Review: Breaking the Mother Goose Code

May 15, 2015

A study published earlier this year out of the State University of New York – Buffalo, finding that men are more narcissistic than women, was met with jokes and derision for being yet another academic examination of the obvious, but author Emily Grijalva responded eloquently that it is precisely those things that “everybody knows” that need to be examined. Not simply because they might not be true, although (obviously) there is a chance that they are false: establishing a fundamental fact (the what) allows us to move on to questions of why or how.

I thought of Grijalva’s words when I saw the promotion for Breaking the Mother Goose Code, about Mother Goose as a surviving form of the Mother Goddess. I believe I may have heard this idea from Z Budapest in the mid-1980s, but I don’t believe she made any claim to have researched this herself. I began showing my own students a picture of Aphrodite on her goose and calling her an early form of Mother Goose, and I don’t think it occurred to me or to anyone to examine the assumption.

In Breaking the Mother Goose Code Jeri Studebaker chronicles her effort to pin down the source of the nursery character, and on the journey with Mother Goose finds a long history of suppression of the Mother Goddess. Without delving exhaustively into the patriarchal takeover of Europe and the Christian takeover of religion, Studebaker provides the background for understanding why Mother Goose is such a powerful figure and how Christianity changed her. Studebaker gives a history of the fairytale and a synopsis of the prevalent theories for how European fairytales developed. There is a more detailed examination of the German goddess Holda than most women will be familiar with, along with some discussion about the goddesses Baba Yaga, Mari, Brigid and Aphrodite. There is some examination of theater history related to the Harlequin that appears in one of the rhymes. In addition to a history of their publication, Studebaker goes through the nursery rhymes line by line and attempts to decipher them. This involves a great deal of conjecture, but apparently this author is intrepid.

Studebaker’s intuition is on track in the avenues she explores, even when she admits that her evidence is tenuous. In some cases she seems to be unaware of information that would bolster her arguments further. I do disagree with her argument about classic fairytales created as an underground Pagan resistance movement. If anything, I think these fairytales were created as allegories against rival Christian institutions. I was going to expound on this, but it’s a rather esoteric point.

There is some great supplemental material in the appendices: a glossary, a list of fairytale codewords, a synopsis of the stories in Tales of Mother Goose, two timelines, and the full text of a Holda fairytale. The author did not neglect to provide references, a bibliography, and an index, which in this case were essential.

Source: MCAD Library/Wikimedia Commons
Source: MCAD Library/Wikimedia Commons
One regrettable omission: there are no pictures. Studebaker admits that an examination of artwork was essential to her research, and she refers to this artwork frequently. Priestesses in the Goddess Movement have become accustomed to relying on pictures to enhance their understanding, and I think the Internet has fueled the demand for illustrations even more. She says that the decision to omit pictures was made to accommodate e-book requirements, but many e-books do have illustrations. In fact, e-books should be making it easier and cheaper to produce books with pictures, as well as expanding other creative borders. I am aware that the variety of e-book readers on the market makes it challenging to format manuscripts, but even in the early days of the printing press, books had illustrations. There are a lot of e-book readers out there that are marketed to consumers with features that do about everything except wash your clothes, but at the same time they are limiting the ability of authors to produce creative content. It’s not right, and authors, publishers, and consumers should not be standing for it.

All in all I really liked this book (except for the pictures – did I mention that?). I hope the author will return to the subject of nursery rhymes, including Mother Goose. While the book is a respectable 300 pages there is still a lot of gold to mine here.

Unlearning High School Mythology

April 19, 2013

The Greek pantheon became large and complex because so many cultural influences shaped Greek history. New gods became incorporated through outside invasions, trade interactions, and the conquest of other states. The foundational strain of Greek civilization, called the Pelasgian culture by ancient Greek historians and part of the wider civilization of Old Europe by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, placed goddesses at the center of worship. Indo-European invasions introduced a patriarchal religion headed by a sky god Zeus. In time other deities were introduced through trade (e.g., Aphrodite) or conquest (e.g., Hecate). Meanwhile devotion to pre-Indo-European goddesses such as Artemis or Athena persisted.

