Who is the Great Mother Goddess?
by Louise Tarrier
I know that she exists because she expresses her nature to me in so many ways. I only need to step outside of my front door and I see her nature unfolded before me. Even though I live in a busy coastal town, I feel the changing of the seasons, the rhythm of the days, the cycle of the moon. I could choose to ignore Her nature but by opening my eyes I see it unfold around me daily. I take the time to be with Her.
Millennia ago our lives were much more in tune with nature and the cycles of the planets and the moon; which were mirrored in the cycles of women. Our knowledge of our interior world was reflected in what was experienced in the external World. We were intrinsically linked. Our emotional and spiritual well being depended on this link. Some argue that the reason we are in so much planetary danger is because we broke the link between ourselves and the Earth. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory argues that the Earth is a living organism and regulates itself in the same way as any living system. It reminds us that what we do to the Earth has an impact on the whole system. As part of this system if one part fails then this will have a direct impact on our future for we are all linked. It would seem that our ancestors intuitively understood this system. North America Indians, Aboriginal Australians and native South American tribes are modern examples of societies that seem to have retained this connection to the Earth and understand the direct correlation between upsetting the Earth’s delicate eco-systems and the impact for all life on Earth.
We are of this planet, it supports us and from birth to death provides us with all we need. The Earth truly is our Mother. Yet like the unruly teenager we now believe we can do without Her.
Our ancestors had a different view and archaeologists have started to find evidence from the Neolithic that showed that we once lived in a Matriarchal society which espoused much different values from those we hold today. A society who expressed themselves through their creativity and who through symbology found the truths that resonated for them.
It is interesting to note when viewing these symbols that our Ancestors saw the patterns and the truth of the universe that our chemical and scientific investigations have now found and are only just beginning to understand. Chaos theory, the double helix of DNA and mathematical knowledge such as the fibbonnaci series were imbedded within the ancient symbology visualised by our creative ancestors in their pottery, temple decorations and figurative works.
Our ancestors created images of the Great Mother Goddess, inspired, beautiful images that expressed their World view. A view based on unity of the whole, that articulated birth, death and rebirth as a cycle. All came from the Mother, returned to Her and were then reborn. The body, the spirit and the mind were one. All born of her to eventually return. Their World view lives on in myth, legend and the art of today but its messages are often hidden or distorted. In order to understand where we are it is essential that we understand where we have come from. We need to discover what has been hidden from view and lost in the mists of time and yet when found still retains all its original potency.
When archaeologists first started to find images and the art of our ancestors they were dismissed as crude fertility symbols or cave daubing with no spiritual or deeper meaning attached to them. But through the work of women like Marija Gimbutas a new view and truth has emerged about the people of these times, their belief systems, their spirituality and their daily lives.
Images of the Goddess have been found from as long ago as 22,000 BC. An image of the head of a Goddess from this time was found in Brassempouy, Landes, France carved from mammoth ivory and measuring just 3.65cm. The tiny head is one of the oldest figurines ever found and has been delicately carved with distinct features including eyebrows. Her straight hair is covered with a net. To describe this beautiful figurine as an “idol of fertility” is to do an injustice to the craftsmanship of the maker and the luminous quality of the finished object.
As well as objects which can quite clearly be defined as feminine, archaeologists have also looked at the symbols and patterns found on pottery and at temple and grave sites. They have interpreted these symbols and therein revealed a language that we are now only just beginning to translate and understand.
Marija Gimbutas in particular has worked with these symbols to try and more deeply understand the meaning of prehistoric art and spirituality. Mankind’s first view of life is the Mother. She represents all that is needed for the first years of life and this holds true for most of nature. Common archaeological representation show either the Goddess figurine in a birth giving pose and/or expressing milk from the breast. She is the Life giver and is represented as the bringer of life, the waters of life and creation. In this guise she can be represented as a bird or a serpent. Marija Gimbutas sees this representation in the V shape or chevron which represents the life-giving fluids that emanate from the Goddess’s body through her breasts, eyes, mouth and vulva.
“Graphically a pubic triangle is most directly rendered as a V. This expression and its recognition are universal and immediate. It is nevertheless, amazing how early this bit of shorthand crystallised to become for countless ages the designating mark of the Bird Goddess.”
