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European Mother Goddesses

Updated on December 17, 2015
Mother and child by Gustav Klimt
Mother and child by Gustav Klimt | Source
Julia; frontispiece of a 1922 New York publication of Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington
Julia; frontispiece of a 1922 New York publication of Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington

Loss of the Divine Female

Mother goddesses were once very important in human religious practice. Polytheistic traditions venerated pantheons of male and female deities who had different roles to play within the intricate workings of cosmology.

In some societies, the feminine aspect of spirituality has been eroded in favor of a singular male representation of the divine. This is especially true of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The divine feminine lived on other major world religions, such as Hinduism. And, indigenous beliefs that had been attacked and eroded to the point of annihilation are being reborn and reconstructed today.

Madonna of the Lillies by Alphonse Mucha, 1905
Madonna of the Lillies by Alphonse Mucha, 1905

Gaia, Mother Earth

Primitive humans understood a connection between the fertility of the Earth and the fertility of women. So, in many cultures the Earth was connected with the feminine, and powerful female deities were honored to elicit their nurturing and fertile influence. These are the Earth mother goddesses.

Perhaps the most well known Earth mother goddess is Gaia. In the Greek tradition, Gaia was considered the ultimate mother; the Earth, the great mother of everything. Many polytheistic cosmologies include primordial deities who are involved with the creation of the world. The later gods, the ones who feature in the bulk of the respective mythology, often descend from these predecessors.

And so it is in Greek mythology. Gaia's coupling with the sky god Uranus spawned the entire Universe and everything within it. Because she is the mother of the Earth, she is also considered Earth personified. Gaia is both mother to Earth, and Earth itself.

Practitioners of Hellenism, a reconstruction of ancient Greek polytheism, honor Gaia, as well as the rest of the Greek pantheon, today. Gaia is also worshiped by other groups such as Wiccans and in various other forms of neo-paganism.

Goddesses by Alphonse Mucha
Goddesses by Alphonse Mucha | Source

Nerthus, German Fertility Goddess

Nerthus is a fertility mother goddess known to the Germanic people on the continent. The branch of Germanic mythology that most people are familiar with is the Norse. This is due to the fact that other groups of Germanic people were converted centuries earlier.

In many cases, the indigenous beliefs were repressed by force, so their traditions did not survive in great detail. Norse mythology had the great luck to survive into the new millennium in Iceland, and to be written down on paper. Other branches of Germanic mythology were not so fortunate. Much of what we know about them comes from Roman historians, such as Tacitus.

Tacitus reported what he observed concerning the veneration of Nerthus. He said that many German tribes:

are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believes that she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples.

There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with cloth, where the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle.

There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she designs to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple.

Afterwards the chariot, the cloth, and, if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake. The slaves who perform this office are immediately swallowed up in the same lake. Hence arises dread of the mysterious, and piety, which keeps them ignorant of what only those about to perish may see.

The Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane
The Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane | Source

Nerthus and her procession represent peace and prosperity. She is associated with fertility and abundance.

Her name is cognate with the later Norse god Njord. There are differing theories regarding the relationship between these two deities. Some scholars believe that Nerthus became Njord in a transformation over the course of time and distance. Others believe they may have once been a brother/sister duo, not unlike the twins Freyr and Freyja.

The Norse Njord is affiliated with the Vanir faction of deities, which are the gods most associated with the Earth and fertility. It is therefore thought that Nerthus is likely to possess that affiliation as well.

Tacitus equated Nerthus with the Roman mother Earth, Terra Mater. This has led some to wonder if Nerthus is related to another obscure Norse goddess, Jord. Jord is briefly mentioned as being Thor's mother, and her name means "Earth."

Nerthus is worshiped today by reconstructionists of indigenous Germanic religion, often referred to as "Heathens."

