Goddess Worship: An Overview

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The scope and antiquity of goddess worship are remarkable. Female sacred images are associated with some of the oldest archaeological evidence for religious expression and they still have efficacy in the contemporary world. Goddess images are depicted in a wide range of forms, from aniconic representations, such as abstract organs of reproduction, to fully elaborated icons decorated with the finery of monarchy. They are linked to all major aspects of life, including birth, initiation, marriage, reproduction, and death. They display the elaborate variegation of religious experiences in different cultural contexts. A historical survey reveals goddess worship to be a continuous phenomenon, despite periodic ebbs and tides during certain critical epochs.

Goddess Worship in Upper Paleolithic Cultures

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the human religious impulse consists of sculptured images and cave paintings of female figures excavated in hundreds of Upper Paleolithic sites throughout Europe and northern Asia, including France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Ukraine, and Siberia. These images, carved in bone, stone, antler and mammoth tusks, outnumber those of male figures ten to one. They have been identified sometimes as part of an elaborate and pervasive worship of goddesses; they are commonly known as "Venuses," after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. The interpretation of these artifacts remains controversial today.

Some Venuses have been discovered in Aurignacian deposits as old as thirty to forty thousand years. However, they appear more frequently about 25,000 years ago. Remarkably, these same goddess figurines have been unearthed from sites dated as late as the early Neolithic period. One of the earliest of these figurines, found in the Dordogne region of France, was estimated to be thirty-two thousand years old, roughly the age of the famous cave art of that period and situated one level above Neanderthal artifacts associated with what are believed to be ceremonial burials. This "pregnant" figure was carved from reindeer antler and is marked by a series of small notches that do not appear to be purely decorative. One cannot be sure how to interpret this figurine, though it might be part of an elaborate cult associated with later discoveries of the same type.

The Venuses have been widely interpreted as evidence of a single phenomenon, fertility symbolism. Some scholars have lumped these prehistoric figurines together with a later so-called Great Goddess complex and the emergence of agriculture. Most archaeologists, however, hestitate to treat all these female images as fertility symbols, because they are the product of a wide variety of peoples with different economic systems, cultural traditions, and languages. Perhaps the Venuses had a great variety of meanings, both within the different cultural contexts in which they were found and depending on the time period. Each of these images must be read in the context of its archaeological provenience. Thus, theories that the Venuses represent an ancient, widespread cult of "fertility magic" are oversimplifications. Current research suggests that the Venuses may be associated with a wide range of phenomena involving women, such as maturation, menstruation, copulation, pregnancy, birth, and lactation. They are not to be treated separately or isolated in any way from other artifacts of the same period that represent some type of "storied event."

The Neolithic goddess figurines take different forms. Some are thin and geometric, representing snake and bird goddesses. These water and air deities were likely cosmic symbols of the regeneration of life. Other figurines are faceless, unclothed, and corpulent. Still others appear to be conspicuously pregnant, with exaggerated breasts and large buttocks. The most famous of these figurines, the Venus of Willendorf (Austria), is often taken to be typical of Upper Paleolithic mother-goddess figures. This image is four and three-eighths inches high, made of soft stone, faceless, fat, but not apparently pregnant; it appears to have been painted with red ocher. However, the diversity of female images is marked; not all are full iconic representations. There is a variety of images of female body parts such as sculptured breasts (from sites in Czechoslovakia) marked with curious notches that may have been either notational or decorativesome of these were worn as a string of beads, others as a single pendant. Abstracted images of vulvas have also been unearthed in France, Spain, and Italy. Some are forked images, others are shaped like disks, and all have clear, finely marked notches, which may be connected in some way with the menstrual cycle.

Other permutations include the various female images painted on cave walls that have some association with animals and a variety of different symbols and markings of probable notational significance. A number of abstracted images of female buttocks have been found in various sites, sometimes with breasts and torsos. In one Italian grave site, for instance, a decorated bone pendant in the shape of female buttocks was found. The image is well worn, and it seems to have been used for some purpose during the life of its wearer and then placed among various other ceremonial burial objects, including two other crudely carved goddess images made especially for the burial.

There is a great range of evidence for goddess worship in the Upper Paleolithic era. The character of this worship is largely uncertain, and no single interpretation is adequate. The figurines may have been associated with pregnancy, birth, burial, fertility, initiation, hunting, and the menstrual cycle; they may even have had some erotic function. Although they represent a prominent element in the religious life of this period, it is erroneous to isolate these female figurines from other important and associated imagery, such as animals, male images, and undeciphered markings. Nor can one make the further leap of suggesting that this rich collection of sacred female images constitutes proof of an early stage of matriarchy; the symbolism of these images tells nothing clear about male or female roles in the social organization of Upper Paleolithic cultures.

