Mystery Cults and the Early Mother Goddess
- 0:06 Caveman Church
- 1:28 The Mother Goddess
- 2:17 Famous Mother Goddess Artifacts
- 3:58 Evolution of the Mother Goddess
- 4:54 Male Figures
- 5:57 Further Evolution
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What kind of problems do we encounter when talking about ancient religions? What are the Mother Goddess figures, and where do they pop up throughout history? Watch this lesson to learn about one of the earliest forms of religious worship.
We actually know very little about prehistoric religion. This is not surprising. Imagine yourself in a church. Now remove everything that a caveman would not have: no pews, no stained glass windows, no building at all. All you're left with is an altar, religious symbols and holy vessels, and all of those would be of a primitive design. Let's add a fire for light and cooking… there. Welcome to caveman church.
The problem is it's hard to tell a caveman church from a caveman house. Even if they had done everything they could to decorate a holy place, after 30,000 years it ends up looking like this. Still, let us see what we can learn from this mess.
We've got some animal bones, a couple of knives, a raised block… but that could be anything. This could be a workshop for chipping blades or a place for butchering animals. Ah, but look here. What is THIS? Well, it's obviously a woman. She has a distended belly, so perhaps a pregnant woman? She's made out of stone. The only other things I see made of stone are clearly tools, so she must be important. Maybe she's a goddess... a Mother Goddess. Perhaps she even represents the Earth itself, the mother of all things. This may all seem very tenuous, but it's really all we have to work with.
The Mother Goddess
Certainly, prehistoric humans did make other works of art. We've found some very nice cave painting and some other carvings. However, almost all other examples of prehistoric art are of animals, mostly the very animals our ancestors spent their lives hunting. While these images and figurines might bear some religious significance, it would be impossible to determine the nature of such animal worship beyond their obvious importance as a source of food and thus a sustainer of life. Oh, if only these people had known how to write.
Yet these Mother Goddess figures show up all over the place. This one we're looking at is the Venus of Hohle Fels. Arguably the oldest example of sculpture, she was made 40,000 years ago and found near Schelklingen, Germany. This is her granddaughter, the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. She was carved about 30,000 years ago in the Moravian basin of what is now called the Czech Republic. And this is HER granddaughter, the Venus of Willendorf. She was carved 6,000 years later, near the modern day city of Willendorf in Austria.
Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these figurines around the world. Though style and technique may change, these figures all retain their femininity. This one here was found in Çatalhöyük, one of the oldest cities we've discovered, dated to around 7,500 BCE. A chain of Aegean islands called the Cyclades maintained this practice of creating Mother Goddess figurines well into the third millennium BCE. They are famous for their unique take on this figure. Of course by then the people of the Clyades were also making other figures - of men, of animals, even of musicians - but Mother Goddess figures still predominate.
Mother Goddesses of the Mediterranean
It is believed by some that Mother Goddess worship reached its apex in Minoan Civilization. This civilization arose in Crete around the 27th century BCE and flourished until its destruction around the 17th century BCE by the explosion of Thera (modern day Santorini), a small island with a big volcano less than 200 km to the north of Crete.
Somewhere along the way, Mother Goddesses had become associated with snakes. Snakes live in the Earth; Mother Goddesses represent the Earth - it makes sense. The Minoans seemed to think this made sense as well and created their Mother Goddesses with a lot of snakes, as you can see in this one example here.
There is some evidence that Minoan religion had expanded to include male deities as well, yet Mother Goddess figures far outnumber their male counterparts. These male deities are normally represented as smaller, less important 'prince consorts' to the Great Goddess, as seen in this impression of a Minoan signet ring.
Indeed, the female predominates all of Minoan art: their murals, their sculpture, even their pottery. However, there is one undeniably male figure that appears repeatedly in Minoan art - that of the bull. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that representations of bulls are almost always found near representations of a ceremonial axe, or labrys, presumably used to end the life of said bull.
Sir Arthur Evan speculated that the Minoans were a matriarchal society in which the power of the male force (the bull) was curbed and cut short for the good of society by a female force. We can see this in the famous Bull Jumping mural. The bull is restrained by two women. All around the border is a repeating pattern of overlapping axe blades. Within female control the bull may live, strive, work, thrill and entertain, yet outside of that constraint, the axe waits.
Of course, Evans and his ilk draw many of their interpretations from the accounts and myths of later patriarchal societies. Their perspectives, while certainly nearer in time, are likely to carry their own biases. Yet even to them, much of Mother Goddess worship was as much of a mystery as it is to us now.
Thus for tens of thousands of years, Mother Goddesses seem to have dominated prehistoric religion. Even when male gods had supplanted their place of primacy, the Mother Goddess never really disappeared. We can see her in Ninsun of Mesopotamian mythology, in Astarte of Syria, in Egypt's Hathor, in the Greek's Gaia. Even the Catholic Church could not put a stop to Mother Goddess worship. The best they could do was to try to redirect this religious fervor toward the Holy Mother, Mary.
Today worship of the Mother Goddess is alive and well. While modern Western religions may scoff at her worshipers, the Wiccan burning honey cakes to the Great Mother at the park is actually participating in a rite to a deity who was worshiped 40,000 years before Abraham.
Chapters in History 101: Western Civilization I
- 1. Prehistory (9 lessons)
- 2. History of the Ancient Near East (19 lessons)
- 3. History of Ancient Greece (14 lessons)
- 4. Hellenism and the Athenian Achievement (10 lessons)
- 5. The Rise of the Roman Republic (6 lessons)
- 6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (6 lessons)
- 7. The Dark Ages (4 lessons)
- 8. The Early Middle Ages (3 lessons)
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