"Water Serpents" by Gustav Klimt
"Water Serpents" by Gustav Klimt
By Alphonse Mucha
By Alphonse Mucha | Source

Danu, Mother of the Irish Pantheon

In Irish mythology, Danu is an important mother goddess in two different ways. She is sometimes associated with the land, making her an Earth mother goddess. But, she is most often recognized as the deity from which the Tuatha Dé Danann descend; making her the mother of an otherworldly nation.

The Tuatha Dé Danann are a race of supernatural beings in Irish mythology. They were the main focus of religious veneration in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity. The name "Tuatha Dé Danann" means "the tribe of Danu." Danu is considered to be the mythic mother god within the Irish tradition. She is also related to the Welsh mother figure, Dôn, featured in the Mabinogion.

Today, Danu is honored by Celtic reconstructionists, modern Druids, Wiccans, and other forms of neo-pagans.

Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman, 1909
Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman, 1909
By Alphonse Mucha
By Alphonse Mucha | Source

Frigga, Domestic Goddess, Wife of Odin

Many people know Frigga from Norse Mythology, or the recent Thor films, where she is best known as Odin's wife. However, there is a lot more to Frigga than a mythical housewife. Like most deities in polytheistic belief systems, Frigga is multifaceted with many attributes.

Frigga is the mother of Baldr, whose myth is very well known among fans of Norse Mythology. She is also step-mother to many other gods, including the mighty Thor, Heimdall, guardian of the gates of Asgard, and Tyr, the god who sacrificed his hand to the wolf Fenrir.

Frigga is categorized as a "domestic goddess," meaning goddess of the hearth and home. These are deities associated with the home sphere. As such, she is often sacred to married women and called upon to aid in household chores and maintaining a smoothly running household. Frigga is also called upon to aid in childbirth.

Her symbols are the spinning wheel and distaff, which demonstrate her link to women's work and domestic activities. Frigga's name means love, or "beloved one" and the planet Venus was known to the Norse as Friggjarstjarna, Frigg's star.

Frigga is honored today by followers of Asatru (and other forms of reconstructed Germanic religion), which is a modern adaption of old Norse indigenous religion.

Vintage postcard in the Art Nouveau style, circa 1903
Vintage postcard in the Art Nouveau style, circa 1903 | Source

For more on lost goddesses

This is just a small sampling of the hundreds of goddesses found among European traditions, and there are even more among other mythologies of the world. If you are interested in goddesses from the Old Religion, you may enjoy my articles "The Lost Female Figures of Christmas" Part I and Part II.

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© 2014 Carolyn Emerick


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    • profile image

      Mark Miller 2 years ago

      Hi Carolyn. Good article. I lament the loss of the female aspect of the divine in the Abrahamic religions. I didn't even know there were religions in Germany other than Norse.

    • newbizmau profile image

      Maurice Glaude 2 years ago from Mobile, AL

      I've always believe there was a Mother God even as a child growing up in a Catholic house hold. Yes true we did have Mary mother of Jesus but I've always felt God as female knowing there were both a divine feminine and divine masculine.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Carolyn, I enjoy these hubs of yours in myths and fairies. This was real interesting to know about other mother goddesses besides Gaia. Voted up for interesting!

    • russinserra profile image

      Russ Inserra 3 years ago from Indianapolis, In

      Love your articles.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thank you wemarriage! I really appreciate that :D

    • wemarriage profile image

      Bridget Robertson 3 years ago

      Once again a great article Carolyn. I shared it everywhere.

    • profile image

      luis 3 years ago

      Hail Gaia...

    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 3 years ago from Europe

      Interesting article, Carolyn. Also interesting to see that only women seem to comment in this section. It almost seems like men have no idea what to say about this issue.

      I think everything is spirited around us, Humans of course, but also trees and stones down to every single atom. Planet Earth or Gaia is also a living thing, that has her own soul. People have the tendency to believe earth is feminine because it gives birth to all life and people seem to have difficulties to believe something is genderless when it is believed to be alive. Perhaps the embodiment of the soul can present male or female form or shape, but I think the soul itself is 'genderless'.

