The History Of Female Empowerment III: From Deities To Luminaries

January 3, 2020 Category: History

Let’s conclude this trilogy by tracing the legacy of feminism back to the incidence of ancient female deities–specifically: the use of mother-goddesses.  From there, we can discern a common thread–through the centuries–up to the incidence of modern female luminaries.

Over the course of history, cultures around the world have employed a maternal cosmogony.  This seems natural, as mothers are the quintessential symbol of fertility, birth, and nourishment.  The salient theme here is fecundity.  The notion of fertility has dual meaning–pertaining as it does to crops and to procreation.  This makes sense, as–other than breathing–the two most important things in life are the ability to eat and to produce offspring.  Thus a mother goddess encompasses two fundamental elements of human existence.  Note, for example, “Pomona” (Roman goddess of fecundity / prosperity) and “Taweret” (Egyptian goddess of fertility of both wombs and crops).

Fertility is especially salient for agricultural societies–as people’s livelihood is based on the growing of crops.  This dates back to the Sumerian goddess, “Ashnan” and her various manifestations: Ezina-Kusu, Gesht-Inanna, and Nin-hursag.  We also find this with the Old Semitic “Nikkal”.  In Egypt, there was “Hathor”, “Heqet”, and “Renenutet”.

It has been for the most elementary biological reasons that plenty has been generally conceptualized as feminine–as with the Greek goddesses “Demeter”–around whom the Eleusinian Mystery cults were based.  The Romans had several such goddesses associated with the anticipated harvest: “Dea Dia”, “Ceres”, “Vacuna”, “Pomona”, “Tutelina”, “Semonia”, “Segetia”, “Feronia”, etc.  Other examples include the Etruscan goddess “Horta”, the Japanese goddess “Toyouke-Omikami”, and the Zulu goddess “Mbaba Mwana Waresa”.

Above and beyond concerns about plenty, such goddesses have also been emblematic of the most primal form of affection.  For a mother is not just a source of nourishment, but of nurturance: providing sustenance and a means of subsistence.  To reiterate: The essence of human life is grounded in fecundity: something that–far from requiring an authoritarian approach–is primarily about compassion.

So it can be surmised: Generally speaking, the preeminence of a mother goddess reflects whether a culture prioritizes fertility (matriarchal) or militancy (patriarchal).  When compassion is seen as the highest virtue, the quintessence of the divine tends to be feminine.  This stands to reason, as maternal figures tend to put nurturance over dominance.  In some cases, the goddess is seen as a protector–as with “Athena Polias” (a variant of “Cybele”) in Athens and “Ma-tsu” in maritime China. {18}

What characterizes a society’s godhead?  If we limit ourselves to the dichotomy (martial vs. maternal), it depends on whether the culture is based more on war or more on civility.  A more militaristic society will tend to posit a (machismo) martial deity; a more nurturant society will tend to posit a maternal deity.  For instance, during the 20th century, if the United States had created a god, it would have been a war-god (effectively, an American Mars, who’s shrine was the Pentagon); while if, say, Scandinavia had created a god, it would have been closer to a god of nourishment (effectively, a Nordic Minerva).

Female deities seem to be more conducive to compassion (of which a mother is emblematic) than to wrath (of which the domineering authoritarian is emblematic).  Hence the ancient Asian goddess of mercy, Avalokitesvara.  History shows that male gods tend to be characterized more by wrath than by mercy–as with the vengeful godhead of the Torah and the vindictive godhead of the Koran (not to mention the Fire and Brimstone approach to Christianity embraced by its Nicene instantiation).  The dichotomy of discipline vs. nurturance seems to be timeless.

Note, though, that not all war-gods have been male.  In the 2nd millennium B.C., the Canaanites of Ugarit revered the virgin warrior-goddess, “Anat[h]” (daughter of the Canaanite godhead, El), who was later adopted by the Nabataeans.  Throughout history, martial goddesses have included:

  • Durga (Hindu)
  • Jiu-Tian Xuan-nu (Chinese)
  • Menhit and Sekhmet (Egyptian)
  • Enyo and Nike (Greek)
  • Menrva (Etruscan)
  • Nerio / Bellona and Victoria (Roman)
  • Andred / Andrasta (Icenic)
  • Andarta / Andraste (Gaulish / Celtic)
  • Itzpapalotl (Aztec)
  • Pele (Hawaiian)

Even when martial deities were seen as female, unlike mother-goddesses, they were never seen as the highest deity.

