Reverence for God as Mother has a long history far predating worship of God the Father. Way back in prehistory, at the birth of humanity, God was a woman. That is, before his-tory was her story, conveyed in the mythology and ritual worship of the Great Goddess.
Over recent decades archaeologists have gathered an enormous accumulation of evidence indicating that Mother Goddess worship played an important part in the lives of our Stone Age ancestors - as it still does in India, Africa and some parts of the world. This is reflected not only in cave paintings, but also in the numerous statues and figurines of women carved in stone, bone, antler and even mammoth tusk. Some of these date back 25,000 years, and such figures outnumber similar carvings of men by about ten to one. Although most of the figurines depict naked women, they are not usually considered erotic, or art for art's sake. For many reasons anthropologists have concluded that they were part of a magical or religious tradition. Most are highly stylised or symbolic, giving special emphasis to the breasts, buttocks and genitals, suggesting that the Goddess was regarded as the infinitely fertile, the supreme creator.
Not only is this tradition as old as the race itself, it appears to have been almost universally practised. Goddess figures have been found in places as far apart as Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Russia. They appear in the Near East, in Turkey, all along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in Egypt, and, of course, in India. On the other side of the world among the Australian aborigines whose cultural inheritance is almost unchanged from the Stone Age, the deity of the Dreamtime was female. Along with a few other primitive peoples, they did not understand biological paternity or accept the necessary connection between sexual intercourse and conception. The female was revered as the giver of life, and the role of the male was not connected with the conceiving of life. Hence, woman was all-powerful; it was she and only she, who had the gift to bring new life into the world. Even throughout the area now known as the Bible Lands, the land of the Hebrews, the most common ritual objects from the Late Bronze Age (about 1500-1300 BC) are plaques depicting the Goddess Astarte. The same or similar objects recur right into biblical times.
Worshipped in many lands, the Goddess was also known by many names. She was Isis in Egypt, Nana in Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylon, Ashtoreth or Astarte in Assyria, Aphrodite in Greece, Venus in Rome. In China she is the Teh that manifests the Tao and in the tantric tradition of India she is Shakti. No matter what name they used, the peoples of all these regions worshipped the supreme as Goddess Mother.
We must not make the mistake of associating the worship of the Great Goddess only with mankind's primitive infancy. The stronghold of the Goddess was among the communities around the Mediterranean basin, in the Near and Middle East, and in India, in fact, the whole of the area that has come to be recognised as 'the cradle of civilisation'. It was in this region that mankind moved from simple hunting and gathering to animal husbandry and agriculture, and it was here that writing was developed - all under the auspices of the Great Goddess.
Sumeria was the predecessor of Babylon as the great city culture of this region, and we have evidence dated around 3000 BC that the Goddess was worshipped in a temple served almost exclusively by priestesses. Now the temple was the key institution of early civilisation. It appears to have owned the land, the herds of animals and most material property. The Sumerians credited the invention of clay tablets and the art of writing to the Goddess and the earliest known examples of writing were found in the temple of the Queen of Heaven at Erech in Sumeria. The Minoan civilisation on Crete was one of the most advanced in prehistory, materially (they even had indoor bathrooms and flush toilets) and culturally (influencing the development of the later Greek culture). Yet the Minoans worshipped the Goddess as a wasp waisted, bare breasted lady adorned with snakes. No one would dispute the pre-eminence of the Egyptian civilisation, where it was believed that the Goddess existed when nothing else had been created. Indeed, it was she who enthroned in the sky Ra, the Sun God, the deity of the Pharaohs. Civilisation began, and flourished, among those societies which revered the Great Goddess as supreme creator.
The myths and ritual surrounding the Goddess arise from the collective unconscious and reflect the intuitive understanding of the whole human race with regard to the origin of creation and the forces acting in the cosmos. Some conscious insight into these intuitions can be obtained from the scriptures and the ritual emblems that have survived from the past.
There is endless written evidence coming down to us from the stone and clay tablets of the various ancient societies of Egypt, the Middle East, and from as far away as China and Africa. These attest to the awesome power of the Goddess, who was regarded as the supra human embodiment of the creative energy of the universe. A tablet from Thebes in Egypt (about 1400 BC) announces:
"In the beginning there was Isis; Oldest of the Old. She was the Goddess from whom All Being arose. She was the Great Lady, Mistress of the two Lands of Egypt, Mistress of Shelter, Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of the House of Life, Mistress of the Divine Word. She was the Unique. In all Her great and wonderful works She was a wiser magician and more excellent than any other deity."
