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Cross-Cultural Prevalence of the Goddess Symbol and the Mother Identity

Updated on January 17, 2014

The First, Venus of Willendorf

Believed to be created between 25,000 and 28,000 BCE, the Venus of Willendorf is thought to be the first evidence of historic worship of the feminine aspect.
Believed to be created between 25,000 and 28,000 BCE, the Venus of Willendorf is thought to be the first evidence of historic worship of the feminine aspect.

Feminine Worship in History

The symbol of feminine worship can be traced back to 22-24,000 B.C.E, when the artifact called the Venus of Willendorf was thought to have been carved. It depicted a feminine figure with an abundant figure that was naked and showed prominent breasts. It is thought that this artifact represented a Neolithic adherence to fertility and the female’s inherent importance in that society. If this is indeed the case, the reverence of the feminine has existed for nearly thirty thousand years. It is the case historically that there exists a female godhead in nearly every type of culture, all around the globe. Within the dogma of these cultures, the Goddess is worshipped as a Great Mother; she is nurturing and maternal, promotes fertility in both humans and the earth, and also like the earth, has a dark side which can destroy. It is this concept of the Great Mother, a figure who gives life, creates all, the explanation to the unexplainable; that despite the often forced conversion to Western religions, is still flourishing in many areas of the world. Women are the bearers of life and because of this our identity is inexorably entwined with the identity of Mother. Those who choose to not become mothers sometimes struggle with this aversion to the social and oftentimes spiritual norm, and are looked down upon in society as selfish or strange. Women who are unable to bear children also grapple with the inability to fulfill this deeply ingrained natural role. The identity of Mother is a personal, religious, and societal one; once a woman becomes a mother she embodies that identity within her, but is also held to a different standard in society. Within religion, the sanctity of the feminine has endured millennia and only its face has been altered. Regardless of which face the Great Mother wears, the concept remains, and always will remain, that our identity is that of life.

The Many Faces of the Great Mother

Mary, Mother of Jesus
Mary, Mother of Jesus
Aspect of the Great Mother
Aspect of the Great Mother
Isis, Egyptian goddess of motherhood and fertility
Isis, Egyptian goddess of motherhood and fertility
Nintu, Sumerian Great Mother
Nintu, Sumerian Great Mother
Hindu Goddess, Kali Ma, thought to be both giver and destroyer of life
Hindu Goddess, Kali Ma, thought to be both giver and destroyer of life | Source

The Great Mother

The Great Mother, as Carl Jung described, was a figure that represented life and death, nurturing and caring, fertility, the earth, and sexuality. While the Virgin Mary is the most well-known and recent, she is merely just a modern incarnation of the many female figures of the mythic past that incorporated Jung’s archetype. In ancient Sumerian texts there is a goddess figure named Nintu, or “Lady of Birth”, who was principally a fertility goddess. Gaia is the Greek “mother of all gods”. Isis, in Egyptian mythology, is the goddess of motherhood, magic, and fertility. It is an artistic portrayal of Isis nursing her son that is thought to be the inspiration for the Mother and Child depiction commonly seen as Mary and the infant Jesus. Early Vedic texts refer to the Hindu goddess Kali as the great mother goddess, capable of both giving and destroying life. This balance is present in all of the historic goddess myths.

Fertility and Matriarchy

In ancient societies wherein worship of a feminine godhead is present, it usually went hand in hand with a society that revolved around farming and agriculture. These two things seemed to go hand in hand, as the main aspect of the Goddess is fertility and growth. Even when a female god is not primarily worshiped, the mother aspect is revered. Also in these same societies women are held to the same or higher regard as their male counterparts because women not only held the power of gestation, but also they were also the main tenders of the fields and gatherers of the crops. This is true of societies that are basically patrilineal as well as those of which are female dominated. In South Africa, several tribes were dominated primarily by women. The Sotho-Verdo tribe was patriarchal but women were held to the highest reverence due to the role of motherhood as the avenue to furthering of the tribe. The father’s sister was the most important member of a family’s council and also the priest and sole tie to their ancestors. The chief of the tribe ruled alongside his sister and was expected to follow her advice. Every important matter was referred to her judgment. One very interesting matriarchal culture was the Lovedu, also of South Africa. While the descent of its members was still traced through the biological father, the head of the tribe was always female; this queen was called Mujaji, the Rain Queen, and was both the political and religious leader of the tribe. Motherhood in this particular culture is interesting because it crossed the traditional gender lines. Women often married other women and used close relatives to impregnate them, thus allowing the line to patriarchal but still within their own bloodlines. It would seem that the patriarchal aspect of this tribe was mostly symbolic. However, the women who paid the bride head would be called father by the children inside the marriage, and mothers could be either male or female.

