Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, , at sacred-texts.com
Crete has left us, not only the divine bull Poseidon, but also another figure, even more majestic, the Mother of the Gods, the Lady-of-the-Wild-Things.
The Mother of the Gods never made her way into Olympus. Probably Zeus, Father of gods and men, could not, would not, brook her rivalry, and she was a figure far too dominant and splendid to submit to mere wifehood. As we might expect, the Cretans made the goddess in their own image. Of this we have certain evidence in a clay sealing or impression from a gem found by Sir Arthur Evans at Cnossos.
The design shows a high-peaked mountain, at the apex of which the goddess stands. She holds a sceptre in her outstretched hand, and for guardians she has two fierce mountain-ranging lions, one to either side in solemn heraldic fashion. We know these lions well, for they came to the mainland to protect the great gate of the citadel of Mycenæ. Between them, at Mycenæ, is a column which represents the goddess. But here in the Cretan sealing she is no dead column, she has come to life, dominant, imperious. The Mycenæan women have, indeed, made their goddess in their own image; wild thing though she is, they have clad her in their own grotesque skirt with its manifold flounces.
The goddess is dominant indeed, but the holy bull is not forgotten. Behind the Mountain Mother on the gem is a shrine of "Mycenæan" pattern, with its odd columns and horns. These last mark a cult whose divinity was a bull-headed man, whose chief sacrifice was a bull. Before the goddess stands a worshipper rapt in ecstasy.
On this seal impression we have the Lady-of-the-Wild-Things with her lions. A Minoan intaglio, found quite recently at Thisbe, in Bœotia, gives another aspect of the goddess wholly different, but not less important. The goddess is depicted, not on her mountain, but rising out of the ground, in which she is still sunk knee-deep. She wears the Cretan flounced skirt and a short-sleeved bodice, from which emerge two great breasts. She is altogether the mother. To either side of her are, not her
lions, but two great blossoming plants, also rising from the ground. In her left hand she grasps three poppy capsules. The poppy, with its countless seeds, is always the emblem of fertility. Over her right shoulder are seen the heads of three snakes. Her right wrist is grasped by a male attendant, who lifts her from the ground. It is the Mother goddess rising from the earth in the spring. The scene depicted is what the Greeks called the Anodos (up-rising). This Anodos was known to us on countless Greek vases, but till the Thisbe gem was discovered we never knew that the origin of the Anodos was to be found in Crete. At Delphi, at Athens, and at Megara, the Greeks had rites of summoning or calling up the Goddess. One of these rites was called the "Bringing-up of Semele." Semele, as we shall presently see, is only the Thracian form of Gê or Gaia, the Earth.
It is strange and very instructive to turn from the Olympian patriarchal, Father of gods and men, to the Great Mother. Zeus succeeded, to a large extent, in effacing her, but, in the background, her impressive figure always remained. The priestesses at the ancient oracular shine of Dodona include her name in their chanted litany:
And at Delphi the priestess began her formal ritual address to the gods thus:
Gaia was at Delphi before Poseidon, before Dionysos, before even Apollo.
Our religion teaches us to revere a male Trinity; the figure of the Mother is absent. The Roman and Orthodox churches with a more happy and genial humanism, include the Mother who is also the Maid. In Greece the Mother and the Father gods are characteristic of the
two main theological strata, the Mother is "Pelasgian" and Minoan, the Father Indo-European--that is, Hellenic. The Mother is accompanied usually by a male attendant, either son or lover, but his position is always strictly subordinate. We have seen how this relation survives in the guardianship of Athena, Hera, Artemis over their heroes.
The figure half rising from the earth we are accustomed to call either Earth or the Mother. But on one vase in the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, the uprising figure is inscribed Pandora. Pandora is familiar to us all from the story of Hesiod. In the Works and Days he thus recounts the making of Pandora:
"Pandora's box" has become proverbial, but the word pithos, used by Hesiod, does not mean box at all, it means a huge earthenware jar. Rows of these pithoi buried deep in the earth have come to light at Cnossos. They were used for the storage of oil and wine and grain. They were also used for purposes of burial, and occasionally gave shelter to human beings. The famous tub of Diogenes was a pithos. When Pandora opens her box it is not the light-minded woman temptress letting out woes and ills to mortal man; it is the great Earth Mother who opens her pithos, her storehouse of grain and fruit for her children. In the "making of Pandora" the Great Mother has become the temptress maid, a bane and not a blessing. Through all the charm and glamour of Hesiod's verse there is an ugly glint of theological malice. He is all for the Father, and the Father will have no Great Earth Mother in his cloud-capped, man-made Olympus. So she who made all things has become the slave of man, his lure, his plaything, dowered only with a slave's bodily beauty and blandishments. The birth of the first woman is but a huge Olympian joke to Zeus, the arch patriarchal bourgeois. "He spake, and the Sire of men and of gods immortal laughed."
But we will not part from the Mother with a patriarchal joke. Rather let the Homeric Hymn-writer chant her praises:
"Concerning Earth, the mother of all, shall I sing, firm Earth, eldest of gods, that nourishes all things in the world; all things that fare on the sacred land, all things in the sea, all flying things, all are fed out of her store. Through thee, revered goddess, are men happy in their children and fortunate in their harvest. Thine it is
to give or to take life from mortal men. Happy is he whom thou honourest with favouring heart; to him all good things are present innumerable: his fertile field is laden, his meadows are rich in cattle, his house filled with all good things. Such men rule righteously in cities of fair women, great wealth and riches are theirs, their children grow glorious in fresh delights: their maidens joyfully dance and sport through the soft meadow flowers in floral revelry. Such are those that thou honourest, holy goddess, kindly spirit. Hail, Mother of the Gods, thou wife of starry Ouranos, and freely in return for my ode give me livelihood sufficient."
"Wife of Starry Ouranos," of Ouranos the firmament, who was before the coming of Zeus. As such the mystic remembered her. On the Orphic gold tablet buried with him to ensure his safety is inscribed the proud confession: "I am the child of Earth and of Starry Heaven."
It would be pleasant to track the Earth-Mother to the mainland and show her influence on each and all of the "Pelasgian" women goddesses--watch how she gave to Aphrodite her doves, to Athene her snakes. But space does not allow. Only a few brief words must be said of Demeter the Mother, and her daughter Persephone.