Great Goddess, Mother Goddess, Creatrix, Source of Life by Carol P. Christ


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.

The oldest known image of the Goddess from Hohle Fels cave, Germany, 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

 

Snake Goddess from Minoan Crete, c. 1600 BCE.

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.

 

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Categories: Divine Feminine, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Goddess, Goddess feminism

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13 replies

  1. It seems strange to comment on such a small part of your post, but I was powerfully struck by your decision not to have children and your honesty in describing why.

    I do have children but I can totally envisage having made an alternative decision and being totally happy with it.

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  2. “In Neolithic Old Europe the Goddess was most commonly linked with birds or snakes and only rarely portrayed as mother. ” I think this is a critical point you are making because the Great Goddess was first and foremost associated with Spirit (bird) and Body (serpent). The reason I refuse to call Nature “Mother Nature” is because I don’t see the Great Goddess as primarily “mother of all,” but rather as the Source of all Life. There is a difference. That she has a mothering aspect is real, and as a child who was abandoned I still return to Her for comfort in times of deep distress, and curiously my very distant and now dead mother appears in a more benevolent although less personal form in my dreams… The Great Goddess is multi-valent as Gimbutus indicates and she manifests in both personal and impersonal ways. Nothing about this goddess is sentimental.

    One aspect of this all nurturing mother goddess distresses me deeply – that humanity, at least in the dominant culture – uses mother nature in very destructive ways BLAMING her (as we blame mothers) for anything that goes wrong. I think for that reason the less we project “mother” onto the Great Goddess the better off we are.

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    • Thank you, Sara, for defining this image of “mother”. Not having had a good relationship with my mother, I’ve lost any sentimentality for the image. But you described it well as the Source of all Life, and made me aware that words are so important and have meaning within our experiences.

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      • Thanks Babara, and yes I agree

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      • That some people blame Mother Nature for natural disasters but do not thank Her for the gift of life is unfortunate. Some people blame female bodies for tempting men to rape and abuse, but that does not stop me viewing the female body as sacred.

        I am not willing to throw the Mother symbol out. To me it makes great good sense as Barbara says below to speak of Mother Earth and Mother Nature as a symbol of the Great Goddess in whose body our species evolved and in whose body we “live, move, and have our being.”

        Nor do I think that respecting and honoring mothers is “sentimental.” Mothers in our culture may be honored and revered only if they “stay in their place” and even so, not as much as we honor and revere fathers in patriarchy. Nonetheless, none of us would be here without our birth mothers, nor would we be at least reasonably sane if our birth mothers or other mothers had not nurtured us, loved us, and given generously of their time to us. So, I am also willing to speak of Mother Goddess.

        What I was trying to say is that the Great Goddess is not only a Mother Goddess, while at the same time to say that the reason the divine power was symbolized through the female body does have “something to do with” the power to give birth and to nurture life, in other words, with mothers.

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  3. Carol, “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.”
    When I think of the great mother, it is the earth, our planet, that most powerfully evokes the image of the source of life for me.. and it is to the earth, the great womb, that we return at the end of life… so in this sense, the motherhood of goddess is not necessarily linked to that of us humans, but to the earth, the Great Creatrix.

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  4. Thank you, Carol. Canada recently changed the word “sons” to “all of us” in our national anthem. The uproar is unbelievable! Men, and women saying they won’t use the new words! Yet the change is a return to the original inclusive language.
    Your post led me to remember Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican (13th c) who described God as a woman continually giving birth. We very much need to recover the feminine aspect of Divine Mystery and the sacredness of Creation. As you wrote: “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.”

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  5. I agree that much of the human community stands on “the brink of destruction” and “no longer recognizes love, care and generosity as the highest of all values” but thanks to clear explanations like yours and others on this blog, hope survives that one day we will reach critical mass and turn the tide. Thank you as always for your excellent post.

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  6. As usual, brava! Thanks for clarifying motherhood and why not all women are mothers and why the Great Goddess may not be a mother. I still like the titles Mother Earth and Mother Nature because I believe we’re all kin, at least cousins. She made us all.

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  7. The top statue of the Goddess struck me, so totally defining what She is. She is not a standalone entity, but the one who protects all her creations. That is no doubt why we are drawn to Her so strongly.. It also struck me that (male) archeologists no doubt saw those orbs as large breasts, white I see them as heads nestled together. What a totally different perspective that brings to Goddesses.

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  8. This discussion makes me realize the difficulty we, as Westerners, have with multivalence. If we define the “Great Goddess” as a “Mother Goddess,” then for some of us that restricts Her image to the maternal. Gimbutas shows that in the Neolithic and Paleolithic that wasn’t the case. The Goddess’ image included all of the attributes that nurtured life. In Western culture, if something is important it has to be singular. But that wasn’t the case in our deep past and it isn’t the case today within Hinduism, where if something is important, it has to be multiple (as in 33,000,000 gods and goddesses).

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  9. I should add, that I’m glad to be a polytheist, where multiple Goddesses are my guides, my nurturers, and my helpers.

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