The idea of the ancient goddess, the first figure of human worship dating back to our Paleolithic ancestors as early as 35,000 BCE, is a theological concept that has given rise to the nature-religious movement in the latter 20th century.
An entire school of interdisciplinary writers have written about this concept, arguing that the first religious impulse was to worship the Magna Mater, a society matrifocal in nature that built a culture of equality and peace between the sexes, before being overrun by Indo-European invaders who introduced warrior gods, weaponry designed to kill human beings, and of course, patriarchal civilization, (Allen) including a deemphasis on the feminine aspect of spirituality and instead, the rise of the male god. Nevertheless, the argument goes, the worship of the Great Mother survived in various forms and guises right up until the medieval period, when the Catholic Church began the atrocities of the Inquisition and made a concerted effort to stamp out every vestige of the old religion.
The pros and cons of this assertion have been vigorously debated by many historians, anthropologists, thinkers, writers, etc.
The purpose of this essay is not to enter into this lively debate, rather the claim is that there is abundant mythological, historical, and archetypal evidence for the original anthropomorphic spiritual conception of human interpretation of a Divine Being in dominion of both the anima and the animus: god was seen as encapsulating both a feminine and male aspect, and the feminine was at least equal to the male, and perhaps even soared to prominence in pre-Christian religious practice.
Therefore, an examination of the historical evidence for goddess worship does not necessarily reveal one great mother universally worshipped by all cultures in the dim recesses of prehistory. Instead, one uncovers evidence for many aspects of the divine feminine that defies stereotyping.
The archetype of the goddess is diverse and complex and she was worshipped and honored in many forms for thousands of years until patriarchal religion usurped the dual nature of the goddess/god, and transformed the anthropomorphic conception of god entirely into a male deity, most especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
This was a grand disservice, for such a religious usurpation has for the past two thousand years denied the feminine its rightful place in the human pantheon of spiritual observance.
Arguments for a Great Mother Goddess
The Great Mother Goddess is defined as the symbol of the earth’s fertility, especially in ancient Middle Eastern religions. This divine feminine was worshiped and recognized by numerous names and attributes.
Similar figures have been found in every part of the world. She was acknowledged as the mother of all life, nature’s grand creative force, especially in her responsibility for the periodic renewal of life.
Later manifestations of her cult included the worship of a male deity, who could be her son, lover, or both (Adonis, Attis, and Osiris), whose death and resurrection symbolized the regenerative powers of the earth, most especially as interpreted in fertility rites.
She was the dominant figure in ancient Middle Eastern religions, but she was also worshiped in Rome, Greece, and Western Asia (Great Mother Goddess). Furthermore in:
Phrygia and Lydia she was known as Cybele; among the Babylonians and Assyrians she was identified as Ishtar; in Syria and Palestine she appeared as Astarte; among the Egyptians she was called Isis; in Greece she was variously worshiped as Gaea, Hera, Rhea, Aphrodite, and Demeter; and in Rome she was identified as Maia, Ops, Tellus, and Ceres. Even this listing, however, is by no means complete. Many attributes of the Virgin Mary make her the Christian equivalent of the Great Mother, particularly in her great beneficence, in her double image as mother and virgin, and in her son, who is God and who dies and is resurrected. (Great Mother Goddess)
This definition, especially the former half, aptly describes the Great Goddess and her “rebirth” in the 19th and 20th centuries. Several writers and thinkers have aggressively been proponents in the literature in arguing for a matriarchal, peaceful, utopian European culture that dominated the western world until the warrior invasion into the Near East that began about 2000 BCE when a number of Indo-Europeans groups made their way into Asia Minor.
There they came in contact with an indigenous speaking Hattic culture, conquered them and melded into a joint power by about 1700 BCE. They brought with them their own dominant, patriarchal religious institutions, especially the concept of god as male, and eventually they over ran and settled Mesopotamia (Indo-European People 1-2).
This series of invasions continued for a long period of time by an aggressive race of warriors who brought with them the concept of a light and dark dichotomy, the light symbolizing good, the dark, evil, (Stone) and the idea of god as male and located on a mountain top or in the sky was firmly rooted in Western consciousness. Then,
[i]n the twentieth century Marija Gimbutas created a modern variation on the traditional invasion theory (the Kurgan hypothesis…) in which the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic tribe in southern Russia and expanded on horseback in several waves during the 3rd millennium BC. Their expansion coincided with the taming of the horse. Leaving archaeological signs of their presence… they…[subdued] the peaceful European Neolithic farmers of Gimbutas’s Old Europe. As Gimbutas’ views evolved, she put increasing emphasis on the patriarchal, patrilinear nature of the invading culture, sharply contrasting it with the supposedly egalitarian, if not matrilinear culture of the invaded, to a point of formulating essentially [as has been claimed] feminist archaeology. (Culture and Religion)
Gimbutas also makes the powerful point that according to Charles Muses, “With the work of Marija Gimbutas, the religion of the Goddess rests on at least as scientific a footing as the religion of God” (qtd. in Lefkowitz).
In fairness, however, Gimbutas’ work has also been criticized, most notably from the vantage point of challenging the logic of her work. Trubshaw has pointed out that one of Gimbutas’ major claims, the occurrence of “Mother Goddess” images in the Neolithic period illustrates the preeminent position of women in society as dominant, a view that is not reflective of culture at any point in written history, citing the fact that the prevalence of statues of the Virgin Mary in pre-Reformation churches does not diminish the historical misogynic inclination of the Roman Catholic Church (Beyond Indiana Jones). This same type of behavior toward women is also reflected in the ancient Grecian and Roman civilizations that precede the Catholic Church, though, in religious matters, it does appear that women did have a bit more autonomy.
