THE NATURE OF THE DIVINEAdded: 08 June 2017
In a similar way to Native American Gods, the major Mexican Gods belonged to the directions; their domiciles were in the four quarters. In the north lived Tezcatlipoca, in the south Huitzilopochtli, in the east Tlaloc, and in the west, Quetzalcoatl.
The most important of these Gods, arguably, was Huitzilopochtli, the great Warrior God whose name meant “The Hummingbird that Comes from the South,” or “from the Left,” a euphemism for the Underworld, and associated with the element of fire. His ferocity meant that he was the subject of much worship; the figure of a giant hummingbird appears in the figures of the Nazca Lines. This God was born fully armed and immediately avenged all those who had believed that his mother, Coatlicue, had become pregnant by dishonorable means; in fact, Coatlicue, like the Virgin Mary, was extremely pious. One day while she was sweeping the temple, an archetypal symbolic “message from the Gods” fell on her head in the form of a small bundle of hummingbird feathers, and shortly afterwards she realized that she was expecting a child, its divine provenance assured.
Coatlicue herself is an important personage within the Aztec pantheon. Her name means “Mother of the Gods,” a fitting title for a Goddess that gave birth to the stars and the Moon. Wearing a skirt made of serpents and a necklace of human hearts and skulls that she might have borrowed from Kali, the great Indian deity, Coatlicue is the great Earth Goddess who, again like Kali, is the creator as well as the destroyer. The three other Gods of the elements and directions have equally exotic stories. The northern God, Tezcatlipoca, was the Sun God, the positive aspect of whom was that he ripened the harvest, the negative that he also brought drought. Appropriately, Tezcatlipoca sometimes appeared as a shadow or as a jaguar. At night, he stalked the earth in a gray cloak.
Tlaloc, the eastern God, governed the mountains and water in all its forms. He watered the earth with four vast jugs of liquid, and each of these jugs symbolized the different aspect of the seasons: growth, blight, frost, and destruction. Tlaloc was the deity to whom most sacrifices were made. Horrifically, babies were purchased in order to be killed in his honor. The babies were cooked and eaten by the priests. The more the babies and children wept, the better the sacrifice was considered to be.
The western God, Quetzalcoatl, is personified as a snake/bird and, like the Greek God Hermes, has many talents. He was patron of every art and craft and the inventor of metalworking, a civilizing influence on humankind. Quetzalcoatl decided to leave his people, driven out by other Gods. He burned his house and hid his treasure and headed east into the rising Sun, promising to return. When the Spanish invaders appeared in the Aztec lands, wearing glittering breastplates, they were hailed as the returning Quetzalcoatl and the Emperor Montezuma welcomed them with gifts. One of these gifts included the famous snake mask, made of precious turquoises.
Prior to their conquest by the Incas, the Peruvians of ancient times had a totemistic religion, worshipping animals, plants, and stones whose names they also took. This animal worship even extended so far as to suppose that animals were their God-like ancestors. Their protective spirits were called Huacas.
The Incas brought with them a worship of the Sun that replaced the earlier totemistic beliefs. The Sun God, Apu Puncha (“Head of the Day”) was the ancestor of all Incas, and had a human form with a flaming golden halo. The Moon Goddess, Mama Quilla, was the wife of Apu Puncha. Like her husband, she was represented as a human figure with a silver halo, like moonbeams. Her main role was as the protector of married women. Other heavenly divinities that surrounded the Sun God and the Moon Goddess were the rainbow, Cuycha, and Catequil the deity of thunder and lightning, his sling and mace echoing the traditional weapons of storm gods. Children were sacrificed to Catequil and twins were venerated, believed to belong to him.
In contrast to other cultures, the planet Venus was personified as a masculine deity, advisor to the Sun and the protector of girls and the Moon Goddess. All the other planets were the handmaidens of Mama Quilla. The Pleiades was the most respected constellation since it was the great crop-protector.
The Earth was personified as the Great Mother, Pachamama; so no difference here from many other belief systems.
NATIVE AMERICAN DEITIES
It is not possible, here, to take more than a cursory glance at some of the deities that belong to some of the many Native American peoples. However, there are overarching tenets that seem, largely, to apply to all tribes.
