One of the most intriguing and controversial subjects in history is the role of the goddess in prehistoric and historic periods. Did our ancient ancestors worship a mother goddess? Were the first deities female? These questions are emotionally charged ones given today's monotheistic religions, where the Jewish, Christian and Islam deity is a male. Is it iconoclastic to the established patriarchal monotheistic religious culture of today to suggest that the original creator god was a woman, a creatrix? Archaeologists over the past generations have uncovered thousands of stone, clay and metal goddesses or female figures. Hardly any of these extant figurines are male. These numerous goddess figurines from archaeological sites have usually been summarily dismissed as "mere" fertility figures by both male and female scholars. The tiny three-inch figure named the Venus of Villendorf demonstrates this. She was found in the nineteenth century, when European Victorian male society prevailed. It was given a moniker that is still attached to this female figurine. To date much if not most of the scholarly writings have not given these feminine artifacts or the ensuing scholarly exploration on them legitimate discipline status. However, the preponderance of evidence so far proves that goddess worship is older than god worship. Marija Gimbutas, a famous archaeologist now deceased, has written extensively on her archaeological discoveries in Eastern Europe. She postulated that there was a time when the world worshiped a female creatrix. However, Marija Gimbutas has not achieved the recognition she deserves. She has clearly documented overwhelming evidence to substantiate goddess worship is older than god worship. Is this then a threat to monotheistic religions that worship a male deity? How did the world come about?
Humans have apparently always wrestled with how the world, including people, animals, and plants were created. All early societies had creation myths. All world societies have creation stories to explain their origins. Many have bodily and deadly clashes between the competing genders for primacy. A close reading of the oldest of these myths clearly describes the creation role of a female goddess. In the oldest civilization in the world, ancient Mesopotamia, their creation story Enuma Elish relates where a later Babylonian deity, Marduk, gains supremacy over the mother goddess, Tiamat, by killing her, and using her body parts to create humans. A similar creation story comes from ancient Greece, where the mother goddess, Gaia, is killed by Apollo, and he took over her sanctuary and the center of the world at Delphi.
Creation legends in ancient Egypt are more complicated. In prehistoric Egypt there was more than one creation myth. Goddess Nekhebet held supremacy in Upper Egypt and she was symbolized as a vulture. In Lower Egypt, another supreme goddess, Ua Zit, was symbolized by the great serpent or cobra. From about 3000 b.c.e. the goddess known as Nut, Net or Nit, which probably derived from Kekhebet, created all that had come into being. Nut placed Ra, the Sun god, in the sky. A proclamation on the Temple of Nut remarked: “I am what is, what will be, and what has been. No man uncovered my nakedness, and the fruit of my birthing was the sun. Many artistic renderings of Nut swallowing the sun are illustrated in ancient Egypt tombs and papyri. Other texts of Egypt tell of the goddess Hathor in the role of Creatrix and she also took the form of a serpent at times.
In addition to creation myths, numerous cultures have attempted to explain the meaning of death, resurrection, and life after death, including cataclysmic floods. In all these legends, women deities were important cornerstones to these explanations. We are most familiar with the one in the Bible where a man, Noah, is directed by Yahweh to save him and the animals. In Aztec mythology, the water goddess, Chalchihuitlicue or Goddess of the Jade Petticoat was responsible for the flood that encompassed the world in the last age, and she made provisions for the chosen to survive by building a bridge from the fourth world to the fifth world. Native American myths relate flood and creation legends placing a female in the key protagonist role.
Throughout the written historical record, various titles or names have been attributed to this female creator or creatrix: great goddess, divine ancestress, mother goddess, queen of heaven and earth. These goddesses, as part of their attributes, acted as guardians of safe childbirth, the source of wisdom, dispenser of healing, lady of beasts, fount of prophecy, the spirit who presided over death, and guarantor or fertility symbol of crops, animals and humans.
Artifactual evidence of female figurines placed in sacred settings date from 35,000-25,000 b.c.e, and traces of these types of figures are found from Siberia to Southern Africa, from India to Ireland, and even in the new world. One of the oldest is from the Czech Republic. Rock Carvings from Lausell, France date from 22,000 b.c.e. From twelve thousand years ago in the beginning of the neolithic period, there are many more extant artifacts giving evidence of women's place in the oldest form of religious rituals. Eventually these sacred settings turned into formal shrines, goddess temples. At the largest neolithic site so far partially excavated, Catal Huyuk in modern Turkey, there are at least forty major shrines to the goddess in three incarnations of maiden, mother and wise woman going back to c. 8000 b.c.e. Later on in history, when the Hittites entered Asia Minor, circa 2000-1800 b.c.e. artifactual evidence from that Indo-European culture shows a goddess seated on a backless throne like at Catal Huyuk, which reinforces the mother goddess concept. Anne Baring in her chapter on "Cybele: Great Goddess of Anatolia and Rome" in the book entitled The Myth of the Goddess traces Cybele from the neolithic period circa 7000 b.c.e. through the iron age into the Christian centuries, and it is remarkable how unchanging her image is. LOTS MORE ON CYBELE IN MY NOTES In the writings of the neoplatonist Roman Emperor, Julian, in ad 363 he wrote: "Who is then the mother of the gods? She [Cybele] is the source of the intellectual and creative gods...she is both the mother and the spouse of the mighty Zeus; she came into being next to and together with the great creator; she is in control of every form of life..."
