The Divine Feminine
The Heritage of The Goddess
There is a commonly held belief that our history began with written language in the third millennium BCE in Sumer and that our cultural heritage began with the Ancient Greeks. Until only thirty years ago, archaeologists were calling Sumer the “cradle of civilization” and Mesopotamia the “fertile crescent.” Based on modern methods of archaeological investigation we now have a new understanding of a gynocentric society of matrilineal descent dating back roughly 30,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic period and we know there is not one cradle of civilization, but several dating back to the Neolithic period several millennia earlier than previously thought.
Through an interdisciplinary systematic inquiry into the social organization, art, religion and technology at archeological digs, scientists have been able to discover the remains of culturally and spiritually rich civilizations in Catal Huyuk, Minoan Crete and Old Europe. This evidence proves that our history did not start 5,000 years ago with written history and the relatively recent advent of patriarchy, as had previously been thought. We now know that Homo sapiens family tree covers an enormous time span and that it is a matriarchal one traceable through images of the Goddess.
The Venus of Willendorf figurine and other “Venuses” of the Ice Age have been discovered in sacred settings, as in circles of stones found on floors of caves, on mountain tops, and in the earliest shrines. The earliest manifestations of The Goddess were fashioned out of stone, bone or clay by the Cro-Magnons before recorded history and are referred to as the “prehistoric goddess,” precursor of the Great Goddess of ancient Sumer, Egypt and Mesopotamia. These Venuses were discovered in sites all across Eurasia, from Siberia to western Europe. They appear to be fertility totems depicting a pregnant looking female figure with large breasts and swollen belly.
I first learned about goddesses when I was studying Greek mythology in elementary school. At that time I was taught that Ancient Greece was the “Golden Age” and its pantheon of goddesses included: Hera, the punishing, jealous and vengeful goddess-wife of Zeus (who sprung from his head not unlike Eve coming from Adam's rib); Athena, as described in the Iliad, was a fierce and ruthless battle-goddess; Artemis was also fierce and revengeful, keeping the Greek's from sailing to Troy until they made a human sacrifice of a maiden to her and Pandora who was responsible for releasing a plethora of evils upon the earth (again similar to Eve's responsibility for the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.) Needless to say, I was not favorably impressed nor inspired by these horrifying stories of “goddesses” or the original woman, Eve.
Due to recent advancements in science, technology and archeology, we now have an overwhelming amount of new information and compelling insights into our ancient heritage. Information available today about our ancient ancestry contradicts everything I was taught as a child.
Recent discoveries have shown that during the period 6500 to 5700 BCE, The Great Goddess permeated all aspects of life at Catal Huyuk in Ancient Anatolia. The Goddess appears to have been the single most prominent and important feature and focal point of the culture at that time. British Archaeologist James Mellaart began work at Catal Huyuk in 1961 and was able to reconstruct much of the social, economic and religious life by studying the burial customs, the family organization, the sources of its wealth, its shrine decorations and its carved figurines. He found evidence of advanced practices in agriculture and stock breeding, numerous imports and a flourishing trade in raw materials as well as architectural and urban planning.
Through the prodigious efforts of archeologist and author Maria Gimbutas, additional evidence has been brought to light. Starting in 1967, the beginning of a series of major excavations of Neolithic settlements in Old Europe, she discovered civilizations dating back to 6500 BCE. With organized cities, a peaceful egalitarian society, advanced levels of artistic and economic sophistication and a culture that revered nature as sacred and placed women in the center of social and religious life.
It's also documented that the priestesses vastly outnumbered the priests. There are numerous depiction's of them making offerings of votive pottery and sculptures, baking sacred bread and weaving sacred garments. There is no evidence of any blood sacrifices. These Priestesses performed sacred circle dances, ceremonials and rituals in caves, sacred groves, temples and shrines.
What we do not find in Neolithic settlements is any indication of male domination or warfare. In Neolithic art there are no depiction's of armies, battles, conquerors or slaves. None of the emblems commonly found in later civilizations are found in their art i.e. thunderbolts, swords and spears. It is important to note that in Catal Huyuk the evidence indicates a period of 1500 years when there was no warfare and there are similar findings in Minoan Crete.
We now know that in the beginning of history, women and the female principle were revered and that peace and balance between the sexes and nature were the norm. Perhaps this is because our matrifocal ancestors valued the maintenance and nurturance of life over its exploitation and domination. Theirs was a holistic, earth-centered approach to life with an underlying theme of abundance, renewal and regeneration, where religion or spirituality permeated all aspects of their existence.