Neolithic Earth Goddesses and the Emergence of Agriculture

The most noteworthy fact about Neolithic goddess worship is its strong continuity with earlier Upper Paleolithic configurations. Gradually Paleolithic goddess symbolism was transformed to fit into the complex of human needs generated by increasingly agricultural and urbanized forms of social organization. Most sources date the Neolithic era around ten thousand to four thousand years ago; it was marked by the appearance of ground stone tools and the domestication of plants and animals in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and throughout various parts of Asia. The female images found in Neolithic sites represent the continuity of traditions from earlier Mesolithic and Upper Paleolithic cultures. Chevrons, meanders, serpentine and spiral designs associated with Neolithic goddesses are all familiar motifs prefigured in Paleolithic female images. Also, it appears that the Neolithic goddesses who were linked to lunar mythology are derived from earlier roots. Many of the Neolithic goddess figurines are corpulent, like their Upper Paleolithic predecessors; they are connected also to the supply of wild animals, but by this time with the addition of domesticated animals such as the dog, bull, and male goat as well. Some of these Neolithic figurines are pregnant, seated on a throne, representing goddesses of vegetation. In general, they are composite images, sharing the traits of both preagricultural and agricultural societies. Also noteworthy is a complementarity between male and female imagesone is not subordinate to the other.

The complex imagery of the Neolithic era was centered around females and animals, as illustrated by evidence from the famous Anatolian site of Çatal Hüyük, excavated by James Mellaart in 19611963. This Neolithic settlement located in southern Turkey is dated from the seventh to sixth millennium bce. Its more than forty shrines, distributed through nine building levels, have yielded a wealth of information about Neolithic religion. The evidence displays a clear cultic continuity associated with a mother goddess and accompanying male deities. In some shrines at Çatal Hüyük the goddess is depicted as being supported by leopards or giving birth to a bull, which was a male deity. This association of goddesses with male deities is unusual at Neolithic sites; they usually appear without a male counterpart.

The statuettes at Çatal Hüyük suggest that goddesses were connected variously with pregnancy, birth, ritual marriage, and command over wild animals. Images of stylized female breasts similar to Upper Paleolithic figurines have also been found here. The principal deity of this Neolithic site is a goddess represented in three forms, as a young woman, a mother giving birth, and an old woman. There are also several images of twin goddesses, with one of the two portrayed in the process of giving birth.

In other Neolithic shrines, goddesses appear as bird and snake deities connected to rain and water. Further recent evidence of Neolithic goddess worship comes from a village site presently being excavated outside of Amman, Jordan. Here an international team of archaeologists has unearthed a series of plaster figurines three feet tall with startled expressions on their faces, along with fifty animal figurines, two adorned plaster skulls, and three Venuses. One of the statues is of a nude female standing and pushing up her breasts with her hand. This image may foreshadow the later cult of the goddess Astarte, who was widely worshiped in the area.

The question has to be raised as to whether these Neolithic goddesses were part of a single cult complex spread across Europe and the Middle East or whether they represent different traditions entirely. In some places they are associated with ancestor worship, death, and the afterlife; in others they are related to the emergence of agriculture and the fertility of crops. In still others, they represent developmental functions, as they had in the Upper Paleolithic era. Whatever the answer may be to this question, one thing is clear. Goddess worship is not, as some scholars have suggested, an innovation that appeared suddenly in the Neolithic period with the emergence of agriculture, which these scholars then see as a woman-controlled form of subsistence.

Goddess Worship in the Development of Civilizationsa

Goddess worship has played a central role in the worldwide transition from small-scale social organization to the emergence of civilizations in India, the ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, China, and Japan. In these complex agricultural societies female deities have been variously linked to the fertility of crops, the sovereignty of kingship, the protection of urban ceremonial centers, and the waging of warfare against enemies.


No civilization in the world developed goddess worship so elaborately as did India. Terra-cotta figurines of mother goddesses have been found in the Indus Valley, dated at 2500 to 1500 bce, along with abstract stone rings representing the yoni and lingam, prototypes for the later god Śiva and his female consort. Goddesses rarely functioned separately from male divinities in ancient India. Nor was goddess worship the central theme in the development of Indian civilization except during periodic episodes of florescence. Indeed, the goddess does not appear as a major focus in Indian literature until 600 bce, in a legend recorded in the Kena Upaniad. Not until much later, probably the seventh century ce, did goddess worship emerge as a somewhat separate cult in Hinduism and eventually in Tibetan Buddhism. This Tantric expression of goddess worship was particularly strong in eastern India where it continues to flourish today, though somewhat less intensely than formerly.

At no point in the development of Indian civilization was goddess worship completely separate from devotion to male deities. The Hindu rajas wielded power through the manipulation of icons of major male deities such as Sūrya, Viu, or Śiva. While these gods had female consorts who were worshiped alongside them, goddesses usually played a secondary though by no means unimportant role as images of cultural identity. No doubt at the village level there has been a long, relatively unbroken continuity of goddess worship extending back to Neolithic times. Local village goddesses were besought (as they continue to be today) to increase human fertility, to cause or cure diseases, to bring about good fortune, to enhance the productivity of crops, or to destroy demons. Yet, at the more exalted level of courts and kings, these female deities played a less prominent role. Up until the early part of this century many rajas incorporated tribal peoples into their spheres of influence by worshiping local goddesses, but this royal patronage of goddess worship was usually accompanied by an even stronger devotion on the part of the raja to the sect of a male deity. Thus, it would be erroneous to conceive of Indian goddess worship as a distinct component in the development of Indian civilization. The widely known Hindu goddesses such as Sarasvatī, Lakmī, and Pārvatī rarely stand alone. Only Kālī and Caī, the more ferocious aspects of female divinity, become focal points for separate worship. Even in these cases the goddess rarely acts as a primary source for establishing the legitimacy of kingship.