Perhaps the most succinct portrayal of the ancient Goddess is given by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough where he writes:
…a great Mother Goddess, the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature, was worshipped under different names but with a substantial similarity of myth and ritual by many peoples of Western Asia; that associated with her was a lover, or rather series of lovers, divine yet mortal, with whom she mated year by year, their commerce being deemed essential to the propagation of animals and plants,…[and] that the fabulous union of the divine pair was simulated…multiplied on earth by the real, though temporary union of the human sexes at the sanctuary of the goddess for the sake of thereby ensuring the fruitfulness of the ground and the increase of man and beast. (385)
Perhaps the earliest writer to broach the idea of an ancient feminine Goddess model is the German classicist Eduard Gerhard who in 1849 made the claim for the first time in the history of the West, that all ancient goddesses were variations of a single prehistoric mother goddess (Allen). Next, Bachofen’s Das Mutterecht (1870) put forth the theory of a stage in human history where the religious impulse was primarily on Goddess images.
Also, in the 19th century the Romantic poets kept alive the Goddess motif, and in the 20th the most famous archeological evidence for the Great Goddess has been well argued from both points of view in examining the work of Marija Gimbutas. Several other 20th century writers have been very prominent in arguing for the concept of the ancient matriarch: Margaret Murray in The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), Margot Adler Drawing Down the Moon (1986), Starhawk The Spiral Dance (1979) are the writers who have garnered the most attention, though this list is by no means definitive. To the list can be added the thoughts of such a distinguished writer as Joseph Campbell who writes that at about 2500 BCE the ancient, life giving Goddess Mother of the universe was suppressed and cast aside…”in favor of those male-oriented, patriarchal mythologies of thunder-hurling warrior gods that by the time a thousand years had passed…had become the dominant divinities of the Near East” (626). Likewise Carl Jung and his followers created the symbol of a female archetype designated as the Great Mother, and this archetype is used to interpret and describe “…the manifestations of the female psyche in history and to understand its behavior in the present…” (Lefkowitz).
Examining the ancient world and its religious beliefs everywhere the numen of the mother goddess appears, and she is intimately associated with an apparently unending phenomenological arrangement: kingship, death, war, fertility, maidenhood, mourning, weaving, magic, etc. Invariably, she was invoked at the majority of the principal rituals and social functions of culture, and she was known by many exalted titles: Queen of the Underworld, Queen of Heaven, Mother Earth, Kore, Warrior, Harlot, to name only a few (Aphrodite).
Whether or not an ancient, primeval single archetypal Great Mother or Great Goddess ever existed in the remote past before the beginning of recorded history is clearly debatable. Witcombe notes that the major motif that has produced the concept of a primeval Goddess was the discovery of Paleolithic “Venus” figurines at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. These female images were interpreted by many scholars as convincing evidence of Stone Age worship of a Great Mother. Other scholars disagreed with this interpretation and noted that the figurines contained no obvious signs of divinity, but without a written historical record these claims are difficult to refute or support (Willendorf Earth Mother). However, an unambiguous and precise argument can be made for the importance of the recognition of the feminine in a human anthropomorphic conception of divinity, before it was suppressed and supplanted by the introduction of monotheism and the patriarchal pattern of rule and interpretation of the importance and meaning of the transcendent in human affairs. These different manifestations of the Goddess, contrary to the usual image of a peaceful, nurturing, sustainer and producer of all life, are as varied in their complex personalities and roles as women have been throughout the history of the West. As we shall see, the role of the Goddess is not just the simplistic image of a fecund feminine eternally pregnant with new life, but the archetypal projections of the myriad female consciousness: yes, Great Mother, but also lover, warrior, seductress, spurned woman, destroyer, and a great many other roles.
Ancient Sumerian/Babylonian Goddesses-Inanna/Ishtar
The search for the archetypal Goddess in recorded history begins in the Middle East in ancient Sumer. Sumer was a grouping of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now present day southern Iraq, and these cities were ruled by individual kings; however, by the mid-fourth millennium BCE the leader of the prevailing city might possibly have been considered the monarch of the region. Sumer has been claimed to be the first city in the world, “although long term settlements at Jericho and Çatal Hüyük predate Sumer and examples of writing from Egypt and the Harappa, Indus valley sites may predate those from Sumer”(Siren). Sumer began as a community of farming villages about 5000 BCE where it existed until around 2000 BCE before its disintegration under the Amorites. Inanna/Ishtar was the ancient Sumerian-Assyrian goddess whose dual qualities embraced love and war. Her symbol was the star and she was usually depicted as being close to or seated astride a great lion (Synder).
Of course, the Sumerian pantheon is part of the great web of the Akkadian and Babylonian cultures, and the pantheon of Sumer is the earliest known system of deity worship, polytheistic, that has left a surviving written record. Sumer’s original gods, even after other nations conquered this land, primarily retained their original meaning, though the names were often changed, and an odd new myth or two was added to the mythical cycle. Devorah aptly defines the aspect of Inanna:
The most mythologized and widely worshipped member of the pantheon was the Queen of Heaven, Inanna, who later become known also as Ishtar. Inanna was the goddess of love, war and fertility so very little day to day or ritual activity was outside of her realm. She also survived a descent to the underworld, the realm of her twin sister Ninhursag, to save her beloved, dying and being reborn out of her own dark self in a magical ecstatic dance. Although she had many lovers, Inanna was married to Anu El, the creator god and had four sons, Nanna/Sin, the moon, Utu/Shamash, the sun, Enlil, the lord of the atmosphere and second in command to Anu, and Enki/Ea, the water, with whom Inanna partnered to create man. Enki also bore a son who figures prevalently in Sumerian myth, Marduk. (Ancient Goddess Religions)
Temples were dedicated to Inanna’s worship all over the Middle East, and ironically, the first known poet in history, Enheduanna, the daughter of the supremely powerful Akkadian king, Sargon, who at around 2300 BCE, assisted her father in the solidification of his political power by aiding the metamorphosis of diverse city goddesses into one exalted figure, Inanna, and as such elevating the goddess to the role of Queen of Heaven, superior to all other deities, a function that Constantine’s great granddaughter, the Empress Pulcheria would emulate in 431 CE, where at the Council of Ephesus the Virgin Mary was also elevated to like status, a theme that we will return to later. Enheduanna also wrote three poems or hymns to Inanna where her different attributes are clearly demonstrated: ferocious warrior, governor of civilization and of the home and children, and the third role is a personal relationship with the goddess where the worshipper calls on her for divine assistance in times of great peril and need (Enheduanna – Priestess of Inanna). This description of Inanna hardly fits the popular conception of a rubber stamped Great Mother, but illustrates, on the contrary that from the earliest written records known of the ancient goddess, the diverse and manifest individual personality is readily apparent, a theme that will continue down through the millenniums.
