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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 9

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: January 14th. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,270

This is the ninth installment in the series "Another History of Modern Paganism -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't". This is the 3rd essay about the Pagan Gods, Old, New, and Otherwise. It's Mom's turn now... the next few articles will be about the Goddess. Is she really old, or an invention of modern feminist writers?

The Great Mother, the Triple Goddess:

Some Wiccans and neo-Pagans may believe that one single Mother Goddess was universally revered throughout history. They might insist that an Earth-based, matrifocal, pacifistic society survived in western Europe up to the Neolithic era, before it was destroyed by a male-dominated warrior culture. Some believe that veneration of a Great Mother continued after the invasion, although in a less powerful form, until goddess worship was deliberately repressed by the Catholic Church. This was considered an intentional way to subjugate women’s power and defeat matriarchal rule. Only a few defiant witches maintained secret underground covens to preserve the feminine spiritual tradition. These priestesses handed down their lore, ritual and magic to their initiates until Gardner and his protégés revealed the Wiccan religion to the general public in the twentieth century.

Some scholars claim that no female deity was actively worshipped in Europe after the middle ages, when Christianity had replaced all other religions. These individuals may insist that the Great Earth Mother of Wicca and neo-Paganism was wholly created by Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, Gerald Gardner or modern feminist thealogy. Authors have theorized that the only remnant of maternal veneration to continue until modern times is the Roman Catholic ideal of the Virgin Mary, or perhaps the reverence held for various female saints. Others believe that the Triple Goddess with maiden, mother and crone aspects was invented in the twentieth century and was never actually a figure of Celtic worship.

As before, the truth is contained somewhere in between these viewpoints. It is an indisputable fact that maternal and earth-based goddesses have been venerated since at least the Bronze Age in Europe. In the course of my research, I found plenty of references to European goddesses in legend, folklore, artifacts, place names, art, music and popular culture. These include Celtic deities who were revered in the British Isles, Ireland and on the continent. Several of them were triform, or taking on a threefold aspect. In some cases, the classical Greek or Roman goddesses had supplanted the native deity. Most Celtic goddesses weren’t portrayed in artwork until Roman times. Few artifacts relating to Celtic female deities were dated after the Roman withdrawal, as Anglo-Saxon goddesses replaced them. However the legends of the Celtic goddesses survived up to the 12th century, when many of them were written down.

Some scholars believe that goddess worship was transferred to reverence of the Mother of Jesus, and that the Catholic Church thusly sanctioned many formerly Pagan rituals. There are hundreds of books and websites devoted to the possible pre-Christian origins of the Virgin Mary. Often the history of a Catholic saint or legendary heroine could be traced to a local deity, including St. Bridget or Maeva of Ireland. It’s possible that the era of chivalry has its roots in the veneration of Our Lady, who was formerly the maiden or mother aspect of the divine female. The romantic tales of Gwenevere and Morgan le Faye in the Arthurian cycles may have originated in Pagan religious legend, although the Medieval versions were adapted to Christianity.

During the Renaissance, goddess figures often took the form of metaphor, such as Ceres as the spirit of agriculture representing harvest bounty. Some goddesses survived only in the guise of a frightening myth, such as the Mailte y Nos (old woman of the night) of Wales or the Cailleach Bheur of Ireland and Scotland, who may be the precursor of the modern stereotype of an ugly, scary old witch. Perhaps the public adoration of such historic women as Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria can be attributed to a need for devotion to a powerful maternal figure. After the Reformation, goddesses become mostly symbolic, such as Mother Nature or Lady Liberty. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, a fascination with goddesses resurfaced. However, a reverence for a female deity was not really connected to witchcraft until recent times. So, did a pure form of historic goddess worship actually exist in the British Islands until the present day? Or did Gerald Gardner and the authors who promoted feminist spirituality actually re-invent the feminine divine?

A prehistoric “great mother” theme is well represented in artifacts found throughout Europe, from the Paleolithic era right up to the Bronze Age. These include the famous “Venus” or “goddess” figures, such as the Venus of Willendorf, Austria or the Lespugue Goddess discovered in Garonne, France. Similar statuettes have been discovered in Wales. Some of these figurines of well-endowed ladies were created over 20, 000 years ago. Other prehistoric artwork features feminine images, including cave paintings, carved standing stones, and petroglyphs, all similar enough to conclude that they have a common basis. Dr. Marija Gimbutas was one of the first modern scholars to make the connection between these female figures and religious veneration. Gimbutas theorized that the prehistoric statues, carvings or drawings of full-figured women, sometimes called “matrikas”, were actually religious icons, because several of these images were found in sacred places such as tombs. Other figurines were discovered with similar objects of religious significance. The Willendorf statuette was painted with red ochre, a substance used in pre-Christian funeral rituals, possibly to represent blood. It may also signify menstruation or childbirth. The Venus of Laussel in France, carved into the wall of what is thought to be a hunting shrine, was originally painted red and holding a bison horn. Gimbutas speculated that these artifacts showed a relationship between reverence of women and a Goddess-centered matriarchal civilization.

