The concept of the Goddess appears (though often in disguised forms) throughout the world, and the history of cultural development. It reaches back perhaps to the very beginnings of humyn self-reflective awareness, and has evolved, as we have, since then. Unfortunately, much of the initial development of this concept occurs before written language1, which itself coincides with a rise in the dominance of the God figure: therefore, the earliest written references are from a time period after the hunter-gatherer and initial agricultural concepts of Her. Many of the earliest written legacies (hymns/odes, myths, or dedications in historical accounts) were only found and transcribed in the 20th century, and there is considerable debate amongst the researchers in various fields as to their actual meaning. It is not then possible to adequately review the diverse and inter-woven history of the Goddess, throughout the world and humyn development, in a single introductory paper.
What I propose is a set of four primary stages of development (of the God as well as the Goddess) that describe an evolution based on the developing ‘morphism’. I have chosen this ‘thread’ to follow, in part because ‘imaged form’, as figurines/statues, pre-dates written language (and is evocative in a different way than hymns, written mythology, etc. ), and in part, because anthropomorphism is a critical issue within the modern day debate over how the Divine can be understood.
Figurines and rock carvings/drawings (dated 24,000 B. C. E. and perhaps earlier, but definitely in the Upper Paleolithic period) seem to indicate that humyns understood themselves as inherently connected to their environment and the other life forms within it – perhaps in a similar way to that of an infant, who does not make absolute distinctions between self and other (whether specific ‘being’ or general environment). The consistency of geometrical and spiral etchings indicate that these people had already begun to conceive of their world and lives in symbolic terms. Many of the earliest etchings (30,000 B. C. E. – rock engravings) are considered to be representations of vulvas (without contextualizing bodies).
Earliest Feminine Figures
What is particularly interesting is that most of the figurines were female-like figures. Marji Gimbutas notes, that in the Near East and Old Europe for example, the earliest male-like figures only account for 2-3 percentage of the figurines, and are distinctly from a later period (MG, 175). There are several theories as to why male figurines appear much later than female ones. One suggests that the oldest female -figurines occur before the connection between men and conception was recognized: another, that our self-reflective awareness (and the concepts that it engendered, which allowed for abstract thought) emerged from the recognition of the link between the moon, wymyn’s menstrual cycles, and fertility, and therefore, artistic representation focused on feminine imagery. We need to also consider the possibility that the ‘male’ had become a symbolic figure but for some reason, it was considered unnecessary or unwise to make artistic expressions of it: however, there is no specific evidence for this.
The ‘Venuses’ as non-distinctly Anthropomorphic
We do have some clues that Paleolithic peoples did not see whatever energy they were describing in their carvings as being truly anthropomorphic: it is likely that the very concept of ’deity’ (Goddess or God as ‘being’) was not fully formed in their psyches at this point. The ‘Venuses’ (most famous are those of Willendorf and Lespugue) are amongst the oldest of the figurines considered to have some spiritual/Divine connotation, and they are only barely recognizable as humynoid females:-
a) Many have no heads – usually indicating that there is no distinct personality or recognizable ‘face’. Since humyns primarily identify each other by sight, and particularly, facial features, a face/head-less figure probably did (and still does) represent a ‘quality’, rather than a ‘being’ (humynoid or super-humynoid). Furthermore, the resulting lack of expression indicates that this quality is not a particular emotion (even small children can express emotion in their drawings with singular lines), but closer to ‘a state of beingness/presence’.
b) Many don’t have arms/hands or legs, and even in those that do, both the arms and legs are either truncated, or the arms are used simply as a means of focusing on the breast, bulging belly, and/or vulva. These figurines are not pictured then, as ‘doing’ anything, and therefore are more likely to represent an awareness of an ‘Ultimate Presence’ (how thoroughly immanent and all-embracing, we cannot know for sure).
c) The figures tend be almost as wide as they are long – although modern people can survive with this kind of girth, it is highly improbable that any of the Paleolithic people could. It is more likely then that the figurine were not intended to represent anything humynoid: but were more like the Eastern Buddha figures where the girth describes a state of abundance, fullness, and overwhelming presence.