Typically, though, goddesses are associated with CARE, as they are seen more as maternal than as martial.  It is not for nothing that the Sumerians characterized COMPASSION as feminine (personified as “Shala”).  In Vajra-yana Buddhism, the embodiment of compassion is the female Buddha, Vajra-yogini (“Dorje Neljorma” in Tibetan Buddhism).

Meanwhile, there has been a widespread usage of goddesses to represent the sunrise–as with the Vedic “Ushas”, the Shinto “Ame-no-Uzume-no-mikoto”, the early Semitic “Shahar”, the Greek “Eos”, the Etruscan “Thesan”, and the Roman “Aurora”.  Dawn has traditionally symbolized renewal and hope for a better future–a kind of re-birth.  So it makes sense that this time of day has often been associated with the feminine.

Another point worth considering: Maternal love is the most unconditional–and thus most reliable–kind of love.  Hence “Gaea” [alt. “Gaia”], the basis for the Occidental “Mother Earth” motif, found in Archaic Greek mythology. {1}  The earliest instance of a feminized cosmology was the Sumerian “Nammu” (later rendered “Tiamat” by the Babylonians), goddess of the primordial chaos (conceptualized as a kind of cosmic waters) that preceded Creation.  The ideation of a primordial mother makes sense, as it is–after all–women who give birth, and mammalian females who nurture.

To this day, the most prevalent example of this motif is the East Asian mother goddess: “Guan-[shi]-yin”, who is associated with mercy / compassion.  As an ancient Chinese bodhisattva, Guan-yin was based on the antecedent goddess of compassion / mercy, “Ava-Lokit-esvara” (from the Lotus Sutra).  Versions of her can be found in Cantonese and Fujian lore (“Guan-yam”), Taiwanese lore, Siamese lore (“chao-mae” Kuan-im), Vietnamese lore (Quan-[The]-Am), and Japanese lore (Fukukenjaku Kan-[ze]-on).  The Tibetans call her “Chenrezik”.  The Sinhalese call her “Natha Devi-yo”.  Even the Hmong have a version of her (“Kab Yeeb”).  She is the godhead in Zaili-ism.  In the Taoist tradition, Guan-yin inspired the legend of Miao-shan (as attested in the “Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain”).

Behold the widespread appeal of a maternal conception of divinity.  Such an ideation pervades virtually all the major cultures of the Far East.  This is no surprise, as the conception of a maternal godhead goes back THREE MILLENNIA, to the so-called “Venus of Dolni Vestonice” (and a bit later, the “Venus of Willendorf”).  There is clearly something INNATE to the psychology of homo sapiens that leads us to posit a mother goddess.  In southern Anatolia, we find Neolithic statuary AND cave-paintings of a mother-goddess (ref. the findings at “Çatal-höyük”) from about 8,000 years ago.  She seems to have been a precursor to “Cybele”.

The tendency to equate nature with maternity is universal–hence the idiom “Mother Nature” with which we are still familiar.  Even today, the idiom “mother Earth” / “mother nature” is commonplace–especially amongst neo-Druids and Wicca, as well as in feminist New Age lore. {2}  The Greeks also posited Gaia: the first conception of “Mother Earth” (thus: the primordial mother of all life).  Here daughter (via the primordial father of the heavens, Uranus) was “Rhe[i]a”, mother of all the gods of Olympus.

And so it went that the mother of Rome was held to be “Rhea Silvia”.  In the Roman Empire, the honorific, “Caelestis” [Heavenly / Celestial] was used for various goddesses who were seen as embodiments of aspects of a single, supreme heavenly mother-goddess (as with “Juno Caelestis” and “Venus Caelestis”).  In Apuleius’ magnum opus, “Metamorphoses”, the hero (Lucius) prays to the Hellenized Egyptian goddess Isis, who he refers to as “Regina Caeli” [Queen of Heaven], a moniker also associated with Ceres (the goddess associated with nurturance and plenty)…who was, in turn, based on the Greek personification of maternity: “Demeter”.