Like nearly all polytheistic societies, the Greeks absorbed new deities by incorporating them in a common religious framework. A favored way of doing this was to marry one of the old goddesses to a new god. The goddess Hera became the wife of god Zeus and Persephone the wife of Hades. Since marriage was seen as subjugation of the goddess, where the cult of a goddess was particularly strong she remained virgin, as in the case of Artemis or Athena. Another way of creating order in the pantheon was to assign specific functions to different deities. Thus Aphrodite was not allowed to do any “work,” but must (officially) stick to her realm of romantic love. Sometimes a deity with a weaker following would become the priestess of a deity with a more robust cult, especially if these deities had similar functions. Thus the Arcadian bear goddess Callisto was said to be a priestess of Artemis. The ecstatic Dionysus was followed by the wild goddesses known as the Maenads. Other times deities with similar functions would be subsumed under the name of the deity with the more powerful cult.

Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
When the Romans adopted the Greek religion they pursued this strategy with abandon, and nearly all of their deities had a Greek equivalent that the Romans considered identical. The Romans believed that the gods in all other pantheons were identical to their own, even pantheons from cultures they considered very different from theirs. In some cases the deities probably were the same. For example, Father Zeus, Zeus Pater, not only has an identical position and personality to the Roman god Jupiter, the names sound very similar. Deities from other cultures may have been integrated into the Roman pantheon at an earlier time, or similar deities could have a common origin in an earlier Indo-European or Old European culture.

In the Middle Ages the Roman, but not the Greek, names for deities were known to most people in Roman Catholic countries. Common people called the old gods by their Roman names or by the name of the fictitious saint they had been reinvented as or by the original name in their own language. Scholars in all but a few monasteries in Ireland read Latin but not Greek, and so Greek literature was unavailable to them. With the Renaissance came the rediscovery of Greek literature along with renewed interest in the Greek and Roman deities and perhaps the apogee of Western literature and art. From this time the greatest literature in English has sought inspiration from the old gods. This inspiration has been understood to be, at least officially, one of symbol and of metaphor rather than of worship. This interpretation has emphasized the functional aspects of the deities. So Hera becomes Marriage; Pan, Nature; Aphrodite, Love; Zeus, Authority. This is how we learn Greek mythology in high school.

I asked at the school in my village if Greek mythology was still being taught, and I was told, “Yes, of course! The children get a brief introduction in grade school and more thorough exposure in high school.” I think they were a bit shocked that I would even ask the question. But it is important to keep in mind why children are forced to learn the Greco-Roman pantheon. It is so they can understand ancient literature, Renaissance literature, literature of the Romantic era, and the small amount of art history they are exposed to. It is not about understanding the gods. So we know Hera as the jealous wife of Zeus who presides over marriage, Demeter as the goddess of motherhood, Persephone as ruler of the death realm, and Artemis as forest maiden who hunts critters.

The problem is that not even the Greeks understood their gods in this way. Take this classical hymn to the goddess Hera:

O Royal Juno [Hera] of majestic mien, aerial-form’d, divine, Jove’s [Zeus’] blessed queen,

Thron’d in the bosom of cærulean air, the race of mortals is thy constant care.

The cooling gales thy pow’r alone inspires, which nourish life, which ev’ry life desires.

Mother of clouds and winds, from thee alone producing all things, mortal life is known:

All natures share thy temp’rament divine, and universal sway alone is thine.

With founding blasts of wind, the swelling sea and rolling rivers roar, when shook by thee.

Come, blessed Goddess, fam’d almighty queen, with aspect kind, rejoicing and serene.

Hera is not only the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, she is the creator of everything, the sustainer of life, the protector of people, the force that drives the wind, the waves, and the torrid rivers. She is a big deal.

The problems in how we conceptualized the Greco-Roman gods in our high school English class increase exponentially when we begin applying this methodology to other pantheons. Our understanding becomes not only grossly reductionist, but wrong.

Let’s look again at the Germanic pantheon. The Germanic tribes, like the Greek, had a steadily growing collection of deities to sort out. Unlike the Greeks, who lived for millennia in the same place and found themselves conquered and reconquered, the Germans grew their pantheon by conquering others and absorbing the local gods, then repeating the process many times as they moved westward. It is common wisdom that the gods of the Vanir branch (including Freya and Freyr), are the Old European gods and the larger Aesir branch (which includes Frigga, Odin, Thor and many others) is the Indo-European one, but the Aesir includes plenty of Old European deities that were absorbed at an earlier time. I have heard Odin described as the old warrior and Thor the young warrior; Skadi the winter goddess and Idunn the spring goddess; Frejya the woman warrior and Frigga the hearth goddess. These depictions are totally accurate but completely wrong.

