mother goddesses

Mother goddess

A mother goddess is a goddess, often portrayed as the Earth Mother, who serves as a general fertility deity, the bountiful embodiment of the Earth. As such, not all goddesses should be viewed as manifestations of the mother goddess. This goddess is depicted in Western traditions in many variations, from the rock-cut images of Cybele to Dione ("the Goddess")who was invoked at Dodona along with Zeus, until late Classical times. In the Homeric Hymns (7-6 century BC) there is a hymn to the mother goddess called "Hymn to Gaia, Mother of All". The Sumerians wrote many erotic poems about their mother goddess Ninhursag (Sex & Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, G, Leick, Routledge, 2003).


Clearly, deities fitting the modern conception of the "Mother Goddesses" as a type have been revered in many societies through to modern times. James Frazer (author of The Golden Bough) and those he influenced (such as Robert Graves and Marija Gimbutas) advanced the theory that all worship in Europe and the Aegean that involved any kind of mother goddess had originated in Pre-Indo-European neolithic matriarchies, and that their diverse goddesses were equivalent or derived from that concept.

Although the type has been well accepted as a useful category for mythography, the idea that all such goddesses were believed in ancient times to be interchangeable has been countered in 1968 by archaeologist Peter Ucko, who proposes instead that the many images found in graves and archaeological sites of these ancient cultures were toys.

Paleolithic figures

Several small, corpulent figures have been found during archaeological excavations of the Upper Paleolithic, the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps, being the most famous. It is estimated to have been carved 24,000–22,000 BCE. Some archaeologists believe they were intended to represent goddesses, while others believe that they could have served some other purpose. These figurines predate the available records of the goddesses listed below as examples by many thousands of years, so although they seem to conform to the same generic type, it is not clear whether they, indeed, were representations of a goddess or that, if they are, there was any continuity of religion that connects them with Middle Eastern and Classical deities.

The Paleolithic period extends from 2.5 million years ago to the introduction of agriculture around 10,000 BCE. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans migrated to the Western Hemisphere before the end of the Paleolithic. It is the prehistoric era distinguished by the development of stone tools, and covers the greatest portion of humanity's time on Earth.

Neolithic figures

Diverse images of Mother Goddesses also have been discovered that date from the Neolithic period, the New Stone Age, which ranges from approximately 10,000 BCE when the use of wild cereals led to the beginning of farming, and eventually, to agriculture. The end of this Neolithic period is characterized by the introduction of metal tools as the skill appeared to spread from one culture to another, or arise independently as a new phase in an existing tool culture, and eventually became widespread among humans. Regional differences in the development of this stage of tool development are quite varied. In other parts of the world, such as Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, independent domestication events led to their own regionally-and distinctive Neolithic cultures arose independently in Europe and Southwest Asia. During this time, native cultures appear in the Western Hemisphere, arising out of older traditions that were carried during migration. Regular seasonal occupation or permanent settlements begin to be seen in excavations. Herding and keeping of cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs is evidenced along with the presence of dogs.

Almost without exception, images of what are interpreted as Mother Goddesses have been discovered in all of these cultures.

Examples of the mother goddess type of deity

There is no dispute that many ancient cultures worshipped female deities who match the modern conception of a "mother goddess" as part of their pantheons. The following are examples.


Mother goddesses are present in the earliest images discovered among the archaeological finds in Ancient Egypt. One figure of a deity, depicted standing between two lionesses, exists among those on one of the earliest paintings found among the Naqada Culture.

An association with animals seen as good mothers—the lioness, cow, hippopotamus, white vulture, cobra, scorpion, and cat—as well as the life-giving primordial waters, the sun, and the night sky and the earth herself—is drawn to the early goddesses of Egypt.

Even through the transition to a paired pantheon of male deities matched or "married" to each goddess, reached a later male deity dominated pantheon that arose much later, the mother goddesses persisted into historical times (such as Hathor and Isis). Advice from the oracles associated with these goddesses guided the rulers of Egypt and the tradition spread to other ancient cultures.

