The Faces of the Goddess

Lotte Motz

280 Blz., ISBN 0 19 508967 7     
Oxford University Press, New York 1997     

The belief that the earliest humans worshipped a sovereign, nurturing, maternal earth goddess is widely held. It has been taken up as fact by the media, who routinely depict modern goddess-worshippers as "reviving" the ancient religions of our ancestors. Feminist scholars contend that, in the primordial religions, the Great Mother was honored as the primary, creative force, giving birth to the world, granting fertility to both crops and humans, and ruling supremely over her family pantheon. The peaceful, matriarchal farming societies that worshipped her were eventually wiped out or subjugated by nomadic, patriarchal warrior tribes such as the early Hebrews, who brought their male God to overthrow the Great Mother: the first step in the creation and perpetuation of a brutal, male dominated society and its attendant oppression and degradation of women.

In The Faces of the Goddess, Lotte Motz sets out to test this hypothesis by examining the real female deities of early human cultures. She finds no trace of the Great Mother in their myths or in their worship. From the Eskimos of the artic wasteland, whose harsh life even until most recent times resembled that of the earliest hunter gatherers, to the rich cultures of the sunny Fertile Crescent and the islands of Japan, Motz looks at a wide range of goddesses who are called Mother, or who give birth in their myths. She finds that these goddesses have varying origins as ancestor deities, animal protectors, and other divinities, rather than stemming from a common Mother Goddess archetype. For instance, Sedna, the powerful goddess whose chopped-off fingers became the seals and fish that were the Eskimos´ chief source of food, had nothing to do with human fertility. Indeed, human motherhood was held is such low esteem that Eskimo women were forced to give birth completely alone, with no human companionship and no helpful deities of childbirth.

Likewise, while various Mexican goddesses ruled over healing, women´s crafts, motherhood, and childbirth, and functioned as tribal protectors or divine ancestors, none of them either embodied the earth itself or granted fertility to the crops: for that the Mexicans looked to the male gods of maize and of rain. Nor were the rituals of these goddesses nurturing or peaceful. The goddess Cihuacoatl, who nurtured the creator god Quetzalcoatl and helped him create humanity, was worshipped with human sacrifices who were pushed into fires, removed while still alive, only to have their hearts cut out.

And Motz closely examines the Anatolian goddess Cybele, the "Magna Mater" most often cited as an example of a powerful mother goddess. Hers were the last of the great pagan mysteries of the Mediterranean civilizations to fall before Christianity. But Cybele herself never gives birth, nor does she concern herself with aiding women in childbirth or childrearing. She is not herself a mother, and the male chararcter figuring most prominently in her myths is Attis, her chaste companion. Tellingly, Cybele´s priest dedicate themselves to her by castrating themselves, thus mimicking Attis´s death - a very odd way to venerate a goddess of fertility.

To depict these earlier goddesses as peaceful and nurturing mothers, as is often done, is to deny them their own complex and sophisticated nature as beings who were often violent and vengeful, delighting in sacrifice, or who reveled in their eroticism and were worshipped as harlots. The idea of a nurturing Mother Goddess is very powerful. In this challenging book, however, Motz shows that She is a product of our own age, not of earlier ones. By discarding this simplistic and worn-out paradigm, we can open the door to a new way of thinking about feminine spirituality and religious experience.

Lotte Motz, Ph.D., was born in Austria and has taught at the City University of New York and the University of Wisconsin. She has written widely on Germanic mythology and literature, and is currently living in the U.K.

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"I consider the book an usually important contribution, one that should be read and pondered by anyone interested in the study of religion, and one that should have a lasting effect on the field."

- Thorkild Jacobsen, former Director of the Oriental Institute, Chicago,     
and author of The Treasures of Darkness     

"Faces of the Goddess offers a necessary antidote against romantic or Jungian Mother mysticism."

- Walter Burkert, Professor of Classics, he University of Zurich,     
and author of Greek Religion     

"In Faces of the Goddess Lotte Motz at last rescues a number of goddesses from the murky Jungian limbo to which many previous studies have consigned them, a place in which all goddesses look alike in the dark; in so doing she restores to each of them the dignity of their individual power and fascination, and provides both a sound scholary basis for our understanding of them and a wide gamut of far more visible, because more nuanced, models for contemporary women to emulate."

- Wendy Doniger, author of Women, Androgynes, and Other     
Mythical Beasts, and Other People´s Myths: The Cave of Echoes     

"At last: a book that explains that the notion of a unitary Mother Goddess is modern, and that female culture was not driven out by patriarchy. But even more important is the positive contribution that this book makes to the understanding of the nature of ancient female divinities, which were more diverse and potent than modern writers have imagined them to be. Instead of being restricted to motherhood, the various goddesses worshipped in the ancient world displayed the full range of feminine powers, both constructive and destructive, and coomanded the respect of both men and women."

- Mary Lefkowitz, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the     
Humanities, Wellesley College.     

"I have no doubt that this volume will become an important landmark in the comparative study of religion."

- James Preston, Anthropology and Religious Studies, SUNY Ononta     

"Dr. Motz´s insightful and provocative work seems to have shattered the very ground on which historical deductions have been built. Here is, then, a remarkably penetrating study of a central religious concept."

- Ake Hultkrantz, Professor Emeritus of Stockholm University,     
author of The Religions of the American Indians     

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