One of these notions is that of a universal presence, a sexless all-pervasiveness that is similar to the One God or Brahman in Hindu belief. Called the Great Spirit, this largely benevolent Supreme Being governs the Happy Hunting Grounds, a place similar to the Christian concept of Heaven. Indeed, the underlying idea of the Great Spirit meant that the notion of a single, paternal Christian God sat quite comfortably with many tribespeople. There is even a legend of the Great Spirit’s gift of a set of inscribed stone tablets similar to those given by God to Moses.
Native American beliefs are essentially animistic; that is, they believe that every aspect of the natural world has its own spirit, sometimes called the Manitou. Totem poles are the personification of this idea. A key idea, for the Hopi and Pueblo, is the existence of Kachina, the “life bringer.” A Kachina can be a physical object or being as well as a conceptual idea of a “life bringer.” A Kachina has its own spirit; a poor analogy would be to say that the “Christmas Spirit” is a kind of Kachina. Kachinas are honored with dolls that are used to explain the concept to children, in songs and dances, and are personified as Kachina masks.
Here is a brief look at some of the deities of the Native American pantheon. Iyatiku is a Corn Goddess of the Pueblos. Like Demeter she emerges from the Underworld, the place from which all of humankind is also born, underlining her aspect as an icon of fertility. The food that she provides sprouts from pieces of her heart that she plants across all four quarters of the world. As befits a Mother Goddess, a cave or cavern is included among the symbols that represent her.
Muut belongs to the Cahuilla culture, and is the Goddess of Death, personified as an owl. The Cahuilla saw death as simply a necessary part of life; as such Muut is a benevolent deity who guides souls into the Afterlife.
Originally a deity of the ancient Hopi Indians, Kokopeli is a Fertility God, encompassing the very embodiment of the creative force. He’s portrayed as a dancing, shockheaded figure. Earlier, less sanitized versions of Kokopeli portray him with a prominent phallus, symbol of the male creative force that is echoed in the flute that he plays. Sometimes feared by young girls because of the babies he distributes from the sack on his back, Kokopeli similarly organizes the reproduction of animals, in particular those that are hunted.
The magical power of Kokopeli’s musical abilities is renowned. With his flute, he can chase away the winter and herald the spring, as well as calling on the fructifying rains. He has been around for a long time-the first effigies of Kokopeli date back to AD 1000. Latterly, he has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, dancing his way across T-shirts, baseball caps, and other souvenirs of Native Americana.
The Horned Serpent, which goes under numerous other names, is a key God in Native American mythologies, venerated in the landscape at the Serpent Mound, for example, as well as in innumerable pieces of rock art and cave paintings.
What we know of Celtic beliefs comes down to us from written accounts preserved since the Middle Ages, and in some of the descriptions of the Romans who invaded the Celtic territories. The landscape of the Celts extended through a large area and included parts of Spain and France as well as southern Britain, including, of course, Ireland and Wales. This Celtic landscape is still liberally sprinkled with evidence of the old beliefs; their earthworks and burial mounds are significant symbols in the landscape themselves. The Horned God, Cernunnos, is a major Celtic divinity, as is Dagda.
Dagda, a deity from Ireland, was the Father of all the Gods, written about in the stories of the Tuatha de Danaan, “The People of the Goddess Dana.” Dagda was not one of the most attractive Gods; he appears ugly and pot-bellied, wearing the rough clothes and rude sandals of the peasant. Dagda carries a club so colossal that it drags along the ground, making furrows and dykes. Dagda’s other great tool was a magical cauldron that never emptied; this cauldron appears time and time again in myths, and one of its symbolic meanings is of eternal life. Dagda is a Fertility God, and in common with other Gods had to undergo a challenge. His was a curious one. He had to eat a vast quantity of porridge that appeared in a crater. This happened on November 1, the time of the greatest feasts of the year, the old New Year that coincides with Halloween or Samhuin. One of Dagda’s more attractive skills was as a harpist, the beautiful tunes he plays orchestrating the turnings of the seasons.
There are several different interpretations of the symbol for the Horned God, one of the better-known being the “upside down” pentacle. The uppermost two points do look a little like horns. The manifestations of this ancient deity are many: Cernunnos in Celtic tales, the Greek God Pan, the Egyptian Aamon. With the coming of Christianity, the old pagan Horned Gods were lent a more sinister image than their previous reputation as the male aspect of the nature God. The Horned God was turned into the Devil.