As the evidence points out, our ancestors were focused on celebrating the female process: menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation and death, nature, the seasons and cycles of time. The images that are repeatedly found are bellies, vulvas, breasts, birth scenes, eggs, fish, water, rain, birds, snakes, trees, bulls, horns, crescents, as well as the all prevalent goddess figurines.
The Goddess is seen today as a preeminent symbol of empowerment for women. She is emblematic of a paradigm shift back to our ancient roots. She is seen as a model for renewal and regeneration. She is body-affirming, not body-denying. The Goddess reminds us of the sacredness of the female body and the mysteries of sexuality and life. Her worship is sensual and earthy, celebrating the organic process of life. “Sacred sexuality” is not an oxymoron but rather a powerful transformational portal into cosmic universal love with women as its initiatresses and our own experience of birth our first initiation.
Archeologist Marija Gimbutas points out that the Goddess civilization was the result of a “structure in which all resources of human nature, feminine and masculine, were utilized to the full as a creative force.” The Goddess civilizations were women-centered, matrifocal and matrilineal, but not matriarchal, because the women did not exercise their power over the men. Men were honored as the protectors of the home, women and children. Neither was subordinated to the other; they complimented each other.
Goddess-worshipping societies were based on creativity and respect for life rather than the control of natural resources and acquisition of wealth and power. They believed in a communal, cooperative lifestyle of harmony and order. They were neither objective nor subjective, but omnijective; they were spiritually attuned to the earth, nature, the seasons and natural cycles and rhythms of celestial bodies as well as their own bodies.
The Goddess is not a monotheistic being above and beyond us, but a multidimensional life-force permeating all aspects of being. The Goddess was associated with the cycles of life, birth, death and regeneration. She was The Divine Mother of all; the source of wisdom, the dispenser of healing, the fount of prophecy and the guardian of life. The worship of The Goddess is much more than merely a “fertility cult” as some historians have mistakenly believed. Mythologist and religious historian Joseph Cambell called the prehistoric worship of the Goddess “Syncretism,” meaning that She is one transcendent entity worshipped under different names and in different forms.
The focus of the Prehistoric Goddess civilization changed as a result of nomadic invaders from the north. Through radiocarbon dating, archeologists have traced several migratory waves of nomadic people (the first c. 4300 BCE) who swept across prehistoric Europe from the Russian steppes and the Caucasus. Subsequent waves are documented in various sacred scriptures that date back to 3000 BCE.
The invaders from Asia and Northeastern Europe are known as “Indo-Europeans.” These nomadic people dominated through a hierarchy of kings, priests and warriors with horse-drawn chariots armed with metal weaponry. The warriors known as Maryannu possessed overwhelming military supremacy. The Indo-Europeans brought with them fierce, angry male deities associated with war, thunder and lightning. They imposed a new ideology and patriarchal way of life on the conquered Lands of the Goddess.
These barbarian invaders believed themselves to be superior in all aspects to the Goddess worshippers. They established themselves as the ruling aristocracy and absorbed the art and religion of the conquered people into their own limited culture. The invasions appeared sporadically over a period of several thousand years. Among the numerous tribes were the Aryans in India, the Hittites in the Fertile Crescent, the Kurgans in Eastern Europe, the Shemsu Hor in Egypt and the Hebrews in Canaan. They were also responsible for driving the Goddess underground, or at the very least casting Her into the background.
One early example of this occurred in 3000 BCE when the Aryans invaded the Dravidian Goddess society in India and brought an end to over 1000 years of peaceful cultural development. In Indian mythology the main Aryan god is known as Indra, “He who overthrows cities'. Indra murders Danu, The Great Goddess of the Dravidians. The light-skinned Aryans did not want to mix with the dark-skinned Dravidians, so they established the caste system. (The Sanskrit word for caste, varna, means color.) The priests, who brought the origins of the Hindu religion, became the ruling caste of Brahmans. Next in the hierarchy were the warriors and on the bottom were the “untouchables” the dark-skinned, Goddess-worshipping, Dravidians assigned the role of house maids and latrine cleaners.
An ancient book of Indian psalms called the Rig Veda states the feelings of the Aryan priests towards woman: “The mind of woman brooks not discipline. Her intellect has little weight.” Through a custom known as suttee, the Brahman priesthood created a means of inheriting all the property of a wealthy upper class widow by burning her alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. In this manner, no wealth or land could ever be passed into the hands of any woman.
Throughout history, theology has been politically driven and motivated by greed and a quest for power. Almost everywhere during the years 5000 to 1500 BCE, the peaceful dominion of the Goddess shifted to the wrath of a sky god and a dominant white male, warmongering hierarchy. Although the Goddess was still worshipped, She was no longer the Creatress and the Supreme Deity. In some instances She was demoted and relegated to the role of the wife and mother of the new male gods.
