Many people believe the ubiquitous feminine, often pregnant figurines found throughout Paleolithic and Neolithic sites in ancient Europe and the Middle East represented Mother Earth, out of which are born the plants and animals and people which are her children, but the myths of her successors in early historic times suggest we may be thinking too small.
It has been popular since the days of the Renaissance to believe that goddesses always represent the earth and moon in a complementary role to gods of sky and sun. But as the image of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Nut (pictured above) shows us, the Heavens were once thought of as ruled over by the feminine aspect of the divine.
In more recent history, many have attempted to bring back a more recent Goddess, aligned with earth and moon, and mated to a God of the sky. It isn’t hard to see why. Our sky God has been ruling alone for an awfully long time. All that is seen as “good” and “powerful” is associated with him and the rest is relegated to the shadows. In Western culture we have long exalted the“heroic” and “masculine” activities of conquest, power and wealth, over “passive” and “feminine” valuation of nature. This golden chariot ride is unsustainable in the 21st century and is fast approaching the cliff. Many fear this worldview will result in the destruction not only of an undervalued natural world, but also ourselves, since we are sustained by that world. So it has been natural that, as women have begun to demand equal power, many would also seek to restore the undervalued half of everything which has been relegated to subordinate status along with them. However, in our eagerness to champion the values of the “feminine,” many of us have been too quick to buy into a duality of male/female attributes which may in itself be false.
Respect for Mother Earth along with a reclaiming of “lunar” values, often identified with receptivity, intuition and natural cycles, is in fact essential, but it is only part of the story. The dichotomy of sky/earth, sun/moon, and masculine/feminine, as well as the overvaluation of the first word in each of these pairs is influenced greatly by our borrowing of Greco-Roman ideas. In Greek myth, Gaia is a female earth and Uranus her sky god mate. These early characters were later replaced in their roles by more active gods and goddesses. Uranus was deposed by his son, Cronus, who was in turn deposed by his own son, the sky god Zeus. With his white beard and lightning bolt, Zeus bears more than a little resemblance to our own image of God the Father (who art in Heaven).
Unlike our God, however, who rules alone over Heaven and Earth, the Greek Zeus headed a pantheon of gods in whom moon and earth were associated with goddesses and the sun with the god Apollo. But the classically inspired view that moon and earth are feminine and sun and heaven are masculine has warped our understanding of the mother whose earliest written records make her much, much more.
In cultures far more ancient than that of classical Greece, the Goddess was known as the Queen of Heaven, the starlit sky, the great primordial ocean which preceded heaven and earth, and a mother to humans and the gods. Among her children were goddesses of the sun and gods of the moon, too, the distinctions of which orb held which gender varying with place and time.
Does a belief in the Goddess Mother of All as queen of the stars above contradict her role as an earth mother? Maybe, maybe not. To understand why imagine yourself standing on an ocean shore in the moonlight. It is a clear night and a starry canopy arches above you and stretches as far out before you as you can see. At the very edge, the sky appears to touch the sea, whose waves travel inward until they lap against the sandy shore on which you stand. This was the entire universe to the ancient inhabitants of the earliest civilizations. The starlit sky above, the land underfoot, and an ocean circling all around the Fertile Crescent and the unknown lands beyond were the sum total of the universe as far as they knew and all of it was once the body of the mother.
More than 1,000 years before the classical age in Greece, the Babylonian God Marduk was claimed to have created heaven and earth from the body of the primordial sea goddess Tiamat. He had to kill her first, but Marduk, ancient god though he was, was a late interloper into world creation. Two thousand years before his time, Tiamat, also known as Nammu, created heaven and earth from her own body and with the help of her son Enki, created humans out of clay. Her stories are thousands of years older than either those of the Greeks, or those of the Bible. The priests of Sumer and Babylon wrote down her tales before Abraham, father of the three great monotheistic faiths of today, was even a twinkle in Jehovah’s eye. She was the source of everything, including our own stories of “In the beginning…” although we have long since forgotten her names. One of her most powerful grandchildren was the Goddess Inanna, who was known by the title Queen of Heaven and worshipped for her dominion over love and war, and for alone having conquered death and returned to tell the tale. Her stories are also told in some of the oldest recorded documents known to humankind.
In ancient Egypt, Nut (pictured above) was the night sky arching overhead and Geb her mate the earth below, directly the opposite of the Greek ordering of the universe. Nut was the mother of all the gods and goddesses. Among her children were both gods and goddesses of the sun.
Nut’s longest lived daughter, Isis, was, like Inanna, a sky goddess associated with tales of death and resurrection, though in her case it was her husband whom she helped bring back from the dead. This tremendously popular Goddess grew in power over time and continued to rule the heavens, even after Alexander conquered the Egyptians for Greece. When Rome in its turn took over the lands once held by Greece, the Romans learned to love Isis as well.
A Hellenized (Greek influenced) version of Isis, the Queen of Heaven, was in fact one of Christianity’s strongest competitors in late Roman times until her role and title were taken over by the Christian Mary, who is still called Queen of Heaven today. Mary is a shining example of the love of a mother radiating from heaven to ease the burden of we creatures below, and though her divinity is no longer officially recognized as such, she bears the titles and receives the prayers once addressed to the Goddess, whose body is not just the earth but the universe, and whose children we are.