One of the major Celtic Gods, when Lugh asked to become a member of the celestial elite called the Tuatha de Danaan he was asked what skill he could contribute. When he replied that he was a carpenter, the response was there was a carpenter already. Therefore, Lugh volunteered his services as a smith; again, the Tuatha already had someone with this skill. However, the persistent Lugh put all his cards on the table and offered his talents as a warrior, harpist, historian, poet, and sorcerer, all skills that underline the multi-talented nature of this God. In this, Lugh has close parallels with Mercury/Hermes/Thoth. There was no single person in the Tuatha with all these skills, so Lugh was admitted.
A more advanced and sophisticated God than Dagda, he had more elegant tools than the other God’s giant club. Lugh had a spear and a sling. Lugh was a God of Light, a solar deity whose immortality has been assured in place names such as Lewes, on the south coast of Britain, and even in England’s capital city London. Lyons and Loudon in France, and Leiden in the Netherlands, also show the importance of the God. Lugh is honored with the festival of Lughnasadh at the beginning of August, which later became absorbed into Christianity as Lammas. Lughnasadh marked the beginning of the harvest, a time for weddings and handfastings. In modern Irish, the God gives his name to the month of August, La Lunasa.
Rhiannon’s name derives from Rigantona, which means Great Queen, the same meaning as the Morrigan.
The Welsh/Celtic Goddess is aligned so closely with the Roman Epona that it is likely that they are one and the same. Both are associated with horses, underlining the ineffable importance of the creature.
Rhiannon first appears in the Mabinogi, the Celtic hero-myths. She is introduced as a beautiful woman, dressed in a golden gown, seated on a snow-white horse. Pwyll, the hero, tries to catch up with her but this proves impossible despite the seemingly relaxed pace of Rhiannon’s horse and the speed of his own mount. Eventually he calls out to her, and she stops to speak. It seems that she’s been promised to another but is handily in love with Pwyll, so they prepare to marry. The labyrinthine tale that follows, which in the original Celtic tradition would have been passed on orally rather than written down, involves magic, shape-shifting, and the birth of a son that disappears. The six women who were meant to be taking care of the child panic after his disappearance, and squarely frame Rhiannon. When she awoke, she was daubed with the blood from a puppy and surrounded by its bones. Rhiannon is accused of eating her baby, and despite her protestations, she is punished, forced to tell her story to every passing stranger and to carry them on her back if necessary; Rhiannon is changed into a horse.
As well as horses, Rhiannon is also associated with otherworldly birds, and inspired the Stevie Nicks song “Rhiannon.” The Birds of Rhiannon sing so beautifully that they not only send the living to sleep, but also raise the dead. Both horses and birds are psychopomp creatures, that is, they conduct the souls of the dead on the journey to the Underworld.
There is a white horse carved into the landscape at the Iron Age hill fort of Uffington, in the south of England. It may be that this horse was carved into the landscape in honor of Epona/Rhiannon.
The ancient Egyptians had many Gods, many of them hybridized humans/animals. Animals themselves were deified and accorded due reverence, the more dangerous the animal the greater its worship. The Crocodile God, Sobek, for example, had its own city, Crocodilopolis. The pharaoh was also considered to be as one with the Gods, and was deified after his death.
The nine Gods of Eliopoulos, the City of the Sun, were Atum, Geb, Isis, Nut, Osiris, Nephthys, Set, Shu, and Tefnut.
This Egyptian God has close parallels with Hermes, whose ubiquity is reflected in different Gods from cultures all over the world. This close association would see the God later renamed Hermanubis. Like Hermes, Anubis also has the caduceus as his attribute. Anubis symbolizes his status as a conductor of souls by his head, which is that of a jackal, a creature that is also a psychopomp. Anubis presided over the process of embalming, considered essential if the soul were to have any form of life after death. Funerary prayers and offerings were made almost exclusively to Anubis.
