Mother Goddess

views updated Jun 11 2018


The expression mother goddess or maternal divinity designates a historic or prehistoric female figure that was the object of a cult. The oldest examples are found in Paleolithic Europe; these are the Venuses found in grottoes that served as sanctuaries. The exaggerated breasts and buttocks and the clear demarcation of the pubis relate them to fertility cults. Similar statuettes from different geological periods have been found in other regions.

The beginning of the Neolithic period, with the introduction of agriculture and large-scale breeding, coincided with a multiplication of these fertility symbols, especially in the Middle East. The great goddesses of love, such as Aphrodite and Venus, partially absorbed the functions of the earlier mother goddesses, even though their form evokes female seduction more than maternity.

The concept of maternal divinity was addressed by Sigmund Freud in 1911 in an article on the Diana of the Ephesians (1911f) and in 1913 in an article on patterns on caskets (1913f).

Starting from a work of French archeology, Felix Sartiaux's Villes mortes d'Asie Mineure, Freud established a parallel between the cult of Artemis, the great goddess of Ephesus, and the cult of the Virgin Mary, who, according to tradition, is said to have ended her earthly existence at Ephesus alongside the apostle John. The cult of Artemis, often assimilated with Diana, is said to have served as the model for that of Mary as a maternal divinity. Freud reminds us of the extraordinary popularity of this "pagan" goddess, whose worship provided a livelihood for a guild of goldsmiths, who started a riot when a prediction by Saint Paul led to competition. Also, in his article on the patterns on caskets (a theme taken from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice ), he notes that Artemis, like all the maternal divinities of Asian peoples, is a goddess of both life and death, of generative and destructive principles.

The theme of maternal divinity does not play a central role in the work of Freud, who was much more interested in male figures like the father of the horde (see Totem and Taboo [1912-13a]) or Moses. The same is true of Jacques Lacan who emphasizes the paternal phallus as the primordial signifier, in the same way as the linga ("sign" in Sanskrit) of the god Shiva is the structuring element of Indian religion. Carl Gustav Jung and Jungian psychoanalysts in general have considered these maternal divinities to be of considerable importance, representing an archetype of the universal Great Mother, a figure that is both maternal and sovereign, filled with pity and compassion (1933). The work of Jung's followers has found considerable support in American feminist circles. Archeological digs conducted during the last few decades across the five continents have revealed an abundance of female statuettes, often corresponding to the oldest layers of the civilization being studied. The main problem remains the interpretation of this material given our frequent uncertainty concerning the role of women in prehistoric or protohistoric societies and the state of their knowledge about human reproduction. The omnipresence of these female figures could be associated with ignorance about the fecundating role played by sperm. These mother goddesses, the most recent example of which would be the Virgin Mary, might thus symbolize a kind of parthenogenesis.

Odon Vallet

See also: India; "Theme of the Three Caskets, The"; Totem/totemism.


Freud, Sigmund. (1911f). Great is Diana of the Ephesians. SE, 12: 342-344.

. (1912-13a). Totem and Taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1913f). The theme of the three caskets. SE, 12: 291-301.

Gimbutas, Marija. (1989). The language of the goddess. New York: Harper & Row.

Jung, Carl G. (1938 [1954]). Psychological aspects of the mother archetype. Coll. works, Vol. 11. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Neumann, Erich. (1955). The Great Mother: An analysis of the archetype. London: Routledge.