To the Babylonians (1800-700 BC) Ishtar was the:
"One who walked in terrible Chaos, and brought life by the Law of Love, and out of Chaos brought us harmony."
The following litany from Durgashatanamastotram recited in India is typical of the epithets applied to the Goddess wherever she was worshipped.
"Pure One - Essence of all - Knowledge - Action - the Supreme one - Giver of higher wisdom - Who art all - Whose love is unbounded - Existence - Holder of many weapons - Virgin - Maiden - Youthful - Ascetic one - Old Mother - Giver of strength."
The visual symbols of the Goddess are just as eloquent in testimony of her many-sided creative power. One golden medallion found in the Near East is embossed with a beautiful woman holding a lotus, symbol of the cosmic life force among Phoenicians, Egyptians and Indians. It is similar to many Bronze Age plaques depicting Astarte as a naked woman holding a lily stalk, or in some cases, a serpent. The famous statue Venus of Willendorf has the enormous pregnant belly and swollen breasts typical of many of the 'Venus figurines' found throughout Europe and suggestive of creative fecundity. Diana of Ephesus, the heathen Goddess denounced by St. Paul in his Epistles to the Ephesians, is represented as a voluptuous woman with a thousand breasts, symbol of loving nurturance and abundance. These are all manifestations of the Great Goddess in her Earth Mother aspect; she brings to birth and nourishes what is born. All the Vegetarian Mothers, like Demeter and Isis, share this kind of energy. The image is a joyful spiral like the conch shell, the cornucopia (Horn of Plenty).
The cosmos is neither simple nor immutable, every reflection being a refraction that eventually reveals another face. Nor are the intuitions embodied by the Great Goddess so simplistic as to fashion only those deities that fit into this Good Fairy mould.
In recognition of the destructive power of the universe, the capacity for dissolution and re-absorption, mankind also pays homage to the Goddess as universal death - dealer. In this aspect she is portrayed as terrifying and gruesome, usually with the tongue stiff and poking out. Medusa was such a one, turning men into stone if they dared look directly into her eyes, the awful concentration of her power being symbolised by her snaky coiffure. She brings to mind the Mexican Coatlicue who is all dressed up to kill in a skirt of writhing serpents. Other Death Mothers are Lilith and Hecate who have come to personify the evil witch who dabbles in black, rather than white, magic.
Yet neither nature nor super nature is categorically black or white, and there are other dimensions of power personified in various Goddesses. One Middle Eastern stone relief displays a woman with four arms sitting astride a tiger, symbolising her command over the violent passions of our lower nature. This imagery is very close to the portraits of Indian Durga, who also has four arms, blood - coloured garments and rides bareback on a lion. Evidence of this kind suggests that the Goddess was not only content to create, but also acted as a force for spiritual evolution. This is corroborated by the rites of other deities such as Artemis, Diotima and Sophia who were patrons and embodiments of wisdom. In Greece the Muse was invoked by all musicians, dancers and poets. In India she is Saraswati, mistress of all the fine arts, of learning and of knowledge, both temporal and spiritual. Such Goddesses are often associated with open fields and the out-of-doors, suggesting that they are not domesticated like the Earth Mothers who tend the ovens and home fires. They represent the forces that intensify mental and spiritual life until it reaches a point of ecstasy and they are often depicted dancing. All Virgin Mothers (including Mary, Mother of Jesus) embody this power: 'virgin' meaning 'unconditioned, free' and signifying that their function is not to bring children into the world but to bring mankind to a state of ecstasy.
The might of the Goddess defies simplification and it is not surprising to find that the most powerful manifestations transcend all distinctions. The tantric Kali is a prime example, simultaneously wielding the forces of creation, destruction and evolution. Kali Ma, Mother Kali, is a voluptuous woman as black as night, ornamented with a necklace of skulls and a girdle of severed hands. Of her two left arms, the upper one is raised to strike, sword in hand, while from the other dangles the severed head of a demon. Of her two right hands, one is raised in vara mudra, the gesture of bestowing blessings, and the other displays abhaya mudra to dispel fear. She laughs wildly, tongue lolling drunkenly from a bloody mouth, as she dances in abandon on the corpse of Time.
Kali is at one and the same time creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. She is infinite bliss trampling time underfoot in the dance of eternal creation. She ruthlessly destroys the demons of our lower natures while protecting her devotees from the depredations of spiritual ignorance. She sustains and protects all who come to her, fulfilling their desires and bestowing the ultimate blessing of divine ecstasy and liberation. Kali encompasses all the disparate aspects of the Great Goddess - granting life, releasing us into death and dancing us into ecstasy beyond both: the fascinating focus of all the dimensions of power that constitute the cosmos.
