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Goddess Spirituality


 Goddess Spirituality Topics
  • Goddess Spirituality
  • Invasion of the Nomad Hordes
  • The Most High God
  • Persistence of the Goddess
  • The Goddess in the New Age: Earth-based Traditions
     World Religions Home

    In most 'traditional religions' the supreme or only deity is male. But what we are now learning is that our most ancient traditions are traditions in which both men and women worshiped a Great Mother, a Great Goddess who was the mother of both divine daughters and divine sons.

    Riane Eisler, "Reclaiming Our Goddess Heritage"

    Long ago, some 20,000 years ago and more, the image of a goddess appeared across a vast expanse of land stretching from the Pyrenees to Lake Baikal in Siberia. Statues in stone, bone and ivory, tiny figures with long bodies and falling breasts, rounded motherly figures pregnant with birth, figures with signs scratched upon them -- lines, triangles, zigzags, circles, nets, leaves, spirals, holes -- graceful figures rising out of rock and painted with red ocher -- all these have survived through the unrecorded generations of human beings who compose the history of the race.

    Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess

    Evidence of the omnipresence of Goddess worship in ancient times is both sketchy and overwhelming. Recent archaeological discoveries and improved dating techniques have led some scholars to theorize about an era when the Goddess was worshiped as the primary deity, the Source of all life, the Creator. Before the appearance of the warlike, male-dominated, hierarchical societies whose rise apparently coincided with the development of written language, these largely feminist scholars insist, our early forebears worshiped the cosmic Source of the universe and all life as female. Ancient figurines of broad-hipped women with prominent breasts and small heads or no faces, like the so-called "Willendorf Venus," have been turning up by the thousands in archaeological digs. They are no longer viewed as mere fertility symbols or the fevered expression of primitive male imagination -- "an ancient analogue for today's Playboy magazine," as one scholar put it -- but as loving depictions of the Mother Goddess as the great life-giver.

    At the same time, there is virtually no written record of the beliefs and practices of Goddess culture these archaologists and scholars propose, and so many conventional scholars of religion tend to write off the idea of an idyllic Goddess culture in which men and women shared power and warfare was virtually unknown as mere speculation. And yet, all those figurines, and the virulence with which the proponents of male warrior gods attacked the worship of the Goddess point to a once prevalent culture that was largely driven underground. From sometime in the Paleolithic, or Old Stone, Age, which ended around 10,000 years ago, the Goddess seems to have been universally worshiped from Southern Europe to Siberia, around the Mediterranean rim and down to the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. She took on manifestations as the crane, duck, goose, dove, and owl, as well as the bull, bear, doe, butterfly, and bee. She was identified with life-giving waters in the form of rain or rivers, with vegetation, and with the moon, whose cycles determined the lunar calendar essential to agriculture.

    Because the rise of the patriarchal religions coincided with the discovery and spread of written language and the technology with which to preserve written records, we have long had the impression that religion began with Yahweh, Ra, Mithra, Shiva, and other omnipotent male figures. Indeed, we have no idea what the Goddess may have been called in the earliest cultures, which left no decipherable written records. With the advent of writing in about the 4th millennium BCE, she was called Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, or Asherah in the Fertile Crescent; Isis in Egypt; Gaia, Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter, and Hera in Greece; Cybele in Anatolia and Rome.

    As the Great Mother, the Goddess originally embodied both male and female characteristics. Those little figurines with the swelling hips often have long, phallic necks. But around 10,000 years ago separate phallic figures began to appear, often in the form of a serpent or bull. Human male figures also appear, occasionally in tandem with the Goddess, in what is referred to as the sacred marriage. Male gods first appear in Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture as the son and/or lover of the Goddess, but not yet as the dominant creator god of later times.

    The cultures that produced these artifacts would have been characterized by matrilineal descent, with a high degree of importance and esteem accorded to women as the obvious life-givers, without whom humanity could not exist. The roles of the sexes most likely would have been balanced in a way that they have not been since. The art that survives from that era does not depict war between humans; weapons are shown being used solely in the hunt, and there are no archaeological signs of military fortifications, nor any indication of great discrepancies in wealth, rank, and status. The sacred and the secular would have been intimately interconnected and their social structure, egalitarian and communal rather than authoritarian and hierarchical. The arts flourished then; by all indications, they were largely developed during this long, peaceful summer following the last Ice Age -- in all likelihood, by women.


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    Invasion of the Nomad Hordes

    According to this scenario, sometime between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, the balance between male and female began to shift. Millennia of agrarian tranquility were shattered by a period of violent upheaval and anarchy. Marauders riding on horseback or driving horse-drawn chariots thundered across Europe and Asia. Pastoral nomads, animal herders with no fixed abode, had been growing for centuries along the fringes of the stable agricultural societies of the Middle East, the Indus Valley, and Old Europe (a designation covering most of modern Italy, Greece, Crete, western Turkey and southeastern Europe). Descended from the Paleolithic hunters of the steppes, they had become warriors; now they began to disrupt the long-established civilization that worshiped the Mother Goddess.

