Goddesses of India – the One and the Many

Hinduism can be a confusing religion to many westerners. The profusion of deities with multiple arms and who are sometimes shown with animal heads, can seem strange and exotic. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and there are aspects of it that can be traced back to the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilisations of 1200 BC.  Many of the practices and social institutions of Hinduism that flourish today are a glimpse into a world that we have lost in the West; temple cities and schools of philosophy, elaborate public processions and festivals to celebrate the seasons, and the daily rituals to honour deities, are all reminders of life and religion in Classical Greece and Rome.

One aspect of the ancient past to survive into modern day India is the worship of God in female form. The goddess can take many forms, such as the ferocious and protective Durga or Kali, Sarasvati the goddess of learning and knowledge, Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, among many others. Although they are labelled with a specific function all of these goddesses have deeper, spiritual roles that resonate with their worshippers. Many of the more well-known and popular goddesses are known as ‘pan-Indian’ deities in that they are worshipped by any level of society and are found throughout the vast sub-continent. The goddess is seen to be one who can manifest into multiple forms for the needs of her devotees. The goddess is both the one and the many. As the one goddess she is known as Devi (Goddess) or Shakti (energy), or on a more personal level, Ma or Amma, both meaning mother.

Bronze statue of the goddess Durga on my bookcase at home

Some goddesses however, are only found at a local level and will act on the behalf of a community. India is still a predominantly agricultural country and the majority of its population live in villages. But, these local village goddesses are still seen to be manifestations of the one great goddess. In Hinduism the goddess can either be the consort to one of the male deities, or is worshipped in her own right. When worshipped on her own she is perceived to be the ultimate form of godhead and is considered to be more powerful than the male deities. In village religion the goddess is usually the most powerful and primary deity and will have a shrine at the centre of the village under a sacred tree. These shrines can either be small, enclosed temples, or open air platforms with either statues or vermillion smeared sacred stones as the focus of worship.

An interesting object that I have been working on as part of the Derbyshire School Library Service project, is a wooden head of a village goddess, known as a Gramadevata. The village goddesses are intimately connected with village life; on the one hand presiding over the fertility of the fields and animals and the well being of the community, and on the other expressing her wrath by drought, floods and epidemics; the goddess has always been perceived to be both benign and ferocious.

Wooden head of a village goddess at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

As a goddess of nature she is omnipresent in the world, not otherworldly and distant like many of her male counterparts. She is primarily associated with fertility and the earth, and the land of India itself is seen as the body of the goddess, whose forms can be found in the features of the landscape. As a mother she protects her devotees from the dangers of the world.

The goddess often takes on a primary role as a healing deity and offerings are left at her shrines to ask for help. Hinduism is not a static religion, and is constantly developing all the time. New deities appear in response to new needs; established goddesses undergo change. For example the goddess of smallpox, Sitala, underwent such a change when this disease was eradicated in the 1970’s. She is now supplicated to protect her devotees from measles, chickenpox and other diseases.

As one devastating disease is eradicated, another rears its ugly head! In the 20th century HIV/AIDS became one of the most insidious diseases to affect the world, and in India AIDS-amma appeared in response to the growing threat. This modern day goddess was installed in a small shrine in the village of Menasikyathana Halli, in rural Karnataka. She was created by a civic-minded schoolteacher as part of an AIDS awareness campaign.

With Coronavirus raging across the globe the response to this threat in India has again been expressed through the goddess. Images are starting to appear of the ferocious warrior goddess Durga, weapons in hand fighting a personification of the virus. She also holds in her numerous hands a face-mask and bottle of hand sanitiser; it must be remembered that many in India are still illiterate and so symbolic images such as this are a way to get important messages across.

Display of goddesses at Buxton Museum and Art gallery

The head of the village goddess is currently on display in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Once we are open again to the public, and some sort of normality returns, we hope, by the blessing of the goddess, to see you soon.

