One very significant and very ancient source of the split between humans and nature in the Western world came with the transition from earth goddess to sky god religions and the concomitant institution of patriarchy. Very different and conflicting stories began to be told, reflecting a more distanced, fearful and aggressive relationship between humans and nature, and between humans and gods.
In this essay, I discuss the
conflict-laden mythic legacy resulting from these profound cultural
Over the course of the next two to three millennia these nomadic pastoralists imposed an entirely new set of ideologies and values that have been at the foundation of the Western worldview ever since. For the matrilineal, matricentric order of the Neolithic village, they substituted a patrilineal and patriarchal system that became the norm in the Bronze Age, Iron Age and all subsequent ages up to the present.
A pantheon of sky and warrior gods was
superimposed on the earth and nature divinities of the original
inhabitants of Old Europe, resulting in what Marija Gimbutas has
called "hybrid mythologies." A similar transition from
goddess-centered religions to the cults of male law-giver gods, also
reflected in radically transformed mythologies, occurred in the
Semitic cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Eastern
Numerous parallels were found to exist between words and names, such as that for the ruling deity, the "Lord of the Shining Sky":
Although some earlier scholars, such as
Bachofen, had described an archaic period of Mutterrecht, there was
only fragmentary knowledge about the pre-Indo-European cultures and
much was misunderstood. What we now understand as undercurrents of
Old European religion, persisting beneath the Indo-European overlay,
went unrecognized and were typically characterized as "mysterious",
"obscure", "very old", "minor deities", or even as "an older
generation of gods".
As Gimbutas writes, in the concluding section of The Civilization of the Goddess,
During the hundreds, even thousands of
years of cultural interaction there was undoubtedly not only
conquest, assimilation and superimposition of an alien religion, but
also intermarriage of peoples, a blending and combining of religious
and mythic images. Gimbutas’ concept of hybrid mythologies provides
a kind of corrective lens with which many previously obscure and
incomprehensible features of European mythology can be understood.
The ancient nature-goddess cults were appropriated and twisted for ideological purposes.
Hera, one of the
forms of the ancient Great Goddess, whose cult was overrun, almost
certainly with much resistance by her worshippers, is ridiculed in
Greek myths as the complaining wife of a robust, adulterous
father-god. Athena, a form of the ancient life-giving bird-goddess,
is transformed into a cool warrior strategist, born fully armed out
of her father Zeus’ head- thus eliminating any traces of her true
origin and status, turning her into a "brain-child" of the
One example is the substitution of the solar god Apollo for the earth goddess Gaia as the protector deity of the cave oracle at Delphi.
Another is found in the story of the Cretan princess Europa, after whom the continent is named: Zeus changed himself into a gorgeous bull, whom she trustingly rode, not knowing of his intent, in order to seduce her. According to Graves, this myth reflects the Olympian’s take-over of the Minoan sacred bull-cult, in which the priestesses rode on the bull in processions, and danced with the bull in the games.
A third well-known example is the
abduction rape of Persephone, daughter of the Cretan Earth-goddess
Demeter, by Hades, ruler of the Underworld, brother of Zeus, with
the latter’s complicity.
They clearly belong to the older stratum of Earth - and Goddess-centered religion. Pan, the horned, goat-bodied god of wild and domesticated animals, was invoked by lusty country people in orgiastic celebrations. Robert Graves suggests that the satyrs, portrayed as goat-bodied with rampant phallus, were goat-totem tribesmen whose chosen god was Pan. To the Christians, with their life-negating attitudes, he was the chosen embodiment of the horned and hooved devil.
Around the time of Christian beginnings a legend arose that sailors on a ship in the Eastern Mediterranean had heard a supernatural voice proclaim "Great Pan is dead". But in the underground pagan traditions of witchcraft and folklore Pan survived: he became the Lord of Animals, the Wildman covered with hair, who represented our connection with the non-human natural world, particularly animals. His feminine counterpart was the Lady of the Beasts, whom the Greeks knew as Artemis and the Romans as Diana, the protectress of witches.
In the Celtic world Pan resembles
Cernunnos, the shaman-god with deer-antlers, holding a snake and
surrounded by animals.
