Up until the last 2000 years or so, women were considered sacred and were revered for their child-bearing abilities as well as their central role in creating communities. During times when life expectancy was short, the fertility of women as well as female animals was considered a matter of utmost respect and importance. Archeologists have found evidence of prehistoric goddess worship via little stone, ivory and clay statues of feminine figures as well as drawings in caves depicting female bodies.
Some cultures even depict a female deity as the mother of all creation. For example, a story appearing on Moondance.org exemplifies the Native American belief in the world’s creation by a female:
“At first Kujum-Chantu, the earth, was like a human being; she had a head, and arms and legs, and an enormous fat belly. The original human beings lived on the surface of her belly. One day it occurred to Kujum-Chantu that if she ever got up and walked about, everyone would fall off and be killed, so she herself died of her own accord. Her head became the snow-covered mountains; the bones of her back turned into smaller hills. Her chest was the valley where the Apa-Tanis live. From her neck came the north country of the Tagins. Her buttocks turned into the Assam plain. For just as the buttocks are full of fat, Assam has fat rich soil. Kujum-Chantu’s eyes became the Sun and the Moon. From her mouth was born Kujum-Popi, who sent the Sun and Moon to shine in the sky.”
So when did things change from a worship of the feminine to the worship of the divine male and why did it happen? Author Leonard Shlain proposes that the invention of writing was a very likely cause of the shift. He believes that the invention of writing “… rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture. Making remarkable connections across a wide range of subjects including brain function, anthropology, history, and religion, Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one. This shift upset the balance between men and women initiating the disappearance of goddesses, the abhorrence of images, and, in literacy’s early stages, the decline of women’s political status. Patriarchy and misogyny followed.”
Others think that it was the change of humanity into a warring people that brought in the male gods and destroyed the reign of the goddess. Kelly Heckart perhaps put it best in an Amazon review of the book “When God Was a Woman”: “for thousands of years the Goddess reigned as Queen of the Heaven until Indo-European invaders, who worshiped a thunderbolt wielding war god, wiped it out.”
Today we can still find goddess worship in various forms, albeit not as widespread as in ancient cultures. A perfect example can be found in the Wicca religion and other Neo-pagan traditions who pay reverence to the divine feminine in the form of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Westerners can still be found referring to our planet as Mother Earth. In Hinduism the sacred feminine continues to play a central role in prayer and worship. In today’s world we are increasingly finding people of many different traditions who adhere to the belief that modern woman embodies the divine feminine.
While we may still be a long way from a resurgence of goddess worship, rapid access to information via books and the internet provide us with at least a historical understanding of the role women have played in religion and spirituality.
Here’s a partial list of some of the most important and/or famous goddesses throughout the ages.
Anat- A major goddess of fertility, sexual love, hunting and war, the Goddess Anat was known among the Canaanites in prehistoric times.
Aradia – The messianic daughter of the goddess Diana and the god Lucifer, who was sent to Earth in order to teach the oppressed peasants how to perform witchcraft to use against the Roman Catholic Church and the upper classes. Aradia is arguably one of the central figures of the modern pagan witchcraft revival and as such has featured in various forms of Wicca.
Arianrhod – Major Welsh goddess who is the daughter of the mothergoddess Don and her consort Beli.
Astarte – A Semitic goddess who was worshiped by the Syrians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and other Semitic Tribes. King Solomon built a temple to her as Astoreth.
Brighid – The daughter of the Dagda, one of the universal deities of the pagan Gaelic world. She is known as the goddess of healers, poets, smiths, childhood and inspiration.
Eostre – She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe in the 700′s A.D.
Freya – In Norse mythology, she is a goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, war, and death.
Gaia – She is the primal Greek goddess personifying the Earth, the Greek version of “Mother Nature,” or the Earth Mother.
Hera – The queen of the Olympian deities. She is a daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and wife and sister of Zeus. Hera was mainly worshiped as a goddess of marriage and birth.
Ishtar – The Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. She is the counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna and to the cognate north-west Semitic goddess Astarte.
Isis – Ancient Egyptians worshiped her as the ideal mother and wife as well as the matron of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, and the downtrodden, and she listened to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats, and rulers. Isis is the goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility.
Kali – The Hindu goddess associated with eternal energy. “She who destroys”. Kali is considered the goddess of time and change. She is sometimes presented as dark and violent. She is also revered as Bhavatarini (literally “redeemer of the universe”). Comparatively recent devotional movements largely conceive Kali as a benevolent mother goddess.
Lilith – In ancient Sumeria she was regarded as the “left hand” of the Great Goddess Inanna. She assisted her by bringing the men to the goddess’ temples, to worship her by participating in “Tantric” rites with the temple-women. As a result of this role, Lilith became known as seducer of men and as harlot.
Ma’at – The Ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice.
Mary – The virgin mother of Jesus Christ. A feminine presence was added to Christianity by the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE when the Virgin Mary was named Theotokos (Mother of God). But her role was heavily restricted and included none of the fertility component present in Pagan religions.
Ninhursag - The earth and mother goddess, one of the seven great deities of Sumer. She is principally a fertility goddess. Temple hymn sources identify her as the ‘true and great lady of heaven’ and kings of Sumer were ‘nourished by Ninhursag’s milk’.
Venus – Roman goddess of love who went by the name of Aphrodite in the Greek tradition.
Venus of Willendorf – She is a plump and supple figure with ample breasts dating back to over 20,000 years ago. While there is no way to verify the purpose of the statue, many experts have proposed that it is probably a fertility goddess.
Vesta - The Roman Goddess of Fire and the Hearth, whose circular temple in Rome was considered the central hearth of the City.