The image of Isis nursing her son was worshipped into the sixth century A.D. and has been resurrected by contemporary "cults" of an Earth Mother. Some suggest that the reverence for the mother of Jesus took the place of the worship of Isis that could not be suppressed, including incorporating the imagery associated with Hathor-Isis from three thousand years before Christianity.

Sumerian, Mesopotamian, and Greek

Tiamat in Sumerian mythology, Ishtar (Inanna), and Ninsun in Mesopotamia, Asherah in Canaan, `Ashtart in Syria, and Aphrodite in Greece, for example.


The Irish goddess Anu, sometimes known as Danu, has an impact as a mother goddess, judging from the Dá Chích Anann near Killarney, County Kerry. Irish literature names the last and most favored generation of deities as "the people of Danu" (Tuatha de Dannan).


In the 1st century BC, Tacitus recorded rites amongst the Germanic tribes focused on the female goddess Nerthus, whom he calls Terra Mater, 'Mother Earth'. Prominent in these rites was the procession of the goddess in a wheeled vehicle through the countryside. Among the seven or eight tribes said to worship her, Tacitus lists the Anglii and the Longobardi. A nearly unbroken chain of evidence of her worship can be found in the historical records of these people.

Among the Anglo-Saxons (Tacitus' Anglii), a Christian incantation known as the Æcerbót, involving a procession through the fields while calling upon the Christian God for a good harvest, invokes 'eorþan modor' (Earth Mother) and 'folde, fira modor,' (Earth, mother of men), whom many scholars identify as a pagan goddess. There, the Christian god, in place of the ancient Indo-European sky-father, is called upon to impregnate her with his seed, so that she may become fertile in his embrace. The account of the procession that accompanies this invocation is reminiscent of the procession of Nerthus, and supported by the accounts of other wagon processions in medieval Europe, labeled as heathen and prohibited by the Church. The most famous of these is the procession of the god Freyr found in the Flateyjarbók, Ogmundar þáttr dytts. The Longobardians, on the other hand, in their first historical record, pay homage to Frea, Godin's wife, who takes an active part in their affairs. In this story, Frea turns the bed of her husband, so that he catches sight of her favorites the Winnilli upon waking. He asks "who are these long-beards"? With that, Frea demands he give them victory in battle, as he has given them a name. Thereafter, they are known as the Longobardi, and enter history as the Lombards. This tale, told in the History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, is the earliest record of Odin and Frigg as a divine pair. They next appear together with their son Baldur in central Germany in the Second Merseburg Charm.

In Central Germany, we find legends of Frau Holle throughout the Middle Ages. She appears as a helpful goddess, in charge of spinning and household affairs. She rides through the countryside during the Twelve-nights, sometimes asking local peasants for assistance repairing her wagon. Those who help are rewarded with woodchips or dung, which they soon discover turns to gold. Among her many names are Holda, Berchta, Perht, and Frekka, the last of which directly connects her to Odin's wife Frigg. Many German harvest customs surround both Odin (Wotan, Godan, Wold) and Frau Holle. In several German legends, she is known as Frau Goden, and connected to the Wild Hunt. Goden is simply another name for Odin, again indicating that Frau Holle is most likely a remembrance of Odin's wife, Frigg. In Snorri Sturlusson's Prose Edda, a handbook on poetry written more than two centuries after the Christian conversion of Iceland, Earth and Frigg, however, are presented as independent entities.