d) Many of these figurines are distinctly pregnant. However, the focus is often on the vulva and/or breasts (sometimes depicted as mere Vs) – the ability to give birth to life (though not necessary, an actual pregnancy), and then nurture it through its most fragile stage. Some don’t have breasts at all, so the entire focus is on an impossibly large belly (and often, notably, buttocks as well) and the vulva: others have breasts that are both overly large and sagging (probably indicating repeated nursings). This seems to indicate that these two ‘life-giving’ aspects are being represented as directly as possible, yet without any attempt to situate these aspects within a distinctly anthropomorphic figure.
e) It is unwise to assume that Paleolithic peoples were incapable of carving more accurate humyn-like figures – the detail in some, the normal size of the arms and hands, and the ease of (potentially) adding even an non-de-script head, all indicate that these figures were carved the way they were, intentionally.
f) Although these very early peoples may not have had well developed concepts of chaos, the girth of their figurines definitely became the ‘form’ of later primordial Goddesses (representing a ‘state of chaos’) from whose body the world was formed. Furthermore, it is likely that oral myths of the Mother who birthed the world (relatively like a normal humyn birthing) came before the first written myths, in which male Gods killed the Primal Mother and then used Her body to create the world. This would then indicate that the earliest concepts of Mother-Goddess were as the ‘world birther/creator’ – and most likely, without help from a male partner, as the role of male in procreation was not known as this time.
It is also thought that these early peoples had an immature, but pervasive, balance of left and right brain hemisphere development. As such, they had much more access, and gave more credibility, to the symbolic and less distinctive perceptions of the right hemisphere, than modern left-hemisphere dominated peoples. This ‘balance’ also suggests that the ‘life giving presence’ was not consider as distinctly separate from humyns or other life forms, but rather as interpenetrated with them.
’Mother-ness’ rather than Female /Humyn
There is no doubt that these figurines are more humynoid than animal-like, if for no other reason than they stand upright. However, since there is very little other indication of humynoid features, it is more likely that they represented the concept of ‘life giving’/Mother-ness, with no attempt to identify this ‘Mother’ as distinctly humyn. From this, we can suggest that Paleolithic peoples:
a) understood the concept of Mother-ness (assuredly in both themselves and other animals), and applied it to the act of worldly creation – although it is not clear whether or not they understood this power as a distinct ‘creator being’ during this period. It is almost unquestionable that this concept did inform their rituals and ‘world view’.
b) did not produce equivalent male-figurines, probably because they did not understand ‘male’ as having the same ‘ultimate presence’ or ‘creator power’.
c) can be considered ‘pre-anthropomorphic’ because although their figures do indicate a humyn-bias of form, it is purposefully indistinct. It is likely that Mother/’life-giver’ was a Presence that humyns saw themselves as having some likeness to, rather than the other way around.
As early as 30,000 B. C. E. , figures of the ‘life-givers’ began to include multiple geometric shapes (Vs, chevrons, parallel lines, and the earliest of all, zigzags); and around 18. 000 B. C. E. , animal parts (birds, fish, and snakes seem to have been the first to be included). It is likely that these figurines pre-date agriculture and certainly any form of writing (pictographic or alphabetic). Cave drawings or rock etchings of half humyn/half-animal male figures may date as far back as 20,000 B. C. E. , but are more likely to be elements of (‘sympathetic magic’) hunting rituals than true ‘god’ figures: all of the male figurines, whether entirely humyn or combined humyn/animal, that have been found, are dated several thousands of years later. Even later on (7th millennium B. C. E. ), as animal domestication developed, other animal parts – – particularly those from animals who would have been tamed as domestic herds – were added to the semi-humynoid Mother figures
Incorporation of Animal Features
Many of the earliest of these figurines have heads which are bird-like, and although faces appear, they are very crude (in terms of being humyn-like). This was probably purposefully, in order to symbolize characteristics that are, to the mind of ancient peoples, ‘super-humyn’. Later on, other animal parts were also used – tails, wings, other kinds of animal heads, etc. – which then become particularly familiar in the Egyptian deities. It is possible that the mixing of animal and humynoid body parts began with male figures (earlier rock etchings or carvings) and was applied to the Mother/Goddess figures later on.
