God the Mother:
The Creatress and Giver of Life
By: Lawrence Durdin-Robertson
This page includes the introduction to Part I, The Maternal Source, as well as an excerpt from the Graeco-Roman section.
Full PDF file
THE MATERNAL SOURCE
In his History of Women published about two hundred years ago, Dr. William Alexander makes this statement: ''Whenever female deities have obtained a place in the religion of a people, it is a sign that women are of some consequence; for we find in those modern nations where the women are held in the most despicable light that even their deities are all of the masculine gender." (cit. Rel. of Gdss, 5).
This assessment recognized the basic difference between matriarchal and patriarchal religions. Both are inextricably tied to the social attitude to women. But whereas the former develops where the role of women is understood and appreciated, the latter where it is devalued. The one is fundamentally affirmative, the other negative.
Matriarchal religion is based on personal experience, the experience resulting from the impacts which the female makes on our lives. These impacts are classified by Jung under three headings. Writing on the maternal archetype he describes ''the three essential aspects of the mother, her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality and her Stygian depths." (Four Archetypes,16). Those who will allow themselves to accept these as divine revelations have the basis of a natural theology.
Patriarchal religion has no such basis. While the impact of the male may be stronger than that of the female in such secular fields as politics, economics and technology, his positive religious impact is weaker. In proof of this one has only to take the three female attributes listed by Jung to see that the male's religious role is entirely subordinate to that of the female.
Patriarchal religions, therefore, having no basis of their own, have adopted the expedient of arrogating to themselves those powers which are the property of the female. Even a cursory reading of the scriptures, creeds and dogmas of such religions will demonstrate the extent to which they have gone. Claims are made, for instance, by the male godhead both to create and to give life, neither of which he can do.
The practical effects of this artificial basis of patriarchal religions are seen throughout history. While the male based religions have often played a valuable role in initiating and in maintaining advances in certain fields of social ethics, these have often been vitiated by an invidious discrimination against women. In fact, like other authoritarian regimes based on usurped powers, whose main preoccupation is the removal of the true claimant, male monotheistic religions are characterized by a consistent policy of suppressing the female, at least in her peculiarly religious aspect. For instance, the draconian taboos connected with menstruation, the repressive measures directed particularly against women's sexual freedom and the reluctance to admit women to religious offices, all these are indications that male monotheism, consciously or subconsciously, is aware of its insecure foundation.
But there is always a limit to the extent to which the artificial can impose upon the natural. In the religious survey of Dr. Alexander of two hundred years ago, maternally based religions seem to have been superseded. Female deities appear only as a nostalgic memory from the past. Where they were still worshipped were in areas remote from western Civilization; and there, too, they seemed no more than a vanishing anachronism. Patriarchal religion, usually in the form of male monotheism, appeared dominant. And even though many people were already ceasing to believe in it, it was generally regarded as the only acceptable religion for the world.
A different picture is presented in a religious survey recently published. Margot Adler, in her book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers and other Pagans in America Today, writes: "In the last ten years, alongside the often noted resurgence of 'occult' and 'magical' groups, a diverse and decentralized religious movement has sprung up (p. 3.). It is significant that this movement is not confined to some remote region left behind by western civilization, but to a country which is in the forefront.
While at first sight it may not seem that this resurgence is in a particularly matriarchal direction, yet a closer examination shows that in fact it is so. Most of the religions described in that survey are polytheistic; and in nearly all polytheistic religions there is a numerical equality of gods and goddesses. But in view of the fact that the goddess is, from a religious point of view, more potent than the god, these religions have a resultant matriarchal emphasis. This can be seen in the syncretic polytheism of later Roman Empire. In the course of time it was Isis who emerged as the supreme deity of the Pantheon. As Dr. Witt writes of her: ''She could assume the eagle of Zeus, the lyre of Apollo and tongs of Hephaestus, the wand of Hermes, the thyrsus of Bacchus and the club of Heracles. (see Vandebeek, 139).. She came as the champion of polytheism. Yet even more strongly she asserted she was herself the one True and Living God." (Isis in Graeco-Roman World, 129). Similarly Larson describes the flowering of the worship of Isis: ''In short, without Isis there would have been .. no mystery and no hope of an after-life. She became the universal and infinite benefactress of humanity, the eternal protective mother, the queen of earth and heaven." (Rel. of Occident, 9). And when to this is added ''Isis can embrace Venus/Aphrodite as she did Hathor in Egypt. Regarded as Io she could be said to make 'many women what she was to Jupiter:' (Ovid. Ars Amator, I. 78)'' (Witt, 85), we see in her the full expression of the three female attributes described by Jung.
