Pre-Hellenic Goddesses

I consulted Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths by Charlene Spretnak for some surprising information about the goddesses that were worshipped long before the Olympian gods became the main gods of classic Greece. To read the complete myths, I highly recommend Lost Goddesses of Early Greece.

Thousands of years before classical myths took form, a rich oral tradition of mythmaking had existed. These earlier goddesses that ruled the world were relegated to a lower position after three waves of barbarian invaders—the Ionians, the Achaeans and finally the Dorians, moved into Greece from 2500 to 1000 B.C. These invaders brought with them a patriarchal social order and their thunderbolt wielding God, Zeus. They were unable to completely wipe out the firmly rooted Goddess worship so they integrated these goddesses into their myths.

GAIA (GE): She is the ancient Earth Mother who brought forth the world and the human race from the gaping void called, “Chaos.” To the Greeks, the earth was the abode of the dead so the earth deity had power over the ghostly world. Gaia acquired an oracular function because dreams were believed to ascend from the realm of the dead. A priestess divined the future while in a trance as she sat on a three- legged stool over vapors arising from a crevice. She appears in records of her worship at Delphi, Athens and Aegae and was the earliest possessor of the Delphic oracle—before Poseidon, Dionysos or Apollo.

PANDORA: She is the kore, or maiden form, of the Earth Goddess. Sometimes she is called Ge, or Aneidora, (she who sends up gifts), or Pandora (giver of all gifts). In a later myth told by Hesiod, she is portrayed as a curious, troublesome girl who releases evil into the world.

THEMIS: She is another of the Earth Mother’s emanations. She is the force that binds people together— the collective conscious, the social imperative, and the social order. Her name is believed to mean “steadfast” and she became the personification of justice and righteousness. In the Olympian myths, Themis is made into a lesser goddess and allowed two functions: She summons Zeus’s assembly because he cannot summon his own assembly and she presides over feasts.

APHRODITE: She is a fertility Goddess, the primal mother of on-going creation. In Crete the epithet Antheia (flower goddess) was connected with Aphrodite at Knossos. This title reveals an old link to herbal magic and she is associated with the apple myrtle, poppy, rose and water-mint. Aphrodite is also the maker of morning dew. She came to Greece from Cyprus and was originally from western Asia. When the patriarchal order revised the story of her birth, the procreative Goddess from Asia is portrayed as having been born of sea foam caused by the severed genitals of Ouranos, who had been castrated by his son, Cronos. The tragic story of Adonis, the young shepherd she loved, is associated with the Isis/Osiris legend of Egypt in which the yearly king is sacrificed at the end of his reign.


ARTEMIS: She is the Goddess of untamed nature. Central to her worship are ecstatic dances and the sacred bough, probably derived from ancient moon tree worship, the source of immortality, secret knowledge and inspiration. Artemis assists females of all species in childbirth and gave the name artemisia to the medicinal herb now called mugwort, which is used to encourage delivery. She was worshipped throughout Greece, but was most popular in Arcadia where she lived in the wild forests and was the most virginal of the Goddesses. Another important site for her worship was Ephesus in Anatolia where her qualities of Mother Goddess were emphasized. Two early forms of Artemis were Britomaris of eastern Crete and Diktynna of western Crete. In Olympian myths Artemis is Apollo’s sister and she takes on the role of patron of hunters.

SELENE (also called Mene): is the moon Goddess who pulls the full moon across the sky with her chariot. She usually drives oxen or steers, or sometimes horses. In her early forms, she is conceived as a cow with the ancient “horns of consecration,” which form the crescent moon. Little trace of her worship has survived.

HECATE: Goddess of the waning and dark moon, she has chthonic associations and rules over ghosts and demons. Ritually prescribed food known as “Hecate’s suppers,” were offered to her as a form of purification and her image was set before homes to avert evil. She is adept at sorcery and is called “the mother of witches.” At some places in Greece, Hecate’s torches were carried around the freshly sown fields to promote their fertility. In Olympian myths she is the daughter of Hera and Zeus.

HERA: She is the Goddess of women and fertility. She is connected to the three stages of a woman’s life— maiden, fertile woman, elder. She is also connected to the three phases of the moon, which in earlier times women’s menstruation cycle followed closely the moon’s phases. Hera was worshipped throughout Greece, but her chief center was at Argos. She presided over “the sacred marriage,” the merging of the lunar cow and solar bull, which was a celebration of renewal and fertility in nature, especially of the soil. At Olympia the Goddess’ Heraion long predates the temple of Zeus where women ran races from the beginning of time. Runners were selected from three age groups representing the three phases of the moon. These girl’s races of the feast of Heraia held every four years pre-dated the boy’s races by many years. In patriarchal mythology Hera becomes the wife of Zeus and is portrayed as a jealous, vindictive wife. When the conquering Northerners pass from Dodona to Thessaly, Zeus drops his wife Dione at Dodona, and in passing from Thessaly to Olympia, he marries Hera--the conquering chieftain marries a daughter of the conquered land. Though Hera is portrayed as troublesome, in reality she reflects the turbulent native princess—coerced but never really subdued by an alien conqueror.

ATHENA (or ATHENE): She was originally a Cretan Goddess who watched over the home and town. Attributes of fertility and renewal are revealed in her association with tree (or pillar) and snake symbolism. Athena is patron of wisdom, arts and skills—she especially protects architects, sculptors, potters, spinners and weavers. She was also Goddess of the matrifocal Pelasgoi of Peloponnese. In addition to her strong following on Crete, she was worshipped at the Pre-Hellenic sites of Argos, Sparta, Troy, Smyrna, Epidaurus, Troezen and Pheneus. When the Mycenaean princes of the mainland adopted and adapted Athena, she became the shielded defender of their citadels, particularly Athens. In Olympian mythology she is firmly established as the cold, rigid Goddess of war. Her matrifocal Cretan origins are so suppressed that she is portrayed as a daughter born without a mother, having sprung fully armed from Zeus’s head.

DEMETER: She is the Grain-Mother, the giver of crops. Her origins are Cretan and she has been strongly identified with Gaia and to Isis. Every autumn the women of early Greece observed a three-day, agricultural fertility ritual, the Thesmophoria, in honor of Demeter. The three days were called the Kathodos and Anodos (Down-going and Uprising), the Nesteia (Fasting), and the Kalligeneia (Fair-Born or Fair Birth). The Thesmophoria, the Arrephoria, the Skirophoria, The Stenia and the Haloa were rites practiced by women only and were of extremely early origin. They later emerged as the Eleusinian Mysteries. These Mysteries were kept secret, but may have to do with crops and the Rite of Initiation— those who partake of the rite have better hopes concerning the end of life. Demeter is sometimes compared to Isis in that she was a Queen of the Underworld because as an Earth Mother, she could pass between the two realms. At certain places in Greece, she was worshipped as “Demeter Chthonia,” and in Athens the dead were called Demetreioi, “Demeter’s People.” She not only brought all things to life, but when they died, they were received back into her bosom.

PERSEPHONE: She is Demeter’s daughter, the Kore, or Grain-Maiden who embodies the new crop. As the daughter of Demeter (the Maiden form), Persephone may have also ruled the Underworld. The Olympian story about the “rape of Persephone” is not part of the original mythology. This may be a historical reference to the invasion of the northern Zeus-worshippers. The original myth is very ancient and is a widely revered story of mother and daughter. It long pre-dates the Judeo-Christian deification of father and son.

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