What is the ancient Goddess culture in which our modern Goddess spirituality is based?
by Heloise Pilkington
For most of my life I have carried a feeling, an inner knowing, an ancient memory of myself as a priestess. It has been in my body, in my bones, a deep knowing, a deep remembering. When I visited temples in Greece as a much younger woman I knew I had been there before. When I met my first spiritual teacher in my early twenties we both had memories of priestessing together in another time. Some of my first spiritual experiences happened in front of statues of the Virgin Mary. I knew I had no interest in the church and found it hard to understand why I had such a strong connection to her. What could that mean? Particularly because from an early age I was also in touch with a raw and primal power that I found very hard to express in our culture, a primal energy that seemed diametrically opposed to what Mary stood for. This feeling was of such wildness, of such ecstatic connection to the life force and of such freedom. And I still feel it now when I dance, when I sing, when I drum, and when I make love, a raw, primal power. Sometimes this power totally takes me over and I find myself in a trance state where I know I am in touch with something so ancient and so old that I feel I am part of the land itself. This raw and vital creative energy fills my small female body with a power I can hardly contain. It is feminine power but has nothing to do with the way in which I was educated to understand the word feminine. There is nothing demure or retiring, constricted or constrained about this energy. Quite the opposite. It is wild, raw and ecstatic; and whilst I have often understood feminine to somehow equate with receptivity, this power is definitely active.I wanted to start with this because my journey with the Goddess began with an inner calling. I was responding to an ancient memory that rose up from the inside, a voice that wouldn’t leave me alone. A voice that I knew in the deepest core of my being and yet that seemed so out of place in our modern world. A voice that called me back to the earth, that knew that the earth was alive and sacred, that all life was interconnected; a voice that was calling me to honour the natural cycles and rhythms of life and to live closer to the natural world. At times I wondered whether this voice was real, and yet my experiences were definitely real. I would really break down in tears in front of the Virgin Mary and I didn’t know why, she just touched something so deep inside me. It was a feeling of overwhelming unconditional love and of devotion. I felt totally held by her and whilst I shed tears of relief, I also wanted to dance and sing for her, bang a drum for her. Yet it bothered me deeply that I was having these experiences in churches, as I had no interest in Christianity and had always found my feeling of connection in the world of nature. If anything I was a pagan.
Then one day in Brighton an unusual thing happened. I had had another heart opening and tearful experience in a church in front of the Mary altar. Afterwards I noticed some books that were lying around on Marion cults. I looked through and saw lots of pictures of mostly men in regalia and nothing that spoke to me. I left wondering why she kept speaking to me when I was totally uninterested in Christianity. Then as I was walking past a bookshop I noticed a book called ‘The Virgin Mary’s cult and the reemergence of the Goddess’. I couldn’t believe it! This was the book I needed to read. It traced the cult of Mary right the way back to the early ancient Goddess cults, showing that Mary is in fact the same Great Goddess who is known by thousands of different names all over the world. However, unlike the ancient Goddesses such as Isis, Innana, Ishtar or Ninhursag, she had been stripped of her sexual potency and creative power and remained only in her aspect as nurturing mother, one of the only aspects of the Goddess that has remained acceptable under Christianity and the patriarchy. So something was starting to make sense. If Mary was actually a continuing thread of the Goddess of the ancient world, albeit depotentiated, perhaps she was calling me to discover the rites and ways of the ancient Goddess, not to the Christian church. But who was the ancient Goddess and what were her functions before the only remnant of her in our main religious institution was of a non sexual, compassionate mother? I had read bits about her and had some psychic experiences of the Crone, which I felt uncomfortable with. However, because my strongest experiences had occurred with Mary, I had felt confused as to what path to take, never really understanding that perhaps Mary and the crone were just different aspects of the same Ancient Goddess.
It was at about this time that I arrived in Avalon to do the priestess training. Once again I had somewhat hesitantly responded to an inner calling. We were going to work with the energy of the Goddess as she expressed herself in the natural world, through the changing cycles of the seasons. On our first weekend at Samhain, festival of the ancestors, we invoked the crone, the dark mother, an aspect of Goddess that is probably the most misunderstood, feared and vilified, and the opposite of Mary. However, though I was once terrified of this aspect of Goddess, I have come to see that understanding the dark mother as a transformative power is vital in understanding modern and ancient Goddess spirituality. The dark mother is Mary’s shadow sister, a powerful aspect of Goddess that has been repressed during the patriarchy. I would like to focus on her and her ancient roots because she seems to me to be very much related to the Lady of Avalon, who is a Goddess of death, healing, transformation and rebirth. The dark mother contains aspects of power that have been stripped from the later Goddesses of the early patriarchy when the prevailing ideology turned against the idea of a female creatrix.
Crucial to understanding the dark mother, the ancient Goddess of death, is the fact that she was also a Goddess of regeneration and renewal. She was the destroyer and the creatrix, she did not work alone and was linked symbolically to the life giving Goddess of birth. For example at the ancient site of Catal Huyuk, The Goddess of death is represented in the form of huge vultures with human feet, swooping down on headless bodies. However, close by is a painting of a bull’s head, symbol of the regenerative life-giving womb, with a skull beneath it. Also close are paintings of breasts, symbols of birth and nurturance, whose nipples are vulture’s beaks, symbols of death. The message is clear. The Goddess of death and the Goddess of birth are inextricably linked. All that lives will die. All that dies returns to the earth to be reborn. Both do their job in the cycle of life and are just different aspects of the same Great Goddess.
