The Great Goddess, Devouring Feminine & Nature


Venus, Ceres & Juno, Raphael Sanzio (1483 - 1520), Italian

"The machine he would make her, he became." - "The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of Imagination", Patrick Harpur


One of the most important distinctions in anthropology is that of culture and nature. This dualism in the West, it can be said, is a continuation from the general cultural attitude, influenced by religion and philosophy, of understanding things as pairs and often separate from one another. This is not exclusive to Western philosophies, of course, as most cultures, do recognise the dualism in one form or the other. Human mind is such that it knows a thing by its opposite - it knows cold, because it knows hot, sweet because it knows bitter,light, because is knows dark. Without a reference point, it is hard for the human mind conceptualise anything. However, some cultures, see the duality in a different light. In his lecture "Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World", Claude Lévi - Strauss, the great anthropologist who has devoted a significant amount of his work to studying so called primitive cultures, says: "The idea many of these societies have of the relation between nature and culture also explains why they resist development. Development requires that culture take precedence over nature. This priority granted to culture is almost never allowed as such except in industrial civilizations, though all societies undoubtedly recognize that a separation exists between the two realms. No society, however humble it may be, fails to grant a preeminent value to the arts of civilization — the cooking of food, pottery, weaving — by which the human condition moves away from the condition of animals. Nevertheless, among so-called primitive peoples, the notion of nature is always ambiguous: nature is preculture, and it is also subculture; but it constitutes the domain in which human beings hope to meet ancestors, spirits, the gods. The notion of nature thus includes a “supernatural” component, and that supernature is as far above culture as nature is beneath it."


As Strauss explains, for some cultures, nature is at the same time, something separate from culture, but at the same time, these people often see nature as having its own culture, or as being culture of its own in which human culture just follows the greater cosmic, natural law. That is what Strauss means by saying that they see nature as "subculture". Another thing that can also be noticed is that nature is often understood as feminine, as a mother. Many cultures have Father Sky and Mother Earth. Nature is given a feminine attribute because humans, almost universally, have noticed certain common patterns between the female as a member of a specific sex, and the nature. Fertility, creativity, expansion, cycles, receptivity are all the things human associated both with female sex and with nature. Strauss says: "Destitute indigenous communities in North America and Australia long refused — and still refuse in some cases — to cede territories in exchange for sometimes enormous compensation because, in the words of the interested parties themselves, they view the ancestral soil as a “mother.” Pushing that reasoning even further, the Menomini Indians of the Great Lakes region of North America, though perfectly well versed in the agricultural techniques of their Iroquois neighbors, refused to apply them to the production of wild rice — the staple of their diet, which is in fact very suitable for cultivation — because they were forbidden to “wound their mother the earth.


We clearly see from here that reverence of earth as a mother, as a living thing. However, when the feminine is brought in connection with nature, it is also brought in connection with its destructive aspect. Nature is not only fertile and creative, it is also destructive. Its wrath could destroy strongest of the human structures and bring whole societies to great suffering. Eco feminists then, have claimed that between the subordination of nature and women, exists a correlation. Women were, acording to them, seen as having the wild, chaotic essence, resembling their mother Eve or their grandmother Lilith, that ought to be controlled, fixed and domesticated. Nature is, they say, treated in the same fashion.

Devouring Feminine

Fresco from Castello di Torrechiara, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

"He (Darwin) thinks of it (Nature) as creative power and source of all forms of life - "through her prodigious fertility, her powers of spontaneous variation, and her powers of selection, she could do everything God did". In other words, Darwin imagines Nature a sort of Goddess. (...) The disparity between his initial ecstasy and professional duty begin to tell. His journal changes tone. (...) It is a decisive moment - the moment Darwin gets up to embrace Nature in all her wholeness, wonder and fecundity; and, from fear of "chaos", begins to armour himself against her with labeling and facts. This is we recall the trouble with Mother Nature. She is not the fixed entity that scientsts, who view her through literalistic spectacles, would have us believe. She is the sea of metaphors which reflect back at us the face we show her. We characterize her by whatever perspective we look at her through - as an implacable enemy, for instance or as a ast harmonious rhythm; as a wild creature that must be tamed, or a nymph that must be left unspoilt, or a wild animal, red in tooth and claw. As Darwin quails in face of dizzying Nature, and fends her off, so she comes back at him hostile and sickening." - "The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of Imagination", Patrick Harpur


