The Universal Maternal

Maternal figures and other portrayals of feminine power are represented in most myths and religious folklore. There are numerous female deities, Goddesses, and other feminine spiritual representations, both positive and negative in practically every culture around the globe. By looking more closely at the stories and characteristics of these figures, you’ll begin to notice that there are some common themes that transcend cultural and historical boundaries when it comes to the feminine in religion.  

Greek and Roman mythology, like other civilizations, have multiple Goddesses who represent fertility and motherhood but also war, creation, protection, the harvest, the earth, and many more. One such Goddess is Cybele, who ancient Greece adopted from older traditions. A shrine of Cybele dating back to 6 century BC is inscribed with what translates to “Mother of the Mountain.” Later, in the Greek tradition she was known as “Mistress Cybele the Mother” or “Mistress of Animals.” When the Romans adopted her, she was known as Magna Mater or “Great Mother.” A cult of Cybele was formed that included ecstatic frenzies and descriptions of male followers ritually castrating themselves. Initiations into the cult included the sacrificing of bulls with the blood used to symbolize purification and rebirth. Women were usually the priestesses of the Cult of Cybele and if there were male priests, they would castrate themselves and wear women’s clothing. Cybele has become a symbol of feminism and is even honored among some in the transgender community.

Another representation of a Mother Goddess in Greek mythology is Gaea, in Roman culture she is known as Terra. Gaea was basically the Earth itself, the creator of all. Similar representations from other cultures include Tiamat, from Ancient Babylon, who was the primordial Mother of the World. Two African Goddesses who were considered “Mother of All” are the Egyptian Goddess Isis and the West African Goddess Yemaya. Isis gave birth to the most powerful Gods and was considered the “Divine Mother of Egypt itself.” Yemaya is a Goddess of the ocean and considered “Mother of All.” She is also widely believed to have a connection to the Christian Virgin Mary. Devi Adi parashakti in Hinduism is the Divine Mother and viewed as the universal creative force, also known as Mother Nature. Durga represents the protective nature of motherhood as well as the power of the One God in Hinduism. From Durga’s forehead came Kali the Goddess of Time. The Irish Goddess Danu is associated as an Earth Goddess as well as the mother of a race of supernatural beings, and the Celtic Goddess Brighid was thought to watch over women in childbirth. The Norse Goddesses, Freya and Frigga are the Goddesses of war and peace, sexual freedom and marriage respectively. The Greek story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone personifies maternal protection with Demeter braving the Underworld to save her child.

As seen in some of the descriptions above, a major theme among Mother Goddess traditions is the relation of the maternal/ feminine to the Earth. To this day both secularly and non-secularly the planet is commonly referred to as “Mother Earth.” The reference of the Earth being female is similar to many of the Mother Goddesses having nurturing as well as destructive characteristics. The Earth gives life as well as destroys it. In most traditions, the feminine is closely related to nature, the wild, and animals. This wild nature is also attributed to female sexuality. This animalistic view of female sexuality is something that patriarchal religions have characteristically tried to “tame.” Where multitudes of Goddesses commonly had multiple consorts and gave birth to many Gods, Christianity came in and exalted the Virgin Mother.

The Virgin Mary’s importance or prominence varies within different sects of Christianity. For example, Catholics venerate her and consider her “Blessed,” and Protestants believe she was just an average woman who was the mother of Jesus. The Virgin Mary is also part of the Islamic faith where she holds the title of “Our Lady,” or Qānitah which indicates she is completely submissive to God. In the Quran she is also referred to as “Tahira.” Tahira means “one who is purified,” and delineates her as one of the two humans who have never been touched by Satan.

Continuing the focus on Abrahamic religions, with the pure, submissive virgin mother figure, we also get the opposing impure, disobedient, female “mother” figure. Two prominent characters who fit that description are Eve and Lilith. Both Lilith and Eve have multiple backstories. Eve is sometimes considered the first woman and the first mother on Earth. Depending on what story you read, she was either made from Adam’s rib or both Adam and Eve were created at the same time. An interesting take on the creation story is found in rabbinic literature where it is interpreted that Adam was created as both male and female. God then decides that Adam should not be alone and creates Adam and Eve as two separate beings. In Hebrew, Eve can be translated to “source of life.” In many depictions, Eve is the first human mother, and the transgressor. She is seduced by the serpent, tempts Adam, and as a result causes the fall of man. She is cursed, and all women after her as a result, with pain in childbirth, menstruation, and both men and women are no longer immortal. Most religious leadership used this story to ensure women’s submission. What are known as “Early Church Fathers,” the men who established the foundations of church doctrine, interpreted some writings of the Apostle Paul regarding Eve in a way that promoted the silence of women and their submission. A major influence of early Latin Christian texts, Tertullian, taught his female followers that they were “the devil’s gateway.” In Milton’s popular portrayal of Eve from his epic Paradise Lost, when questioned about her transgression, she simply replies, “The serpent me beguiled, and I did eat.” Even given her storied disobedience, the Catholic Church recognizes Eve as a saint, and a feast day for Saint Adam and Saint Eve is celebrated on December 24 in many regions. Many Christians cast Eve as a villain, but there is no denying the texts, Eve gave us the gift of knowledge. Eve reminded us that we do have free will.

Lilith, more specifically, gave women a sense of freedom and independence. The history behind the legend of Lilith is somewhat mysterious. Some say her name comes from the Hebrew lilit, which can be translated to “night creature” or “screech owl.” Other ancient texts have descriptions of lilitu, which can be translated to demons or spirits. Related terms are found in other ancient texts that could have influenced the common understanding of the figure of Lilith, but the most recognized story comes from Jewish mythology. In this story Lilith was created for Adam from the same material that he was created from. When Adam wanted her to lie beneath him, she refused saying that she was his equal. Adam countered, saying that he was her superior. Lilith, seeing they would only fight, flew away. When Adam told God of this, God sent angels after Lilith asking for her return and she refused. She was then cursed to have 1000 of her babies die every day as the mother of demons. Because of her refusal to submit and her determination for equality, Lilith in modern times has become a symbol of feminism and female independence.

Many Satanists not only use Satan as a symbol of rebellion against authority, but Lilith as well. Neither would bow to arbitrary domination, fear, or tyranny. Eve, too, sought knowledge and is a symbol of our release from ignorance. The value and respect of the maternal and the feminine was clearly a part of humanity throughout history. Patriarchy, especially through patriarchal religions, has tried to suppress, dominate, and devalue women and the feminine to maintain control. Fortunately, the symbols they created to enforce their misogynistic goals have done just the opposite and have become a source of feminist inspiration for many. Feminism, and female portrayals of power are not just inspirational and constructive for women identifying persons, feminism and feminine power are beneficial and inspirational to anyone who identifies as a man as well.

So, whoever fills the role of the maternal in your life, we hail them! If you fill the role of the maternal, we hail you!

Hail Lilith! Hail Eve!