this before.” Laughter. The woman next to him introduces herself as Persephone, and Bostwick welcomes her.

“Do you have some words of wisdom for us, Persephone?” She laughs smugly — omnisciently, you might say — and then is silent. The sentries flit around, carving secret patterns in the air. All the other goddesses miraculously inhabit their earthly vessels in less than five minutes and introduce themselves as if they’re on a talk show. One even tells a joke.

try the veal

When the last medium claims to channel the Virgin Mary (Heretic! Blasphemer! etc), the crowd is palpably impressed. You might think that the presence of a 2,000-year-old spirit invading someone’s carcass would be somewhat disconcerting, but nobody’s voice goes all Linda Blair, nobody’s goddess seems uncomfortable in her borrowed flesh, and nobody throws him- or herself on the floor and starts frothing at the mouth.

You’d see more action at a Pentecostal church. I’m disappointed, but then I recall that this is New Age, not the fire and brimstone of my upbringing. I squint, concentrate, and throw a you’re-full-of-shit vibe out into the ether, just to see if anyone will catch it and wrestle me out of the room. It doesn’t happen.

The audience is soon invited to approach the goddesses for individual healing. Some people who are genuinely suffering step up to the microphone, and I’m humbled. One woman bravely asks the goddesses to find the spirit of her murdered daughter and see if she’s at peace (Persephone comes through); another woman sobs so heavily that she can barely ask her question.

Spirituality and a belief in a higher plane are fine. We all crave reassurance, and deities — even channeled mythical figures that spout clichés like “you are greatly loved” — give us that security. But not once do the goddesses, in all their wisdom, ask a devotee to do something for someone else.

“I’ve worked on your astral space and your female creative energy … I’ve worked with you on the place where you fear yourself, and I’ve cleared that fear,” Hera tells a woman who wants to be more connected to her “higher self.” Joan of Arc, advising a man who wants to somehow use the force from his nomadic past life in this one, sounds like a bad horoscope: “Be a little easier on yourself. There’s pain and codependence from your past life that you have to work through.”

Hello, Me Generation: here’s an organized religion that doesn’t crusade to religiously cleanse foreign countries (yet), and it’s less work than Amway. You’re beautiful, be yourself, don’t take any crap from other people, do what you want, regardless of what anyone says, and visit our Web site ( to purchase our line of inspirational tapes, choose a vacation from our tourism branch, or find the number to call our psychic hotline.

The healing continues, the words “astral plane,” “space,” and “energy” are spoken a million times, and I wish to heaven that I knew enough Hebrew and Greek to ask Mary what her son would think about her having all these other gods before Him, or the characteristically jealous Hera why she hasn’t torn Aphrodite’s throat out — Aphrodite is, after all, the child of her philandering husband, Zeus.

After an hour or so of vague affirmations and circumnavigated answers, the talkative Persephone finally goes out on a clairvoyant limb with a healee: “Did you have a sister that died recently?” Pause. “No,” the healee says almost guiltily. “But my cat’s been missing since Tuesday.”


This is the 25th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 10.17.2008, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B was jabbing at Justice

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