These maenads, and accompanying satyrs, processed and danced through the night woods in his honor, singing and shrieking in wild abandon, provoked perhaps by the ingestion of wine with hallucinogenic mushrooms. In the later classical period, the Dionysus cult was adopted and adapted into the Orphic mysteries of death and rebirth, where Dionysus symbolized the immortal soul, transcending death.4
In the European Middle Ages, Dionysus
the vegetation god reincarnates as the leaf-masked Green Man of
folklore, whose mysterious visage graces many Gothic churches.5
The conflict between Osiris and his violent and envious brother Seth reflects the ongoing clash and competition between the matricentric farming cultures along the Nile and the marauding bands of herder-warriors who lived in the harsh, arid conditions of the peripheral desert regions. On a more cosmic level, the struggle between Osiris and Seth became a metaphor for the general polarity between generation and destruction, or good and evil.
The Greek mythographer Plutarch, wrote that,
In India, one can see marked similarities and mythic parallels between Dionysus and Siva.
Alain Daniélou has argued that Siva was actually the phallic vegetation god of the pre-Aryan Dravidians of India, who was coopted by the Brahmins and turned into the ascetic god of yogis, as well as the Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), who dances the universe into being.7
Thousands of shrines containing the lingam-yoni (phallus-vulva) stone carving are found all over India, testifying to his androgynous erotic potency and the disguised persistence of the old fertility cults. During the Tantric revival, in the first few centuries of the common era, there was a resurgence of Shakti (Goddess) worship, and sensual-sexual experience in the context of sacramental ritual was acknowledged as a path to spiritual realization. Siva and Shakti in ecstatic embrace became the guiding images of Tantric yogis.
They embody the reconciliation and
mutuality of male and female energies, and the healing of the
dissociative split common in the patriarchal and ascetic traditions.
Inanna’s son-lover Dumuzi, the shepherd king, is sacrificed each year to ensure the continued fertility of the land, and reborn each year with the renewal of springtime vegetation. In Babylonian mythology, the solar warrior-god Marduk, is the leader of a rebellion against the power of the older Creatrix Mother, personified in the form of a great female dragon, Tiamat, whom Marduk slays. He first splits her in half like an oyster, the two halves becoming the sky and the sea; then comes the rest of creation- the planets, the seasons, plants, animals and humans.
Eventually, in a kind of compromise or
accommodation with the older religion, the Babylonians established a
male-dominated family or council of gods with their consorts and
children, much like the Vedic pantheon in India, the Greek Olympian
family and the Nordic-Germanic family of Aesir gods.
The gods then turn to the older Creatrix Mother Goddess Aruru, asking her to create a counterpart to Gilgamesh, one who can match his strength and contain his overbearing arrogance. The Goddess does so and Enkidu is born, who is a Wildman, covered with hair and living with the animals. Enkidu is seduced by a priestess of the goddess Ishtar, using her erotic arts. He abandons the wild life-style of running and hunting with animals and goes to the city to meet Gilgamesh. The two men first fight and then become best friends, performing numerous heroic deeds and adventures.
Enkidu the Wildman is more in touch
nature: he interprets certain dreams of Gilgamesh as warnings
against abusing and disrespecting the divinities of nature.
We find this in the myths of the
prolonged warfare and eventual peacemaking between two families of
deities, the Aesir and the Vanir. The clashing and hybridizing of
religions and worldviews between Indo-Europeans and Old Europeans is
clearly discernible here, even although the later Indo-European
layer is obviously dominant. In that sense Nordic-Germanic mythology
serves as an example of a pattern of cultural transformation that
occurred all over Europe, and the Near East, over the course of many
Presumably this reflects the conflict,
drawn out over many centuries, between the invading Indo-Germanic
tribes from the East and the aboriginal populations of Old Europe
who resisted the attempted assimilation. It seems probable that
after the Indo-Germanic people had settled in Central Europe, the
Vanir continued to be the gods of the farmers and fishermen, while
the Aesir were worshipped by the military aristocracy, who had
appropriated the land and established their domination.
The views of the French mythologist Georges Dumézil, who identified a tripartite model of divine and human functions in Indo-European cultures, are often cited as countering this view. Dumézil says that the Aesir-Vanir war myth refers to conflict between two different social classes within Indo-European society, the warriors and the farmers. But this is not really inconsistent with the Indo-European invasion theory. On the contrary, it affirms that the Germanic story fits the pattern of Indo-European conquest and subsequent assimilation of the Old European cultures.
