From Lilith to the Venus of Willendorf — Pam Grossman conjures the many forms of Mother.
The Mother is perhaps the oldest goddess we have. Most of us remember learning about the Venus of Willendorf, faceless and fertile. Her squat, voluptuous form highlights aspects of the female body that have been glorified throughout history: a womb and two boobs on legs. She and stone figures like her are believed to have been conjure tools for childbirth and fetishes of blessing for reproductive success, and they arguably mark the start of over 30,000 years of mother worship which continues to this day.
She creates, sustains. The mother gives everything, and then gives even more. She loves us, and for this we love her in return.
People have been praying to Isis, to Cybele, to Mary for centuries, and for good reason: the mother is the first doorway we go through, the first force we are in relationship with beyond ourselves. And so we praise her nourishing power and vast sacrifice. We see images of her time and time again, nursing a young god at her breast, filling him with the liquid life of her own body. She creates, sustains. The mother gives everything, and then gives even more. She loves us, and for this we love her in return.
It’s difficult for me to write about the mother archetype, when at the age of 35 I have chosen not to become a mother myself. Some of this is because of aching truths, and some of it is due to deeply joyful circumstances, but the reasons are the reasons, and they belong to me. Though my heart is covered in scar tissue — as most hearts are — it still swells to bursting around the kids in my life to whom I am a beloved if batty auntie. I adore children, but resent the fact that I have to offer up that qualification. Some people think me an aberration, a monstrous thing. More often: a pity. I’ve had to learn to let the expectations of others wash over me without getting pulled down by the undertow. I’ve grappled with the mother goddess, not wanting to disappoint her or miss out on her mystic gifts. It would have been easier, perhaps, had I always been sure I did not want to be a parent — how I wish I’d had that clarity! I have occupied a space of uncomfortable unknowing for years, floating in the graylands, fearful of regrets and dizzy with relief at once. After a long period of seeking and inner heavy-lifting, I now find myself a woman whose breeding instincts have been outweighed by a fervent need for freedom. So I ask myself: what can the mother goddess offer those of us who don’t physically embody this archetype ourselves? First and foremost, she is a wellspring of compassion. On my altar sits Guanyin, ancient deity of the East, a mother goddess of mercy who listens to the cries of the world. One tale states that her desire to help so many caused her to grow eleven heads and one thousand arms so that she could deliver aid to more of those in need. Mothers bring comfort and profound healing. They carry us, and they hold our suffering until it dissolves into fibers of suppleness and strength. They switch on the nightlight and guide us back to safety. Guanyin’s story is about being a mother to the world, a source of goodness that all are worthy of receiving — and that everyone can personify in turn.
Mothers bring comfort and profound healing. They carry us, and they hold our suffering until it dissolves into fibers of suppleness and strength.
Some mothers choose to dwell in the shade, following unmarked routes that are often treacherous. Mesopotamian, and later Jewish, tales tell of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who was born of the same dirt that he was, and who refused to lay beneath him. As legend has it, she left the Garden of Eden of her own volition, copulated with Samael, the angel of death, and then bore hundreds of children a day, earning the moniker, Mother of Demons. Associated with night, the moon, and the southern wind, Lilith is the prototypical Dark Mother. She isn’t all gentleness and martyrdom. Her name translates to “night monster” or “screech owl,” and her children are strange, even dangerous. A goddess who has become sacred to Witches and rebels in general, she has been reappropriated (or perhaps more accurately, re-reappropriated) as a feminist icon. She is a creative force who is comfortable with her own power, feeling less at home in Eden’s glow than she does in the shadowy margins, serving only herself. The famous Burney Relief in the British Museum has been thought to represent Lilith, Ishtar, Erishkegal, or some combination thereof. Often referred to as the Queen of the Night, she is a winged woman with taloned feet, flanked by owls. Perhaps most significantly, she is also shown stepping on two lions, reminding us that motherhood is a fierce state of being. And she is just one of many mother goddesses with this leonine link.