Indeed, besides the previously mentioned attributes of Inanna, who later became known as Ishtar to the Babylonian civilization, the Babylonians also recognized her as a goddess of love and war as well as a deity of passion and fertility who was associated with the planet Venus and later given the title of “Queen of Heaven.” Furthermore, the kings of Mesopotamia believed that they had a “personal” relationship with the goddess, and viewed this kinship as a primary reason for their success and rule. Clearly, the anthropomorphic identification of and relationship to the supernatural as a manifestation of earthly interest is extremely ancient.
Holland provides an even more interesting list of characteristics and qualities associated with Ishtar, for she writes that “Ishtar rules lust, love, sex, sexuality, war, warfare, fertility, procreation, rain, ambition, fate, comets, aggressiveness, impatience, duality, desire, dangerous love, physical passion, forbidden love, solar eclipses, all-consuming love, the vital force, the waters of life, the fertility of fields and flocks, everything that happens, and Venus as both the morning and the evening star. She is the matron of women and prostitutes” (Ishtar). Much of the above reads as typical of different and various aspects of women in general, a statement which serves to reinforce the archetypal idea of diverse personality traits inherent in feminine consciousness.
Astarte is the Phoenician version of Inanna/Ishtar, a goddess symbolizing reproduction and fertility; she was the major goddess of the port city of Sidon. As far west as Carthage, Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus, she was worshipped and revered in the ancient world (Wyche). Clearly, the importance of the feminine in spirituality is obvious, as again and again in the ancient world the worship of the incarnation of the female archetype is repeatedly emphasized. Indeed, in the Bible Astarte is one of the principle Elohim, along with Lilith, though for the past two thousand years patriarchal translators have presented the term out of context, for the Hebrew plural word indicates both gods and goddesses. Astarte was the Lady of the Beasts often depicted in dance with animals, her upraised arms holding serpents that symbolize rebirth, rejuvenation. She is an aspect of the Great Goddess, the supremely powerful creator, preserver, and destroyer, an embodiment of Mother Nature from which all being arises. The eternal virgin, a fact that did not escape the notice of the early Christian church for the Virgin Mary is but an overlay of the pagan Great Goddess tradition.
In addition, the Christian tradition of Easter is derived from the worship of Astoreth (a variant of Astarte). Easter is another name for Ashteroth “The Queen of Heaven.” Easter became a Christian festival in the fourth century CE, another contribution of Constantine. What is really occurring in Christianity regarding the observance of Easter is a deeply embedded archetypal recognition of the ancient Goddess, for in the ancient world around the time of the vernal equinox cultures all over the Mediterranean world celebrated the resurrection of the sun as Blanton supports by the concept that Herod was waiting for the “pascha” (Passover) to occur as is written in the New Testament. This observance was the celebration of the Sun god, Tammuz\Adonis, consort of Astarte, also Mother Nature (qtd. in Moorman). Tammuz died at the autumnal equinox where:
The wife of Tammuz was Isthar (Astarte), who is called Mother Nature, who being refreshed by spring rains brings life. When Tammuz died, she followed him into the underworld or realm of Eresh-Kigal, queen of the dead. In her deep grief Astarte persuaded Eresh-Kigal to allow her messenger to sprinkle Astarte and Tammuz with the water of life. By this sprinkling they had power to return in the light of the sun for six months. After which the same cycle must be repeated, [the]resurrection of Tammuz. Easter is a joint worship of the two. This…myth is interwoven with the sun’s cycle of vernal equinox (dawn) and autumn [equinox] (sunset). (Moorman)
Will Durant in the well known History of Civilization further illustrates the importance of this ancient festival of worship:
Religious prostitution flourished, for in Syria, as throughout western Asia, the fertility of the soil was symbolized in a Great Mother, or goddess, whose sexual commerce with her lover gave the hint to all the reproductive processes and energies of nature; and the sacrifice of virginity at the temples was not only an offering to Astarte, but a participation with her in that annual self-abandonment which, it was hoped, would offer an irresistible suggestion to the earth, and insure the increase of plants, animals, and men. About the time of the vernal equinox, the festival of the Syrian Astarte, like that of Cybele in Phrygia, was celebrated at Hierapolis with a fervor bordering upon madness. The noise of flutes and drums mingled with the wailing of the women for Astarte’s dead lord, Adoni; eunuch priests danced wildly, and slashed themselves with knives. .Then in the dark of the night, the priests brought a mystic illumination to the scene, opened the tomb of the young god, and announced triumphantly that Adoni, the lord, had risen from the dead. Touching the lips of the worshipers with balm, the priests whispered to them the promise that they, too, would some day rise from the grave. (qtd. in Additional Historical Facts About Easter)
Ironically, sunrise services today, contrary to the popular misconception of being about the resurrection of Christ, are in the collective unconscious recognition of and worship of the ancient Goddess and her consort, a theme that permeates another important aspect of Christianity as we shall later discuss, for Inanna, Ishtar, and Astarte are variants of the primal Goddess symbol worshipped in the ancient Sumerian\Babylonian world, a practice that continues with the Greco\Roman cultures and culminates in the Western world in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In this section the primary focus will be on the ancient Greek goddesses. However, in the discussion the Greek goddess will also be identified and equated with her Roman equivalent since the Romans borrowed much of Greek mythology, often changing the names, but leaving the primary archetypal motif virtually untouched and unaltered. The linkage of Rome to ancient Greece is commonly known as reported by ancient writers such as the Roman historian Livy, and the poet Virgil in the Aeneid. To the educated reader, this point is obvious but should be reemphasized.
