Mother goddess is a term used to refer to a goddess who represents motherhood, fertility, creation, 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.
Many different goddesses have represented motherhood in one way or another, and some have been associated with the birth of humanity as a whole. Others have represented the fertility of the earth.
Several small, voluptuous figures have been found during archaeological excavations of the Upper Paleolithic, the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps, being the most famous. This sculpture is estimated to have been carved 24,000–22,000 BC. Some archaeologists believe they were intended to represent goddesses, while others believe that they could have served some other purpose.
These figurines predate, by many thousands of years, the available records of the well known goddesses, so although they seem to conform to the same generic type, it is not clear whether they, indeed, were representations of a goddess or whether, if they are, there was any continuity of religion that connects them with Middle Eastern and Classical deities.
Diverse images of what are believed to be Mother Goddesses have been discovered that also 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 patterns of development, while distinctive Neolithic cultures arose independently in Europe and Southwest Asia.
During this time, native cultures appear in the Western Hemisphere, arising out of older Paleolithic 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 Marija Gimbutas interpreted as Mother Goddesses have been discovered in all of these cultures.
James Frazer (author of The Golden Bough) and others (such as Jane Ellen Harrison, Robert Graves and Marija Gimbutas) advance the idea that goddess worship in ancient Europe and the Aegean was descended from Pre-Indo-European neolithic matriarchies.
Gimbutas argued that the thousands of female images from Old Europe (archaeology) represented a number of different groups of goddess symbolism, notably a “bird and snake” group associated with water, an “earth mother” group associated with birth, and a “stiff nude” group associated with death, as well as other groups. Gimbutas maintained that the “earth mother” group continues the paleolithic figural tradition discussed above, and that traces of these figural traditions may be found in goddesses of the historical period.
Numerous female figurines from Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Anatolia have been interpreted as evidence of a mother-goddess cult, c.7500 BC. James Mellaart, who led excavation at the site in the 1960s, suggests that the figures represent a Great goddess, who headed the pantheon of an essentially matriarchal culture. A seated female figure, flanked by what Mellart describes as lionesses, was found in a grain-bin; she may have intended to protect the harvest and grain.
Reports of more recent excavations at Çatalhöyük conclude that overall, the site offers no unequivocal evidence of matriarchal culture or a dominant Great Goddess; the balance of male and female power appears to have been equal. The seated or enthroned goddess-like figure flanked by lionesses, has been suggested as a prototype Cybele, a leading deity and Mother Goddess of later Anatolian states.
From 5500 to 2750 BC the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture flourished in the region of modern-day Romania, Moldova, and southwestern Ukraine, leaving behind ruins of settlements of as many as 15,000 residents who practiced agriculture and domesticated livestock. They also left behind many ceramic remains of pottery and clay figurines. Some of these figurines appear to represent the mother goddess (see images in this article).
In the Aegean, Anatolian, and ancient Near Eastern culture zones, Cybele, the primordial deity Gaia, and Rhea were worshiped as Mother goddesses. In Mycenae the great goddess often was represented by a column. Olympian goddesses of classical Greece with mother goddess attributes include Hera and Demeter.
The goddesses of Greek polytheism, so different and complementary, are nonetheless, consistently similar at an earlier stage, with one or the other simply becoming dominant in a sanctuary or city. Each is the Great Goddess presiding over a male society; each is depicted in her attire as Mistress of the Beasts, and Mistress of the Sacrifice, even Hera and Demeter.
The Minoan goddess represented in seals and other remains many of whose attributes were absorbed into 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.
Ninsun is the Mother Goddess in general Mesopotamian mythology. She is Asherah in Canaan and `Ashtart in Syria. The Sumerians wrote erotic poetry about their mother goddess Ninhursag. Nanaya is the canonical name for a goddess worshipped by the Sumerians and Akkadians, a deity who personified “voluptuousness and sensuality”. Her cult was large and was spread as far as Syria and Iran. She later became syncretised with the Babylonian Tashmetum.
Nane was an Armenian pagan mother goddess. She was the goddess of war, wisdom, and motherhood, and the daughter of the supreme god Aramazd. Nane looked like a young beautiful woman in the clothing of a warrior, with spear and shield in hand, like the Greek Athena, with whom she identified in the Hellenic period. In Armenia and other countries, the name Nane continues to be used as a personal name.
Mother goddesses are present in the earliest images discovered among the archaeological finds in Ancient Egypt. An association is drawn to the early goddesses of Egypt with animals seen as good mothers—the lioness, cow, hippopotamus, white vulture, cobra, scorpion, and cat—as well as, to the life-giving primordial waters, the sun, the night sky, and the earth herself.
Even through the transition to a paired pantheon of male deities matched or “married” to each goddess and during the 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. The Two Ladies, Wadjet and Nekhbet, remained patron deities of the rulers of Ancient Egypt throughout every dynasty, including that of Akhenaten (who often is described as having abandoned all but one solar deity), and they all bore their images on their crowns and included special names associated with these goddesses among their titles.
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 deity, Mahimata (R.V. 1.164.33), a term which literally means Great Mother.