Dr. Gimbutas theorized that a matrifocal society had been established on the European continent in prehistoric times. She believed that up to the Neolithic (new stone age) era there was very little warlike activity or murder, basing her assumption on the discovery of many female images in statuary and cave drawings, and the presence of few weapons or murder victims. Gimbutas claimed that an aggressive Indo-European culture, which she called “Kurgan”, had usurped the peaceful matriarchal societies of Europe about two thousand years B.C.E. She based this idea on the progression of Indo-European languages throughout history. Gimbutas made a comparison of artifacts from cultures that she believed came from pre-invasion times, contrasting them to archeological findings from the era after the languages changed. The result was her “Kurgan Hypothesis”.

Cambridge scholar Jane Ellen Harrison proposed an earlier theory of a peaceful matriarchy at the turn of the twentieth century. Harrison wrote that a single Mother Goddess with three aspects had been worshiped by a prehistoric matrifocal civilization in Europe, although she believed that the dominating patriarchal culture had originally come from the north, possibly Russia. Feminist Wiccans and neo-Pagans later used these ideas as a basis for some modern Goddess traditions, including the all-female Dianic Wiccan path.

Harrison, Gimbutas and their adherents may have believed that a matrifocal society would have naturally resulted in a peaceful, nurturing environment. However, more recently documented prehistoric artifacts tell a different story. There are weapons used in warfare that date from the Mesolithic age onward, found throughout Europe. Prehistoric settlements have evidence of fortification. Archaeologists have discovered ancient tombs with bodies that were clearly murder victims or combat casualties, and there is physical evidence to support the theory that our predecessors used capital punishment. Several of the “bog bodies” found in Ireland were strangled, decapitated or dismembered. Hero tales describe warlike activity from time immemorial. The only possible “peaceful matriarchy” that may have existed was on the island of Malta, and I’m going to argue that this wasn’t likely a true self-supporting society, but a training center for a priest/ess-hood similar to the Druid college which was thought to be located on Ynys Mon / Anglesey in Wales.

There is no real proof of any solely matriarchal society in Europe, either. There were egalitarian societies, in which women had political and economic power, but no civilizations ruled exclusively by women. In artwork from the Neolithic era to the Bronze Age, images of both genders are nearly equal in number. Artifacts with religious significance relate to both male and female entities. There are male and female deities associated with the hunt, including Diana, Artemis, Ullr and Cernunnos. There are numerous goddesses of war, including the Morrigan or Maeva of Ireland, the Roman Minerva and Athena of Greece, all of whom were revered by both women and men. Kali, the East Indian goddess of death, required blood sacrifices and was often depicted surrounded by victims. Many of the older legends contain males and females in roles of equality. Both women and men owned property and worked at trades in Celtic society. There were Celtic and Germanic women warriors, as well as religious leaders, in oral literature and documented by the Caesars, Pliny the Elder and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The legendary Germanic Valkyries are associated with combat. This evidence rather spoils the notion of any peaceful matriarchy, as well as the idea of a male-dominated Indo-European or “Kurgan” society.

Like most academics, Dr. Gimbutas made mistakes, and some of her findings were later discredited. However, many of her theories really do hold water. Gimbutas discovered dozens of artifacts, catalogued them, and made significant contributions to the study of prehistoric civilizations. She showed that ancient people honored and revered women, fertility and parenthood, as evidenced by the “goddess” figurines and the artwork featuring pregnant women. She traced many of the myths, customs and legends of European culture to a few common sources, and was recognized as an authority on the evolution of language. Her work is still used in university anthropology and linguistic departments today. Following Dr. Gimbutas, many modern scholars believe that the worship of female deities can be verified through studying pre-historic artifacts, cultural practices and myths, and by observing intact Pagan civilizations.

Many archeologists now dispute the idea that there was one single Mother Goddess who was universally revered throughout history. Although Stone Age artifacts depict a well-endowed female figure that may represent a maternal deity, most of the subsequent Bronze Age artwork and legends relate to a pantheon or family of gods. There seems to be many goddesses, but not one Great Goddess that everyone worshiped. Perhaps the “one goddess” did not survive past the Neolithic era. She may have given birth to her subsequent sisters and daughters around the time agriculture was invented. The goddesses of these sacred families are roughly equivalent in most civilizations – some are mothers, but many are maidens, warriors, scholars or workers. Often they are attributed to the sea, herdsmanship, textiles, farming or smithcraft. Some historians believe that polytheistic worship began with the specialization of tasks performed within a society. Others believe that animism played a big part, and that the spirit of the wind or soul of a tree later evolved into sacred figures with human characteristics. It’s interesting to note that almost every culture with a pantheon of gods revere a pair of deities representing parental figures, a mother and father of the other gods and sometimes of humanity.