The mother-goddess leitmotif has even occurred in primitive island cultures–as with “Atabey” of the Tainos (on Puerto Rico) and “Moneiba” / “Chaxiraxi” of the Guanches (on the Canary Islands).  I initially suspected that matriarchal deification (spec. the conception of nature as maternal) was prevalent throughout history and around the world.  Little did I realize that it was virtually UNIVERSAL.  As it turns out, matriarchal deification is found in almost every culture to ever exist (outside of the Abrahamic tradition).

Here are over a hundred more prominent mother goddesses:

  • Aditi; Prithvi-mata / Mahi-mata (Vedic)
  • Bhuvana Is-wari [a.k.a. “Bhuvanes-wari”]; Bhu[mi]-devi / Bhu-vati / Bhumi / Urvi-[sha] / Prithvi [Mata]; and Ganga Ma [Mother of the Ganges] (traditional Hindu)
  • Prakriti (Samkhya Hindu)
  • “Adi” [Para-]Shakti / Parvati / Tripura Sundari / Gauri / Uma / Kali (Shakta Hindu) {3}
  • Akhila-Andha-Esh-vari [alt. “Akila-andes[h]-wari”] (Tamil Hindu)
  • Sundha-rivanida (Theravada Buddhist)
  • Vasu[n]dha[ra] (Newar Buddhist) {4}
  • Devi Sri; Men Brajut [a variation on the Hindu goddess, Hariti] (Javanese)
  • Tao-mu [alt. “Doumu”] / Tati-zhi-mu / Tian-hou / Ma-tzu [alt. “Mazu”] (Taoist)
  • Tian-shang Sheng-mu / Wu-sheng Lao-mu / Xi-wang-mu / Wuji-mu / Yao-chi Jin-mu / Tian-mu (ancient Chinese)
  • Nü-wa / Nü-gua (folk Chinese)
  • Amaterasu; Sei-obo (Japanese)
  • Wathondare [based on the (Pali) Newar bodhisattva, Vasundhara(ni)] (Burmese)
  • Nang Thorani [alt. “Mae Thorani”] (Siamese)
  • Nan Ganhan [alt. “Neang Kongheng” / “Preah Thorani”] (Khmer)
  • Seo-wang-mo / Sung-mo / Dae-mo / Ja-mo / Sin-mo; Chungkyun Mo-ju (Korean)
  • Nana [also depicted as a war goddess; basis for the Armenian Nane] (Kushan / Bactrian)
  • Aruru; Nammu; Urash; and Inanna (Sumerian) {5}
  • Ki(-shar) [“Earth Mother”]; Kubab; Belet-Ili; Nana[ya]; and Antu[m] (Akkadian) {5}
  • Ishtar; Irkalla [version of Eresh-ki-gal] (Assyrian) {17}
  • Ninsun; Tiamat (Babylonian)
  • Kiririsha (southern Elamite)
  • Pinikir (northern Elamite)
  • Arsay (Canaanite / Syrian) {6}
  • Berouth (Eblaite)
  • Ashtoreth (Phoenician)
  • Asherah / As[h]tarte / Athirat (see list below) (Canaanite / Amorite)
