Ch 1: The Mother in Ancient Theologies

Chapter 1 of Motherhood Mythology

by Glenys Livingstone

Lao Tzu expressed well the earliest understanding of Divinity

Before creation a presence existed

Self contained, complete

Formless, voiceless, mateless


Which yet pervaded itself

With unending motherhood[i]

In the beginning there was the Great Mother, nearly every ancient culture’s creation myth begins with Her.

She was Ishtar of Babylon… before the Sumerians migrated to Assyria prior to 3000 B.C.E., Ishtar and her son Tammuz were already worshipped there.[ii]

To the Canaanites, Hebrews and Phoenicians, she was Astarte (her son was Baal); though in their time her religion was already old. [iii]

As Isis in Egypt (whose sons and lovers were Osiris and Horus) she was called Mother of the Universe, the giver of love and all life. [iv] As Mut she was “the mother of the morning sun, who existed when there was nothing and who created what was after her”. [v]

The Celts called her Anu – and she was revered from prehistoric times in western Europe, as far west as Ireland. [vi]

She was Cybele, Goddess of Earth and Moon, mother of Atlas.

She is Al-Uzza of Mecca, Shing-Moo of China, Kunapipi of Australia, Artemis of Ephesys, Anatis of Egypt, Mana of Babylon, Aprhodite with son Adonis, Anahita of Persia with son Mithra. In Greece she is Rhea, Gaia, Demeter with daughter Kore. In Rome, Tellus, Ceres, Maia. In medieval Europe –and still today- Mary of Nazareth, Moon Goddess, Mother of God, Star of the Sea.

Her names and titles are many… innumerable. A great many figures… goddesses, fairies, female demons, nymphs, friendly and unfriendly :manifest the One Great Unknown, the Great Mother as the central aspect of the Archetypal feminine, in the rites and myths, the religions and legends of humanity.” [vii] And even before she appeared in human form, there were stones, trees, pools, fruits and animals that she either lived in or were identified with her or parts of her. For the Umatilla Indians, the stones were her bones, vegetation her hair. [viii]

A central representation of the Mother Goddess was the vessel… pots, urns, pitchers… that “made possible the long term storage of oils and grains; the transforming of raw food into cooked; it was also sometimes used to store the bones and ashes of the dead.” [ix] Woman’s body was understood as the shaper of life, vessel of the unborn and provider of nourishment… copulation and procreation were not yet linked in the human mind. [x] The making and decorating of pottery is among the primordial functions of woman, often with taboos imposed on men to prevent them going near. [xi] Later in Eleusis, Rome, Peru, and Dahomey the sacred vessels were supervised by priestesses. [xii] Today in Christianity, the vessel as chalice appears in liturgy and at the very high point of transformation is upheld, although the handling of it is restricted to men. Kettle, oven, retort, cauldron have to do with warmth and transformation; bowl, chalice and goblet are vessels of nourishment and their openness is suggestive of gift. There is pomegranate and poppy as instances of many seeds, the womb-like shellfish, the owl and the squid of uterine form. The Earth itself is seen as belly, as mother, with mountains seen as her places of refuge, caves as providing shelter for the unborn and tombs for the dead. [xiii]

Water is a central symbol, as being that which contains, but also nourishes and transforms. [xiv] The tree is a central vegetative symbol, as container and shelter and sometimes tomb. The fruit bearing tree also bears, transforms, nourishes. [xv] Neumann notes here that trees can also be phallic, but “whereas under matriarchy even the male phallic tree retains its character of dependence on the earth, the patriarchal world of India, as of the Cabala and Christianity, knows of a tree whose roots are “above” in the patriarchal heaven.” [xvi]