Anubis had been abandoned by his mother, Nephthys, and was adopted by Isis. Isis, Osiris, and Anubis shared the same father, Ra, the Sun God. When Osiris died, it was Anubis that invented the funeral rites and the all-important process of mummification. Known as the “Lord of the Mummy Wrappings,” Anubis also had the ability to take the hand of the deceased and guide them toward the judges who then weighed his soul.
The Greeks rendered the name of the Egyptian Goddess Eset as Isis. She was considered the supreme Mother Goddess, parent of all the other deities. As such, she personifies all the qualities of the other Goddesses. Both the sister and consort of Osiris, her contribution to the civilization of Egypt was to teach spinning, weaving, and the grinding of corn to the women, and the art of healing the sick to the men. She also introduced the idea of marriage and therefore domesticity. This would make it appear that, like the Roman Hestia, Isis had started out her journey as a Goddess of the Hearth, but in a legend that reinforces the power of the knowledge of a magical name, when she learned the secret name of the Sun God, Ra, she became his equal. Drops of her blood gave life to every living creature in the Universe. The ankh, a magical symbol of rebirth, belongs to Isis. Her name has been used in tandem with mystery cults and secret organizations-the Fellowship of Isis, for example.
The fame of Isis spread far and wide and was not restricted to Egypt. Her influence even extended as far as the Rhine. She was called, like Mary the mother of Christ, the Star of the Sea. However, in the sixth century AD her temple at Philae was turned into a Christian church. Like the Eleusinian mysteries that celebrated the Goddess Demeter, elaborate festivals were held in honor of Isis that similarly taught initiates the secrets of death and rebirth.
Isis brought another great revelation to mankind. This was the art of embalming, and therefore of eternal life. When his brother cut Osiris’ body into fourteen parts, Isis painstakingly reconstructed the body. The only missing part was his penis, which had been devoured by a crab. Thereafter, this creature was cursed in Egypt.
Again, the Greeks have given us the most familiar name of one of the most important Gods of Egypt, Ousir. Initially a God of Nature, Osiris is identified with other Gods who die and are reborn again. Egyptians worshipped him as the God of the Dead, which helps explain the fascination with all things morbid. As with other mighty Gods, his power is indicated in the sheer number of his names. More than a hundred are listed in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Osiris was the eldest son of the Sky Goddess, Nut and the Earth God, Geb. His grandfather was Ra. His sister, Isis, was also his queen; thus the pair symbolizes the perfect union of male and female energies. Osiris proved a civilizing influence, teaching his people the arts of agriculture and dissuading them from cannibalism. His ways were gentle and just, a lover of music who invented two different kinds of flute. Osiris’ power spread far and wide, his civilizing influence having a profound effect throughout Asia. There was a cloud on the horizon, though, in the form of his jealous brother, who assassinated him. We have already explained how Isis painstakingly reconstructed his body. Osiris manifested in numerous animal forms; Onuphis, the bull, the Ram of Mendes that inspired the curious tale of the Goat of Mendes, and in the Benu bird which has similarities to the phoenix, also a bird of death and resurrection. Osiris was celebrated in his own mystery cults that, like the Eleusinian mysteries, instructed its acolytes in the secrets of death and rebirth.
Mount Olympus, in Greece, is a sacred mountain archetype and the home to the mighty beings that are called, collectively the Olympians or the Dodekatheon (twelve gods). Twelve is, of course, a sacred number belonging not only to the number of solar months in a year but is also the number of fulfillment. So, who were this divine dozen? Although there were more than twelve beings that lived on top of the mountain, the twelve principal ones are:
1. Zeus: The Father. Like Odin, a God of Thunder and King of all the Gods; his kingdom, the sky itself. Dispenser of justice, his word is law.
2. Hera: The Mother. Consort of Zeus, Queen of the Gods, personification of the maternal aspect, ruler of marriage and motherhood.
3. Poseidon: The mighty God that rules over the sea. Also has dominion over horses and earthquakes.
4. Ares: Not to be confused with Aries, Ares is the God of War and bloodshed. The two are sometimes confused, though, especially since Mars, the planet of war, rules the astrological sign of Aries.
5. Hermes: The Messenger of the Gods, whose distinctive attribute is his winged sandals and the Caduceus he holds. Scribe and recorder to the Gods.