The same ultimate supremacy of the Goddess in polytheism is seen in Eastern religions. Professor Norman Brown writes as follows of the Indian goddess Devi (Parvati): ''The final word in Parvati's history was reached when she was identified by followers with the all-powerful feminine principle considered to be the fundamental and dominant element in the universe. Devi's supreme position among the gods as the first principle of the universe is forcefully affirmed in the Shakta texts .. She is mind and the five material elements .. She is also the supreme and unseconded intelligence and pure Bliss .. She embodies the whole power of creative love, from which everything springs .. To her devotee she is all grace and motherly concern''. (Kramer, Myth. Ancient World, 312-3).
Polytheism, though emphasizing the goddesses, does not suppress the gods. While the former are sources of creation and originators of life, the latter are given an important role as ministers of the goddesses. Thus, in the later Graeco-Roman polytheism, while the goddesses hold control over the attributes of the gods, the gods assist them in the administration of their gifts. Jupiter is still required to assist Juno in government, Apollo to assist the Muses in the arts, Vulcan to assist Minerva in technology, and so on. The positive role played by the god in the male monotheistic religions continues undiminished. Each god, called on to use the special gifts entrusted to him, has his honoured place in the Pantheon. As Margot Adler writes: ''There is a place for the god, but the female as Creatrix is primary." (p. 120).
The current search for matriarchal theologies is proceeding along several lines. Some people are looking for them in the religion of their own upbringing; while retaining the familiar names, iconography, buildings and even certain forms of worship, the theology is feminized. Others, more radical, change to an entirely different religion, either already being practised or in the process of formation. Others prefer to select or to synthesize from the matriarchal elements of all religions.
The theologies presented in this book are, as far as possible, representative of all these types. For convenience, each is listed according to the country of its origin, even though it may later have incorporated elements from outside, or, in its own turn, itself have become established in another country.
The nationalities are listed in the following order, arranged more or less according to the location and to the chronological period in which the religion flourished: General Prehistoric, Chaldean, Syrian, Hebrew, Egyptian, Hittite, Anatolian, Cretan, Graeco-Roman, Hebrew-Greek (including Gnosticism and early Christianity), Persian (including Parseeism), Indian, South-East Asian (including Buddhism), Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Norse, Slavonic, American, Oceanian, Medieval Western, Later Jewish (including Kabalism), Later Jewish Derivatives (including later Christian), Renaissance Western, Modern Western.
In Graeco-Roman literature several cosmogonies are recorded. Hesiod starts with Chaos: ''These things declare unto me from the beginning, ye Muses who dwell in the house of Olympus and tell me which of them came first to be. Verily at the first Chaos came to be". (Theogony. 113). According to Dunbar and Barker's lexicon, Chaos, a neuter noun, has the meaning of ''an immense void or gulf, an abyss, a chasm, a rude shapeless mass; the materials from which the world was made; darkness". Commenting on the meaning of Chaos, Herbert Rose writes: ''This word, which seems literally to mean 'gaping void', apparently does not signify mere empty space; even at that time the Greeks were unlikely to conceive of anything as coming into being out of nothing. Nor does Hesiod say that Chaos had existed from all eternity, for he used the word geneto, 'came into being', a term with which philosophers in later ages made great play. It is his starting point rather than an absolute beginning'. (Greek Myth. 19).
Ovid, in his cosmogony, suggests an origin anterior to Chaos: ''In the beginning, the Sea, the Earth and the Heaven which covers all, was but one Face of Nature thro' the whole Extent of the Universe, which they called Chaos; a rude and undigested Mass ..'' (Metam, I. 5). Here Chaos is only a primeval aspect of an already existing Nature. The feminine noun, Natura, is sometimes used to describe a personified female being, as when Cicero writes: ''Next I have to show that all things are under the sway of nature, and are carried on by her in the most excellent manner"; and he goes on to describe her as ''the sustaining governing principle of the world". (Nat. Deorum, I. 83).
Hyginus, in his short cosmogony, carries us back to a period before the starting point of Hesiod. Chaos itself has a parent, the female Caligo: "From Caligo was born chaos, Ex. Caligine Chaos". (Fabulae, Praef. 1.). White, in his dictionary, defines Caligo as: [perhaps akin to Celo (to hide, conceal)]. A thick atmosphere, a mist, vapour, fog .. Darkness, obscurity". In Greek the equivalent of Caligo is Achlys, ''Mist or Darkness", also personified as a female being in Hesiod (Sc. 264).