And it is worth commenting here that even the notion of heaven belonging to the father was a later development. “Women achieve naturally and easily through childbirth, while males, seeing no such obvious purpose in the world, have had to invent compensations.” [xvii] Mother earth and father sky, woman/body, man/mind can be seen as artificial and inaccurate dichotomies… “The one was evident, the other an invention… if women were closer to nature, men must then be more spiritual, eventually closer to God”. [xviii] While the patriarchal spirit presents itself as “sheer being”, pure existence in absolute eternity, the matriarchal spirit does not deny the maternal soil from which it stems. [xix] Originally the Goddess was Mother of the day sky and the day sky… both sun and moon were her children. The daytime was simply “the light span of life, beginning and ending in night; within it the luminous sun must describe his arc of light, which always ends in death.” [xx] The sun was not the measure of time, but simply part of the diurnal sky. It was the moon and the stars that were moer impressive… the moon with its changing phases and contrast with the darkness was experienced as a totality and it was the favoured spiritual symbol expressive of the Great Mother. [xxi]

Central to worship and appreciation of the Great Mother is the recurrent cycle of birth and death, the immortal process of creation and destruction. So, occurring frequently in the art work is the cross, +, and other fourfold designs, symbol of the cosmic cycle, accompanied by symbols of “becoming” such as crescents, caterpillars and horns. [xxii] The snake is a symbol of immortality, vitality and rejuvenation. From Neolithic times there are vases in the shape of a waterbird or duck carrying an egg, since as Bird Goddess she rules over the life giving force of waters. [xxiii] The Great Mother nurtures the world with moisture, giving rain, the divine food… the very milk of her breasts. [xxiv] So jars often featured breasts set in rain torrent bands, also from the Neolithic and into the Chaleolithic era is the representation of the pubic triangle –as universal womb, inexhaustible source of life. [xxv] Often it bears a symbol of the spiral, one end rolling upward and the other downward –Goddess of fertility and also death.

In her maternal aspect, the Goddess is often represented by figurines with huge belly and breasts. Or she is often seated like a hill or mountain, with the new born on her lap… from which evolves the throne. [xxvi] (And by qway of analogy, where once the throne was the seat of power itself, and the king empowered by it, now in representations of Madonna and child, the son-child has assumed greater power than the mother upon whose lap he sits… her eyes often downcast, his gazing directly). There is the Goddess squatting in the birth posture… sometimes birthing, sometimes displaying her genitals, [xxvii] la latter of which Neumann notes, is narrowed to a sense of sexual/love goddess in the patriarchate. [xxviii] Sometimes she is depicted displaying her breasts, belly or entire naked body as a form of divine epiphany. [xxix] (I am reminded of Isadora Duncan) Where the Mother Goddess is accompanied by a daughter or daughters, as she is in Crete, Eleusis, and the Aegean Islands, the continuity of the religious relationship is being pointed out. [xxx]

Other representations of the Mother Goddess are the deer, a symbol of regeneration owing to its antlers; the toad, with outspread legs and shape of the pubic triangle, often with head neglected. [xxxi] Gimbutas notes that toads of wax, iron, silver or wood are still found today as votive offerings to the Virgin Mary in churches in Bavaria, Austria and Yugoslavia as protection against barrenness, and to ensure safe pregnancy. Also thus the association of toads with witches’ potions… for example, eating toad’s meat to invoke labour, using toad’s blood as an aphrodisiac, and hanging dried toads about a house to protect from evils. [xxxii] The hedgehog too is noted for its connection to the Mother because of its uterine shape. The Great Goddess with a bull or the head of a bull is regarded as “Goddess of Periodic Regeneration” [xxxiii] The butterfly too is a symbol of transformation and regeneration… which later becomes schematised into the double-axe (around 2000 B.C.E.). Apparently this process was influenced either by similarity of shape by Indo-Europeans to whom the axe of the thunder-god was sacred, imbued with his potency. [xxxiv] the Great Goddess as bear becomes mother and nurse… takes on her role as protectress of weaklings or of a divine child. [xxxv] The pig became a sacred animal when it was identified as the double of the Pregnant Vegetation Goddess, due to its soft fats, which symbolised the Earth, and its fast growing body. The pig was an essential animal in the Eleusinian Mysteries, since Demeter was connected to the same Goddess aspect. Women brought suckling pigs which had been through in subterranean caves to rot and placed them on the altars of Demeter and Kore, then mixed them with seeds for sowing. [xxxvi] And the sowing was done by women, with pregnant women regarded as having magical influence and barred women regarded as dangerous to the newly sown fields.

