THE MYTH OF THE GREAT GODDESS
by Tommaso Iorco
Dostoevskij said that Beauty will redeem the world. If this is true, then to put the Great Mother Goddess and Poetry side by side is certainly appropriate. In all tradition all over the world the Great Goddess has always inspired poetry.
The myth of the Great Goddess is rooted in humanity’s history since the beginning. As a fact, our ancestors knew that life on earth undergoes a constant and continuous transformation process, in a rhythmic cycle of change. The first human settlement date back to nine-ten thousand years ago in the Indoeuropean area, and to them the Great Goddess represented the primordial force of life, therefore also fertility and the ability to generate. Ancient peoples believed that the Goddess’ power resided in animals, plants, water, mountains and stones. It was the original energy nourishing and pervading everything, the vital blood flowing in everything.
Nevertheless, in life there are also negative principles such as destruction, sterility, and death above all, which seems to annihilate any existence. That is why some of the icons of that age represented a Good Mother while others represented a Terrible Mother.
To tell the truth, there was never a clear-cut division between a “good” and a “terrible” Mother; the Life-Giver and the Death-Ruler are really a whole Divinity. Death also is part of the same cycle of transformation and renewal. It is not a case that the theme of regeneration is recurrent in Neolithic art.
In the end, the Great Goddess manifests herself in many different ways: it can be either anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, it can have a three-fold looks; it can be a water bird or a raptor, a poisonous serpent or not. Yet, it is always one and indivisible in all its aspects that are all part of the same force in all its functions. The Life Creatress and Protetrix, the Nursing Mother, the Birth Giver, the Regeneratrix could manifest herself as bird, fish, bear, deer, vase, dolmen, and tree, either under human, animal, vegetal or mineral disguise. There was no clear division between animal and human life, or between Nature and her creatures.
In fact, the most evident analogy is with Nature itself; through its multiple phenomena and the continuity of its cycles, one recognises the fundamental unity of Nature, Mother and Protetrix of all its creatures. However, it would be unfair to reach the conclusion that our ancestors simply limited themselves to enjoy the lyrical side of the mechanism that rule life, which we call Nature. Apparently our age is fully satisfied with the material results and manipulations of a given phenomenon without trying to go over its appearances, while our ancestors cared little for material aspects and always looked at the deep symbolic meaning of things, so we hope to go back to our roots, in order to go farther. If we do go over appearances, we see that Nature is the outside face of the Divine Mother, since it is certainly an immanent Force, yet is infinitely aware and wise, as well as transcendent and sovereign. It is the eternal Mother and Spouse of the Divine or, to put in philosophical terms (easier for us but which make little sense to our ancestors who worshipped Her), of the dynamic aspect of the Supreme Reality, the Consciousness-Force who self-create the universal reality.
Moreover, if for us today is little more than a geisha, for the ancients the poet was primarily a prophet, an haruspex, a teller of hidden truths, and poetic imagination was not an odalisque but a priestess of the Goddess, whose task was not to entertain but to represent complex and hidden truths. For the ancient Bards images were a revealing symbol of the non-revealed, they were used to suggest by hints to the mind what could not be rationally expressed with words. Therefore, what poets can give us is some light to clarify the Mystery and the Grace of the Divine Mother.
In Italy, because of its Greek-Roman past and for its spontaneous penchant towards a sensual mysticism (visible in its sublime artistic masterpieces of all ages) catholic Christianity replaced past symbols with the cult of the Madonna, emphasizing the aspect of the Mater Dolorosa (and Birth Giver) to the detriment of the other innumerable aspects of the Great Goddess. The Catholic Church demonised some of these aspects, and during the Inquisition, it condemned among others the worship of the White Lady (Mother of Death and Life), turned into a follower of Satan, protector of witches and magic. So, the pseudo followers of He who in the Sermon of the Mountain promised to the meeks to inherit the earth, did not hesitate to send to death more than eight million women, mainly peasants who had learned some rituals of the Goddess from their mothers and grandmothers. Today in Italy rites to chase the evil eye is still being passed down new generations, which goes to show that despite repression such rituals are still deeply rooted in the psyche.
Therefore, Christian missionaries turned Holla, the Mother of the Dead, into Hell. The big tree, the Holler, our Christmas tree, was originally consecrated to the Goddess during the festival of light renewal, celebrated by the Celts to Ostàra, Goddess of Spring, worshipped by some ancient tribes settled in the land which was later and not by chance named Austria, just like it is not a chance that Easter takes its root from the Vedic Usha, one of the names of the Goddess of Dawn and of Spiritual Awakening.
It is even clearer by the link between the Mother of the Dead and the Festival of Light, that for our ancestors there was no just death, but death and regeneration, two faces of the same indivisible reality. Death was simply the end of one vital process, needed till now to pursue our adventure. This was the key of the hymn to life represented by art. The image of the White Lady goddess as vulture or killer is certainly frightening, but if we observe the symbol linked to the death aspect we see that they are not isolated, in fact they mix with the ones representing regeneration. The Owl Goddess undoubtedly announces death, yet at the same time it had on its belly breasts and a maze representing life.
Moreover, to recognise the Great Goddess not only in its benign and helpful aspect but also as destroyer and death giver, is a sign of high spiritual maturity; it means not to hide behind any Manichean separation between good and evil, to have the courage to see reality as it is and to be able to seize the supreme Good towards which our Mother takes us, through love and goodness, of course, but also through conflict and apparent defeat. On the other hand, the greatest mystics were those who recognised the great love that the Mother Goddess felt for her children even in its most terrible aspects, just like in the case of Ramakrishna, who worshipped the Divine Mother under the disguise of the black and terrible Kâlî.