During this time, humyns recognized and identified the specialized skills of animals – adopting and adapting them to develop a range of options for dealing with their environment. It also seems to be during this period that the concept of a ‘deity’ is really developed, taking the combined form of humyns and their animal ‘cousins’, but still with only a loose sense of distinction between them. As this period progresses, the parts tend to become more distinct and sharply defined (such as an animal head attached to a clearly humyn neck),and therefore, with less of a subtle flow between them. This seems to indicate a growing identification of the specific and diverse attributes of the ‘forces that be’/’life giving presence’ – many distinct parts rather than one inter-penetrating flow – AND the beginnings of a growing disparity between left and right brain hemisphere perceptions, in which focus and specialization were given more credibility than a wholistic and inter-woven imagery
It is also likely that as the result of this growing distinction between different forms of life (and to some degree, stratification of them), this period heralded the beginnings of the shift in the concept of the Mother Presence ‘in matter’, to ‘as matter’ – a shift that becomes progressively more significant as concepts of distinct divisions/dualities between spirit/matter and creator/creation develop.
By the time we reach classical Greek mythology, representations of Goddesses and Gods are almost purely anthropomorphic. Most of the geometric or animal symbolism has be removed from the actual body image, and appears as –
a) a separate ‘familiar’ or totem animal (although figures like the Gordon Medusa, which is most certainly older than most of the Greek deities, retain the combination),
b) an option for shape-shifting (Zeus was famous for shape-shifting into animal forms, particularly in order to have sex with humyns), and/or.
c) symbols used for head-dresses, chest plates, etc. , indicating that the deity carries these particular skills.
It is significant that it is also during this period that humyns developed –
i) an unprecedented culture, based on centralization and urbanization;
ii) formal studies – such as history, law and the sciences; and abstract studies – such as philosophy and medicine (including the beginnings of psychology);
iii) a dualistic world view (spiritual vs. carnal-matter, male/female , good/evil, light/dark, spirit/body and mind/body, etc. );
iv) the means for an unprecedented jump in the literacy rate and availability of written materials; and
v) a progressive dominance of male gods, over female ones
– all of which are distinctly inter-related and inter-dependent features of a evolving humyn (and eventually, patriarchal) ‘civilization’.
Demise of the Goddess
Under the weight of these five characteristics of the later Neolithic and Bronze and Iron ages, the concept of the Goddess was dis-empowered – primarily through three avenues. First of all and most obviously, the All Mother was demoted to the ‘hen-pecking ‘wife of the (now) Supreme Father – then, progressively reduced to a mere consort to His power; a shadow (or shadow side) of His power; no more than a vessel for His ‘life-giving’ power (sperm, physical strength, and eventually, ‘intelligence’ – that is, left-hemisphere modality); and as duality lead to a radical split between body and mind, She became nothing more than ‘gross matter’, while the spiritual was identified as purely ‘male’.
The second means involved the male take-over of reproductive power, in which certain Goddesses becomes a mere masculinized female off-shoot of the Father – such as Athena, who was claimed to have been entirely engendered by Zeus (but wasn’t) and born from His head. Although warrior goddesses had existed earlier, they were temporary ‘faces’ of the All-Mother, defending the tribe/community (i. e. Goddess equivalents of the Mother animal defending Her young). Before the coming of the ‘one and only god’, the more Athena-like warrior goddesses had usurped much of the power of other ‘faces’ of the Goddess, but They were specifically engendered to support a male dominant pantheon (and society), in a culture that had not yet been able to completely disown the concept of a female Divine. Later on, the Divine Feminine was essentially abolished, and/or only existed as ‘vessels’ for Divine sperm.
The third means was less obvious but almost equally significant to the first. The Goddess Herself was demonized – but even more significantly and insistently, so were Her faithful male consorts. It is notable that almost all of the models for the later Christian devil figure were originally god-figures who could not be coerced into changing Their allegiance from the ‘All-Mother’ to the ‘Supreme Father’ (note that the qualitative difference between ‘all’ and ‘supreme’ is critical here!). Therefore, in a rather twisted counter-play of tactics, the ‘goal’ was the demise of the All-Mother, but the ‘war’ had to be battled out only between those figures who were deemed to have any power – the male gods.
Rise of the ‘One and Only’ Supreme Male God
The early part of this period also saw the emergence of the Judaic God (and other similar ones) – who was distinctly male, and claimed to be not only superior to all other gods but denied their very validity (although, notably, not their existence). Although apparently a Goddess (Ashtoreth or Asherah – interpreted in the Hebrew bible as ‘grove’) was repeatedly removed and then returned to the Holy of Holies, the Lord God addresses Himself only to His supremacy over other male gods, as if the Goddess need not even be considered. This is consistent with ‘none other than males’ position of the above ‘third’ means of demoting the Goddess. He is a god of ethics/law and history/time, which in itself distinguishes Him from other gods, since earlier deities were representations of ‘how it is’ rather than ‘how it should be’: and while the Judaic God primarily ‘exists’ outside worldly time, earlier gods either exist within time and/or represent ‘time’ itself.
