A mother goddess is a goddess who represents, or is a personification of nature, motherhood, fertility, creation, destruction or who embodies the bounty of the Earth. When equated with the Earth or the natural world, such goddesses are sometimes referred to as Mother Earth or as the Earth Mother.
There is difference of opinion between the academic and the popular conception of the term. The popular view is mainly driven by the Goddess movement and reads that primitive societies initially were matriarchal, worshipping a sovereign, nurturing, motherly earth goddess. This was based upon the nineteenth-century ideas of unilineal evolution of Johann Jakob Bachofen. According to the academic view, however, both Bachofen and the modern Goddess theories are a projection of contemporary world views on ancient myths, rather than attempting to understand the mentalité of that time. Often this is accompanied by a desire for a lost civilization from a bygone era that would have been just, peaceful and wise. However, it is highly unlikely that such a civilization ever existed.
For a long time, feminist authors advocated that these peaceful, matriarchal agrarian societies were exterminated or subjugated by nomadic, patriarchal warrior tribes. An important contribution to this was that of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Her work in this field is now however largely rejected. Also with feminist archaeologists this vision is nowadays considered highly controversial.
Since the sixties of the twentieth century, especially in popular culture, the alleged worship of the mother goddess and the social position that women in prehistoric societies supposedly assumed, were linked. This made the debate a political one. According to the goddess movement, the current male-dominated society should return to the egalitarian matriarchy of earlier times. That this form of society ever existed was supposedly supported by many figurines that were found.
In academic circles, this prehistoric matriarchy is considered unlikely. Firstly, worshiping a mother goddess does not necessarily mean that women ruled society. In addition, the figurines can also portray ordinary women or goddesses, and it is unclear whether there really ever was a mother goddess.
Between 1961 and 1965 James Mellaart led a series of excavations at Çatalhöyük, north of the Taurus Mountains in a fertile agricultural region of South-Anatolia. Striking were the many statues found here, which Mellaart suggested represented a Great goddess, who headed the pantheon of an essentially matriarchal culture. A seated female figure, flanked by what Mellaart describes as lionesses, was found in a grain-bin; she may have intended to protect the harvest and grain. He considered the sites as shrines, with especially the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük capturing the imagination. There was also a large number of sexless figurines, which Mellaart regarded as typical for a society dominated by women: emphasis on sex in art is invariably connected with male impulse and desire. The idea that there could have been a matriarchy and a cult of the mother goddess was supported by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. This gave rise to a modern cult of the Mother Goddess with annual pilgrimages being organized at Çatalhöyük.
Since 1993, excavations were resumed, now headed by Ian Hodder with Lynn Meskell as head of the Stanford Figurines Project that examined the figurines of Çatalhöyük. This team came to different conclusions than Gimbutas and Mellaart. Only a few of the figurines were identified as female and these figurines were found not so much in sacred spaces, but seemed to have been discarded randomly, sometimes in garbage heaps. This rendered a cult of the mother goddess in this location as unlikely.
In Hinduism, Durga represents the feminine aspect and the shakti (energy/power) of the One God (The Brahman), as well as the empowering and protective nature of motherhood. From her forehead sprang Kali, who defeated Durga's enemy, Shumbh. Kali (the feminine form of Kaala" i.e. "time") is the primordial energy as power of Time, literally, the "creator or doer of time"—her first manifestation. After time, she manifests as "space", as Tara, from which point further creation of the material universe progresses. The divine Mother, Devi Adi parashakti, manifests herself in various forms, representing the universal creative force. She becomes Mother Nature (Mula Prakriti), who gives birth to all life forms as plants, animals, and such from Herself, and she sustains and nourishes them through her body, that is the earth with its animal life, vegetation, and minerals. Ultimately she re-absorbs all life forms back into herself, or "devours" them to sustain herself as the power of death feeding on life to produce new life. She also gives rise to Maya (the illusory world) and to prakriti, the force that galvanizes the divine ground of existence into self-projection as the cosmos. The Earth itself is manifested by Adi parashakti. Hindu worship of the divine Mother can be traced back to pre-vedic, prehistoric India.