The ancient Greeks became the first Western civilization at about 2000 BCE. A rich mythology originated with the culture that became fully developed by the 700’s BCE. At this time three classic collections of myths, Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey first appeared within the same general time frame. Later the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-18 CE) in his Metamorphoses provides the last accepted classical account of creation. The deities of ancient Greece are wholly anthropomorphic gods and goddesses who gave no special revelation or spiritual teaching to humanity, established no churches or formal structure, and no holy book. They were associated with three main domains: the sky, or heaven, the sea, and the earth, and they interacted freely with human beings.
The primary Greek Goddesses connected to the archetype of the Magna Mater are Gaia, Demeter, Hera, Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Persephone. All, with the exception of Gaia, are interpreted as archetypal psychological manifestations of the primordial power of the feminine in various guises and roles.
It is interesting to note that the Greek common noun for land is ge or ga, the root of the words geography or geology. Gaia is known as Earth or Mother Earth. According to Leadbetter Gaia was the early earth goddess born from Chaos similar to the description of creation in Genesis, and along with her came Eros. Gaia then gave parthenogenetic birth to the sea (Pontus) and the sky (Uranus), while other versions report that she had siblings Tartarus and Eros, and then through a virgin birth brought forth the sky, the mountains (Ourea) and the sea. The Romans knew her as Tellus (Gaia). Here, at the beginnings of Western civilization, the creative force is female, the underpinning of all physical existence. Indeed, in the late twentieth century the British scientist James Lovelock formulated the controversial theory the Gaia Hypothesis that states that the planet functions as a single organism that constantly maintains conditions of equilibrium necessary for survival, just as the human body does likewise, and like human life, the earth is a single living entity (Miller). The search for the primal Mother Goddess really begins with the earth itself, and all the other goddesses are various manifestations sprung from the first source. An even more interesting idea connected with this theory is that human beings are part of an evolutionary process whereby the earth is developing a human organism that allows her to become self-reflexive and conscious of her existence.
In regard to her Roman incarnation as Tellus Lindemans writes:
The Roman goddess of the earth, equated with the Greek goddess Gaia (Terra Mater) and also with the fertility goddess Ceres. Telles (“earth”) had a temple on the Forum Pacis, built in 268 BCE. On her festival, the Fordicidia, held on April 15, cows (being with young) were sacrificed. On January 24 – 26 the Sementivae were held in honor of Tellus and Ceres and during these days they were called upon for protection of the seed and the sower. Fama was thought to be her daughter. (Tellus)
The reproductive faculties of Gaia are readily apparent, since fertility and reproduction are crucial to the propagation of life, which logically leads to a discussion of the two major divinities associated with this concept, Demeter and Persephone.
Demeter and Persephone
The Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone (Roman Ceres and Proserpina) represent both the divine generosity and the caring faculty inherent in the feminine archetype. She is the goddess of agriculture, “the pure nourisher of youth and the green earth, the health-giving cycle of life and death, and preserver of marriage and the sacred law. She is invoked as the “bringer of seasons” in the Homeric hymn, a subtle sign that she was worshiped long before the Olympians arrived” (Demeter). Demeter was the patroness of generosity in Greek mythology and was much loved by humanity because she bestowed the harvest gift, a great reward for cultivating the land. She instructed the human race in the lessons of growing, preserving, and preparing grain, and was also believed to bestow fertility upon the earth. She is unique in that she was the only Greek goddess daily involved in the lives of ordinary mortals, unlike other goddesses who intervened only to further their own self interests, Demeter was the magna nurturer of mankind, and she also was extraordinary in that she had an empathic understanding of human grief and suffering because she had fully experienced this psychological aspect in the loss of her own daughter, Persephone (Demeter, Greek Goddess).
This loss and the subsequent bereavement of Demeter is primarily known, originally, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. This story is not only about the abduction of Persephone and Demeter’s anger, but it also alludes to the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Demeter was honored at such festivals as the Thesmophoria (Demeter in Greek Mythology). In the hymn, Hades, entranced by Persephone’s beauty abducted her and whisked the young maiden away to the underworld. Demeter, the archetypal wronged woman, retreated to her temple to mourn and brood the loss of her daughter, and with her retreat from the world no planted seed sprouted and nothing grew in the fields. Removed from the field of beneficent experience, humanity was doomed to extinction unless Demeter removed her curse from the land. Eventually, Rhea, Demeter’s mother, upon the urging of Zeus convinced Demeter to lift her curse. In return Persephone would be able to spend two thirds of the year with her mother, but the remaining one third of the year would be in the presence of Persephone’s husband, Hades. When Persephone is with her husband the earth is barren, but when she returns to her mother, Demeter out of great joy and love brings forth once again the fruitful blessings of spring. Just as the year was divided into thirds, the psychological impact of Demeter on the feminine consciousness is three fold: wronged woman, sorrowful mother, and fecund giver of life when appeased, the archetypal projection of this aspect of the Great Mother Goddess is clearly revealed. In addition, it is interesting to note that the descent to and return from the underworld at the time of spring is an ancient archetypal conception that unmistakably impacted the formation of the early Catholic church and its dogma. Another impact upon the contemporary world is that the Roman name for Demeter, Ceres, is the root of the modern word cereal.
