Feminine Sacrality

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FEMININE SACRALITY . Attributing gender to manifestations of sacred power in the world is a long-standing human practice. Such manifestations generally are said to be "feminine" when they function in ways analogous to women's most common modes of physiological or cultural activity. Hence that which contains, as in a womb, is often considered feminine, particularly if the containment can be perceived as gestation (e.g., the gestation of seeds in the earth). That which nurtures by providing food and shelter or spiritual sustenance, as a mother offers milk and refuge to her child, may also be considered feminine. That which changes may be feminine, especially if it changes periodically, as a woman's body changes through its monthly cycle, swells in pregnancy, or replaces childhood smoothness with the fullness of maturity and later with the flaccidity of old age. Similarly, that which works changes on materials outside itself may be feminine, just as a woman's care changes her infant into a self-sufficient child or a woman's processing changes raw materials into food and clothing.

Feminine symbols and divinities were especially prominent in religious systems of ancient cultures, and they have remained important in certain Asian cultures and among small-scale agricultural and hunting peoples. Although overshadowed in the West for many centuries by male deities and imagery, they have undergone a renaissance in Neopagan, feminist spirituality, and environmentalist movements.

Feminine Sacrality in Nature

Perhaps the best-known and most frequently cited forms of feminine sacrality are those connected with that portion of the world at large that produces and reproduces itself without human intervention. Many peoples have experienced this "natural" world as a constellation of powers and realities that both limit humans and open human opportunities. Often such powers and realties in nature are perceived as female. In fact, the entire natural realm may be experienced as female; people in modern Western cultures acknowledge such an experience when they speak of "Mother Nature." But the experience of the "feminine" in nature is more commonly restricted to certain sectors.

The earth

"According to [alchemist] Basilus Valentinius, the earth is not a dead body but is inhabited by a spirit that is its life and soul. All created things, minerals included, draw their strength from the earth spirit. This spirit is life, and it gives nourishment to all the living things it shelters in its womb" (Jung, 1968, p. 342). Throughout history many peoples have taught that the earth is a living organism and the source of all other life that inhabits its surface and crevices. As such, it is the ultimate womb and mother of all.

A poet of ancient India celebrated the earth as "the mistress of that which was and shall be" and declared that "the earth is the mother, and I the earth's son." She is the "womb of all," pouring forth milk for her offspring (Atharvaveda 12.1.1, 10, 12, 43). A poet of ancient Greece sang to the earth as "mother of all things, feeding upon her soil all that exists"(Homeric Hymn to Earth ). The Oglala of the upper Great Plains in North America were solemnly taught: "For the Earth is your Grandmother and Mother and she is sacred. Every step that is taken upon her should be as a prayer" (Brown, 1953, pp. 56). Thus they prayed, "O you, Grandmother, from whom all things come, and O You, Mother Earth, who bear and nourish all fruits, behold us and listen" (Brown, 1953, p. 133).

When represented iconographically, the earth takes the form of a buxom, mature woman. Hindu temple sculptors have portrayed her in this way when illustrating the story of her rescue by a great boar that dives in pursuit after a demon carries her to the bottom of the ocean; she clings demurely to the boar's tusk as he rises from the waters. This boar is a form of Viu, great Lord of cosmic order. The earth also appears beside Viu in temple images as his consort the goddess Bhū, "She Who Becomes." Buddhist art offers a more revealing portrayal in scenes where the Buddha-to-be calls the earth to witness to his generosity as he strives to repel the attack of Māra, the god of death and desire. Here, the goddess appears as torso only, rising from the ground. The lower portion of her bodyher "womb"must be understood as the earth itself, of which the anthropomorphic torso is just a temporary projection. The earth goddess Gaia of ancient Greece was similarly portrayed as torso only.

The earth's motherhood is often understood quite literally. Across the world, myths have asserted that humans and other beings first emerged from a womb within the earth's depths. Bronislaw Malinowski's famed 1948 Trobriand Island studies found that residents of each village traced their ancestry to a sister and a brother who emerged from a nearby hole in the ground. In West Africa, the Ashanti likewise claimed that their ancestors first came from holes in the earth. Among native peoples of North America, 120 versions of human emergence from the earth have been recorded. The Oglala tell how their people were initially tricked into leaving the earth womb as the result of a conspiracy between Inktomi, the trickster Spider, and Anukite, the double-faced Deer Woman. The two enticed the people to the surface with gifts of meat and clothing and a promise of unending plenty. Then winter came, the buffalo grew scarce, and the people could no longer find their way back into the cave womb. In the Southwest the Navajo and Pueblo peoples developed complex emergence myths describing how the people evolved into higher and higher levels of refinement as they ascended through a series of wombs before exiting onto the earth's surface.

How are earth's offspring first engendered? The earth need not have a partner to help her produce her children. The Trobriand myths cited above make no mention of a genitor who fertilizes their great genetrix. According to Malinowski, Trobrianders themselves did not believe that children came through sexual fertilization. Like the earth from which they ascended, Trobriand women received departed ancestral spirits into their wombs and returned these spirits to life as children. Hence both earth and women accomplished a form of parthenogenesis (virgin birth).

In many cultures, however, the earth is paired with a male fecundator, usually Sky Father. Before the known world is created, she and he are a single entity, locked together in a lasting embrace. Then the embrace is broken, and earth and sky separate, allowing light and motion to enter the intervening realm. Sometimes this separation is voluntary, as in the long cosmogonic cycle of the North American Zuni, where Earth Mother pushes Sky Father away after she becomes pregnant. Often, however, the separation is forced. In a version of this myth told by the Arawa tribe of New Zealand, the children of the primeval parents Ranga and Papa separate their parents because they have grown weary of the darkness. After several fruitless attempts, the sonTane-mahuta, "father of forests" (a great tree)shoves them apart. In the Mediterranean world the act becomes still more violent; according to the version retold by the Greek poet Hesiod, the primeval mother and father, Gaia and Ouranos, separate after their son Kronos castrates his father with a sickle.