At approximately the same time the Aryans invaded India, the nomadic tribesmen called the Shemsu Hor invaded Egypt. They brought with them their sky god, Horus and encountered Neolithic Egypt's Supreme Deities: Nekhebt, the Vulture Goddess of Upper Egypt and Ua Zit, The Cobra Goddess of Lower Egypt. After Upper and Lower Egypt were invaded and conquered, they were united and the emblems of each Goddess were incorporated into the headdress of the king signifying his dominion over the Lands of The Goddess.
Even though the Goddess's role was being minimized, She and the women who worshipped Her still had a degree of autonomy and respect in Ancient Egypt after the invasions. The goddess Hathor's name means House of Horus and Isis' means throne or seat of power. The Goddess became quite literally the power behind the man or throne. Goddess worship made a comeback in the later dynasties with Isis. Isis eventually became known as the Divine Mother of the divine child Horus. This iconography repeats itself millennia later with the Holy Mother and the Christ child.
In approximately 2400 BCE, The Sun God (Ra) and The Sky God (Horus) become closely connected with the right to kingship. They formed the prototype of The God-King (Pharaoh) who ruled Egypt throughout the Dynastic Period. As hard as the patriarchy tried to suppress the Goddess, love for Her kept Her ever present. We see Her metamorphasize into a fierce warrior-goddess, Our Lady Of Battle. Her image was synonymous with fearlessness, strength and power, reflective of the new era - The Bronze Age.
To the Indian Hindus She was Kali, depicted dancing on a corpse, blood dripping from Her mouth, with a necklace of skulls around Her neck. To the Ancient Egyptians she was Sekhmet, the ferocious lion-headed goddess who was the destroyer of the enemies of Ra. She was considered the Eye of Ra and placed on his brow where She stood guard over him. The Babylonians and Assyrians called Her Ishtar. She was depicted brandishing a scimitar with a chariot drawn by seven lions. The following is a portion of a devotional prayer inscribed in stone to Ishtar:
Queen of Heaven, Goddess of the Universe,
the One who walked in terrible chaos
and brought life by the law of love
and out of chaos brought us harmony
and from chaos She has led us by the hand.
Woman of women, Goddess who knows no equal,
She who decrees the destiny of people,
Highest Ruler of the World,
Sovereign of the Heavens,
Goddess, even of those who live in heaven.
It is you who changes destiny
to make what is bad become good.
At your right side is justice,
at your left side is goodness.
From your sides emanate life and well being.
Ishtar, how good it is to pray to you….
For me this prayer sums up the period: the terrible chaos of war and the enduring compassionate love of the Goddess to whom worshippers could still turn to for solace and hope. They held their faith knowing She could make things right again through her goodness and justice.
Last Great Civilization of The Goddess
Approximately 3500 BCE there was constant warfare and a declining status of women throughout the ancient world. In Minoan Crete it was very different. In Crete, for the last time in recorded history, men and women existed in harmony as equal participants in life.
The story of Cretan civilization begins in the Paleolithic period approximately 6000 BCE. In the beginning of the Bronze Age c. 3000 BCE, immigrants from Anatolia (the region known as Catal Huyuk) and North Africa arrived on the island and together created the Minoan culture. Minoan Crete became the first great civilization of Europe.
Approximately 2000 BCE Crete entered the Middle Minoan or Old Palace period. It was typified by highly evolved architecture, art, metallurgy, engraving, and written language. This was the apex of the Age of The Goddess. During this same period, the rest of the “civilized” world was gradually displacing the Goddess with warlike male gods and bringing with Him, continuous power struggles, war and destruction. Yet in Minoan Crete, the people lived in peace and harmony for 1500 years (3000-1500BCE).
In Crete all of life was pervaded by a deep faith in the Goddess. Religion was celebrated in palace-shrines, and in open-air sanctuaries on mountain tops. Everywhere there are scenes of the Goddess dancing in meadows and groves with her priestesses. Worship of the Great mother emphasized the sacredness of all life. The early agricultural rites of Demeter in Crete included invocations, singing and dancing. Part of her mysteries included ceremonial union and sexual rites. The celebrants identified their own sexuality with the creative powers of nature, as natural, human and divine.