Those who believe that this can be dangerous for the worshippers of the Force are wrong. The truth, not a pietistic consolation, is the essence of any authentic spiritual and material evolution. Apart from the single example of Ramakrishna, who was one of the mildest souls in history (which could be seen as an isolated case), it is a historical fact that the worship of the Great Goddess in the Euroasiatic area produced a very creative and pacific civilization, in the four thousand years previous to the latest five thousand ones of the “nightmare”, to quote the appropriate expression used by Joyce, in which we are living.
When the “Gilanic” culture was replaced by the androcratic one, conflict began. It was when the Mother Goddess was replaced by the Semitic Father, jealous and violent, punisher of the ‘sinners’ and the ‘infidels’. Luckily, such a brutal replacement was not always the case. More often, a building process took place, that even if reductive, was still quite impressive (such as the case of the hyperdulia). The Celtic Brigit, goddess of healing and fertility (just as of poetry — Brigit bé filid), became Saint Brigit the Lady of Health. The icons of the Owl Goddess in the dolmens became popular during the Bronze Age in Sardinia, Corsica, Liguria, Southern France and Spain. The Greek Athena (often represented with a sword) and the Irish Morrìgan and Babd are well known to appear in battle scenes as vultures, crows and cranes. In India, taking a trip in the far east Indoeuropean area, each of the many aspect of the one primordial Energy has many forms, emanations, vibhûti. For instance, Mahâkâlî (one of the four main aspects of the Mother Goddess as indicated in the Markandeya Purana and other tantrik texts) can have different aspects, according to the level to which it manifest herself. It can be Kâlî, Shyama, Umâ, Satî… Besides, many female divinities, both in India and in Greece, stand beside the gods as wives, like Era with Zeus, or Kâlî herself, the shakti of god Shiva.
Despite the Christian attempt at superimposing itself under a different name to ancient rituals, the old European Goddesses survived in folk stories, in beliefs, and in mythological songs. The Birth Goddess and the anthropomorphic Birth Giver exist as Fairy or Fate and as duck or swan, luck and wealth bringers. As a prophetess, it is a cuckoo; as the primordial Mother, it is a deer (in Irish mythology), a bear (Greek, Baltic and Slav areas). The signs of the Mother Goddess persist even in fairy tales, in folkloristic traditions and costumes. The goddess plays the main leads as the Baltic Ragana, the Russian Baba Yaga, the Polish Jezda, the Mora, the Serb Morana, the Basque Mari, the Irish Morrìgan. There is no doubt that the sacred images and symbols remain a vital and inalienable part of our cultural heritage. Our childhood took place in a fairy world populated by many images handed down by ancient Indoeuropean tradition, just like the beautiful tale of Sleeping Beauty, a transposition of the myth of Goddess Aurora.
Eventually, the Great Goddess is for us today both an ideal and real means to access a corroborating, positive vision of the world which does not put Spirit and Matter against each other, in fact that sees the Earth as THE PLACE for a progressive manifestation of the Divine (as opposed to the religious tendency to wait for salvation after death, in the hereafter, after having miserably crossed this “valley of tears”), and respectful of every moment in life, because the Great Mother is, also, our Mother Earth in one of its infinite forms.
In prehistory, the cult of the Great Goddess enjoyed the prodigies and marvels of this world. Its people did not produce lethal weapons, nor did it build fortresses in remote places, as did following generations, even when it learned about metallurgy. In fact, it built comfortable houses in small villages, and created superb chinaware and sculptures. That was a long period of creativity and stability, an age without conflicts. The sensitivity of that people translated into a real hymn to Beauty.
Later on, the Goddess slowly began to retire into the depth of forests and mountains, as in our psyché, and there it survived until today. It followed consequently the alienation of man from his vital roots, whose results are sadly visible in contemporary society.
However, it is likely that the Great Goddess made this long voyage on purpose in Her high wisdom since the beginning of Time; this painful passage (whose peak is now in front of us) must have been a necessary stage to create the final fullness.
So we will see in the new Day, emerge once again the Supreme Consciousness-Force from the depth of the Secret in which it lay buried for so long to bring us a new Life, projecting us in the Dawn of the most ancients dawns of the remotest past of this humankind which reached the end… — bearing in mind, that “end” in the language of the Goddess means NEW BEGINNING. A new age is coming, bringing a new way of living in our Mater Materia.
Even personally, under human appearance, the Great Mother accepted to join this death field to take upon Her all its contradictions and solve them in Divine Harmony, and turn our world into the land of Joy, Truth, Love and Beauty that some prophets had seen and sung in the course of centuries.
© February, 2000
«Since the beginning of the earth
wherever and whenever there was
the possibility of manifesting
a ray of consciousness,
I was there».
The Mother (from Mother’s Agenda, vol. I).
«There is a plan in the Mother’s deep world-whim,
A purpose in her vast and random game.
This ever she meant since the first dawn of life,
This constant will covered with her sports,
To evoke a Person in the impersonal Void,
Wake a dumb self in the inconscient depths
And raise a lost Power from its python sleep
That the eyes of the Timeless might look out from Time
And the world manifest the unveiled Divine.»
Sri Aurobindo (from Savitri, I.I.IV).