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European Mother Goddesses

Carolyn Emerick writes about the history, myth, and folklore of Northwestern Europe.

Mother and child by Gustav Klimt

Mother and child by Gustav Klimt

Loss of the Divine Female

Mother goddesses were once very important in human religious practice. Polytheistic traditions venerated pantheons of male and female deities who had different roles to play within the intricate workings of cosmology.

In some societies, the feminine aspect of spirituality has been eroded in favor of a singular male representation of the divine. This is especially true of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, the divine feminine lived on in other major world religions, such as Hinduism. Additionally, indigenous beliefs that had been attacked and eroded to the point of annihilation are being reborn and reconstructed today.

Julia; frontispiece of a 1922 New York publication of Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington

Julia; frontispiece of a 1922 New York publication of Gentle Julia, by Booth Tarkington

Gaia, Mother Earth

Primitive humans understood a connection between the fertility of the Earth and the fertility of women. So, in many cultures, the Earth was connected with the feminine, and powerful female deities were honored to elicit their nurturing and fertile influence. These are the Earth mother goddesses.

Perhaps the most well known Earth mother goddess is Gaia. In the Greek tradition, Gaia was considered the ultimate mother; the Earth, the great mother of everything. Many polytheistic cosmologies include primordial deities who are involved with the creation of the world. The later gods, the ones who feature in the bulk of the respective mythology, often descend from these predecessors.

And so it is in Greek mythology. Gaia's coupling with the sky god Uranus spawned the entire Universe and everything within it. Because she is the mother of the Earth, she is also considered Earth personified. Gaia is both mother to Earth and Earth itself.

Practitioners of Hellenism, a reconstruction of ancient Greek polytheism, honor Gaia, as well as the rest of the Greek pantheon, today. Gaia is also worshiped by other groups such as Wiccans and in various other forms of neo-paganism.

Madonna of the Lillies by Alphonse Mucha, 1905

Madonna of the Lillies by Alphonse Mucha, 1905

Nerthus, German Fertility Goddess

Nerthus is a fertility mother goddess known to the Germanic people on the continent. The branch of Germanic mythology that most people are familiar with is the Norse. This is due to the fact that other groups of Germanic people were converted centuries earlier.

In many cases, the indigenous beliefs were repressed by force, so their traditions did not survive in great detail. Norse mythology had the great luck to survive into the new millennium in Iceland, and to be written down on paper. Other branches of Germanic mythology were not so fortunate. Much of what we know about them comes from Roman historians, such as Tacitus.

Tacitus reported what he observed concerning the veneration of Nerthus. He said that many German tribes:

are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believes that she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples.

There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with cloth, where the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle.

There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she designs to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple.

Afterwards the chariot, the cloth, and, if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake. The slaves who perform this office are immediately swallowed up in the same lake. Hence arises dread of the mysterious, and piety, which keeps them ignorant of what only those about to perish may see.

Goddesses by Alphonse Mucha

Goddesses by Alphonse Mucha

The Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane

The Masque of the Four Seasons by Walter Crane

Nerthus and her procession represent peace and prosperity. She is associated with fertility and abundance.

Her name is cognate with the later Norse god Njord. There are differing theories regarding the relationship between these two deities. Some scholars believe that Nerthus became Njord in a transformation over the course of time and distance. Others believe they may have once been a brother/sister duo, not unlike the twins Freyr and Freyja.

The Norse Njord is affiliated with the Vanir faction of deities, which are the gods most associated with the Earth and fertility. It is therefore thought that Nerthus is likely to possess that affiliation as well.

Tacitus equated Nerthus with the Roman mother Earth, Terra Mater. This has led some to wonder if Nerthus is related to another obscure Norse goddess, Jord. Jord is briefly mentioned as being Thor's mother, and her name means "Earth."

Nerthus is worshiped today by reconstructionists of indigenous Germanic religion, often referred to as "Heathens."