The Hindu goddess Durga, whose name means “invincible,” rides on top of a lion, and Asherah, the Sumerian mother goddess, was known as the Lion Lady. Dozens of mother goddesses throughout Mesopotamia, ancient Crete, and Egypt had feline associations, and were often depicted sitting on lion thrones. Female lions have notoriously ferocious mothering instincts. They are entities of both devotion and treachery. They treat those in their care with immense tenderness, but any threats to their family unit are utterly obliterated. This aspect of the mother goddess is anything but passive. She is vehemently protective and fights for those she loves.
They treat those in their care with immense tenderness, but any threats to their family unit are utterly obliterated.
In the plant kingdom, motherwort is an herb known to calm anxiety and relieve both physical and emotional pain. It tones uterine muscles, and its consistent use can relieve menstrual cramps. It is also known to heal and strengthen the heart, and its Latin name, Leonurus cardiaca, translates to “lion-hearted.” I think of this whenever I take a few drops of motherwort tincture to bring me back to center when I’m feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed. It licks my wounds, and sets me purring again, allowing me to move through the pain. It teaches me that mother energy is soothing indeed, but it also helps us to be grounded, strong, and self-reliant.
Mothers birth marvelous new things into the world, no doubt, which is why the vaginal opening is often depicted as a site of holiness. Sheela na gigs are carved female figures that part their vulvas like curtains, and which are found on old stone churches throughout Ireland and Great Britain. They guard entrances and windows with their own physiological portals, and are believed to both ward off evil and promote health in childbirth. This same almond orifice shape is echoed in the vesica pisces or mandorla aureolas that are a common signature in Christian art. Usually painted gold, these pointed, ovoid haloes indicate that the person within is a hallowed figure or that the scene illustrated therein is a moment of great spiritual import. This opening is a passageway for the divine. Perhaps the most recognizable version of this is seen in depictions of one of the most beloved mother goddesses in the world, Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had the great fortune of visiting her shrine in Mexico City, and was struck not only by the crescent moons, roses, honeycombs, and other pagan symbols utilized throughout the entire grounds, but especially by how very vaginal her portrait is. Once you see it, it cannot be unseen! She is a holy channel, a site of creation and reception. She receives our prayers and sorrows, and bears the sacred in exchange.
Gaia, Mother Nature, the Great Goddess — whatever nameyou call her, she is a cauldron of creativity. She keeps us fed and sheltered, and teaches us that there is enough for everyone, if we allow there to be.
The words “matter,” “material,” “matrix,” and “mother” are all derived from the root word “mater.” The interconnected, life-giving lattice from which we all emanate is the mother to us all. I think of the mother shared by everyone, Mother Earth, who is so fecund and generous. Gaia, Mother Nature, the Great Goddess — whatever name you call her, she is a cauldron of creativity. She keeps us fed and sheltered, and teaches us that there is enough for everyone, if we allow there to be. She is also agnostic in her productivity. She makes organisms of all kinds, some of whom procreate in turn. But some of us end up parenting in other ways: we birth art, ideas, friendships, meaningful work, and weird, wild love. We are each the guardians of our own great purpose. We are Mothers of Magick. Wonder Maters.
But some of us end up parenting in other ways: we birth art, ideas, friendships, meaningful work, and weird, wild love. We are each the guardians of our own great purpose.
Mystery mamas with bellies full of fire and roaring laughter. We take care of others, we take care of business, we take care of our own dear selves. When I pray to the Mother in all her forms, I sometimes ask her to help me let go of my grief and uncertainty around traditional motherhood. She holds me, and tells me that everything is going to be OK. She growls at the goblins, and guides me towards a place of peace. She reminds me that I, too, have much to give. Her wisdom has allowed me to loosen my grip on guilt and self-doubt, and to more fully incorporate her other modes of mothering into who I am and what I do. Childlessness fits me better the older I get. As my path becomes clearer and more prismatic with each day, I feel more settled in myself than ever before. The luxury of choice is a jewel I take out and polish from time to time. Am I really allowed to live this way? To create the life I deem fit? The answer comes back at me, precious and sparkling.
This text was originally published in Sabat — The Mother Issue, September 2016.