Archeologist, Nicolas Platon, started excavating the island in 1930 and became the Superintendent of Antiquities of Crete. Amazing discoveries were made by Platon during more than 50 years of excavating Crete. So far only a small portion of the remains have been cleared and in those he found, “vast multi-storied palaces, villas, farmsteads, districts of populous and well-organized cities, harbor installations, networks of roads crossing the island from end to end, organized places of worship and planned burial grounds…” All the urban centers had perfect drainage systems, sanitary installations, and domestic conveniences. The Cretan's had indoor baths with hot and cold running water in ceramic pipes. Nothing like this existed in Europe for another 3300 years.
The great Minoan palaces were unlike the monuments built to authority and power characteristic of ancient Rome or Egypt. There were no depictions of those who sat on the thrones. There are only frescos of the Goddess or priestesses in gift bearing processions. There are no royal portraits of any kind.
At the same time the palace-shrines were built, there is evidence of centralized governmental rule, but not autocratic rule. There is no evidence of a powerful few exploiting and brutalizing the citizenry. Platon has found evidence on written tablets that indicate the government used the island's increasing wealth to improve living conditions. There seemed to be an equitable sharing of wealth amongst all the people.
Scholars have praised Minoan art as “the most inspired in the world.” Throughout the palaces they have found multi-colored frescos, in an artistic tradition which was “unique in its delight in beauty, grace and movement” and golden miniatures, fine jewelry and graceful statuettes portraying images of “enjoyment of life and closeness to nature.”
Several important reoccurring symbols have been found in the excavations of Crete. There is the emblematic double ax which archeologist Marija Gimbutas believes represents a butterfly signifying renewal and rebirth. Archeological digs have revealed gigantic replicas of the double ax fashion out of bronze as well as smaller ones made of gold. This image appears in various works of art being carried by the Goddess and her priestesses.
The snake and the moon were revered for much the same reason. They symbolized transformation and renewal, life and rebirth. Each time the snake sheds it's skin it appears to be reborn.
Unlike the warlike male deities of the Indo-European invaders, the Goddess honored harmony and the interconnectedness of all life. Her symbols were life-affirming. It was the Goddess, not a male deity, who first taught and promised resurrection through the gentle symbols of the butterfly, snake and moon. Within the religion of the Goddess it would have been unthinkable to promote the image of a man being tortured to death and executed (as in the Christian Era) as their primary symbol of divinity.
The Fall of 'Atlantis'
When the ruins of the palace of Knossos were discovered early in the 20th century, their magnificence was known only in the myths of Atlantis. The great palace of Knossos had 1500 rooms, a grand stone staircase, a reception suite and colonnaded verandas. Its splendor revealed what is now thought by many to be the previously fabled civilization of Atlantis.
Minoan Crete ended suddenly and mysteriously without any evidence of invasion or war. A series of earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions rocked the Mediterranean c. 1450 BCE. The Greek island of Santorini (Thera) collapsed into the sea. Speculation is that these natural disasters caused tidal waves and massive flooding which swept Crete under the sea.
Archeologist Platon writes, “the legend handed down by Plato of the submerged Atlantis may be a reference to the history of Minoan Crete and its sudden destruction.” In The End of Atlantis, J.V. Luce comments on how elements of Plato's Atlantis are a “startling accurate sketch of the Minoan empire in the sixteenth century BCE.” When Crete was destroyed, the last great civilization of the Goddess came to an end.
Symbology of the Serpent
Images of the Goddess and her priestesses holding snakes in their hands or coiled around their bodies is more prevalent in Crete than in any other civilization. As in Crete, many of the very ancient images of the Goddess found around the world portray her associated with a snake or having the head of a snake. The Goddess is called Great Mother Serpent of Heaven in Sumerian texts dating c. 4000 BCE. We find records of the Goddess and Her serpent from Australia to Venezuela and the Far East.
The Ouroboros is the ancient Greek and Egyptian serpent symbol with its tail in its mouth continually devouring itself and being reborn. It represents the unity of all things and the eternal cycle of destruction and recreation.
The serpent image also reflects movement of subtle currents of energy which flow through the body and the evolutionary spiral of life. Kundalini, “the coiled one” is represented as a snake and is a manifestation of the Goddess Shakti. In most people the Goddess is said to be asleep manifesting only a fraction of her energy in our bodies. When we awaken her, our 'vital force' flows through energy centers called “chakras” from the base of the spine up to the crown of the head and mystical enlightenment occurs.
In Hindu mysticism two serpents, male and female, intertwine in the body and are symbolic of the rising serpent power of the kundalini energy. This imagery is similar to the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession. The caduceus is a staff (spine) with two entwined snakes rising up it. It first appeared as the staff of the Egyptian High Priest Tehuty who purportedly brought divine knowledge of sacred healing to Egypt. He was later called Hemes (Hermes Trismegistus) by the Greeks. Legend has it that this priest, philosopher and king escaped the destruction of Atlantis where he had been the foremost Atlantean priest.
