The (Almost) Forgotten Feminine Divine
For centuries goddesses were included in pantheons
(groups of deities) from Egypt to Scandinavia to Asia and
the Americas. Their status waxed and waned, but their
presence remained a constant except in monotheistic
religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In his tome The White Goddess (which, amazingly, is
online—see the works cited slide), Robert Graves claims
that the Magna Mater (Latin for the Great Mother) reigned
supreme in Western Europe for centuries. The names of
goddesses in preliterate societies are lost forever, but
goddesses such as Isis (Egypt), Inanna (Sumeria), and
Cybele (Anatolia) left indelible marks in the mythos of their
Feminist authors such as Marija Gimbutas theorize that
early societies were matriarchal—governed by women with
men taking subsidiary roles. This idea cannot be proven
because the facts are lost in history. Gimbutas bases her
theory on a large body of iconography (paintings, statuary)
depicting females compared to a corresponding lack of
It is less likely that societies were matriarchal, but
matrifocal (women being the center of the culture).
Many societies were matrilineal, lineage and heredity
traced through the mother rather than the father. Egypt
was matrilineal; it is one reason why pharaohs married
their daughters or sisters—to cement their position. This
traditional probably came about because a child always
knew who his/her mother was, but paternity was not so
Gimbutas and Charlene Spretnak connect the status of
women to goddesses, but it is important to remember that
because a culture revered goddesses, it did not mean that
women held a high status in that society.
Greece, for example, had many female deities, but women
were not held in high esteem.
Mortal women and goddesses were associated with
primal chaos, creatures of darkness and irrationality.
Men were of the light, beings of logic and rationality.
From these associations, in most Western mythos,
females are associated with the moon and males with
the sun (i.e. Artemis and Apollo).
Goddesses were also associated with caves and the
earth—caves symbolizing the womb. Hindu myth has
the symbol of the “yoni,” an elliptical shape
representing the vagina. Cave entrances are often
In many cultures, the deity of the underworld was
These archetypal associations began before there was
writing . . . back in the Paleolithic era.
One of the earliest figurines representing the female
form was found in Austria in 1908. The statuette is
11.1 centimeters tall and carved from limestone not
native to the area, indicating it was “imported.” She
was carved in the Paleolithic period, most likely from
The figure lacks detail—there is no face, and the arms
are stick appendages draped over the pendulous
breasts. The huge stomach and breasts most likely
portray pregnancy, symbolizing the importance of
fertility in the culture. She gained the name “Venus” as
a joke, and one of the first explanations for her
existence was as a type of Paleolithic porn.
The Laussel Venus was found in 1911 carved on the wall of
a limestone shelter in France. She is 17 inches tall and
chiseled to fit the natural swell of the rock. She is a bit
younger than her sister Venus, her conception estimated
between 20,000 to 18,000 BCE.
In her right hand, held aloft, she holds a bison horn
resembling the crescent moon. The horn has thirteen
notches on it—most likely denoting the thirteen month lunar
year. Goddesses such as Inanna and Isis often wear a
crescent headpiece, not only to symbolize the moon, but to
emulate cow horns.
As with the Willendorf Venus, this figure has large breasts
It is theorized that the placement of her left hand on her
stomach indicates a known connection between the
menstrual cycle and the moon phases. A lunar month is 28
days long, the same length as the menstrual cycle.
This connection between moon and menstruation is another
reason why the moon came to symbolize the female aspect.
Neolithic (New Stone Age)
Many such Venus figures from the Paleolithic era
have been found, and the popularity of her robust
figure continued on into Neolithic times.
In the city of Catalhoyuk (circa 7,500-6,000 BCE),
figures of large women have been uncovered.
This statuette portrays a large woman or
goddess giving birth.
She is flanked by leopards or large cats.
This statuette was found in a granary bin, most
likely symbolizing a link between pregnancy
and the fertility of the fields.
The feline icons are later echoed in association
with other goddesses: Inanna and Cybele are
also pictured with large cats.
A more recently
The hands of the
figure rests on the
But there is a
between the two
The back of the
Catalhoyuk goddess shows
her spine on the outside of
Is this an early association
between life and death?
It might be a far stretch, but
Hel, the goddess of Niflheim
in Norse myth, is often
depicted with her skeleton on
the outside of her body! (I
can hear you sigh and see
you roll your eyes at that
The Magna Maters
We know nothing about the early
goddesses from the Paleolithic and
Neolithic sites, but their descendents are
often clearly chronicled.
These goddesses are called by different
names in various societies, but their
attributes are almost identical.
These goddesses stood at the portals of
life and death; they brought you into the
world and they took you out of it.
Cybele: Anatolia/Phrygia (Turkey)
Cybele (cave dweller) could
be the later version of the
Catalhoyuk goddess. She is
an ancient goddess, her
roots are in Phrygia, but she
was “imported” into Greece
during the fifth century BCE,
and into Rome around the
third century BCE. She lasted
a long time—her religion was
one of the last that the
Christians eradicated in
Note that the Roman icons of
Cybele recall the seated figure
from Catalhoyuk. She is not large
nor pregnant, but she is flanked
by lions—one of her emblems.
