History of Goddess Worship

That Old Time Religion

One of the first religions developed by humans was Goddess worship. Much archeological evidence including statues, amulets, pottery, cave paintings and other images revering the Goddess, as well as burial sites, temples and alters have been unearthed which prove the existence of Goddess worship. Merlin Stone, in When God Was a Woman, notes, "Archeologists have traced the worship of the Goddess back to the Neolithic communities of about 7,000 BCE, some to the Upper Paleolithic cultures of about 25,000 BCE. From the time of its Neolithic origins, its existence was repeatedly attested to until well into Roman times. (page 10)

The most convincing evidence of Goddess worship comes from numerous sculptures of pregnant women, or faceless women depicted having exaggerated breasts, hips, thighs, buttocks and vulva. These images are referred to by archeologists as Venus figurines or idols of the 'great mother cult.' They are made of stone, bone and clay and have been discovered close to the remains of sunken walls in some of the earliest human-made dwellings. The niches in the walls are though to have been made to hold the figures. These sites have been found in Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Russia. They appear to span a period of at least ten thousand years. (Stone page 13)

These images were not mere decorations to the people who created them. They were profoundly important because they represented the ways which humans expressed themselves before they began to utilize language. The art reveals what the cultures valued and the knowledge they tried to pass on to future generations. Clearly, childbirth, mothering and female sexuality were considered sacred. This makes perfect sense, since, like a few isolated, primitive cultures still on the Earth today, these cultures had little or no knowledge of the man's role in reproduction. For all they knew, the woman created the baby herself. Sex wasn't associated with childbirth, and women were regarded as the sole givers of life. (Stone page 11)

Furthermore, since the concept of paternity was not yet understood, children belonged only to their mothers and the community. "Illegitimate" children did not exist. Children took their mother's name and family descent traveled through the female line. This social structure, based on mother-kinship, is called "matrilineal" and still exists in parts of Africa, India, Melanesia and Micronesia. These cultures were often also matrilocal, meaning that when a woman married, her husband came to live with her family, instead of the woman being uprooted and moving to the house of her husband's family. These societies were not necessarily matriarchal, meaning that women had all the power, but women's status in society would certainly have been higher with matrilineal descent. Women would not have been totally dependent on men or considered their property. The importance of virginity and punishments for adultery would not have existed to the extent that they do in patriarchal religions, where fatherhood, more than motherhood, is valued.

From Priestesses to Inventors

The appeal of ancient Goddess worship includes the revelation that women played a major role in religious services and celebrations. Many women were priestesses, diviners, midwives, poets and healers (Starhawk). Women presided at temples erected solely to specific goddesses; Ishtar, Isis and Diana being among the most popular. From women's involvement in religion came many advances, including harnessing the power of herbs which cured the sick and eased the pain of childbirth. The first calendars included lunar calendars, which may have began as women kept track of their menstrual cycles and compared them to moon cycles. Besides astronomy, women are also though to have developed language, agriculture, cooking, ceramics and more. Women's contributions to human culture are innumerable, and never given enough credit.

Patriarchal Rise/Goddess Fall

The Goddess experienced great popularity and prominence until patriarchal religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their precursors silenced her. The switch to patriarchy was gradual and preceded by a change in kinship systems, going from matrilineal to patrilineal descent. The emphasis on fatherhood is clearly evident in the major religions practiced now. The father/son relationship of God and Jesus is key to Christianity, although the Mother figure managed to persist and appear in Catholicism as Mary. In some places, though, patriarchy may have caused the switch to patrilineal descent, especially in Goddess worshiping cultures which were conquered by savage invaders from the North.

Other factors relating to the rise in patriarchal religions included emphasis on property ownership, the rise of military dictatorships, and increase in war cults. Esther Harding writes in Women's Mysteries, "The rise in masculine power and of patriarchal society probably started when man began to accumulate personal, as over against communal, property and found that his personal strength and prowess could increase his personal possessions. This change in secular power coincided with the rise of sun worship under a male priesthood, which began to supersede the much earlier moon cults," (page 31)

So, as men gained power over women and the masculine became divine, female divinity became less and less acknowledged. Along with the fall in Goddess worship came more wars, crimes and tyrannous rulers. The rape of women and the Earth was underway.

Interestingly, patriarchal religions actually gained converts by adapting certain rituals and celebrations of Pagan/Goddess worshiping cultures to fit its practices (although it often forced people to convert, a great example being what happened to the entire Western hemisphere after Christopher Columbus "discovered" it). For example, Jones and Pennick write in A History of Pagan Europe, "The use of holy water and incense, solemn processions, religious rites of passage marking the turning points of human life, the veneration of local saints, and the great feast of the dead, the annual Christian Parentalia on All Souls' Day, can all be seen as direct imitations of Pagan tradition," (page 75)

Remnants of ancient Goddess worship still exist in religions today, but her images and teachings have largely been forgotten.

Female Deities

Female deities have been worshiped all around the world for thousands of years, and it would be impossible to discuss them all here. I hope to expand this section in the future.

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