Goddess lore

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Goddess lore

Goddess lore

The literature of goddess cults expresses a view of worship that appeals to the human aspect of theology. The concept of the maternal nurturer invigorates much of the literature of empire, including prayers to the earth mother in the Atharva-veda, the fourth of the Hindu sacred texts; embrace of a world mother in the DAODEJING (Tao-Te Ching, ca. 300 B.c.); the Scots poet Joanna Baillie's honor to a Hindu queen in Ahalya Baee (1849); the Kikuyu reverence for the Danish planter and storyteller ISAK DlNESEN in her memoir Out of Africa (1937); and the verses of BIRAGO DIOP, a Senegalese poet-storyteller. Veneration of the divine female permeated the Sumerian Empire with reverence for coitus, animal and plant fecundity, marriage, and death preceding rebirth. The supreme goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, a mythic superpower figure, appeared in Uruk (present-day Erech, Iraq) around 4,000 B.c. and starred in the world's first love story. She flourishes in poetic CREATION LORE as the orchardist of a holy garden and, in some versions, the sister of the warrior king Gilgamesh (see GILGAMESH), who arranges her betrothal. Similar in jubilant tone and rhapsodic style to the EPITHA- LAMIUM the Song of Solomon, “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi” (ca. 2800 B.c.) rejoices in a physical union between a well-mated king and queen, he a shepherd and she the epitome of agrarianism in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Hymns to Inanna's power unite her with natural phenomena:

Your quivering hand causes the midday heat to hover over the sea.

Your nighttime stalking of the heavens chills the land with its dark breeze.

Holy Inanna, the riverbanks overflow with the flood-waves of your heart.

(Wolkstein and Kramer 1983, 95).

The urban Sumerian Empire archived clay cuneiform tablets extolling the valiant Inanna, passionate in bed and victorious, prestigious, and glorious in combat.

Native American lore perpetuated a similar glimpse of duality in goddesses. In the Mayan Empire, the “Hymn to the All-Mother” (ca. 1500 B.c.) honored Teteoinan, a maternal ancestor of Mexican aborigines who sprang from paradise to sprinkle the earth with yellow blossoms. A matriarch like the Greek Persephone and the Roman Ceres allied with abundance and delicate beauty, she exudes the radiance of the Sumerian Inanna: “Hail to the goddess who shines in the thorn bush like a bright butterfly” (quoted in Brinton 1890, 28). In a desert culture, where cactus sprouts tender blooms in delicate hues, Teteoinan symbolizes the resilience of the vulnerable. She protects wild animals and serves humanity as “an ever-fresh model of liberality toward all flesh” (29). The specifics of her benevolence center on fertility and midwifery. Christian proselytizers syncretized her cult with the Virgin Mary to produce Our Lady of Guadalupe, a less pantheistic goddess figure whose aura parallels the female mysticism of CRUSADER LORE.

The Female Divine in India

The Lakshmi Tantra (ca. A.D. 950), a treasured Indian text inscribed on Himalayan birch bark, contributes a womanly perspective to the TANTRAS (ca. 1050), scriptural Sanskrit writings of the Pala Empire (750-1174). The author seeks religious illumination through the sacred female, who achieved prominence during the rise of medieval feudalism and energized Buddhism and Hinduism during a period of challenge to orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In the description of analyst Mandakranta Bose, “The goddess combines the dynamic polarity of contrasting traits: benign and terrific, erotic and demure, motherly and virginal, saintly and heroic, ferociously powerful yet calm and silent” (Bose 2000, 113). The supreme Vishnu's queen and bestower of grace, the goddess, like the maternal Haumea of Hawaiian lore, offers believers abundance, contentment, wellness, and the fullness of creation.

