Goddess preconceptions

Updated Thursday, 5th April 2012
Graham Harvey, Reader in Religious Studies at The Open University, asks if preconceptions about Goddesses as being all about fertility, sexuality and motherhood are true

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Searching the internet for information about goddesses is likely to lead to the impression that Goddesses are and always have been primarily associated with fertility, sexuality and motherhood. A similar impression is given by many of the books about goddesses. Is this an accurate reflection of what devotees of Goddesses consider important? Does it have the effect of reinforcing religious ideas that women are too earthy, too physical or too sexual to lead religious activities?

Let’s consider some examples:  

Goddess Inanna Goddess Inanna Hymns to the Sumerian Goddess Inanna praise her beauty and her encouragement of love between couples. She was celebrated for her own romantic attachments with kings and gods. She was even called 'she who loves her own vulva'. But the same hymns and stories thanked her for leading the conquest of foreign lands, requiring justice, and advising rulers wisely.

In Phrygia (modern Turkey), Kybele was named 'Great Mother' and was usually represented sitting on a throne with her arms resting on two lions, or riding in a chariot pulled by lions. She does not seem particularly maternal unless we think of her as an imperial 'Mother of her people'. It seems likely that she was considered to be responsible for the growth of barley, wheat and other grains. She was almost certainly the local form of 'Mother Earth', but she was as much a taker of life as a giver of life. 

The Greek Aphrodite is frequently identified as a Goddess of beauty, love and sexuality. Statues and paintings of her are always beautiful and often sexy. She has been honoured for inspiring both heterosexual and homosexual love and passion. But everything that is said about her suggests that it would not be a good idea to invite her to a party. Jealousy and violence often surround her. In the story of the Trojan war she may even be said to have intervened at a crucial moment to keep the war and destruction going. Recent and contemporary Goddesses are also celebrated as powerful and capable multi-taskers. The Yoruba Goddess Oshun can be sexy and flirtatious but she can also be fierce in defence of her people and wise when giving advice through diviners. 

Goddess Durga Goddess Durga Like Kybele, the Goddess Durga is also called 'Mother' and is the focus of many Hindu women’s devotion. But she is renowned for being fiercely terrifying, a destroyer of the world as much as its creator. Lakshmi may look more beautiful than Durga, but people approach her for help with finances more than fertility. Her beauty has more to do with purity than sexuality. But there is even more to her than this. Although she is a Goddess of wealth and prosperity, she has four hands to point to dharma, kama, artha and moksha. If you are unfamiliar with these words, a quick internet search will reveal that they sum up Hindu teaching about the four aims of human life. Durga and Lakshmi are only two of the Hindu Goddesses, but they embrace most of what Hindus consider important.  

For a final example, we might turn to Wicca, a branch of contemporary Paganism. During a regular ceremony called 'Drawing Down the Moon' the Goddess speaks through a priestess. She declares herself to be the “Mother of all life” and says, “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”. But she is not only interested in fertility and sexuality. She also says “let there be beauty and strength, wisdom and honour, humility and courage”.

It is not difficult to see that Goddesses from many places, from antiquity to today, are considered capable multi-taskers. Certainly some Goddesses are associated with sexuality, usually celebrating and encouraging it. Some are approached for help with pregnancy and childbirth. Some Goddesses are involved in the fertility of crops. But we have ample evidence that female divine beings are expected to be as involved in what might be called political and military matters as are their male counterparts. Perhaps gender and genitals are not that important in defining roles and abilities apart from in relation to sexual relationships. Why, then, are Goddesses so often said to be all about fertility? Is it possible that men who were busily restricting women’s religious roles, barring them from leading congregations and ceremonies, also thought they should restrict the roles of Goddesses? Is it possible that people who associate female bodies with tempting sexuality thought that allowing the veneration of Goddesses would only encourage such worldly and material concerns? Or is there another explanation? 

What are your views on this subject? Vote in our poll and share your views here. 


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