  • [Aredvi Sura] Anahita [alt. “[a]Nahid”; also associated with wisdom; the basis for the Armenian “Anahit”] (Persian)
  • Hanna-Hannah (Hittite) {7}
  • [k]Hepa[t] (Hurrian)
  • Shardi [Arubani / Bagvarti was consort of the godhead, (k)Haldi.  A matriarchal figure, she was goddess of fertility and creativity] (Urartian)
  • Iusaas[et]; Neit[h] / Net / Nit; M[a]ut / Maat; Nekh-bet; Ki (early Egyptian)
  • Isis (later Egyptian)
  • Rhe[i]a (Minoan) {1}
  • Ma; Aphrodite; Hestia (Greek) {8}
  • Argimpasa; Tabiti (Scythian) {9}
  • Kybele [alt. “Cybele”] (Anatolian; esp. Phrygian and Lydian) {10}
  • Cybele / Artemis (Anatolian) {11}
  • Ana-hit / Nane / Hanea (Armenian)
  • Op[i]s (Sabine)
  • Albina; Nutria; Cel; Uni (Etruscan)
  • Mater Matuta [alt. “Magna Mater”]; Tellus [alt. “Terra Mater”] (Roman) {12}
  • Tanit [based on the consort of the Phoenician “Baal-Hamon”] (Punic-Iberian)
  • Tan[g]ou [based on the Punic] (Carthaginian)
  • Omek Tan[g]ou [based on the Carthaginian] (Tunisian Berber)
  • al-Lat [alt. “Allat”; based on the early Semitic] (Arabian) {13}
  • Yer Tan[g]ri / Yer Ana [the feminine form of Tengri] (Turkic)
  • Umay / Eje [alt. referred to as “Nati-gai”] (Mongolian)
  • Hajnal Anyacska (Magyar)
  • Mat Zemlya [“Matka Ziemia” in Latvian; later rendered “Mokosh”] (Slavic)
  • Luonnotar (Finnish / Baltic)
  • Mara (Latvian)
  • Zemyna (Lithuanian)
  • Frigg [alt. Frijjo / Frija / Freyja]; Jord [alt. Fjörgyn / Hlodyn]; and Sif (Norse)
  • Nerthus / Nertha (Suebian / Germanic)
  • Noreia (Carinthian Celtic)
  • Macha; Ernmas; [d]Anu / Anan[d]; Brigid; Flidais (Celtic / Irish)
  • Cailleach (Lusitanian Gaelic)
  • Virgo-Patitura (Druidic)
  • Don (Welsh) {14}
  • [Dea] Matrona (Gaulish)
  • Qucha-mama [alt. “Pacha-mama”] (Incan)
  • Ix-Chel (Mayan)
  • Cihua-Coatl / Coatl-icue [Nahuatl: “Ilamatecuhtli”]; Xochi-quetz[a]l [Nahuatl: “Ichpochtli”]; Toci (Yoal-ticitl) / Tlalli Iyollo / Tlazol-teotl
  • Atabey (Taino)
  • Papa-tuanuku (Maori)
  • Papa (Hawaiian)
  • Hina / Sina / Tina (Polynesian)
  • Dayang Masalanta [reified as “Maria (of) Makiling”] (Filipino)
  • Asase Ya / Aberewa / Afua (Ashanti) {15}
  • Anyanwu (Igbo) {15}
  • Nana Buluku (Yaruba; Fon, especially in Dahomey; Akan / Ewe) {16}
  • Moreyba (Berber)