Unlike patriarchal scripture, the Lakshmi Tantra promotes self-discovery, gender equality, and an embrace of passion and humanism. Through poetic dialogue between seeker and sage, the narrative refutes the blood taboos of the menses and challenges orthodox notions of female guilt and sin, the wrongs committed by the Greek Pandora and the Hebrew Eve. The Indian narrative sanctions worship of the “goddess whose countenance radiates grace, fulfills every desire, satisfies the yearnings of the passionate, and leads to the state of self-realization” (Laksmi Tantra 1972, 5). The opening passage begs wisdom—“a boon, O great goddess, then reveal to me the nature of truth… . By what means canst thou be fathomed?” (6-7). Another version of the goddess cult appears in ode form in the Saktisamagama Tantra (ca. 1000), which takes its name from the creative energy of the goddess Sakti. The ode declares woman the universal creator:

There is no jewel rarer than woman,

There is not, nor has been, nor will be;

There is no kingdom, no wealth, to be compared with a woman;

There is not, nor has been, nor will be, any holy place like unto a woman

(Saktisamagama Tantra 1978, 115).

As a result of the goddess cult, Indian women attained priesthoods, channeled sacred revelation, and taught female and male disciples Hindu principles.

The Goddess Cult in Europe

European depictions of goddess powers, including the graceful verse of MARIE DE FRANCE and LUIS VAZ DE CAMOES'S Portuguese epic The Lusiads (1572), maintain contact with orthodox religion. Preceding Camoes's veneration of the goddess Venus in his epic, a tradition of cult worship of the Virgin Mary flourished among troubadours during the reign of 13th-century Spanish king of Castile-Leon, Alfonso X El Sabio (The Wise), the putative compiler of Iberian trouvere (troubadour) songs. The illuminated solo collection Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs to the Virgin Mary, ca. 1283), 420 court tributes written in the Galician dialect of Castile, reflects Mary's patronage of Alfonso as well as peasant beliefs in miragres (miracles), honor to pilgrims, immersion in Spanish Catholic liturgy, and Andalusian festivals celebrating the mother of Jesus. Like the dual view of the wise and powerful goddess Athena in the Greek poet Hesiod's Homeric Hymns (ca. 520 B.c.), the song cycle pictures Mary as the maternal healer of the sick and the warrior rescuer of Constantinople from the Ottomans in the years following the Fifth Crusade and preceding Spain's full involvement in empire building.

A subset of violent verses focuses on persecution. The fifth poem characterizes Holy Mary as the rescuer of Beatrice, a Roman empress ousted by the emperor on the basis of lies told by his brother. The cycle of wrongs contains anti-Semitic expressions of Jewish persecution of Christians, as in “Christ Image Pierced by Jews” and “The Chorister Killed by Jews,” as well as the Jews' torment of their own children. Inventive versification, such as the somber chant “Rosa das rosas” (Rose of roses), inflates sacred devotion to courtly love and subdued eroticism. The crossover from piety to lust marks “Rosa de beldad'e de parecer” (Rose of beauty and appearance), which ends with the singer longing to possess his idol, even if he has to swear off affairs with other women. The romantic subtext presages the emergence of the female icon from godhood to full womanhood, the object of Arthurian commentary on the flawed Queen Guenevere.


Alfonso X. Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, the Wise: A Translation of the Cantigas de Santa Mana. Translated by Kathleen Kulp-Hill. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000.

Bose, Mandakranta. Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brinton, Daniel Garrison, ed. Rig Veda Americanus: Sacred Songs of the Ancient Mexicans, with a Gloss in Nahuatl. Philadelphia: D. G. Brinton, 1890.

Laksmi Tantra: A Pancaratra Text. Translated by Sanjukta Gupta. Amsterdam: Brill, 1972.

O'Callaghan, Joseph F. Alfonso X and the Cantigas de Santa Maria: A Poetic Biography. Amsterdam: Brill, 2000.

Saktisamagama Tantra. Translated by Binaytosh Bhattacharya. Baroda, India: Gaekwad Oriental series, 1978.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.