The ancient Near East

In the ancient Near East the phenomenon of goddess worship displayed an even more elaborate and subtle set of nuances. Here are encountered several distinct civilizations, some having borrowed heavily from each other. A number of goddesses were prominent in ancient Egypt: Nut, goddess of the sky and consort of the earth god, Geb; the goddess Neith, patroness of victorious weapons and the art of weaving; Isis, goddess of wisdom; and Hathor, another sky goddess who assumed various forms. Some of these goddesses were deeply entwined in the development and continuity of divine kingship. The name Isis, for instance, is related linguistically to the term for "chair" or "throne." The throne or "holy seat" of the pharaoh was the "mother of the king." The pharaohs thought themselves to be sons of Isis. Later Isis became linked to the god Osiris. The heroic story depicts Isis's famous search for her murdered husband's corpse, her discovery of it, and his resurrection. Eventually Isis became universalized as a benevolent goddess of the harvest. Her cult spread from Egypt to Greece and throughout the Roman Empire. By 300 bce the cult of Isis had become a popular mystery religion, with secret initiation rites promising salvation and rebirth.

Another stream in the ancient Near Eastern tradition of goddess worship flows from the Mesopotamian civilization located on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In that area the goddess Inanna was worshiped; she was the queen of heaven and earth and the goddess of love, and she was profoundly involved in the rise of Sumerian state-level social organization. Although she was one of many goddesses of ancient Sumer, Inanna outlasted and overshadowed them all. Also known as Ishtar and later worshiped by different Semitic peoples, Inanna had very ancient roots. She was part of an amalgamation of Sumerian and Akkadian religious and political beliefs, extending back to 3000 bce or possibly further, and she is connected to the fertility of crops, the emergence of increasing sedentary patterns of social organization, and the development of the first urban centers.

In the late nineteenth century the world's oldest texts on cuneiform clay tablets were unearthed after having been buried for at least four thousand years. Some of these texts tell the life story of Inanna from adolescence through womanhood and her eventual apotheosis. The texts are extremely rich; they reveal the sexual fears and desires of the goddess, an elaborate history of kinship among various deities in her family tree, her power as queen of Sumer, and her responsibilities for the redistribution of resources and fertility of the earth. Inanna's cult was centered at the ancient temple city of Uruk. Here archaeologists have provided evidence for the earliest known urban civilization, dated 39003500 bce and characterized by monumental temple architecture and the first writing. The oldest shrine of Uruk was dedicated to Inanna, as were numerous later temples. She was the supreme patroness of the city. Though related to other deities, she retained a certain degree of independence. Inanna's shrine was the focus of considerable economic activity and the redistribution of resources characteristic of urban life.

Unlike the female divinities of India and Egypt, the goddess Inanna, who was most likely derived from Neolithic and possibly even earlier Paleolithic roots, played the principal role in the religious tradition of an urban society. She was considered to have equal status with the sky god, An, head of the Sumerian pantheon. In this urban context, Inanna became a focal point for the full emergence of life in city-states, and she assumed the regal responsibility for victory in war and the redistribution of resources among urban peoples. Often these functions have been allotted to male deities in other traditions, as in the case of the Hindu gods Śiva and Jagannātha.

Inanna is identified with the Semitic goddess Ishtar and the West Semitic goddess Astarte. These deities, along with the Canaanite goddesses Asherah and Anat (a wrathful warlike deity), were worshiped by the early Hebrew people. It is certain that the early Israelites worshiped the Canaanite goddess Asherah; even Solomon praised the pillars representing this deity, and his son Rehoboam erected an image of her in the temple at Jerusalem. Probably the female deities of the early monarchic period did not disppear but were changed into different forms, despite repeated efforts to reestablish a strong monotheism in Judaism in the biblical period. Raphael Patai (1967) has argued that various disguises are assumed by the goddess in later Judaism: she appeared in the form of the cherubim (depicted as man and woman in an erotic embrace); in images of Yahveh's wife Astarte; as the one and only God having two aspects, male and female; and in the form of the Shekhinah (the personified presence of God on earth). In this latter form, the Shekhinah argues with God in defense of man; she is sometimes manifested as Wisdom and at other times as the Holy Spirit. The feminine element played an important role in qabbalistic thought, especially in the thirteenth-century Zohar, which stressed the Shekhinah as female divine entity; she was also referred to there as Matronit ("divine matron"). The Shekhinah was seen as an intermediary between God and the scattered peoples of Israel and was widely accepted in Jewish communities in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, when Qabbalah had widely felt influence. According to Patai, the complex concept in Qabbalah that the Shekhinah and God are one, filtered down to the Jewish masses, led to the simplified belief in her as a goddess.

Although the early Israelites engaged in the worship of female deities, at some point goddess worship was removed from the religious tradition. Whether one places this purge of the goddess early in Judaism or posits a disguised form of goddess worship that was retained for centuries and then finally removed, the really important question is why the phenomenon was eliminated from the tradition at all. Some feminist scholars have argued that this purge of the feminine represents a repression of women. However, the phenomenon can be explained also by the purely theological argument that monotheism requires the loss of all "extraneous" deities, no matter what gender. This raises yet another question. Why has none of the monotheistic religions worshiped a feminine deity as its centerpiece? Could there be some truth to the often asserted position that monotheism represents a final ideological phase in the evolution of complex state-level civilizations? If this were true, how then does one explain Indian civilization, which is clearly a state-level form of social organization, but is neither monotheistic nor associated with an exclusively dominant male divinity? Perhaps the gender of deities has little, if anything, to do with the social structure in which they are manifested. Such questions require further research from different theoretical perspectives.