    Known today as Indo-Europeans or Aryans, they were not Nordic in appearance and were neither Indian nor European, originating somewhere in Asia and northeastern Europe. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas of UCLA, whose ground-breaking work has been responsible for many of the new insights concerning this transition, believes that various tribes of nomads began invading in three major onslaughts dated at approximately 4300, 3400, and 3000 BCE. In the Middle East, the Semitic peoples, who developed in the large, arid desert west of Mesopotamia, stretching south from Syria into the Arabian Peninsula, swept over the more fertile lands of Sumeria and what became known as Canaan and Palestine.

    These nomadic invaders had male hierarchies of priests and warriors (and sometimes warrior-priests), worshiping not the Goddess but male gods of war and sky and mountains. The Hebrews, who may have gotten their name from one of the Hapiru, or nomadic tribes from the south of Canaan, fit this mold; the accounts of their invasion, conquest, and subjugation of the Canaanites in the early books of the Bible are replete with the massive destruction and slaughter that invariably accompanied the appearance of the nomadic invaders. What the Hebrews and other Semites had in common with the Aryans who invaded northern India, Greece, and Old Europe was something the scholar Riane Eisler terms a "dominator model of social organization," as opposed to the "partnership model" of the Goddess culture.

    For the most part, the nomads seem to have come from arid, unproductive lands -- the steppes of Central Asia or the deserts of Arabia -- and to have worshipped warlike sky gods, especially gods of the storm, wind, lightning, sun, and fire. The harshness of the conditions under which they lived would have dictated the reliance on superior might that shaped their culture. Living by dominance over other tribes, it was a logical step to begin to pillage stable agrarian cultures settled in the more fertile lands of Old Europe or Canaan ("a land flowing with milk and honey"), who could offer relatively little resistance. The contrast between these violent nomadic herders and the peaceful farmers over whom they rode roughshod can be seen even in the conflicts between cattlemen and sodbusters in the American West that have formed the basis for endless Hollywood westerns. There may even have been a dietary component to the equation. The Neolithic peoples probably relied for only a small portion of their food on the hunting or slaughter of animals; their most plentiful and reliable sources of food were the grains and other edible plants they farmed. The nomads depended to a much larger extent on the slaughter of herd animals and a meat-centered diet that may have stoked their aggressiveness.

    Seven Goddesses

    Aided by the use of copper, bronze, and iron for making weapons, and the domestication of the horse into an implement of battle, the invaders initiated a new culture based not on production but on conquest. The seeds not only of warfare but also of slavery, subjugation, and plundering, of social stratification with the warrior strongman at the top, the amassing and concentration of wealth, large-scale human and animal sacrifices, and the custom of killing the wives, concubines, and slaves of powerful men to be buried with them can all be traced to this shift in civilizations. At the same time there was a precipitous decline in the level of art and culture -- what we might almost call today "quality of life." Warriors had little use for art, decoration, and the mystical rites of the Mother Goddess; even the use of vivid colors virtually disappeared.

    The connection between the changeover from Goddess to male-dominated culture and the rise of written language may not be altogether coincidental. In his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain proposes that the invention of writing rewired the human brain, reinforcing the linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right side. This shift upset the balance between men and women and led to an attack on goddesses, an abhorrence of pictorial and "graven" images, and the decline of women's political status.


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    The Most High God

    Aphrodite Governs Desire and Sexuality

    Although it's not possible definitively to prove theories concerning Goddess culture, they do raise some fascinating possibilities. The implications of these discoveries could revolutionize current understanding of history and human development. According to the new theories, the mythologies of the Middle East gradually replaced the Mother Goddess with a Father God, originally warlike, who creates a world of matter separate from himself. The Goddess was the world, with her sacred groves and animals and her identification with the earth itself (a notion that survives in Gaia, the Greek goddess of earth, and our own image of Mother Nature). But the Father God of Mesopotamia, who went on to become the patriarchal God of the Israelites, Christians, and Muslims, remains apart from his creation. Although this Divine Father later evolved into an ethical deity characterized by mercy and compassion, the roots of the dualistic split between matter and spirit that has wracked Western culture and theology for thousands of years can already be seen in this distance between Creator and creation. Concomitantly, the Goddess model of relationship among all aspects of creation devolved to the model of a male deity ruling by mastery and control, dominating what he has created. That domination is passed on to humanity in Genesis 1:28, when Yahweh tells Adam, "Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

    Over time, the Father God in the sky became associated with light and good, and the Mother Goddess of the earth, with darkness and evil. Even before the exaltation of Yahweh and Allah, the peoples of the Middle East had begun downgrading their goddesses by making them the lesser consorts of male gods, turning them into war deities, or replacing them altogether.


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    Persistence of the Goddess

    Hathor was a protective goddess.
    She was also the goddess of love and joy.