In Jericho the first shrines to a mother goddess date from circa 7000 b.c.e. Many psychologists now relate that the belief in a mother goddess is an inevitable part in the maturing stage of human society; they are not simply goddesses of fertility. In these earliest of times, what people could actually see was that it was only women that produced life, and by extension they might have thought that men had nothing to do with it. The well-known scholar H.W. F. Skaggs, in his book Civilization Before Greece and Rome, states that the mother goddess represented the female principle that dominated all life, and was probably the oldest divine power of all; and probably already implicit in prehistoric fertility figures."
Earliest written records regarding the worship of a mother goddess date to circa 4000 b.c.e. This is in present-day Iraq, the ancient Sumerian culture at Uruk in the Mesopotamia region. By 3000 b.c.e. mother goddesses appear everywhere in the known world in statues, shrines and written records. Later written evidence shows that these goddesses served a variety of purposes as stated previously.
The earliest goddesses were faceless as if to accentuate their universality. Lacking feet, some of these goddess figurines appeared to be coming straight out of the earth, literally the mother earth concept. Many of these female figures were naked and big breasted with ample buttocks and belly. Were women this large then or did these figurines depict an insurance there would be plentiful human, animals and crops. What about the slender figure whose pubic area was emphasized? Sometimes the female is pregnant, sometimes she is giving birth, and sometimes she is nursing a child. Therefore it appears that three aspects of the goddess or female figure were represented, and what scholars now refer to as the maiden, mother, and crone or wise woman. In other representations, female figures of goddesses appear in a regal pose, often holding or supported by animals such as leopards, lions, or snakes. In this queenly pose she sometimes is wearing a crown or a least jewelry. Many times she is painted with red ocher, thought by scholars to signify the menstrual cycle. An interesting practice found in ancient Greece, it was the custom of mixing the menstrual blood with seed when planting to provide the best possible growing ground.
When the first cities were forming in Mesopotamia, writing and surveying were essential to their survival economically. In ancient Sumer, considered the oldest civilization in world history, the goddess Nidaba or Nisaba was given credit for the invention of clay tablets and the art of writing. Nidaba became the goddess over wisdom, and the great teacher who gave advice everywhere, including endowing the king with wisdom. An ancient hymn states: "Nisaba, the woman radiant with joy, faithful woman, scribe, lady who knows everything guided your fingers onto the clay, embellished the writing on the tablets, made the hand resplendent with the golden stylus, the measuring rod, the gleaming surveyor's line, the cubit ruler which gives wisdom Nisaba lavishly bestowed on you." Nisaba was also the deity who made cities possible: "the place which you do not establish, there humankind is not established, cities are not built." The earliest examples of writing so far discovered were business accounts in the Temple of the Queen of Heaven in Erech in ancient Sumer. In India, the goddess Sarasvatia was the inventor of the original alphabet.
Not generally accepted is the idea that there was an older script that predated Sumerian and Egyptian hieroglyphics by two thousands years, what Marija Gimbutas in her latest book, The Living Goddesses, calls the "Old European Script." She has taken pictures of this "script" from seals, vases, loom weights, figurines, spindle whorls, pendants, miniature pots, dishes, and temple models. For Marija this script held religious significance. She further states that there are parallels between this script and Linear A found on Crete during the Minoan culture, and classical Cypriot scripts. When the Indo-European migrations occurred in the late fifth to early third millennia b.c.e., discontinuity occurred for the linguistic and cultural aspects.
Important misconceptions regarding the gender of the sun and moon deities need to be understood. We have been continually told that the sun was always worshipped as a male god, while the moon was revered as a female deity. Yet there are enough accounts of world mythological tales to state emphatically that this is not true. Ancient people in Canaan, Anatolia, Arabia, and Australia worshipped a sun goddess. Additionally, the Eskimos, Japanese, and Khasis of India worshipped their female sun goddess, who was usually accompanied by a subordinate brother symbolized as the moon god. Another false myth that has been perpetuated has been that the earth is a mother and the heaven is a father. Yet nearly all female deities of the Near and Middle East had a goddess entitled “Queen of Heaven.” In ancient Egypt not only was the ancient goddess, Nut, known as the goddess of the Heavens, but her brother/husband Geb symbolized the earth.
