From Earth Mother to Fertility Goddesses
DO YOU recognize the goddess pictured on the cover of this magazine? It is Isis, ancient mother-goddess of Egypt. If you have visited a museum or looked through a book on ancient history, you have probably already seen idols resembling this. Consider this though: Would you bow down to and worship the goddess Isis?
If you belong to one of Christendom’s religions, that may seem a strange question. You will likely insist that you worship the Creator, the One addressed, “Our Father which art in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9, King James Version) The idea of bowing down to a mother-goddess may seem strange, even repugnant. Nevertheless, such worship has been widespread throughout history, and you may be shocked to know just who worship the great mother-goddess today.
However, before discussing that, let us get some background by considering the extent of mother-goddess worship in ancient times. This kind of worship appears to have been a very early form of false religion. Statuettes and images of naked mother-goddesses have been unearthed by archaeologists at ancient sites all over Europe and from the Mediterranean lands to India.
The Earth Mother was looked upon as the constant source of all forms of life, giving life and then taking it back to herself at their death. As such, she was worshiped but also feared. To start with, it was believed, her reproductive powers were nonsexual. Then, mythology has it, she gave birth to the masculine Sky Father and became his wife. This couple brought forth innumerable other gods and goddesses.
The Babylonian Prototype
In the Babylonian pantheon, Ishtar was the principal goddess, identical with the Sumerian fertility goddess Innanna. Paradoxically, she was both goddess of war and goddess of love and voluptuousness. In his book Les Religions de Babylonie et d’Assyrie (The Religions of Babylonia and Assyria), French scholar Édouard Dhorme said of Ishtar: “She was the goddess, the lady, the merciful mother who listens to prayer and intercedes before the angry gods and calms them. . . . She was exalted above all, she became the goddess of goddesses, the queen of all the gods, the sovereign of the gods of heaven and earth.”
Ishtar’s worshipers addressed her as “the Virgin,” “Holy Virgin,” and “Virgin Mother.” The ancient Sumero-Akkadian “Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar” states: “I pray to thee, O Lady of ladies, goddess of goddesses. O Ishtar, queen of all peoples. . . . O possessor of all divine power, who wears the crown of dominion. . . . Chapels, holy places, sacred sites, and shrines pay heed to thee. . . . Where are thy likenesses not fashioned? . . . See me O my Lady; accept my prayers.”a
Mother-Goddess Worship Spreads
Orientalist Édouard Dhorme speaks of the “expansion of Ishtar worship.” It spread throughout Mesopotamia, and either Ishtar herself or goddesses with different names but similar attributes were worshiped in Egypt, Phoenicia, and Canaan, as well as in Anatolia (Asia Minor), Greece, and Italy.
The principal mother-goddess worshiped in Egypt was Isis. Historian H. G. Wells wrote: “Isis attracted many devotees, who vowed their lives to her. Her images stood in the temple, crowned as the Queen of Heaven and bearing the infant Horus in her arms. The candles flared and guttered before her, and the wax ex-votos hung about the shrine.” (The Outline of History) Isis worship was extremely popular in Egypt. It also spread throughout the Mediterranean area, especially to Greece and Rome, even reaching western and northern Europe.
In Phoenicia and Canaan, mother-goddess worship focused on Ashtoreth, or Astarte, said to be the wife of Baal. Like her Babylonian counterpart, Ishtar, she was both a fertility and a war goddess. In Egypt ancient inscriptions have been found in which Astarte is called lady of heaven and queen of the heavens. The Israelites had to put up a constant fight against the degrading influence of the worship of this fertility goddess.
To the northwest in Anatolia, the equivalent of Ishtar was Cybele, known as the Great Mother of the gods. She was also called the All-Begetter, the All-Nourisher, the Mother of all the Blessed. From Anatolia the cult of Cybele spread first to Greece and then to Rome, where it survived well into the Common Era. The worship of this fertility goddess included frenzied dancing, self-laceration by the priests, self-castration by candidates for the priesthood, and processions in which the statue of the goddess was borne in much splendor.b
The primitive Greeks worshiped an Earth-Mother goddess called Gaea. But their pantheon came to include Ishtar-type goddesses, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility and love; Athena, the goddess of war; and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.
In Rome, Venus was the goddess of love and, as such, corresponded to the Greek Aphrodite and the Babylonian Ishtar. The Romans, however, also worshiped the goddesses Isis, Cybele, and Minerva (Greek Athena), all of whom reflected in one way or another the Babylonian archetype Ishtar.
Clearly, for thousands of years, mother-goddess worship was a powerful rival to the pure worship of the great Creator, Jehovah. Did worship of the great mother-goddess die out? Or has it survived until the present day? Please read on.
a Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, pages 383-4.
b Another fertility goddess worshiped in Asia Minor was the Ephesian Artemis, which will be considered in the following article.
[Picture on page 3]
Babylon’s ISHTAR personified as a star
Courtesy of The British Museum
[Picture on page 4]
ISIS of Egypt with infant god Horus
Musée du Louvre, Paris