A mother goddess is a goddess who represents, or is a personification of nature, motherhood, fertility, creation, destruction 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.
- Paleolithic figurines
- Neolithic religion
- Old Europe
- Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Near East
- European polytheism
- Pre Columbian Americas
- New religious movements
- Afro Caribbean
Many different goddesses have represented motherhood in one way or another, and some have been associated with the birth of humanity as a whole, along with the universe and everything in it. 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 35,000 years ago. 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 goddesses listed below as examples of mother 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.
The Paleolithic period extends from 2.5 million years ago to the introduction of agriculture around 10,000 BCE. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans migrated to the Western Hemisphere before the end of the Paleolithic; so cultures around the world share its characteristics. It is the prehistoric era distinguished by the development of stone tools, and covers the greatest portion of humanity's time on Earth.
While most Paleolithic figurines are from the Upper Paleolithic period, the Venus of Berekhat Ram found at Berekhat Ram on the Golan Heights is a Middle Paleolithic artefact of the later Acheulian period and possibly was made by individuals identified as, Homo erectus.
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 about 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.
Numerous female figurines from Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Anatolia have been interpreted as evidence of a mother-goddess cult, c.7500 BCE. 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 Mellaart 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 BCE 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).
Malta has some of the oldest buildings in the world, and has many fertility figures or pieces of fertility figures throughout the temples and museums. The most famous is the Sleeping Lady, recovered from the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, and held in the National Museum of Archaeology, Malta. Similarly, mother goddess figurines are also found in the contemporaneous Ozieri culture of Sardinia.
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. According to Gimbutas' Kurgan Hypothesis, Old European cultures were disrupted by expansion of Indo-European speakers from modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia.
In 1968 the archaeologist Peter Ucko proposed that the many images found in graves and archaeological sites of Neolithic cultures were toys. The graves he was describing dated from Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete, and mostly, contained adults, however.
Mother goddesses are present in the earliest images discovered among the archaeological finds in Ancient Egypt. An association is drawn to the ancient 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, 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 image of Isis nursing her son was worshiped into the sixth century CE and has been resurrected by contemporary "cults" of an Earth Mother. That imagery may have been adopted by early Christians as well.
Nut, goddess of the sky gives birth to celestial bodies seen throughout the sky.
Ancient Near East
Figurines of fertility goddesses, both individually sculpted and mass-produced, have been found at nearly all Near Eastern sites. The earliest such figurines date back to the Neolithic era (7th and 6th millennia BCE) and they continue to be made throughout Near Eastern history. Very little is known about the goddess or her cult as so little concerning them was written down in ancient times.
Many modern scholars believe that many of the Sumerian goddesses known from later myths and hymns were originally local aspects of the indigenous mother goddess. Prominent among such goddesses were Ninhursaga, Ninmah, Damgalnunna, Ninmah, Nintu and Nammu. Many of these goddesses were married off to the gods in the Old Babylonian period, after which they became increasingly regarded as taking a mediating and intercessionary role.
Due to being mother of Gilgamesh, Ninsun is also regarded as a 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.
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.
In ancient Roman religion, Tellus or Terra Mater ("Mother Earth") was a goddess of the earth and agriculture. Her festivals and rituals often connected her to Ceres, goddess of grain, agriculture, fertility, and mothering.
Venus was regarded as a mother of the Roman people through her half-mortal son Aeneas, who led refugees from the Trojan War to settle in Italy. The family of Julius Caesar claimed to have descended from Venus. In this capacity she was given cult as Venus Genetrix (Venus the Bearer). In the later Imperial era, she was included among the many manifestations of a syncretised Magna Dea (Great Goddess), who could be manifested as any goddess at the head of a pantheon, such as Juno or Minerva.
The Irish goddess Anu, sometimes known as Danu, has an aspect as a mother goddess, judging from the Dá Chích Anann near Killarney, County Kerry. Irish literature names the last and most favored generation of deities as "the people of Danu" (Tuatha De Danann). The Welsh have a similar figure called Dôn who is often equated with Danu and identified as a mother goddess. Sources for this character date from the Christian period, however, so she is referred to simply as a "mother of heroes" in the Mabinogion. The character's (assumed) origins as a goddess are obscured.
The Celts of Gaul worshipped a goddess known as Dea Matrona ("divine mother goddess") who was associated with the Marne River. Similar figures known as the Matres (Latin for "mothers") are found on altars in Celtic as well as Germanic areas of Europe.