"Water Serpents" by Gustav Klimt

"Water Serpents" by Gustav Klimt

By Alphonse Mucha

By Alphonse Mucha

Danu, Mother of the Irish Pantheon

In Irish mythology, Danu is an important mother goddess in two different ways. She is sometimes associated with the land, making her an Earth mother goddess. However, she is most often recognized as the deity from which the Tuatha Dé Danann descend; making her the mother of an otherworldly nation.

The Tuatha Dé Danann are a race of supernatural beings in Irish mythology. They were the main focus of religious veneration in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity. The name "Tuatha Dé Danann" means "the tribe of Danu." Danu is considered to be the mythic mother god within the Irish tradition. She is also related to the Welsh mother figure, Dôn, featured in the Mabinogion.

Today, Danu is honored by Celtic reconstructionists, modern Druids, Wiccans, and other forms of neo-pagans.

Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman, 1909

Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman, 1909

By Alphonse Mucha

By Alphonse Mucha

Frigga, Domestic Goddess and Wife of Odin

Many people know Frigga from Norse Mythology, or the recent Thor films, where she is best known as Odin's wife. However, there is a lot more to Frigga than a mythical housewife. Like most deities in polytheistic belief systems, Frigga is multifaceted with many attributes.

Frigga is the mother of Baldr, whose myth is very well known among fans of Norse Mythology. She is also step-mother to many other gods, including the mighty Thor, Heimdall, guardian of the gates of Asgard, and Tyr, the god who sacrificed his hand to the wolf Fenrir.

Frigga is categorized as a "domestic goddess," meaning goddess of the hearth and home. These are deities associated with the home sphere. As such, she is often sacred to married women and called upon to aid in household chores and maintaining a smoothly running household. Frigga is also called upon to aid in childbirth.

Her symbols are the spinning wheel and distaff, which demonstrate her link to women's work and domestic activities. Frigga's name means love, or "beloved one" and the planet Venus was known to the Norse as Friggjarstjarna, Frigg's star.

Frigga is honored today by followers of Asatru (and other forms of reconstructed Germanic religion), which is a modern adaption of old Norse indigenous religion.

Vintage postcard in the Art Nouveau style, circa 1903

Vintage postcard in the Art Nouveau style, circa 1903

© 2014 Carolyn Emerick

Comments

Mark Miller on August 13, 2015:

Hi Carolyn. Good article. I lament the loss of the female aspect of the divine in the Abrahamic religions. I didn't even know there were religions in Germany other than Norse.

Maurice Glaude from Mobile, AL on August 05, 2015:

I've always believe there was a Mother God even as a child growing up in a Catholic house hold. Yes true we did have Mary mother of Jesus but I've always felt God as female knowing there were both a divine feminine and divine masculine.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 29, 2015:

Carolyn, I enjoy these hubs of yours in myths and fairies. This was real interesting to know about other mother goddesses besides Gaia. Voted up for interesting!

Russ Inserra from Indianapolis, In on November 24, 2014:

Love your articles.

Carolyn Emerick (author) on November 23, 2014:

Thank you wemarriage! I really appreciate that :D

Bridget Robertson on November 23, 2014:

Once again a great article Carolyn. I shared it everywhere.

luis on August 10, 2014:

Hail Gaia...

Buildreps from Europe on July 13, 2014:

Interesting article, Carolyn. Also interesting to see that only women seem to comment in this section. It almost seems like men have no idea what to say about this issue.

I think everything is spirited around us, Humans of course, but also trees and stones down to every single atom. Planet Earth or Gaia is also a living thing, that has her own soul. People have the tendency to believe earth is feminine because it gives birth to all life and people seem to have difficulties to believe something is genderless when it is believed to be alive. Perhaps the embodiment of the soul can present male or female form or shape, but I think the soul itself is 'genderless'.

I saw in your former comment you're interested in Gnosticism. For anyone who is interested in Gnosticism I saved on my Mediafire some documents:

http://www.mediafire.com/view/6ecbg4n7yxiy7mp/Nag_...

http://www.mediafire.com/view/4declcj3052rc7p/The_...