These are all feminine conceptions of divinity.  They are entities that societies felt they could depend on (that is: female super-beings whom supplicants believed would be looking out for their best interests).  Sometimes the deity is both a solar deity and a mother-goddess–as with “Amaterasu” in Japanese myth, “Anyanwu” / “Ala” in African myth, and “Wadjet” [a.k.a. “[b]Uto”] in pre-dynastic Egypt. {19}  In other cases, the national spirit is personified as a woman, such as “Om el-Donia” for modern Egypt and “Ibu Pertiwi” [“Mother Prithvi”] for Indonesia.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there was the conception of the Bodhisattva as the “Yum Chenmo” [Great Mother], an idea inherited from the Indian “Prajnaparamita” (the earliest of the Mahayana Sutras).  The Nabataeans of Palmyra worshipped their own version of the Greco-Roman goddess of fortune, Tyche…as well as a trinity of goddesses (Allat[u], Al-Uzza, and Man[aw]at), who were eventually adopted by the Quraysh in the Hijaz.

Matriarchal deification was especially common in Native American cultures–as with:

  • Sedna (Inuit)
  • Nokomis and Mondamin (Anishinabe)
  • Selu (Cherokee)
  • Atina (Arikara)
  • Evaki (Bakairi)
  • Na-ashje-ii Asdzaa[n] [alt. “Altse Asdzaa[n]”] (Navajo)
  • Hatush (Chumash)
  • Wohpe (Lakota)
  • Kokomthena Paboth’kwe (Shawnee)
  • Komorkis (Blackfoot)
  • Menil (Cahuilla)
  • Ata-en-sic; and Onatah (Iroquois)
  • Koh-kyang-wu-tee (Hopi)
  • Asintmah (Athabaskan)

The feminine can be found in myriad theological contexts.  Most notable is the personification of wisdom / Truth as female.  Notable examples of this include:

  • Saras-wati / Saras-vati (Vedic)
  • Nis[h]aba (Sumerian)
  • Seshat (Egyptian)
  • Sophia / Athena (Greek)
  • Minerva (Etruscan, then Roman)
  • Vör; Frigg / Freyja (Norse)
  • Devi (Hindu)
  • Aletheia / Sophia (Gnostic)

Tellingly, the NATURAL ORDER has often been seen as feminine; hence the ubiquitous idiom “mother nature”.  The Minoans equated the natural order, “Physis” with a maternal conception of the universe–an ideation that was adopted by the Ionian school in the 6th century B.C. (ref. Heraclitus of Ephesus).  The Greeks associated nature with the Titaness, “Themis”.  The natural order often was the basis for conceptions of justice–an ideation that dates back to the Vedic notion of “Rta” and the Egyptian “Maat” (whereby justice was equated with the natural order of things).  In a sense, what was just was determined by the very structure of the cosmos; and THAT was conceptualized as female.

And so it went that the Greeks embodied justice as female: “Dike”.  The constellation Virgo [the Virgin] was associated with “Dea Caelestis”, impresario of justice.  The Romans adapted their own incarnation of Dike as “Justitia”…who became the basis for the modern “Lady Justice” leitmotif.  The ancient Norse embodied both justice and love as the goddess, “Frigg” / “Freyja”.  In some cases, the mother-goddess is also the one who sits in judgement to determine each soul’s fate in the afterlife–as with the Babylonian Earth-queen, “Eresh-ki-gal”.  It is no wonder that both liberty and justice are often embodied by a women in the modern Occidental idiom.

The theme seems to be ubiquitous.  In the late 13th century, there emerged a Millenarian cult amongst the Han Chinese known as the “White Lotus”–a hybridization of Manichaeism and Buddhism, wherein “Wu-sheng Lao-mu” [“Unborn Venerable Mother”] was worshipped.  That cult would later inspire the Red Turban Rebellion in the 1330’s.

Other than “Guan-[shi]-yin”, we encounter ramified onomastics with the Sumerian goddess, Eresh-ki-gal, who was also rendered “Irkalla” and “Ashratu[m]”. {17}  Over time, several variations–theonymic and iconographic–on the mother-goddess theme emerged; all with a consistent semiotic through-line.  Here are fifteen of the most notable theonyms for Ashratu[m]:

  • As-dar-tu / Ashtart / Ashirat / Ashratu[m] (Akkadian)
  • Ishtar (Assyrian) {20}
  • Asherah / Ishtarat / Athirat [alt. dubbed “Qetesh” / “Qudshu”] (Amorite) {21}
  • Ashtoreth / Ashtart (Phoenician) {22}
  • At[h]irat / Athtart (Ugaritic)
  • Ashtar (Moabitic)
  • Ashtaroth (Midianite)
  • Ishara (Eblaite)
  • As[h]ertu[s] (Hittite) {7}
  • Shaushka (Hurrian)
  • Attar[t] / Ataratheh / Atar-atah (Aramaic)
  • Astar [ref. the Ge’ez inscription at Adulis] (Abyssinian / Aksumite)
  • As[h]tghik (Armenian)
  • Ataratheh (north Syrian)
  • Atarate / Allat (Nabataean) {24}

And that wasn’t the end of it.  A North Arabian version was adopted from the Nabataean “Allat”, yielding “Alilat” / “Athtar[t]”.  She was alternately rendered “Attar [Shamayin]” in Syriac–especially at Dumah (where she was a correlate of “Allat”).  Attar-Shamayin effectively means “Ishtar from Heaven”.  In central Arabia, the Kindites (the Banu Kindah in particular) referred to her as “Athtar[t]”…as did other Kahlani tribes in Yemen (esp. the Qahtanites).  The Quraysh, who spoke the Nabataean version of Syriac, referred to her as “Allat”.