In the first century BCE, Tacitus in his book Germania, recorded rites amongst the Germanic tribes focused on the goddess Nerthus, whom he calls Terra Mater, 'Mother Earth'. Prominent in these rites was the procession of the goddess in a wheeled vehicle through the countryside. Among the seven or eight tribes said to worship her, Tacitus lists the Anglii, Suebi and the Longobardi.
Among the later Anglo-Saxons, a Christianized charm known as Æcerbot survives from records from the tenth century. The charm involves a procession through the fields while calling upon the Christian God for a good harvest, that invokes 'eorþan modor' (Earth Mother) and 'folde, fira modor,' (Earth, mother of men).
In skaldic poetry, the kenning, "Odin's wife", is a common designation for the Earth. Bynames of the Earth in Icelandic poetry include Jörð, Fjörgyn, Hlóðyn, and Hlín. Hlín is used as a byname of both Jörð and Frigg. Fjörgynn (a masculine form of Fjörgyn) is said to be Frigg's father, while the name Hlóðyn is most commonly linked to Frau Holle, as well as to a goddess, Hludana, whose name is found etched in several votive inscriptions from the Roman era.
Connections have been proposed between the figure of Nerthus and various figures (particularly figures counted amongst the Vanir) recorded in thirteenth century Icelandic records of Norse mythology, including Frigg. Due to potential etymological connections, the Norse god Njörðr has been proposed as the consort of Nerthus. In the Poetic Edda poem, Lokasenna, Njörðr is said to have fathered his famous children by his own sister. This sister remains unnamed in surviving records.
Due to specific terms used to describe the figure of Grendel's mother from the poem Beowulf, some scholars have proposed that the figure of Grendel's mother, like the poem itself, may have derived from earlier traditions originating from Germanic paganism.
Mat Zemlya and her handmaiden Mokosh are two major deities in Slavic mythology. They date back to the Primary Chronicle and working together, they can give life and take it away. Mat Zemlya is Mother Earth, and Mokosh is the moisture that makes it fertile.
The indigenous peoples of the Andes worship the fertility goddess Pachamama. In Incan religion, Pachamama presides over planting and harvesting and she causes earthquakes. After conquest by Catholic Spain her image was masked by the Virgin Mary, behind whom she is invoked and worshiped in the Aboriginal rituals in some parts of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. The religion centered in the Pachamama is practiced currently in parallel form to Christianity, to the point that many families are simultaneously Christian and Pachamamistas.
The Hopi people of North America (Turtle Island), Arizona, USA, refer to the Earth as Tuuwaqatsi-Earth Mother. According to the knowledge they have carefully preserved down the ages, the Earth is our "Land and our Life," which is remembered in their first law: Tutskwa I'qatsi - Land and Life are one. The Goddess-Earth has a male counterpart representing the inner life or core of the Earth. This inner life-soul-mind-womb is sometimes referred to as Maski, or spirit-home, the place where people go following death. This place is sometimes referred to as the "underworld."
In Aztec mythology, Toci is the "Mother of the Gods". She is often associated with Tlazolteotl, a central Mesoamerican goddess of both purification and filth, healing, and midwifery.
Atabey (goddess), mother goddess of fresh waters and fertility (of people).
In Hinduism, Durga represents the empowering and protective nature of motherhood. From her forehead sprang Kali, who defeated Durga's enemy, Mahishasura. Kali (the feminine form of Kaala" i.e. "time") is the primordial energy as power of Time, literally, the "creator or doer of time"—her first manifestation. After time, she manifests as "space", as Tara, from which point further creation of the material universe progresses. The divine Mother, Devi Adi parashakti, manifests herself in various forms, representing the universal creative force. She becomes Mother Nature (Mula Prakriti), who gives birth to all life forms as plants, animals, and such from Herself, and she sustains and nourishes them through her body, that is the earth with its animal life, vegetation, and minerals. Ultimately she re-absorbs all life forms back into herself, or "devours" them to sustain herself as the power of death feeding on life to produce new life. She also gives rise to Maya (the illusory world) and to prakriti, the force that galvanizes the divine ground of existence into self-projection as the cosmos. The Earth itself is manifested by Adi parashakti. Hindu worship of the divine Mother can be traced back to pre-vedic, prehistoric India.
The form of Hinduism known as Shaktism is strongly associated with Samkhya, and Tantra Hindu philosophies and ultimately, is monist. The primordial feminine creative-preservative-destructive energy, Shakti, is considered to be the motive force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos. The cosmos itself is purusha, the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, the "world soul". This masculine potential is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately all manifestations of the One Great Mother. Mother Maya or Shakti, herself, can free the individual from demons of ego, ignorance, and desire that bind the soul in maya (illusion). Practitioners of the Tantric tradition focus on Shakti to free themselves from the cycle of karma.