The Lovedu Tribe of South Africa

Source

A Shift Occurs in Goddess Worship

The most prevalent change in the worship of a Great Mother came about due to religious conversions. These conversions were often forced by invading cultures. Occasionally the culture being invaded fades away completely, but often aspects of these religions are stubbornly incorporated into the converted religion. There are many examples of this occurring. All of these illustrate the strength and perseverance of the mother symbol. Conversion almost always involved a culture going from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one; wherein there was no room to simultaneously worship a female god. In fact, the worship of any figure other than the “true God” was considered heretical or idolatry. This, I believe, is due to the need for a clearly defined power structure in the newly conquered land. Because the invaders came from a place that already had disdained female dominance and were in fact men who did not believe women should share in political power, they felt the need to incorporate this essential ideal into the new culture. If God maintained that women were inferior, then the women could not rise against them. This is a social concept that has maintained throughout Christian history. However, while the power structure was altered, in most of the conquered cultures that remained in existence mother worship was simply added to the new religion.

The Mayan culture is a classic example of a culture that stubbornly refused to give up all of their spiritual ideals. The Mayan Great Mother symbol took the form of the Moon Goddess, who engaged in sex with many other gods, and gave birth, to the Maya people. This is the Mayan creation myth, but the Moon Goddess also dictated the Mayan self-identity, spirituality, and gender roles. The myth itself outlined political structure and code of ethics for the people, as well as describing ancestral and noble lines. The Moon Goddess also represented the sexual desires of the people, as she desired relations with many so she could continue to breed life. In this way sexual identity became an important aspect of Mayan worship; it was regarded as a part of the cycle of life and as essential as birth. During the Spanish invasion and forced conversion of the Maya people, the Goddess also became a symbol of resistance of this new religion. Even today there are descendants of the Mayans who continue to resist colonialization in her name. However, to many she became a part of the image of the Virgin Mary as conversion to Christianity became more prevalent. The Mayans incorporated much of their beliefs into the new religion by merely shifting the focus of certain gods into the existing figures of Christianity; in this the Moon Goddess became the Virgin Mary.

Ix Chel, Mayan Moon Goddess
Ix Chel, Mayan Moon Goddess

Movement Towards a Holy Virgin

The Inca tribes held similar beliefs and parallels to the Mayans, wherein women were given their equal status due to the fact that they were the sowers of life. In the Inca society, the religions were separated by gender. The males worshipped and were considered the descendants of the sun god, whereas the women worshipped and were considered the descendants of the moon goddess. The two factions coexisted and rules different aspects of their way of life. For example it was the woman’s responsibility to sanction every union between man and woman to ensure absolute equality in the marriage. She held complete dominion over child-bearing and rearing. Children were considered to be the embodiment of wealth for an Incan family, and were essential to furthering of their culture. There was no other responsibility more important or more respected than the role of the mother. The Inca had what they called the Chosen Ones among the females of their tribes. These girls, usually taken by the age of ten, were brought to special temples away from the rest of the tribe to be Virgins of the Sun. These were girls chosen for exceptional beauty or talent and were educated in temple schools about Inca religious doctrine, ritual, and history. The Chosen Ones enjoyed a high social status and wanted for nothing. They were not required to participate in the equal division of labor. When the Spanish invaded they believed these girls to be the Inca equivalent of nuns.

After the Spanish invasion and subsequent conversion most cultures in Latin America continued their exaltation of the mother role in the form of the Virgin. In Mexico this is The Lady of Guadalupe. In Argentina she is named Our Lady of Luján. In Costa Rica she is called Our Lady of the Angels and in Guatemala she is Our Lady of the Rosaries. In all these different cultures and others besides, she either appears as an image or is discovered as a statue, both as the Virgin and as the Mother of the Christ child. Also in every case a Catholic official has sanctified the image or object and judged it to be holy. In every case again, the Mother is depicted with classic goddess symbols, such as the sun, moon, or stars. To me this signifies the evolution of pre-colonial goddess worship and the way these ancient peoples continued to hold on to their goddess as Great Mother worship.

