Earth

I’ve just finished reading The Black Madonna in Latin America and Europe: Tradition and Transformation which is not the book I was looking for, which was La Llorona’s Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands, which sold before I could remember where I saw it.

Anyway, The Black Madonna.  The book is not very good in some really not very good ways.  For one thing, the author tells you what she’s going to do in a chapter, does it, and then tells you what she did, which, as you know, is against my religion.  She also has this annoying habit of using a term a couple of times before she defines it.  These are all bad habits we might blame an editor for not beating out of her.

But then there are some factual errors, like Friday being sacred to Freyja instead of Frigg, and a heavy reliance on Barbara Walker’s stuff, which, as you know, I love, but don’t trust.

And I’m not sure that I am comfortable with her matter-of-fact statement that, before the Indo-Europeans showed up in Europe, Europe was a matrifocal, matrilineal, peaceful paradise of mother earth goddess worship.  One would be, I think, hard-pressed to back that up, though it makes an intriguing theory.

Some folks like to look at the various mythologies of Europe and try to draw conclusions from their similarities.  Like how most European creation myths seem to have a younger group of gods fighting and killing off an older group of gods (or in the case of the germanic folks, fighting and then learning to live with an older group of gods).  It makes folks wonder if this isn’t a story of the Indo-Europeans bringing their gods with them as they swept across Europe and what happened when their religion displaced the religions of the earlier peoples.

Or some speculate that these might be stories about how certain gods could travel–Like Odin, Wotan, Goten and Thuner, Thor and Frey, Ing etc. because they were not attached to the land, but that each new place had its own goddesses, tied to the earth, which is why you have Eostre one place and Holda another and Frigg a third–all earth goddesses, all slightly different, distinct goddesses.

I consider myself to be a hard-core polytheist, but I recognize that Wotan and Othinn are the same god in two languages.  I don’t, however, believe that Odin is Mercury, though I see why the Romans would have thought so.

This book is kind of shaking my ability to see these mother goddesses as anything other than fragments, hints at someone larger and older, though, and that’s what I want to talk through.  Basically, what the author is doing is mapping the ways in which attributes held by older goddesses were given to Mary so that people who wanted to continue to worship a female god could.

And so we see these things associated with Mary that are also associated with other goddesses–being called “The Queen of Heaven,” being pictured with a cloak of stars, being pictured with wings or a cloak of feathers, having a son she looses to death who is, often, reborn, being associated with water, etc. 

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand the relationship between Frigg, Freyja, and Hel.  There’s been speculation for a long time that Frigg and Freyja were actually the same goddess at some point–perhaps known as Frige.  They share a lot in common.  They both have cloaks of feathers, they have husbands with similar names (Odin and Od), both are called upon to aid childbirth; both are “daughters” of personifications of earth, both are unfaithful when their husbands vanish, and so on.  And it seems to me that Freyja and Hel share things in common, especially with their association with the dead.

It could be that they just seem similar because they are the highest ranking females in each of their tribes–Frigg is the Queen of the Aesir; Freyja is the most important female Vanir we know about; and Hel is certainly the only Juton we know of who has her own land.

It’s just when you start to look outside the pantheon and you see similar attributes attached to other goddesses, well, I begin to wonder.

I wonder, is it like an echo?

Can we imagine our holy folks standing in a great marsh calling into There and each echoing answer pieced together into a thousand lesser goddesses?

Or is it that some things are just sacred?  A bog is neither quite earth or quite water so of course a goddess might make her home there?  There are some things a male god just can’t do, like preside over childbirth, and so, of course, powerful female gods would be called on for such a purpose, right?

I keep thinking of Zora Neale Hurston–we talked about her a lot in Montreal–and her willingness to go see for herself.  Laying on a couch wearing only a sock for a week, if that’s what it took.

I think, in the end, that’s the only strategy you can use–ask your question and be open to the answer.

17 thoughts on “Earth

  1. I admit.. I do not have time to catch up on your blog right now… been kinda absent. I have to tell you – your new header image is too awesome! I love it!!!! I’ve missed the tiny cat.

  2. This book is kind of shaking my ability to see these mother goddesses as anything other than fragments, hints at someone larger and older, though, and that’s what I want to talk through. Basically, what the author is doing is mapping the ways in which attributes held by older goddesses were given to Mary so that people who wanted to continue to worship a female god could.

    OK, I haven’t read the book, but if I understand your argument, it’s that since The Black Madonna demonstrates (or at least strongly suggests) that over time the Christian view of Mary has accreted attributes of earlier goddesses, and since you see that some of the attributes she has accreted from goddesses with whom you are familiar are also attributes of goddesses with whom you aren’t familiar, you are starting to think that all (or, at least, many) of these goddesses are fragmentary versions of some European Ur-goddess rather than distinct forces within distinct religious systems.