Especially the Gospel of John describes the secrets of creation by Sophia (wisdom and female). I could write much more how these passages are generally misunderstood, but it helps to cross reference the Gospel of John with the Emerald Tablets of Thoth. The similarities are striking and sky rockets the understanding of both works. That ancient religions worshipped many god's, must have its origin in these narrations.

Hopefully I contributed something meaningful to your article. All the best.

Carole Lane on July 10, 2014:

Fascinating reading and beautifully presented.

Lindsey N from Western New York on May 28, 2014:

Have you ever spoken in Buffalo?

Audrey Howitt from California on May 28, 2014:

I also relate to Danu--I was happy to find this post tonight

Carolyn Emerick (author) on May 21, 2014:

Hi Lindsey, I get the feeling that we are interested in similar things but coming from different angles. You seem into the New Age approach which is shared by people like the Spirit Science guys. I'm more into a historical/folklore approach. But it's interesting because even though my background and view of it is different, I still agree that there is a huge resurgence of interest in female deity, Earth centered spirituality, etc. It seems as if male-dominated religion has left a lot of people unsatisfied and they want a faith that incorporates both male AND female, plus a little Earth luvin' on the side ;-)

I've read up on Elohim but not deeply. I've been reading about Asherah, his former consort in the days before Judaism. And I've been interested in the early days of the Christian church, in the first century right after Christ died, especially the Gnostics. But European mythology from the early middle ages is what I spend most of my time with :-)

jprzew on May 21, 2014:

super :-)

Lindsey N from Western New York on May 21, 2014:

I really enjoyed this. I honor Gaia and the interconnected Oneness of all things. The Goddess energy is RISING. We are coming into a greater time of peace, nurturing, love, and prosperity. This is all due to the Divine Goddess Energy coming back into it's rightful place.

The best thing about Goddess Energy is if it's balanced an honored it doesn't make Male or God energy less, it enhances it as it works together in perfect balance. However, the God energy, has a prepensity to be insecure around this Goddess energy.

Have you researched the Elohim?

Carolyn Emerick (author) on May 19, 2014:

@ jprzew and @Poswist this was a short overview that only featured four goddesses not a comprehensive encyclopedic work covering ALL of them. I am very interested in Slavic myth, and also Baltic myth. It's harder to find good into on those cultures in English other than from Wikipedia, though. I will write on them in the future, but I need to locate some reliable sources.

Poswist on May 18, 2014:

+ Slavic goddesses: Marzana, Dzidzileli - Leli / Lela, Dziewanna ?

jprzew on May 18, 2014:

+ Slavic goddesses Mokosh, Živa ?

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 13, 2014:

Thanks for such an informative and enjoyable hub, Carolyn. I had heard of these goddesses before, excerpt for Nerthus, but you taught me much more about them! The concept of a mother goddess is very interesting.

Carolyn Emerick (author) on May 12, 2014:

Hi Sage, thank you! I'm more into Northern and Central European mythology so I hadn't read up much on Gaia before. It was fun to learn about her. And yes, the Romans were known for looking at someone else's god and assigning it an equivalent to theirs. They were a little self-absorbed, lol.

Suzette, thank you for reading :-) Yep, Northern Europe is my main area of interest so I write about it often. It was ignored for years while Western education focused on Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth, but it has been making a huge comeback!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on May 12, 2014:

Carolyn: This is a fascinating hub. I did not know of these Celtic women gods and it is so interesting and informative to learn about them. I am not that familiar with northern European mythology and so this article has sparked my interest. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

Mackenzie Sage Wright on May 12, 2014:

Beautifully done Carolyn! I've always had a strong connection to Gaia myself. I was unaware that Tacitus wrote about Nerthus; I think it was getting common at the time to begin to look for Greco/Roman counterparts to all the Gods and Goddesses of various Pagan cultures so that's interesting. Great hub.

Carolyn Emerick (author) on May 11, 2014:

Phyllis, I will have a look at that :-)

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on May 11, 2014:

Very nicely written, Carolyn. I really enjoyed reading this hub. Danu is the mother goddess I relate to. I recently wrote a hub on the Tuatha de Danann. I love Celtic mythology, the legends of my ancestors. Very well done on your hub.