Sometimes a discussion of Germanic mythology from a functional perspective describes the afterlife as the Hall of Valhalla presided over by the god Odin. Only warriors go there, so Odin is the god of the warrior death realm while the goddess Hel is queen of death for ignoble people. But further reading of the myths reveals that half the slain in battle (actually the preferred half) go to Frejya’s Hall of Sessrymnir. Hel’s death field is a sheet of ice, but there is a death goddess by the name of Mengloth who lives on a hill in the underworld called Lyfjaberg. Frigga greets the dead from her island of Fensalir. The god Heimdall meets his faithful in his hall of Himinbjorg. The Germanic tribes seem to have sorted out their gods not by dividing functions, but by allocating real estate in the afterworld. They were a people who lived very close to death, after all.

Unlearning high school mythology allows us to make better sense of the Germanic mythology penned by the first generations of Christians, and perhaps even to discern some of their conceptual errors. Next week we will again look at the goddesses Frejya and Frigga, and hopefully understand them in a better way.

The Dianic Religion: What We Believe and How We Practice

February 22, 2013

Aphrodite. Photo by Shakko.
Aphrodite. Photo by Shakko.

Often women contact me for instruction in witchcraft who are unfamiliar with the Dianic Religion. One of the first things they want to know is whether they will have to worship naked with men present. I have also been asked about the practice of self-flagellation or scourging. In Dianic worship we usually practice in all-women groups, and we certainly do not practice naked with men. Women’s experience with sexual violence and subjugation under patriarchy makes mixed nudity and scourging questionable practices, whatever their inherent benefits. But there are many traditions that do not practice nudity or scourging. What makes Dianic witchcraft different from these traditions?

In Dianic witchcraft we focus on the female. We worship the mother of all things who is all gods and all goddesses. She is many and she is one. We see the great mother as whole within herself: she gives birth to the god but she is the original and first creator, as a male cannot give birth to one creature let alone a whole universe. We see woman, born with the capacity to give birth, as a divine reflection of the goddess and therefore whole and complete within herself. The Dianic Religion centers on the reproductive life cycle of the woman. We see this as divided into three phases: maiden, mother, and crone. We are born in the maiden phase which is girlhood and adolescence, we reach the mother phase with the birth of our first child, and the crone phase commences at menopause. Each of these phases has their own powers and their own focus. They are not equal: the crone is the most powerful because she has experienced maidenhood and motherhood. Sometimes women say to me, I went through menopause in my early 40s or I have had a hysterectomy. Do I have to see myself as a crone if I’m still young? In these cases, and in cases where a woman does not have children or delays childbirth until late in life, we set the commencement of the mother phase at the first Saturn return (which is roughly age 30), and the commencement of the crone phase at the second Saturn return in the late 50s.

As females virtually all of us are born with the expectation that we will someday have children, and much of our socialization revolves around this expectation. Although attitudes are slowly changing in this regard, women who do not raise children are often considered to be unfulfilled or incomplete. The Dianic tradition teaches that we can use our mothering abilities in a variety of ways, whether or not we have children, and all priestesses in maturity are considered mothers. At the same time, we recognize that nurturing is something we must accept as well as give, and ritual with other women is a way we can be nourished and recharged.

Body acceptance is an important goal of the Dianic path. Most women struggle with feelings of inadequacy because their body does not meet a certain ideal. Worshiping with other women in a non-judgmental setting helps a woman come to terms with the body she has, and this is one of the reasons we may encourage nudity in our circles, according to situation and inclination. Many of our rituals are geared toward helping women to become more embodied. Dianics reject the idea prevalent in modern Western culture that mind and body are separate entities. Paradoxically, in becoming more aware and accepting of our physical bodies our ability to do psychic work is enhanced.

The existence of the Dianic Religion is very important not only to Dianic priestesses, but to all religious women. Women in the more progressive Christian, Jewish, Sufi and Buddhist sects, as well as other Pagans, are aware of our philosophy and borrow from our tradition. Some have even formed women’s traditions of their own. I also think the knowledge that women’s religions exist (and function well) helps women negotiate greater power within religious structures that include men.