As Mircea Eliade, the eminent historian of religion, has written,
The only term I would question here is "symbiosis", since this refers to a mutually supportive relationship between two different species.
The more appropriate ecological metaphor for the Indo-European takeover would seem to be "parasitism", in that the interests of the host (the agricultural societies of Old Europe) were subordinated to the interests of the parasite invaders (the Indo-Germanic pastoral warrior societies), at least at first. In time, of course, accommodation must have occurred as well as assimilation, so that a coherent social order developed, with hierarchically organized castes or classes.
Hybrid myths were created, with their
associated artistic and ritual forms, expressing the strengths and
values of both cultures. I like to imagine the situation as
analogous to a palimpsest, with the deeper, older strata of
religious imagery detectable in fragments, through the dominant,
There is a second group of myths of resistance and retaliation, in which the popular resistance to the Aryan take-over is expressed, what one might also call "the revenge of the goddess".
And thirdly, there is a group of myths
of compromise and reconciliation, which express the harmonizing and
accommodation that presumably was reached by the people who had
found a way to reconcile their differences.
Invasion and Domination
The cow also features prominently in Vedic mythology, and is revered in India to this day. Among Indo-Europeans and other pastoralists, cattle have always been the measure of a man’s wealth. In the cattle-raiding mythic complex, there is a hero figure (such as the Greek Heracles, the Celtic Cuchulainn) who loses his cattle to a monster, generally associated with the local non-Indo-Europeans.
The hero then re-captures the cattle, sometimes with the help of a warrior god.
According to historian J.P. Malory, the evidence,
It seems clear that the Kurgans and
other Indo-Europeans typically indulged in cattle stealing as a way
of augmenting their herds and wealth, and that this activity became
so central to them, that religious myths grew up to justify and
The high moral drama of fratricide, guilt and divine punishment obscures the underlying message. The farmer is cast in the role of villain, and the "keeper of sheep" is the innocent victim- a neat reversal of the historical facts, since it was the Hebrew herders who invaded and conquered the Canaanite farmers.
God curses Cain and punishes him by driving him out of his lands:
The invading herders expropriate the
land, driving off the indigenous farmers and then tell a story that
God ordained this fate as punishment for the farmers.
He punishes Adam for listening to his wife; and he curses the earth:
Perhaps these maledictions expresses the envious resentment that the desert nomads must have felt toward the lifestyle of comparative ease and pleasure they found in the Fertile Crescent.
The text condemns and denigrates farming and a fruit-vegetable diet. But the implied message goes further: natural, biological processes - the serpent’s closeness to the ground, the human woman’s labor of childbirth - are categorized as divine punishment. In a larger sense, the curse of Yahweh sets a fateful tone for the direction of Western civilization. From the beginnings of the patriarchal, Judaeo-Christian monotheistic take-over, man’s (Adam’s) relationship to the Earth does seem to have suffered from a curse of scarcity and antagonistism.
In the 20th century we still seem to be
suffering from the consequences of this antagonistic attitude, in
the form of massive pollution and ecological destruction. Are we not
still living with the consequences of Yahweh’s curse- a traumatic
disconnection from the nourishing and regenerative energies of the
Uniquely in the world’s creation mythologies, Yahweh creates the world and all its creatures out of his own head, by proclamation, without even the hint of any female participation. Eve, or Havah, whose name means "Mother of All Living", clearly a form of the ancient Creator Earth Goddess, is reduced to mortal status. Turning the natural order upside down, the woman is brought out of the body of the man, and is blamed for the expulsion from the garden of abundance.
The Levite priests and prophets cited in the Bible savagely attack the cult of the Canaanite Earth Goddess known as Astarte, Ashtoreth or Asherah, and encourage their followers to destroy Her shrines and groves.
The ancient initiation
ritual of the Goddess, in which eating the fruit of the tree and
communing with the serpent provided divinatory insight, is also
turned on its head: rewritten it becomes a story that prohibits
participation in the old Goddess cult, justifies the inferior status
of women, and places severe strictures and guilt on the female’s
autonomy and expression of her sexuality.