If the earth is a sacred mother, it follows that the act of tilling her is also potentially an act of violence. The violence implicit in gardening is vividly acknowledged in a myth from the island of Ceram in Indonesia. A pubescent maiden named Hainuwele is slain and dismembered as her people perform a spiral dance. When planted, her body parts yield the yams that are the islanders' chief staple food and gardening product. Because her murder brings death into the world, the violence that brings the yams also costs Hainuwele's people the paradisal life that they had known before.

Reluctance to violate the earth and seize her products can also be seen in a frequently cited speech by the American Indian prophet Smohalla. Told that his people should become farmers, Smohalla responded: "You ask me to plough the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breast? Then when I die she will not take my bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone. Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men. But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?" (Mooney, 1896, p. 721).

The cave as earth womb

If humans are children of earth, born from a womb in her depths, the significance of caves in religious belief and practice becomes apparent. Often a people identifies some cave within its ancestral territory as its own place of origin. For example, the Oglala say their ancestors emerged at Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The belief that caves are the original earth wombs may have been responsible for the great cave sanctuaries of Paleolithic times in Europe. Sections that bear splendid paintings of animals and the hunt are all hard to reach and are located at a distance from the entrance. Some scholars have argued that these caverns may have been utilized for another sort of "birthing" from the earthnamely rituals of initiationsuch as those that often feature a symbolic "return to the womb." In this case the return would have been literal, as initiates worked their way back into the bowels of the earth from which their ancestors had ascended.

Another sort of return to the earth mother is accomplished when humans encounter death. The land of the dead is often located in a cavern beneath the earth. In the Latin epic Aeneid, the hero Aeneas descends to the land of the dead via a cave at Cumae, west of present-day Naples. The Greeks similarly located their Erebus or Tartarus in a subterranean region, as did the Hebrews their Sheʾol. Muslim texts portray the underworld as the huge fiery crater Jahannam, into which the unrighteous are thrown after judgment. Dante borrowed from such concepts when he portrayed his Inferno as a fiery pit whose nadir is deep within the earth's bowels.

The classical Mediterranean underworlds described above are not explicitly defined as female. Nor do females alone rule them; in Greek and Roman sources a goddess (Greek, Persephone; Latin, Proserpina) shares the throne of the dead with her consort (Greek, Hades; Latin, Pluto). In ancient Sumeria, however, the netherworld's queen was a lone goddess, the dread widow Ereshkigal. Similarly, the Germanic goddess Hel was her underworld's sole ruler. In Japan the counterpart was the primeval ancestress Izanagi, who became the first being to die (after giving birth to fire). Among the Maori of New Zealand, the ruler of the dead was Hine-nui-te-po (great goddess of darkness), a former dawn maiden who fled in shame to the underworld after learning that her husband was also her father.

Alternatively, a dread female guards the underworld's entrance; she is often less a woman than a female monster. Perhaps the most interesting example is a figure prominent in myth and ritual of the island of Malekula in the archipelago of Vanuatu. Malekulans say the wind blows the released soul across the waters of death. On the farther side, by the underworld's entrance, the soul encounters the monstrous female Le-hev-hev. Before her on the sand is the design of a maze or labyrinth, half of which she erases as the soul approaches. The soul must restore the missing half of the drawing in order to enter the land of the dead. If the soul fails, the guardian devours it. Mastery of this labyrinth thus becomes a central feature of Malekulan initiation rites.

Feminine sacrality and water

Note that the Malekulan myth perceives the journey of death not only as a passage into a female underworld but also as a voyage that crosses water. Water appears often in stories of human descents to and emergences from subterranean regions. The Greek who entered the underworld land of the dead had to cross the river Styx. Called by Hesiod the "awful goddess hated by the other gods," the Styx was a branch of the ocean stream that coiled around the world (Theogony 12.775778). According to Plato, a soul returning to the earth for rebirth had to cross and drink from another river, Lethe, the stream of forgetfulness (Republic 10.620). In some regions of rural Europe, even during the twentieth century, the souls of children were said to emerge not only from caves but also from grottoes, pools, and springs. Versions of the Native American emergence myth replace the usual cave of emergence with a lake, or a subterranean flood drives the people to the surface.

Waters are not merely an amniotic presence within the earth womb; in many cosmogonic accounts they also become the very matrix from which the earth is born. Even the resolutely male-centered Judeo-Christian Creation myth acknowledges their presence: in the beginning the spirit of God hovers upon the face of the waters. In the ancient Near East, where this account originated, other stories of the world's origin depict a process of evolution from primeval waters. According to the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, waters alone existed in the beginning. The sweet and potable waters called Apsu that now lie beneath the earth were then commingled with the primal sea Tiamat. As the two lay together, early generations of the gods were born, culminating in the lord Ea. Then Apsu plotted to kill his children, because their clamor disturbed him. But Ea overcame Apsu and established a dwelling place for himself upon Apsu's waters. Thus the first separation of waters occurred. The second followed after Tiamat, angered by the loss of her consort, gave birth to an army of monsters that attacked her divine children. The latter then found a new hero, Ea's son Marduk. Following a ferocious battle, Marduk slew Tiamat and split her body in a second separation of waters. Half of that body was cast upward to become the waters of the sky. A gap in the text prevents an understanding of what became of the other half, but presumably it transformed into rivers and oceans, whereas Ea's dwelling, the land, was extended as homes for other gods were added. Finally, humankind was created to serve the gods in their new shrines.

According to one Hindu version of the cosmogony, the world's source is a giant male who sleeps upon a serpent in primal waters. A lotus or tree grows from his navel; both are symbols of the cosmos. Alternatively, an egg is born from the waters and then breaks apart, its two halves evolving into heaven and earth. In the Finnish epic Kalevala a bird lays the cosmic egg on a knee that the Mother of Waters raises to give the bird a place to build her nest.

