When Gods Were Mothers 

Gaia, mother earth goddess

Gaia, mother earth goddess

There was a time when motherhood was so sacred that deity was The Goddess.

Even after patriarchy arose, complete with gods defeating goddesses, motherhood remained so valued that male gods sometimes became mothers.

Womb envy?

Women: the source of life

It’s not surprising that deity was originally rendered as a goddess. Early peoples didn’t seem to realize that men played a role in procreation. Women birthed life so a goddess must have birthed the world.

Once people figured out the male role, the myths changed: The goddess (immaculately) conceived a son who grew up to become her lover and consort. From these two, worlds were born.

Patriarchy arises and gods overtake goddesses

Over time, agriculture was developed and planting cultures continued to worship both goddesses and gods. The goddesses Isis, Inanna and Ishtar were hugely important.

But in hunting societies male gods rose to higher status and power. Apparently, folks thought that men needed flattery and encouragement to take on the dangerous hunt, using hand spears.

But as warrior cultures overtook peaceful, gender-equal societies, gods became more important pretty much everywhere. But male gods sometimes also took on motherhood. Which speaks to the respect and status that giving birth once conferred. Like in these stories:

Venus, born

Venus, born

Ymir births son and daughter via armpits

In Norse mythology the world’s first creature is Ymir, who bears a son and daughter via his armpits.

Uranus mothers Aphrodite

According to Greek myth, the god, Kronos severed his father’s genitals and flung them into the sea. Hence, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, arose from the foam of Uranus.

Zeus mothers Athena and Dionysus

In Greek mythology Zeus “planted his seed” in the goddess Metis. But he feared a prophecy warning that his children would become more powerful than he. So he swallowed Metis. Which created an enormous headache. Only a double headed ax implanted in his skull could relieve the pain. And out leapt Athena, fully grown and armed.

Athena emerges from Zeus's head

Athena emerges from Zeus’s head

Zeus also impregnated a mortal woman, who demanded he reveal himself to prove his godhood. Zeus begged her to take back the request because mortals couldn’t witness undisguised gods without dying. She persisted and she perished. But not before Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed him into his thigh — giving birth to him months later.

God the Father creates Adam. And from Adam comes Eve

In the Judeo-Christian Bible, God the Father gives life to humans.

One version of the creation story reads, “God created humans in God’s image, male and female” — suggesting that God is both male and female. But few people think of it that way. So we end up with God the Father — but no mother.

Next, God reached into Adam and pulled out a rib from which to form Eve. In that way, Adam took on the mother role.

Fathers bestow life. Mothers are mere incubators

God creates humans

God creates humans

The next step in the Hebrew tradition was for men to take on the life-giving role, rendering women mere incubators.

Hence, the spilling of semen for non-reproductive purposes was tantamount to murder: so no masturbation and no gay sex!

This belief continued into 18th-century Christianity, via the notion of preformationism, which claimed that only men give life. Women were just nurturers.

We mark Mother’s Day. Yet…

Mothers Day

Mothers Day

Nowadays it’s clear that mothers are not simply incubators or nurturers. And we revere our moms and mark their honor, especially on Mother’s Day.

Yet when women take on that role full-time, they tend to have less say in the home — deferring to husbands who bring in the bucks. And women’s mothering work is not always given equal weight in dividing assets at divorce. The man made the money so he gets the stuff — unless she made a concerted effort to protect her assets (in most states).

Really, isn’t creating life and raising the next generation just as important as breadwinning? It’s time to regain a greater sense of a mother’s worth!

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 7, 2015, in feminism, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. I really like the illustrations you used for this post and your good timing!

  2. I definitely didn’t appreciate my mom and her many contributions as a child – thinking worth was all tied up in a career outside the home. Thankfully I’ve woken up. I do think reclaiming the feminine as sacred and not secondary to the masculine played a big part in the shift.

    • Me either. And at least in part for the same reason as you. But my mom was also a single mom and when I grew up I really understood how much work it had been to raise a couple of kids, and the sacrifices she made.

  3. Mother always do a lot for their children. I respect my mom for what she has done for me… 🙂

  4. Only the two last links take me places. The others do not work. The one about “women were incubators” takes me to a google search page with “The welcoming congregation Scott Alexander” as the search words. Only “performationism” takes me where it is supposed to go. Bummer. I wanted to read those articles.

    The article made me think about my own views on gender roles – once again. It came right after I had had a talk with a friend about men and women that had touched upon how we view women.

    Interesting.

    • I wanted to go in and fix the link but we are getting solar panels and maybe that’s why my Internet isn’t working on my big computer. So I’m using my cellular Internet on my iPad. So here are the sources:

      1) Goddesses by Joseph Campbell

      2) The great courses: myth in human history.
      (The link takes you to the great courses site, but not to this specific course)

  5. Interesting! I didn’t know that men were considered life givers and that sperm was sacred…and that was the reason behind demonising masturbation and gay men! Learning 🙂

  6. The cosmic power, by whatever name it is called in religions and mythology, combines both female and male energy. In Indian tradition, God is ‘ardhanaareeswara’ (half male and half female), with all power and strength emanating from female energy, worshipped as ‘Shakthi’. There is no question of which is superior, and no distinction of one as progenitor and other as incubator.

    • The Indian tradition has stayed more true to its origins compared with most. Although with the warrior Indo-Aryan invasion you do still get some male gods that become especially prominent. Initially Indra, from whence India seems to have been named. But later The male gods, Shiva and Vishnu become more prominent.