(The Language of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas. Pg 3)
The bird can fly to the heavens or glide upon the waters. The waters which are life itself. The bird therefore is at home on both the land and in the air. The Chevron as the bird’s beak or as the pubic region where life itself arises. This representation of the Goddess as bird is seen in many cultures. Either with the face of bird or wearing the mask of a bird. The symbol of the V and the VV (double chevron) and the X have been found as far back as 300,000 BC often appearing next to cave drawings of animals. Their continuous use and repetition into more formed artwork of 30,000 BC to 15,000 BC shows a language that had been known and expressed for generations. These ancient symbols are often seen as the forerunner of Vinca Script an ancient European written language. Deciphering it’s meaning has been almost impossible as it’s form is so different; and yet in examining its use on objects; patterns and inferences can be drawn. In particular the scripts association with animals and birds and its use on objects with a spiritual significance.
Anne Baring and Jules Cashford in their work “The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image” describe the bird as the visible incarnation of the invisible world.
“In many Bronze age myths the cosmic egg of the universe was laid by the Cosmic Mother Bird, and its cracking open was the beginning of time and space”
(The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, A Baring, J Cashford pg 13).
Even now the egg retains it’s religious symbology at Easter when we eat chocolate eggs and welcome the return of Spring or the end of Lent for those whose religious tradition is Christianity. Kathy Jones in her work Priestess of Avalon, Priestess of the Goddess a modern interpretation of Goddess spirituality also uses the symbol of the Bird in her depiction of the Morgens. They are nine sisters (dakinis) who are the embodiment of feminine wisdom. They are imagined as animals, the weather, the different ages of woman and the seasons of Britannia. They cross the veil of Avalon (Glastonbury) as crows flying across the landscape carrying the dead back through the veil. They embody the virtues of sisterhood and the mystery of transformation.
“ Ladies of the light and darkness
Keepers of the mysteries
Queens of the liberal arts
Of Astrology, mathematics and physic
Goddesses of herbs and all crafts,
Healers of the wounds of karma
Sweet musicians, shape shifters
Mistresses of time, faery Queens
Maidens, lovers, mothers, crones
I honour you who are the nine”
(Priestess of Avalon, Priestess of the Goddess, a renewed spiritual path for the 21st Century.
Kathy Jones, pg 38, Ariadne publications)
These images echo the past where the bird Goddess inhabited the watery celestial realms the place between life and death, the real and the unreal, body and spirit. The image of the Goddess as life giver is itself renewed and awoken.
As well as being the bringer of life the Mother Goddess was seen as where we returned at the time of death. She received us back into Her to be reborn again. Unlike today the emphasis was more upon regeneration rather than death. There was no concept of an afterlife in the way that we understand today. Man goes to a place of spirit but for our ancestors returns in the same way as the Sun leaves the sky at night but returns the next day reborn and renewed. The Goddess was the promoter of the cycle of life. She is seen as the cave or the tomb. Her regenerative properties are celebrated in symbols of the Serpent shedding its skin and emerging renewed, of the butterfly metamorphosing from the chrysalis or in aspects of the bee.
Snakes and snake-like images have been found on pottery and the form of the spiral is often seen as depicting the snake. The spiral of the snake curling around the Goddess figurine can be seen as the representation of the double helix, which scientific studies have now revealed as the building block of life A figure found in the Pyrenees (date unknown) shows a Goddess giving birth to a snake and suckling it. An earlier representation from c.4,500 BC known as “the Lady of Sitagroi” has a double spiral or two spirals on her belly, possibly an earlier rendition of the Pyrenees figure. The snake has also been seen as a representation of the umbilical cord and the link between the womb (i.e. death) and rebirth.
Both bird and snake Goddesses were worshipped inside the home and have been found throughout Western Europe and the Near East. They have been found on home altars and next to bread ovens.
The descendants of the Snake Goddess are thought to be the Greek Goddess Hera, who was known as the origin of all things. Also Brigit or St Bride of the British Isles. Where tradition has it that St Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, which is often thought to be the driving of the worship of the Snake Goddess Brigit from Ireland. Brigit’s connection with the snake is also seen in Scottish tradition where legend has it that snakes emerging from hills at Imbolc (1st February) represent the awakening of the Earth from the hibernation of the Winter. The most well known story however comes straight from the Bible where the serpent is the animal that tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat from the tree of knowledge and is the instigator of their original sin which sees them banished from the garden by the Male God.
