European Mother Goddesses
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.
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.
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.
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."
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. But, 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, 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.
© 2014 Carolyn Emerick