      I saw in your former comment you're interested in Gnosticism. For anyone who is interested in Gnosticism I saved on my Mediafire some documents:

      Especially the Gospel of John describes the secrets of creation by Sophia (wisdom and female). I could write much more how these passages are generally misunderstood, but it helps to cross reference the Gospel of John with the Emerald Tablets of Thoth. The similarities are striking and sky rockets the understanding of both works. That ancient religions worshipped many god's, must have its origin in these narrations.

      Hopefully I contributed something meaningful to your article. All the best.

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      Carole Lane 3 years ago

      Fascinating reading and beautifully presented.

    • Lindsey Nobles profile image

      Lindsey N 3 years ago from Western New York

      Have you ever spoken in Buffalo?

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      I also relate to Danu--I was happy to find this post tonight

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Hi Lindsey, I get the feeling that we are interested in similar things but coming from different angles. You seem into the New Age approach which is shared by people like the Spirit Science guys. I'm more into a historical/folklore approach. But it's interesting because even though my background and view of it is different, I still agree that there is a huge resurgence of interest in female deity, Earth centered spirituality, etc. It seems as if male-dominated religion has left a lot of people unsatisfied and they want a faith that incorporates both male AND female, plus a little Earth luvin' on the side ;-)

      I've read up on Elohim but not deeply. I've been reading about Asherah, his former consort in the days before Judaism. And I've been interested in the early days of the Christian church, in the first century right after Christ died, especially the Gnostics. But European mythology from the early middle ages is what I spend most of my time with :-)

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      jprzew 3 years ago

      super :-)

    • Lindsey Nobles profile image

      Lindsey N 3 years ago from Western New York

      I really enjoyed this. I honor Gaia and the interconnected Oneness of all things. The Goddess energy is RISING. We are coming into a greater time of peace, nurturing, love, and prosperity. This is all due to the Divine Goddess Energy coming back into it's rightful place.

      The best thing about Goddess Energy is if it's balanced an honored it doesn't make Male or God energy less, it enhances it as it works together in perfect balance. However, the God energy, has a prepensity to be insecure around this Goddess energy.

      Have you researched the Elohim?

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      @ jprzew and @Poswist this was a short overview that only featured four goddesses not a comprehensive encyclopedic work covering ALL of them. I am very interested in Slavic myth, and also Baltic myth. It's harder to find good into on those cultures in English other than from Wikipedia, though. I will write on them in the future, but I need to locate some reliable sources.

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      Poswist 3 years ago

      + Slavic goddesses: Marzana, Dzidzileli - Leli / Lela, Dziewanna ?

    • profile image

      jprzew 3 years ago

      + Slavic goddesses Mokosh, Živa ?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for such an informative and enjoyable hub, Carolyn. I had heard of these goddesses before, excerpt for Nerthus, but you taught me much more about them! The concept of a mother goddess is very interesting.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Hi Sage, thank you! I'm more into Northern and Central European mythology so I hadn't read up much on Gaia before. It was fun to learn about her. And yes, the Romans were known for looking at someone else's god and assigning it an equivalent to theirs. They were a little self-absorbed, lol.

      Suzette, thank you for reading :-) Yep, Northern Europe is my main area of interest so I write about it often. It was ignored for years while Western education focused on Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth, but it has been making a huge comeback!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Carolyn: This is a fascinating hub. I did not know of these Celtic women gods and it is so interesting and informative to learn about them. I am not that familiar with northern European mythology and so this article has sparked my interest. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Beautifully done Carolyn! I've always had a strong connection to Gaia myself. I was unaware that Tacitus wrote about Nerthus; I think it was getting common at the time to begin to look for Greco/Roman counterparts to all the Gods and Goddesses of various Pagan cultures so that's interesting. Great hub.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Phyllis, I will have a look at that :-)

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Very nicely written, Carolyn. I really enjoyed reading this hub. Danu is the mother goddess I relate to. I recently wrote a hub on the Tuatha de Danann. I love Celtic mythology, the legends of my ancestors. Very well done on your hub.