Durga is one of the angry and aggressive aspects of the goddess Shakti, whose earliest role in Hindu mythology was to fight and conquer demons and also personify the Sakti or female aspect of any male deity. Ichnographically, Durga is depicted as a beautiful golden-skinned woman riding a lion or tiger. She has eight or ten arms, each bearing a weapon presented to her by different gods including the conch shield of Vishnu, the trident of Shiva, the bow of Rama, and the sudarshn (spoked disc) of Krishna. These gifts endow upon her the power of the eight or ten gods. She may wear a necklace of skulls. She is associated with the Himalayan and Vindhya mountains and is frequently depicted as slaughtering the buffalo-demon Mahisa by thrusting her trident into his body.
In later Hindu tradition Durga assumes a contrasting aspect of a mother goddess. She is the consort of Shiva, partly syncretized with Parvati. Also, she is linked with the fertility of crops. In this capacity her most important festival is Durga Puja, celebrated at harvest time, during which devotees persistently made obscene gestures and comments to stimulate her fecundity. She is depicted as being flanked by four other deities Laksmi, Sarasvati, Ganesa, and Karttikeya, who are said to be her children.
She has been worshipped from about 400 AD, but probably earlier, to the present. Her literary references are chiefly the Ramayana and Mahabharata, epic and Puranic texts, and she is mentioned by name in Vedic literature. In general, Durga is regarded in northern India as the gentle bride epitomizing family unity while in southern India she is revered more in her warrior and murderous aspect. A.G.H.
Jordan, Michael, Encyclopedia of Gods, New York, Facts On File, Inc. 1993, p. 70