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The Black Goddess And Other Mythic Earth Images

Excerpted from Green Psychology (Chapter 9) by Ralph Metzner
(Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1999)

Prior to the rise of transcendental monotheism, the religious worldview of the ancient world was polytheistic, animistic and shamanistic. In this essay I explore some of the key mythic images of our pagan ancestors -- the gods and goddesses that personify our relationship to the earth, to the plant realm and to the world of animals.1


The religion and worldview of the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic people, who inhabited Europe prior to the Christian era, as well as that of the Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples, was animistic: gods and goddesses, the living intelligences of nature, were perceived and worshipped in forest groves and sacred springs, on mountain tops and in great stone circles. In addition to gods and goddesses there were other classes of beings associated with nature, who were not human, but certainly equal, if not superior, to humans and deserving of respect, -- such as giants and dwarves, elves and trolls, fairies, leprechauns, gnomes, satyrs, nymphs and mermaids.These deities and beings could be communed with by anyone who was willing to practice the methods taught by the shamans and their successors the witches, the wise women of the woods -- using magical plants and stones, chants and incantations, dances and rituals.

This is the nature religion that was eliminated by Christian monotheism during the first few centuries of our era. Pagan deities were either banished into non-existence or demonized. Those who followed the old nature religion were branded as "pagan" or "heathen", which originally simply meant "country dwellers" or "heath dwellers". The country folk were more likely to have preserved beliefs in spirits and knowledge of healing and magical herbs than those who lived in towns with stone walls. Some of the pagan deities were absorbed into Christian lore, just as some traditional sacred places had churches or chapels built on them. Others sank into the cultural underground of folklore and popular customs and beliefs. Mythic stories of divine figures devolved into comic or moralizing legends and fairy-tales. Under the influence of Judeo-Christian transcendental monotheism the kind of direct awareness of the spiritual presences in nature that our pagan ancestors enjoyed and cultivated, was gradually lost. As William Blake said, "thus men forgot that all deities live within the human breast."

While I do not mean to suggest that we must all become pagans and worship the ancient gods again, I do believe that by re-connecting with the nature religion of our ancestors, we can recover something of the imaginal sensitivity and ecological spirituality that is the collective heritage of each of us. A tremendous spiritual revitalization can take place when we recognize the natural world and the divine world as intimately interwoven with one another. I see this as a kind of re-membering, through which the dis-memberment of human consciousness from the Earth could be healed.

In my book The Well of Remembrance,2 I focussed on the Earth wisdom mythology of the Nordic-Germanic people. In this same spirit of of healing-remembering I would like now to discuss several mythic deities from pre-Christian Europe as well as from non-European cultures -- god-images that embody a perception of the spiritual in nature. There are three groups of such images: one is the Black Earth Goddess, who was absorbed into Christianity as the Black Madonna or Black Virgin; a second group are the plant and vegetation deities of the ancient world, a variant of which also made it into Christian iconography as the Green Man; and the third group are the animal deities and wild men/wild women, who represent the evolutionary memory of our animal ancestry.

The Black Goddess/Madonna

There about 500 shrine images of the Black Virgin in various churches in Europe.3 Among the best-known is the one in the cathedral of Chartres in France; the protectress saint of Poland in Czestochowa; the protectress saint of Switzerland at Einsiedeln, near Zürich; the Muttergottes ("Mother of God") in Altötting, near München, in Bavaria; and the one in Loreto, Italy. These shrines of the Black Madonna are among the most-visited pilgrimage places in Christendom. Hundreds of thousands of people annually make the pilgrimage to Altötting, or Einsiedeln, and have done so since the Middle Ages, when most of the shrines were first established.

The reason for their magnetism as pilgrimage places lies in their reputation for healing efficacy. In Altötting for example, the tiny chapel that holds the shrine of the Virgin, is surrounded by several thousand ex voto tablets, some dating back to the 13th century and some from the current year, in which thanks is expressed for a miraculous healing or recovery, a safe journey or return of a loved one, or, in earlier times, an exorcism of evil spirits. In the typical story, a person appealed to Maria for help or guidance and vowed to make an offering if the appeal was successful. Thus, the bequest and the tablet come "from the vow" (ex voto). On the outside of the chapel one can also see numerous crutches and limb protheses, left as unnecessary by grateful healed pilgrims.