These early images of the Goddess show her as the cosmic creatrix, the womb to return to at death and the regenerative powerhouse of rebirth. The people of the time saw Her as integral to their daily lives. She was not an exterior deity to be worshipped, rather she was the embodiment of their daily experience. Temples to Her were not separate from the home, they were part of it. There are lessons for us that are still resonant today in their experience of the divine. They did not need to leave the home, to go to a separate place to experience the sacred. There were of course temples where people could gather for celebration of the seasonal wheel or for birth and death rites. Yet the every day was also sacred. Whether women were gathering together producing crafts, making bread or cooking for the family the Goddess was there and was an integral part of the process.
Very few of us can honestly say that we include the divine on a trip to the supermarket or within our workplace or home. And it is this lack of the divine experience that diminishes our life’s journey and can create an emotional emptiness that can be difficult to fill.
Our ancestors saw mystery and magic in the land around them. They worshipped at wells and springs which they saw as openings into the Earth’s body, her life giving waters. They decorated Her caves (womb) with the animals that they hunted and with Her symbols. They raised her body; the stones of the Earth to allow them to understand the movement of the stars and to predict the equinoxes.
Archaeological sites in Turkey and Northern Syria have shown that our ancestors the first Farmers built homes of plaster and brick with clay ovens and chimneys. At these sites particularly Catal Hüyük (Turkey) where more than 40 shrines have been found the principal deity was a woman. This culture at Catal Hüyük lasted for more than a thousand years. Figurines of the Goddess have been found in triple aspect as young woman (maiden), as a pregnant mother and as an old woman (crone). As well as in a dual aspect of life and death. It would seem that at these sites religion was primarily the role of woman. It is possible that women were the first to sow the land and therefore through controlling food production and the birth of children that their status in society was much higher than that of men and much different from our modern culture. Land and possessions would have been passed through the matrilineal line. Jacqueta Hawkes (1963) studied the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and found that they had no concept of the male role in conception and therefore the matrilineal line was of great importance. It may be that for our Neolithic ancestors the mystery of the male role in procreation was why the feminine was so revered.
One of the most sophisticated prehistoric cultures was situated along the banks of the Tigris (Iraq) and excavated by Max Van Oppenheim a German diplomat. The Halaf culture (as they have become known) produced pottery and Goddess figurines as serpents, cows, humped Ox, doves and a double axe. Their painted pottery work is extraordinarily detailed and was probably the first truly modern painted ceramic work.
Our ancestors lived in mature cultures but their understanding of the divine and their place in the World was probably very different to our own. Modern Western religion/spirituality separates the divine into good/evil, dark/light, heaven/hell. It is built on duality rather than unity of the whole. It asks us to put aside our spirituality for a special place and time and for our communion with the divine to be facilitated by another. We can, using the experience of those who have been long gone, find an example of a society where that was not the case and where we can bring ourselves back to a place of wholeness and direct experience of the sacred.
The Goddess of our ancestors did not die of natural causes she was suppressed and systematically removed from our culture. In fact the job was so well done that even in my lifetime the inference that the divine could have been a woman was seen as a Feminist fantasy. In most Western religion her existence was denigrated to the point that women themselves were seen as unclean and therefore unworthy of the male God. The Christian Mary was Jesus’s mother but only if she retained her virginity, if she remained unsullied by the sin of procreation, if she was no longer the life giver, but instead became merely a vessel for God’s creation.
Mary Magdalene is not remembered as a disciple and financial supporter of Jesus instead she is known to most Christians as the penitent whore. The life sustaining role of the Goddess is degenerated into a fear of feminine sexuality and the natural power that lies within.