Hera (Roman Juno) was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea and Queen of the Olympian deities. Her worship mainly consisted of her recognition as a goddess of marriage and birth. In ancient legend it was believed that each year Hera’s virginity returned when she bathed in the well Canathus. Ancient writers presented Hera as insanely jealous of Zeus’s (her husband and brother) numerous amorous affairs. Goddesses and mortals alike could not escape her jealous wrath as she punished them with merciless fury. As an example of her archetypal anger as the revengeful wife of an unfaithful husband Lindemans writes:
She placed two serpents in the cradle of Heracles; she had Io guarded by a hundred-eyed giant; she drove the foster-parents of Dionysus mad, and tried to prevent the birth of Apollo and Artemis. Even Zeus usually could not stand up to her. Sometimes when he got angry, he chained her to the mountain of Olympus by fastening anvils to her feet. However, most of the time Zeus resorted to stratagems: he either hid his illegitimate children, or he changed them into animals. (Hera)
Despite her husband’s many infidelities Hera is the archetype of the wife who attempts to maintain stability and continuity in the marriage. This aspect of her personality is readily apparent in the Iliad as the goddess who oversees the institution of marriage when she takes sides with the Greeks, opposing Paris who has violated the marriage institution by his abduction/seduction of Helen of Troy. However, she is not just solely the patroness of legitimate marriage. That would be limiting the archetype. Through her marriage with Zeus, the king of the gods, she is also associated with sovereign power, the nature of a political marriage of dominance and not romantic love, of stability within the family structure. According to Macary:
The truth is that early Greek culture did not place a great value on “legitimacy” as a determination of succession or inheritance. Hera’s role is never one of mother, and in fact the children produced by Hera are somehow objectionable, like Ares or Hephaestus. It is as if the power Zeus and Hera cannot be combined in one powerful offspring – it is too much. The purpose of the union is not the children themselves, but rather the control and consolidation of power between Zeus and Hera. […To recognize] that marriage is always a struggle between intimacy and freedom, social roles and private behavior. It is always a combat between men and women…. The struggles of the day, the warfare of life can only be resolved in the intimacy of the wedding bed. Hera is Queen and victim, eternally young and furiously jealous. Like marriage itself, she is a goddess of relationships that are complex and perplexing, socially ordained and privately maintained, sexually enticing and eternally jealous. Every man or woman, entering into such a relationship must learn to understand the complexity and ambivalence of marriage. (Hera: The Politics of Marriage)
Thus, Hera’s archetypal role is psychologically complex and is not the stereotyped version of the Great Mother Goddess so often portrayed as the primordial concept of the feminine.
Athena (Roman Minerva) is the Greek goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill, a favorite child of Zeus she was born fully grown out of her father’s head. Her mother was Metis goddess of wisdom and Zeus’ first wife. Zeus swallowed Metis when he discovered that she was pregnant because he was terrified of the prospect that she might birth a son more powerful than he. Ortengren has noted the unusual characteristics of this goddess, one of the most powerful deities inhabiting Mount Olympus, she represents the archetypal matriarchal goddess who in her complexity of internal strength and reflection is interpreted as a fulcrum point between humanity and nature, in one manifestation she is the embodiment of the civic patroness of ancient Athens, benevolent protector and creator of strategic defense; the other aspect is her four thousand year connection with the eternal being of the mother goddess, of sacred expression of intuition, creation, instinct, commanding symbols unified in the imposing representative archetype
She is further distinguished from the other gods in that she also possesses patriarchal characteristics that bring her great honor from humans and the gods that she assists. Skills in carpentry, weaving, wool-working symbolize her beneficial, diverse talents. She will take on any force in battle, as she does in the Iliad, where she is one of the most threatening female forces ever encountered, but in addition she represents logical, rational power in restoring justice and order (Athena). Archetypally, she is the eternally invincible, wise warrior who bridges the divide between the patriarchal and matriarchal touchstones of culture. This trait is demonstrated in the Odyssey where she illustrates that she is a goddess of action like Odysseus is a man of action because it is Athena who plots the plan that brings about the downfall of Penelope’s suitors in Odysseus’ house. Kerestes writes that,
Athena shows this same leadership and action in the Iliad as well. When this epic poem commences, a struggle exists between Achilles and Agamemnon. Athena comes to Achilles and warns him of his rage. She promises him gifts if he holds himself from quarrling (Iliad 84). During the action of the Trojan war, Athena assists the Achaean lines frequently. She goes to the Trojan Laodecus and fools him into shooting Menenlaos with an arrow to break the truce that had been called on the war (Iliad 148). However, to protect her beloved Achaean Menelaos, she forces the arrow to “deflect down the belt” instead of killing him (Iliad 149). Throughout the entire book, she “spurs them on” which motivates the Achaean causing them to strive for victory. She also gives Diomedes, an Achaean warrior, strength and daring (Iliad 164). She “puts spring into the limbs of Tudides, his feet, his fighting hands and helped him with fight orders” (Iliad 168). The goddess of battle fought as other Achaean soliders might have. “She levered Sthenelus out of his car. A twist of her her wrist and the man hit the ground” (Iliad 191). (Athena, the Goddess)
Athena is a dominant figure in Greek mythology who accepted no authority except, perhaps, the command of Zeus. She is a great warrior who could defeat any foe, one who had a taste for battle and the ensuing death and chaos that resulted. Not only was her courage and battle skill noted, but also her immense intellect and capacity for stratagems, skills that many a modern CEO could definitely use.