The form of Hinduism known as Shaktism is strongly associated with Samkhya, and Tantra Hindu philosophies and ultimately, is monist. The primordial feminine creative-preservative-destructive energy, Shakti, is considered to be the motive force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos. The cosmos itself is purusha, the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, the "world soul". This masculine potential is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately all manifestations of the One Great Mother. Mother Maya or Shakti, herself, can free the individual from demons of ego, ignorance, and desire that bind the soul in maya (illusion). Practitioners of the Tantric tradition focus on Shakti to free themselves from the cycle of karma.
New religious movements
Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) believe in, but do not worship, a Heavenly Mother, the wife and female counterpart of the Heavenly Father. This belief is not emphasized, however, and typically, adherents pray to the "Father in Heaven".
The Mother Goddess, or Great Goddess, is a composite of various feminine deities from past and present world cultures, worshiped by modern Wicca and others broadly known as Neopagans. She is considered sometimes identified as a Triple Goddess, who takes the form of Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes. She is described as Mother Earth, Mother Nature, or the Creatress of all life. She is associated with the full moon and stars, the Earth, and the sea. In Wicca, the Earth Goddess is sometimes called Gaia. The name of the mother goddess varies depending on the Wiccan tradition.
Carl Gustav Jung suggested that the archetypal mother was a part of the collective unconscious of all humans, and various Jungian students, e.g. Erich Neumann and Ernst Whitmont, have argued that such mother imagery underpins many mythologies, and precedes the image of the paternal "father", in such religious systems. Such speculations help explain the universality of such mother goddess imagery around the world.
- Balter, M., (2005): The Goddess and the Bull, Free Press
- Feder, K.L. (2010): Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology. From Atlantis to the Walam Olum, Greenwood
- Gimbutas, M. (1989): The Language of the Goddess, Thames & Hudson
- Gimbutas, M. (1991): The Civilization of the Goddess
- Hodder, I. (2010): Religion in the Emergence of Civilization. Çatalhöyük as a Case Study, Cambridge University Press
- James, S.L.; Dillon, S. (ed.), (2012): A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, Wiley-Blackwell
- Mellaart, J., (1967): Catal Huyuk. A Neolithic Town in Anatolia, McGraw-Hill
- Monaghan, P. (2014): Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines, New World Library
- Motz, L. (1997): The Faces of the Goddess, Oxford University Press
- Singh, U. (2008): A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Education India
- Smith, A.C. (2007): Powerful Mysteries. Myth and Politics in Virginia Woolf, ProQuest
- Wesler, K.W. (2012): An Archaeology of Religion, University Press of America
- The idea of the Mother Goddess, also called the Great Mother or Great Goddess, has dominated the imaginations of modern scholars in several fields. The image of the Mother Goddess with which we are familiar today has its modern genesis in the writings of Johann Jakob Bachofen. In 1861 Bachofen published his famous study Das Mutterrecht in which he developed his theory that human society progressed from hetaerism, characterized by unrestricted sexual relations, to matriarchy, in which women ruled society, and finally to the most advanced stage, patriarchy. Bachofen conceived of religious practice as progressing in a parallel manner from a belief in a mother goddess to a more advanced belief in a father god, associating belief in a mother deity with a primitive stage in the development of human society: “Wherever we encounter matriarchy, it is bound up with the mystery of the chthonian religion, whether it invokes Demeter or is embodied by an equivalent goddess” (Bachofen, 88). Bachofen believed that the matriarchal form of social organization derived from the maternal mystery religions (88-9).