In Greece, the rebirth theme is found in the Eleusinian mystery cult associated with the earth goddess, Demeter. However, instead of the rebirth of a male deity, a female deity is reborn: Demeter's daughter, Persephone, is resurrected after her abduction by Hades, lord of the underworld. The pre-Olympian goddesses of Greece were usually connected to vegetation rituals. A prime example was Gaia, earth mother and chthonic mother of the gods. This deity was associated with the oracle at Delphi before the oracle became exclusively Apollo's. Her rituals included animal sacrifices, offerings of grain and fruit, and ecstatic possession trance. Many of the later Greek goddesses emerged from pre-Hellenic earth goddesses like Gaia. The famous twelve deities of Olympus included the goddesses Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Hestia, Artemis, and Demeter. These Olympian goddesses were each given distinct roles to play in accordance with their earlier spheres of influence. The original chthonic aspects of these goddesses were diminished as they became subordinated in the Olympian hierarchy ruled by Zeus. No longer was each goddess an organic link to the generative forces of life and death. Instead, she became highly compartmentalized in her new role in the male-dominated Olympian pantheon. This compartmentalization demarcates a transformation in the role of goddess worship in the development of Greek civilization.


There was a strong identification of Greek deities with Roman deities. Most Greek goddesses had their Roman counterparts. In 204 bce Roman aristocrats officially adopted the foreign cult of the Anatolian goddess Cybele, later to be known as the Magna Mater (Great Mother). On April 4 of that year the image of the goddess was carried into the city by Roman matrons, a temple was erected, and she was installed as a national Roman deity. Only self-castrated foreign priests were allowed to serve in the temples dedicated to Cybele, because Roman citizens were forbidden to be priests until the reign of Emperor Claudius (4154 ce). Driven by Cybele, his angry mother, Attis died of self-castration and then returned to life in response to his mother's intense mourning. This death and rebirth theme was celebrated during a series of holidays at the beginning of spring; the rituals included a procession carrying a pine tree (representing the dead Attis) into the temple of the Magna Mater, violent ritual mourning, a celebration of the rebirth of Attis, and the bathing of Cybele's statue.

China and Japan

The Vajrayāna tradition of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia is widely associated with goddess worship. Male and female manifestations of the divine power are depicted as opposite but complementary aspects of each other. This dynamic tension of male and female principles, derived from Tantric Hinduism, has resulted in a large number of goddesses who are intimately related to their male counterparts as consorts. Some goddesses, however, retain a certain degree of autonomy and represent independent deities. This is the case of the goddess Tara, a female bodhisattva who became a universal protectress. In Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, Guanyin, goddess of mercy, is also considered to be a bodhisattva. She is a principal teacher, a savior who can give her devotees assurance of enlightenment and carry believers to the western paradise of O-mi-tʿo-fo's Pure Land. This goddess continues to be worshiped throughout China and in Japanese Buddhism.

The tradition of goddess worship is well established in Japan, not only in Buddhism, but also in Japanese Shintō, where many male and female nature deities are propitiated. In Shintō the world was created by a divine creator couple, the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami. They gave birth to the sun goddess Amaterasu and her brother Susano-o no Mikoto, god of storms, along with other nature deities. Amaterasu eventually became the cult deity of the Japanese royal family, retaining both her Shintō function as sun goddess and a new role as Shining Buddha of Heaven. Until this century the emperor of Japan was considered to be the descendant on earth of Amaterasu. He was charged to keep peace in the world and to support her major pilgrimage shrine, located at Ise.

This survey of archaic goddess worship points to the diversity of the roles goddess worship has played in the development of civilizations. In some parts of the world goddesses were central in the emergence of urbanism and kingship. Elsewhere they were secondary consorts of male divinities or vestiges of mystery cults associated with earlier shamanistic religion. Sometimes they represented a continuity with Neolithic and Paleolithic traditions or were transposed and reconceived as the bearers of complex social organizationwaging warfare, presiding over the collection of taxes and controlling the redistribution of resources. The emergence of virtually every major civilization was associated in some way with goddess worship. While there may not be a single "Great Goddess" worshiped universally, the ubiquity of the phenomenon remains unbroken from Paleolithic times.

Contemporary Patterns of Goddess Worship

The worship of female sacred images is found in some form or other throughout the world, except in those societies dominated by Islam or certain branches of Protestantism. Even in cultures heavily influenced by iconoclastic secular movements vestiges of goddess worship remain. For instance, Joanna Hubbs (in Preston, 1982, pp. 123144) traces images of a divine feminine in contemporary Russian folk art, film, and literature, noting strong national themes that continued to thrive in the Soviet era.