The people of the ancient world honoured the natural cycles of life and their mythologies from all over Europe and the Near East reflect the cycles of the seasons. They saw how the earth gave birth at springtime, how plants blossomed and ripened through the warm summer months and then died and decayed as winter approached. But they also saw the new shoots rising once again the following springtime in an eternal cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. During the winter months, when no life could be seen, they understood that the earth was pregnant, that much activity was happening in the underground darkness and that when the time was ripe new life would rise. Many early stories of the Goddess clearly reflect these natural rhythms. We see this in the myth of Isis/Osisris, Demeter/Kore, Aphrodite/Adonis. Typically, around harvest time, the upperworld Goddess would lose a beloved child or lover to the underworld Goddess of death to ensure that new life would return in the springtime. Death was part of the great cycle of life and it was understood that things had to die, rot and decay in order for new life to spring forth. In the cycle of life, nothing was lost and death was merely a part of the process of transformation, of the constant change that was visible everywhere in nature.
We see this idea reflected in the ancient burial mounds of the upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, particularly in Britain. These tombs are incredibly womb like. They are inside the dark earth and are often round, containing small chambers where the dead were buried. Artifacts found inside some of these mounds suggest that they were also used for rituals and ceremonies, perhaps for contacting the ancestors. Sometimes the stone entrances to these tombs were painted in red ochre symbolizing menstruation, again showing the link between tomb and womb, death and regeneration, and the idea that life begins and returns to the womb of the earth mother in a constant cycle. Today we associate the crone with the cauldron of transformation, the cauldron in which we are transformed as we await rebirth. I consider this to be symbolic of the womb of the earth mother, the original cauldron into which all of life dies, rots and decays, undergoing transformation before it is birthed anew in springtime.
All over the world, many different symbols of the Goddess found in ancient sites and shrines are associated with death and regeneration. Vulvas, pubic triangles, pregnant women, breasts, symbols of the regenerative womb such as the frog and the bull’s head, death wielding vultures, hawks and crows are to name but a few. One of the most recurring of her symbols of transformation is the snake, often represented abstractly as a spiral. Its ability to shed its skin makes it a potent symbol of renewal as does its disappearance into the earth during winter and its reappearance again in early springtime. The snake appears in shrines all over Ancient Europe and the Near East, Minoan Crete being the most striking example of Snake Goddess worship.
So we see that many remaining early symbols and stories associated with the Ancient Goddess show she was both the mother of death and the life enhancing Goddess of birth and regeneration. Death never came without the promise of rebirth in the symbolism of an all-powerful creatrix who presided over the mysteries of existence. She was not defined in relation to the male principle, or by her relationship with men as mother, wife, or lover as were some of the later Goddesses of the early patriarchy and of course the virgin Mary. Virtually all of the earliest ancient symbols of divinity are female. The mysteries of birth, life and death belonged to the Ancient Goddess alone. Her power is the raw primal creative power of the natural world.
What I have found in my initiation as a priestess of a Goddess of death, transformation and rebirth, is that in invoking this ancient energy I have also been undergoing an enormous process of death and rebirth in my personal life. I have come to realize that she changes us on inner levels as much as we see outer change in the natural world. She cuts away the dead wood from our lives, pruning us like plants and bringing about the often excruciating death of patterns and ways of being that do not serve our growth. As a goddess of death she is ruthless with what needs to go and I have watched many things break down in my life that I was attached to but that she has taken away. As a goddess of transformation she works mysteriously and in her own time, in much the same way as organic matter is transformed in the ground. But then of course we are organic matter, so it is no surprise that she changes us along with everything else in nature! Mostly I am in the dark about what she is doing with me and have to trust her alchemy, like a baby in the womb. Being in her cauldron can be terrifying as she confronts us with shadow aspects of ourselves that need healing. One can feel suspended out of life, empty, scared and directionless. Life can feel dreadful and it is only with hindsight that you can see what she was doing with you. However, even though I have been in her void, I have faith in her regenerative aspect as our ancient ancestors did, and I am seeing new and beautiful things flowing into my life which are much more resonant with who I am becoming.
And so I have come to understand the primal power I always felt in my dancing, singing, drumming and love making. I was connecting to the raw and life enhancing, primal energy of the Ancient Goddess, an energy that is deeply feminine, wild, dynamic, active, creative and transformative. An energy that can also be very gentle and compassionate as we see in some of her maternal aspects, Mary being a familiar one. However, for too long her power as the great creatrix has been repressed, distorted and denied. It has meant that women who have felt that kind of power in their bodies have often been labeled ‘unfeminine’, when actually the opposite is true. It has meant that the dark mother or crone, an aspect of the Goddess that has the power to totally transform us through death and rebirth, has been rejected and turned into a monstrous symbol of fear in the collective psyche. It has meant that women have repressed and been terrified of their own primal power. In reclaiming this aspect of Goddess not only are we reclaiming her power to heal and transform us we are also reclaiming our own power to act in her name and be powerful agents of change in our own lives and in the world.
As I was finishing this essay I came upon this beautiful poem by D H Lawrence which I had never seen before. You will understand why I wanted to include it for you to read. It is even more poignant being the last major poem he wrote before his death. Even though he talks about God he is clearly utterly surrendered to Goddess!
by D H Lawrence
And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words
then I shall know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.
And if, as autumn deepens and darkens
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding,
folding around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
singing darker than the nightingale, on, on to the solstice
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.
And if, in the changing phases of woman’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:
and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me
then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.