Artemis (Roman Diana) was the twin sister of Apollo, their parents Leto and Zeus. Armed with a bow and arrows made by Hephaestus and the Cyclopes, she roamed the forests not only hunting wild animals, but also contributing to their safety and reproduction as the goddess of the hunt and protector of wild beasts. It was in the cities that she was transformed into a goddess of fertility and childbirth. Ancient depictions of the goddess associate her with the moon, as she wore a crescent lunar symbol above her forehead which sometimes made her identified with Selene, goddess of the moon.
One legend of how she became associated with fertility and childbirth is given by Leadbetter:
In one legend, Artemis was born one day before her brother Apollo. Her mother gave birth to her on the island of Ortygia, then, almost immediately after her birth, she helped her mother to cross the straits over to Delos, where she then delivered Apollo. This was the beginning of her role as guardian of young children and patron of women in childbirth. Being a goddess of contradictions, she was the protectress of women in labor, but it was said that the arrows of Artemis brought them sudden death while giving birth. As was her brother, Apollo, Artemis was a divinity of healing, but also brought and spread diseases such as leprosy, rabies and even gout. (Artemis)
The archetypal Artemis is also composed of a triple aspect, for she represented a wild sense of femininity, a nurturer, and the sublime virgin goddess. Her virginity was immensely important for when Actaeon saw the goddess and her nymphs bathing nude in a secluded pool, she was so disgusted by his obvious lust that she turned him into a stag and his own hunting dogs tore him apart. Her sudden wrath is also manifested in the Greek legend of Agamemnon who killed a stag in her sacred grove. Sailing for Troy she punished him by becalming the winds, and he was informed by the seer Calchas that the only recourse to enticing Artemis to restore the sailing winds was to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.
Artemis was an extremely important Goddess who was worshipped throughout the ancient Greek world. Her archetypal symbolism is represented on several different levels. In Athens the festival of Artemis Brauron was celebrated to commemorate the myth of Callisto. Callisto was one of Artemis’ nymphs, and in the myth Artemis transformed her into a she bear when she discovered that Callisto had been impregnated by Zeus. Her anger toward Callisto and her worshippers was manifested in such a savage manner because she expected her followers to maintain the same level of chasteness as she did. In the festival of Brauron Athenian girls, ranging in age from five to ten, served as she bears in Artemis’ temple. This festival symbolized the ritual of the rite of passage of a young girl’s transition from one stage of life to another, for before the marriage of an Athenian girl, she was expected to discard all her childhood toys by bringing them to the temple of Artemis, symbolizing the change from the life of a wild youth to that of the married, civilized woman. This archetypal symbolism represents the Athenian (possibly the Greek) outlook that a young girl was expected to marry and reproduce so that by consigning herself to marriage she was recognized as no longer possessing virginity (Gods of the Amazons).
A deeper examination of her archetypal nature reveals the richness of the inherent symbolism associated with the feminine psyche for Miller has noted that Artemis represents the huntress nature and the “High Priestess” in her solitary role as Virgin-Mother, and in both instances she is coupled with the moon as the symbol of lunar consciousness. As the Virgin-Mother she is the archetype of their Anima Mundi, paradoxically and simultaneously the Immaculate Virgin and Great Mother within whose makeup is contained the total cyclic natural processes and its relationship to time, transcending time while constantly living in an eternal now. She is the highest representation of the wholeness within the female, the feminine source of wisdom and the secret powers of nature, the archetype that has echoed down through the millenniums as the Great Mother, the symbol of bringing creative ideas to manifestation, of life itself (Artemis: Paradoxical Virgin-Priestess-Mother).
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Turkey, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and it is interesting to note that the house of the Virgin Mary is located not far from the temple ruins, and in one legend Mary lived her last days there and died, obviously a ploy to further connect her with the ancient Goddess.
Aphrodite, (Roman Venus) in Greek mythology is the goddess supreme of beauty, love, and sexual desire. Hediod reports that she was conceived when Uranus, castrated by his son Cronus, who then flung the severed genitals into the sea which began to violently foam, and from this aphros (sea foam) Aphrodite arose from the ocean. Her archetype of the femme fatale and goddess of sexual desire is clearly manifested in the story of the beauty contest between the three Greek goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aprhrodite. Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy became the judge of the competition between the three goddesses. All three in secret came to Paris and offered him a gift if he chose her: Athena would have provided wisdom, Hera honor, and Aphrodite the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite and was granted Helen, who was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Thus, Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships and she became Helen of Troy, the cause of the Trojan war.
Aphrodite, in her various aspects as goddess of love and fertility, was originally an old Asian goddess clearly connected to the Mesopotomian Ishtar, and the Syro-Palestinian goddess Ashtart (Lindemans). Her archetype is a further illustration of the many different and varied aspects of the ancient goddess that were venerated by followers who greatly praised her ability to awaken love. However, in the ancient world she was also associated with the sky and sea, for from the historical age of Homer (700 BCE) up to the age of Theodosius I and the legal recognition of Christianity (381 CE) Aphrodite was worshipped as Ourania or Queen of Heaven, and when she appeared as the morning and evening star (the planet Venus), all devotees recognized her manifestation (Moon 1). Furthermore, Moon writes that
At the same time, Aphrodite’s domain was not limited to the natural worlds of love, beauty, sea, and sky. As Queen of Heaven, she was a goddess of royal sovereignty, the begetter of kings. In statues created for her temples, on coins, and in popular art, Queen Aphrodite appears sitting on a throne, bearing a crown, and accompanied by lions, all symbols of royal power. Nor was her role as goddess of sovereignty limited to the Greek-speaking world. Aphrodite was especially prominent during the period of the Roman empire when Julius Caesar and other rulers recognized in her their patron and ancestor, the source of their divinity and kingship, [and] [a] fresh look at the religious traditions associated with Aphrodite, from the earliest Greek sources through the Hellenistic period and up until the Christianization of the Roman empire, discloses a continuity in her role as a goddess of sovereignty. The literary evidence, beginning with Homer, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns, as well as the visual evidence of religious art throughout this period of over a thousand years present Aphrodite as ancestor of kings. In her oldest known myth, her descendants ruled in Asia Minor, while the later development of this myth brings her son Aeneas and his family to Italy to found the Roman civilization. This ancient tradition was revitalized by the rulers of the Roman Empire, above all, Julius Caesar. Believing that their divine right to rule rested on an ancestral bond to the Queen of Heaven-known to the Romans both as Aphrodite and as Venus-they continued to build on this foundation of sacred kingship. (2)
Once again, the incredible diversity of the roles of the ancient goddess is demonstrated as Miller also supports in arguing that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, passion and fertility was the same supernatural incarnation under various guises at different times and places, for in Sumer was known as Inanna, and in Babylonia, as Ishtar, whereas the Hebrews and Phoenicians knew her as Astarte, the Persians as Anahita, Isis to the Egyptians, the Indians as Shakti, and, of course, as Venus to the Romans (Mighty Aphrodite).