      It’s also interesting that in the Judeo/Christian Bible the Elohim version of creation says that God created humans in gods image, male and female, suggesting that the understanding of God was both male and female at the time this passage was written. And yet due to patriarchy the tradition has come to think only in terms of God the father.

  7. I’m not familiar with the Ymir mythology — thanks for that info! Looks like there’s some googling in my future…

  8. Moms are definitely Gods…my mother still takes such great care of me it is embarrassing (if I wasn’t so proud and happy!). The mythologies you have shown should make it clear how powerful and needed moms are when it comes to holding power.

  9. Wish you a good weekend and
    good new week a big hug from Herluf.

  10. Totally agree on the importance of mothers, since I understand by giving birth, they become the source of life. And actually, back home, we do have the “Mother’s Day” on March 21. In my case, everyone celebrates my grandmother by buying followers and gathering at her house. As a matter of fact, we grew up learning from the religion that the heaven’s under the feet of the mother, and one of our prophet’s followers asked him which he prefers to get closer to, the prophet advised him to be closer to his mum three times and then his dad. In this story, some people argue that the father comes secondary. Indeed, being a mother is a big responsibility. Which I was actually reading a book few weeks ago about teenage mothers. And I was touched by one of the ladies who was telling her story when she was close to give birth, as she was waiting, a cartoon was playing, and the nurse asked her if she was ready to deliver the baby, but the little mum asked if she could stay for 30 minutes because she was watching a cartoon and she thought that those 30 minutes are going to be the last 30 minutes of her own/teenage/being young and free life.

  11. happy mother’s day to all wonderful mothers. Never take your mother for granted. I’m blessed to still have my wonderful mother, and a great mother she is. I know too many people, young ones still in their 20s or younger, in which their moms passed away and it’s truly tragic and sad. The love, dedication, and sacrifice good mothers give for their children is amazing and why women should always be highly valued.

    I remember seeing how young men who had a poor or rough childhood, but became successful. How these men owed everything to their mom and the reason why they are the person they are today because of their moms. Stories of single mothers living in the ghetto or rough neighborhoods, scrapping and working three jobs and also being tough to keep their son or sons off the street and to focus on school and hard work instead. And all the sacrifice, all for the love of their children. Highly appreciated and respectable what good mothers do and go through for their children.

  12. This is such an excellent post dear Georgia… I thank you for posting it…
    By the way there is a very interesting study of Aeschylus trilogy the Oresteia by Bachofen based in the idea of Matriarchy turning into Patriarchy …
    Patriarchy in the trilogy is represented by Apollo (masculinity) and Pallas Athena (Reason). These gods specifically in the Eumenides are the protectors of Orestes, who is besides the avenger of his father after Clytemnestra cheated him
    According to Bachofen, after the acquittal of Orestes, we would move into the reign of the chthonic deities, meaning: the sun uranic stage (Apollo).
    Man would therefore He emancipate from nature, giving priority to individual development and to the spirit and reason , relegating the feminine / body principles to the private sphere.
    You can check out a summary at the end of this post
    See ►Aeschylus’s Oresteia: “A Tragedy in Three Plays”: http://wp.me/p60vo-3jl
    All my best wishes! Aquileana ⭐

  13. Society changes slowly for the better, but thanks to intelligent and insightful women such as yourself, we will continue to grow in wisdom.

  14. Judging from history, I believe that the human race has a tendency to form their God’s based on what they know about the world and qualities that are considered superior at the time. The earliest of our kind worshiped female deities because they recognized that new life came from the woman, but did not understand the male role. Therefore, they revered their women over their men because they believed that females had unique powers that men did not. When we learned more about the reproductive roles, our patterns changed to give rise to the patriarchy that is still very active today. Under this shift, males were now considered superior to women and as a result the God’s became men. Today–though we are still heavily oppressed by patriarchy–woman and men are more equal than we’ve been in years. It is also apparent that some of the old religions, such as Christianity, are loosing popularity in the recent years. Whether there is a connection, it is hard to say, but I believe that many find the idea of one white male God unappealing because there is only so many people that can relate to Him.

  15. The good thing in Islamic religion that God (Allah) have not stated in the holly book whether he is a male or a female since he/she wants people to not discriminate and decrease the estimate of both genders. because both genders are important to each other, but what happens in the real life is opposite! Men have to know that women are really important since most of the work inside and outside of the house are done by them. They are more workaholic, which they can manage their times between their work and their house to take care of their children, teach them and play with them. Thus, I am glad that my mom grew me up in a good way. She taught me how to behave politely, respect old people, be open-minded, and think out of the box to create a new life that I want to live in. She has many virtues on me and my family, too. She changed my father attitudes, too. Since he told us that he has not respect women’s works until my mom punished him for two days. She left the house and kept him taking care of my sisters and I, cleaning the house and cooking for us. He said I felt how much tired my mom got since she works outside, too; but she never complained about that, so since then he appreciated what women do without hesitating and annoying and the importance they are for the house.

  16. Mother hood and the gift of birth is what sets apart women than anything or anyone in this whole world. We have the gift to create life! Most people do not realize how important this truly is and I think it is a great article and topic to think about. This is a gift from god and was given to us for a reason! Women have so much power and its sad to see how much its gone down and how low self-esteem and confidence we have as women to feel more empowered! This article was inspiring and makes me want to keep doing everything I can to be successful and independent. I cannot wait to be a mother some day! Many men can see the greatness in this gift of creating life but I think that it is very under appreciated. Women are beautiful creatures because of motherhood in my opinion.

  17. Mythology makes my head spin!! I have always wondered how far it could have been true to produce a son from armpit and all such mentions!

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