6. Hephaestus: Ruler over fire and forges, Hephaestus is the blacksmith of the Gods, making magically empowered weapons.
7. Aphrodite: Goddess of Beauty, love, and sexual desire.
8. Athena: Goddess of Wisdom, often accompanied by an owl as a sign of her sagacity and access to occluded information.
9. Apollo: The glorious Sun God, governor of light, music, poetry, and beauty.
10. Artemis: Goddess of the Hunt, often depicted with a quiver of arrows and a bow. Artemis is also the Moon Goddess and the Goddess of Virgins.
11. Demeter: Goddess of the Harvest, agriculture, and fertility.
12. Hestia: Goddess of the Home and the hearth.
The family relationships of these Gods are labyrinthine. Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, and Hades were all siblings. Hades, as God of the Underworld, does not figure among the Olympians although he is of course a key God; his realm is the world of the dead that lies in the nether regions, not on top of a mountain. Persephone, too, spends some of her time with the other Gods but also belongs to the Underworld where she spends four months of the year. Hermes, Hephaestus, Artemis, Apollo, and Ares are children of Zeus by various mothers. Athena was born from the forehead of her father Zeus, and Aphrodite was born from the castrated phallus of the sky that existed prior to the Creation.
The cereals we eat as part of our breakfast take their name from the Roman Goddess Ceres, whose Greek counterpart is Demeter. It was this Goddess who gave mankind the secrets of agriculture, a pivotal skill that has had a profound effect on human kind, the cultivation of plants itself a perfect symbol for a different kind of cultivation as man made the transition from savage to civilized.
Any deity who has jurisdiction over the crops and fertility understandably holds immense power, and the worship of Demeter was the primary focus of the Eleusinian mysteries that celebrated the profound secrets of death and rebirth. The winter season was explained, lyrically, as signifying Demeter’s journey to the Underworld to seek out her lost daughter, Persephone; during this time, she neglected her earthly duties and so all the plants and vegetation disappeared.
The cereal and grain crops, which were this Goddess’s gifts to humankind, gave us bread, a staple item that nourishes on two levels, spiritual and material.
Hecate is the great Greek Queen of the Underworld and the Moon Goddess who is often among those that are referred to as the Triple Goddess. Famously, Hecate is also the Queen of the Witches, and has two opposing aspects. She is the benevolent Goddess that brings prosperity, protects man at sea and ensures that farmers and sailors reap a bountiful harvest. However, she also has a terrifying, demonic aspect as the Goddess of the Dead, associated with ghosts and nightmares, mistress of sorcery, and summoned by incantations.
As well as personifying the three phases of the Moon’s cycle (new, waxing/waning, and full) she also embodies the three parts of the Universe; Heaven, Hell, and Earth. As befits the Sorcerer Queen, Hecate rules over spells, charms, and enchantments; she sends demons down to Earth to torture men; she haunts crossroads, graveyards, and tombs, often appearing with her pack of hellhounds. Symbolic of the dark side, Hecate is also a symbol of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths that are full of fear and swarming with monsters.
Hermes appears in a number of guises, as befits a God with trickster tendencies. His talents are numerous, his attributes diverse. His Celtic equivalent is the God Lugh, who is referred to by Julius Caesar as “the inventor of all arts and crafts.” He also appears as Thoth, the great Egyptian God who invented writing and was the scribe of the Gods, as well as the judge of the human soul and mediator between man and God. In yet another guise, there are parallels with the great angel Metatron. The word “Mercury” shares its root with mercator, “merchant,” indicating his interest in marketing and trade. The most immediately recognizable symbol that belongs to Hermes is his winged sandals, indicating swift movement and the powers of flight. This makes him an effective messenger of the Gods. Originally he moved between Zeus and the Gods of the Underworld, Persephone and Hades, so was able to move easily in and out of different worlds, the world of the living and of the dead; he is also a God of the Dead. In his guise as the ibisheaded Thoth, he is also the patron of science and literature, inventions, and wisdom. His trickster skills make Mercury the God of Thieves, too. Communication of all kinds belongs to this God, his image used, for example, by telecommunication companies.
