Bird Companions of the Goddess: A quiz

April 12, 2012

Photo by Courtney Johns

How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.

Owl

Goose

Raven

Falcon

Vulture

Dove

Pelican

Woodpecker

Eagle
Baba Yaga

Morrigan

Mars

Athena

Lugh

Freya

Aphrodite

Astarte

Mut



Answers are here.

Feel free to add other goddess and god associations for these birds in the comments.

Good Morning, Little Dove

February 17, 2012

Two Mourning Doves
Mourning Doves. Photo by R.L. Sivaprasad.

The Iseum (space of worship) chartered through me by The Fellowship of Isis is called The Temple of the Doves. Why doves? The dove is one of the feathery creatures most beloved of the goddess, and a particular favorite of a divinity close to my heart: the goddess Ishtar.

Reverence for the dove is ancient and enduring, possibly extending back to the Stone Age. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Small birds were sculpted, engraved, and painted throughout prehistory. In Minoan Crete they appear perching on shrines, pillars, and the Goddess’s head. Unfortunately, it is not possible to recognize the species of birds portrayed, except in a very few cases.” Since doves and other pigeons like to roost in large buildings, and the first building complexes were places of worship, the religious significance of the dove may have grown up around the temple. Devotees would have assumed the doves came to bring messages from the sky gods or to carry prayers back to them. These doves would not have been exclusively the subjects and messengers of any god in particular, instead serving the deity of the temple where they lived.

As we move from decayed artifacts to religious writing, the sacred role of doves becomes less obscure. Sumerian hymns refer to doves as temple inhabitants and the dove plays an important role in both the Babylonian and Hebrew accounts of the Great Flood. Doves and other pigeons were commonly sacrificed in Mesopotamia, the Levant and (to a lesser extent) Egypt. Dove sacrifice was particularly important in early Judaism, and doves are the most frequently appearing birds in the Old Testament. Doves would have been sacrificial candidates due to their value (they were used for food and fertilizer) and their easy availabilty, but their temple association was probably a key component. The demand for sacrificial doves was so high that, inconceivable as it sounds, doves and other pigeons were actually bred in large numbers for the temples.

Scholars believe that the dove association with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar came late, which fits with my surmise that doves originally served many mistresses. Astarte, who is a fertility goddess like Ishtar, had an extensive cult throughout the Levant and is unquestionably linked with doves. Today it is the dove, rather than the original lion, that goddess worshippers most often associate with Ishtar. The dove’s plump, curving features, her gurgling coos and her soft, sweet melodies carry a voluptuous aura which naturally evokes this goddess of sexual love.

The early Christian sects, who worshipped a feminine form of wisdom they called Sophia, linked Sophia with the white dove, also one of Aphrodite’s many animal totems. Recognition of Sophia withered under patriarchal Christianity, though her worship has been revived in some of the more liberal churches. Her dove emblem continues as the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Doves have always been close personal friends of mine. As a child, I would sit in my room listening to the mourning doves on the wires outside my window, and it felt like they were speaking to my heart. Even today, I think their music is one of the most beautiful and soothing sounds in nature.


Sources

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
MacKenzie, Donald A. Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915. Sacred Texts.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.


More information about the pigeon family here.

The Divine Woodpecker

February 10, 2012

Gilded Flicker
Gilded Flicker. Photo by Glenn Seplak.

One of the most startling experiences for people new to the Sonora Desert is the loud metallic rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that rattles the early mornings. It sounds like a machine gun. It’s made by Mars, the god of war, in his woodpecker form.

When I first moved to the desert, the earliest thought that would enter my drowsy morning brain was, “Those stupid woodpeckers. They don’t know the difference between a tree and a heating vent.” But when you decide people or animals are doing something because they’re stupid, it’s usually because you yourself are ignorant. Desert Gilded Woodpeckers love those aluminium roof vents because they make a loud noise. Mars is also the god of metal. And they’re not looking for battle; they’re showing off for the girls. Woodpeckers make noises to signal that they’re looking for a mate. Or they’re defining territory. Or they’re drumming for some other reason, but at any rate the whole purpose is to make the biggest racket possible. They think that’s really cool. In time the rattling becomes like the coyote chorus: one of those familiar comforting sounds of the desert.

Mars was not, originally, the god of war. He was the father-god who brought bread to the divine Roman twins while their wolf-mother nursed them. Male woodpeckers do most of the work scraping out the family home, and they help incubate eggs and care for the young. A woodpecker god would naturally be the archetype for the nurturing male.

