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  It has long been argued, on the basis of archaeological evidence, that the original deity, or form given to the creative power behind the world, was the mother goddess. Cultic figures of pregnant women have been found at the oldest layers of ancient Near Eastern civilization, in Egypt and in the Indus Valley. Pregnant women were vital to the survival of society and the ability to give life pointed to a creator goddess. Simply known as the Devi, Goddess, she is still the most powerful god in villages in southern India, while tribal goddesses such as Kali (‘The Black One’) became national deities. A mother goddess (Gaia, ‘mother Earth’) was the focus of worship in pre-Hellenic Greece, but as in India, the invading Aryans brought male deities. Goddesses were the subject of powerful myths such as those of Isis, Demeter and the Babylonian moon goddess, having the power to resurrect their husbands, renew the earth, and grant fertility and health. Some were married off to the invaders, as in the case of Meenakshi, ‘the fish-eyed’ Tamil goddess of Madurai (now said to be an incarnation of Parvati), a mountain goddess and consort of Shiva.

Goddesses are often manifestations of Nature—mountains, rivers or astral bodies—or have the power to inflict illnesses such as cholera or smallpox. Here they verge on the demonic. (Perhaps because of male fear of uncontrollable female sexuality, demons are often female.) Women and female deities are seen as empathic with Nature or part of it, whereas male deities engage in battle, dominate storms and are generally ‘macho’. There are famous war-like exceptions, Durga, Kali and the huntress goddesses, but they have a tender side as well. On the other hand, particularly in Vaishnavite Hinduism, male deities such as Vishnu were felt to be incomplete and had to have a female consort to complete the fullness of deity. Sakti, the female power in the god, is of great importance in Tantricism.

The Sakti principle points to another development, the emergence of female deities who personify abstract principles, such as Wisdom, Good Fortune, Love, etc. The archetypal example of this is the Greek goddess Athene, who sprang fully grown, clothed and armed from Zeus\'s head as the goddess of wisdom and valour. A female principle, Wisdom exists as a separate entity in the later writings in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The questions are whether these female deities are meant to be or act as role models, whether they reflected the role of women in societies, or whether, as in the case of the Virgin Mary, it is a question of compensatory deification, in which female deities are honoured by a male priesthood while women are kept in submission.

Two trends have emerged among women theologians and worshippers today, alienated by male-dominated churches and synagogues. First, there is the attempt to revive knowledge and worship of the ancient mother goddess, especially (in the UK, at least) the Celtic goddess: this is sometimes combined with a ‘green’ approach, and with interest in Gaia (see Gaia hypothesis). Second, there is a restructuring of mainstream religion, as when words like ‘God/Ess’ are used to symbolize a non-patriarchal deity, or God is addressed as ‘She’ in the liturgy. EMJ

Further reading Asphodel Long, In a Chariot Drawn by Lions; The Search for the Female in Deity; , Margaret Murray, The Genesis of Religion.



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