As we see with Bachofen, modern theories of the Mother Goddess have inevitably been shaped by modern cultural presuppositions about gender. Lynn Roller believes that “[m]any discussions of the Mother Goddess rely on modern projections ought to be, rather than on ancient evidence defining what she was” (Roller, 9). William Ramsay, the late nineteenth-century archaeologist, who was the first researcher to demonstrate that the principal deity of Phrygia was a mother goddess, drew heavily on Bachofen's theory (Roller, 12). Like Bachofen's, Ramsay's understanding of the national character of matriarchal pre-Phrygian society is based on contestable evidence and relies on stereotypically feminine characteristics; he describes matriarchal pre-Phrygian society as “receptive and passive, not self-assertive and active” (12). For Ramsay, this “feminine” character explains why this culture was conquered by the masculine, warlike Phrygians with their male deities. Thus, constructions of ancient matriarchal societies, which are inseparable from “a glorification of the female element in human life” (12), are suspiciously similar to modern stereotypes of the feminine that are not necessarily native to pre-Phrygian culture. Given these observations, Bachofen's repeated emphasis on the necessity of freeing oneself from the cultural prejudices of one's own time if one is to truly understand these ancient cultures takes on an ironic tone. It is not only Bachofen and Ramsay, but many others after them, who assume the stereotypical femininity of the Mother Goddess. Many of these conceptions of what a mother goddess ought to be stem from “the Judaeo-Christian image of the loving, nurturing mother subservient to her husband and closely bonded with her children” (Roller, 9). Smith (2007)
- At one time, scholars tended to use the 'Mother Goddess' label for all female figurines found at sites. This was largely because of the belief that the worship of fertility goddesses was an important part of agricultural societies all over the world, and also due to a tendency to look at ancient remains through the lens of later-day Hinduism, in which goddess worship had an important place. However, scholars are now increasingly aware of the stylistic and technical differences among assemblages of female figurines. Further, all goddesses need not have been part of a single goddess cult, and not all ancient goddesses were necessarily associated with maternity.
In the light of such problems, the term 'Mother Goddess' should be replaced by the longer but more neutral phrase— 'female figurines with likely cultic significance.' This does not mean that none of these figurines might have had a religious or cultic significance. It is indeed possible that some were either images that were worshipped or votive offerings that were part of some domestic cult or ritual. However, not all female figurines necessarily had such a function. Whether we are looking at human or animal figurines, in all cases, their possible significance or function has to be assessed, and cannot be assumed. Apart from their form, the context in which they were found is crucial. Singh (2008) p. 130
- A popular undercurrent in fringe archaeology concerns the ostensible presence of a lost civilization hidden somewhere in the proverbial dim mists of time. This lost civilization is usually portrayed as having been amazingly and precociously advanced, possessing technological skills as yet still not developed even by our modern civilization and paranormal capacities of which we are not even aware. This lost civilization (or civilizations) is usually presented as the mother culture of all subsequent, historically known civilizations, having passed down their knowledge to them. The lost civilization was, tragically, destroyed, through either a natural cataclysm or some catastrophic technological mishap, and has been somehow hidden from us. Feder (2010)
- There isn't a scintilla of physical evidence that anything of the kind occurred. There is no archaeological evidence of a supersophisticated civilization 10000 years ago—no gleaming cities, no factories powered by Earth energies [...] Feder (2010)
- There is another popular view of figurines, which may be summed up as the “Mother Goddess” issue. The idea of the ascendancy of the Mother Goddess as the primeval deity can be traced back to nineteenth century culture theory, endorsed by Freud and Jung (Parker Pearson 1999:99-100; Talalay 1991), if not before. The modern manifestation was given a huge impetus in the work of Marija Gimbutas (1974, 1989, 1991). To reduce Gimbutas's argument to simplicity, she viewed early Neolithic society as egalitarian, matrifocal, matrilineal, and focused on worshipping a Mother Goddess (Tringham 1993), as evidenced by females figurines found in Neolithic sites in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean region.
Few archaeologists support her notion for a number of reasons (Meskell 1995; Tringham 1993, for example). They maintain that the Mother Goddess is an assumption, not a theory, and certainly not a demonstrated thesis. The critics argue that Gimbutas is blending modern myth, feminist ideology, and psychological theory unsupported by clinical research to impose the Mother Goddess archetype on past societies. [...]