Roman Catholicism: Mary Queen of Heaven
We come finally to the feminine crowning achievement of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the cumulation and assimilation of the archetypal symbol of the ancient goddess in the Catholic figure of Mary, “Queen of Heaven.” An argument is made that the figure of Mary is merely an overlay, as Christianity overlaid so much of previously existing “pagan” tradition, holidays, celebrations, and religious festivals, of the many aspects of the Magna Mater, for in Catholicism, at least, some remnant of this primeval archetype still remains, whereas by the time of Luther and the Reformation, all emphasis on the feminine aspect of spirituality was eradicated completely and the patriarchal nature of god firmly set in place, like the keystone to a great building. A powerful source for the syncretism of the ancient goddess is reported by Lucius Apuleius (c.155 CE) in his The Golden Ass where he writes of Isis:
Behold Lucius I am come, thy weeping and prayers has moved me to succor thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven, the principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, the mother of the Gods: the Athenians call me Cecropian Artemis: the Cyprians, Paphian Aphrodite: the Candians, Dictyanna: the Sicilians , Stygian Proserpine: and the Eleusians call me Mother of the Corn. Some call me Juno, others Bellona of the Battles, and still others Hecate. Principally the Ethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me Queen Isis. Behold I am come to take pity of thy fortune and tribulation, behold I am present to favor and aid thee. Leave off thy weeping and lamentation, put away thy sorrow, for behold the healthful day which is ordained by my providence, therefore be ready to attend to my commandment. (qtd. in May)
Mary, too, takes on all the attributes of the Great Goddess, but where, how, and why did this first occur? The answer is recorded in the Council of Ephesus (431 CE), the third great meeting of the Catholic Church, gatherings where early church dogma was hammered into place. The council was attended by more than two hundred bishops and was presided over by St. Cyril of Alexandria, the representative of Pope Celestine I. This assemblage defined the true personal unity of Christ, elevated Mary to the title of theotokos (Mother of God, a concept that Nestorius rejected as implying a false Christology) in response to the disputed teachings of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople.
What Nestorius taught was the interpretative concept of the Logos-Anthropos model of Christology, after Arius the next great heresy facing the early church. He taught that essentially two Christs existed, one completely human and one fully divine; however, these two natures were not united but instead coexisted in a moral union, and as mentioned previously, he rejected Mary as being the “mother of God” because human beings must exist separately from the divine. He had, however, rightly expressed the nature of duality extant in Christ, but presented a disunited person totally unacceptable to orthodox views (Doctrine of the Person of Christ).
This view, of course, lead directly into matters concerning the character of Mary. In his second letter to Cyril, Nestorius raises a very interesting question concerning the nature of the “Virgin.” He writes:
[h]oly scripture, wherever it recalls the Lord’s economy, speaks of the birth and suffering not of the godhead but of the humanity of Christ, so that the holy virgin is more accurately termed mother of Christ than mother of God. Hear these words that the gospels proclaim: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abrahamf.” It is clear that God the Word was not the son of David. Listen to another witness if you will: “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.” Consider a further piece of evidence: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” But who would ever consider that the godhead of the only begotten was a creature of the Spirit? Why do we need to mention: “the mother of Jesus was there”? (Council of Ephesus)
Indeed, why is there a need to mention “the mother of Jesus was there?” There is a need to mention because just as a common carpenter could not become god without a committee of men deciding the nature of divinity, this transcendent, omnipotent, omnipresent creator of the entire universe could not be born of a simple Jewish woman without rank or status. Indeed, Nestorius (who was condemned by the council) held the belief that according to the Bible, the story of Christ is not the tale of the birth and suffering of the godhead (the Trinity), but instead relates the narrative of the humanity of Christ, so that “the holy virgin is more accurately termed mother of Christ than mother of God.”
Why the importance of this distinction? The meaning is clearly exemplified at the council, where two allies of Nestorius, Acacius of Mitylene and Theodotus of Ancyra testified of their conversations with their friend and Acacius related that Nestorius had numerous times declared dimeniaion e trimeniaion me dein legesthai Theon. Nestorius believed that the phrase should be interpreted as: “We must not say that God is two or three months old.” However, the interpretation which so disturbed the council was the one that can be transcribed as, “A baby of two or three months old ought not to be called god.” This implied that either the Godhead (theotes) of the Only-begotten to have become man must be denied, or as Nestorius believed that the Divine Nature is numerically one and so the same must be said of the Father and of the Holy Ghost (the Trinity must have been born of the Virgin Mary) (Chapman).