Goddess worship is represented widely in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Shintō countries of Asia. Catholic Europe is replete with pilgrimage shrines devoted to the Virgin Mary; some of these are associated with earlier pagan goddesses, while others represent a postindustrial flourishing of Marianism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even in North America, where Protestantism predominates, sacred female imagery is venerated in Catholic enclaves, like the large pilgrimage shrine devoted to Saint Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, Canada. In the United States a quarter of a million pilgrims a year visit the Shrine of the North American Martyrs (in Auriesville, New York), a composite pilgrimage site devoted to the Jesuit martyrs along with the American Indian Kateri Tekakwitha, "Lily of the Mohawks," who is a candidate for canonization. Åke Hultkrantz (in Olson, 1983, p. 202) notes an extensive pattern of goddess worship among American Indians despite the widespread misconception that these religions are mostly oriented around male deities. Native American goddesses are often earth mothers linked to the cultivation of corn. Goddess worship played an important role in ancient Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations, traces of which continue to thrive in descendant Mesoamerican populations. The goddess Tonantsi remains today a vibrant focus of worship among the Nahuatl of Mexico (remnants of the great Toltec and Aztec civilizations). Here goddess worship expresses its typical syncretic pattern; images of Tonantsi are displayed on altars alongside Christian sacred images, like the statue of Joseph, who is considered by the Nahuatl to be a son of the goddess.

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean a pattern of syncretism involving goddess worship is evident. Particularly widespread is the transformation of local Indian goddesses into Marian images. The best-known example of this syncretic expression is the famous Roman Catholic pilgrimage icon of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, whose shrine was built on the site of a temple once dedicated to the Aztec goddess Tonantsi. Goddesses are prominent in some African tribal religions. Daniel F. McCall (in Preston, 1982, pp. 304322) traces the diffusion of Neolithic goddesses from Southwest Asia to West Africa, where they became variously syncretized with local deities and were absorbed into Akan, Yoruba, and Igbo religious traditions.

Patterns and Themes of Contemporary Goddess Worship

A comparative study of this vast array of types of goddess worship reveals certain common themes and distinct differences in the ways female deities are experienced. They are worshiped as nurturant or punishing mothers, protectors of community, images of national identity, sources for the resolution of human problems, symbols of virginity and purity, the origins of the fertility of crops and human beings, mediators between humans and male divinities, and sources for healing. None of these attributes is assigned to every goddess, although they frequently recapitulate one another and cluster together. The nurturing power, for instance, is associated often with the fertility of crops and conceived to be the source of community identity, but this pattern is not found everywhere. The following is a survey of common features identifiable with goddess worship throughout the world. While they are not universal characteristics of the phenomenon, these common features demonstrate how deeply rooted goddess worship is within human experience. They each deserve special attention.


In some parts of the world female deities are associated with virginity, purity, and perfect piety. This tradition is strongly represented in several religions. In Hinduism, Kannagi, goddess of chastity, symbolizes the sacredness of motherhood, which is linked to pure Tamil ethnic identity, language, justice, and politics. The Tamil concept of chastity connotes not asexuality but sacred power. Another example of the Hindu virginity theme is found in Nepal and India where Kumār pūjā, the worship of a premenstrual girl as the embodiment of a goddess, has been a tradition of some frequency until recent years. The combination of two seemingly contradictory themesvirginity and motherhoodwas evident among ancient Near Eastern goddesses such as Inanna, Ishtar, and Anat. These goddesses were simultaneously chaste, promiscuous, nurturant, and warlike. While the Virgin Mary is never portrayed as being promiscuous, she sometimes embodies and exhibits a continuity with the attributes of these earlier goddesses; she is pious, intercedes, protects the community, bears children, is virginal, and enters from time to time into the world to do battle against the forces of evil. The apparent contradiction in the juxtaposition of virginity and motherhood dissolves if the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is taken to "reinforce the dogma that the Virgin's child is the son of God" (Leach, 1966, p. 42). The divine mother is not a mere projection of human motherhood; female divinities give birth, but, unlike human mothers, they are rarely considered to be polluted by the event because of their supernatural status.


Another dimension of goddess worship that enjoys widespread representation is the role of nurturant female divinities as god bearers and sources of both carnal and spiritual life. Deities of the ancient Greek and Roman world gave birth to gods, occasionally by having intercourse with humans. The earlier pagan role of god bearer finds continuity in Mary's capacity as theotokos, mother of the incarnate divinity; here Mary becomes a human partner in the unfolding nature of God. Consequently she is the supreme intercessor with God on behalf of individuals who seek her assistance. The nurturing power of the divine feminine has very ancient manifestations, extending back to Neolithic goddesses, whose theriomorphic form was the cow. The nurturing goddess is often associated with mother's milk, which gives life and has strong curative powers. A. J. Weeramunda (in Preston, 1982, pp. 251262) describes the milk-overflowing ceremony in Sri Lanka, which is a ritual means for bringing health, both to individuals and the Sinhala community. Here the goddess, symbolized by milk, stands for matrilineal kinship, mother's blood, bodily health, and integration of community. This ancient theme is recapitulated in Roman, Greek, and Coptic tales of miracles worked by the Virgin Mary that refer to the milk from her breasts and the power of her tears to cure diseases.