It seems apparent that to the heathen poets Frigg was the goddess who represented the earth. Frigg has been named as Odin's wife, since their earliest historical appearance. In Icelandic poetry from the heathen era, the kenning "Odin's wife" is a common designation for the Earth. Bynames of the Earth in Icelandic poetry include Jörð, Fjörgyn, Hlóðyn and Hlín.In skaldic poetry, Hlín is used as a byname of both Jörð and Frigg. Fjörgynr (a masculine form of Fjörgyn) is said to be Frigg's father, while the name Hlóðyn is most commonly linked to Frau Holle, as well as to a goddess, Hludana, whose name is found eteched in several votive inscriptions from the Roman era. Frigg's character as an earth goddess is best evidenced in the Baldur myth, where she requests all earthly things to do her son no harm. The one thing she omits is the mistletoe, which does not sprout in the earth, but hangs as a parasite from trees. Upon his return from the underworld, Odin's messenger Hermod, presents Frigg with a veil and a reproducing ring, both appropriate gifts for the Earth mother. The veil is best interpreted as spring vegetation which originates underground to beautiful the earth, after the spring thaw, explicitly represented in the myth by all things weeping for Baldur's return, as they do when they move "from cold into heat".

Connections have been proposed between the figure of Nerthus and various figures (particularly figures counted amongst the Vanir) recorded in 13th century Icelandic records of Norse mythology, including Frigg. Due to potential etymological connections, the figure of Njord has been proposed as the consort of Nerthus. In the Eddaic poem Lokasenna, Njörd is said to have fathered his famous children by his own sister. This sister remains unnamed. Once Frigg is recognized as the Germanic Earth Mother, her role as sister of Njörd and the mother of the fertility twins Frey and Freyja becomes an ever increasing probability.

Due to specific terms used to describe the figure of Grendel's mother from the poem Beowulf, some scholars have proposed that the figure of Grendel's mother, like the poem itself, may have derived from earlier traditions originating from Germanic paganism.

Turkic Siberians

Umai, also known as Ymai or Mai, is the mother goddess of the Turkic Siberians. She is depicted as having sixty golden tresses, that resemble the rays of the sun. She is thought to have once been identical with Ot of the Mongols.

It is interesting to note that Shiva's consort is called Parvati and also Uma. And in India the mother worship also is called Devi Maa or Maya. Both imply linguistic links.

Farther to the west in Turkey, the Neolithic settlement from 7500 BC, Çatalhöyük, has yielded many examples of worship of a mother goddess. Examples found show that images of the goddess greatly exceeded the small number of a male deity found in early associations and that the male images eventually ceased to appear at all after a certain time, as evidenced in the temporal stratification of the excavations of the site. To date eighteen levels have been identified. These careful figurines were found primarily in areas Mellaart believed to be shrines. One, however – a stately goddess seated on a throne flanked by two lionesses – was found in a grain bin, which Mellaart suggests might have been a means of ensuring the harvest or protecting the food supply. The image to the right was found in excavations there and depicts a Mother Goddess seated on a throne that is flanked by two lionesses. It is dated as c. 6000-5500 BC and resides in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.


In the Aegean, Anatolian, and ancient Near Eastern culture zones, a mother goddess was worshipped in the forms of Cybele (revered in Rome as Magna Mater, the 'Great Mother'), of Gaia, and of Rhea.

The Olympian goddesses of classical Greece had many characters with mother goddess attributes, including Hera and Demeter.

The Minoan goddess represented in seals and other remains, whom Greeks called Potnia theron, "Mistress of the Animals", many of whose attributes were later also absorbed by Artemis, seems to have been a mother goddess type, for in some representations she suckles the animals that she holds.

The archaic local goddess worshiped at Ephesus, whose cult statue was adorned with necklaces and stomachers hung with rounded protuberances who was later also identified by Hellenes with Artemis, was probably also a mother goddess.

The Anna Perenna Festival of the Greeks and Romans for the New Year, around March 15, near the Vernal Equinox, may have been a mother goddess festival. Since the Sun is considered the source of life and food, this festival was also equated with the Mother Goddess.


