REGULARS | ISABELLA TROPE
‘Mother’ is not just a societal role, it can be a spiritual state of being — to nurture, care, and create. Mother goddesses come in a variety of forms, including goddesses who give birth to other gods, archetypal mother figures, and those who help bring humanity into existence. By looking at mother goddesses, we can think about what it means to embody motherhood.
Note: a lot of mythological stories are born from contexts different to our own, using meanings we may not directly understand. Some of the themes and symbols these goddesses relate to may not make sense to us but made sense to the cultures from which they were born.
Wiccan Triple Goddess
During the neo-pagan revival of the 1960s and 70s, a feminist take on ancient pre-Christian European spirituality emerged in the form of Wicca. At its core, Wicca has spiritual reverence for nature, magical practice, and worship of a goddess. Wicca is not an institutionalised religion, so its practice is as varied and eclectic as the adherents themselves.
However, many Wiccans incorporate the triple goddess to their practice. The triple goddess consists of three archetypal figures: maiden, mother, and crone. The threefold nature of the goddess reflects the human cycle of birth, maturation, and death. Each stage of this journey brings its own gifts. In our youth we see the world through fresh eyes and explore the world for the first time. In adulthood, we have the resources to give back to others and build our familial networks. In old age, we have the collected wisdom of all our years and can enjoy those familial networks we built earlier on. The triple goddess can teach us respect for ourselves and others throughout all our life stages.
The following information comes from Hesiod’s Theogony. In this poem, which is the earliest known account of core Greek myths, Gaia is the defied personification of the Earth itself. As such, she is often depicted as the head and torso of a woman emerging from the earth. She is one of the primordial gods of the Greek pantheon, there at the genesis of the world. The universe before creation in Greek mythology was called ‘Chaos,’ a disordered nothingness. Gaia was the first God to emerge from Chaos. She created the sky, mountains, and sea.
She gave birth to a variety of characters in Greek mythology, but what is most notable is how she conceived them. In Hesiod’s poem, Gaia contrives to have her son, Chronos, castrate her husband Ouranos in revenge for mistreatment of some of their children. The blood from the injury falls to the earth, and, as Gaia is the earth itself, she uses the blood to give birth to the Furies — goddesses of vengeance. Symbolism much?! Even though Gaia and her stories are mythical, knowing them serves as a useful reminder to be considerate of what we put on the earth. Our earth and atmosphere are the source of all known life. If we’re not careful about what we put onto the earth, it may send back haunting consequences.
Phrygia was an ancient district of the Anatolian subcontinent existing between the 12th and 7th centuries BCE. Cybele was a prominent mother goddess figure in the Phrygian pantheon. She ruled over the wilderness, was a healer, promoted fertility, and protected people in times of war. Her power over nature is symbolised by the lions that often accompany her in imagery.
As a nature and creation goddess, she is linked to cycles of birth and decay mirrored by the seasons in the natural world. We see this link in the myth of Cybele and Attis, which details the emergence of Attis as a vegetation God. This story takes many forms, but in Ovid’s account, Attis was a shepherd Cybele fell in love with. She brought him into her clergy on the condition he preserved his chastity. He agreed but broke his word by sleeping with a nymph. In a state of frenzied fury, she threw him into a river. Attis castrated himself in his own fit of rage and began to make attempts on his life. To prevent him killing himself, Cybele turned him into a fir tree.
There are many strong and violent emotions at play in this myth, but it should remind us about how powerful emotions can be transformed into something new. In this myth, the decay of anguish and anger was turned into a new chance, an opportunity to regenerate as something new.
Ninhursag is one of the incarnations of the mother goddess archetype in the Sumerian pantheon. She was valued for her connection to transformation, nature, pregnancy, and childbirth. In her earlier forms, she was also called Kishar, which directly translates to ‘mother earth’, suggesting she played a significant mythological role in the creation of the world. In artistic representation, she is depicted symbolically as a deer, often alongside an eagle which symbolises her son, Ninurta. Like other goddesses on this list, her myths foreground creation as a transformative experience.
One myth describes how, after the gods’ task of creating the world was complete, Ninhursag and Enki (the god of wisdom) fall in love and Ninhursag becomes pregnant.iv Ninhursag leaves Enki with their daughter, Ninsar, when she must return to her duties. In Ninhursag’s absence, Enki misses Ninhursag greatly and becomes deluded with grief. He mistakes his daughter for Ninhursag and entices her into having sex with him. Enki abandons his daughter when he realizes she’s not his beloved Ninhursag. He does the same to Ninsar’s daughter, Ninkurra, and almost does the same to Uttu, his daughter with Ninkurra. Instead of having his child, the distressed Uttu calls on Ninhursag for help. Ninhursag instructs Uttu to take Enki’s semen and put it in the dirt of Dilmun (the Eden-type Paradise of Sumerian mythology). The semen becomes eight plants, which Enki and his advisor eat as they’re delicious. Ninhursag becomes enraged and curses him to die. But when she sees him sick and dying, she draws his illness and pain into her body. Each time she takes on his pain, she gives birth to a new deity.