When Margaret Murray wrote her ground-breaking God of the Witches in 1931, scholars quickly dismissed her theory of a universal, pre-Christian cult of witches who worshipped a singular mother goddess. However, she wasn't completely off-base. Many early societies had a mother-like godform, and honored the sacred feminine with their ritual, art and legends.
Take, for instance, the ancient carvings of rounded, curved, feminine forms found in Willendorf. These icons are the symbol of something once revered. Pre-Christian cultures like the Norse and Roman societies honored the deities of women, with their shrines and temples built to honor such goddesses as Bona Dea, Cybele, Frigga, and Hella. Ultimately, that reverence for the archetype of "mother" has been carried over in modern Pagan religions. Some might argue that the Christian figure of Mary is a mother goddess as well, although many groups might disagree with that concept as being "too Pagan." Regardless, those goddesses of motherhood from ancient societies were a widely varied bunch -- some loved unwisely, some fought battles to protect their young, others fought with their offspring. Here are some of the many mother goddesses found throughout the ages.
- Asasa Ya (Ashanti): This earth mother goddess prepares to bring forth new life in the spring, and the Ashanti people honor her at the festival of Durbar, alongside Nyame, the sky god who brings rain to the fields.
- Bast (Egyptian): Bast was an Egyptian cat goddess who protected mothers and their newborn children. A woman suffering from infertility might make an offering to Bast in hopes that this would help her conceive. In later years, Bast became strongly connected with Mut, a mother goddess figure.
- Bona Dea (Roman): This fertility goddess was worshipped in a secret temple on the Aventine hill in Rome, and only women were permitted to attend her rites. A woman hoping to conceive might make a sacrifice to Bona Dea in hopes that she would become pregnant.
- Brighid (Celtic): This Celtic hearth goddess was originally a patron of poets and bards, but was also known to watch over women in childbirth, and thus evolved into a goddess of hearth and home. Today, she is honored at the February celebration of Imbolc
- Cybele (Roman): This mother goddess of Rome was at the center of a rather bloody Phrygian cult, in which eunuch priests performed mysterious rites in her honor. Her lover was Attis, and her jealousy caused him to castrate and kill himself.
- Demeter (Greek): Demeter is one of the best known goddesses of the harvest. When her daughter Persephone was kidnapped and seduced by Hades, Demeter went straight to the bowels of the Underworld to rescue her lost child. Their legend has persisted for millennia as a way of explaining the changing of the seasons and the death of the earth each fall.
- Freya (Norse): Freyja, or Freya, was a Norse goddess of abundance, fertility and war. She is still honored today by some Pagans, and is often associated with sexual freedom. Freyja could be called upon for assistance in childbirth and conception, to aid with marital problems, or to bestow fruitfulness upon the land and sea.
- Frigga (Norse): Frigga was the wife of the all-powerful Odin, and was considered a goddess of fertility and marriage within the Norse pantheon. Like many mothers, she is a peacemaker and mediator in times of strife.
- Gaia (Greek): Gaia was known as the life force from which all other beings sprang, including the earth, the sea and the mountains. A prominent figure in Greek mythology, Gaia is also honored by many Wiccans and Pagans today as the earth mother herself.
- Isis (Egyptian): In addition to being the fertile wife of Osiris, Isis is honored for her role as the mother of Horus, one of Egypt's most powerful gods. She was also the divine mother of every pharaoh of Egypt, and ultimately of Egypt itself. She assimilated with Hathor, another goddess of fertility, and is often depicted nursing her son Horus. There is a wide belief that this image served as inspiration for the classic Christian portrait of the Madonna and Child.
- Juno (Roman): In ancient Rome, Juno was the goddess who watched over women and marriage. As a goddess of domesticity, she was honored in her role as protector of the home and family.
- Mary (Christian): There is a lot of debate about whether or not Mary, the mother of Jesus, should be considered a goddess or not. However, she is included on this list because there are some people who see her as a Divine figure. For further information on this topic, you may wish to read Woman Thou Art God.
- Yemaya (West African/Yoruban): This Orisha is a goddess of the ocean, and considered the Mother of All. She is the mother of many of the other Orishas, and is honored in connection with the Virgin Mary in some forms of Santeria and Vodoun.