This versatile deity also appears as Hermes Trismegistus, the founding father of alchemy. The magical gifts that Hermes Trismegistus brought to humankind include the divinatory arts as well as music. The great Emerald Tablet that is the cornerstone of the Great Work in alchemy is a riddle, written in such an oblique way that it has several interpretations. It is said that Mercury brings our attention to great mysteries, but also gives us the means to unravel these mysteries. In Greek myth, Hermes made the first lyre, constructing it from the shell of a tortoise and using the guts of a sacrificed bull for strings. He also made the first flute, which he swapped with Apollo for lessons in magic as well as a golden Caduceus, another of his attributes.
Many deities from one religious discipline will have a counterpart with very similar attributes in another. However, Janus, a Roman God, appears to be unique although there is a link between him and the Greek God Chaos. As the God of Doorways, Janus’ defining feature is that he has two heads. As well as this distinction, he also carries a key, to lock and unlock the doors and gates he guards, and a stick to drive away anyone who had no right to cross the threshold.
Because he is the God of Gates, Janus is, by extension, ruler of arrivals and departures and of communication. He is also God of Beginnings and has jurisdiction over the daybreak, effectively allowing the Sun to enter through the eastern gate of the sky. At the time before the creation of the Universe and all the elements were a formless mass, Janus was called Chaos; after their separation and the coming of order, his name changed to Janus, but he still rules the time of transition. The month of January was named for Janus, who looks back to the old year and forward to the new. Janus also inspired the title of janitor, the earthly ruler of doorways and corridors. He was honored on the first day of every month.
Persephone is one of the Underworld or chthonic deities, the consort of Hades, its King. She is the daughter of the Harvest Goddess, Demeter. Before she was kidnapped and carried off into the Underworld, Persephone was named Kore or Cora, meaning “the maiden.” She appears in some accounts as the daughter of Zeus and Demeter but occasionally Styx, the nymph of the underworld river, is named as her mother. Accounts of Persephone’s story vary. According to one, she was gathering flowers in a field when the ground beneath her feet opened up and she was abducted by Hades. Demeter abandoned all her duties in order to look for her daughter. During her time in the Underworld Persephone was induced to eat a seed from the pomegranate, itself a symbol of fertility and sexual awakening and a euphemism for the loss of her virginity. However, because she had broken the obligatory fast that should be observed by those in the Underworld, she was tied to Hades, and when her mother found her again she had to promise to spend part of the year with him. Persephone, therefore, is symbolic of seasonal change.
The symbols attached to Persephone that allow us to recognize her are the pomegranate, the bat, and the narcissus flower. Worship of Persephone was a key feature of the Eleusinian mysteries. Incidentally, fairy tales also advise against eating anything from fairyland, since by accepting such food the person is trapped there.
THE HINDU PANTHEON
The system of Hindu deities is vast and complex, a multi-layered society of Gods and Goddesses that encompass a colorful spectrum of personalities. The concept of karma, the rule of cause and effect based on cosmic harmony and balance, is fundamental to Hinduism. The deities themselves are either aspects of the Supreme Being (Brahman), or more personalized, human representations of it (Bhagavan), or otherwise they are Devas, powerful in their own right. The stories of the Hindu deities are many and varied, and to confuse matters even further, each has different aspects of his or her divine self, such as appearing with, or riding on, an animal, when the beast becomes the “vehicle” of the God. The Brahman has three aspects. As the creator, it is Brahma. As the preserver, it is Vishnu. As the destroyer, it is Shiva. Each of these three aspects has aspects of its own, but all come back to one Supreme Being that has neither gender nor age: Brahman. Having said that, the Gods and Goddesses themselves are distinctly gender affiliated. The male Gods are called Devas, the female Goddesses Devis. Use of this epithet for humans acknowledges the divine being within. The Devas and Devis appear in the paintings, art, and statuary that thickly cluster all manifestations of Hindu culture.
Hindus affiliate themselves to the aspect of the Supreme Being that most appeals. Notwithstanding, there’s a mutual respect for all the Gods and for people’s right to choose.