Further fascinating facets are the numerous symbols relating to the mother goddess or female goddesses. These symbols imply a universality that is too striking to be denied. One of the most common goddess symbols is the serpent. Why this was chosen in the far distant past can only be conjectured, but perhaps it was because the serpent or snake sheds its skin and appears to be reborn. Regeneration or new birth is definitely what happens to plants, animals and humans, and the mother goddess was thought responsible. In ancient Crete, the Minoans’ goddess figure carries snakes in her hands, and in Egypt before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, the cobra was the symbol of the goddess. When Eve in the Old Testament is tempted by the serpent, many scholars think the writers of the Bible were determined to denigrate the worship of the prominent snake goddess.
Another early icon is the cow. In ancient Egypt Hathor, the chief rival to the most important female deity, Isis, is shown with three different cow icons. Sometimes Hathor is a full-grown cow and a pharaoh child is nursing from her, other times she is a woman with cow ears, as shown on the capitals of the columns at Philae, and other times she just has the moon or sun disc protected on her head by two cow horns. When the icon of two cow horns is depicted, it could also symbolize the horned head of a bull. These two symbols suggest a stylized uterus with fallopian tubes. Whether these icons are a bull or cows horned head, they dominated temples and tombs for thousands of years.
Bears, bulls, deer, reindeer, doves, leopards, lions, owls, and butterflies all bear witness to symbols of the female deity, and represent the various goddess figures throughout the world. Butterflies are considered symbols of metamorphosis, thus transformative or regenerative powers of the goddess. On Crete numerous butterflies or double-headed axes appear on vases, walls, and free-standing symbols, attesting to this important goddess symbol. In Greek, labrys means double ax, which connects with the labyrinth myth. The double ax was never depicted in the hands of a male god. At the megalithic site in England, Stonehenge, double headed axes are carved on the great saracen stones. Was this evidence of goddess worship? Mother Russia from the earliest time has been immortalized by the bear. The Greek and Roman goddess Artemis or Diana was goddess of the hunt.
The perennial wisdom symbol, the owl, has been utilized for thousands of years; maybe first by Adam's mythical first wife, Lilith, the ancient Mesopotamia goddess Inanna, Athena, as the reigning goddess of ancient Athens, and Sophia in the Old Testament. Lilith, according to the Jewish Talmud, was also the harbinger of evil. After she left Adam, she began her nefarious adventures. The most famous goddess connected with the owl was Athena, the Greek deity of wisdom, war, and the patron deity of the city of Athens.
Nammu, goddess of the sea from ancient Sumer, was given responsibility for creating the universe by giving birth to heaven and earth apparently unaided. Then as happened continually in the ancient cultures, another deity would become the primary one. Inanna, in the same Fertile Crescent region became the most important goddess, and took the attributes originally attributed to Nammu. None rivaled Inanna, and she had many hymns composed to her as "Queen of Heaven." When the Semitic Akkadians took over the region from the Sumerians, Inanna's name changed to Ishtar. Ishtar added the goddess of war title to her Queen of Heaven one. Canaanites in the Near East called this same mother goddess Astarte, and in the Old Testament, she became Ashtoreth or Asherah.
The triple spiral motif or three aspects of the goddess also reinforce this strong presence of goddess worship. In the prehistoric site at New Grange in Ireland, spirals, lozenges, owls and snakes, all symbolically convey the belief in a mother goddess. When the Celts resided in Europe and later moved to Ireland, their belief in the trinity continued this millennium plus worship pattern. In Christianity the trinity aspect was utilized, but it was not unique to this religion's belief. Folklorists state that the triad, three or trinity concept was a comfortable symbol. In Egypt the trinity was Osiris, Isis and their son Horus. Scholars point out that the iconography for Mary and Jesus came from of Isis and Horus.