In the caduceus we see the snake as a symbol of healing and knowledge. In addition, the snake is associated with revelations of divine wisdom and prophecy. Serpents inhabited the oracular shrines of Delphi and were held sacred as the ones who supplied the revelations spoken by the priestesses. The snake was believed to be in contact with the powers of The Great Mother Earth in which they resided.
The later Judo-Christian tradition equates the underground with the abode of Satan, the earth as something to be tamed and controlled and the body as sinful. This notion did not come from the 'wisdom teachings' of these traditions, but from the priest/kings who sought to gain wealth and power for themselves by overthrowing the Goddess and remythologizing Her in Genesis and The Garden of Eden.
Contrary to the Garden of Eden parable, Jesus instructed, “Be ye as wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) The dove, later symbolizing the Holy Ghost, originally stood for Sophia, God's feminine soul. We can now look at the divine triad of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and see that the “ghost” or unseen and unnamed wisdom principal is none other than The Mother (concealed in a white shroud.) Even in The Wisdom of Solomon we are told that “wisdom” [Sophia] was present with God at the making of the world.
Jesus Christ honored the Feminine. His most favored apostle (never recognized by the orthodoxy) was Mary Magdalene. This information has only come to light in the past few decades with the discovery of a collection of documents dating back to 50-400 AD called the Gnostic Gospels. In the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene is depicted as the apostle favored with visions and insights far surpassing Peter's. In Dialogue of the Savior, also from the Gnostic Gospels, she is the “woman who knew the All.” This was all suppressed as heretical by the church.
Overturning the Goddess in The Garden of Eden
The earliest biblical documents from the Old Testament were written c. 1000 BCE. The overthrow of The Goddess began with the priesthood demonizing, vilifying and remythologizing Her heritage in Genesis with the parable of The Garden of Eden.
The original Garden of Eden was truly the garden of the Goddess. For thousands of years The Goddess freely offered fruits of her garden. Human beings were asked to participate in Her feast. In Egyptian writings and murals, the Goddess Hathor, revered as both the Eye of Wisdom and the Serpent Lady, is also known as Lady of the Sycamore. The fruit of this tree described in texts as “the flesh and fluid of Hathor,” was eaten in communion with the Goddess. There are murals that show the fruit being given to the dead to insure immortality and continued life.
We find additional evidence of the Garden of The Goddess in ancient Sumarian and Cretan works of art dating back to c. 2000 BCE. The Great Mother was not threatened by human transcendence, ecstatic illumination or sexual consciousness. In the Garden of the Goddess, human beings are asked to participate in her immortality and to know and enjoy the ecstasy of divine oneness.
The ruling royal, priestly and military classes had economic, political and secular interest to protect. The Levite priesthood of The Old Testament, unable to stop the worship of the Goddess, rewrote the tale of creation. Then they destroyed Her sacred groves of asherah trees which stood by her alters and shrines. In the bible we are told how King Hezekiah “removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made…”
The Patriarchy succeeded in destroying the world's oldest and most widespread religion. In the Old Testament and verified in the New Testament, the myth of Adam and Eve justified the following:
- The sole and divine purpose of women is to serve men in some way -- “a helper fit for him.”
- Woman caused the downfall and misery of humankind.
- Her husband was awarded the divine right to dominate and “rule over” her. First she was the property of her father, then her husband.
- Men should not listen to women.
- Male ownership and control of submissively obedient women was a divine and natural state. She was “commanded to be under obedience.”
- Eve was the greatest temptress of all time attesting to the fact that sexuality and spirituality could not coexist.
- The serpent was to be despised and associated with temptation and evil rather than wisdom and immortal regenerative life.
- As a result of this paradigm shift, the priests established themselves as the interpreters of God's will. The church gained power and wealth as the intermediary to God.
As a final blow, the Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of all the temple of the Goddess in the year 529 AD. He also decreed that women should not be educated unless they gave up their sexuality and joined a convent. It wasn't until the 20th century that some women gained back their right to: an education, sexual freedom and a voice in religion and politics.
I believe one of the keys to a shift in consciousness back to the paradigm of the Goddess is education about our “Her”story. It is through awareness of her long forgotten age of peace, wisdom, equality and respect for all of nature that this can be achieved. When, as women, our bodies and sexuality can once again be honored as sacred expressions of the Divine Feminine, then women can embrace their full power, intuition and creativity.