Sometimes, Gods take on human form in order to assist humanity in some way. These beings are called Avatars, and in many ways equate to Christ who similarly came to Earth to help mankind toward ultimate enlightenment and the journey to God. In contrast to Christianity, where Christ is believed only to have come to Earth the one time, in Hinduism the Avatar can reincarnate repeatedly, as and when necessary. One of the most famous Avatars is Rama; the stories in the Ramayana are about his adventures, and the Bhagavad Gita is the collected spiritual wisdoms of Krishna, the Avatar of Vishnu. Each of the Devas or Devis has a particular attribute that identifies it, and gorgeously elaborate stories explain these attributes. Ganesh is the popular elephant-headed God that removes obstacles, and Lakshmi is the Goddess of Good Fortune, often appearing in shops and business places and attracted into the home by the elaborate rice powder rangoli drawings at the threshold of houses. Sarasvati is the Goddess of Learning, inspiring students and teachers alike.
It is true to say that these divine beings and their attributes are symbols of Man’s own qualities and an excellent way for human beings to focus on their skills, a way of externalizing what is within and a means of focus. Psychologically speaking Hinduism is a very clever system designed to bring out the best in people. Ramakrishna, the Hindu saint, studied many other religions including Islam and Christianity, and wisely observed that “the truth is One; the wise call it by various names.”
We’ve already mentioned Ganesh as the remover of obstacles. Although Ganesh is also the deity of intelligence and wisdom, the obstacle-removing ability makes him one of the most popular Gods of the Hindu pantheon. It’s worth remembering that Ganesh can also place obstacles in the way of people as a form of education. But how did he come about his curious hybrid appearance? There are several versions of the story.
As guardian of the gate of his mother Parvati, in his enthusiasm to do his job properly, one day he tried to prevent Shiva, his father, from entering. The result was that the young man’s head was cut off. Shiva decided that the head of the first passing animal should replace his son’s human head. This animal happened to be an elephant. Ganesh was restored to life with the addition of this unwieldy head, and given his name, which means “elephant head.” Ganesh sometimes appears standing on a rat or a mouse, an unlikely “vehicle” that was given to him by a contemptuous demon. However, the mouse itself is a symbol. The word “mouse” comes from the Sanskrit musaka, which means “thief,” because mice steal valuable grain. The mouse itself, therefore, is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
Kali, as the Hindu Goddess who is not only a protector and a loving mother but also a vengeful destroyer, has parallels with Hecate from the Greek pantheon. Kali is instantly recognizable; her name means “dark,” and her appearance is quite fearsome. She appears with dark blue or black skin, long disheveled tresses of black hair, furious red eyes, sharp teeth, a protruding tongue and her distinctive necklace of human skulls. Sometimes she wears a skirt made of human arms. She herself has four (or sometimes ten) arms; in common with other divinities that have supernumerary limbs or heads, this signifies superhuman powers. Kali is often depicted standing over a corpse. In each of her four hands, she carries a sword, a severed head, a trident or trishul, and a kapala or skull cup that catches the blood from the head.
Like Hecate, Kali frequents the places of the dead, cremation grounds in particular. Her consort Shiva, who is also associated with these places, has his skin colored white from the ashes of the corpses. His pale skin contrasts with the black skin of Kali, the two contrasting shades a reminder of opposing forces. As befits a Goddess with such frightening associations and with a reputation for violence, Kali is treated with awe, respect, and not a little fear. She symbolizes death as well as salvation. In her more benign aspect, however, she appears as a smiling figure, hands raised in the boon-giving gesture, young, generous, beautiful, and maternal.
In Tantric practices, Kali is revered as the most powerful of Goddesses, and has her own meditation symbol or yantra, featuring in the center of the inverted triangle or yoni symbol. She is held to be the divine essence of the Mother Goddess, the highest reality and the female element, known as Shakti. Her universality means that she rules over all five of the elements.
To come face-to-face with Kali is to face the reality of death, and all the symbolism of this Goddess acts as a reminder of the need to come to terms with this reality.
Sarasvati is the wife of Brahma, the God of Gods who created the world. The Goddess of Wisdom, knowledge, and music, Sarasvati often appears with a stringed musical instrument called a vina. She is also identified by her beauty and her four arms, the supernumerary limbs, themselves symbols of power, also represent the four aspects of learning: intellect, mind, ego, and alertness.
Sarasvati, as befits a feminine deity, is a water Goddess and was in ancient times also personified as a river that bore her name, which is now dried up. A swan sometimes accompanies Sarasvati. This bird, if offered a mixture of milk and water, would select only the milk, therefore symbolizing discrimination. Adherents to the Sarasvati cult make offerings of honey to their Goddess, because honey is synonymous with perfect knowledge.