In her aspect of the full moon, the Mother Goddess could be called upon by pregnant women for easy delivery and childless women who wanted children. As Diana, Artemis, and Anahita she is midwife. But of men she often asks the sacrifice of their fertility in her service. Such men of the Winnebagos were called Cinaedi, and wore women’s clothes, performed only women’s tasks and often took husbands. [xxxvii]

As Goddess of Fate, the Great Mother holds the tables of fate, spins the thread of life, casts lots to assign destiny and carries the shears for cutting the thread. She appears in threes, including three headed Hecate, Goddess of the crossroads (weft and warp). “All mother goddesses spin and weave. In their concealed workshops, they weave veins, fibres and nerve strands.” [xxxviii] Weaving was a ritual act performed by women, it was considered a female invention, a kind of projection of the vulva which the flax comb resembled. Initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter wore a sacred thread around hand and ankle as a sign of the immortality conferred. [xxxix] As an example again of patriarchal usurpation, Neumann quotes an Estonian song where the weaving is attributed to the male creator god, and where the Great Women of Fate are but daughters of the sun. [xl]

Beside the loom as a symbol of fate and death strands the mill. Mary of Nazareth has been referred to as Baker of the Bread… Jesus as the Bread, or the grain that must die. In its positive form the mill is the Great Round, “the containing World Mother, who like the Boeotian goddess, the Vierge Ouvrante and the Madonna of Mercy, raises her outstretched arms shelteringly.” [xli] In its negative aspect, it is the Indian samsara, the aimless cycle. [xlii]

As Mother of all life, giver of fertility, she is also destroyer of the world, Ishtar prophesised evil and brought a flood upon the earth, though when humans and animals were threatened by rising waters, she pitied their plight, she sent forth a dove and saved them. [xliii] It is probable that the later Old Testament story of Noah, took its main character’s name from the moon goddess Nuah, while his “ark” is probably a moon boat… but the Hindu boat of immortality which carries soul to a new world. [xliv]

Neumann declares that in truth the great Mother encompasses almost everything, heaven, earth, water, while even fire is her son; that she cannot be identified with the telluric-chthonic, the “lower” earthly principle, as the later patriarchal world would have it. [xlv] For example, the Babylonian uroboros was constituted by Tiamat and Apsu, with Tiamat being the mother of the gods and the possessor of the table of fate. She ruled over heaven, earth, and the underworld, while Apsu was the earth fructifying aspect who was born and died each year. When Marduk, the patriarchal sun god defeated Tiamat after a long and bloody battle, she came to be seen as an abysmal nocturnal monster, but “she is not only the genetrix but also the true monster of her creatures. She is filled with wrath when Apsu and Mummu decide to kill the gods, her children; and it is only when the gods have slain Apsu that she takes up the battle of vengeance against them and becomes destructive.” [xlvi] The defeat of Tiamat was one of the final blows to the Mother Goddess … after that “all traces of woman as the supreme Creator disappear from official state religion. Never again will woman have the primary importance even of an Inanna, though she may sneak in as a kindly suffering mother in the stories of Isis and Osiris, Mary and Jesus, and as a beneficent spirit in the medieval Shekina”. [xlvii] Everywhere was the symbolism reworked, the face of the Goddess masked to suit the emerging patriarchate. The Great Goddess became dismembered, the Mother aspect excised uncleanly from her Virgin and Crone aspects.