Aphrodite's counterpart in Roman mythology, Venus, eventually was adopted as a Mother Goddess figure. She was seen as the mother of the Roman people, being the mother of Rome's ancestor, Aeneas, and the ancestor of all subsequent Roman rulers, and by the time of Julius Caesar's era, she was dubbed "Venus Genetrix" (Mother Venus).

Magna Dea is Latin for "Great Goddess" and may refer to any major goddess worshipped during the Roman Republic or Roman Empire. Magna Dea could be applied to a goddess at the head of a pantheon, such as Juno or Minerva, or a goddess worshipped monotheistically. Juno may have origins in the Etruscan mother goddess deity as well, whose identity merged with the Roman goddess later.


In the Hindu context, the worship of the Mother entity can be traced back to early Vedic culture, and perhaps, even before that time. The Rigveda calls the divine female power, Mahimata (R.V. 1.164.33), a term which literally means Mother Earth.

At places, the Vedic literature alludes to her as Viraj, the universal mother, as Aditi, the mother of gods, and as Ambhrini, the one born of the Primeval Ocean. Durga represents the empowering and protective nature of motherhood. An incarnation of Durga is Kali, who came from her forehead during war (as a means of defeating Durga's enemy, Mahishasura). Durga and her incarnations are particularly worshipped in Bengal.

Today, Devi is seen in manifold forms, all representing the creative force in the world, as Maya and prakriti, the force that galvanizes the divine ground of existence into self-projection as the cosmos. She is not merely the Earth, although even this perspective is covered by Parvati (Durga's previous incarnation).

All of the various Hindu female entities are seen as forming many faces of the same female Divinity. However mother and nursing child imagery has been found in Hindu art, namely the depiction of Yashoda and Krishna.

In Sanskrit there is the term Yaganmatri for Mother of the Universe.


This form of Hinduism, known as Shaktism, is strongly associated with Vedanta, Samkhya, and Tantra Hindu philosophies and is ultimately monist, although there is a rich tradition of Bhakti yoga associated with it. The feminine energy, Shakti, is considered to be the motive force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos in Hinduism. The cosmos itself is Brahman, the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, the "world soul".

Masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled in one.

The keystone text is the Devi Mahatmya which combines earlier Vedic theologies, emergent Upanishadic philosophies and developing tantric cultures in a laudatory exegesis of Shakti religion. Demons of ego, ignorance, and desire bind the soul in maya (illusion) (also alternately ethereal or embodied) and it is Mother Maya, Shakti, herself, who can free the bonded individual. The immanent Mother, Devi, is for this reason focused on with intensity, love, and self-dissolving concentration in an effort to focus the shakta (as a Shakti worshipper is sometimes known) on the true reality underlying time, space, and causation, thus freeing one from karmic cyclism.


Some Christians regard Mary, the Theotokos (or mother of God) for many believers, as a "spiritual mother," since she not only fulfills a maternal role, but is often viewed as a protective and intercessory force, a divinely established mediator for humanity, but she is not worshiped as a divine "mother goddess" officially. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches identify "the woman" described in Revelation 12 as the Virgin Mary because in verse 5 this woman is said to have given "birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod" whom they identify as Jesus Christ. Then, in verse 17 of Revelation 12, the Bible describes "the rest of her offspring" as "those who keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus." These Christians believe themselves to be the other "offspring" because they try to "keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus," and thus they embrace Mary as their "mother". They also cite John 19:26-27 where Jesus entrusts his mother to the Apostle John as evidence that Mary is the mother of all Christians, taking the command "behold your mother" to apply generally.

The Virgin Mary receives many titles in Catholicism, such as Queen of Heaven and Star of the Sea, that are familiar from earlier Near Eastern traditions. Due to this correlation, Protestants often accuse Catholics of viewing Mary as a goddess, but the Catholic Church always has condemned "worship" of the Virgin Mary. Part of this accusation is due to the Catholic practice of prayer as a means of communication rather than as a means of worship. Catholics believe that the dead who followed their God, have eternal life and can hear prayers in heaven from people here on earth.

