The roots of the modern day Goddess movement

by Saskia Basten

The day Goddess movement as we know it is a vibrant, modern group of people who wear female spirituality as if it was a well fitting, elegant tank top. We live the Wheel of the Year, combined with full busy lives. Yet, the deeper meaning behind the Goddess movement isn’t modern at all. It reflects an image that has deep and old roots in history.

To understand these roots better I have studied different ways of how information about the Goddess in those early times has survived through time. I used images, figurines and myths from different periods, starting at the Paleolithic period.

In this essay I will show how that the way the Goddess is experienced evolved during time.

Great Mother archetype

The oldest information we have on the way Goddesses were perceived is derived from figurines dating form the Paleolithic time.

The Paleolithic period started some 2.5 million years ago and ended around 10,000 BCE. It was a period in which people didn’t live in villages yet, since they didn’t know agriculture. Typically the need for food kept people moving.

In this period several small, corpulent figurines have been found. Some archaeologists believe they were intended to represent goddesses, while others believe that they could have served some other purpose. A lot of figurines from this period typically have no faces and have a female body. Famous examples are the Venus of Willendorf (from 24.000–22.000 BC), the Venus of Lespugue (20.000 BC) and the famous drawings of Goddesses found in a cave in Lascaux, France (16.000 – 13.000 BC).

Diverse images of Mother Goddesses also have been discovered that date from the Neolithic period. The Neolithic period, also called the New Stone Age, started approximately 10,000 BCE when the use of wild cereals introduced agriculture and (longlasting) settlement of groups of people. Regular seasonal occupation or permanent settlements becomes more and more a way of living. At the same time evidence is found of the keeping of cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs as well as the presence of dogs.

The figurines found from this period typically can are sort of schematized images of goddesses. The figurines often have costumes, masks or symbolic faces. Some figures are partly animal (such as birds and snakes). They can be vuloptuous or slender and in some cases have either no head or a rudimentary one.

To me it seems that they don’t represent a specific Goddess, but rather the Goddess. And if these types of figurines represent an aspect of the Goddess it is often concerned with fertility. This shows that those early times the images and figurines represented a Great Mother archetype (for explanation see the section ‘Evolution of the Goddess image’).

Good mother, bad mother

The Neolithic period was followed by the Bronze age, which started roughly around 3.000 BC. The oldest myths that we know are from this period. For example, the first Sumerian myths as we know them were written sometime between c.2150-1750 BC, but their roots might be as old as c.3500-2500 BC. In this period the images of the Goddesses in general are more sophisticated and more often represent a Goddess rather than the Goddess (Great Mother archetype). Here are some examples.

Two important Goddesses in the Sumerian society were the sisters Ereshkigal and Inanna. Ereshkigal was the goddess of Irkalla, the land of the dead. Inanna was called the Queen of Heaven and was associated with the Evening Star (the planet Venus), and sometimes with the Moon. The myth of Inanna’s descent into Irkalla is world famous and intriguing. It is known from a poem on a relatively intact set of tablets. The myths is long and complex and deals with subjects as death and rebirth. It also explains the changing of the seasons by the death of a young man (Inanna’s lover) and the mourning of the (mother) Goddess. This is the oldest form of this type of myth; other known versions are those of Cybele and Attis, of Demeter and Persephone, of Osiris and Isis and of Jeshua and Mary.

Around this time the Greek and British mythology also reached their zenith. One Greek myth explaining the start of the Trojan war is particularly complex and talks about the Goddesses and Gods as human like figures, which also behave like humans. Paris, a young Trojan prince, is asked to judge which Goddess is the most beautiful and by chosing Aprohdite is given the most beautiful woman on earth as his wife. The abduction of this woman, Helen of Sparta, starts the Trojan war.

So in the myths and stories, new theme’s arise: next to life and death, new theme’s such as love and war are connected with Goddesses (and Gods). There is not just the image of the Great Mother archetype, but now She has good sides (life, love) and dark sides (death, hate and war). They represent the Good Goddess/mother and the bad Goddess/mother. There is an evolution of Goddess images.

Evolution of the Goddess image

An explanation for the evolution of Goddesses images from the Great Mother archetype towards a more ambivalent image can be explained if you compare this development with that of a young child. At first, when the child is very small, it experiences the mother as supernatural, omnipotent. She nourishes the child with food, love and safety. This is similar to the Great Mother archetype.

As the child grows the image changes into a good mother who takes care of the child and the bad mother who punishes the child. In some Goddesses these sides are both present. A good example of this is Sheela Na Gig, a British and Irish Goddess, that is connected with the Yonic pathway, thereby symbolizing both fertility and death.

I feel that in the Wheel of Brigit-Ana, we have taken this evolution one step further. Those old theme’s like life and death are still an important part of how we view the Goddess. But with the Wheel of Brigit-Ana, we have tried to make a more complete and sophisticated image of the Goddess. The Wheel shows all different sides of Her, life, love, intuition, healing, transformation, et cetera.

Interestingly enough, this evolution brought the image of the Ouroboros in mind. The Ouroboros is an old, widespread image of a serpent that chews its own tail, thereby forming a unbroken circle. The centre of our wheel symbolizes not only the Lady of Avalon, but I also see it at the still centre of a moving wheel. It thereby symbolizes different, complementary opposites, such as movement and stillness, everything and nothing and above and below. The Ouroboros represents this also. And the unbroken circle brings us back to the Great Mother archetype. Our wheel is so complete, represents so many different sides of the Great Mother, that for me this is almost as close to that Great Mother archetype that you can get. By living the Wheel of the Year, I can connect to that old Great Mother archetype that connects me with those old, ancient roots of the modern day Goddess movement.