Inca, Spanish, Latin American Holy Virgins

Inca Virgins of the Sun
Inca Virgins of the Sun | Source
Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico
Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico | Source
From Guatemala, Our Lady of the Rosaries
From Guatemala, Our Lady of the Rosaries

The Widespread Incorporation of Pagan Symbols Into Christianty

Incorporation of mother goddess symbols into Christian mythos is seen in many areas of the world in addition to South America. However, in some cases, it is the Christian religion that incorporates the so-called pagan symbolism into its dogma, rather than the other way around. This, too, in my opinion, is a way to make the indoctrination of indigenous people that much easier by making the new religion one that has a familiar face. One of the most widely known Christian symbols outside of the cross is the fish symbol, known by its Greek name, the icthus because of a proposed anachronistic arrangement of its Greek spelling. The fish is a popular theme in the gospels and is referred to many times throughout. In Roman times, during the persecution of Christians, it was used as a password between like-minded individuals so they wouldn’t be found out to be worshippers of Christ. The fish swimming toward the left resembles the Greek omega and references a passage in the book of Revelations wherein the Lord calls Himself “the alpha and the omega”. The fish is pre-Christian times has a much more prevalent history. It originally was constructed to resemble to slightly overlapping crescent moons, keeping with the tradition of the Great Mother being one with the moon. This symbol also represents the Great Mother in that it is proposed to be the shape of her vulva, meant to symbolize her fertility. The Great Mother goddess in China who was known as Kwan-yin is usually depicted in the shape of a fish. In India the Mother Goddess Kali Ma is referred to as “the fish-eyed one”. Isis in Egypt was known also as the Great Fish of the Abyss. In the Greek tradition, delphos was both the word for fish and womb and the Oracle of Delphi was so named for the worship of Themis, who was the original Greek goddess of fish. The subsequent goddess of fish, Aphrodite Salacious, had her holy day on Friday and followers ate fish and reveled in ritualistic orgies. Further, both Scandinavian and Middle Eastern Great Goddess figures depicted the fish symbol as a part of their doctrine. It was also during the Roman times that the Christians, who were in the process of taking over the spiritual world, decided to incorporate both the fish symbol and the holy day of Friday as well as the sanctified consumption of fish. They purposely reintroduced these symbols as ones of Christian make, therefore claiming ancient Goddess symbols as their own and paving the way for eventual conversion pagan religions. They also purposely removed any sexual aspect of the pagan beliefs.

The most widely incorporated aspect of pagan Great Mother worship is that of the celebration of the spring equinox. The Christian Church absorbed this as its holy day of Easter, the day Jesus is said to have risen from the dead. This inclusion was paramount in the conversion of pagan beliefs to the Christian as every culture that was being conquered celebrated some form of a spring renewal ritual, and to include such an important aspect of indigenous culture was to ensure a smoother transition. The spring festivals celebrated the flux of fertility for the society, a return of abundance and a time for renewal and conception of life. Cybele, a Mother Goddess in Greece, had a cult that was adopted in Rome around the year 203 B.C.E. In this Roman adaptation of the Cybele myth, she was the Mother Goddess whose consort was Attis. Attis was a god of renewing vegetation, who died and came back every year between the days of March 22 and 25 during the spring equinox. He is said to be of a virgin birth. Ironically this cult was very popular in the location of Vatican Hill. The word easter originated from the Saxon celebration of spring and fertility which they called Eastre.

Symbolism of the Fish- Not a Christian Symbol

The typical fish symbol, as used by Christianity
The typical fish symbol, as used by Christianity
Sorry for the explicit, but the clearest way to show the true meaning of the symbol!
Sorry for the explicit, but the clearest way to show the true meaning of the symbol!

Further Incorporation

The most widely incorporated aspect of pagan Great Mother worship is that of the celebration of the spring equinox. The Christian Church absorbed this as its holy day of Easter, the day Jesus is said to have risen from the dead. This inclusion was paramount in the conversion of pagan beliefs to the Christian as every culture that was being conquered celebrated some form of a spring renewal ritual, and to include such an important aspect of indigenous culture was to ensure a smoother transition. The spring festivals celebrated the flux of fertility for the society, a return of abundance and a time for renewal and conception of life. Cybele, a Mother Goddess in Greece, had a cult that was adopted in Rome around the year 203 B.C.E. In this Roman adaptation of the Cybele myth, she was the Mother Goddess whose consort was Attis. Attis was a god of renewing vegetation, who died and came back every year between the days of March 22 and 25 during the spring equinox. He is said to be of a virgin birth. Ironically this cult was very popular in the location of Vatican Hill. The word easter originated from the Saxon celebration of spring and fertility which they called Eastre.