Goddesses are depicted frequently as wives and consorts. Sometimes as consort she is subservient to her partner. However, the goddess may be raised to the powerful position of queen and protectress. In India, each year Jagannātha is said to argue with his jealous wife Lakmī after he has returned from a visit to other deities in the neighborhood. Here Lakmī is portrayed as a nagging wife. However, the role of consort to a male deity may be only secondary for a goddess. Inanna, the supreme goddess of ancient Sumer, was queen of heaven and earth foremost; her role as wife to Dumuzi, the shepherd king, was less important. Inanna's power was evident in the prolonged Sumerian New Year celebration that culminated in the sacred marriage rite of the goddess Inanna to the reigning monarch, a rite designed to ensure the fertility of soil and womb.


One of the most widespread and significant roles of female deities is the tripartite function of protectress, monarch, and emblematic symbol. This pattern contrasts with gentler, more nurturant motifs like fertility and healing. The Chinese Buddhist goddess Guanyin is a popular domestic deity who is considered also to be a bodhisattva and celestial bureaucrat. The Virgin of Gaudalupe provides a famous example of the emblematic, integrative, and protective role of the sacred female image. During the fight for Mexican independence, loyalists carried the banner of the Virgin of Remedios while their opponents marched into battle with the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe; soldiers polarized between the two shot at the banner of the "enemy" virgin. In many parts of the world female sacred images assume highly specialized protective qualities; the Daoist goddess Mazu is protectress of fishermen and sailors who face the dangerous storm-ridden Taiwanese Straits; in Spain Our Lady of Macarena is protectress of bullfighters; the goddess Amaterasu was the supreme national guardian deity of Japan. The Black Madonna of Cze̜stochowa continues to be considered queen of Poland, her image is worn on badges by members of the Solidarity movement, and she is highly revered as a focus of pilgrimage by millions of Polish Catholics, including Pope John Paul II.

Earth goddess

Some scholars have attempted to link the gender of deities with natural phenomena, typically associating female deities with the earth and male deities with the sun. Although this pattern is widespread, there are several noteworthy exceptions. For instance, the ancient Egyptian goddess Nut was conceived to be a sky deity whose partner, Geb, was an earth god. According to C. Jouco Bleeker (in Olson, 1983, p. 31) Egyptian goddesses were not believed to be intrinsically earth mothers. The Japanese Shintō goddess Amaterasu, who is identified with the sun rather than earth, is another example. Thus, the general rule that goddesses are earth mothers is clearly not without exception. There is considerable evidence from ancient times that goddesses were associated with various natural phenomena, particularly the sea, the earth, and the phases of the moon. The many piha s associated with goddesses in India are linked to the earth. Each of these pilgrimage sites devoted to goddesses is considered to be a fragment of Satī's body (the dead wife of Śiva) that fell to earth when her corpse was divided up by the gods to prevent Śiva from going mad with grief. In Orissa, in eastern India, women behave as though they are menstruating during the three days when the earth mother menstruates; nor is it uncommon in India for men to avoid tilling the fields when the goddess is menstruating.


This leads to another widespread characteristic of goddesses; namely, their power over the fertility of soil, the fecundity of women, and a plentiful food supply. The ancient Neolithic city of Çatal Hüyük offers evidence for goddesses of the hunt and the abundance of crops. Alexander Marshack (1972, p. 355) speculates that the Neolithic goddess, as mistress of animals, is prefigured in female images from the Upper Paleolithic era where goddesses are displayed holding animal horns that have been stained with red ocher. Goddesses remain associated with the abundance of food even today. The Inuit (Eskimo) goddess Sedna is an example; if angered by sins committed in the community she withholds the supply of sea animals. According to Hultkrantz, the American Indian conception of the mother goddess as mistress of animals was changed by the introduction of horticulture about 2000 bce, when she began to be identified with the cultivation of maize, beans, squash, gourds, and other crops. In Europe corn-mother images have been placed in fields by peasants for hundreds of years. This concern with the fertility of the earth is repeated in the widespread association of goddess worship with human fertility. Barren women in Europe, India, Africa, and many other parts of the world turn to female divinities to ask for aid in pregnancy. Here goddesses become a source of life so that the human community may be sustained. The ability to bear a large number of children is often a sign of status in agricultural societies where abundant human labor enhances the wealth of a family unit. Thus, some form of goddess worship for the purpose of bearing children is often widespread in these societies.


If goddesses can give life they can also take it away. They are frequently supplicated for curing diseases. The Indian goddess Śitalā not only cures smallpox, she is considered to be its source and requires elaborate rituals to cool her anger, which causes the disease. Thus, Hindu people both fear and adore her. The healing of wounds, prayers for health, and the quest for wholeness are so universally associated with goddess worship that this aspect requires special scholarly attention.

Why are female deities more frequently invoked than male deities for purposes of healing? The obvious answer is that goddesses tend to be attributed more often with overall nurturant qualities. They are the primary and original sources of life, like human mothers, and they consequently represent a reprieve from the more painful realities of death, decay, and disease. Yet, as been already observed, goddesses are linked also to the darker experiences in the human condition. There must be an even more subtle reason for the ubiquity of the healing function attributed to female deities. In traditions where the female is subordinate to the male (and this is quite widespread), the worship of female sacred imagery represents an embracing of the whole field of symbolic potentials and the bringing together of opposites. While male deities are approached during the course of everyday life for the favors required to sustain a worldly existence, female divinities become the focus for ongoing sustenance of the individual or local family.