    Is that a correct summary of what you’re saying? Because if it is, I don’t think I agree with you, but there’s no point starting an argument if I don’t actually understand what you mean.

  3. I think you’ve properly summed up my angst and confusion. I don’t think I agree with me, either. But what irritates me is the feeling that I’m on one side of a thick wall of misunderstanding and on the other side is some great revelation and I just don’t know how to find my way over there.

    To me, it means something that the same items keep showing up attached to goddesses, but I think that what my problem is is that I have a hard time letting go of the idea that God (or the gods) are what makes something sacred, since, of course, the gods made everything.

    This is clearly false.

    The gods didn’t make everything. They came into being and found some things already in place (even people). Things just ARE and have their own histories and powers that aren’t granted to them by the gods.

    So, if a distaff, for instance, is a sacred object, of course we’d see goddesses with them. Holding and wielding sacred objects would prove the nature of the woman.

    My problem has been assuming the nature of the woman proves the sacredness of the object.

  4. OK, I haven’t read the book, but if I understand your argument, it’s that since The Black Madonna demonstrates (or at least strongly suggests) that over time the Christian view of Mary has accreted attributes of earlier goddesses, and since you see that some of the attributes she has accreted from goddesses with whom you are familiar are also attributes of goddesses with whom you aren’t familiar, you are starting to think that all (or, at least, many) of these goddesses are fragmentary versions of some European Ur-goddess rather than distinct forces within distinct religious systems.

    Hunh. I actually read it more as saying that gods and goddesses fragmented and melded back together in general, as a process. You have distinct traditions and thoughts in distinct areas, and over time, people and artifacts and talk and time bring different bits of them together, and sometimes they just get glommed onto the original as new aspects/explanations, and then sometimes they make their own new thing.

    My personal additional spin would be closer to what you wrote, nm, in that I tend to believe that the divine is both singular and plural in ways that I can’t quite explain right now, and that a lot (though not all) of what we take to be separate entities are, mmm…. glimpses through the veil of history? Like there were some things that happened a long time ago that people tried to explain, and where they were and what was happening in their bit of geography and whatever culture they might have had there all influenced the way they understood what happened. And over time, those different interpretations grew and changed and continued to be molded by those factors… making real, separate religious traditions that have real historical referents, but which might not be real, separate gods all the time. I don’t really know which gods and goddesses those are, but I do think it happened like this at least a little bit.

  5. Magni, I don’t think that is my argument. (I do like the banner, though.) I just think that accretion took place before Christianity came along. Most religions are syncretistic. So I think that godesses shared characteristics with each other because they were cool characteristics (a distaff, for instance, as B expands: look! a sacred female object! this goddess must adopt it!) and also because they became signifiers of a constellation of other attributes (that goddess, the patroness of childbirth, is associated with a distaff, so my own particular female patroness of childbirth should have a distaff, too). Similarly, Odin and Mercury started out as separate gods with separate attributes and areas of expertise, but once people started to associate them and see some similarities between them, I’m sure that some attributes of each started migrating to the other.

    But mostly, I think that the mother goddesses of innumerable pantheons had radically different religious functions than the virgin goddesses of those same pantheons. (I don’t know whether Germanic religion had a virgin goddess at all.) I mean, you can find similarities between the worship of Hera and Freyja (and, in fact, in the worship of Hera, Hestia, Aphrodite, even Hecate), but you sure can’t get the worship of Artemis to fit in there. I’m not even sure, actually, that you can find accretions from the cult of Artemis in the cult of Mary, despite the virginity. In fact, Artemis seems to share characteristics with (early) male saints in Christian thought. And while I guess one can make some Magna Mater/Sophia connections, I think that some Apollo/Sophia connections are just as clear. And where does the Shekhina fit in?

    So, while I’m happy (obviously) to accept the existence of a single male/female divinity whose functions/attributes can be divided up among pantheons by those of a polytheistic or pantheistic bent, I have a lot of trouble thinking that there used to be a single female sacred figure (or a single male sacred figure) whose functions/attributes got divided up along gender lines.

  6. Magni, I don’t think that is my argument. (I do like the banner, though.) I just think that accretion took place before Christianity came along. Most religions are syncretistic.

    Oh! I should have been more clear. I didn’t mean that was your argument, I meant that my personal spin on the argument was closer to the argument you thought you might be reading from Aunt B, which wasn’t what I think she was saying but with which I kind of agree, a little.