Gimbutas's own work included excavations at Achilleion (Thessaly). Reviewers of that work (McPherron 1991; Runnels 1990) find problems with the sample size (four 5 x 5 m test units on the slope of a tell), use of dating methods, lack of explanation of field methodology, recording systems or lack thereof, omission of clear criteria for discerning interior versus exterior contexts, typology, statistics---it is hard to find a part of this work not negatively critiqued. Wesler (2012), pp. 65–66.
- In her book The Faces of the Goddess from 1997, Motz negated the popular theory of the archetypal fertility cult of the Mother Goddess which supposedly would have existed prior to the rise of patriarchy and the oppression of women.
- We begin with an issue that is foundational to the modern study of women in the ancient world, namely the Mother Goddess. As Lauren Talalay demonstrates in Case Study I (“The Mother Goddess in Prehistory: Debates and Perspectives”), there was a desire among scholars, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, to locate a period in the distant past in which women were not secondary, when female power was celebrated, and when an overarching Mother Goddess was the primary divinity. This myth continues to have great appeal, as witnessed in “goddess-tourism” in the Mediterranean even today. While it is no longer an active scholarly theory, the issue of the Mother Goddess continues to be an exemplar for the problems of studying women in antiquity: mysterious images disembodied from their contexts, multiple scholarly biases and motivations, and conflicting interpretations of the scanty and fragmentary evidence. James; Dillon (2012)
- Worship of a nurturing Mother Goddess who oversees cosmological creation, fertility, and death does not necessarily entail or reflect a pacific matriarchy and female power in society. Talalay in James; Dillon (2012)
- Let me be perfectly clear about my own position: the maternal Great Goddess is a fantasy, a powerful fantasy with an astonishing capacity to resist criticism. Loraux in Duby, G.; Perrot, M. (1994)
- It may be impossible to ever prove one way or the other that a Great Goddess existed in prehistory. As the essays that follow suggest, what is more likely is that interpretations of female deities, their intersection with the roles of women in antiquity, and the place of these debates in modern society will be rewritten many times in the future. Talalay in James, S.L.; Dillon, S. (2012)
- Goddesses of the prime of life are often described as mother goddesses, although that term is questionable, given that the goddesses may not be maternal in any conventional sense. For instance, the single child of Cybele was conceived upon her while she was in the form of a rock and was never reared by her (see Southeastern Europe). Similarly, the eastern Mediterranean goddess Ninlil gave birth by making images of people from clay, as did the Chinese goddess Nüwa. The distinction between mother goddess and creatrix is often difficult to locate. In the Pacific, the goddess Papa both created the earth and gave birth to the gods.
The role of goddess as creatrix is common among goddesses, who can create by some other mechanism than birth, as Inuit Aakuluujjusi did when she threw her clothing on the ground, which walked away as animals. Monaghan (2014)
- Mellaart (1967), 180-181
- Mellaart (1967)
- As an example, the publication by Meskell et al. (2008) of detailed data on the figurines from the site has transformed our understanding of these objects. In much earlier work and writing on the site, including by Mellaart, these objects were seen as representational and as religious, relating to a cult of the mother goddess. The work of the figurine team has thoroughly undermined this interpretation. In fact, when properly quantified, few of the figurines are clearly female. In addition, examination of their context of deposition shows that the objects are not in 'special' locations, but were discarded, often in middens. A study of the fabric of the figurines by Chris Doherty (pers. comm.) has shown that they are made of local marls and that they are unfired or low fired. Many have survived only because they were accidentally burned in hearths and fires. Thus all the evidence suggests that these objects were not in a separate religious sphere. Rather, it was the process of their daily production – not their contemplation as religious symbols – that was important. They gave meaning, at the everyday, low-intensity level, to subjectivities and to the social world that they helped imagine. Hodder (2010)
- Smith, Joseph F. (1909). Man: Origin and Destiny. pp. 348–355.
- "Sage Woman" magazine Issue 79 Autumn 2010--special issue "Connecting to Gaia"
- Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E. "Women in the Stone Age". Essay: The Venus of Willendorf. Retrieved March 13, 2008.
- Media related to Mother goddesses at Wikimedia Commons