Waters preceding the earth's birth become even more explicitly amniotic in "earth diver" myths common in Siberia and on the west coast of North America. In a gesture reminiscent of sexual intercourse, a male animal dives beneath the waters to secure a few scrapings of soil that will become the germ of the land. The land is then stretched out from a central point, just as an embryo grows from its navel. Often the diver in such stories is a duck or a turtle. The boar who rescues the earth and takes her as consort in the Hindu story cited earlier is an alternative form of the Siberian earth diver transplanted onto Indian soil.

Just as waters that give birth to the earth or nourish nascent life beneath its surface are often female, so also are waters flowing over the earth's surface. India is the preeminent land of sacred female watercourses; all of its rivers are goddesses, the first of them being Gangā Mātā (Mother Ganges). Female deities guarded rivers in China, above all in the South. Especially prominent in ancient times, they often had dragonlike characteristics. In ancient Mexico all rivers belonged to the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue (jade skirt). The face of the Mediterranean world was dotted by springs, pools, and streams inhabited by water nymphs or dryads. Similar lesser female deities connected to local waters are found across Eurasia. Sometimes, like the little mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen's celebrated folktale, they venture forth on the earth seeking human lovers or husbands. The child born of such a liaison may become a great king or hero.

Mounds, rocks, and mountains

Rivers are not the only manifestation of the feminine upon the earth's surface; any protuberance or extension of the earth may be viewed as a special concentration of the feminine. Mounds are often associated with the feminine sacred and honored as earth navelsplaces where the earth first rose above the waters. The famous omphalos (navel) at Delphi, where the Pythia sat to receive visions of the future, was such a mound; appropriately, like the mound itself and the earth from which it erupted, the priestess-seer of the oracle was also female. Rocks may also manifest female power. In village shrines of South India small rocks or heaps of stones are icons for the ammas, local goddesses who protect the villages. When the goddess Cybele was moved to Rome from her initial home in Anatolia, she traveled in the form of a sacred black stone. Again, a mountain or volcano may be the visible form of a goddess or her dwelling place or birthplacea good example is the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea, venerated as home of the goddess Pele.


In the varied mythologies of the world, sacred plants and vegetation deities have been both male and female. Nonetheless, plants are conspicuously connected to both the earth and the waters and often linked with female powers. Popular images of a goddess who is a source of life and fertility may show her seated under a tree or clinging to a branch with her hand, or her body becomes the tree's trunk while its branches rise from her shoulders. Female spirits often haunt trees. Herbs too may be female: a hymn of India's Yajur Veda exclaims: "O herbs! Oh, you who are mothers! I hail you as goddesses!" (4.2.6). Sacred plants that grow in swamps are often female; India's lotus, closely associated with Lakmī, goddess of prosperity, is an excellent example.

Staple food plants too are sometimes manifestations, gifts, or transformations of feminine sacred powers. This concept was mentioned above in the myth of the murdered maiden Hainuwelethe yam is the transformed maiden. In North America a similar story is told about the origin of corn, which many Native Americans revered as Corn Mother. According to one version of Corn Mother's story, the slain goddess was killed and dragged along the ground to fertilize the land where corn would emerge. An alternative version claims the goddess gave the corn and its rites to the husband who pursued her after she ran away from home.

Lady of the animals

Given the central role of the earth and waters in crop production, it is not surprising that forms of feminine sacrality are often prominent among peoples who practice gardening and agriculture. Except for the earth mother, honored widely among all people who depend on her products, important feminine powers are found less often among hunting peoples. Occasionally, however, a goddess appears among the category of deities known as "lords of animals." Such deities control the supply of animals essential to the hunting economy, either by creating them, corralling and releasing them to produce scarcity and abundance, or restoring them to life after they have been slain. One such lady of animals is the ill-tempered Sedna of Inuit (Eskimo) legends. Deprived of her fingers and drowned by her father, this once-human maiden tends the seals at the bottom of the ocean. Misdeeds of the Eskimo foul her hair, which she cannot comb for lack of fingers. She then becomes angry and withholds the seals, releasing them only after a shaman descends to comb her matted hair. A far more positive figure is the White Buffalo Calf Woman of the Oglala Lakota. Appearing either as a white buffalo or as a beautiful young woman, this deity brought the sacred pipe to the Lakota and taught them how to summon the Great Spirit with it. She is a prototype not only of the buffalo but also of Oglala women, who were initiated at puberty by a rite in which they imitated movements of a buffalo cow.

Darkness, night, and moon

The earth's dark crevices are often perceived as the womb of an awesome feminine power, and by extension darkness of any kind may be perceived as female. Hence night becomes a female deity, often of awesome poweraccording to the Greek epic Iliad, even Zeus, king of the gods, dared not displease Night. Night may replace the waters as preformal matrix in accounts of the birth of the cosmos. An Orphic myth recounts how Night laid a silver egg in the womb of Darkness. Eros, or desire, was born from that egg and set the universe in motion. In most mythologies of the world, however, Night is relegated to the background of dramatic action; her principal luminary, the moon, receives far more attention.

The moon is most simply perceived as a complement to the sunas spouse, lover, or sibling. As the gentler of the two lights, the moon is often, but not always, the female partner. Myths of marriage between the sun and the moon are legion, as are etiological accounts explaining why they do not travel the sky at the same time. The most common cause of their separation is some kind of falling-out. An African myth reports, for example, that the moon tired of the sun and took a lover after she had borne many children (the stars) with her husband. The sun then divided his possessions with her and drove her and her children away from his home. A similar myth of the Oglala tells how Moon and Sun were assigned to separate realms after the woman Face usurped the Moon's place beside her husband at a banquet.