Cybele had a consort named Attis
who was a lot younger than she
and perhaps was her son.
Unfortunately, he was unfaithful
to her and died. The story varies:
he was either gored by a boar;
Cybele castrated him; or he
castrated himself. He went to the
underworld, but was allowed
aboveground for part of the year.
The priests of Cybele and Attis
were the “Corybantes” who
ritually castrated themselves in
honor and memory of Attis.
Inanna,”The Queen of Heaven,”
daughter of Nanna the moon god, held
a prestigious position in Sumerian
myth for centuries.
Her counterparts are Ishtar in Babylon.
Astarte in Phoenicia, and both
Aphrodite and Demeter in Greece.
Astarte is “Queen of the Stars,” and
her name was first recorded about
In Hebrew scriptures, Astarte is most often the
goddess whom the fickle Hebrews ran after in their
idolatrous worship. The “Ashtoroth poles” which
the Jews cut down on their advance into Canaan
belonged to her.
Ishtar shares most of the same experiences—the
descent into Kur and a consort whose time is
divided between the upper and lower worlds.
Enheduanna, a Sumerian priestess and daughter of
Sargon the Great, wrote poems in honor of Inanna
circa 2300 BCE., but Inanna would have been very
well known before that date and her worship firmly
Like Cybele, Inanna (Ishtar, Astarte) has a dying
consort whose time is divided between the lower
and upper worlds.
In some depictions
of Inanna, she is
large like earlier
The hands on the
breasts is an
pose indicating her
fertility and ability
to “nurture the
In other iconography,
she is thinner.
Note the crescent on
her head—denoting a
connection with both
cows and the moon.
often have horns.
Here she is shown
with two large
and skulls at her
feet. She is
the “Mistress of
The cult of Isis became one of the most important in
Egypt (Kemet) and spread to Greece and other places.
She is the wife of Osiris, an early dying/resurrected
deity, and her search for his body is later emulated by
Demeter in her search for Persephone.
Isis has wings—a precursor to the image of
angels. In Bierlein’s recounting of the tale,
when she revives Osiris from the dead, she
fans him with her wings.
Here she is depicted
nursing her son,
Horus. This is a often
repeated image, and
though she is only
nursing Horus, it is
symbolic of her
nurturing nature and
On her head she wears
cow horns and a disk
symbolizing the moon,
Isis’ popularity has
witnessed by the
60’s TV show for
Eurynome rises from Chaos and not only creates
the universe, but instills order into it.
Her primal association with the abyss associates
her and later goddesses with chaos.
She also has an early archetypal association with
snakes through her mating with the Great Serpent
of the Deep, Ophion.
When Eurynome “bruises the head” of Ophion and
sends him to the underworld, it sets a precedent
for the serpent in Eden. The serpent who tempts
Eve will have his head bruised by her descendents,
but he will not be sent to the underworld until the
end of earthly time.
There are other “Mother Natures” in Greek myth; Rhea,
the Titan, and Gaea ARE the earth. According to
different myths, either Rhea or Gaea’s body is the
planet. Demeter, however, is probably the best know of
the Earth Mothers.
Every polytheistic culture has one or more Magna Mater.
Even in modern society, her image lingers on, ala
A strong prototype for Mother Nature is Demeter,
goddess of the grain in Greek myth. She is known as
Ceres by the Romans.
Demeter, her daughter Persephone, and the crone
Hekate make a goddess triad or trinity, representing the
three stages of a woman’s life: maiden, mother, and
There are not separate goddesses, per se, but three
facets of the same deity.
In her search for
of the same
experiences as did
During her search,
a temple was
erected in her
honor at Eleusis
which became the
site for the
The Eleusinian Mysteries, along with the Rites of Cybele
and Attis, set the tone for later mystery religions such as
that of the Romanized god, Mithras.
These various rites were held in caves—Christ later
emerged from the tomb/cave in a rebirth.
Since the earth was often depicted as a goddess—not
just a symbol of a goddess—caves were the womb(s) of
those goddesses. (As with just about everything, there
are exceptions of earth = female.) To be born from a
cave such as the Romanized Mithras or to be reborn
from a cave is, in essence, a forgotten or suppressed
ideology of being born of “”Mother” Nature.
Brede (Brigit, Brigantia) is another
triple goddess; she is the patroness of
medicine, poetry, and blacksmithing,
but she also sponsors divination, the
hearth, and learning. Unlike other
triads, her names does not change
according to her station, but remains
When Christians converted the British
Isles, they could not eradicate the
image of Brede so they made her into
a Catholic icon—St. Bridget.
Crete: The Snake Goddess
Mainland Greece was greatly influenced by the Minoan
society on Crete. Crete was no doubt influenced by the
Egyptians with whom they traded.
Iconography on Crete includes that of the “Snake
Goddess” or priestess.