The excerpt above describes well the attributes associated with nature, and the feminine and how people, often react to it. As said earlier, both nature and the feminine (as a metaphysical concept) are seen as receptive, expansive, wild and seemingly chaotic. It seems chaotic because one tries to understand the harmony or the order within water with the order and harmony established on a clock, or in some hard, natural science. And while it can be measured, water is still something that can both nourish and destroy. It heals the wound, but it also creates wounds on one's hands. Life is not possible without it, yet it also destroys life. In a Hindu story, the goddess Ganga, personification of the river, when coming down to earth, threatened to create a big flood and consume everything within herself, that is when, the god Shiva, comes and gives her space within which she can flow and be free in her flow without causing damage. Her ability to both consume within herself (receptive quality) and to expand without limitations (expansive quality are connected) - in female sex, we can see a similar pattern, for a woman to receive a man in order to engage in a sexual act, her body must expand, in order to receive a baby, that shall grow, once again, she must expand.


This quality of hers, to receive and consume everything within herself, is what Jungians often refer to as the devouring feminine, and they also describe it as something masculine ego fears. In Jungian psychology, both men and women have feminine and masculine aspects of their psyche - one being conscious, the other subconscious. The path of getting out of shadow is to make subconscious, conscious. Very often we may hear men who stay away from long term relationships, not because they are against them per se, or dislike women, but because they fear a woman consuming his life - that she may, slowly, without him noticing, assert an influence, even a subtle dominance over his mind and actions and that he may lose himself in that. We see this very often expressed in the famous paintings of sirens, mermaids and fishermen or other men, who, almost in a slumber, are taken down into the dark, watery depths. In almost every culture, there are also female water spirits who, after seducing men, bring them down into the darkness of the deep water. Him, unable to understand rationally or using pure reason why or what is happening, tries to avoid being "in her territory" where his rules of linear, clear thinking do not apply. At the same time, he finds it hard to resist because the promise of "self-oblivion", which often happens in the feminine, watery world of non-differentiation, is seductive. We all search for at least, temporary freedom from our egos, and when its loss is accompanied by sweetness or pleasure, we want it even more.

"The Fisherman and the Siren", Frederic Leighton (1830 - 1896), English

When Darwin, in his journal, goes from a mystical veneration of nature, of seeing her as sort of Goddess, to completely being consumed by the need to demysify it, measure it and control it, and mad that it often seems impossible, he is seeing the receptive, mirroring quality of nature. When he was young, of poetic mind, the nature revealed herself to him as this beautiful, creative Goddess, an image of abundance, never ending creating and fertility, as his scientific mind took over and the urge to measure, clearly define, he sees her as a wild, destructive, even cruel power: "My mind has become a kind of machine for grinding laws out of large collection of facts. Poor Charles, a good and kindly man, has spent life denying Nature her soul, ad as a result has lost his own; the machine he would make her, he became." - The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of Imagination", Patrick Harpur

The Great Goddess

Guanyin on a Qilin, symbolising fertility and a wholly vegetarian creature dedicated strongly to avoiding harm, though will punish the wicked.

Anthropologists, Jungians, metaphysicians, theologians and many others all share or have shared interest in what could be described as divine feminine. Indeed, the term has been appropriated by the New Age, but the idea itself is much older than them. We see a certain image of this throughout religions - including Abrahamic religions in forms of Shekhinah, Sophia, Fatima, Mary and others. The feminine aspect of divine is often understood as the intimate, close, compassionate, merciful, fertile and creative power of divine - for example, Muslim Sufis to who this aspect of God is much closer than the aspect of God as a majestic King, often draw a feminine image surrounding it.