Perhaps because she is so often a prototypical spouse, or perhaps because her body swells periodically, the moon is closely linked to pregnancy and childbirth. Lunar goddesses often preside over childbirth or protect married women during their childbearing years. Examples include Juno, a powerful goddess of ancient Italy who became queen of the Roman pantheon, and Mama Quilla, sister and wife and second in command to Inti, the sun god of the Inca Empire. In many areas of the world, mothers hold newborn babies up to the light of the moon, believing that this act brings blessings upon the children. Even when portrayed as a masculine power, the moon retains its connection with childbearing; many peoples tell tales of women made pregnant by moonbeams.

The moon is also cyclic, and the connection between lunar and menstrual cycles has often been noted. The Mbuti (Pygmy) peoples of Africa call menstrual blood matu (moon maiden), while the Iroquois of North America have maintained that all menstrual periods occur when the moon is new. Both the association with childbearing and this link to the menstrual cycle seem to generate a special bond between the moon and pubescent women. The Ceramese story of Hainuwelethe maiden whose murder results in the first yams (see above)has a striking variant in which a rape precedes the murder and the murdered maiden becomes the moon. In this version an ugly rash-covered sun man named Tuwale seeks to marry the maiden, here called Rabia. After he passes harsh tests that her parents set to dissuade him, the parents allow the wedding but place a dead pig in the marriage bed instead of their daughter. The angry Tuwale pursues his fleeing bride and claims her so violently that he pounds her into the ground and no one can free her. As she sinks into the earth, she asks her parents to perform a three-day funeral ritual for her, substituting a dead pig for her missing body. On the third night, she says, she will reappear, shining down upon them as a light from heaven.

The myth of Rabia points to a third important aspect of lunar sacrality, its ties to cycles of death and regeneration. The moon constantly dies and is as constantly reborn. Thus the moon may be a source of immortality, or the home of a goddess who possesses some life-sustaining nectar. The Chinese say, for example, that the moon goddess Chʾang-o was once a woman who stole the elixir of immortality from her husband; she then fled to the moon to escape her husband's anger. Women and children honored this goddess in one of China's three great annual festivals.

Finally, lunar cycles mark off the passage of time and help to weave the tapestry that is human history. The moon is linked to goddesses who determine human fate, such as the Greek Moirai or the Germanic Norns. Like the moon herself, such goddesses are often portrayed as spinners and weavers; two of the Norns spin and twist the thread of life, while the third cuts it off. Lunar goddesses of fate are commonly portrayed in triple form, corresponding to the waxing, full, and waning moon, as well as to past, present, and future or to youth, adulthood, and old age.

Sun and fire

In its journeys through the sky, the sun has also woven human time and cosmic rhythms. The sun may therefore also be a weaver, as in Japanese tales of Amaterasu, one of the rare female solar divinities to become the focus of a significant cult. Amaterasu was the ancestress of Japan's imperial lineage; a priestess from the imperial family still serves her shrine at Ise. According to the chronicles Kojiki and Nihongi, Amaterasu emerged from the right eye of the primal ancestor Izanami as he cleansed himself in a river after an abortive attempt to rescue his consort Izanagi from the land of the dead. Amaterasu's most famous myth describes how she fled from the earth and hid in a cave, from which she was coaxed by the sight of her own shining reflection in a mirror. She hid after her obstreperous brother Susano-o polluted her sacred weaving hall by heaving into it a piebald colt skinned backward. One weaving maiden startled by this stabbed her genitals with a shuttle and died (according to one version of the story, Amaterasu herself was this maiden).

Like the sun, fire is usually understood to be a masculine power, but there are some noteworthy exceptions. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the hearth fire was a goddess (Greek, Hestia; Roman, Vesta). In ancient Rome this goddess had a special temple at which a perpetual fire burned. Priestesses who tended this fire had to remain celibateto lose one's virginity (and hence pollute the vestal fire) brought a penalty of death. The hearth fire was also a goddess among the Ainu people of Japan. This Old Goddess of the Hearth, named Fuji like Japan's most famous volcano, was not only a means of cooking and the source of a family's warmth but also a psychopomp, guiding souls of the dead back to the land of spirits from which they had come. Another apparent connection between the fire of the hearth and volcanic fire is found in one of the many Polynesian tales about the trickster Maui. Maui steals fire for the use of humankind from his ancestress Mahui-ike, who lives in the underworld and hoards the fire in her fingernails. Fire likewise emerges from a tellurian woman's body in the Japanese story (cited above) of the ancestress Izanagi, who dies as she gives birth to her fiery son.

Feminine Sacrality in Culture

In his massive study of feminine symbols and divinities titled The Great Mother (1963), the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann points to two fundamental aspects of feminine power that such symbols and divinities manifest. On the one hand, feminine power is source, giving rise to the multiple forms of life, whereas on the other hand it is process, an agent of growth and transformation. Both aspects of the feminine can be recognized in the natural manifestations described in the preceding section. But it is the second, the transformative, that becomes most prominent in the modes of feminine sacrality associated with cultural activities and institutions. For the production of culture itself is a process of transformation: that which comes to humans "raw" from the natural realm is "cooked" and made fit for human consumption.

Feminine sacrality can enter at virtually any point in this transformative process. In rituals of initiation, for example, where initiates must leave one mode of human existence and enter another, the transition may be accomplished by passing them through the womb of a female power. The postulated relationship between this practice and the cave sanctuaries of western Europe were noted above. Both men and women may evoke feminine powers in rituals of this sort, although the ways in which they utilize them are likely to differ.

Gardening, weaving, baking and cooking, and pottery

However, certain transformative processes seem so inherently female that some cultures assign them usually or solely to women. The underlying premise here seems to be that the women who bear life and nurture it into growth are better attuned than men to the powers that achieve these transformations. Hence they are better qualified to channel such powers.