In Tantra this cosmic power is called Shakti (from the root meaning 'to be able') and is given different forms and names according to the specific function and sphere of operation. Shakti is the creative impulse that manifests the universe in response to inspired consciousness. Creation is the play of energy before consciousness, the dance of Shakti before Shiva. In a universe that is increasingly recognised by science as a matrix of interlocking energy fields, Shakti is all. In the Mahanirvana Tantra Shiva addresses Shakti:
"You are the supreme manifestation of Brahman, the supreme consciousness, and from you has come the entire universe. You are its mother. You are the origin of all manifestations. You are the form of everything. Your root is in Brahman who is actionless. It is you, moved by his desire, who creates, protects and withdraws this world with all that moves and is motionless. Therefore, by worshipping you your devotees will surely reach the supreme."
Shakti has a dual nature. It is Shakti as Maya who enveils us in this world of sensual experience and delusion. Yet it is the direct personal perception of the Shakti Kundalini that leads us to enlightenment.
Tantra recognises that the supreme is one, beyond polarity, but that it manifests as Shiva (male), consciousness, and Shakti (female) energy. However, tantra emphasises the rituals of the Goddess Shakti, for these constitute the practical means (yoga sadhana) for the arousal and unification of the energies that are necessary to propel us to the peaks of expanded consciousness.
Mother Goddess worship is still a vital tradition in India where Shakti is revered in her most popular form as Kali. However, the decline of Goddess worship throughout the rest of the world does not invalidate the realisations and practices encoded in these rituals. It reflects a shift in the balance of power amongst mankind, rather than a restructuring of the forces of the universe. The change appears to have started around 3000 BC and to have connected with the invasions of new peoples from the north. Successive waves of invasions lasted at least a thousand, perhaps three thousand years.
The new peoples are variously known as Indo-Europeans, Indo-Iranians or, simply, Aryans. Their origins are uncertain, but they probably descended from the Stone Age communities of far northern Europe. Whereas the devotees of the Goddess were generally settled agricultural communities, the Aryans were herdsmen who worshipped a male Sky-God. This deity sent down rain for their pastures in return for animal (sometimes human) sacrifice. These societies were patriarchal and made a profession of fighting, for which they are known as 'battle axe cultures'. Wherever they invaded they conquered and ruled, bringing with them their male gods of storm and fire. The Aryans reached Punjab in far western India where they encountered the indigenous Dravidians, who had an advanced culture similar to that of the Chaldeans. The Dravidians had abandoned blood sacrifice and meat-eating, paying peaceful homage to the forces of nature represented by the lingam and the Goddesses Kali and Durga. The Dravidian culture was essentially a tantric culture.
The Aryans brought with them the elements of what was to develop into the Hindu culture - Sanskrit, the caste system and new male gods led by Indra. However, perhaps because they worshipped several deities rather than just one, they were more tolerant of the Dravidian deities and worship of the Goddess continues, although its bastions were (and are) in Bihar, Orissa and Assam - the points furthest from the centre of Aryan influence. Consequently, the potent mysteries which were lost to the Eleusinians and western culture were preserved, complete and uncorrupted, by the tantrics of India who have zealously passed their knowledge from guru to disciple for thousands of years. Since about 500 AD this oral tradition has been supplemented by written scriptures and today the two combined are a major vehicle for the tantra yoga renaissance that is now taking place.
After hundreds of years of being motionless, the Great Mother is again moving in the human psyche. In this era of technological complexity and pollution we are rediscovering the simplicities of nature and coming to the defence of Mother Earth, whom we have so long exploited and neglected. Tired of warring amongst ourselves, we are redirecting our gaze from, the fierce, male warrior gods towards the more peaceful vision of the forgotten Goddess. After centuries of superstitious fear due to ignorance of our darker, sometimes destructive, psychological impulses, we are once more confronting the Death Mothers to destroy the barriers that divide us from ourselves. At a time when science has torn away the veil of solid matter to reveal a singing and dancing universe of vibrating energy, we recollect the ancient intuitions of universal power embodied in the Great Goddess. In an age of global communication we increasingly invoke the Muse to give beauty, harmony and inspired form to the intuitions and new understandings we are trying to convey. More and more people are turning to tantra and yoga to realise the energies within themselves and the universe. In so doing they are not adopting just another Eastern fad to go with incense and patchouli oil, they are immersing themselves in an ancient but vital tradition and helping to reinstate tantra as the universal culture it was in the past.