16 Apr 2019

Divine Feminine Druidism in “Norma”

by Renée Huang

Many consider “Norma” to be Bellini’s finest dramatic work overall and it features one of the most challenging roles for a soprano – and an emphasis on the divine feminine power at a time when men were traditionally seen as holding the seat of power. In fact, sopranos have often been defined by their interpretation of the opera. It is generally regarded as the supreme height of the bel canto tradition. The aria, “Casta Diva,” is one of the most famous of all arias.

Though Bellini died when he was 33, having written only 10 operas, his music may be as close as anyone came to pure bel canto, and Norma has become emblematic of everything the style came to embody.

The historical setting for “Norma” is the Roman occupation of a certain part of Gaul that is populated by Druids, an ancient community of spiritual people who have reverence for nature. There is some substance to this as the very earliest historical mention of the Druids is from Julius Caesar’s account of his conquests of Gaul. Caesar also notes that the most influential and powerful members of Druid society were of the religious class — but men, not women.

It was around this time when England and Wales had recently experienced a new fascination with the Druids and the ancient societies that held national and cultural pride. Druidism was mistakenly connected with the ancient Celts of the Iron Age, and the misguided imitations of Iron Age priests (including a few nods to Freemasonry) were at the center of the Neo-Druidism or Paganism that came in the late 18th century. The exposure to the occult likely gave just enough familiarity to help audiences identify with the values, challenges and decisions of the characters.

However, where Druidism focused on male power figures, it contrasts with feminine ideals that were recognized throughout many pre-historic, matriarchal ancient societies.

Bellini’s opera presents a powerful and influential woman at a time when men were considered rulers of society. The notion of a formidable sacred feminine figure supports an emerging 19th century belief that many pre-historic societies were, in fact, matriarchies.

Evidence of the divine feminine concept include the Earth being associated with feminine and the Sky as masculine; early cultures that worshiped Gaia the earth goddess before they started worshiping heavenly gods like Zeus and Jehovah.

Bellini’s ability to empower a female figure –with a voice and vision – was a departure from many traditional depictions of women at the time.