Robert Graves agrees that Mars was not originally a war god, calling him a “Spring-Dionysus” figure. During the Greco-Roman era, Mars became conflated with the Greek Ares, who according to Graves was originally a Thracian god given the hateful “war god” moniker as a reflection of Athenian attitudes toward the Thracians. Classical Greeks had a more ambivalent attitude toward war than Romans of the early Common Era, viewing war as a threat to prosperity rather than a means of sustaining it.

Properly speaking, no deity is a war deity, or else they all are. When people go to war, they invoke their protective deity to aid them in the battle, be it Athena or Mars or Andraste. I’ve seen pictures of rebels with the Virgin Mary painted on their rifle butts, and we certainly wouldn’t call her a warrior goddess. In glossaries a good three-quarters of the Celtic goddesses are identified as warrior goddesses, but this mostly reflects the understanding of the Romans, who focused their studies on the behavior of their Celtic adversaries in war.

After Mars became conflated with Ares, he gained a great deal of prominence as a war deity in a culture that was by this time centered (and dependent) on military prowess. Still, Mars was also invoked as father and civic leader, reflecting an importance among the Latin tribes that long preceded Rome’s ascendance as a military power. That he was not necessarily seen as a war deity is reflected in the other gods he became conflated with, such as Mars Nodens (for the Celtic healing god Nodens) or Mars Silvanus (for the Roman–possibly Etruscan–god of the countryside).

The modern strict association of Mars with war has affected how we view the planet Mars, the astrological sign of Aries (ruled by Mars), and even the beginning of spring. Michael Jordan says that March is named for the god Mars because of “its violent weather.” We do think of March as violent, but is it really, compared to say, November, when harsh weather begins, or February, when bitter cold can claim toes and noses? Was the March weather violent in Italy 3,000 years ago? When we think of Mars as woodpecker rather than warrior, the association with the first month of spring doesn’t take a lot of thought or empirical data. This is when woodpeckers are dating–and making a lot of racket in the process.

We think of Aries people as combative, but are they really? Do people view Aries, and do Aries view themselves, as combative due to the warrior reputation of Mars? Comparing Aries to woodpeckers, would aggression be interpreted as defense of territory and protection of vulnerable dependents?

We think of the planet Mars as bloody, because it’s red, but is Mars stained with bloodshed or red like the throat, head or wings of the various woodpecker species?

Mars is now retrograde, a phenomenon that only happens every couple of years. For me, retrogrades are times when we review, reflect and re-examine things. Perhaps this is a good time to be rethinking Mars.


Sources

Robert Graves. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.


For another unconventional look at Aries, see my post from 2009 from Yellow Birch School.

Why would anyone provide acoustic support for woodpeckers? The folks at this site have a blueprint if you’re interested.

Groundhog Day: An American Pagan Holiday

January 27, 2012

Groundhog picture
Mother groundhog eating peanuts. Photo by EIC.

February 2nd is the pagan holiday known as variously as Imbolc, Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and many other names. Many calendars label it “Groundhog’s Day,” referring to the adage that the length of the remaining winter is determined by whether the groundhog sees his shadow (i.e., whether the sun is shining) on this day.

Groundhog Day is an American adaptation of vestigial bear worship, brought to the Pennsylvania colony by early German settlers. Bear worship in central Europe goes back to the Neanderthals, who left Cave Bear skulls in an excavated cavern in Switzerland. Statuettes from the region dedicated to bear goddesses date to the days of the Roman occupation. In Christian times the belief persisted that on Candlemas the bear would waken from her slumber for a winter perambulation. Candlemas is a Christian holiday (the purification of the Virgin Mary) with pagan antecedents across Western Europe. It is the time when the days lengthen noticeably, and people naturally begin to wonder when spring will arrive. If the bear sees her shadow, tradition says, spring will come in another six weeks. Conveniently, this coincides with the vernal equinox, another pagan holiday.

In places where the bear has long been absent, other hibernating animals have been appointed weather-watchers on Candlemas. The hedgehog is a favorite, and the badger is sometimes mentioned. But the hedgehog is absent in North America, and the badger has long retreated to the upper Midwest. In the open farm country of Pennsylvania, the bear also retreated to far off wooded regions, so the groundhog, which proliferates in cleared woodland, became the designated officiant of the winter holiday.

The groundhog is a member of a family called the marmots, found in some form throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The groundhog is a marmot unique to North America. Like the bear, she often stands on two legs, and she hibernates in the winter. Unlike the bear, she is a true hibernator, not stirring at all during the winter by her own inclination. Hence the town mascots, the most famous of which is Punxsutawney Phil, who are prodded awake on the fateful day.

Groundhog Day exemplifies a Euro-pagan tradition adapted successfully to North American soil.