The fragmentary Pelasgian cosmogony begins with the primal creatress and demiurge, Eurynome. According to Robert Graves' reconstruction it opens thus: ''In the beginning, Eurynome, the Goddess of all things, rose naked from Chaos". (Greek Myths. I. 27).
The Orphic theology starts with the Mundane Egg from which emerged the god Phanes. According to Grote, ''This egg figures, as might be explained, in the cosmogony set forth by the Airds, Aristophanes. Av. 695. Nyx gives birth to an egg, out of which steps the golden Eros". (Hist. of Greece, I. 16). As Mme. Blavatsky writes: "Among the Greeks the Orphic egg is described by Aristophanes, and was part of the Dionysiac and other mysteries, during which the Mundane Egg was consecrated and its significance explained: Porphyry also showed it to be a representation of the world: 'The Egg expresses (represents) the world'." (S.D. II. 75). The Orphic theogony is thus summarized by Larson: ''At the beginning there was only Night (Nyx); and from this, as in the Egyptian cosmogony, sprang the primeval egg, which contained Eros-Phanes, which was simply another name for Dionysus. When the Egg burst, it separated into two elements, which became Heaven (Uranus) and Earth (Ge).''. (Rel. Occ. 77).
The goddess Gaea or Ge has retained titles and attributes which would suggest that she at one time was regarded as the creative source. She is ''the eldest of them all'' (Hymn. Homer. xxx. 1). As Christine Downing states: ''But there is in Greek mythology a 'great' mother in the background - Gaea, .. Gaea is the mother of the beginning, the mother of infancy. She is the mother who is there before time .. In Freud's terms Gaea is the mother of primal fantasy". (Lady-Unique. V. 24).
On the name Hera, Shuttle and Redgrove write as follows: ''A reasonable derivation from Hesiod and Homer of the name 'Hera' is 'womb', and this interpretation is backed by the fact that she is called panton genethla 'origin of all things', which is the womb. The great goddess's name in most cultures in derivation means 'womb' or 'vulva'; the Goddess in Genetrix .. So Hera's womb is literally panton genethla. Kerenyi .. is our chief source for information on the Hera cults". (The Wise Wound, 179).
The Greeks also had an important visual symbol representing their origin; this was the omphalos or ''navel-stone'' at Delphi, regarded as the centre of the world. The early poet Pindar speaks of ''the central stone of tree-clad Mother-earth'' (Pythian IV. 131). This is later described by Pausanias: ''What is called the Navel (Omphalos) by the Delphians is made of white marble and is said by the Delphians to be the centre of all the earth". (X. xvi, 2). It is significant that the feminine noun Delphi, Hai Delphoi, is etymologically similar to delphys, the womb. On the symbolism of such stones Neumann writes: ''The navel as the centre of the world is archetypal. Characteristically, many shrines are looked upon as navels of the world, as, for example, the Temple (Patai, Man and Temple. pp. 85, 132) at Jerusalem, the sanctuary of Delphi, and so forth. The Earth in a sense is the womb of a reality seen as feminine, the navel and centre from which the universe is nourished. The childlike conception of umbilical birth originates in the archetypal symbolism of the navel's identity with the womb as the feminine centre of life. Cf. the shining white Parthian goddess .. who has not only gleaming eyes but also a radiant navel". (p. 281). Similarly, as Shuttle and Redgrove write: ''The Heraion, the temple of Hera, the cunt-place, was for centuries in ancient Greece 'the sanctuary of the whole country ..' says Carl Kerenyi''. (p. 179). For the etymology of Hera see above.
In general, the Graeco-Roman cosmogonies can be seen as symbolizing female sexual organs and acts. The Chaos, which figures so largely in these traditions, is seen by Mme. Blavatsky as having a physiological connotation. She speaks of ''the human womb, the microscopic copy and reflection of the Heavenly Matrix, the female Space or primeval Chaos'' (S.D. III. 94); and similarly, ''The 'Virgin Egg' is the macroscopic symbol of the microscopic prototype, the 'Virgin Mother' - Chaos or the Primeval Deep." (I. 134).
Go to Part II
Return to God the Mother
Note: This excerpt has been included on the FOI Homepage with permission from the late Lawrence Durdin-Robertsonís family. All rights reserved. Do not copy. Thank you.
All Rights Reserved.