    Like a plant that pushes its way up through a patch of macadam, the feminine Goddess continues to reappear even after she has been paved over by male-dominant theologies. And so the feminine principle can be identified even in religions that do not recognize a specifically female deity. Hinduism does acknowledge the feminine manifestations of its male gods in the shakti, or energizing force of the deities; the Absolute Godhead from which all the deities proceed, Brahman, is considered neuter. In China, Taoism has always embraced the feminine principle through its yin-yang philosophy, in which yin represents the dark, cool, feminine elements and yang the light, hot, masculine ones. Lao-tze speaks of a time when yin was not yet ruled by yang, when the Goddess was the original Source of the universe. Quanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion in Chinese Buddhism, has been depicted as feminine from about the 10th century, reflecting the Taoist influence on Buddhism. Like the Christian Mary, Mother of God, Quanyin is often the one to whom childless women turn for help. In Mahayana Buddhism we find not only Prajnaparamita, known as "the Mother of the Buddhas," the embodiment of one of the greatest Buddhist sutras, but also Tara, an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion whose Chinese counterpart is Quanyin. Tara, a savior goddess of about the 2nd century, is a popular deity in Tibetan Buddhism, appearing in 21 forms of different colors, postures, and iconographies.

    Although the feminine is more suppressed in Judaism, it still appears in the figures of Shekhinah and Hokhmah. Shekhinah is the name for the manifestation of the Divine presence on earth in the tabernacle of the Ark of the Covenant, the burning bush, and other Biblical images. Hokhmah is the Hebrew embodiment of Wisdom (like the Greek Sophia, feminine in gender) who shows up in the Wisdom writings (Ketubim) of the Bible.


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    The Goddess in the New Age:
    Earth-based Traditions

    According to its own tradition, Witchcraft reaches back to the Paleolithic Age and the dawn of the Goddess more than 30,000 years ago. One theory suggests that after the nomadic invasions upset the Neolithic Goddess cultures, some refugees fled the fertile valleys for the hills and mountains, where they became known as fairies, pixies, or the "little people." Covens, or small groups, were formed to preserve the mystical knowledge and rituals of the Goddess culture; and these came to be known generically as Wicca or Wicce (Anglo-Saxon for "witch"). Their members became the healers, herbalists, midwives, and mystics of many European communities.

    During the witch hunts and persecutions of the Middle Ages, ruefully referred to now as the "burning times," these healers were rooted out, accused of non-Christian worship and practices, and executed in the hundreds of thousands, although some put that figure in the millions. Most of the victims were women, as the Church's fear of rampant Goddess-worship turned to focus on women themselves, often identifying female sexuality with evil. According to the infamous Malleus Maleficarum ("Hammer of the Witches," c. 1487), a Dominican book that stressed the importance of eradicating witches, "All witchcraft stems from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable" -- a statement that may have represented wishful thinking on the part of its author.

    Following the revival of interest in the Goddess in the 20th century, a broad array of groups have come into being to allow open access to the wisdom that was passed down secretly from before the burning times. These groups, known collectively as Neopaganism, may represent both some of the newest and some of the oldest religions in existence. The term Neopagan is a modern catchall to describe revived and reconstructed pre-Christian religious traditions that draw upon Egyptian, Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythologies and practices. These traditions generally took a more balanced and appreciative view of the role of women in both the spiritual and material realms. Neopagans today may focus on either nature or magic or both, incorporating often arcane rituals and terminologies from several different traditions into what is often a modern ecological, feminist perspective. Druidism, for example, is based on the faith and practices of ancient Celtic polytheistic nature worshippers, whose modern proponents take a nondogmatic and pluralistic approach to worship. Asatru is a revival of an ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion.


    Probably the most popular Neopagan religion is Wicca, which, as currently practiced, can be traced back to the Gardnerian Witchcraft founded in Great Britain during the late 1940s. Wicca draws many of its symbols, seasonal celebrations, beliefs, and deities from those of ancient Celtic culture of the first millennium BCE, enriching them with elements of Freemasonry and ceremonial magic from more recent centuries. Some modern female-only Wiccans call themselves Dianic and worship the goddess Diana exclusively. These and other Wiccans often emphasize the sacrality of nature and the coexistence of the sexes in partnership rather than exclusivity or dominance.

    Many of the Neopagan religions, including Wicca, are sometimes called Earth-based, partly because of their connection to the Goddess, who is generally seen as embodying the earth Herself, as opposed to the heavenly orientation of many traditional patriarchal religions. Earth-based spirituality, which often combines elements of various traditions without necessarily following one specific set of beliefs and practices, often begins by seeing Spirit embodied in the world, nature, and the earth. Because all life is viewed as interconnected, these religions revere the cycles of birth and death, growth and regeneration, that are part of the most ancient spiritual traditions of earth. This focus on the cycles of nature still survives in major traditions such as Taoism and Ayurveda, and even in the connection between major religious holidays of Western monotheism and cyclical events such as spring, harvest, and the winter solstice. Earth-based traditions also place an emphasis on community, conserving communal resources, and health, and so members are often strongly involved in ecological, conservationist, and animal rights groups.

    As a rule, Earth-based traditions do not aggressively proselytize or negate other religions, perhaps because they have themselves been attacked and proselytized in the past. They choose instead to emphasize the sacredness of nature and living in harmony with nature as well as within themselves, at home, and in the community.