One of the attributes of the mother goddess was her sexual nature. There was a major ritual called the sacred marriage rite that was connected to her. How far back in prehistoric times it goes we do not know, but it is extremely old. In most cultures the goddess was always unmarried and never chaste, so her role as a good mother was reconciled with her sexual nature by establishing this "sacred marriage rite." A king or ruler of the area was chosen to have sexual relations with the priestess, who represented the goddess. This priestess was given the title, holy woman or woman of high rank. Later in history this term was denigrated to ritual prostitution. Besides this rite, in most all cultures, the mother goddess had many lovers according to the mythologies. Here too certain conditions were applicable. Her lover was always inferior to her, he was mortal where she was immortal, and he was young where she was ageless. Additionally she was all-powerful and he was powerless. Frequently her lover was represented as her younger brother or son. As the brother, son, or lover was mortal, his death was necessary after the consummation.1 As death was too severe, gradually substitute offerings were incorporated like castration, plus sacrificing children and animals not men. Even doll-figures of men were used. When the formal worship of the father god concept ensued, the myth of the mother goddess and her son-lover did not die out for it persisted in various forms in Egypt, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Greece, and Rome, finding new expression in the mystery cults of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and ultimately in Christianity. Myths in various cultures give his name as Damuzi, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, and Baal. If we put these masculine names with their feminine consorts then we have Aphrodite and Adonis, and Cybele and Attis to name a few. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the fate of the lovers of the great goddess was well known when the king, Gilgamesh, himself offered resistance: "Which of your lovers did you love forever? What shepherd of yours pleased you for all time...and if you and I should be lovers, should not I be served in the same fashion as all these others whom you loved once?" Later in ancient Mesopotamian history, when the Akkadians supplanted the Sumerians, Innana was known as Ishtar. In a powerful poem, The Descent of Ishtar, when Ishtar was trapped in the netherworld: "bull springs not upon a cow, ass impregnates not a jenny, in the street, a man impregnates not a maiden, man lies down in his own chamber, maiden lies down on her side."
This sexual characteristic was anathema to the nineteenth century Victoria cultures of England and America, and even the rest of Europe. Consequently, the reputation of this goddess was greatly maligned, and scholars of the past called the sexual activity of the goddess as: "improper, unbearably aggressive, embarrassingly void of morals," while the male deities who raped or seduced women were "playful, virile." This sexual nature of the mother goddess juxtaposed to her sacred divinity title so confused one scholar that he gave her the perplexing title, "virgin-harlot."
Sometime in the mid third millennium b.c.e., the role and power of the supreme goddesses in the ancient Near East decreased with the advent of stronger male deities. This is Gerda Lerner's thesis in her Creation of Patriarchy. Some scholars ascribe this demotion of the goddess to the invasion of the Indo-Europeans, who worshipped a young warrior or storm god or a supreme father god. The male deity was most often portrayed as a storm god, whose residence was on a mountain top. In some areas this god was added to the mother goddess as a husband, as in Anatolia where the storm god Taru and the sun goddess Arinna united; and in Greece where Hera, who was the older deity, obtained a husband, Zeus. In some legends the male deity was a rebellious young man who heroically destroyed the older female deity as referenced in Old Babylonian culture with the young god, Marduk, killing the older goddess, Tiamat. In many of these newer myths of male power, the female deity is symbolized as a serpent or dragon, which was often associated with the concepts of darkness and evil.
If we look closely at the art and iconography of ancient times, it is fascinating how much of their goddess imagery has survived and been accepted by monotheistic religions. Most standard works on these monotheistic religions fail to acknowledge this. Most of the important female goddesses are virgins, many are virgin mothers, and many have an important son whom they are shown nursing. All ancient cultures except for the Hebrews gave supernatural powers to goddesses.
Similarity of statutes, titles, and symbols throughout the world imply that the most important original deity was a woman. Poet, writer, and mythologist Robert Graves in his White Goddess states: "...the whole of neolithic Europe, to judge from surviving artifacts and myths had remarkably homogenous system of religious ideas based on many titled mother goddess...the great goddess regarded as immortal, changeless, omnipotent; and concept of fatherhood had not yet been introduced into religious thought."
Later on in history when male gods became the creators, it is strange how they accomplished creation: masturbation like Ptah in Egypt, out of the head like Zeus birthing Athena, carving up the goddess Tiamut's body to create mankind by the Babylonian god, Marduk, and through thought like Yahweh. Scholars are for the most part very conservative. They do not want to step out on a limb, in case others in the scholarly community cut the limb off the tree. Feminine scholars like Marija Gimbutas, Gerda Lerner, and Margaret Ehrenberg have come under scrutiny and excoriation for their new theories, postulating a more important role for goddesses. While women's history for many is an oxymoron, enough scholars are now doing women's history that their research will investigate all of these salient points.
In the West the last goddess temple was closed circa 500 c.e. by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian. This was the temple to Isis, and is now on the Island of Philae in Egypt. In the east there are still numerous worship sites to goddesses. From the Far East in China where the compassionate mother goddess Kuan Yin is worshipped to the west where the Virgin Mary is revered, the sense of oneness with the mother goddess concept resonates.
1 as late as the nineteenth century the Bantu kingdoms of Africa had only queens without princes or consorts. These female rulers took slaves or commoners as lovers and then tortured and beheaded them. In areas where kingship established African queens had the power to condemn the king to death.