One of this solitary god’s most distinguishing features is that He refused any physical representations of Himself (i. e. commandment against idolatry). This appears to be a move beyond anthropomorphism, and in some ways, it is – however, He is still distinctly understood as male. What is even more important is that His ‘representation’ shifts from physicalized images to ‘the Word’, which is essentially an extension of anthropomorphic conceptualization, based on abstractions rather than recognizable physical images. It is notable then that He emerges as the epitome of the five primary cultural developments of this age (i, ii, iii, iv, v above). Although the Christian and Islamic gods are significantly distinctive from the Judaic one (in different ways), They extend the legacy of these five characteristics.
Each of these five characteristics however, led (through their own modalities) eventually (in modern times) to a recognition of the limitations of the Abrahamic (Judaic, Christian and Islamic) god-type and the cultural development that He epitomized.
Downfall of the Physical and ‘Word’ forms of the Supreme God Figure
The extension of centralization and urbanization into globalization brought challenges to His supremacy from non- Western and Native/aboriginal cultures. History was proven to be a biased story, and often, false. The ‘law’ was proven insufficient to deal with true justice in a diverse culture. The sciences found themselves not only unable to account for the micro/macro-cosmic levels of existence or uphold the absolute supremacy of the humyn form through dualistic and empirical modalities, but their results (both technological and ideological) became a distinct threat to existence of all life. Philosophy, psychology and medicine found specialization (of skills, approaches, etc. ) inadequate to the growing need to understand health in terms of a whole body/mind system. The dualism that underlies the Western world-view (including all the sciences) came more into question as it failed to account for the results of deeper exploration into physics, biology, and the psyche. In a world dominated by written language, linear modalities could not adequately incorporate or define/describe the emerging paradigms of wholeness (such as chaos theory, fractal growth patterns, etc. ).
What is significant here is that the shift from literal/image anthropomorphism to a more ‘abstract word’ form of it, itself led to a recognition of both the direct threat to Gaian survival (environment, and plant and animal species including humyns) that the above five characteristics of cultural development engendered, AND their inability to address rectification of that threat – as Albert Einstein has said (paraphrased) “The ultimate extent of one, is its other. “. We need also remember, however, that without a full and extensive development of the stage of male-biased/left-hemisphere dominance, we would have not been able to ‘understand’ WHY it itself is inadequate to the survival of Gaia and Her creatures, nor how to identify and rectify the damage we have done – nor to have developed the Divine/Evolution-given gift of our intelligence.
Synchronistic Paradigm Shift to ‘Full Circle’
It is no coincidence that quantum physics (and other scientific paradigm shifts), archeology and anthropology, the wymyn’s movement, depth psychology, metaphysical (and ‘cross-over’/amalgamated) interpretations of various religions (including movements such as Creation Spirituality), investigation of the paranormal, etc., all emerged at the same time that ancient pagan traditions were being revived. The development of humyn consciousness is coming full circle – re-building the same kind of wholistic intimacy with our world that our early ancestors had, but in a more ‘matured’ form, combining intellectual ‘know-ledge’ with intuitive ‘know-ing’ (a matured balance of left and right brain hemisphere perception).
Images of the Divine are presently, and quickly, metamorphisizing in two ways. First of all, many are coming to recognize that any genderized imagery of the Divine is merely metaphor: it is a useful (and perhaps still necessary) way to understand, and identify with, the Divine in a personal and intimate fashion, but gender can not define the Divine Itself. Secondly, the Universe Itself is becoming the primary (physicalized) image of the Divine, as ‘body’ to the (relatively) eternal ‘life-giving’ womb-depths of Deep Space. Within the Universal ‘mother-ness’, a secondary one has (re)emerged – a planet, living and awakening, as Gaia – a distinctly ‘mother-like’ image, but one which obviously does not fit into literal humyn-female anthropomorphic imagery.
