A Few Famous Goddesses and Heroines

art 3aphroditeAn Excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines

No encyclopedia, no matter its length, could list all the goddesses the world has known. Due to colonization and forced conversion, innumerable goddesses and their stories have been lost. But an impressive amount of information remains, although scattered in sacred texts, literary epics and drama, story collections, ethnographies, and many other works. This encyclopedia brings together thousands of such sources to offer an entry point for further research. Casual and curious readers will find the legends and myths the most compelling part of this work, but researchers will be able to trace each figure to additional writers, who in turn will provide further reference points.

All the works referenced in this book are in English. This excludes many works available in other languages, especially those of the cultures in question. In some areas, as with the former Soviet Union, little is available in translation. Were all published material in multiple languages to be included in this encyclopedia, it would be volumes longer. But the sources listed typically offer bibliographical references in the languages of cultural origin for each figure, so scholars should be able to access information where available.

Sources are not limited to scholarly ones, because much goddess material appears in literature and in children’s storybooks. The Roman poet Ovid, for instance, wrote goddess narratives that are among the classics of ancient literature. In other cultures, such literary treatments are not available in English, but the myths and legends appear as narrations for children and young adults. Where traditional religion was subjugated, goddess narratives often were sustained by becoming “old wives” tales, told orally to children and as entertainment to adults. Thus folklore as well as literature provides a source of information about ancient goddess figures.

Due to the occasional inconsistency of electronic sources, only material published in paper format has been used. Scholarly material continually becomes more readily available electronically, and many of these sources can be accessed that way. However, some materials available only on the Internet are of questionable validity and/or offer an uncritical analysis of the material. Thus Internet-only sources have been excluded.
The encyclopedia’s sections are based on geographical and cultural divisions. Each section offers an introduction describing the role of women therein. Any specific questions contemporary researchers address are also covered in these introductory sections.

Finally, modern revivals of ancient goddess religions are mentioned as well as ethical or other concerns about such revivals. Each section provides individual entries for important goddesses and heroines from that culture. Rather than full footnotes for each entry, the source of the story is noted, for which readers may refer to the bibliography.

Despite this book’s length, there is no question that some goddesses are missing. In some cases, their stories have not yet been published in English. In other cases, the narratives do not specify their names. A figure might be called “the earth goddess,” while in the same story a male divinity is given a personal name. The quest to reclaim lost goddesses is never ending, for as with the Venus of Hohle Fels Cave, information continually comes to light. Such new information can only add to the great richness of images of female potency and power offered in these pages.

Asase Yaa – This Ashanti goddess of agriculture and human fecundity appears as Asase Efua among the Fante and Akan. The two names indicate Thursday (Yaa) and Friday (Efua), the “birthdays” of the two goddesses, on which farmers allow the earth to rest. When Christianity came to western Africa, a difficulty was that this supreme divinity lives and is worshipped in plowed fields, not in heaven or in temples like the Christian divinity. Asase reclaims people at death, and everyone who works a field becomes a co-power of fertility after death. (Ephirim-Donkor; Feldmann; Manyoni; Mbon; Parringer 1967, 1970; Pobee; Radin)

Gunnlod, Ruler of Poetry – Gunnlod was the owner of a cauldron of mead that endowed anyone who drank it with eloquence. The god Odin attempted to gain poetic power through trickery, coming to the hall of Gunnlod’s father, the giant Suttungr, in disguise because the Norse gods were bitter enemies of giants. Gunnlod sat on a throne of gold, from which she dispensed mead to Odin. He seduced her and, while she was sleeping, drank all three vats of mead and shapeshifted into a bird to escape. Gunnlod’s father pursued Odin back to the land of the gods, changing himself into an eagle, but the gods saw him coming and lit fires that killed him. (Larrington)

Luna – It is unclear whether Luna was originally divine or whether she was a poetic personification elevated to divinity. Diana was often described as riding in the lunar chariot, especially after her assimilation to Greek Artemis, but Luna and her companion Sol, the sun god, appear in literature and epigrams. They were, however, not revered in cult and had no festival dedicated to them. Luna was more honored than Sol, for while they shared a temple, she had three others. (Smith)

Uti Hiata “Mother Corn” – was a significant Pawnee and Arikara divinity, born in primeval times after ducks brought silt from the bottom of the cosmic lake to build prairies and foothills. The sky father, seeing giants populating the earth, sent a flood to destroy them. After he replanted the earth with maize seeds that sprouted into human beings, he sent Uti Hiata to assist at their birth.

Finding no one on earth, Uti Hiata walked about. Thunder kidnapped her and hid her beneath the earth. There, she was helped by mole, mouse, and badger to dig through the ground. As she emerged, so did people, to whom she taught secrets of life, methods of agriculture, and religious rituals. (Dorsey 1997)

Brigit – Because of the local nature of Celtic divinities, few were honored across a wide geographical area. But there is evidence of a widely known goddess with a name or title meaning “high one.” In Britain, the Brigantes honored a goddess, Brigantia. In Gaul, we find Brigindo or Brigindu, of whom little is known except that she was invoked to encourage abundant harvests. At a thermal spring in southern France, Brixia was honored.

In Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and on the Isle of Man, Brigit appears as a central goddess. Her symbols were cattle, fire, and water; her holy day, February 1. A member of the Tuatha©Danann (see Danu), Brigit was daughter of the god of fertility, Dagda, and mother of the hero Radn, at whose death she invented keening. She appears in three related forms, as goddess of healing, smithcraft, and poetry. It is unclear whether her worshippers knew three separate goddesses named Brigit, each with her own specific domain, or whether all were one goddess.

Ritual devotion to Brigit, centered on sacred fire and holy wells, continued after the goddess was “converted” to a Christian saint. Documents suggest that a college of priestesses served Saint Brigit. Giraldus Cambrensis reported that nuns in Kildare tended an undying ashless flame, a ritual identical to that offered to Sul. Not long after Giraldus made his 1184 report, clergy dowsed the fires. In 1988, the foundation of the ancient temple was rediscovered in Kildare. Not long after, the Brigidine sisters spearheaded an international revival of interest in Saint Brigit.

Both saint and goddess are honored on February 1, the feast of Imbolc, still celebrated in Ireland. The most widespread ritual entails praying at dawn at a holy well. Pilgrims also tie small pieces of cloth to trees nearby. In Kildare, rush crosses are hung on houses to prevent fires. In County Kerry, Biddy Boys dress in white, don straw hats, and go begging; giving to them ensures a good harvest. Other traditions include crafting dolls from rushes, laying fabric outdoors for Brigit to walk upon as the sun rises, and jumping through a circle of straw. In Scotland, Imbolc was celebrated by dressing sheaves in women’s clothing and setting a wooden club beside the figure. The next morning, women looked in the ashes for an impression of Brigit’s club.

Brigit may have taken on aspects of a pre-Celtic seasonal goddess. In Scotland, stories relate how the Cailleach kept Bride imprisoned in high mountains. Her son fell in love with the girl; at winter’s end, they eloped. The hag chased them, causing storms. After she turned to stone, Bride was freed. (Bourke; Brenneman and Brenneman; Carmichael; Condren; Cunliffe; Danaher 1922; Delaney; Cambrensis; Ellis 1995; Koch; Logan 1980; MacAnna; Clancy; MacKinlay; MacNeill; O’Faol in 1985, 1999; Wavle and Burke.)

From the book Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines. Copyright © 2014 by Patricia Monaghan. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.