The Bible refers to the personified Heavenly Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in feminine terms. Most Christians who are Catholics believe that "God the Father" is masculine and that Jesus was a man; and further, that "the Church" is the female counterpart of God and is the Bride of Jesus.

Some Christians do not agree on this teaching and assert that God subsumes and transcends both masculinity and femininity. From their point of view the grammatical gender used to address the deity is a mere convention, and the masculine designations for the persons of the Trinity characterize a relationship and not gender, per se. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon, and as such, might have constituted heresy for most of the early history of Christianity.

Some of the Black Madonna icons are believed by some to derive from depictions of ancient goddesses, in particular the Egyptian Goddess Isis with her child Horus sitting on her lap. Medieval images of Mary and Jesus share this similarity, as well.

In many languages, such as Syriac, the word translated "spirit" takes the feminine gender. In early Christian literature in these languages, the Holy Spirit is therefore discussed in feminine terms, especially before c. A.D. 400. Some scholars argue that it was based upon an original goddess figure who was minimized in later traditions .

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) believe in, but do not worship, a Heavenly Mother, the wife and female counterpart—and equal of the Heavenly Father . This belief is not emphasized, however, and adherents pray to the "Father in Heaven."


The Mother Goddess, amalgamated and combined with various feminine figures from world cultures of both the past and present, is worshipped by modern Wiccans and others (see Triple Goddess). The mother goddess is usually viewed as Mother Earth by these groups.

Wiccans and some other types Neo-Pagans worship the Mother Goddess. Most commonly she is worshiped as a Triple Goddess; usually envisioned as the Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes. She is associated with the full moon and with Earth. Many ancient Pagan religions had mother goddesses; it has been argued that the figure of Mary the mother of Jesus is patterned on these.

The term "Great Goddess" itself can refer to a mother goddess in some contemporary Neopagan and Wiccan religions

Even among those who are not Pagan, expressions such as Mother Earth and Mother Nature are in common usage, personifying the Earth's ecology as a fertile and sustaining mother.

Earth Mother

The Earth Mother is a motif that appears in many mythologies. The Earth Mother is a fertile goddess embodying the fertile earth and typically the mother of other deities, and so, also are seen as patronesses of motherhood. This is generally thought of as being because the earth was seen as being the mother from whom all life sprang.

The Rigveda calls the Female power, Mahimata (R.V. 1.164.33), a term which literally means Mother Earth.

In Fiction

In Gore Vidal's ironic dystopia "Messiah", a new death-worshipping religion sweeps the world and wipes out Christianity. Yet at the conclusion of the book, a woman named Iris, who was among the new religion's founders, starts to be worshipped as a new manifestation of the Mother Goddess, though there was no such concept when the religion was founded. Vidal's point was clearly to show that worship of the Mother Goddess is an immemorial institute and would find a manifestation within whatever religion emerges.

See also




Further reading

  • Marija Gimbutas. The language of the Goddess. Harpercollins (1989). ISBN 0062503561
  • Neumann, Erich. (1991). The Great Mother. Bollingen; Repr/7th edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. ISBN 0-691-01780-8.
  • J.F. del Giorgio. The Oldest Europeans. A.J. Place (2006). ISBN 980-6898-00-1
  • Goldin, Paul R. (2002) "On the Meaning of the Name Xi wangmu, Spirit-Mother of the West." Paul R. Goldin. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 1/January-March 2002, pp. 83-85.
  • Knauer, Elfried R.(2006)"The Queen Mother of the West: A Study of the Influence of Western Prototypes on the Iconography of the Taoist Deity." In: Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Ed. Victor H. Mair. University of Hawai'i Press. Pp. 62-115. ISBN-13: ISBN 978-0-8248-2884-4; ISBN-10: ISBN 0-8248-2884-4

External links

Search another word or see mother goddesseson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature