The Evolution of
the Goddess Myth
and the Human Psyche
These teachings are from one of the most fascinating books ever written about the evolution of human consciousness as traced through the millenial shifts and shudders found in the images of The Great Goddess. The Myth of the Goddess—Evolution of An Image, by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford is this mind-blowing, meticulously researched book. It is the text I used for years to teach my Goddess classes. Much of this lecture emerged out of quotes from this amazing book. Read it if you can. It will change your life profoundly.
It’s important to know that when scholars speak of “prehistoric” or “pre-history, they’re referring to a time before written history. Symbolically, there are many levels, or maps of meaning, that show how human consciousness evolved, from pre-history to the present. One such map is the evolution of the images of the Great Goddess through human history.
So much of her original form and her story has been deliberated exiled, lost to time, destroyed by patriarchy, and yet, The Great Goddess lies within and behind all modern images of deity, in every single world religion and culture. If we study Her images and stories, She can be glimpsed beneath the surface of all the world’s myths, informing, complicating, and disrupting them. These archetypal images are patterns that continually turn up, across time and space. From the long reach of mythological and historical perspective, we can interrogate the essence of the Goddess archetype to learn about our journey, and how we arrived here, in our modern world, with our modern oppositional beliefs about creation, and ourselves.
The Goddess represents the flow of inexhaustible enfoldment. She is the primal unity, the balance of all duality. We can see this message of holism in Her images—She holds all oppositions when she holds 2 snakes, or is seen representing the moon’s phases. She reconciles and contains all opposites, even as She herself is beyond opposition. She is Time supported by eternity, and eternity clothed in time. In the ancient, unaltered Goddess, we see that She contains the two poles of dualism, and so prevents them from falling apart into the kind of opposition that our modern consciousness assumes is inevitable. Human and divine. Life and death. Time and eternity. Male and Female. Unity and multiplicity. Creation and Chaos. She holds them all in the palm of her hand. The Great Goddess was, for the human psyche, The nascent experience of Unity.
Myths serve as guides to the human species. Our cultural inheritance is the mythological conditioning we live under, which is a result of our existential concerns. This inheritance fills us with assumptions that are invisible to our minds. This means that our cultural legacy of Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs are a birthright not likely to be conscious, and so, these are the most difficult for us to be able to challenge directly. And so for instance, if we grant a soul to humanity, we many not grant a soul, or even consciousness, to Nature.
Separation from nature, in the ancient world of Sumeria and Egypt, is represented by the separation of heaven and earth. This is an image of the birth of consciousness in which humanity is set apart from nature. The self who perceives and values is separated from that which is perceived and evaluated. Later creation myths will narrate the division of the primal unity into two halves. This portrayal of the human capacity to act reflectively rather than instinctively, inevitably and unfortunately involves a dissociation from the instinctive life of Nature. This bifurcation of our consciousness finds expression in the god who orders from beyond rather than the goddess who moves from within. The goddess becomes lower and the god higher in the hierarchy invented by patriarchy. This hierarchy assumes that consciousness can evolve only through distinguishing between what is wanted and what is not wanted, striving to reach the one and avoid the other.
Another aspect of our eventual separation from nature is the emergence of the individual from the tribal group. This was a new story, a coming-of-age myth, which emerged directly out of a cessation in our instincts to act collectively, that is, a new response for a member of a typical tribe. This separation gives rise to the myth of the hero, which eventually shifts the focus of attention from the great round of nature, expressed in the myth of the goddess, to our world as the center of the universe, and man as the center of the world. It’s a cyclical case of an original myth changing, and then enacting a change in our behavior, which then affects the continuity of the myth, and supports a further reactive change in the world.
Ancient History—The mythology of the Sumerian gods and goddesses reflects the uneasy fusion of at least 4 different cultures—the original Goddess worshippers, the Sumerians, the Semites, and the Indo European invaders. The gods of the conquerors were super-imposed on an equally strong and much older Goddess tradition. The goddess culture of the artists and visionary poets of Sumeria was saved—(though made invisible)—through incorporation into the Old Testament, and elements of both cultures were integrated in a cosmology and a philosophy that were grounded in the images of unity that belonged to the older one.
Since the male father god could not take the dead back into himself, nor return them to the earth for rebirth as The Great Goddess could in her myth, time for humanity became linear. Birth was the beginning and death the end. Similarly, raised to cosmic proportions, creation itself had an absolute beginning and would have a absolute end. This new story would coincide with the final triumph of light over dark, meshing with later humans’ surety of their myth telling of the original victory that had brought the universe into being.
The Hebrews in Babylon captivity absorbed these ideas. History was seen as linear, unfolding-in-time with the command and intention of the masculine god, who was necessarily outside or beyond time and creation. These ideas were in strong contrast to the immense aeonic cycles conceived by the Goddess cultures, but they were the inevitable corollary to the new idea that human life had a beginning and an end, and that death did not ultimately lead around again to rebirth.
Later, the struggle between the hero and the serpent dragon represented the force of patriarchy fighting against the ancient deities of matriarchy. It also represented the power of human consciousness to gain mastery over instinctual and unconscious patterns of behavior that endlessly repeated the beliefs of the past. It symbolizes the need for individuals to separate from these collective responses by challenging the tribal values with their own vision. When the hero myth is perceived in terms of the growth of consciousness, it becomes an inner quest for illumination. Here the conflict is not so much between good and evil, but between a greater or a lesser understanding. The dragon represents ignorance, or unconsciousness. It is the chaos of we cannot control. The hero aims to master his own inner darkness. He is perceived as the embodiment of the archetypal masculine in all human beings, the questing consciousness in search of a goal.
Sometimes the hero looks for treasure, or for his home, but must overcome his challenge with dragon, the guardian of the threshold. These treasures cannot be reached by the hero’s rational mind, which divides everything into opposites, but, only with the help of the deeper instinctual levels of the psyche. These deeper levels require the Goddess’s help. For example, Athena helps Hercules; Hera assists the heroes of the Trojan War. These characteristics of deeper levels of the intuitive psyche are characteristically personified as female, so that feeling and intuition have to be encountered at once. In our modern world, we’re taught to denegrate both feeling and intuition as women’s qualities. And still, women are encouraged to be always there to “save” men, to be ever-emotionally-available to men, and to support powerful men of action with their female powers of emotion.
People were no longer encouraged by their guiding myths to feel themselves as children of the Mother, but as the creations of the Father. Nature is no longer experienced as source, but as adversary, and darkness is no longer a mode of divine being, but a mode of being devoid of divinity and actively hostile, devouring light, clarity and order. Where the image of the feminine is dramatized only as evil, as in Yahweh’s myth, the transforming power of the wisdom stored in the ancient experience of the psyche—deep territory of the mother—is unavailable, and the son-hero is left without guidance or inspiration. Only his fragile rationality remains to confront the terrifying image of his punishing father, who demands to be obeyed. The natural response to this image is fear, which obstructs understanding and change.
The archetypal feminine—the timeless and androgynous Goddess—was both female and male in the metaphorical sense that she was both the womb and the generative life force that seeded new forms of life within it, which she brought forth as the universe. Also, the Goddess wasn’t perceived by pre-patriarchal people to be partial to one sex, as She had both sons and daughters.
In the Iron Age, the ideal of the king was no longer to be the shepherd of his people, as it was in early Sumeria, but the image of the mighty conqueror. Mythic figures that represent this model are Zeus, Hammurabi, Agamemnon, and Alexander. In the Iron Age, cruelty became a virtue and barbarism a way of life. War was regarded as natural and right. Like the Paleolithic hunt, war brought men together in a shared aim and heroic purpose whose intensity no tilling the soil or herding of animals could emulate. Conquest preempted art. Brutalized people create brutal gods and goddesses; brutal gods and goddesses in turn endorse the brutality of men. The creation of beautiful art ceased with the Iron Age, and all we see everywhere are images of war and slaughter.
In the Iron Age, the terms feminine and masculine became absolutes, and were assigned with definitive values. These simplistic assignations that originated 4,000 years ago overlook all symbolic significance, all the subtle ways we were informed by the divine feminine to trust, share, and be but a part of the unity of creation. These thought-forms are what keep us trapped in dangerous duality in a world where all war is still Holy War.
The language of the imagery in the Iron Age shows how the sky becomes exalted over the earth, and describes how the paradigm of opposition and conflict grips the consciousness of humanity. In the document, The Enuma Elish, there are three principle ideas of the patriarchal paradigm—the supremacy of the father god, the opposition between god and goddess, and the tight association of light, order, and goodness with the god, and darkness, chaos and evil with the goddess.
Cruelty became a virtue and the social norm; war became a constant curse. We see it all around us today. By studying the evolution of the cascading, corrupted images of The Great Goddess, we can understand how it came to be this way. We can know that this is not “human nature”, and is not inevitable. Because once, it was different. And so, we know it would be possible for human consciousness to re-turn to it’s origins, to begin to reconsider the Divine Feminine. To begin this enormous evolutionary task of consciousness, we can launch ourselves on a study of these images and these stories, woven through all of human time, of The Great Goddess.
“We of the here and now are not for a moment hedged in the time-world, nor confined within it….we are incessantly flowing over and over to those who preceded us…we are the bees of the invisible. We deliriously gather the honey of the visible, to accumulate it in the greater golden hive of the invisible.” (Rilke)
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