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. 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.
Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglican Christians regard Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the Theotokos or "Mother of God". For many believers she not only fulfills a maternal role, but is often viewed as a protective and intercessory force, a divinely established Mediatrix 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 clothed in sun" of 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. In Revelation 12:17 "the rest of her offspring" are described 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 Beloved Disciple as evidence that Mary is the mother of all Christians, taking the command "behold thy mother" to apply generally.
In 300 CE, the Mary was worshipped as a mother goddess in the Christian sect Collyridianism, which was found throughout Saudi Arabia. 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 discussed the group in his Panarion.
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 worship is heavily condemned by the Holy See as it had been suppressed and condemned among the Collyridianist sect in 300 CE.
New religious movements
Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) believe in, but do not worship, a Heavenly Mother, or heavenly mothers, the wife and female counterpart of the Heavenly Father. This belief is not emphasized, however, and typically, adherents pray to the "Father in Heaven."
The Mother Goddess, or Great Goddess, is a composite of various feminine deities from past and present world cultures, worshiped by modern Wicca and others broadly known as Neopagans. She is considered sometimes identified as a Triple Goddess, who takes the form of Maiden, Mother, and Crone archetypes. She is described as Mother Earth, Mother Nature, or the Creatress of all life. She is associated with the full moon and stars, the Earth, and the sea.
The writings of Aleister Crowley speak of Babalon, a variant of the Whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelation, as the mother goddess of Thelema. Of Babalon, Crowley wrote:
BABALON, as the Great Mother, represents MATTER, a word which is derived from the Latin word for Mother. She is the physical mother of each of us, the one who provided us with material flesh to clothe our naked spirits; She is the Archetypal Mother, the Great Yoni, the Womb of all that lives through the flowing of Blood; She is the Great Sea, the Divine Blood itself which cloaks the World and which courses through our veins; and She is Mother Earth, the Womb of All Life that we know.
Pachamama is sometimes syncretized the Virgin of Candelaria, of the Canary Islands. Chaxiraxi is the native sun goddess of the Guanche religion and associated with statues of a mother and child dated to before exploration by Europeans. The imagery and concepts may have been introduced to South American and Caribbean cultures by emigrants from there. The mother goddess figure they worship often is syncretised with the Yoruba goddess called by the names Iansan and Oyas.
The Rigveda calls the deity, Mahimata (R.V. 1.164.33), a term which literally means Great Mother.
In South America, contemporary Andean peoples such as the Quechua and Aymara believe in the Mother Earth Pachamama, whose worship cult is found in rural areas and towns at Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Northern Chile and Northwestern Argentina. Andean migrants carried the Pachamama cult to cities and many other extra-Andean places, including metropolitan Buenos Aires.
Yer Tanrı is the mother of Umai, also known as Ymai or Mai, the mother goddess of the Turkic Siberians. She is depicted as having sixty golden tresses, that resemble the rays of the sun. She is thought to have once been identical with Ot of the Mongols.
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. 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 early cultures and a major unification of two ancient countries into one, whose written history only begins at about 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.
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).
In Pacific cultures, the Earth Mother was known under as many names and with as many attributes as cultures who revered her, such as the Māori, whose creation myth included Papatuanuku (Earth Mother), partner to Ranginui (Sky Father) or Varima-te-takere (goddess of the beginning), the primordial mother in Cook Islands mythology. In South America in the Andes a cult of the Pachamama still survives (in regions of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile). The name comes from Pacha (Quechua for change, epoch) and Mama (mother). While ancient Mexican cultures referred to Mother Earth as Tonantzin Tlalli that means "Revered Mother Earth".
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.
Phra Mae Thorani is recognized as the Goddess of the earth in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries.
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 Theosophy, the Earth Goddess is called the "Planetary Logos of Earth".
In Wicca, the Earth Goddess is sometimes called Gaia. The name of the Mother Goddess varies depending on the Wiccan tradition.
Carl Gustav Jung suggested that the archetypal mother was a part of the collective unconscious of all humans, and various Jungian students, e.g. Erich Neumann and Ernst Whitmont have argued that such mother imagery underpins many mythologies, and precedes the image of the paternal "father", in such religious systems. Such speculations help explain the universality of such mother goddess imagery around the world.
The Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines have been sometimes explained as depictions of an Earth Goddess similar to Gaia.
In Native American Indian storytelling, "The Earth Goddess", is one of several Creator-based titles and names given to the Spider Grandmother.
In ancient Hawaii, Nuakea was a mother goddess of lactation.