Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Goddess Mythology

GODDESS WORSHIP

Although Adam, Eve, and a nasty serpent define images of origin in this culture, historical, mythological, and archaeological evidence indicates:

  • a male-oriented view of divinity can claim only about 5000 years of history.
  • female deities were worshipped at least 7000 bce, thousands of years before Abraham served as prophet of Yahweh, and some say as far back as 30,000 bce (based on Upper Paleolithic figurines, cave paintings, and other archaeological finds in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa).

The Goddess would have been thought of as the original creator (since this makes sense as a female role) and as patroness of sex and reproduction. These early social and religious structures, when acknowledged to have existed, have traditionally been dismissed as “fertility cults.”

SERPENTS

The serpent of Genesis was a deity in its own right, revered in the Levant for at least 7000 years before Genesis was written. Trees and gardens were involved in these early religions also, with no associations concerning guilt, sin, disobedience, or unpleasantness.

The serpent’s divine association has been insistently (and hopefully) interpreted as phallic, but the serpent was revered as female in the Near and Middle East (based on Sumerian and Babylonian texts, artifacts from Crete). (Did pre-dynastic Egyptians flee to Crete in 3000 bce with their belief in the cobra goddess?)

In ancient myths, the female deity was often symbolized as a serpent or dragon. The picture of the cobra as symbol of mystic insight and wisdom is used as a hieroglyphic sign signifying goddess, and it precedes the name of any goddess in Egyptian writing.

THEORIES OF EVOLUTION

Previous theorizing as to what happened, how did the shift to male deities occur, include the so-called “big discovery” which assumes that the ancients were in awe of reproduction (Hebrew and Aramaic terms for “magic” derive from words meaning serpent). But eventually people came to realize men’s role in reproduction. Lately this theory has been seen as absurd since these same early peoples were animal breeders.

Actually, sporadic invasions from the north seem to be responsible. During the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age came the violent entry, massacres, and territorial conquests of the cattle-herding Indo-European or Indo-Aryan tribes with their own concepts of light and good vs. dark and evil, and worshipping a male storm god often conceived of as residing high on a mountain and blazing fire (volcanos?). (To some extent also, Semitic sheep-and-goat-herders from the south also invaded.)

These invaders either subjugated and suppressed, absorbed, or eliminated goddess worship. Male became valued above female, kings and priestly classes were established. In these new religions, goddesses/women were more likely to be associated with darkness/evil. Sometimes, as with the Greeks invaded by the Indo-Europeans between the 14th and 12th centuries bce (Homer’s “Achaeans”), the female was symbolically included into male god myths, but as reduced and conquered. Here the patriarchal gods marry instead of exterminate the goddesses indiginous to the land they conquered.

The Hebrews retain a shady memory of the mythic battle between Yahweh and the primordial serpent, Leviathan, although this has mostly been removed from scriptures; but see Job 26:13, Psalms 104, 74. Leviathan was known in northern Canaanite texts as the foe of the storm god Baal at least as early as the 14th century bce (var. Lotan, Lawtan, and Lat = goddess in Canaanite).

This mythic battle of male antropomorphic god and serpentine goddess emerges indirectly again in the Greek myth of Heracles/Hercules killing the serpent-dragon Ladon, said to be guarding a sacred fruit tree of a goddess.

Other Greek indications of cultural dominance include Athena born from the head of Zeus so that the male takes the role of creator (and Zeus is one of the few Greek gods never appearing with a snake), and Aphrodite being born from the genitals of Kronos. The Amazons are worrisome, perhaps reflecting the memory of a goddess-worshipping people who fought the initial seizure?

In Hebrew texts, Yahweh advocates the destruction of the shrines to female deities, so they did continue to exist, attract fans, and offend the Levite priests who established male authority and revised circulating creation myths. The shrines themselves probably involved a priestess who would give divine revelations of the goddess. The tree involved would probably have been a fig tree, the fig = “flesh and fluid of Hathor the goddess” in Egyptian texts, and fig leaves are mentioned in the story of Adam and Eve, displaced, with the fruit they ate unspecified. There may have been a type of communion with the goddess involved in eating the sacred fruit. The snakes involved may have been used for their bites, known in some religions to be used like sacred mushrooms — the venom acts like an hallucinogen, yielding mystical perception changes.


Works Consulted

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. NY: Penguin, 1964. Chapters 1 &3.

Condren, Mary. The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989.

Eisler, Riane. “Our Lost Heritage: New Facts on How God Became a Man.” Writing About the World. Ed. Susan McLeod et al. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace. 550-555.

Leeming, David, and Jake Page. Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Pub., 1976.