Further Reading

Barrett, Ruth. Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2007.

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time: A Women’s Book of Celebrations, Spells, and Sacred Objects for Every Month of the Year. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Aphrodite and the Myrtle Tree

September 28, 2012

Myrtle in flower. Photo Giancarlodessi.

Our tree this week is the myrtle, sacred to Aphrodite. Myrtle trees were planted in Aphrodite’s temple gardens and shrines, and she is often depicted with a myrtle crown, sprig or wreath. Most people are familiar with Aphrodite as the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sex. Aphrodite is guardian of the gates of birth and death, symbolized by the vagina. As poets well know, myrtle rhymes with girdle, and Aphrodite has a very famous and coveted girdle that she sometimes lends to other goddesses. This is not the modern girdle that restricts breathing; this is a belt tied around the waist that makes the wearer sexually irresistible.

Aphrodite’s myrtle is the Common Myrtle, a small, leafy evergreen native to Asia minor and southern Europe that grows well in dry, slightly alkaline soil. It is not closely related to the Crêpe Myrtle, a tree native to India that was planted in the Carolinas and escaped into the wild, nor is it related to the Honey Myrtle or Lemon Myrtle, both of Australia, which are becoming increasingly important in herbal medicine.

With any tree sacred to a goddess it is important to examine whether it has a special relationship to the bee. Bees were highly regarded by ancient peoples, not only because they provide honey and pollination, but because like humans they live in highly organized communities. Goddesses of love and beauty are likely to be linked with bees, and Aphrodite is no exception. Aphrodite’s myrtle nymphs raised the God Aesacus, god of beekeeping and other cottage industries like olive curing and cheesemaking. Bees flock to the myrtle tree, and as a late blooming tree it is important in honey production. Pollen collected in the spring is used for the hive’s immediate needs, while pollen collected late in the year becomes surplus honey for the dormant period. A portion of this honey is harvested by the beekeeper. Myrtle honey, once important for food and medicinal uses, is an uncommon commercial honey today.
Gold funerary wreath. Greece, 4th century BCE.

You would expect the flowers of the myrtle to be odoriferous, considering its attractiveness to bees, but the leaves and the bark are also highly fragrant. The tree was used in ancient times to make perfume. The leaves and the ripe berries have a strong taste, reportedly similar to allspice, and they were used as a seasoning. This is significant because Aphrodite – like that other love god, Krishna – disapproves of garlic, and other seasonings must be substituted to flavor dishes at her festivals.

The myrtle’s association with Aphrodite made sprigs an important component in bridal bouquets in Victorian times. In some Ukrainian weddings, myrtle wreaths are held above the heads of the bride and groom. In Greece myrtle boughs were used in funerary ceremonies, and the myrtle wreath had a place in the Eleusinian rites, which were an exploration of the mysteries of death and rebirth.

Varieties of myrtle are usually planted as ornamental trees and shrubs, prized for their attractiveness and fragrance. The Common Myrtle is seldom used medicinally today, but classical texts indicate that it was once a standard treatment for a number of conditions. Myrtle is no longer a popular girls’ name, but it was well favored in the 1800’s, probably by mothers with a romantic nature. Apparently parents abandoned the name because the Myrtle girls were subjected to too much rhyming. (Fertile Myrtle has a turtle; jumps the hurdle in her girdle.)

Though the myrtle is not the popular tree it once was, any well-stocked occult store will carry the essential oil or the leaf. Be sure not to confuse true myrtle (Myrtus communis) with oil of Honey Myrtle or Lemon Myrtle, which are different trees.

Aphrodite riding goose, with son Eros holding myrtle wreaths. Date unknown. (Click on thumbnail for larger picture.)

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penquin Books, 1960.

Plants for a Future. Myrtus communis – L.

Powell, Cornelia. Queen Victoria’s Wedding Bouquet and the Legend of the Royal Myrtles.

Theoi. Flora 2: Plants of Greek Myth.

Weddings at Soyuzivka. Ukrainian Wedding Traditions.

The Goddess and Her Sacred Trees: A quiz

June 15, 2012

Olive tree in Pelion, Greece. Photo by Dennis koutou.