The idea that the fertile earth is female and nurtures humans, was not limited to the Greco-Roman world. These traditions were greatly influenced by earlier cultures in the ancient Middle East. In Sumerian mythology Ki is the earth goddess. In Akkadian orthography she has the syllabic values gi,ge,qi,qe (for toponyms). Some scholars identify her with Ninhursag (lady of the mountains), the earth and fertility Mother Goddess, who had the surnames Nintu (lady of birth), Mamma, and Aruru.
The title “The mother of life” later was given to the Akkadian Goddess Kubau, and hence to Hurrian Hepa, emerging in Hebrew as Eve (Heva) and Phygian Kubala (Cybele). In Norse mythology the earth is personified as Jörð, Hlöðyn, and Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn. In Germanic paganism, the Earth Goddess is referred to as Nertha. The Irish Celts worshipped Danu, whilst the Welsh Celts worshipped Dôn.
Hints of their names occur throughout Europe, such as the Don river, the Danube River, the Dnestr, and the Dnepr, suggest that they stemmed from an ancient Proto-Indo-European goddess. In Lithuanian mythology Gaia – Žemė (Lithuanian for “Earth”) is daughter of Sun and Moon. Also she is wife of Dangus (Lithuanian for “Sky”) (Varuna).
An Egyptian earth and fertility deity, Geb, was male and he was considered father of all snakes, however, the mound from which all life was created by parthenogenesis, represents Mut, the primal “mother of all who was not born of any”. She is the more appropriate figure to discuss as the mother goddess in Ancient Egyptian religion.
The number of Egyptian goddesses who are depicted as important mother deities is numerous because of regional cults of many very early cultures and a major unification of two ancient countries into one, whose written history only begins at approximately 3150 B.C. It is estimated that the some early cultures that eventually became parts of Ancient Egypt date back to 8000 B.C. and that human occupation of the Nile Valley by modern hunter gatherer societies dates back 120 thousand years.
Only in late Egyptian Mythology does the reverse seem true – Geb is the Earth Father while Nut is the Sky Mother, but the primordial and great goddess of Egypt was Mut, the source of all life and the mother of all. The mound of earth from which life sprang was Mut.
In Hinduism, the Mother of all creation is called “Gayatri”. Gayatri is the name of one of the most important Vedic hymns consisting of twenty-four syllables. One of the sacred texts says, “The Gayatri is Brahma, Gayatri is Vishnu, Gayatri is Shiva, the Gayatri is Vedas” and Gayatri later came to be personified as a goddess. She is shown as having five heads and is usually seated within a lotus. The four heads of Gayatri represent the four Vedas and the fifth one represents the almighty deity. In her ten hands, she holds all the symbols of Lord Vishnu. She is another consort of Lord Brahma.
In Hinduism and Buddhism the specific local indwelling mother deity of Earth (as opposed to the mother deity of all creation) is called Bhūmi. Gautama Buddha called upon Bhumi as his witness when he achieved Enlightenment.
The Normans had a major influence on English Romanesque architecture when they built a large numbers of Christian monasteries, abbeys, churches, and cathedrals. These Romanesque styles originated in Normandy and became widespread in north western Europe, particularly in England, which has the largest number of surviving examples.
Sheela na Gig is a common stone carving found in Romanesque Christian churches scattered throughout Europe. These female figures are found in Ireland, Great Britain, France, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, and in the Czech Republic. Their meaning is not clearly identifiable as Christian, and may be a concept that survived from ancient forms of yoni worship and sacred prostitution practiced in the goddess temples. Some of the figures seem to be elements of earlier structures, perhaps devoted to goddess worship.
Other common motifs on Christian churches of the same time period are spirals and ouroboros or dragons swallowing their tails, which is a reference to rebirth and regeneration, a concept well known in pantheism. Other creatures including the succubus make an appearance in the sculptural reliefs of the church that have a long history in the oral tradition of previous civilizations that preceded Christianity that may relate to earlier goddess worship.
Most Christians regard the Mary, the mother of Jesus, as 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 stress that she is not worshipped as a divine “mother goddess”.
The Roman Catholic, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox churches identify “the woman” described in Revelation 12 as 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 thy mother” to apply generally. The Roman Catholics refer to her as, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In 300 A.D., the Blessed Virgin Mary was worshipped as a Mother Goddess in the Christian sect Collyridianism, which was found throughout Saudi Arabia. Collyridianism was made up mostly of women followers and female priests.
Followers of Collyridianism were known to make bread and wheat offerings to the Virgin Mary, along with other sacrificial practices. The cult was heavily condemned as heretical and schismatic by the Roman Catholic Church and was preached against by Epiphanius of Salamis, who exposed the group in his recollective writings entitled, Panarion.
As motherhood is a recurring concept in many religions, The Blessed Virgin Mary received many titles in the Roman Catholic Church, such as Queen of Heaven and Our Lady, Star of the Sea, that are familiar from earlier Near Eastern traditions. Due to this correlation, some Protestants often accuse Catholics of viewing Mary as a goddess, but the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches always have condemned “worship as adoration” of 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 faithful dead have achieved eternal life and can intercede for people here on earth. Concepts of Mother Goddess worshipped is heavily condemned by the Holy See as it had been suppressed and condemned among the Collyridianism sect in 300 AD.