In my search for the Goddess I have looked to the past and also to what has been hidden from view. The true meaning of the word “occult”. In the distant past it is possible to see that the Goddess was an integral part of people’s lives. Feminine values can enhance society and this is true regardless of whether you are a woman or a man. The importance of the feminine and in particular images of the Goddess and the feminine as divine can bring a deeper understanding of the wounding that exists within a society where there is duality instead of unity. Understanding these images and what has been hidden whilst accessing their deeper meaning can allow the individual to access parts of their psyche which may be have been forgotten or suppressed. By remembering Her we can remember our true and divine selves.
Some may argue about the relevance of this in the West where most of society is secular and where religion is a personal choice. It is important though that the context of the past is not lost and that suppressed knowledge is disseminated. This is particularly important where this knowledge is an important key to bringing balance to personal and public life. The lives of women in Western Europe have only really become self-governing over the past thirty years. This is an incredibly short period of time. The subjugation of women in the near East and Africa is still a reality of daily life. The myths that we live with and have been indoctrinated with for the last 2000 years, still require women to be submissive, to have very few rights in relation to property and to suppress feminine rites of passage and sisterhood.
Yet in the past the Goddess was the Queen of Heaven, she was Ishtar, Innana, Nana, Nut, Isis, Auset, Ashtar, Attar and Hathor. She was revered by our ancestors for thousands of years and Her worship gave woman a different status and role in society. Women were Her Priestesses, they performed Her rites and were most likely the creators of the first written language. They pressed her stories into stone tablets. The oldest piece of written literature known to us is a poem by the Sumerian High Priestess “Enheduanna” and is devotion to the Goddess Innana. The beauty of the language and the imagery of the Goddess is breathtaking and portrays a totally rounded image in her position as ruler of all the faces of Goddess and God. (Inanna, Lady of largest hearts, translation Betty de Shong, Meador 2000). Enheduanna gives us an insight into her own inner world and also to a Goddess whose position was venerated in a society that worshipped a feminine image of divinity.
That Enheduanna expresses the sexuality of the Goddess and the relationship of her sexuality to the birth of everything from the heavens to the earth; places her at the axis mundi, the centre of all, the flesh and the spirit. Her poetry is moving, challenging and ultimately liberating as she exalts her Goddess to Her place of ultimacy. Through her creativity she finds not only herself but her connection to the divine. This woman who lived 4,000 years ago was able to express herself through the written word and to describe the reality of her inner world and her love through a long lost language and to which our translation can barely do justice.
It is now fairly well established through archaeological and historical sources that the societies in which Enheduanna and her ancestors lived were conquered by Northern Indo-European tribes whose cultures were very different and who worshipped the divine as masculine and as warrior. Yahwah and his prophet Abraham lived side by side with worshippers of the Great Mother Goddess in her many forms. They conquered the civilisations who worshipped the Goddess and they allowed her no role. Within the Ancient Goddess culture, there was a role for the masculine. He was the son and the paramour. He became her husband and his early death was lamented by the Goddess. This is illustrated within the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris and echoed in the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
“It is she Isis the just who protects her brother
Who seeks him without wearying
Who in mourning traverses the whole land
Without respite before finding him
Who gives shade with her feathers
And wind with her wings
It is she who praises her brother
Who relieves the weakness of him who is tired
Who receives his seed and gives birth to his heir
Who nurtures the child in solitude
Without anyone knowing where she is”
(The Myth of the Goddess, A Baring & J Cashford, pg 230, Penguin)
In the passage above Isis resonates with the earlier mythology of the Goddess as bird. Isis as the Goddess is protector, mother, lover and wife, with the ultimate power of regeneration and life itself. Osiris was the brother/husband of Isis who on his death was brought back to life by her. They loved each other even before the moment of birth. She conceived his son Horus and then nurtured the child when Osiris passed to the underworld. Isis constantly has to search for Osiris and then awaken him. Through finding him she brings the Earth to life and yet Osiris is not the God of the harvest rather he is the cycle of the flooding Nile and the moon. He is a lunar mystery a cyclical movement of dark into light. In this tale the masculine requires the feminine to pro-generate the cycle, to be the seeker. Our current mythology represents the moon as feminine but in the ancient past this was not necessarily so. The Mother Goddess was all and as such was the mystery of the Sun, the Moon, the heavens and the Earth. There was a God with Goddess but his presence required the feminine for his destiny to be fulfilled.
