On the Origins of Goddesses

In what is fast approaching two decades ago, I was facing the prospect of meeting a thesis approval committee at the University of Edinburgh without a solid proposal. I’d meant to focus on Dagon, but the committee felt there was too little information on that deity to fill the requirements for a doctorate. I’d long been fascinated by the role of goddesses in ancient religion and their rather sudden disappearance – more properly sublimation – in what was becoming a male-controlled official religion. (Private religion could have been quite different, as it still is, from official theologies.) It was then that my attention was drawn to the, at that time, relatively understudied Asherah. Apart from having avoided excessive attention, Asherah was also the chief goddess of Ugarit, and possibly other cities.

Turning the hands even further back, into prehistory, we find that goddesses seem to have been a natural part of human psyches of antiquity. Few things are as fundamental to human experience as the complementarity of the sexes; why would there be gods without goddesses, and vice versa? Prehistory is excessively difficult to read, existing as it does without written records to interpret artifacts. The discovery of Paleolithic female figurines, however, would seem to suggest that the female divine was a powerful force. The “Venuses” of Willendorf, Hohle Fels, Dolni Vestonice, Tan-Tan, Brassempouy, Galgenberg, Lespugue, Laussel and others demonstrate the acknowledgement of feminine mystery, if not divinity. With the advent of monotheism, one sex would have to accept subordinate status. A sexless divinity is simply too difficult to imagine.

Western religions thus began their descent into the omnipotent masculine. Even the Classical Greeks with their gender-mixed pantheon had to acknowledge the superiority of Zeus. In a monotheistic world, worship of the female divinity became heterodox, heresy, and “pagan.” There it has stayed for millennia, only to reappear in the cults of Mary and other chaste saintesses, clearly beneath the authority of Him. The origins of goddesses? They have been with us from the beginning. The real mystery is not where they came from, but whither have they gone.

Wiki-commons' Venus of Dolni Vestonice

One thought on “On the Origins of Goddesses

  1. Henk van der Gaast

    Ive seen a fair few pictures of a two ended deity, very feminine at first glance but masculine at one end and feminine at the other.

    These come from different places around the world and aren’t anywhere as refined as the Venuses you mentioned.

    Was it just the authors making an inference and me (dumbly) accepting it or does this double fertility representation also make a hemaphroditic representation that creative scholars suggest for “let us make them in our image”?.

    Of course the titillating association to Tiamat’s first-born(s) will not be made in this post!


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