    I don’t think there was one female sacred figure, or one male sacred figure, or even a male/female central thingy that eventually divided itself up after a while. I think that there’s history, in which a lot of cool and kind of inexplicable stuff happened, and The Divine, which is… gods and goddesses and spirits and everything else, permeating/shaping/driving bits and pieces of that.

    And I call most of that God, and I think that as far as my religious texts go, they’re close to being right for the observers and the events in question. I just don’t think that’s all there is, which I’m pretty sure is one of those heretical beliefs for which one gets kicked out of the church. I think that other people observed different events (or the same events from radically different positions), and picked up different aspects of the Divine to worship, and that those bits more or less fit for their observers and observed things.

    I just mostly haven’t worked out the details in my own head… and I don’t really mind. I probably should, but I don’t.

  7. I think that there are two things that stand in the way of any type of virgin goddess in the Germanic religions. One is that there’s a matter-of-fact attitude towards women’s desire (that we have it, act on it, and have no reason to be ashamed of it) and the other is that being a wife is an incredibly powerful position. When Norse couples got married, the man gave the woman his house keys and she conducted the household’s business, especially while he was away.

    The idea of an important woman not desiring men and not marrying would just be ludicrous.

    Now, whether she would stay married…. We do see a number of germanic goddesses who seem to no longer be attached to men, but there’s not, I don’t think, the same emphasis put on their singledom as there is on virginity among goddesses farther south.

  8. Well, then, we kind of do get back to the questions I have no answers to. Are Holda and Bertcha different names for the same goddess? The Grimms thought so, since they have such similar attributes and one’s worship leaves off where another one’s picks up. And, more importantly, to answer your question, are they Frigg by another name?

    I like the idea that the Hunt would be lead by Odin sometimes and his wife others. It makes me think they’re well-matched.

    In any case, if Holda and Bertcha are Frigg then, no, not a virgin.

  9. Ah, then there’s a huge difference from Artemis right there. Not that the Greeks had an exact equivalent of the Wild Hunt, but the pieces of it they had (hunting, the dead, wild animals) are associated with her.

    And, BTW, what a lovely insight into the lack of Germanic virgin goddesses. I’m very well aware of the high status of Germanic women (the Romans just horrified them utterly) but hadn’t connected it to religion before.

  10. Adding to the confusion is that it’s quite possible that “Frigg” and “Freyja” are not names, but titles (“Beloved” and “Lady”). We see some evidence of this with Frey (which means “Lord”), whose name seems to be Ing or Yngvey.

    Also, there’s reason to believe that the woman called Heid (bright) or Gullveig (gold drink or probably, gold might) in the Voluspa is Freyja (especially when you consider Freyja’s association with treasures).

    I kind of like that, just because I like goddesses in sets of threes and I’m convinced that Freyja, Frigg, and Hel make an interesting set of three. So, you’d have the Lady Heid (Bright) and the Beloved who is known as Perchta or Berchta (bright or light) in some areas and Holda (covering, or a “hull” literally) and Hel, who’s name also means to hide or cover.

  11. NM, I, of course, don’t mean to suggest that Germanic women had some kind of feminist utopia or anything, of course, but marriage was such an obvious and easy route to power and social standing that I just can’t imagine emphasizing virginity as a life-long choice. There are good reasons why women farther south might have dreamed of having the option not to marry, but I don’t see the same kinds of social pressures on women up north. Marriage, for them, to oversimplify things, wasn’t the loss of a public position; it was the gaining of one.

    And one of the interesting things we see with Frigg is that there’s still some sense that the ruler of Asgard is her husband, regardless of who her husband is, so when Odin disappears, she marries his brothers in his absence so that Asgard is not without a ruler.

  12. No, not even the Egyptians had a feminist utopia, though they had the best deal going for women around the ancient Mediterranean. But women had it worse under the Greeks and Romans than in many of the surrounding cultures. And when customary law replaced codified law in parts of what had been the Roman Empire, the status of women improved (only to be disimproved all over again with the ‘rediscovery’ of Roman Law in the 12th century).

    B, it’s so cool that you know all this stuff about the different Germanic goddesses. When I get around to leaving a comment at Bridgett’s about Night Battles, you are going to have to critique Ginzberg’s ideas about central European religious substrata.

  13. Cool. Northern women need men to keep the country warm. They can’t just sit and hibernate till their leader returns. Never knowing when he is out on long missions whether he is still alive. Marry the brothers. My grandma died and my grandad married her sister who came over during the war to take care of the family.
    Best to stay close to the castle and let others do the bidding or the children to fight a war, meaning you have to wait for them to grow up until you get into battle or let the relatives fight for you. Shapes a non Ottoman approach to family and a non-Sicilian feudality. What seperates the Guelphs from the Gibbelines perhaps?

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