Folklore and cultural practices relating to these pantheons of deities or families of spirit beings existed in Britain, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, and on the European continent, right up to the modern area. It’s possible that such writers as Bachofen, Harrison, Frazer, Graves and Murray were aware of nineteenth- and twentieth-century rituals with a basis in ancient goddess worship. Dr. Gimbutas certainly knew about them, because she documented numerous modern Pagan religious rites from eastern Europe, including her own homeland of Lithuania. Goddess worship continued in several northern cultures right up to the 1940s, when the Nazis or Stalin’s communist regime persecuted them. As an amateur folklorist, Gerald Gardner was likely familiar with surviving earth-based traditions, and may have obtained some of his information about goddess worship from looking at artifacts, observing pre-Christian rituals, and speaking with hereditary British Pagans.

Several Gardnerian Wiccan ceremonies relating to women may have their roots in older Pagan customs. While not specifically oriented to the goddess, these rituals might be traced to working-class women’s mysteries. In Gardner’s second-degree initiation ceremony, a new female witch swears an oath on her mother’s womb. This type of vow has a precedent in religious legends and folktales, so it may be based on an older practice. A woman or priestess serving as an altar is found in the third degree Gardnerian initiation. Using a naked woman for an altar was an accusation made during the witch trials, supposedly as a link to pacts with Satan. In Medieval times it was considered blasphemous, but it may have been a holy rite salvaged from an earlier period. Louis the XIV of France kept a mistress, Madame de Mountespan, who employed a practicing witch named Catherine la Voisin. De Mountespan and la Voisin created both love spells and poisons using de Mountespan’s nude body as an altar. When imprisoned, la Voisin told her captors that only another “goddess like me” could understand her motive.

Gardner referred to the cauldron of Cerridwen in several holiday celebrations, including his Midwinter ritual. Perhaps he got this idea from the Welsh _Mabinogion_, or from a custom such as wassailing, blessing an object or person with apple cider, or “saining”, purifying a child with water. He may have been simply referring to a symbolic womb. The dramatization of the Charge, as performed in the second degree initiation, may have come from watching British folk plays. The Descent of the Goddess may have been inspired by fairy-tales in which a heroine went “under the hill” to dance or mate with the Sidhe, the Gentry or the King of the Fey. Many of the spells and healing rites in Gardner’s _Book of Shadows_ are authentic, including the use of unguents, herbal remedies, hypnosis and positive suggestion. These practices likely derived from “granny magic”, as women’s medicine was called in those days. While none of this is conclusive evidence of antiquity, it must be noted that the _Book of Shadows_ was not originally intended for public consumption. Gardner would have had no need to promote these rituals as ancient, as he did with his published writings.

There may be a reason that the goddess-related liturgy and ceremonies are somewhat incomplete in Gardner’s original works. Like his contemporaries, Gardner belonged to several lodges, fraternities and magical societies. Most of them were male-dominated, such as the Masonic order. Gardner gained access to their secrets by becoming a member, then very probably borrowed some of their rites and applied them to Wicca. This may be why so many of the original Gardnerian rituals are rather male-oriented, and why the goddess sometimes seems like a minor character. This might be true of Gardner’s folklore studies, as well. His research on the feminine divine may have been limited by cultural constraints. Because he was male, Gardner may not have had much access to women’s ceremonies or traditions. Rituals associated with midwifery, herbalism, and “moon lore” were commonly passed from woman to woman within families or small groups. Even if Gardner’s female contemporaries knew about Pagan women’s mysteries, they may not have shared them with their male coveners.

As I did with the Horned God, I searched for legends, artwork and customs that may have shaped the modern belief in the Great Mother. I also looked for Pagan traditions related to goddesses that were still practiced in Britain up to the last century. This proved a bit of a challenge. Because women were mostly centered in the home, their rituals were not as public as the men’s ceremonies. Legitimate healing practices and household lore were dismissed as “old wives’ tales” by the educated classes. Because the monotheistic religions were male-dominated, the rites of women received scant attention by those who wrote history. The monks who chronicled pre-Christian sagas might have ignored goddess legends. While Catholicism may have incorporated some of the female Pagan deities as saints, the Protestant religion in England did not recognize them and also marginalized the Virgin Mary. Some goddess lore and customs may have been lost during this era. Yet I still found plenty of information!

In the next few segments, we'll check out ancient and modern references to the Goddess, including Moon Goddesses, Triple Goddesses, Earth Goddesses, and her representation in Art, Literature, and common ritual. Hope you're having as much fun with this series as me!

Please read the books mentioned above. Check out Murray, then read her critics and detractors, then read Jani Farrell-Roberts's rebuttal. Check out some of the archeologists who swear that prehistoric artwork does NOT represent a Goddess. Then check out some of the scholars who swear that the artwork DOES represent the Goddess. Pick up a book by Dr. Gimbutas. Read Dr. Hutton's arguments against her theories. Read Max Dashu's arguments against Hutton's arguments against Gimbutas (tricky, huh?) Or if that bores you, go look at pictures of some matrikas. Try Googling "prehistoric" + "Venus figure" and "Goddess" + "Virgin Mary". That'll keep everyone busy for a while!

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 A.C. Fisher Aldag. Reproduce as you will. The hardworking people here at the Witches' Voice politely request that articles on their front page not be used until they are archived, after a week.


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan

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