The goddess cult in relation to gender equality  – The dynamic process of cultural transition from the One-ness to the many female divinities under patriarchal pressure.

Grande Madre - ill di A. de Nardis

The goddess cult in relation to gender equality  – The dynamic process of cultural transition from the One-ness to the many female divinities under patriarchal pressure.
Harald Haarmann  &  Maya Vassallo

The cult of a powerful Goddess is known from many regions of antiquity, in the wide range of regional cultures in the Eurasian world, in Anatolia, in the Middle East, in the Near East and in ancient India. In the Eurasian cultures of the northern hemisphere, the figure of a primordial goddess was known. She was venerated as the creatrix since she transformed into a water-bird and from her egg sprang all the things of the world. She is still present in the mythological tradition of Greek antiquity, under the name Eurynome. In the mythology of the Saami people in the far north of Europe, Mother Sun plays the role of the creatrix, creating the world. Her ‘sibling’, so to speak, is the Sun Goddess Amaterasu in ancient Japan who held a prime position among other divinities in people’s spiritual life.

The Mother of Nature and of all life forms was venerated in Eurasian cultures, in Anatolia she was Great Cybele and in the Near East Artemis and Aphrodite whom people worshipped. In Mesopotamia, Inanna was the primordial Goddess who transformed into the mighty Ishtar. The figure of the Mother Goddess was popular in ancient Egypt. This was Isis, mother of the Horus child. In ancient India, the black Kali dominated religious life and worldview in an era prior to the immigration of Indo-Europeans. The black Kali has been continuously worshipped to this day, and her main shrine is at Calcutta in eastern India.

In many regional cultures, the Goddess cult was associated with gender equality in social relations, at a time when people were still conscious of the gifts of Mother Nature and they lived in respect and harmony with their natural environment. The first thoroughly studied and documented case of such living-conditions, with relations among human beings, men and women on equal footing, and nature in a balance, is known from the ancient community at Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia, dating to an era between 7500 to 5600 BCE. The Great Goddess of Çatalhöyük was associated with the bear, and such an association is also characteristic for Artemis in later periods. The presence of a Great Goddess of Nature in correlation with gender equality in social relations has been reconstructed for the realm of Old Europe (the Danube civilization, respectively; 6000-3000 BCE) and for the ancient Indus civilization (Harappan civilization; 2600-1700 BCE). In the region south of the Black Sea, such conditions are also known from the Halaf culture (5500-4500 BCE) in the pre-Sumerian era.

Previously stable conditions of Goddess worship and gender equality changed when pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe zone started migrating (since about 3100 BCE), into the area of Old Europe in southeastern Europe and westward into central Europe. A similar movement of pastoralists occurred in the Middle East when Akkadians left the desert and took over the Sumerian city states, in the course of the third millennium BCE. They brought with them mighty male gods such as Marduk which is well known from Babylonian history. And yet, wherever pastoralists usurped state power they did not succeed in subduing the local Goddesses, neither in Europe nor in Asia.

The Great Goddess of Old Europe was not abandoned. On the contrary, her genealogy continued since her cult was transformed from the One into the many. The powerful Goddesses of Greek antiquity, Athena, Hera, Hestia, Themis and others, are the ‘daughters’ of the Great Goddess. The ancient Goddesses in Anatolia and the Middle East were not abandoned either. Cybele was transferred to Italy by the Romans where her cult continued as the Magna Mater (“Great Mother”). St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City – Rome was built in the vicinity of the former temple of Cybele.

Artemis was not abandoned but she experienced a split of personality in Greek antiquity. In the canon of Greek divinities, there were two figures of Artemis, so to speak ‘twins’, each with individual functions. There was the mighty Goddess with her most famous temple at Ephesus, and there was Artemis, the Goddess of wildlife, worshipped as the mistress of animals in natural environment. Also Aphrodite and her cult persisted, since her character and functions were so overall influential. This Goddess has been characterized as “an immensely influential Goddess whose realm is the entire Cosmos” (una “Dea immensa, il cui regno è l’intero Cosmo”, secondo Vassallo Di Florio 2022: 22). The figure of Aphrodite was assimilated by the Greeks into their pantheon of divinities, attributing to Aphrodite the functions of a Goddess of love, so well-known from Greek mythology.

And yet, while the Goddesses managed to secure their place in the competition with male gods, gender equality disintegrated under the overlay of the newly introduced patriarchal order, accompanied by social hierarchy. Under such pressure, social relations entered a stage of tension, with men’s and women’s roles totally out of balance. This change from gender equality to gender imbalance occurred in Greek antiquity, in Anatolia as well as in the Near East.

The balance that once existed in the correlation of goddess cult and gender equality, creating stable conditions for people to live in harmony with nature and to breathe in the rhythm of the vegetation cycle, deteriorated under the pressure of patriarchal social hierarchy and the devastating exploitation of natural resources for economic profit-making. The continuity of the Goddess cult on the one hand and the destabilization of gender equality on the other hand, this marked contrast in cultural evolution, is puzzling and raising many questions, and it has been challenging scientific explanation for years. So far however, no satisfying hypothesis has been offered by scholars how to identify the multiple driving-forces of this contrasting development. It has become obvious that progress in this field of study has to rely on the coordination of interdisciplinary research, to open new perspectives for the investigation.

It is essential for us to explore the factors that caused the imbalance and led to the alienation of human beings from the natural rhythm of life. We have to learn the lessons that history offers us and we are called to make use of these important insights for regaining access to the natural energy flow. This is the way to (re)activate our cooperative spirit that offers stability for our world, present and future.

It is the intention of two representatives of international cultural institutions to join forces for carrying out a project on this significant topic, in order to contribute creating a healthier and more balanced world of peace and cooperation.
One is Maya Vassallo Di Florio, founder of the Rome Goddess Temple in Italy and of the Aphroditic Philosophy and Spirituality. The other is Harald Haarmann, director of the European Branch of the Institute of Archaeomythology, with location in Finland. They are coordinating their resources and networks to enhance interdisciplinary efforts in this domain.