Have you ever been so overwhelmed with admiration for a woman that you’re quick to chirp out the expression “She is such a goddess!”? What was it about her that prompted such an exclamation? Her beauty? Her wisdom? Her tall figure? Was it some amalgamation of all the ‘best’ qualities that our culture assigns to a woman? Was it, like in my case, a reminder of the loose idea of what goddesses may or may not have been like as you try to recall that 10th grade World History lesson on Greek Mythology?
We throw around the word goddess like it’s some sort of blanket term for an impressive, beautiful, commanding woman who captures our attention. But what exactly is a goddess? What deity or collection of deities are we subconsciously referring to when we use that term? How is the Abrahamic idea of a male god affecting how we process the idea of a goddess? I just have so many questions.
In an effort to challenge and expand your idea of divine femininity, I want to introduce you to five goddesses from distinct cultures around the world. Enjoy!
1. Kali: Hindu Goddess
As opposed to, let’s say, Christianty, which sees good and evil as being manifested into two distinct beings, in Hinduism there exists one Universal Power that transcends good and evil. Kali is a manifestation of this Universal Power. She is both kind and gruesome, loved and feared. She creates and she destroys.
In one story, Kali was involved in a battle against an army of demons. One demon in particular contained a special power wherein each time he was assaulted, every drop of blood that hit the ground turned into a fighting clone. Kali quickly outwitted him by picking him up, drinking his blood and swallowing him whole. She then proceeds to single-handedly massacre the entire army, including the god of the demons. Intoxicated by his blood, she continues on a killing spree, despite the fact that the enemies have already been wiped out. To stop her, Shiva, her husband, lies in her path until she finds herself stepping on him.
2. Inanna: Ancient Sumerian Goddess
Inanna is generally known as a patron of sexuality and aggression. Her most salient characteristic is that she is one of the most complex gods of her time, transcending any stereotype of being simple and easy to peg. To that extent, she’s actually not very well understood by researchers today, though she has more written about her in ancient texts than any other Mesopotamian god.
Other gods of the time tended to be static figures with few personality traits, but Inanna was an ever-changing goddess, moving from one conquest to another, demonstrating her wide array of facets: she was sexual, charming, competitive, power-driven, and didn’t take no for an answer. Of all the stories told about Inanna, she is never depicted as a wife, helpmate, or mother. Feminist scholar Tikva FrymerKensky states that Inanna “represents the non-domesticated woman, and she exemplifies all the fear and attraction that such a woman elicits”. Here is a hymn from Inanna taken from an epic in which she appears:
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field,
Who will plow my wet ground?
3. Ala: Igbo Goddess
In Southeastern Nigeria, Ala is the most revered amongst a whole pantheon of deities. She is the goddess of earth, morality, creativity, and fertility. Ala is considered equal to the earth itself, and since everyone must abide on her, everyone must respect her. As the goddess of morality she is the enforcer of the law and the judge of human actions, and any crime that is committed is considered a direct crime against Ala.
She also rules the underworld, but the underworld resides inside of her, where she keeps the souls of the dead inside her womb. Her symbols are both the crescent moon and the python, which is considered her messenger and agent, and is therefore revered in many Igbo communities. To this day, the Igbo people have a close endearing relationship with Ala, building Mbari temples in the center of their communities where they resurrect a clay image of the deity.
4. Pele: Hawaiian Goddess
Pele is part of the pantheon of gods in the native Hawaiian religion. Born as a flame from her mother’s mouth, she is the goddess of volcanoes and fire, representing both creation and destruction. Her spirit is still very much alive, considering that Hawaii has the most active volcano in the world. Given that fact, Pele was and is a central figure of the Hawaiian pantheon, and her most ardent worshippers were the ones most vulnerable to her wrath that lived in areas frequently inundated by lava flows.
In one story, one of Pele’s many siblings, Kapo, used her detachable vulva to distract a pig-god from attacking Pele. To this day, many Hawaiians say that Pele can be seen wandering the islands in the form of either a beautiful young maiden, or an older woman dressed in white in order to test a human’s character. She may just ask for a cigarette, and when given, light it with the snap of a finger.
5. Tlazoteotl: Aztec Goddess
One of many Aztec gods, Tlazoteotl is fascinatingly complex. Her name, translated literally, means ‘filth-eater’, and she’s often represented with black around her mouth. Despite the name, she is an endeared figure who both encouraged licentious behavior, while also pardoning it. She embodied the idea of sexual overindulgence and illicit love, provoking the people to engage in such acts, while also forgiving them.
Yet, Aztecs were only allowed one pardon by the goddess in their life, so most people sought forgiveness at an elderly age. Beyond that, she was considered the patron of midwives and childbirth. She was a provoker of sins, a pardoner of sins, and a regenerator, turning trash into life, symbolizing the restorative power of the earth.
Notice in the depiction above that she is wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim whose hands sag below hers. She’s giving birth to her own image to depict the renewal of life. In at least one other depiction, she’s shown with a wrinkled belly to signify a postpartum body, and a red snake accompanies her, symbolizing the fertility of the menstrual cycle.
I encourage you to dive deeper into one (or all!) of these deities and do some self-study of them in your free time. These descriptions are just the tip of the iceberg of cultures that are far different from what most of us were raised in, and the more we know about how other cultures view and/or viewed femininity, the more complex, nuanced, and complete our own definition of womanhood becomes. Such goddesses!
Amelia is a social worker in practice, and an anthropologist at heart. In her free time she often finds herself looking up facts about crows, listening to that one super groovy song she discovered last week until it makes her sick, and squealing at the sight of cute dogs. Her life goals include publishing a book of short stories, locking eyes with a blue whale, and owning an airbnb in the hills of Mexico.