Praying For Life – Top 10 Ancient Fertility Goddesses
Throughout the ancient history of the world, polytheism - commonly known as paganism or heathenism - was the defining aspect of all societies and civilizations. Our ancestors had complex and widespread beliefs that were closely related to their lives and the everyday occurrences around them. This was the belief in nature - in the yearly natural cycles, life and death, rain and sun, and above all fertility.
They personified these natural aspects and gave them names, imagined them as men and women - powerful deities that could be appeased to help with crops, childbirth, or victory in war. And today we are exploring perhaps the most common of these beliefs, a cult that was the central part of all pagan religions - fertility. And as nature intricately connects fertility with femininity, goddesses were revered. Today we are traveling to all corners of the world to seek out these loving mothers and lustful seductresses - from the European Germanic cults, to the distant and vicious South American deities, all the way to the natural and peaceful goddesses of Slavic myths.
The Ancient Origins of Fertility Goddesses
Fertility and the female form are deeply connected by nature itself, and the earliest forms of worship in the world were connected exactly to this. In the Paleolithic, early societies worshipped buxom, motherly figurines of fertility goddesses, known as Venus figurines – as early as 35,000 years ago. Some of these fertility figures date as far back as 300,000 years and more.
Goddesses of fertility were one of the main components of primitive belief and they evolved to have powerful cults in more developed pagan societies. Women, earth, and fertility were often combined, and complex deities evolved to ensure a bountiful harvest, safe childbirth, and the celebration of procreation. Fertility worship was a common aspect of many of the world’s heathen cultures, and our list is a good insight into some of the best known fertility goddesses.
Venus of Hohlefels, the earliest Venus figurine, Paleolithic period, mammoth ivory. (Ramessos /CC BY SA 3.0)
While some goddesses held vicious and beastly forms, most of them embodied beauty and had feminine features. From the earliest ivory carvings of swollen breasts and pregnant bellies, these goddesses were unashamedly natural, presenting the female human form in its most blessed, life bringing states. Sexuality was not shunned, as it was the source of life, and these heavenly ladies were often involved in prayers for pregnancies and love.
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The figure of the mother is universal through all ages and all periods of our history, and poses a big step towards the further development of fertility cults. From the Stone Age depictions of fertile motherly matrons all the way to refined seductresses and sorceresses of Nordic mythology, one thing always remained the same – and that is the exemplification of feminine sexual qualities.
Ēostre (Ostara) is one of the oldest and widely attested Germanic goddesses, associated with the coming spring and fertility. She is found in almost all Germanic nations, with the largely unchanged versions of her name found in Old German, Anglo Saxon, and other Germanic languages. She is most popularly mentioned in the work of an 8th century Benedictine monk, Bede, who tells us that in Anglo Saxon pagan belief, Ostara had her own month - seemingly April - known as Ēastermōnaþ, in which feasts were held in her honor signifying the fertility of the coming spring.
Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts. (Public Domain)
Ostara is related to the older, Proto Germanic goddess Austrō, and from this with the even older Proto Indo European goddess Hausōs, the goddess of dawn and fertility. This shows us that the belief in Ostara has old roots, providing important insights into the origins of the Germanic pantheon.
Most scholars agree that Ostara was personified in the form of rabbits, to whom meals were offered as sacrifice. This survives today in the traditional Easter customs of hares and eggs, besides the name of Easter itself - in which Ēostre lives on.
Hera was an important goddess of the Ancient Greek pantheon, one of the 12 major Olympian deities, and a sister-wife of Zeus. She is the mother figure, a goddess of fertile earth, marriages, women, childbirth, and family. Hera was one of the oldest deities in Greek mythology, with clear roots to an older, pre-Greek Indo-European origin.
Hera the ancient Greek goddess. (Ruslan Gilmanshin/Adobe Stock)
Some of the earliest temples in Greece were dedicated to her on the island of Samos. But interestingly enough, Hera was an odd goddess, with many myths describing her constant jealousy and vengeful nature aimed at her husband Zeus who was known for adultery.
For example, Hera hated his illegitimate son Hercules, whom she often hindered and attempted to kill. Even so, her image was certainly feminine and associated with many fertile and female aspects.
Dodola is a deity and being of the Slavic mythology, also known as Perperuna, and is associated with the major god Perun, earth fertility, and rain. Customs related to Dodola are numerous across the Slavic world, and have remained in use well into the 1950’s and after. Perun is the god of thunder and Dodola the goddess of rain, and the two were accordingly closely related.
Dodola. (CC BY SA)
Rituals honoring Dodola are usually performed by children and young girls, who adorn themselves with leaves and sing songs of invocation. They are sprayed with water, in hopes of summoning the rain and ensuring fertility of the land. This cult is connected with the earliest forms of earth fertility and the personification of rain.
Peperuda in Bulgaria. 1950s (Public Domain)
The songs of Dodola are some of the most well-preserved and offer an important insight into the staunch survival of Slavic paganism to this very day, which mostly survived among the South Slavs.
One of the oldest deities on Earth, Inanna was the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, fertility, beauty, sex, justice, and war. Known as the Queen of Heaven, Inanna’s cult survived into the Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrian belief under the name of Ishtar.
