The articles that comprise this special issue make a convincing case for the importance of anthropological research in the field of gender and religion. Based upon the work of a panel presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, these articles demonstrate the anthropological facility for moving back and forth between 'great traditions' and local conditions. In different ways and in different contexts, these articles point to a variable pattern of ancient, local or indigenous cosmological equality and women's ritual leadership that are effaced as a result of political or cultural conquest by a literate, centralised, male-dominated 'great tradition'. Equally important, these articles demonstrate that this effacement is rarely complete. Rather, women's power is fluid, dynamic, variable and negotiated at varying institutional and interpretive levels. These tensions illustrate how analyses of gender in religion work with different sets of issues. The first set of issues centres on women, that is, on actual persons who have varying degrees of agency within specific social situations. The second set of issues centres on what is often called 'Woman', a symbolic construct that conflates gender, sex and sexuality that is composed of allegory, ideology, metaphor, fantasy and projection.