An Egyptian Goddess Abroad

Many of you may not know that for about fifty years a goddess used to travel round the schools of Derbyshire. This particular goddess is a small bronze statue from Egypt, and who forms part of the Derbyshire School Loans service – she used to be sent out as a teaching resource to schools and has now been transferred to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. She is currently on display along with some other goddesses from around the world in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Sadly we are closed at the moment because of the Coronavirus outbreak, but once we are open please come and support us, and take a look at this ancient and powerful lady.

The goddess Isis in Buxton

The statue that we have depicts the goddess seated on a throne and holding her infant son, Horus, on her lap. She dates to the Late Period of Egyptian history (664 – 332 BC); this was a period which saw the reunification of Egypt after foreign rule, and several wars for independence. Sadly this independence didn’t last long as a hundred years later the Persians invaded; it was only until Alexander the Great liberated the country that Egypt once again went through a Golden Age, this time under the rule of the Greek Ptolemaic kings.

Isis is an ancient goddess, and she played a central role to the lives of the Egyptians, and later across the Roman Empire, as a loving, protective mother. She first appears in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest known corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts dating to the Old Kingdom (2400 BC). It is here that the tales surrounding her were first formulated. The story was adapted over time but briefly it consists of the following.

Isis and her brother Osiris ruled the earth, being given the power to do so by their grandfather Ra, the sun-god. They introduced farming and crops to Egypt and taught the people the ways of civilisation and laws. Their brother Seth however, was jealous and in a plot murdered Osiris, cutting his body into pieces and scattering it across Egypt. Isis and her sister, Nepthys, gathered up the remains and mummified them. Isis then transformed herself into a bird, and through the action of her wings blew life into the dead god. Osiris was rejuvenated and Isis coupled with him to produce their heir, the god Horus. Osiris would then go to the realm of the dead, where he would be the ruler of the underworld.

Isis hid in the delta marshes with her child and protected him with great magic to keep him away from his jealous uncle. When Horus was old enough he challenged his uncle to a battle for the throne of Egypt, and after a lengthy fight he defeated Seth to become the next divine ruler of Egypt.

At its core the story is one of order and truth overcoming the powers of chaos, but also the protective power of the goddess toward her husband and son, as well as the whole of humanity.

Isis was appealed to for healing, the safe delivery of children, as the overseer of divine order, the protector of the throne, as well as being considered powerful in magic and the guardian of the dead, among many others roles.

During the time of the Greek Ptolemaic rule of Egypt her worship underwent a change with it becoming a Mystery religion; this is most likely due to the influence of the Mysteries of Eleusis near Athens, which was one of the most ancient and popular of the Mystery Cults; others included the Great Mother Cybele, Dionysus, the Orphic Mysteries, and later Mithras who was a favourite of the Roman soldiers. Central to these cults was the belief in salvation and life after death, the revealing of sacred secrets and initiation ceremonies, and a religious society who supported their members.

As Romans began to trade with Egypt they came into contact with the goddess and her worship began to appeal to them. Temples were built and the Mysteries developed further. Temples were set up across the Empire with the largest being in Rome at the Camps Martius near the Pantheon. The best preserved temple is that at Pompeii which preserves the beautiful wall paintings narrating the legends of the goddess.

There is evidence for the worship of the goddess in Roman Britain too; a flagon dating to the 2nd century AD, and destined for a tavern in London reads ‘Londini ad fanum Isidis’, meaning ‘London, next to the temple of Isis’. York also had a large temple complex dedicated to the goddess and her consort Osiris-Serapis, and this temple seems to have been built for use by the Emperor Septimius Severus, a well-known devotee of the goddess who visited Britain and was based at York from 208 to 211 AD.

A novel was also written about the goddess in the 2nd century AD, known as The Metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius, or more commonly ‘The Golden Ass’. This is a tale of witchcraft and magic where the main character is turned into a donkey by a witch. After many adventures Lucius wakes up to a vision of the goddess rising from the sea. She promises him that he will be turned back to human shape by seeking out her priest, and that after he must become initiated into the cult where he will receive salvation and the promise of a blessed afterlife.

It was not until the 6th century AD that the worship of Isis finally ended when the Christian Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of her most holy shrine on the Island of Philae in Egypt.

When Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens in the near future the goddess would love for you to come and see her.