Ishtar/Inanna as a warrior presenting captives to the king. (Public Domain)
As this goddess was known and worshipped as early as 4000 years BC, she naturally influenced numerous fertility goddesses in the following civilizations. Her cult and worship were both associated with sexual rites and orgies. Ishtar influenced the goddess of the Phoenicians Astoreth, and from there - the Greek Aphrodite - both deities of love, passion, and procreation. The worship of Ishtar survived in parts of Upper Mesopotamia even into the 18th century, making it one of the oldest surviving cults on the planet.
Kaltes Ekwa is a motherly goddess of the Ugrians, Uralic peoples that today survive in the Khanty and Mansi peoples of West Siberia and the Urals, and distantly in the Hungarian nation. Kaltes-Ekwa is the goddess of dawn and fertility and the wife of the supreme god Num-Torum.
Kaltes Ekwa. (Free Cultural Work)
She is the moon and dawn goddess and the patron of childbirth, personified as a hare. She was greatly revered by the Ob-Ugric tribes, considered as the keeper of destinies, and a gentle, motherly wise woman, capable of uncovering the mysteries of life.
Nerthus, or Nerþuz, was the major fertility goddess of the Germanic tribes, described in detail by Tacitus in his first century AD work Germania. Nerthus is common to all minor tribes of the Suebi Germanic group and other tribes as well. Tacitus tells us that the goddess is venerated on a cart pulled by two heifers; the cart is attended by priests, as the heifers seemingly roam willingly around the villages, which is personified as the will of the goddess herself.
Spectators watch as the processional wagon of the Germanic goddess Nerthus moves along, inspired by Tacitus' description of the Germanic custom in his first century AD work Germania. (Public Domain)
Nerþuz is most likely the female counterpart of the Old Norse god Njörðr, who is associated with seafaring and crop fertility. The cart of Nerthus was highly venerated and kept secured on a remote sacred island grove. The slaves who washed the cart in the sacred lake were also drowned in it, seemingly to accentuate the mystery and create an illusion that they truly did witness the revered goddess.
This Norse goddess is one of the best-known Germanic deities, connected with fertility, sex, beauty, love, and sorcery. Her name means “ the Lady,” and in numerous myths she has quite a promiscuous nature, where she offers her body freely . Freyja is connected to numerous legends and has several key attributes.
Freyja. (Archivist /Adobe Stock)
She rides a chariot which is pulled by two cats and has a boar by her side - Hildisvíni. This fertility goddess presides over Fólkvangr, a heavenly meadow in which she receives half of the warriors who fall in battle, while the other half is greeted by Odin in Valhalla. Through this, she is connected to the Valkyries as well. Her cult was extremely important in Germany and Scandinavia.
The ancient Egyptian protective goddess of childbirth and fertility, Taweret, is certainly one of the most unique goddesses of the ancient world. She is displayed in the form of a large upright hippopotamus, with feline legs and a crocodile tail, with drooping female breasts. Her bestial and frightening form is a part of her protective role - her ugliness was thought to repel demons and protect the newborn children.
Statuette of the Goddess Taweret. (Public Domain)
Taweret’s cult had a long history and popularity in ancient Egypt and she was a loved patron of women. Her worship dates as early as 2600 BC, making her one of the oldest goddesses. Her form shows us an important connection that the ancient Egyptians had with the nature around them. Hippos were viewed as dangerous - and thus revered.
Xochiquetzal, also known as Ichpōchtli ( “maiden”), was one of the major goddesses of the Aztec mythology and connected to fertility, beauty, childbirth, and female sexual power. She was a protector of women, prostitutes, young mothers, and pregnant women.
A depiction of Xochiquetzal from the Codex Rios. (Public Domain)
Unlike human sacrifices that were a common part of Aztec worship, Ichpōchtli was venerated in a more natural way, with ceremonies involving flowers, butterflies, and animal masks. She was portrayed as a youthful and luscious woman. Xochiquetzal was the mother of Quetzalcoatl, a major Aztec deity. Her attributes were desire, pleasure, wealth and excess, and beauty. Some scholars believe she was the patron of adultery as well.
Živa, also known as Żiwia and Zizileya, was a major goddess of the Slavs and associated with life and fertility. Her name means “alive, living, being, existing.” Živa was a motherly, primeval figure, and a major goddess throughout the Slavic world, with main centers of worship among the Polabian and West Slavs.
Siwa. Westphalen's book print, 1740. (Public Domain)
One of her attributes is a golden apple, a common Slavic feature that is a part of numerous myths. Her name and the myths related to her are largely cognate to the Norse goddess Sif, with some similarities in the name as well. This points to a common, much older Ind- European root, and a proto-form of a motherly fertility cult.
In Belarus she was also considered an earth goddess, while in Serbia she had a role as a protector of children and the bringer of life, and flower wreaths were offered to her. Her form was that of a beautiful woman.
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At the Whim of Conquering Nature
Life was harsh in ancient times. From the harsh survival conditions of the Paleolithic, to warlike Classical Antiquity – life was never a certainty. And in order to ensure offspring and to implore the earth provide a successful harvest, our ancestors needed a figure to look up to.
These figures were most often the fertility goddesses – motherly deities on whose whims life relied. Patrons of childbirth, protectors of the crops, and bringers of rain – these matrons fulfilled many roles. Yet behind them, responsible for both life and death, hardships and success, stood none other than the original goddess of fertility – mother nature.
Top Image: Fertility goddesses can be found in all cultures and times. Source: zolotareva_elina /Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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