In her negative crone aspect, the mother is reaper, the grave of the earth, the Terrible Mother. Neumann attributes this negative character to the struggle of what he calls symbolic male consciousness (in male and female) to liberate itself from the feminine-maternal unconscious. [xlviii] But surely the unconscious is only particularly feminine-maternal in a patriarchal context … thus many feminists proceed on to say that the negativity does not exist (for example, Fisher claims that the terrible mother is simply a projection of male anxiety and hostility.) I personally don’t think Neumann need go to such lengths to prove the existence of the negative maternal aspect … of course she is an aspect, just as Yahweh has both a positive and negative face as well (but do the believers admit it?). Anyone who has been a mother (or nurturing parent) knows the tendency to clutch at one’s young, to lay personal trips on them, to devour, to dominate, to kill. Or, from the child’s point of view, “if we need her so much, what will happen if she chooses not to fulfil our needs? And in our childish visions of her great powers, it is only choice that keeps her from aiding or assuaging us, never necessity of incapacity.” [xlix] However in a patriarchal consciousness, this negative mother-child dynamic has an extra overlay of tension precisely because in such a context the “mother” is almost always a woman. In female dominated child rearing, it is a woman in which the child first experiences the archetype of the Great Mother … source of all goodness and pleasure but also source of pain and injustice. So perhaps in a society where it was possible to receive pleasure and pain from male and/or female, the Great Mother, and thus the Terrible Mother and the unconscious would los her gender? [l]

Even so, it is clear, that we who are born, do also die … that She, the Great Round, the Great Mother, the elements from which we are formed will reclaim us. The Grave of the Earth, the Reaper is real. Again, in a society that seeks to deny this reality … the reality of death … this aspect is pushed into the unconscious and becomes toxic instead of simply negative. Perhaps it is only in a patriarchal metaphysics that an eternal afterlife needed to be inventive … where the immortal snake is crushed, where She no longer gives birth, no longer transforms in her dark moist space, where night and day are no longer part of the same continuum, where the Mysteries of Eleusis are denied. [li] The patriarchal world strives to deny its dark and “lowly” heritage, its origin in this primordial world… “(It) considers it necessary to forge a “higher genealogy”, tracing its descent from heaven, the god of heaven, and the luminous aspect.”[lii] When death is reclaimed, life is made whole, to view the Great Mother’s negativity as well as her positivity is to view her wholeness.

Her two sides are seen particularly in the myth of the “sacrifice of the son” … Adonis was attacked by a bear, a form of Aphrodite his mother. Attis castrated and killed himself because he was struck mad by Cybele, his mother. “She is compassionate, filled with maternal love and pity, and in her dark aspect she is fierce and terrible and will not tolerate the childish dependence of the son.” [liii] … and I would add that her ferocity and terribleness are “maternal” too.

The toxic negativity is not the fierce and terrible mother aspect who would sacrifice the child, but the attitude that would bind the child to herself, to dependency on her, that would identify herself with the child. The refusal to sacrifice the child, to relinquish the superiority of giver, is a refusal of the dark mother Goddess in herself “who yearly sacrificed her son and condemned him to death.”[liv] The mother’s ability to say no to the child (or man or woman) can thus be regarded as heroic, though it has been said to be the lesser sacrifice.[lv] From the son’s point of view we have heard that the dragon must be killed and the “fully adult woman in patriarchal society may still often find only an adolescent son/lover, who wants her for his emotional sustenance even while, somewhere within him, he fears castration and death at her hands. This fear is the dragon that has to be destroyed.”[lvi] He must become himself! (In the past, the daughter’s point of view has not been made known … it is the sons who have recorded history and analysis mostly … the daughter has only recently begun (again?) to write her myths, to write herself.[lvii] But she has more investment in letting go of the mother, since she is threatened with the same fate, should she choose to birth children in this society. And this at once complicates their interaction yet further.[lviii]

Starhawk notes that more “primitive” people who live less removed from nature were constantly reminded that “every act of creation is an act of aggression. To plant a garden, you must dig out the weeds, crush the snails, thin the seedlings as they reach towards the light … creation postulates change and any change destroys what went before.”[lix] So is the Creatrix-destroyer of most ancient times manifest.

