Worship of goddesses is a global phenomenon, from its beginnings in the prehistoric era up until the present day. Archaeological remains from Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures suggest that goddesses were frequently worshipped at important stages of the life cycle; figurines from the Neolithic Anatolian site of Çatalhüyük depict a goddess in the three forms of a young woman, a mother giving birth, and an old woman. Other images point to a human relationship with nature, including animals and agriculture. Ancient artifacts and texts from Greece and Rome, the Near East, India, and China and Japan demonstrate that goddess worship played a central role in the development of civilizational aspects, including agriculture, regulation of fertility and procreation, protection and defense, civic identity, and spiritual and artistic expression. There is evidence that goddess worship has had a continuous presence in Asian cultures as well as in the traditions of indigenous peoples from Sub-Saharan Africa and those of Native Americans across the Americas. In contrast, goddess worship appears to have been interrupted in cultures that came to promote a single male deity; contemporary goddess worshippers in these cultures view their spiritual practices as both recovery and innovation.
In cultures in which goddess worship is part of the social fabric, such as archaic Western traditions and traditions of Asia and indigenous peoples, goddesses have public status and significance and they are worshipped by both men and women. For example, the goddess Inanna (associated with Ishtar and Astarte) of the ancient Near East (c. 3500 bce) was the subject of elaborate genealogical mythologies and numerous large temples. She was celebrated as a queen and a patroness of the people who allocated resources, such as the fruits of nature's fertility, to them. Medieval (c. 1100 ce) legends of the bodhisattva ("being of light"; one who saves others) Kuan Yin (or Kannon or Guanyin) in East Asian Buddhism present her as an enlightened being who, as the embodiment of merciful compassion, comes to assist all those who may call on her. These legends explicitly state that gender is no obstacle to enlightenment. Kuan Yin is widely worshipped in customary Buddhist ways, such as offering pure vegetarian food and the recitation of sacred texts, especially the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which is dedicated to her; she is also associated with divination practices. Many of the Sub-Saharan African traditions have a figure of the Grandmother at the top of their pantheon of revered ancestral spirits. The Grandmother is a caretaker for the entire community and a personal guide for each community member.
Traditions that celebrate goddesses offer opportunities for women to assume publicly constituted active religious leadership, such as the role of priestess. Generally, priestesses have a mystically inflected liturgical function. For example, in ancient Greek tradition the Pythia, or priestess, presided over the Delphic Oracle (c. eighth century bce–393 ce). The Pythia was responsible for communicating prophecies from Apollo, and the Oracle was consulted on all significant civic occasions. Some priestesses were also associated with the arts and letters, Sappho (fl. c. 610–580 bce), the poet of love, desire, and beauty who was a priestess of Aphrodite; and Diotima of Mantinea (fl. c. 400 bce), the priestess who through reason taught Socrates a theory of love. The foundational text of Japanese Shinto, the Kojiki (c. 712 ce), describes priestesses of the sun goddess Amaterasu-ō-mi-kami; from this precedent, priestesses became an established part of the extensive retinue entrusted with making material offerings and prayers to the kami (deities).
Ethnographic studies provide further detail on the practices of goddess worship. For example, Hinduism in India has traditions of worshipping the independent Great Goddess (Durgā) that are grounded in tenth-century texts in praise of the Goddess. One of the most popular celebrations is the yearly Bengali Durgā Pūjā. The pūjā style of worship invokes the presence of the deity into a visible image, who is then treated as an honored guest through offerings of food and praise. The images can be iconic, such as the weapon-bearing Goddess riding on a tiger, or aniconic, such as an earthen pot. Male priests, who perform elaborate rituals to purify themselves in preparation, carry out the liturgical functions, including the invocation, material offerings, and prayer. The prayers celebrate the Goddess's generative forces (shakti, or sacred creative power), her power to destroy evil, her protection of humankind, and her ability to bring social and spiritual peace to her devotees.
Women participate actively in the Durgā Pūjā; their activities are directly tied to their life cycle and marital status. Virgin girls are worshipped during the festival (Kumārī Pūjā) as the Goddess's creative potential; they are considered a form of the Goddess, and they are entitled to prepare uncooked food for the Goddess. Unmarried postmenarchal women, whose creative power is not yet channeled and who thus are perceived as liminal in status, may not prepare or touch any food offerings. Married women are the organizational mainstay of ritual support and are also considered a form of the Goddess. They may prepare uncooked food for the Goddess and cooked food for festival offerings to other deities; postmenopausal married women may continue this participation. Generally, widows may not touch or prepare any food offerings. There is an exception, however, for initiated widows, as initiated married women and widows are entrusted with preparing the cooked food for the Goddess. Thus, initiated women have the highest status in the ritual idiom; for the uninitiated, their life cycle and social identities determine their ritual status.
Contemporary goddess worshippers in Europe and North America have sought to foreground and revalorize the identity of women at various stages of the life cycle, innovatively building on traditional formulations. For example, Goddess feminists sacralize female biology by imagining the changing body of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother, and Crone; each phase is like the waxing and waning of the moon in a dynamic, cyclical relation to the other phases. Moreover, these phases describe women's creative potential and its actualization, so that women may experience any aspect of the Goddess at any stage of their biological cycle.
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