Sarasvati gave a great gift to humanity-the alphabet.
Interestingly, the Gods of Norse/ Teutonic mythology were never really considered as being immortal, but were humans with super powers. There were two tribes of Gods: the Aesir, or ferocious Warrior Gods, and the Vanir, deities of a more peaceful and benevolent disposition. The two tribes unified to fight the Giants.
Freya was so lovely that she was the constant source of attention from the other Gods. As befits a person of such beauty, Freya ruled over love, fertility, and beauty. She was also the leader of the Valkyries, and as such she escorted fallen warriors back to the banqueting halls of Valhalla.
Freya was particularly fond of lovely things. Once, when she found four dwarves making a gorgeous necklace, her desire to possess it was so great that she readily agreed to sleep with all of them in return for it.
She can be recognized by a small falcon, which often accompanies her. She also had a cloak of feathers, which enabled her to fly.
Wotan/Odin is the chief God of the Scandinavian pantheon. His attributes are numerous and seemingly conflict with one another; he is not only God of War and death, but also of poetry, prophecy, and of victory. His name comes from the same root as wuten, which means “to rage,” and the idea of this fury surrounds the God. He is the God of Thunder, heard on stormy nights raging in the sky with his army of slain soldiers. Wotan was the God invoked by the Saxons and the Angles when they invaded Britain in the fifth century, and his influence was all-pervasive.
How do you recognize Wotan? To humankind, he often appears in the guise as a simple traveler, wearing shabby clothing and a widebrimmed hat. However, when he appears in his true form he is a magnificent sight. He rides Sleipnir, his ultra speedy eight-legged horse that can gallop across water as though it were solid earth, and he is accompanied by two ravens, Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory), who report back to him every evening the events in the lives of men. As if all this were not remarkable enough, Wotan has only one eye. He gave away the other to Mimir, the demon that lives in among the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in exchange for a drink of water from the well of wisdom that sprung up from the base of the tree.
Wotan is eloquent, speaking in verse. Like Mercury whom the Romans likened him to, he brought language to his people, apparently dangling upside down in a tree for nine days and nights, pierced with his own spear, in order that he should learn the secrets of the runes. This curious ordeal was akin to a shamanistic rite of passage that would guarantee his own resurrection. Wotan rules the same day of the week as Mercury, too-Wednesday (Wotan’s day), which equates to Mercredi (Mercury’s day) in French, of course. Wotan rules over Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain, where dead warriors are brought by the Valkyries, under the command of their leader Freya, in order to prepare themselves for the final battle, Ragnarok, which will mark the end of the world.
Many of the deities of the Dahomey people of Africa, from Benin, appear in the Voudon religion, which is an amalgam of beliefs from West Africa with Christianity. One of Voudon’s creation myths shares similarities with the idea of the creation of the world in Judaism and Christianity, but whereas the Abrahamic God apparently needed six days to create the world, the primary Dahomey deity, the androgynous Mawu Lisa, needed only four. On the first day the world was made; on the second, all plant and animal life was brought into being. On the third day, humans were given intellect and languages; and on the fourth day, the far-sighted God created technology.
In Voudon, there are many different loas, or spirits that have attained a God-like status. These loas are able to possess the human body, which is the aim of many of the trance-inducing ceremonies of the faith. The spirits split into two categories: the Rada, who offer protection and guidance and are generally seen to be quite benevolent; and the Petro, who are less forgiving, and more associated with the darker side of Voudon magic. Each loa has aspects of both in its personality.
ERZULIE FREDA DAHOMEY
Erzulie is a family of such loa spirits, with Erzulie Freda Dahomey being a very “girly” sort of entity, much concerned with romance, dancing, flowers, beauty, and love. Often portrayed wearing three wedding rings, one for each of her husbands, Erzulie Freda Dahomey is further identified by the heart symbol and by the feminine colors of gold and pink. Erzulie Freda Dahomey is the embodiment of the feminine spirit, which means that she also has a dark side, the Petro side. Balanced against her coquettish playfulness is an aspect that is lazy, jealous, and spoiled. In this aspect she is depicted with a child in one arm and holding a knife.