In the Sumero-Babylonian Gilgamesh myth, as already mentioned, the interweaving strands expressing conflicting ideologies can be clearly discerned. The goddess Ishtar is portrayed as fickle, petulant and vengeful. The warrior-hero Gilgamesh rejects the amorous proposition she makes to him and in a bitter tirade, accuses her of betraying, abandoning and even killing those who were her lovers before, including the lamented Tammuz. Ishtar, stung by the rejection, brings down the "Bull of Heaven", a flooding tempest of destruction.
These passages probably represent a the male hero’s complaint against the authority of the Goddess and her priestesses in the ancient cults, in which a king was first the chosen bridegroom and then replaced or sacrificed. Psychologically, it is analogous to the petulant projections of an adolescent male reacting to the uncertain affections of an autonomous female.
The character of the Goddess is
ridiculed and denigrated as promiscuous and faithless, thus
providing apparent justification for the warrior-kings’ attacks and
subjugation of the matricentric Goddess religion.
Theseus entered the maze, slew the
Minotaur, and found his way back out by means of a golden thread,
given to him by the king’s daughter Ariadne, whom he married but did
not take back to Athens. Minoan Crete revered the bull as an animal
sacred to the Goddess, staged fertility dances in a maze and
acrobatic games in which youths and maidens danced and leaped over
bulls. So the myth portrays the Minoan religious ceremonies as
perverted and monstrous, in the eyes of the Athenians, in order to
justify the invasion and take-over.
The question naturally arises, who was seen as causing or originating this war?
The story of the origins of this war is referred to in only a few tantalizingly brief and obscure passages, in an Edda poem called Völuspa, the "Visions of the Seeress".
The verses refer to a sorceress-goddess called Gullveig, one of the Vanir, whose appearance among the Aesir provokes them into trying to kill her- three times, unsuccessfully. The Vanir then fight back, and "this is how war came into the world," we are told. Gullveig’s provocation is unexplained in this ancient song of the Edda.
The story of the assault of the
Indo-European warrior aristocracy against the Old European
matricentric cultures is told with minimal justification.14
Indeed, the story of Gullveig and the war between Vanir and Aesir, referred to above, is a prime example.
The ability of the Vanir gods to hold
their own against the invading Aesir is also attested to by the
continued presence (particularly in Sweden) of shrines to the Vanir,
with figures and runic inscriptions, well into the era in which the
Aesir cult was dominant.
But the Vanir do not consider these two
individuals a worthy exchange. To indicate their displeasure they
decapitate Mimir, and send his head back to Odin. This tale has many
intriguing aspects. It clearly shows the Vanir earth-religion
holding its own against the Aesir sky-religion. The decapitation of
Mimir, the memory holder, could be seen as a metaphor for the
forgetting of evolutionary wisdom, consequent upon disrespect for
the old nature divinities.15
Uranus, whose name parallels the Vedic
pastoral god Varuna, was first Gaia’s son, and then her consort,
fathering the one-eyed Cyclopes and Titans with her. In the
historical reading of this myth we recognize Uranus as the sky-god
of the invading Aryans, consolidating their take-over by claiming
the earth goddess as wife and the nature spirits (Cyclopes and
Titans) of the indigenous people as offspring.16
This myth has echoes in several ancient
Near Eastern myths, such as that of Cybele and Attis, in which the
son-consort of the Goddess is castrated or killed; and in which
ritual self-sacrifice or self-castration was practiced by the
demented priests of that cult.
The emasculation of Uranus can be read as a metaphor for the loss of generative power, which follows upon the denial and suppression of the feminine and the spiritual energies of the natural world. In modern psychological terms, we get the imbalanced, uncreative, authoritarian men (and many women) typical of patriarchal societies. The earth goddess gives birth and health, but also disease and death to the human, natural body. When this power is not respected, the painful consequences are unavoidable.
The loss of generative and regenerative power, as seen
for example in the spread of degenerative diseases, is the price
paid by us all for the patriarchal suppression of the Goddess.
Being cut off from the regenerative and
procreative power of the Earth had led to the collapse of the
protective immune system, in many thousands of men and women. I told
this dream to an acquaintance AIDS victim, who felt it expressed a
meaningful truth about their condition.
When her human husband boasted of her prowess at the annual horse championship races in Ulster (now known as Northern Ireland), the king angrily demanded that she appear to race against his prized horses. Being pregnant, Macha was reluctant to go and consented only when the king threatened to kill her husband if she did not come. At the race, she appealed to the assembled warriors and king for a delay, since she was about to deliver - "for a mother bore each one of you". The king refused, she ran the race, won easily and immediately gave birth to twins.