It is interesting to note that before 431 CE Mary wasn’t even recognized by the Catholic Church, and it only at this council that she takes on such an exalted status. And why was Ephesus chosen as the site of her elevation? Logically, the reason was to bring Mary under the penumbra of Artemis, one name, one symbol of the many aspects of the Goddess that had been worshipped for millennia, and Artemis, though a perpetual virgin, was called the “Mother of God.” Early Christianity was in keen competition with the pagan religions that preceded the church’s rise to power, and since so many of those religions had a virgin birth story of their own it was only logical for the church to adapt that story for its own political and power purposes in spreading the belief in its narrative, for let us not forget that Catholic means “universal.”
The fourth century CE. was also especially influential in the continuing development of Mary as a central figure and goddess incarnate. The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, traveled in the Holy Land and everywhere she went she discovered evidence of Christ: the place of the last supper, the crucifixion hill, the cross, and in Nazareth the nativity cave where the angel Gabriel had made known to Mary her special destiny as the Mother of God. A shrine was created which became the recipient of imperial patronage and profits made from pilgrims, and with the shrine a Mary festival was created, the “Annunciation” (Humphreys). Like with Constantine’s imperial recognition of Christianity, his mother, perhaps identifying with the Mother of “Lord of the World,” did a great deal to assist in the process of turning Mary into a deity. And, of course, an interesting observation is the innocence and lack of sin claimed by the church for Mary, a contradiction of the Augustinian concept of original sin since Mary is a descendent of Adam and Eve However, the church attempts to validate Mary’s lack of sin by an official pronouncement claiming that she was born sinless, but this concept is nowhere to be found in the Bible, it is merely a church decree that gained ground through the centuries and was made part of the official canon of the Catholic Church in 1854 by Pius IX when:
with the Bull Ineffabilis, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: “… We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.” (Immaculate Conception Defined)
Without scriptural support for the “Immaculate Conception,” it is difficult from a logic standpoint to understand how the church can justify such a claim, one that lacks any objective evidence at all, but instead is merely another example of supernaturalism that the church uses to reinforce its dogmatic position when no other recourse is available.
And as for the claimed originality of the Virgin Birth, this supposed event was nothing unique. Many ancient deities and even some human beings were said to have been born of a virgin. For example, in Phrygia the virgin Nama gave birth to Attis; the Egyptian virgin mother Isis birthed Horus; the Buddha descended on his mother Maya, entered her womb and was born from her right side, the savior of the world; the Greek Adonis entered the world from the product of a virgin birth, and he was also worshipped by the Phoenicians as a dying and resurrected god who held a yearly festival commemorating his death and resurrection; in the Americans the Aztecs and Mayans recognized Quetzalcoatl, the serpent plumed god-man who also enjoyed a virgin birth, and it was believed that he would return to claim his earthly kingdom; interestingly enough, the religion constructed around this god-man also used the cross as a symbolic representation; carved on the walls of the temple of Luxor, eighteen hundred years before Christ, is a representation of the annunciation, conception and birth of King Amunothph III, mirroring almost exactly the story of Christ’s birth; Mithra, a competing religion with early Christianity, also had a virgin birth where he was born in a cave on December 25th, had twelve disciples, and his resurrection was celebrated at Easter; Zoroaster was also born of a virgin; after being fathered by gods Perseus and Hercules came into the world as virgin births; Dionysus, Krishna, Mithra, and Horus all were born on December 25th, their births heralded by “stars,” attended by “wise men,” the birth taking place in a humble location followed by the massacre of innocents and then fleeing from enemies; Indra, in Tibet, was born of a virgin and ascended to heaven after his death; the Indian god Krishna came forth from the virgin Devaki; likewise, many Greek emperors, Egyptian pharaohs, and Alexander the Great claimed virgin births, and this is only a partial list (Brienesse).
Is it a coincidence that Mary is also called the Seat of Wisdom? Most likely not, for this appellation, and the invocation of same first originated in the 11th century as part of the Litany of Loreto, while St. Augustine was the first church leader to refer to the Seat of Wisdom and St. Bernard bestowed the title with the phrase Domus divinae Sapientiae (House of Divine Wisdom). And, of course, in the medieval period the connection between Mary and Wisdom was developed even more extensively as expressed by the Benedictine Abbot of Battle Abbey, Odo:
Philosophy is called the pursuit or love of wisdom. Mary is, therefore, the philosophy of Christians for whoever desires to find true Wisdom must direct his/her love and endeavor to Mary. (Theotokos 368 qtd. in Mary Question Page)
The most likely and logical explanation for Mary being called by this title is the same for many of the other titles as well: they existed in earlier pagan traditions and Mary was defined as Divine Motherhood in order to encapsulate the great Goddess worshipped by untold millions, the same reason that she began to be called the “Queen of Heaven,” the title given to the Pagan Goddess Isis, the Great Mother. Taking on the role of Isis, Mary also became the guarding of family, marriage, parenthood and childbearing, and of course to further absorb the remnants of the ancient world, she was also called “Queen of the Universe, and Seat of Wisdom.” The Greek Athena was the pagan Goddess of Wisdom, and she too, was a virgin.
In Catholicism, Mary has swept into her umbra and penumbra the majority of all the attributes of the ancient, primeval, archetypal Goddess, where now when she is invoked by her worshippers little do they realize that they are calling upon the grand magna mater, the archetype that will not perish but instead undergoes a perpetual metamorphosis in the present that has as its genesis roots in remote antiquity, and like Lilith the first wife of Adam, the great Goddess refuses to be destroyed by the patriarchal power structure that has subjugated and absorbed this ancient archetype for its own arcane purposes, for Mary is but one manifestation of the divine feminine in spirituality, not the ultimate Mother but rather the younger sister to an older sibling that was birthed somewhere in the millenniums beyond human reckoning.
By Ralph Monday
Comments and questions may be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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