Balance between Goddess and God Imagery
The revival of pagan imagery has, in some cases, resulted in a shift of dominance – from God to Goddess. I believe that this was a necessary stage in the process of disconnecting ourselves from the deeply embedded dominance of the ‘Father God’ and re-affirming the validity and power of a Divine Feminine. However, ‘dominance’ is not a key aspect of the original ‘All-Mother’, and to super-impose it on a revival of the Divine Feminine, would alter Her very nature. Although all creatures live within a ‘survival game’ (in which, a certain ‘food-chain’ hierarchy does exist), there is no indication from pre-historic times that ‘dominance’ was considered a major goal, in humyn culture or politics – in fact, in some very early cultures, quite the opposite. One could suggest that the concept of an ‘all life giving and interpenetrated presence’ could logically also be considered ‘dominating’, but this would be anachronistic– using a patriarchal paradigm to define a pre-patriarchal one, which is inappropriate.
Furthermore, the re-emergence of the Divine Feminine, in modern times, does not merely re-balance female and male anthropomorphic imagery for the Divine (an equal Goddess and God) – nor even the female -like-principles and male-like principle qualities of It, although these are ‘mediums’ to the presently evolving paradigm shift. This re-emergence initiates an evolutionary step in the development of the humyn consciousness – a mature ‘coming full circle’ back into a paradigm of wholism, within which neither Goddess or God are descriptive of the Whole Itself, but only Its ‘time/space’ functions.
Back to Essential ‘Mother-ness’ – Conclusion
Especially given the new cosmology, the image of an eternal/infinite Dark Womb is perhaps the best symbol we have for a ‘whole Divine’ – ‘pro-creative’ of Its own ‘body’, the present Universe; and eternally creative, and immanently/intimately involved with Its creation – a mature form of our earliest ancestors’ conceptuality. However, we need to realize that this image does not indicate, or require, the presence of a humyn female -like body surrounding and identifying it. Though distinctly ‘mother-like’, Dark Womb stands on Its own – as Tomb/Womb (T/Womb) to all Its creations, including all possible imagery of Goddess and God. It is then post-anthropomorphic – capable of generating a whole range of potential male or female ‘faces’ (archetypal images), but not limited to any (individuals or sets thereof).
The Goddess then, throughout most of Her ‘her-story’, has not been distinctly anthropomorphic2 (nor specifically aligned with humyns, rather than ‘all of life’). In both Her earliest and latest ‘incarnations’, She is the personalized form of a concept of the Divine, which is most importantly, ‘mother-like’3, yet not confined to either physical or abstracted (the ‘Word’)4 anthropomorphic imagery.
Upper Paleolithic – 38,000- 10,000 B. C. E.
– lower perigordian – 33,000 to 28,000
– aurignacian – 28,000 to 23,000
– upper perigordian – 23,000 – 18,000
– solutrean – 18,000 to 13,000
– magdalenian – 13,000 to 10,000
Mesolithic – 10,000 to 8000
Neolithic – 8000-4000
Bronze age – 2,500
Iron – 1000
MG – Marija Gimbutas. The Language of the Goddess (HarperCollins Publishers, 1989).
1. See Leonard Shlain’s “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess” – theory that written, and particularly alphabetic, language was at least partially to blame for the demise of the Goddess.
2. One could suggest that even Her demotion in patriarchal cultures supported an lesser anthropomorphic concept of Her. The concepts of the Shekinah and Sophia, in the Judeo-Christian religions, were held as distinctly less anthropomorphic than even that of the ‘Lord God’. As such, we can suggest that the Goddess/Divine Feminine has maintained a predominately non-anthropomorphic conceptuality throughout the whole of the span of humyn spiritual development.
3. It is important to note that ‘mother-like’ includes the concept of creating sons/male-consorts, so does not exclude the natural ‘god- faces’ of the Divine. It is not clear how Gaia’s earlier parthenogenetic life forms began to create males, but since they did (and continue to ‘stop and start’ creating them, amongst some non-vertebrates), we must conclude that ‘mother-ness’ inherently includes the power to create ‘male’. Male supreme gods, on the other hand, can only create (conceive males or female s, ‘in His own image’) through magical, not ‘natural’, means.
4. Theaological concepts of the ‘Godhead’ have attempted to indicate this essentially non-anthropomorphic nature of the Divine. However, the very use of the terms ‘god’ (indicating maleness) and ‘head’ (a distinctly masculine/patriarchal, and ‘the Word’/language biased, conceptualization of ‘that of ultimate significance’) belie the attempt.