Goddesses are female deities. The Goddess, capitalized and singular, refers to the supreme deity envisioned in feminine form. Goddesses have played major roles in most religions.

How Many Goddesses Exists?

At the end of the 20th century some North Americans spoke of a single Goddess. For them, the names and myths associated with specifi c goddesses were simply manifestations of this Goddess.
The image of the Goddess often includes other ideas. One is the notion of a “primitive matriarchy.” In 1861 a Swiss lawyer, J. J. Bachofen, speculated that at the beginning of history women rather than men had ruled. This matriarchy was a time of peace and justice. Religion centered on the worship of a goddess. Others have suggested that Goddess worship began at a specific time: when human beings shifted from hunting, gathering, and herding to a way of life based on agriculture.

Other ideas concern the Goddess’s character. In the fi rst half of the 20th century a Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, developed influential ideas about religious symbols. Jung suggested that religious symbols expressed Archetypes, unconscious patterns that all human beings shared. Inspired by Jung, several writers developed an image of the Goddess. They connected her with the fertility of the Earth. They also connected her with the moon. Its phases were said to parallel a woman’s menstrual periods. Infl uential popular writers, such as Joseph Campbell and Starhawk, advocated these ideas. Many serious scholars, including feminists, rejected them. Scholars often prefer to talk about individual goddesses rather than the Goddess. Some goddesses are associated with the Earth and fertility, but not all. In Egypt the Earth was a god, Geb, the sky was a goddess, Nut. The Greek goddess Athena was a warrior and perpetual virgin. Similarly, some goddesses are connected with the moon and its phases. But others are connected with the sun. A prime example is the Shinto kami, Amaterasu. Her brother, Tsukiyomi, is the moon. In the ancient Near East, too, the moon was often male, for example, Khonsu in Egypt, Nanna or Sin in Mesopotamia. The most important Near Eastern goddess was the planet Venus. She went by many names: Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte. The goddess Isis was extremely important during the Roman Empire. She was Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

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Goddesses have also had many personalities. Some have been nurturing and maternal. A good example is the Virgin Mary. Christians do not worship her as a goddess, but Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians venerate her. Other goddesses have been horrifi c. For example, the Hindu goddess Kali sits on corpses, wears parts of human bodies, and always demands blood sacrifi ce. Until the middle 1800s some Kali cults demanded human sacrifi ce. But the same goddess may combine the nurturing and the horrifi c. Thus, Kali is also venerated as a mother who provides release from grasping and Samsara.

Finally, goddesses have related to gods in a variety of ways. They have often occupied subordinate positions, sometimes as wives and consorts. That does not necessarily deprive them of independence. In Greek mythology, Zeus may be the most powerful, but Hera’s will is often done. Independent goddesses, too, may be important without being supreme. Influential goddesses in India today include the river Ganges, whose waters purify, and Bharat Mata, “Mother India” herself.

Ancient Goddesses

Most scholars trace the worship of goddesses back to the Paleolithic period. This is the oldest period of human life. It ends around 10,000 B.P. (before the present). Paleolithic remains include large numbers of female statues. The oldest date to 30,000 or even 40,000 B.P. The statues come in many shapes, fat and thin, realistic and stylized. Scholars still debate what the images meant and how they were used.

Around 10,000 B.P. agriculture began, and the Paleolithic gave way to the Neolithic. A Neolithic community lived at Catal Huyuk in Turkey from about 6500 to 5500 B.C.E. It seems to have worshipped a mother goddess who is connected with plant life and served by male attendants. Since there are no written documents from this period (writing was not yet invented), it is diffi cult to know what to make of Neolithic remains. One scholar, Marija Gimbutas, tried to identify the different Neolithic goddesses of southeastern Europe by classifying the different types of statues these people made.

Writing begins by 3000 B.C.E. Then there is plentiful evidence for the worship of goddesses. Goddesses played major roles in the religions of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Greece, and Rome. As noted above, their symbols, personalities, and spheres of activity varied considerably. Judaism tended to conceive of its god, YHWH (“the Lord”), in masculine terms. But some have pointed out that YHWH has feminine sides, too: his Wisdom and his Presence (Shekhinah). The traditional symbols of Christianity—God as Father and Son—are masculine. But the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches both venerate Mary as theotokos, “mother of God.” In many places the veneration of Mary seems to continue ancient traditions of goddess worship. One example is the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. Islam, like Protestant Christianity, has had little use for goddesses or feminine images of the divine.

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Goddesses have been extremely important in east and south Asia. In China, Japan, and Tibet, a “goddess of mercy” known as Kuan-yin, Kannon, and Tara, respectively, has been very important. She is Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva in feminine form. Hinduism knows a tremendous variety of goddesses as well as gods. Hindu villages have local goddesses that look after their needs. Written mythologies tell about different goddesses who are consorts to gods. They include Saraswati, Lakshmi, Sita, and Parvati. Hindus often say that the sakti or power of a god is a goddess. Two especially powerful goddesses in east India are Durga and Kali. Some Hindu traditions teach that all goddesses are manifestations of a single, supreme being. She is simply called Devi, “the Goddess.”

Ancient Americans such as the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs worshipped goddesses. So do indigenous North Americans. Recently some scholars suggested that indigenous North Americans began to worship mother earth only after contact with Europeans. Others strongly disagree. In any case, respect for the sacredness of the Earth is an important part of indigenous American religion today.

However, traditional goddesses remain important religious fi gures. In addition, some women and a few men in North America and Europe have begun to worship the Goddess anew. They found in the worship of the Goddess religious strength, power, and support that they had not found in the traditional European religions.