It is clear by the examination of history that Mother worship and the Goddess symbol is deeply rooted in the conscious of global mind. In modern times goddess worship is slowly re-emerging, or else never truly went away. This is again a testament to the strength and need of a central mother figure; the mother is god to a child, and everything springs from her. The Virgin Mary should be considered among the Divine Feminine, as she is also a form of the Great Mother. While in Christian tradition worship of Mary is not allowed, she is exalted nonetheless. The prohibition against the practical worship of the Virgin Mary as an actual goddess may be because of a need to protect against the ancient gender equality and the crumbling of the foundation of Christian dogma. In India, in the areas where the Vedic traditions are still adhered to, the Great Mother has not faded from worship for five thousand years. The concept of a marriage between a sacred female and sacred male resulting in life that grows inside the female is one that will continue on for as long as humanity continues; this concept is the basic human need that of reproducing and furthering our species. In the southern part of Ethiopia there are several goddesses still worshipped by its people. Buk is considered to be the goddess of fertility, while Atete is the goddess of spring as well as fertility. Farmers leave an offering of crops from the harvest while women sing songs to honor her. In the Sudan, the Nuba people are one of the few modern day cultures who worship a single goddess without a male counterpart. This goddess is a creator goddess, the Great Mother of everything.

Easter Gods and Goddess

Ishtar, Babylon
Ishtar, Babylon
Astarte
Astarte
Mithras, whose birth date was celebrated December 25...and whose followers celebrated the spring equinox (Easter)
Mithras, whose birth date was celebrated December 25...and whose followers celebrated the spring equinox (Easter)
Cybele and Attis: Cybele was the Great Mother, whose lover, Attis, was from a virgin birth, died, and was resurrected after three days; his resurrection is celebrated with a spring festival.
Cybele and Attis: Cybele was the Great Mother, whose lover, Attis, was from a virgin birth, died, and was resurrected after three days; his resurrection is celebrated with a spring festival.

Whoever We Are, We Always Need Our Mothers

The most well-known of these modern day goddess worshippers is that of the neo-pagan movement called Wicca. The term Wicca comes from a Celtic word meaning “witch”. The practice does include elements of witchcraft but when considering only the practical elements, no more so than any other religion. Wiccans worship the Great Mother as well as a male counter-part, with whom the Mother joins in the Great Marriage that gives life to all. Those who choose not to believe in the male aspect are called Dianic Wiccans, so called for the Greek goddess of the moon. Wicca itself takes elements from many other ancient goddess worshipping peoples. It, just like the religions formed thousands of years ago, provides an identity to modern women who believe in the inherent sanctity of motherhood. Wicca also provides a standard for behavior that mirrors the dogma of many other religions; the most important of these being “If it harms none, do what ye will” which is just another way of saying “Harm none, lest ye be harmed”.

Despite the sometime subjugation of both women the Great Mother figure, the goddess symbol remains firmly entrenched in every spiritual person’s conscious. This remains true regardless of the name one give her, or the role that individual chooses to take in society based on which face she wears. Since the beginning of human understanding and the desire to know how they were created there has been a form of goddess worship. She is the Great Mother is every religion all around the world because this symbol represents both the evolutionary drive to procreate but also the social responsibilities. The mother symbol is not just the identity that women give ourselves but what our capabilities are. To create life is to be almost god-like. To rear a child is to form the fabric of who that child is and will become. This is the most important and prevalent example of self-identification of humankind.

The Wiccan Goddess Symbol

The Wiccan Goddess symbol, representing the three stages of life for women; maiden, mother, crone.
The Wiccan Goddess symbol, representing the three stages of life for women; maiden, mother, crone.

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    • Galadriel Therese profile image
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      Galadriel Thoman 3 years ago from Voorhees, New Jersey

      Thank you so much for your comments! I too believe our history and the truth about our beliefs are becoming more known; hopefully soon there will be no more confusion about who we are.

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      MysticMoonlight 3 years ago

      Lovely article and great points. I do believe that more and more people are embracing their/our Pagan history and heritage. I think that it's important that we realize that Goddess worship indeed has been around for ages and ages. If we just stop and think as to how and why it is no longer prevalent, it just may give us much to wonder and consider. I hope we never forget and keep Paganism alive and well for future generations. It is a part of us all, somewhere/somehow and should be respected and remembered. Voted!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Beautiful hub; It's so nice to be alive during the Pagan revival, when we remember and embrace our Great Mother once more, and more and more people are turning to Her. Really nice work here, I enjoyed it very much.