Gardening is perhaps the simplest example of a process in which women work with a power construed as feminine to capture a segment of the wild natural world and tame it for human appropriation. In some societies only women practice gardening, especially if other activities, such as hunting, give men alternative economic functions. Among the North American Iroquois, for example, not only were women responsible for all practical functions of gardening, but they also summoned and supervised all calendrical rites connected to gardening and "owned" all of the songs with themes related to food crops. Weaving is another transformative skill often located within the special province of women. Celestial powers that mark off time, such as the moon and the sun, are regarded as spinners and weavers of human destiny. The women who shape human destiny on earth by bearing and nurturing children may appropriately be accounted mistresses of spinning and weaving. Indeed, the two processes may influence each other. Thus people of rural Sweden once believed that if a woman who had just finished weaving rode away carrying a stick she had stuck in her web, she would conceive a child of the same sex as the first person or animal she met. If her husband cut her web from its loom quickly and efficiently, his horses would deliver foals with ease. The power of the weaver's web to alter the world around it also explains the many weaving enchantresses of the world's folklore.

Cooking and baking also tap the transformative powers characteristic of feminine sacrality and of women. A striking illustration is found in the Navajo Kinaaldá ceremony, which completes a girl's transition to adulthood after the appearance of her menses. During the ceremony the girl impersonates and becomes Changing Woman, a complex mythical being who empowers all growth and transformation in the cosmos. As a focal act of the long and taxing ritual, the girl and the women who sponsor her prepare an enormous corn cake. It is then baked in a pit in the earth for an entire night, during which time the girl and her helpers must not fall asleep. The cake is cut on the following day, and the girl hands out pieces to guests at the ceremony. Because many aspects of the ceremony test the girl's ability to function as a woman, it seems appropriate to assume that the cake is also a test. It tests her ability, as representative of Changing Woman, to take the corn that is sacred to the Navajo and change it into food.

The story of Changing Woman's own Kinaaldá asserts that the cake represents Mother Earth. The cake is, in fact, born of the earth, a product of the corn and the pit in which it is cooked. Transformative powers of cooking and baking are often linked to the earth, for the various pots, cauldrons, and ovens in which these processes are accomplished are made of the clay or iron that constitute the earth's own substance. Thus pots, cauldrons, and ovens are doubly feminine, both as extensions of the earth and as sources of nourishment. It is no wonder then that pottery making is sometimes restricted to women, as it is among the Pueblo peoples of North America. Nor is it surprising that pots can substitute for the earth or earth goddesses in myths and rituals. A story of the Dinka in East Africa recounts how the Creator grew the first humans to full size in a pot after he had made themthe pot clearly represents the earth womb. Pots are often used as movable images of goddesses during various rites and festivals of India.

Spiritual transformations

The province of the feminine sacred is not restricted to material transformations. Processes of spiritual growth and transformation may also tap powers perceived as feminine.

Institutions offering spiritual nourishment and the promise of renewed life are often described through feminine metaphors. The Christian Church has been called the mother of Christ's flock, nourishing his children with her milk. Such maternal imagery is partly an extension of the metaphor in the New Testament Letter to the Ephesians (5:2332) portraying the church as a "wife" of Christ. For Jews, the life-giving bride is not the community itself but the radiant Sabbath that arrives to restore it each week. "Come, my friend, to meet the bride; Let us welcome in the Sabbath" begins the sixteenth-century song Lecha Dodi by Solomon Alkabets, still sung at Friday evening Sabbath services. Nor is this concept of the Sabbath bride merely a literary image; during medieval times in Europe, Jewish qabbalists dressed in their best clothes on the Sabbath eve and went to the fields to welcome the incoming beloved.

Alternatively, the knowledge, insight, or wisdom that brings spiritual maturation may be assigned feminine gender and portrayed iconographically by female images. In Hindu India the goddess Sarasvatī is the patron of knowledge, honored especially by scholars and students. For Buddhists of the Mahāyāna tradition, also Indian in origin, the term for liberating insight (prajñā) was likewise feminine; its ultimate form prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom) is called the "Mother of Buddhas" and is represented iconographically as a goddess. In writings of Hellenistic Judaism and of Greek Orthodox Christianity, Sophia, saving Wisdom, was at times identified as the female aspect of an androgynous God.

The compassionate figure who intervenes to aid the needy struggler for salvation may likewise be female. The bodhisattva Kuan-yin of Pure Land Buddhist sects in China is an especially interesting example, because her prototype, the Indian Avalokiteśvara, was male. This personification of the Mahāyāna virtue of compassion came to escort the faithful to paradise at the hour of death. But he or she also offered other, lesser, varieties of salvation by extinguishing fires, stilling waves, calming storms, freeing those condemned to prison or slavery or execution, disarming enemies, blinding demons, even bringing healthy babies to imploring women. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians are familiar with the compassionate intervening female in the form of the Virgin Mary.

The Terrible Side of the Feminine Sacred

Concepts of the earth as feminine power also include a more daunting aspect. The power who brings forth life also reabsorbs it into herself as the dread goddess who rules the subterranean land of the dead. Moreover, the terrible aspect of certain female deities is not merely a product of association with the bowels of a feminine earth; rather it is the other side of the processes of growth and transformation that so many female deities represent. Life and growth inevitably entail death and decay, while misdirected spiritual striving readily deteriorates into madness.

Perhaps the most infamous of the deadly goddesses is Kālī, the awesome Black Goddess of India, born from the wrath of her demon-slaying mother Durgā. Kālī's teeth are fangs; her tongue lolls out of her devouring mouth like that of a wild dog or tiger. One of her many hands brandishes an upraised sword, another lifts a bowl of blood made from the sliced-off cap of a human skull. Kālī wears a necklace of human heads and a skirt of lopped-off human arms; sometimes she stands, squats, or dances on the corpse of her consort, the great Lord Śiva. Kālī is time and death, but also life, and may be adored as a loving mother. She is also the illusion inherent in life's pleasures, so affirming her for what she is can sustain her worshiper on a liberating path.