Anthropologists and Jungians research this phenomenon from a secular, non-religious perspective. Jungians see in it, the collective feminine, the primordial Mother. Among the living, authentic goddess traditions, we find Shakta tradition in India, which still venerates the goddess. This tradition sees the primordial feminine energy, called, Adi Parashakti as the source of everything, she is the ultimate Brahman, from her emerge, Shiva and Shakti, Shiva representing pure consciousness and Shakti being im in manifestation. Shakti, then, becomes everything in the manifest world too - she is the illusion and freedom from illusion, she is the creator and destroyer. The goddesses mentioned in Shakta tradition and the veneration of some of the goddesses, as well as some practices, are believed to even have pre-Vedic roots. As being mainly Tantric tradition, it is usually not what a more orthodox Vedic path would speak of. In the ancient Greek story of Eurynome, we see a similar story - the Titaness creates the whole universe with her dance, Ananke, another goddess, is seen as Divine necessity though which world came to be. The marriage between Ananke (Necessity) and Chronos (Time) was seen as emergence of cosmos from chaos. Many anthropologists who have studied cultures, believe that in the earliest human traditions and religions, there existed a strong veneration of the Mother. We see very ancient and prehistoric statues and figurines of fertility. The veneration and connection to nature, is believed to be what made these venerate the Great Mother. They also claim, that, with the development of agriculture, that the goddess worship became once again prevalent. For the reasons mentioned earlier, agriculture and the feminine were often brought in connection. Ancient Greeks, saw their agriculture goddess, Demeter as not just fertility, but as "law bringer". She is the Thesmophoros, the Divine Law, and she is the one who brings it. Agriculture was seen as the start of civilisation and civilised existence - agricultural revolution is seen by anthropologists as a major step in history of humanity. Although it did bring diet that was not as rich in nutrients, agriculture allowed humans to settle, trade and store goods. Permanent settlement allowed them to build the big cities and civilisations.


Goddesses, however, did not just preside over agriculture. If we look at goddesses such as Aphrodite Areia, Athena, ancient Mesopotamian goddesses, pre-Islamic Arab goddess, Al-Lat, Hindu matrikas, Durga, or Kali, we see them associated with war and warriors, often worshiped before battles. A sacrifice was also given to them before the war. Very often the more primordial aspect of feminine is denied in what culture often defines as feminine, but the ancient traditions and perspective offer a wider definition of it.


How we relate to the irrational, to the non-linear, to the intuitive rather than logical, often reveals, how we relate to this Great Goddess, both as a metaphysical principle and as a psychological principle, within each individual. The urge to constantly define, measure and put everything under a microscope, while useful, can make us mechanical beings who do not see themselves having anything else but cognitive functions - it marks an inability to see, with, what Sufis call "the eye of the heart" and dharmic religions describe as the third eye. To open the feminine, to relate to her as a Thou/Being and not It/Object, is to begin to see our own higher self in her receptivity. To finish, I will quote feminine attributes of Divine in Ibn Arabi's and Jandi's commentary on the Hadith: "Three things were made dear to me: women, perfume and the delight of my eye - prayer". Featuered in Professor Sachiko Murata's "The Tao of Islam": "Do you not see how God says, "[Fear your Lord, who created yon from a single soul,] and from her He created her spouse, and from the two of them scattered forth many men and women" [4:1]? "Women" are feminine, while the "soul" from which creation took place is also feminine. In the same way, the root of the roots, beyond which there is no beyond, is called the "Reality" [which is feminine]....


The same is true of "Entity" and "Essence"all these words are feminine. By making the feminine dominate over the masculine the Prophet wanted to point to the state of women: They embrace the meaning of being the mot from which things branch off. The same is true of Nature, or rather, of the Reality. Although the Reality is the father of all things because She is the Absolute Agent, She is also a mother. She brings together activity and the reception of activity. Hence She is identical with the locus of receiving activity in the form of that locus, and She is identical with the agent in the form of the agent. Her own reality demands that She bring together entification and nonentification. Hence She becomes entified through every male or female entification, just as She is incomparable with every entification." - "The Tao of Islam", Sachiko Murata

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"The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of Imagination", Patrick Harpur

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