In point of fact it is our relatively modern religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that singularly have no feminine element. This God is not for sharing power with a woman. He is ruler, king, lord and master. Woman is temptress, seductress, her guiles need to be shunned by man. He is to be master of her in the home, in the temple/church. She is to be silent and penitent for it is her who has wrought the destruction of man. Who in her defiance took man from a place of sanctuary into this world; which is by its nature inherently corrupt. Man can escape from it through God’s salvation. Woman can escape if she is totally subservient to the will of man. All seek to escape this World and it’s supposed pain and misery to Heaven where they will return to spirit and ultimately to God as the Father. There is no need for Mother because woman is of man. In deliberate ignorance of nature and the cycle of life. Woman is born of Man. She is his left rib, fashioned from him and in nature totally corrupt because only man can be in the image of God.
As women we live the daily reality of this world view. The Earth itself lives with the ignorance of nature, its separateness from spirit. How can society be in unity where there is lack of unity in spirituality. Where truly men may be created equal but where women are always less so. Even within Christianity where there is trinity, the trinity is still, Father, Son and Spirit. Where the holy spirit is at best sexless. There is a need to redress the balance. Women and men should be free to express their creativity, to express themselves. In experiencing the Earth and truly living in the present, here and now, on this planet and at this time, we can truly be our destiny. In discovering our history we can find our future as fully actualised individuals in a unified world where all truly are equal.
The spirituality of our ancestors presents us with a different viewpoint. It allows us to fully experience the planet on which we live. To see the interconnectedness between all life and to find our connection. The cycle of life was revered at all points of the wheel of life. The maiden is born she quickens the earth, which in turn is heated by the sun of the fire Goddess, as maiden she is beauty, sexuality, youth and the powerhouse of life. The seasons turn and she is fullness, pregnant with the new life that stirs within her, she is the harvest and the gifts of the abundant Earth. As the wheel turns she is the mature nature of the late harvest, the apple queen and she becomes the decaying Earth where all that was abundant dies back into Her, she is the Crone, wise lady of the cave; of the underworld, where she devours the soul ready to rebirth it when the winter has had its full. The maiden is born…and so the cycle continues.
This is the story of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter is mother to the beautiful Persephone who is taken to the underworld by Hades. Demeter is the grain mother and her daughter Persephone is the ear of the corn. She is born but must journey each year to the underworld after her Mother makes a bargain that she can spend half the year with the living and the other half with the dead. She is the grain continuously born and reborn, echoing the prehistoric Goddess who was both death and life. The cycles of mankind being the same as that of the corn. The dead are not separate they are the living as the living must also be the dead.
These images of the Goddess as a constant wheel with her face turning from maiden, through lover then mother and crone are part of our agricultural inheritance. We no longer have a connection with the cycles of nature, where we can eat food transported from all over the world and forced into life through artificial means. Where the animals we eat come neatly wrapped in cellophane and where their origin is divorced from their life force. Our ancestors depended on the cycle of life for their lives. Here in the West we think that through our scientific advances that we have neatly cut ourselves off from dependency on the cycle of life and yet only small changes in climate could have devastating consequences for the food production of millions who live on this planet. Crisis amongst insect populations such as the bee could remove hundreds of food products from our shelves. Over fishing of our oceans has put many species close to extinction and even the plankton that they feed upon is threatened by the warming of the Earth caused by mans exploitation of natural resource. The modern theory of chaos shows us how even small ripples in the fabric of life can have huge consequences. This is known as the butterfly effect. However taken in context this also means that acting in the present in even a small way to change our lives can have large transformational effects. The small changes that we make can enhance our lives and the lives of others immeasurably.
Goddess spirituality allows for balance, unity and transformation. In transforming our own lives we can make changes in the World. We can co-create with the divine to imagine the World that we wish to inhabit. For too long we have not seen the Earth as sentient, Goddess spirituality and our ancestors teach us that the Earth is alive that she truly offers us all that we need. There is great chaos but underlying the chaos is the magic of our existence and the unity of our soul and spirit. We can seek not to escape but to truly experience and live our day to day existence in the most meaningful way possible. The past is the future and the future is the past. In finding the Goddess of our ancestors we can imagine her renewed and she becomes the Goddess of our future.