The Mother Goddess designation has both specificity and great elasticity. The specific set of characteristics to which it refers centers on earthly cycles and the biological processes of fertility, birth, and death. More generally construed, many goddesses who do not appear to exhibit such characteristics are considered mother; for example, the Hindu goddess Kali, who is described in classical mythology as forceful and fearsome, is called Mother in devotional prayers. Given the pervasive link between goddess and mother in many genres of descriptive literature, at this juncture a more compelling question may be whether or not there are any goddesses who are not linked with motherly attributes either in textual descriptions or in the minds of their devotees. Until this kind of study is undertaken, it seems advisable to attempt some classificatory distinctions among the connections between goddess and mother; for example, whether the connection is organic and physical or metaphoric and metaphysical, or perhaps both. All of the images of mother goddesses are, of course, symbolically rendered.
Examples of the organic and physical representation of mother goddesses are prehistoric figurines, such as those found across Europe from the Paleolithic Era, that emphasize the female breasts, bellies, buttocks, thighs, and pubic triangles. There has been much discussion over the significance of these images, which lack a clear context. Feminist authors and scholars have suggested that these images bear silent witness to an original matriarchy that existed before historical patriarchy was established. Other feminist scholars in recent times have questioned the historicity of such a perspective, and suggested instead that the idea of an original matriarchy may serve as an inspirational charter myth for modern goddess worshippers.
A related though much more recent example is terra cotta and stone images of Lajja Gauri that were made in central India from the second to the tenth centuries ce. There is an interesting evolution of this goddess through four forms. All of the forms share a prominent pubic triangle framed by legs positioned as though squatting. The earliest is a headless figure with a torso made of a brimming cooking pot bearing a lotus, a traditional symbol of fertile abundance; the second form has a human torso with female breasts but no arms and a lotus flower as the head; the third form is the same as the second with the inclusion of human arms bearing lotus buds; and the fourth is totally anthropomorphic. The changes in form could describe the trajectory of this mother goddess from village worship to imperially-patronized temple, lending support to the idea that images of organic mother goddesses were changed to normative standards of representation when brought into mainstream (patriarchal) worship.
Many goddesses are explicitly associated with the earth, with their powers primarily, though not exclusively, associated with fertility. For example, Demeter (Greece) is an agricultural goddess, as is the Corn Goddess (Hopi and Iroquois). Meanings of fertility could be expanded beyond agriculture, as with Gaia (Greece) and Ishtar (Babylonia), goddesses involved in cosmic creation. Fertility could also metaphorically suggest kinship or community, such as images of the Grandmother in traditional African religions and in Native American traditions, and Cybele, the Anatolian goddess worshipped in Rome as Magna Mater. Community identity also explains many of the goddesses' associations with war. Conversely, goddesses who were not originally connected with the earth could be brought into the orbit of fertility; for example, Isis (Egypt) was originally a royal goddess of wisdom who became known as a beneficial goddess of nature, and Hathor (Egypt) was a sky goddess who took on powers of fertility as a cow goddess and a tree goddess.
In the classical or classically inspired images of goddesses there is an incompatibility between metaphysical universal power and the bearing of children. Revealingly, many of the Greek goddesses associated with nature and nurture, including Artemis, Athena, and Hestia, are not represented as bearing children. The Christian Virgin Mary had a unique experience. The Great Goddess Devi in Hinduism is the Universal Mother of all, so that all members of humankind are understood to be her children. She is the supreme deity and is the subject of a complicated mythology and philosophy. It is also notable that twentieth-century Hindu female gurus, such as the internationally renowned Anandamayi Ma, tend not to have children but are known as Mother (Ma). Many contemporary goddess worshippers address this gap by asserting that the Mother Goddess is both universally powerful and present in all physical processes, including childbirth, which they celebrate in ritual practices. Motherhood in its range of meanings from fertility to creativity is celebrated in the feminist Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
Bolon, Carol Radcliffe. 1992. Forms of the Goddess Lajjā Gaurī in Indian Art. University Park: College Art Association by Pennsylvania University Press.
Conway, D. J. 1994. Maiden, Mother, Crone: The Myth and the Reality of the Triple Goddess. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
Eller, Cynthia. 2000. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. Boston: Beacon Press.
Olson, Carl, ed. 1983. The Book of the Goddess Past and Present: An Introduction to Her Religion. New York: Crossroad.