It is no accident that female deities are strongly represented in home rituals, in roadside shrines, and at local pilgrimage sites in many parts of the world. Surinder M. Bhardwaj (1973) has demonstrated this point for Hinduism, noting how pilgrimage shrines devoted to goddesses are visited by pilgrims more on a subregional basis for the purpose of curing diseases and asking for small favors, while pilgrimage to the shrines of male deities is almost always at the regional or national level and for the purpose of darshan (Skt., darsana; "sight of the deity") rather than a quest for cures. Not only is the mother more accessible and nurturant than the more distant father, she is the completion of a process by which the individual embraces the whole religious field, including both gods and goddesses who constitute not separate but complementary parts of a unified whole.

Violence and anger

The ambivalence associated with certain types of goddess worship is characteristic of another major theme in this survey. Because female divinities can take away life, they sometimes display a vengeful, angry, and terrifying aspect. Such goddesses are identified with dark occult powers, sacrifice, and death. Usually the darker aspects of goddesses are consonant with nurturing qualities. The Balinese Hindu goddess Rangda, the witch, is an exception to this rule. She is linked to the terrible and fearful powers of divine origin. Rangda, whose name means "widow," is associated with her husband's death. She is constantly doing battle with her archenemy Barong the dragon. Elaborate ritual battles between Rangda and Barong are acted out in the famous trance dances that have attracted so many tourists to Bali.

Rangda is associated with evil and death, unlike her Hindu counterpart, Kālī, who has a more nurturant side. Kālī grants boons to those who respect her, but she is easily angered and must not be crossed. Her major role is to battle demons, whose skulls she wears in a garland around her neck. Like Rangda, Kālī is linked to death by her association with widowhood and graveyards. In a brilliant essay on the goddess Kālī, C. Mackenzie Brown (in Olson, 1983, pp. 110123) notes that her bloody intoxication with rage and violence is not an indication that she is evil. Kālī is "mother of us all"she gives birth, dazzles with her splendor, and consumes in the game of life. Both beneficient and terrible qualities are combined in the image of Kālī. Just as Hindu disease goddesses become angry and cause epidemics because people have neglected to worship them, Kālī rises up from time to time, bringing about a reign of chaos in the realm of human order. Thus, she evokes enormous fear and ambivalence among devotees. Such violent expressions of goddess worship are found in many of the world's religions. Artemis and Medusa evoked similar responses among the ancient Greeks. Also, the Middle Eastern goddesses Ishtar and Isis were considered to have a terrible aspect associated with the cosmic dark forces. The Aztec goddess Ilamatecuhtli was one of several deities associated with death.

The theme of ambivalence is further elaborated in the concept of vagina dentata ("vagina with teeth") where the womb of the earth goddess appears to have a devouring mouth. For example, when the goddess is angry, she who is the source of life can take it away as slayer of life. The vessel of procreation becomes a tomb. Death by absorption into the vagina dentata is not always a punishment for wrongdoing. Sometimes the devouring womb represents the necessary death of the old order to establish a new social and religious organization. In these cases, entry into the vagina dentata is a rite of initiation leading through a dangerous passage along a path toward new birth. The violent act of being swallowed by an earth deity is a tradition found in many American Indian religions, among the Australian Aborigines, in Hinduism, and in various parts of Africa and Polynesia.

One of the most interesting rites associated with goddess worship is the widespread but not universal practice of blood sacrifice, which is found in some form or other in most religious traditions. While sacrifice is not confined to the veneration of female deities, it is represented widely in goddess worship traditions. The sacrifice of blood, whether of human or animal origin, has been linked to goddess worship from ancient times. Sacrifice is widely celebrated in that brand of goddess worship where female deities are portrayed as angry, vengeful, or punishing. Kālī and Durgā in the Hindu pantheon are deities of this kind. In contemporary India large numbers of goats, buffalo, chickens, and other animals are offered to these deities to satisfy their thirst for blood and to display community allegiance. Even human sacrifice is reported to have been practiced as an expression of goddess worship. It is not difficult to understand why blood sacrifices should be associated with goddesses. Through sacrifice human beings create bonds between themselves and deities. Because people turn to goddesses to fulfill their needs, it is logical for sacrificial offerings to be made as expressions of thanksgiving. Despite the fact that blood sacrifice has been outlawed in many parts of the world, this custom continues to thrive, often underground. Sometimes various types of sacrificial substitutions are made in place of blood offerings, like the sacrifice of cucumbers, pumpkins, or money.

The many patterns of goddess worship evident throughout the world extend deep into antiquity and continue to thrive in many of the world's religions even today. Goddesses played a prominent role in prehistoric cultures, throughout the development of agriculture, and in the emergence of urban life associated with the great traditional civilizations. They continue to be a fertile source of religious experience within the contemporary world. Goddesses are multivalent sacred images best understood within their separate historical and cultural contexts.

See Also

Agriculture; Feminine Sacrality; Lady of the Animals; Neolithic Religion; Paleolithic Religions; Prehistoric Religions; Shekhinah; Virgin Goddess.


Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan. Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. Berkeley, Calif., 1973. This excellent survey of pilgrimage cycles in North India conducted by a cultural geographer offers many insights into the contrast between pilgrimages to the shrines of male and female deities.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 1, Primitive Mythology. New York, 1959. This work explores the early Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic roots of goddess worship. It represents a Jungian orientation suggesting a universal Great Goddess. Somewhat dated but useful as a secondary source if read critically.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, vol. 2, Oriental Mythology. New York, 1962. This work refers frequently to goddess worship in Eastern religious traditions. Much generalization here, but still useful.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 70003500 b.c.: Myths, Legends, and Cult Images. London, 1982. An extensive discussion of the art and symbolism of Old Europe for the Neolithic period.

James, E. O. The Cult of the Mother Goddess. New York, 1959. A thorough discussion of goddess worship derived from archaeological and documentary evidence for the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and India. An excellent source, although some of the interpretation is dated.

Leach, Edmund. Virgin Birth. Cambridge, U.K., 1966. The Henry Myers Lecture.

Marshack, Alexander. The Roots of Civilization. New York, 1972. An outstanding analysis of Upper Paleolithic data on goddess worship, suggesting that the phenomenon is part of a complex notational system rather than merely an indication of fertility symbolism. While Marshack's thesis may be controversial, the volume is a rich source of information and remains a major scholarly contribution.

Mellaart, James. Earliest Civilizations of the Near East. London, 1965. A discussion of archaeological research on the Near East with particular emphasis on the emergence of Neolithic cultures. Mother goddesses are discussed throughout the volume, particularly at the famous site of Çatal Hüyük.

Mellaart, James. Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. New York, 1967. This is the field report of an archaeologist who excavated a major Neolithic town in 19611963. The data presented here constitute an important contribution to our understanding of goddess worship in the Neolithic period. At the level of interpretation, the author tends to oversimplify, attributing much of the evidence for goddess worship to a fertility cult.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Cult of the Goddess Pattini. Chicago, 1984. In this classic study of the goddess cult in Sri Lanka, the author has brought to bear a number of disciplinesanthropology, psychoanalysis, and ethnohistoryto reveal the complex, multifaceted manifestation of goddess worship in Sinhalese religion.

Olson, Carl, ed. The Book of the Goddess, Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion. New York, 1983. This is one of the most recent volumes dedicated to the study of female deities. The contributions to this book represent a wide variety of studies of goddess worship written by historians of religion and feminists. The articles are uneven in quality; there is no overall synthesis or index.

Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. New York, 1967. This brilliant essay on goddess worship in Judaism written by an anthropologist represents a major contribution to comparative religions. Its bold thesis, challenging the purity of Jewish monotheism, remains both controversial and stimulating. An important source that deserves special attention.

Preston, James J. "Goddess Temples in Orissa: An Anthropological Survey." In Religion in Modern India, edited by Giri Raj Gupta, pp. 229247. New Delhi, 1983. An anthropological study of the network of goddess temples in Orissa, eastern India. Particularly valuable as an illustration of how goddess worship reflects religious, political, and social dimensions of human community.

Preston, James J. Cult of the Goddess: Social and Religious Change in a Hindu Temple. New Delhi, 1980. A rare ethnographical work on a Hindu goddess temple located in eastern India. Particularly valuable as a resource for the role of goddesses in the process of cultural change.

Preston, James J., ed. Mother Worship: Theme and Variations. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982. This volume is the most comprehensive and up-to-date collection of data about goddess worship in the field of anthropology. Particularly useful as a source of primary data from firsthand fieldwork on the phenomenon with a comprehensive introduction and conclusion discussing countemporary issues in the study of female sacred images.

Sangren, P. Steven. "Female Gender in Chinese Religious Symbols: Guan Yin, Ma Zu, and the 'Eternal Mother.'" Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 9 (1983): 425. An excellent anthropological treatment of Chinese goddesses. Particularly valuable here is the author's discussion of how female deities differ from their earthly counterparts.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York, 1978. An excellent treatment of various Marian shrines within the context of pilgrimage. One of the few anthropological studies of Christianity.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York, 1983. this is the most up-to-date discussion of the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna. The body of the volume comprises Sumerian texts together with excellent commentaries by several authors on various aspects of Sumerian culture history.

New Sources

Benard, Elisabeth, and Beverly Moon, eds. Goddesses Who Rule. New York, 2000.

Billington, Sandra, and Miranda Green, eds. The Concept of the Goddess. New York, 1996.

Campbell, Joseph, and Charles Musès, eds. In All Her Names: Explorations of the Feminine in Divinity. San Francisco, 1991.

Erndl, Kathleen M. Victory to the Mother: The Hindu Goddess of Northwest India in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol. New York, 1993.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Somone. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York, 1992.

Hawley, John S., and Donna M. Wulff, eds. Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley, 1966.

Hiltebeitel, Alf, and Kathleen M. Erndl, eds. Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses. New York, 2000.

Hurtado, Larry W. Goddesses in Religions and Modern Debate. Atlanta, 1990.

Husain, Shahrukh. The Goddess: Power, Sexuality, and the Feminine Divine. Ann Arbor, 2003.

Kinsley, David R. The Goddesses' Mirror: Visions of the Divine from East and West. Albany, 1989.

Kinsley, David R. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahvidyas. Berkeley, 1997.

Pintchman, Tracy. The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany, 1994.

Pintchman, Tracy, ed. Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess. Albany, 2001.

James J. Preston (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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