The re-branding of this goddess seems to have been limitless.  Yet another variant was the Etruscan goddess, “Uni” (as in “Uni-Astre”).  She was rendered “Ashtarot[h]” in Classical Hebrew–probably based on the Midian version of the name.  The Hellenized version, “Astarte[s]”, was a derivative of “As[h]tart[e]”…which was yet another version of the name.  By the time the Greco-Roman “Astarte[s]” was being worshipped, she was but one of a plethora of deities–each of whom boasted her own meandering genealogy.

Many of these instantiations had hazy origins, involving some vague notion of matriarchal divinity (which had often been espoused by distant forebears).  The tendency to appropriate this meme indicates that there was something about it that held appeal across time and place.  Clearly, it resonated with people irrespective of cultural differences.  In other words: The ideation of a supreme mother transcended culture.

The onomastic ramification went on and on.  The Greeks referred to her has “Atargatis”.  The Romans referred to her as “Dea Syria” [alt. rendered “Deasura” / “Dushara”].  The Persians referred to her as “Derketo”. Etc.  Memes (be they theonyms or recipes for lasagna) mutate as they migrate across time and space, being adapted to the local culture (and retrofitted into the indigenous memeplex as the need arises).  Such mutations can be thought of as a memetic ALLELES.  Once instantiated (and thoroughly ingrained in the collective consciousness), the presumption is: “It has always been thus!”  Such FALSE consciousness is attested in a billion different ways around the world.  For naturally, each culture wants to believe that THEIR version of the meme is SUI GENERIS (i.e. not derivative).

As we have seen, the Sumerian Ashratu[m] is the prime illustration of this.  In each case, the memetic prototype is adopted…and then reification goes into full throttle.  Eventually, any given manifestation of the prototype is sublimated to comport with its immediate memetic environs–eventually developing a glimmering memetic corona of its own.  Indeed, each instantiation of this goddess was assimilated into ambient social conditions (tailored to meet pressing needs, to suit local tastes, to jive with prevailing sensibilities, to synchronize with incumbent “core” beliefs, etc.)  Like viruses, memes adapt to survive in their environments.

Even as the version of the deity changes, the underlying semiotic logic holds from case to case.  There is nothing EPISTEMICALLY unique about Ashratu[m] and her myriad incarnations.  The metamorphosis that memes undergo is ubiquitous–from deities to sartorial trends to sacred rituals to leitmotifs in folklore.  Hence the existence of mythemes.  This explains why archetypes tend to transcend culture.  For we are, after all, all human.

The resplendent onomastic ramification seen with “Ashratu[m]” is illustrative of the larger point: Etymology reflects an underlying memetic genealogy.  We can see how the name–and even the portrayal–of a deity can change over time, and over geographies, from culture to culture…without the vestigial genealogy (read: the derivative nature of the deity) being recognized by each subsequent adopter.  With “Ashratu[m]” we have more than twenty distinct cultures, each of which worshipped its own version of a supreme mother-goddess, every one of which was a variation on an antecedent mother-goddess.  Each community surely thought ITS OWN version was THE ORIGINAL version.  Nobody wants to admit that their most sanctified cultural elements is invariably derivative (etymologically or theologically): a concatenation of cultural appropriation from exogenous sources.  Everybody wants to believe that what they consider to be the Supreme Being is an ontological novelty–a Truth to which THEY are privy.

Here, we are concerned with the role of the feminine in different cultures’ world-views.  I hope to have shown how certain motifs have proliferated around the world across history.  Clearly, there was something universal going on here.  That reverence for the feminine was made manifest in so many different creeds reveals that feminism did not depend on any particular creed.  Theology was simply the means by which something more fundamental was being expressed.  We see, then, that this fundamental thing has always existed independently of any given cosmology.

We can now turn to a survey of HUMAN icons (specifically: luminaries in the modern era); and see how female empowerment eventually moved beyond fancy; and has recently translated to civic action.

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