At the moment of her victory, she pronounced a curse upon the men of Ulster, that,
This curse became known as the "Pangs of
the Men of Ulster".17
Is it not strange that Northern Ireland is still wracked by seemingly intractable hatred and violence?
Her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, brother of Zeus and ruler of the underworld, who had displaced Hecate, the earlier underworld goddess. In the myth Demeter searches the world in profound grief and despair. When she discovers that her daughter’s abduction had taken place with the complicity of Zeus, grief turns to rage and she unleashes drought and desolation upon the earth, threatening the survival of all life. Demeter’s rage is against the Aryan sky-gods and their aggressive disrespect for the religion of the Earth.
The revenge of the Goddess involves the
loss of fertility, barrenness and death.
The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated this whole story of assault, revenge, reconciliation and renewal in a ritual involving poetry, song, dramatic presentation and prayer.
Albert Hofmann, Gordon Wasson and Carl Ruck, in their book The Road to Eleusis, have argued that the ceremony could have included ingestion of a hallucinogenic potion derived from the ergot fungus which grows on rye, and contains LSD-like alkaloids. In this case the entire ritual would have been amplified to the ecstatic intensity of mystical experience.
Whether amplified by hallucinogens or
not, the Eleusinian Mysteries brought thousands of ancient
Greeks to a reconciliation with their pre-Hellenic, ancestral
religion and with a reverential attitude to the nourishing Mother
Éire, the ancient name for Ireland, was derived in this way from the goddess Ériu; and the town of Armagh was named after the goddess Macha. As in many Near Eastern ancient societies, the annual ritual mating of the king with the goddess of the land or her priestess ensured the fertility of the land for its people.
As Mary Condren wrote,
Nordic-Germanic mythology also has a story of reconciliation, in the long drawn-out conflict between Aesir and Vanir gods. When, after their first failed attempt at peacemaking, the rival families of gods finally decide to cease fighting, they meet, according to the myth, in a council circle around a gigantic cauldron. Each deity spits saliva into the cauldron and out of their mingled juices an incredibly wise being, named Kvasir is born.
This Kvasir is then killed by two dwarves, who mix his blood with honey and thereby create a drink that inspires both humans and gods with poetic creativity, the mead of inspiration. The name Kvasir relates to a Slavic word for fermented beverage, and the ritual of mingling saliva reflects archaic practices of inducing fermentation.
We have here, as with Eleusis, a mythic
ritual of reconciliation, probably referring to the kind of
reconciliation and accommodation that must eventually have taken
place between the Kurgan invaders and the Old Europeans.20
When we can dissolve the barriers of
separation and conflict between nations, races, religions, and the
other traditional but artificial divisions of humankind, we would
unleash an unparalleled explosion of the arts and creativity in all
areas of life - this would appear to be the message of these myths of
compromise and reconciliation.
The basic pattern is everywhere the same, whether we are talking about the bands of Kurgan pastoralists who invaded Old Europe, the Celtic warriors who invaded Britain and Ireland, the Hebrew pastoralists who invaded Canaan, the Aryan Hellenes who invaded Crete and Greece, or the Mesopotamian city-states, who may have evolved a patriarchal dominator ideology without foreign invasion.
There is much we don’t know about
pre-history, and we may never know the full story about the origins
of the patriarchy.
With the expansion of
suppression of the old pagan nature religions and the oppression of
women took a sharp upswing, culminating in
the Inquisition, in
which, according to some estimates, as many as 6 to 9 million
witches were exterminated, the majority of them pagan women. This
sustained misogynistic assault on women and paganism must be seen in
the context of thousands of years of antagonism toward the ancient
Earth Goddess, the "Mother of All the Living".
The wisdom and creativity expressed in
the myths of our ancestors can be drawn on to help us find the
connection back to a more respectful, harmonious and joyous
relationship with the natural world and all its creatures.
The cherub guarding access to the tree of life is the patriarchal myth that our alienation is God’s punishment (the so-called "Fall").
The cherub’s departure means we can return to the sacred Tree of
Life, to the regenerative nature-reverencing animism and joyous
sensitivity of our pre-patriarchal ancestors.