Mother Goddess: Names & Explanation

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about mother goddesses through the mythology of the Babylonians, Greeks, and Egyptians. Explore the some examples of complex female deities in the ancient world.

Mother Goddesses

Throughout human history, people have used myths and stories to make sense of the world around them and to provide examples of proper behavior. Many cultures have stories of a mother goddess, a female figure who is usually a wife and mother. Throughout the world we can find stories of mother goddesses who helped to create life and provide food and shelter for humankind.

Ancient Babylon

According to the Babylonians, Tiamat was the primordial mother of the world. Tiamat and her husband (or wife depending on the story), Apsu, created many new gods. From these gods, more new gods of the sky, the earth, and the underworld were created.

With the increasing number of gods inhabiting the world, things became so noisy that Tiamat and Apsu were unable to get the rest that they needed. They became so annoyed with the constant noise of their children and grandchildren that they discussed killing all of them. One of their grandchildren, Ea the All-Knowing, found out about their plan and used his magical powers to capture and kill Apsu. Tiamat was so furious that she created an army of horrible monsters and set them loose on the world.

Ea and his siblings were terribly afraid of Tiamat and her army of monsters; however, one of them, Marduk, agreed to fight Tiamat if the other gods would agree that he was the most powerful of all of the gods. The other gods agreed that Marduk would be their leader and they gave him a scepter, a throne, and an invincible weapon.

Armed with his invincible weapon, Marduk began his battle with Tiamat during a raging hurricane. He caught her in his net and when she opened her mouth to try and swallow him, Marduk guided the hurricane into her mouth instead. With Tiamat stunned and disoriented Marduk shot an arrow into her belly and killed her. Marduk caught her army of monsters and cast them into the underworld.

A carving of Marduk fighting a monster
A carving of Marduk fighting a monster

Marduk cut Tiamat's body in half and from the upper half he created the sky. From the lower half of Tiamat's body, Marduk created the earth, and from her blood Marduk created the first humans. In recognition of his triumphs, the other gods made Marduk the king of the gods and bestowed all their powers on him. For the Babylonians, Tiamat was a complicated mother goddess. Although she battled against Marduk and the other gods, her body provided for the creation and shelter of humans.

Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome

In ancient Greece, we can find another example of a mother goddess. According to Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of life and nurtured growing things, especially crops. Demeter provided nourishment to the crops and through them to the Greek people. In addition to protecting crops, Demeter was also interested in keeping marriages together and in presiding over the life cycle of humans and other animals.

According to Greek mythology, Demeter had a daughter named Persephone, who helped her to keep the land and people of Greece happy and healthy. Persephone was a beautiful young woman and she eventually caught the eye of Hades, the god of the underworld. Hades attempted to court young Persephone; however, Persephone was afraid of the older god. Hades eventually tired of courting her and kidnapped Persephone and made her the queen of the underworld. Demeter had no idea where Persephone had gone and she searched the world for her lost daughter. While Demeter searched in vain, the seasons stopped, the crops withered and died, and the people of Greece suffered greatly.

An illustration of Hades kidnapping Persephone, from the Palace of Versailles
An illustration of Hades kidnapping Persephone, from the Palace of Versailles

Zeus, the leader of the Greek gods, became concerned and asked Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades agreed to allow Persephone to return to the earth; however, he gave her a pomegranate from the underworld to eat on her journey back to her mother. For each piece of pomegranate Persephone ate, she was bound for a certain period of time to return to the underworld and live with Hades. By the time she returned to her mother, Persephone had eaten all of the pomegranate seeds. Because she had eaten the seeds, Persephone had to return to Hades every year for three months.

According to the Greeks, during the part of the year that Persephone had to live with Hades, Demeter, in her sadness, would let all the crops and plants wither and die. When Persephone returned each year, Demeter would bring all the plants and crops into bloom in celebration. For the ancient Greeks, the story of their mother goddess, Demeter, helped to explain the changing of the seasons. The ancient Romans incorporated the story of Demeter and Persephone into their mythology as well; however, they called Demeter by the name Ceres, which is where our modern word 'cereal' comes from.

Temple of Demeter in Greece
Temple of Demeter in Greece

Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians believed in another mother goddess named Isis. Isis was the goddess of nature and magic and was worshipped by the Egyptians as the perfect wife and mother. Isis helped to protect slaves, artists, and the downtrodden as well as children and babies.

According to the ancient Egyptians, Isis was married to her brother Osiris. The Egyptian pharaohs often married their siblings to emulate Isis and Osiris. The couple was very happy together; however, their brother Set became very jealous and wanted Isis for himself.

Painting of Isis and Osiris
Painting of Isis and Osiris

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