Back when I posted the quiz on Bird Companions of the Goddess I had requests for a tree version. So here it is. This will be a bit harder, because I’ve only mentioned one of these trees on this blog. Match the tree on the left with a goddess from the right column.























The Norns





Answers are here.

Bonus question. Name the gods linked with these trees: Ash, Pine, Laurel. (Hint: they are also associated with the goddesses of these trees.)

Continue the tree discussion in the comments.

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.









Baba Yaga









Answers are here.

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

The Witch’s Broom, part III

March 30, 2012

Witches flying on broom and staff. From manuscript border of Martin Le Franc's 1440 Defender of Ladies.

The stereotypic witch is the deluded worshipper of Satan, working her evil in remote congregations she accesses by flying on her broomstick. She has a huge larger-than-life nose with larger-than-life warts, and one of her greatest sins is the fashion mistake of that ridiculous cone hat. She is a misguided dupe who will, of course, meet with a sorry end as the forces of good prevail.

Curiously enough, there are parts of this stereotype with a basis in reality. The most interesting of these is the flight on the broom.

Broom flight came relatively late in the Christian understanding of witchcraft. Medieval writings such as the 906 Canon Episcopi talk about the idea of pagans shapeshifting into animals in order to go places and do things, though the texts make clear that the error is not in doing these things but in believing that they happen. A clerical reference to witches on broomsticks appears in 1440 in Martin Le Franc’s Defender of the Ladies. In this essay Le Franc takes exception to the belief that women are more likely than men to do the Devil’s bidding, arguing that this belief is based on fanstastic assumptions like broom travel. He discusses the confession of a sixteen year old girl at a trial and concludes that “There are no broomsticks or rods by which anyone could fly. But when the devil can fool the mind, they think they fly….” Again, the error is not in the act of flying, but in believing that flight is possible. Since theology around Satan and witchcraft solidified by the thirteenth century, and witch flight continued to be suspect within this paradigm, it is likely that the idea of witches flying on brooms arose not out of Christian cosmology but pagan belief. Eventually broomstick flying did become stock in the witch hunter’s lore, though witch prosecutors like Matthew Hopkins lamented that the belief cheapened the discipline. The need for prosecutors at actual trials to establish a modus operandi may explain why the scenario of the witch flying on her broomstick was accepted outside of more erudite theological circles. The scenario explained how the witches (many of whom were elderly) were getting to their sabbats in the wilderness undetected, and it allowed the testimony of victims and witnesses, who often insisted on dragging in broom flight, to be admitted in full.
Aphrodite riding a swan or goose, carrying staff or distaff. By Achilles the Painter, 450 bce. University of Haifa Library.

So how did people get the idea that witches were flying on brooms (or staves or animals)? The simple answer, which we’ll get to eventually, is that they really were flying. Another point to consider is the relationship between the priestess and her goddess. While the monotheistic religions (and many pagan religions as well) place a wide distance between the greatest priest/priestess and the deity, in many pagan religions a priestess can become endowed over time with the qualities of her deity. Christian theologians may have furthered this conflation between goddess and priestess by their emphatic portrayal of goddesses (whom they categorically referred to as “demons”) as the mundane part of their divine/worldly dichotomy. Sometimes in Christianized folklore the goddess even becomes a witch.

We know from myth and art that goddesses are always flying around, often with staves, distaffs or brooms, or on the backs of animals. The germanic giantess Hyrrokkin rides on the back of a wolf, and witnesses in a witch trial from Switzerland testified that the accused was seen flying on a wolf. More often the goddess is shown carrying a staff or a distaff as she flies, with or without animal support. While today the broom is the stock image, medieval and Renaissance witches were often portrayed flying on staves or distaffs. The Russian Baba Yaga, who has counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, definitely has a flying broom association. Baba Yaga is described as a witch, but her awesome powers are goddess-like. She rides through the sky at night in a mortar, using the pestle as an oar to steer. With her broom she sweeps the tracks away as she rides. Baba Yaga is an ancient crone with a huge nose almost touching her chin. She or harvest crone goddesses like her probably influenced the broomstick witch stereotype.

Flying witch with distaff on indeterminate animal doing weather magic. From Albrecht Durer's early 16th century engraving Witch Riding. Thought to be inspired by a cameo of Aphrodite Pandemos.


Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.

Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Still to come: What if they really were flying?