Still more gruesome than Kālī was a trio that reflected the horrors implicit in the Aztec cult of war and human sacrifice. To recognize their role as the terrible side of the same process that generates life, one must understand the Aztec presuppositions that human sacrifice was necessary to replenish the swiftly waning vitality of the cosmos and that war was also essential to provide victims for the sacrifice. Coatlicue (snake skirt) was mother to the war god Huitzilopochtli. She wears a skirt of writhing snakes, from which she derives her name; her hands are the heads of serpents; her feet have the claws of a predatory bird. She is headless and twin spurts of blood gush from her neck into the mouths of waiting rattlesnakes. Closely related to Coatlicue is Cihuacoatl (snake woman), said to "preside over and personify the collective hunger of the gods for human victims" (Brundage, 1979, p. 170). She was also sometimes called the war god's mother, for she incited the wars over which Huitzilopochtli presided. In Aztec iconography the lower jaw of Cihuacoatl's gaping mouth is that of a bare human skeleton. Her clothes and body are the chalky white of a heap of bleached bones. She prowls at night, braying and screaming insanely; on her back is the knife of sacrifice, swaddled like an Aztec baby. The knife is a transformation of the third terrible goddess, Itzpapalotl (obsidian knife butterfly). This knife is one of the fragments into which this goddess shattered after antagonistic gods cast her into a fire. She wears a skirt fringed with knives and has the wings and tail of a bird; similarly, her hands and feet have a predatory bird's sharp talons.

Cihuacoatl sometimes was said to change into a beautiful young woman. She would seduce men, who withered and died after they had intercourse with her. She has counterparts in the sirens and seducers recurring in folk songs and legends throughout the worldthe seduction that lures men to death or madness is a common characteristic of the awful feminine sacred. Dreadful female powers may also be patrons of witches, like Hekate, the triple-headed goddess of ancient Greece. In the dark of the night, Hekate prowled the world with a pack of bitches, hunting souls to take to her friend Persephone, queen of the dead.

Feminine Sacrality in Women

This same ambiguity of response to feminine sacralitythe recognition that it holds both constructive and destructive potentialis found in conceptions of the sacrality of ordinary women. Women themselves have been viewed as repositories of creative and transformative power throughout human history and within a wide variety of cultural contexts. This concept is inherent in the belief that women are better attuned than men to transformative procedures, such as weaving and cooking. The next section explores further this concept of feminine powers linking women to other aspects of the cosmos. This section examines two different ways in which women's sacrality has been imagined.

According to one prominent conception, women are sacred under specific physiological circumstances: sacred power resides in the condition rather than in the woman. For example, menstruation and childbirth often render a woman taboo and dangerous, because she produces blood, an extremely potent substance. Pregnancy may likewise bring danger: in rural Taiwan a pregnant woman is a threat to brides and children. Virginity evokes purity, and virgins may be essential to certain ritual roles, such as cutting the sacred tree during the Lakota sun dance or tending the vestal fire in ancient Rome. Menopause may endow women with magical or healing powers; hence older women are subject to accusations of witchcraft but are also often solicited for special ritual functions.

A different conception of women's sacrality perceives women as repositories of a single power that they manifest and channel throughout their lives. But this power becomes alternatively beneficent or destructive depending on whether or not it is properly disciplined. For example, all women of Tamil Nadu in South India are understood to be vehicles for śakti, a natural energy essential to all action and prosperity. A married woman who controls her śakti via faithfulness to her husband is extremely auspicious. Considered a living incarnation of Lakmī, the goddess of good fortune, she blesses her family not only while she is alive but even after her death. More capricious but still beneficent is the virgin female who is not yet marriedher śakti is an unrealized potential. Negative and potentially dangerous figures are widows, unmarried mothers, barren women, and women who die in pregnancy and childbirth. The awesome power of a disciplined śakti is most dramatically displayed in the Tamil epic Cilappatikāram. The faithful wife Kannagi, widowed by miscarried justice, destroys not only the king responsible for her suffering but also his capital city Madurai. No matter how conceived, women's sacrality is often said to be prior to powers that men hold or channel. A myth acknowledging this priority has been recorded in regions of the world as disparate as Africa, Australia, and Tierra del Fuego. Once upon a time, it asserts, women had control of the sacred symbols and rituals. One day, however, the men stole these symbols and rituals (according to some versions, because women were abusing their power). An Australian version of the story points to the counterbalancing reserve of sacrality that compensates the women for their loss. When the Djanggawul sisters realize what has happened, they say: "We know everything. We have really lost nothing, for we remember it all, and we can let them have that small part. For aren't we still sacred, even if we have lost the bags? Haven't we still our uteri?" (Berndt, 1953, pp. 4041).

Feminine Sacrality as Unifying Power with Multiple Manifestations

While surveying the wide variety of forms through which feminine sacrality has been manifested, it is important to remember that the powers called "sacred" and "feminine" are not always related to these forms in the same way. People who speak of the earth as their sacred mother sometimes intend this statement quite literally: the earth itself is the awesome power that sustains them. But they may also refer to a generative and transformative power that resides within the earth. The same is true of other manifestations. The moon may be a deity, discrete and specific to the ever-changing orb that paces the night sky. Or a deity may show herself or himself through the moon. This distinction between manifestation and power is reflected in the common assertion that the moonor mountain, cave, or springis the deity's "home." Such an assertion leaves open the possibility that the deity will have another home, or possibly many homesthat is to say, the power that is the deity may have many modes of manifestation. In fact, many of the great goddesses not explored in this article represent powers of birth, transformation, and death that show themselves in many different ways. The celebrated goddesses of the ancient Near East were all multiple-mode deities of this order. The Egyptian Isis, for example, was the deified throne, which in turn extended and concentrated the power of the earth. But she was also known as the "mother of stars," or Night, and her tears produced the Nile's annual and fructifying flood. She could bring life out of deathand did so when she awoke her dead husband Osiris and secured from him the child Horus. Yet she was also death, as is shown by her title "queen of the west"west being the direction of the underworld. Isis even became the compassionate savior who bestows wisdom and immortality upon the faithful when the Greeks and Romans converted her cult into a mystery religion. Changing Woman of the Navajo, Durgā of Indiaeven the Virgin Mary of Christianityall are feminine powers with multiple modes of expression.