In the beginning, the Great Mother was virgin-autonomous, whole … the ultimate reality. She created parthenogenetically … indeed in one creation story her offspring is the fruit of love for herself.[lx] It is only later that the male principle occurs as a mate. Fisher tells us that “men were the original other; long before philosophers had begun to speculate on the uselessness of woman save, in Napoleon’s words, as a machine to produce babies, it was man who was useless.”[lxi] Slowly, with the advent of animal breeding as a way of living, the consciousness came that he too had a place in the scheme of eternity, and then “birthgiving and nourishing female deities struggled for expression.”[lxii] To the mother and child dyad, was added the father.[lxiii] Fisher summarises the further later development of assigning generation to men as to do with misplaced analogy of seed and semen. [lxiv] … Thereupon woman was left fertility as simply production, she became a passive vessel. With the emerging economy built on farming and animal raising, there was an increased demand for labour, a need for more children, together with a recognition that fewer men were individually necessary than women for this to happen. According to Fisher, these factors led to men needing to dominate,[lxv] women being forced to breed, and the perversion of sex from pleasure to production, all of which were celebrated by fertility worship.[lxvi] But gradually even the fertility goddesses declined. As Fisher puts it, “In early times the creation of life was separate from sexual meeting. During the third millennium the gods were paired in marriage, and male imagery and male metaphors of vitalising powers and generation became common … by the second millennium the male god has prevailed over the female.”[lxvii] … Eve comes froth from Adam, Athena from Zeus, Yahweh has “His work immanent in his bowels.”[lxviii]

(c) Glenys Livingstone 1984


[i] Lao Tzu, The Way of Life, trans. Witter Bynner, p. 40.

[ii] M. Esther Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, p. 98.

[iii] Ibid. 98.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Helen Diner, Mothers and Amazons, p. 2.

[vi] Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, p. 98.

[vii] Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, p.12.

[viii] Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, p. 155.

[ix] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, p. 85.

[x] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p. 151.

[xi] Neumann, The Great Mother, p.13.

[xii] Ibid, p. 133.

[xiii] Ibid., p.45.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., p. 50.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p.210.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Neumann, The Great Mother, p. 55.

[xx] Ibid, p.223.

[xxi] Ibid, p.55.

[xxii] Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, pp. 89-91

[xxiii] Ibid., pp 116-117.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 142.

[xxv] Ibid., p. 159.

[xxvi] Neumann, The Great Mother, p. 94.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.154.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 145.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 128.

[xxx] Ibid., p.142.

[xxxi] Gimbutas, Gods and Goddesses, p. 174

[xxxii] Ibid., p 177-178.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p 183.

[xxxiv] Ibid., pp. 186-187

[xxxv] Ibid., p 195.

[xxxvi] Ibid., p. 124

[xxxvii] Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, pp 115-116.

[xxxviii] Diner, Mothers and Amazons, p. 16.

[xxxix] Ibid., p. 17.

[xl] Neumann, Great Mother, pp 229-230.

[xli] Ibid., p. 234.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, pp. 106-107

[xliv] Ibid., p. 107.

[xlv] Neumann, Great Mother, pp. 225.

[xlvi] Ibid., p. 214

[xlvii] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p. 324.

[xlviii] Neumann, Great Mother, p. 148.

[xlix] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p. 124.

[l] See Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977).

[li] See Grace Shinell, “To Hell and Back Again” –Towards a Feminist Metaphysics,” Womanspirit 23, Spring, pp. 15 ff.

[lii] Neumann, Great Mother, p. 212. (See Neumann, Origins and History of Consciousness, pp. 147 ff.)

[liii] Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, p. 193.

[liv] Ibid., p. 194.

[lv] Ibid., p. 205.

[lvi] Rich, Of Woman Born, p. 107.

[lvii] See Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, pp. 875 ff.

[lviii] See Rich, Of Woman Born, pp 218 ff. I will speak more of that later.

[lix] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, pp. 80-81.

[lx] Ibid., p. 17.

[lxi] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p.213-214. Fisher understands the couvades as one of many ways in which men have tried to participate in women’s experience (p. 211). Or they developed spiritual birth, rebirth, and/or initiation as alternatives to physical conception and childbirth (p. 192).

[lxii] Ibid., p. 283.

[lxiii] Ibid., p.195. Fisher also notes how later the trinity was completely arrogated to the male in the concept of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.

[lxiv] Ibid., p. 256.

[lxv] Ibid., p. 99 and 192-193.

[lxvi] Ibid., p. 218.

[lxvii] Ibid., p. 283.

[lxviii] J.M.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 99.

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