Although enjoying great popular appeal, the images of the Black Madonna are a source of some embarrassment to the Catholic church. Usually, the guidebooks make no reference to the color; or when they do, they try to explain it away by ludicrous references to the blackening effect of centuries of smoke from candles and incense burners. Occasionally, there are references to the mysterious line from the Old Testament Song of Solomon, in which the Shulamite, perhaps the Queen of Sheba, sings: "I am black, but I am beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem." For the good Christian pilgrims who cannot bear to contemplate a dark-skinned Madonna, the souvenir shops carry sanitized wax or wooden replicas, in which Mary and the infant Jesus have appropriately white European faces.

The Black Virgin has been identified with several black goddess figures of the ancient pre-patriarchal cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East, including the Phrygian Cybele, the Sumerian Inanna, the Syrian Anath, the Hebrew Lilith, the Indian Kali, the Ephesian Diana, and the Egyptian goddesses Neith and of course Isis. In the goddess-worshipping cultures of Old Europe and the pre-patriarchal Mediterranean, black was the color of fertility and abundance, like the rich black soil of the Nile and other river valleys. White on the other hand was the color symbolic of death, and images of the death-bringing goddess were carved in bone or marble. However, for the nomadic pastoralist Indo-Aryans, who invaded Europe from the 4th millenium BCE onwards, white, gold and yellow were the colors of the life-giving, shining sun-god; and black was the color of the somber underground death deities like Hades, Hecate or Hel.

With the shift to a patriarchal sky-god religion, and followed by the Judaeo-Christian monotheistic traditions, the nature-reverencing goddess religions of the archaic world were suppressed, desacralized and demonized. The sacred sexuality associated with the cult of Inanna and Ishtar was condemned as prostitution. Lilith, who represented female sexual autonomy and protection of childbirth and children, was turned into a seductive demoness who stole children. Male priests and theologians found it easy to play up the terrifying aspects of goddess worship, as in the cult of Cybele, whose priests symbolically, and at times literally, offered their genitals in sacrifice to the goddess. The Indian Kali became increasingly polarized as destructive only, although the original image is balanced between birth-giving and death-dealing. Diana became the goddess of the witches. The Black Goddess entered Christianity from below as it were, in both her healing and threatening aspect. She was strongly associated with the 12th century esoteric Christianity of the Cathars, the Troubadours and the Templars, all of whom tried to overcome the dissociative split between nature-eros and dogmatic ascetic spirituality, and all of whom were savagely destroyed by the Church.

Only the image of the Black Madonna and Child, itself based on the Egyptian images of Isis with the child Horus, survived the Christian misogynistic onslaught. The cult of Isis was the dominant religion of the Mediterranean during late Roman times, and had spread into Roman-occupied lands, including Gaul. The city of Paris was devoted to Isis, as Lyons was to Cybele and Marseilles to Artemis. Like other Black Goddess figures, Isis is the life-giving and healing goddess of the Earth. In The Golden Ass of Apuleius, Isis speaks: "I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all the gods and goddesses there are."4 The text goes on to claim that she is identical with Cybele, Artemis, Aphrodite, Persephone, Demeter, Juno, and Hecate.

The Black Earth Goddess under whatever name, including the Black Madonna, has traditionally always been supportive of and facilitative of the natural processes of life: healing the sick, easing the pain of childbirth, bringing fertility, making the milk flow, comforting and guiding the dying, helping the plants grow. As such, she represented the persistence of the Great Goddess during the time of dominance by patriarchal sky-god cults, and she represents the persistence of the Mother Goddess during the ascendancy of Christian monotheism.

Some years ago, when I was on the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, I had a vivid dream about the Black Goddess. In the dream I was with a group of AIDS sufferers who had gone to Africa to get to know the Black Goddess. We had been told that the underlying cause of AIDS was a disconnection from the regenerative power of the Black Goddess; and the cure would involve reestablishing the psychic bond with that Goddess. I told that dream to several friends who had AIDS, who felt it symbolized an important truth. Since AIDS represents a breakdown of the body's inherent immune resilience and self-healing capacity, reconnecting with the healing power of the Black Goddess may well be necessary on the road to wholeness.

The shrines and images of the Black Virgin have an undeniable psychic and spiritual power, which explains their attraction for tourists, as well as those seeking a cure for their ills. The chapel in Altötting, in the lush, fertile farm country of Lower Bavaria, stands in the middle of the town square, surrounded by other churches and monasteries. The outside of the chapel, as already mentioned, is covered with thousands of votive tablets. The entire inside of the chapel is painted black, and the walls studded with countless gold and silver images and ornaments, especially around the alcove shrine which holds the statue. The light from numerous candles in gigantic silver candleholders sparkles and scintillates off the polished gold and silver objects. The blackness set with shimmering gold and silver gives the whole chapel a mysterious, alchemical, yet strangely comforting aura.


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