In some cases even the deity herself is understood to be a form of some more abstract energy that she shares with other manifestations. South India's multiple goddessesDurgā, her extension Kālī, the many village "mothers"are all modes of śakti, which, as demonstrated, is also manifested in ordinary women and in all forces of increase and prosperity. This inherently female energy may in turn be located within some overarching schema that juxtaposes it against a complementary energy identified as male. The Chinese concept of yin and yang is a classic example: yin predominates in everything that is dark, shaded, cool, wet, waning, bending, earthy, and female; whereas yang is bright, hot, dry, waxing, stubborn, aggressive, heavenly, and male. Despite the high level of abstraction that has generated these concepts, one recognizes in yin several components that have been associated with feminine sacrality in many eras and cultures: the earth, the dark, the waters, the changing, and the dying.

More frequently the concept of a common power remains unarticulated; only the network of symbols clustered together in myth or ritual reveals the presumption that they somehow share a common essence. Earth/waters/moon/women/root crops is one such cluster, often found in horticultural societies, that links together the sources and manifestations of growth and transformation. But the complex need not be the same in all cultures. The ethnographer Joseph Bastien (2001) has studied a complex in Andean Bolivia that clusters women, river, wind, and ratsall powers sharing the capacity to flow or erode, and therefore bring about change.

Contemporary Feminine Sacrality

Many beliefs and customs cited above have faded as the people who have carried them slip under the influence of modern secular culture. Some, however, have gained new prominence as the result of twentieth-century movements grounded in political or countercultural protest. During the later years of British colonial rule in India, for example, nationalists striving to rouse Hindus to resistance did so by evoking ancient images of land-linked goddesses and śakti. India was a goddess, they taught, a once-generous and loving mother currently battered and starved by oppressive rulers. Nonetheless, śakti newly awakening in the world could empower Mother India's progeny to free her and restore her. One by-product of such rhetoric has been a revival of Hindu interest in female deities, female symbols, and holy women.

In English-speaking countries of the Western world, renewed interest in female sacred imagery has been largely a product of three separate but intertwined movements: contemporary paganism, especially the several strands of Wicca ("wise one"; also called "the Craft"); the closely related "feminist spirituality" movement; and the environmental or "green" movement. The first documented coven of the movement called Wicca began meeting in England in 1948 under the leadership of occult enthusiast Gerald Gardener. Gardener claimed he was reviving pre-Christian ritual traditions that had been preserved in secret over the centuries by lineages of practitioners who, during the Middle Ages, had been burned as witches. Intended to bring worldly benefit and healing, these ancient rituals drew on sacred powers grounded in the natural realm. Central to these were a horned god and an awesome goddess said to have been worshiped since Paleolithic times, as well as assignment of priestly roles to women. Portrayals of the goddess reflected ideas current in popular and academic literature of the time. She manifested in three modes (maiden, mother, and crone), was immanent in all nature, and had special links to earth and moon, fertility and transformation. Certain Wiccan traditions emerging after Gardener's further emphasized roles of both the goddess and of womenso-called Dianic Wiccans honor the goddess alone and initiate only women into their covens.

The feminist spirituality movement is an offshoot of a critique of patriarchy in religion that began among woman theologians in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Although some feminist theologians chose to work for change within traditional religious frameworks, others aligned themselves with Wiccans in embracing feminine symbols and constructions of deity. Proponents of feminist spirituality seek to empower women, to help them draw on their own strengths and value their own bodies, and to turn women's energies toward working for a more humane and sustainable world. In doing so they have drawn on many ideas and images described in this essay: images of female deity immanent in the world and natural processes; mythic images of divine maidens, mothers, and crones that reveal different modes of female potentiality; and positive values placed on transformation, nurture, and interdependence.

Many contemporary pagans and proponents of feminist spirituality strongly support environmental movements, asserting that their beliefs promote reverence for nature and resistance to earth's exploitation. An important link between these groups and environmentalists has been the "Gaia hypothesis," first published in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) by the scientific writer James Lovelock. Lovelock argues that earth and the natural environment should be viewed as a single massive organism, which he calls Gaia, the ancient Greek name for the goddess Earth. To Lovelock, the image of earth as goddess is a metaphor meant to change attitudes toward the matrix in which humans live. Neopagans and spiritual feminists sometimes interpret his image more literally, however.

But this need not be the case, for precise nuances of belief within such movements vary widely. Goddesses may be understood literally as powerful sacred beings external to humans, as powers of growth and transformation surging within the world and humans, and as metaphors for human potentiality. Some groups honor the Wiccan threefold goddess and address her by Celtic or classic names; some may study and call upon female figures from all the world's mythologies; or some may say that, in the end, all goddesses are one. All assert that imageries of feminine sacrality affirm life, connection, the female body, sexuality, and change; that they aid in dealing with death; that they promote creativity and respect for nature; and that they counteract exploitation not only of nature but also throughout human society.

See Also

Durgā Hinduism; Earth; Gender and Religion; Lady of the Animals; Lotus; Moon; Mountains; Phallus and Vagina; Sexuality; Shabbat; Stones; Textiles; Water; Webs and Nets; Wisdom.


A path-breaking comparative study of female sacrality still of value is the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann's The Great Mother, 2d ed., translated by Ralph Manheim (New York, 1963; reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1972). Especially valuable are its many photographic plates. Neumann's data are embedded in a controversial theory of the evolution of human consciousness, and readers using his work must remain critically alert. Many fine studies of goddesses and goddess mythology supplement Neumann's work. Useful essay collections are James J. Preston, ed., Mother Worship (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982); Carl Olson, ed., The Book of the Goddess, Past and Present (New York, 1983); and John Stratton Hawley and Donna M. Wulff, eds., Devī: Goddesses of India (Berkeley, Calif., 1996). Valuable single-author works are Lotte Motz, The Faces of the Goddess (New York and Oxford, 1997); David R. Kinsley, The Goddesses' Mirror (Albany, N.Y., 1989); and Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses (Berkeley, Calif., 1986).

Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion, translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York, 1958), cites many valuable examples of earth, waters, moon, vegetation, and gardening symbolisms; his Birth and Rebirth (London, 1958), issued in the United States as Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York, 1958; reprint, New York, 1975), offers significant insight into the role of feminine symbolism in initiation. Charles H. Long's Alpha: The Myths of Creation (New York, 1963) furnishes fine examples of world parent, earth diver, and emergence myths. For a helpful survey of the latter in North America, see also Erminie Wheeler-Vogelin and Remedios W. Moore's "The Emergence Myth in North America," in Studies in Folklore, edited by W. Edson Richmond, pp. 6991 (Bloomington, Ind., 1957). Sam D. Gill's Mother Earth: An American Story (Chicago, 1987) challenges the idea that Mother Earth is an ancient Native American conceptualization. See also C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, vol. 12 of Collected Works (Princeton, N.J., 1968), and Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (Garden City, N.Y., 1948).

A valuable resource for the study of goddesses who produce food crops from their bodies is Gudmund Hatt's "The Corn Mother in America and Indonesia," Anthropos 46 (1951): 853914. The original collection of variations on the Hainuwele motif is Adolf E. Jensen's Hainuwele (Frankfurt am Main, 1939). Although highly specialized, Steven G. Darian's The Ganges in Myth and History (Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 1978) and Edward H. Shafter's The Divine Woman (Berkeley, Calif., 1973) furnish interesting views of water-related female deities in India and China; see also Diana L. Eck's "Gangā: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography" in Hawley and Wulff (1996), cited above.

A good twentieth-century study of Indian village goddesses is Richard Brubaker, The Ambivalent Mistress: A Study of South Indian Village Goddesses and Their Religious Meaning (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1978, microform). For the White Buffalo Calf Woman of the Oglala, see Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, edited by Joseph Epes Brown (Norman, Okla., 1953); a broader survey of female powers among the Oglala is Marla N. Powers's Oglala Women (Chicago, 1986). See also James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnography, 14: 2 (Washington, D.C., 1896).

Materials on the transformative powers manifested through women's cultural activities remain sparse. But see K. R. V. Wikman's Die Magie des Webens und des Webstuhls im Schwedieschen Volksglauben (Turku, Finland, 1920). The original source on the Navajo puberty ritual for girls is Charlotte Johnson Frisbee's Kinaaldá (Middletown, Conn., 1967). Neumann's The Great Mother (see above) is a comprehensive source on the role of feminine powers in spiritual transformations. But see also Joanna R. Macy's "Perfection of Wisdom," in Beyond Androcentrism, edited by Rita M. Gross, pp. 315334 (Missoula, Mont., 1977); the same volume includes an intriguing essay on the transformative powers of Sedna, the Inuit mistress of animals.

A readable account of the goddess Kālī is Kinsley's The Sword and the Flute (Berkeley, Calif., 1975); Burr C. Brundage offers a compact and fascinating sketch of the terrifying Aztec goddesses in The Fifth Sun (Austin, Tex., 1979). For the monster Le-hev-hev, see John W. Layard's Stone Men of Malekula (London, 1942).

For the sacrality of women's physiological states, see Rita M. Gross's Exclusion and Participation: The Role of Women in Aboriginal Australian Religion (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1975, microform). A summary of Gross's principal argument is in Unspoken Worlds, edited by Nancy A. Falk and Rita M. Gross, 3d ed., pp. 301310 (Belmont, Calif., 2001). The same volume includes Joseph W. Bastien's "Rosinta, Rats, and the River," pp. 243252, on the women/river/wind complex of the Bolivian Kallawaya, and Inés M. Talamentes's "The Presence of Isanaklesh," pp. 290301, with materials on the Apache Isanaklesh, a counterpart of the Navajo Changing Woman. Carolyn Niethammer's Daughters of the Earth (New York, 1977) offers examples of responses to menstruation, childbirth, and postmenopausal women among Native Americans. Emily M. Ahern's "The Power and Pollution of Chinese Women," in Women in Chinese Society, edited by Margery Wolf and Roxanne Witke (Stanford, Calif., 1975), also documents perceptions of menstruation and childbirth. Excellent information on the concept of śakti is in Susan S. Wadley, ed., The Powers of Tamil Women (Syracuse, N.Y., 1980). For the myth of Australian women's prior power, see Ronald M. Berndt, Djanggawul (New York, 1953).

Two essays by Nancy A. Falk address the contemporary resurgence of feminine sacrality among Hindus: "Śakti Ascending," in Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird, pp. 298334 (New Delhi, 1995), and "Mata, Land, and Line," in Invoking Goddesses, edited by Nilima Chitgopekar, pp. 140164 (New Delhi, 2002). See also Ronald M. Berndt, Djanggawul (New York, 1953). Materials on Wicca and feminist spirituality are legion. A meticulous reconstruction of Wiccan history and antecedents in Britain is in Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, 1999); an American counterpart of broader reach is Margot Adler's Drawing down the Moon, 2d ed. (Boston, 1986). Perhaps the most famed writing from within Wicca is the San Francisco priestess Starhawk's The Spiral Dance (San Francisco, 1979). For a Wiccan approach to deity, see Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother (San Francisco, 1987). Carol Christ's essay "Why Women Need the Goddess" was of major importance in launching the feminist spirituality movement; it is easiest to find in Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow's anthology, Womanspirit Rising (San Francisco, 1992). A good example of more recent writing on Wicca-linked feminist spirituality is Melissa Raphael, Thealogy and Embodiment (Sheffield, U.K., 1996). For an approach by feminists working within the Christian tradition, see Charlotte Caron, To Make and Make Again (New York, 1993). James Lovelock first published his Gaia hypothesis in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford, 1979).

Nancy Auer Falk (1987 and 2005)

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