Some Thoughts on Goddess Religion
The renewed interest and critical discussion of the ancient goddess religion open a path to the Perennial Philosophy, a substratum of human culture and consisting of a cluster of ideas, insights, view points, and attitudes about life found in most, if not all, societies. Basic concepts of the goddess religion can also offer insights into Hermes’ art.
Pelasgians are a people and their language who populated the southern Balkan Peninsula, Aegean Islands, and coast of Asia Minor before Greek invasions of the second millennium B.C. They were the last of the Neolithic goddess cultures. Now I realize why the name is mentioned in some alchemical texts. Fulcanelli, the Master Alchemist of the twentieth century, specifically states that the hermetic cabala, Hermes’ language, maintains the essence of the Pelasgians’ mother language. Hermes’ language birthed from the Neolithic cultures, if not earlier.
The goddess has many images linked to her: cave, moon, stone, serpent, bird, fish, and tree; spiral, meander, and labyrinth; wild animals such as lion, bull, bison, stag, goat, and horse; rituals of fertility; and journey of the soul to another dimension. Each historical goddess has many of these characteristics and often several different ones.
Isis, the greatest goddess of Egypt, was worshipped for over 3000 years. Her attributes are the tree of life, cow, serpent, pig, bird, underworld, Sirius, words of power, and great mother goddess of the universe.
According to the twentieth century scholar Marija Gimbutas, the serpent crown refers back to the Neolithic snake goddess, who wore such a crown. These snake crowns symbolize wisdom and wealth. Struggling with a huge white snake will gain the seeker a crown. Wearing the crown, the initiate knows all, is able to find hidden treasures, and can communicate with animals. Hermes knows that the serpent goddess is the living water, the philosophical mercury, and the white queen. Gimbutas’ book, The Living Goddesses, is filled with many insights and presents an excellent comprehension of Neolithic culture and the goddess tradition.
The ancient rock art in Australia that depicts hermaphroditic figures is similar to some goddess images in European Neolithic art. Humans have lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years, arriving there during the Paleolithic. The hermaphrodite (the word is a blending of Hermes and Aphrodite) is an important alchemical concept.
The discussion about the stone symbol in Anne Baring and Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess is profound. A stone lasts a long time and can symbolize eternity or timelessness. During the Neolithic, or earlier, it represented the foundation or essence of life, such as the soul or spirit that endured after the death of the body. The stone is, of course, a dominant symbol in alchemy: its goal is to obtain the philosopher’s stone.
Two major themes of religious ceremony, starting in the Neolithic if not earlier, are the sacred marriage and birth of the child. A union with a divine spirit is inherent in all mystical ceremonies and practices. Initiation into the great spiritual mysteries has been a human activity for thousands of years, perhaps since the beginning of time. The female signifies the continuous pattern of birth-death-rebirth, which is the principle of regeneration. The male signifies the life of the individual, the short span of temporal life beginning with birth and ending with death. The neophyte enters the hidden subterranean recesses and dies a first death and only then does rebirth occur. Now the worldly and spiritual realms remain open to each other. The goddess was the portal into the hidden dimension through which the dead passed on their way to rebirth.
The dying god, a religious theme originating in antiquity, symbolizes physical life that is constantly changing, and the goddess illumines the principle of life that endures by eternally renewing itself. The goddess represents continuity while the god, sharing in the impermanent essence of the seed, dies annually.
More insight is revealed in The Myth of the Goddess. In goddess culture the manifest is the physical emanation of the unmanifest. So time is cyclical, a movement of manifesting to non-manifesting to manifesting and so forth. This is the lunar cycle. Because patriarchal culture sees time in a linear fashion of conflict with and conquest of opposition or the other, war and warriors are the central theme of history. Conquest in battle is the primary means of overcoming separation, but it never completely solves the problem because some opposition continues and remains hidden until it grows strong enough to challenge the victor. Thus, life is viewed as a perpetual struggle, battling foes and winning victories or being defeated, an onerous happening.
The goddess trinity comprises a young woman, a mother giving birth, and an old woman. The trinity is an ancient concept, probably in use before the Neolithic.
The trinity or three goddesses are the three visible phases of the moon. The hidden fourth—the dark or new moon—is the goddess of the night or of the unmanifest. The child born to the mother is signified by the sun born from the moon. At new moon the night sky is dark. Afterwards, the sun is gradually resurrected until full moon when its full light illumines the night sky. Then daily the sun dies away until its light is gone.
The goddess as mother of life sends her children forth into the world and as mother of death gathers her children unto her as they return from the world. The natural cycles signify this process of life and death.
The visible part, the son or daughter, comes from and returns to the invisible: the whole is the mother goddess. This idea is found in the Bronze Age. Based on the observation of natural phenomena, the idea no doubt is primeval in origin.
The ancient Middle Eastern cultures of Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt demonstrate the change from goddess religion to god religion. Inanna, a Sumerian goddess who later becomes Babylonian Ishtar, is the Great Mother Goddess, who holds the caduceus and double-headed ax as symbols of her power. The lunar cycle represents her power of life and death. The queen of heaven and earth, she has these attributes: the tree of life (palm tree), dove, owl, lion, dragon, serpent, scorpion, planet Venus, and Sirius. In Sumerian times Sirius was known as the Bow Star and rose in conjunction with the sun at sunrise during the month of July. Dumuzi or Tammuz is the son-lover, consort of Inanna-Ishtar. The caduceus and double-headed ax become his symbols; he is also imaged as a fish-god and a shepherd and sometimes wears a skirt with a net pattern. The son-lover possesses some of his mother’s features.
The great cosmic cycle of life and death can be described in this way: the soul comes from or is born from the goddess, and its life cycle resembles the lunar cycle; at death the soul returns to the goddess. This cycle is very conducive and supportive of reincarnation.
So much evidence leads to the conclusion that the Paleolithic moral order as encompassed in the goddess religion did not die but lives now albeit underground renewing itself. It will assert itself when the times beckon. An important cosmic principle is that the seed must die for it to live.