This icon shows a
snakes in either
Since the Cretans
did not record their
mythos, we can
only surmise the
meaning from other
The Virgin Goddesses
In addition to the Magna Maters, there
existed the virgin goddesses. To the
ancients, however, “virgin” did not
necessarily denote a female who had
never experienced sex, but an
independent, autonomous woman or
In Hellenic myth, however, the term
did come to mean a goddess who did
not have sex.
Two of the most famous Hellenic virgin goddesses are
Artemis and Athena.
Artemis is a maiden goddess of the moon (actually part
of a triad) and the hunt. She is also patroness of
childbirth by some accounts. Artemis was sanitized by
the Greeks; in Pelasgian lore she was not the prude who
had a man tore apart because he saw her bathing.
Ephesus was a center of worship
for Artemis/Diana. There, she
was portrayed as a many
breasted goddess who, like the
Mothers, could nurture the
When the Christian Scriptures
note the Ephesians rejecting the
evangelical attempts of Paul,
they did so because of their
devotion to Diana.
Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, also
remained a virgin. Her femininity is
almost a sham—she declares that she is
“always for her father” and sides with
Apollo during the trial of Orestes.
Her status as the child of a male mother
influences her decisions. Although she is
sometimes noted as being a feminist role
model, the term is really a misnomer!
She is a goddess of battle, as well, and is
often shown with speak, helment, and
shield. Her “animals” are the snake and
The Dark Goddesses
The Magna Maters have their dark aspects as well as
their nurturing aspects. The “Dark” goddesses deal with
the somewhat more unpleasant facets of divinity.
Kali, who is often shown with
black skin, wears the skulls
She dances on the head of
Shiva who smiles because he
knows that to creation comes
You will notice that I have
used a modern depiction of
Kali: this is because her
worship has been a constant
in the Hindu religion since at
least 600 CE (Kinsley 70).
The Morrigan is actually a triple goddess of fertility,
battle, and strife. Her name means either “Great
Queen” or “Phantom Queen.” Her bird is the crow which
accompanies her onto the battlefield. Hekate’s bird is
also the crow.
Note that she is important enough to the “The”
Dark Goddesses of the
Since the earth is most often associated with goddesses,
and the underworld is most often located inside the
earth, female deities often rule over the netherworld.
Hel, from whom Christianity derived its name for a place
of eternal torture, presided over Niflheim, the abode of
She is a dread goddess, black skinned, often described
as wearing her skeleton on the outside of her body and
smelling like a corpse.
I can find no images of Hel from the time period of the
Norse—I dislike displaying modern images. If a deity is
not represented in a picture, this is why.
When Inanna descends into Kur, she faces Ereshkigal,
goddess of the dead. Ereshkigal is not a happy queen,
she is morose but likes sympathy.
Inanna and Ereshkigal are sometimes called “sisters”;
whether they are true sisters or sister because all deities
are descendants of the first deities is unclear.
Before Aryan invaders such as the Achaeans invaded the
area known as Greece, the natives had their own set of
deities and beliefs. The invaders did not banish the
earlier deities, but incorporated them into their own
pantheon. Some of the goddesses include Hera, Artemis,
One goddess (part of a triad) who suffered a demotion
Originally, Hekate ruled Tartarus in her facets as
Kore/Persephone, but when Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon
cast lots for the areas they would rule, Hades displaced
But Hekate kept much of her power, having a foothold in
the underworld, the earth, and Olympus.
In Hellenic myth, she is the crone, the wise old woman,
but she has much darker tones.
Hekate sits at the crossroads where three roads meet.
She has three faces so she can look in each direction
and also into the past, the present, and the future.
Her faces also represents her status as a triple goddess:
maiden, mother, and crone. Hekate’s faces are
sometimes depicted as those of a horse, a dog, and a
She has a pack of
black hounds with
which she runs
the souls of people
Christianity: The Virgin Mary
Christianity adapted the trinity from earlier faiths and
their triad of deities.
Although it is a monotheistic faith, Christianity could not
wholly eradicate the idea of the feminine divine.
In the Catholicism of the medieval era, the Virgin Mary
held a very high status.
In the mystery or cycle plays of that time, she was
called “The Queen of Heaven,” and ruled with her son in
Mary is the virgin and mother, but she never achieves
the status of the wise old woman.
Protestantism “demoted” Mary; she lost her high status
in the Lutheran church.
Last but not Least
. . . Baubo the Belly
Baubo is a little known Greek deity who no doubt
predates Hellenism by centuries. She represents fertility
at its most basic—having no head but her belly
representing her feminine essence.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. London: University
of California Press, 1974. Print.
Graves, Robert, The White Goddess. NY: Ferrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1975. N.p.
n.d. Web. 12 Aug 2013. <http://126.96.36.199/~fenderse/The-White-
Kinsley, David. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.
Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece. Boston: Beacon Press,
Note on works that I cite: Information that is common knowledge does not have
to be cited. The class and I might disagree on what constitutes “common
knowledge” because my knowledge base might be broader than yours!
However, I will not usually cite information that is readily available online unless
it is arcane or has a specified author. I will cite print sources. In your papers
and projects, however, I expect any information that you take from sources to be
cited. In addition, if I mention an author but do not specifically quote, I will list
that author in the works cited list.