The symbol of the Goddess is as old as human history. The most ancient images of the Goddesses from the Paleolithic era are neither pregnant nor holding a child. In Neolithic Old Europe the Goddess was most commonly linked with birds or snakes and only rarely portrayed as mother. Yet we tend to equate the Goddess with the Mother Goddess. I suspect that images of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on her lap and prayers to God as Father have fused in our minds, leading us to think that the Goddess must be a Mother Goddess and primarily a Mother.
In a recent blog, Christy Croft reminded us that in our culture, women’s experiences of mothering and motherhood are not always positive:
[The mother] doesn’t always appear in our stories in simple or easy ways. Some of us mother children we did not or could not grow in our bodies; some of us birth babies who are now mothered by others. Some of us are not mothers at all. Some of us had mothers who could not love us unconditionally, or did not have mothers in our lives, or had mothers who brought us more pain and humiliation than comfort, from whose effects we are still recovering, are still healing.
Women who have had negative or painful experiences of motherhood or mothering may find the symbol of the Mother Goddess off-putting. If your mother was depressed and neglectful, did not protect you from abuse by your father or others, or if she got angry and yelled or physically hurt you, you might not feel attracted to the image of the Goddess as Mother. Similarly, if you had multiple miscarriages, could not carry a child to term, did not find an appropriate partner, or lost a child to death, you might not want to think of the divine power as Mother. Finally, if like me, you chose not to have children because you could not envision a way to succeed in your career and be a mother too, you might experience the symbol of Goddess as Mother as a negative judgment on your life choices.
Yet to reject the image of Goddess as Mother completely is to miss the point. Marija Gimbutas said the Goddess represents the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. She also spoke of the Goddess as Creatrix, the source of life. The reason the divine power was primarily portrayed as female by our ancestors is because their cultures valued women, the female body, and female wisdom. In the Paleolithic, woman the gatherer gave birth to and reared children as well as collecting fruits, nuts, and vegetables, preparing foods, and healing with herbal remedies. In the Neolithic, women were revered as the inventors of agriculture, pottery, and weaving. Each of these was a mystery of transformation: seeds planted and fruit and vegetables harvested, clay turned to fired pot, animal hair to thread and cloth. The secrets of these mysteries were held and passed on from mother to daughter.
There is more. The mysteries of transformation in agriculture, pottery, and weaving were analogized to the mysteries of transformation in the female body, from which life emerges and is nurtured. Thus, while it is disparaging to say that the Goddess is “only” a fertility symbol, it is also misleading to say that the Goddess has nothing to do with giving birth to and nurturing children.
According to Heide Goettner-Abendroth egalitarian matriarchal societies celebrate motherhood and mothering, especially the values of love, care, and generosity associated with the mother role. Unlike in patriarchal societies, these values are not restricted to women or to mothers. To the contrary love, care, and generosity are understood to be the central values of all of life—to be embodied by males and females alike. Mothers were not restricted to the home in egalitarian matriarchal societies. The female clan owned the land; women made the decisions regarding the agricultural cycles of planting, harvesting, food preparation, and storing of seeds. People lived in large familial groups in their maternal clans. There was no such thing as an isolated housewife and mother, for women were surrounded by their female and male relatives. The rearing of children as well as household tasks were communal affairs.
It is in this context that the Mother Earth came to be perceived as a Great and Giving Mother who gives birth and loves and nurtures the world like human mothers do. The great and giving mother in egalitarian matriarchies was in no way “only” a mother, for she also worked in the fields, made pots, wove clothing, and with other mothers and grandmothers managed the internal affairs of the clan. The Goddess embodied the love, care, and concern of mothers, and also their intelligence.
If we have negative feelings toward mothers, mothering, and the Mother Goddess, I suggest that we need to change the social structures of patriarchy that restrict women to the home and disparage or trivialize the values of love, care, and generosity associated with motherhood. The world cannot survive without these values. The human community stands on the brink of self-destruction because it no longer recognizes love, care, and generosity as the highest of all values.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator living in Molivos, Lesbos, who volunteers with Starfish Foundation that helps refugees, assisting with writing and outreach. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. FAR Press published A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Join Carol on the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.