Mothers and Others

Have you thought much about the goddesses whose only stories involve giving birth to the better-known deities? The shadowy ones, whose names are known, but only for a single function. The obscure ones who appear tangentially in some more popular gods’ myths.

Those goddesses are haunting me in these cool spring nights. Plucking at my hair with thin twig fingers. Buzzing around my head on insistent little wings. Pricking at my bare, wintersoft legs as I venture into the pastures and hedgerows.

Are they modest, unassuming deities who eschew the trappings of cultus and kharis? Are they the faded remnants of ancient gods whose stories didn’t make it to the lips of the bards? Did their epic tales fade from our collective consciousness, leaving only a name and vague familial association?

Perhaps yet they were never gods at all, just personified concepts, slotted into existing myths based on geography, or an obscure reference on a stone tablet, or nothing more than the whim of some long-lost storyteller.

A lost goddess may be the one whispering in your dreams, that voice in your head that you know isn’t yours, that summons you out into the woods on a moonlit night. But it could be an ancestress, or a nature spirit, or a fairy, or your imagination.

It’s hard to get to know a goddess without a story. We need a provenance in order to throw a veil of human comprehension over a being that is so unlike us in kind.

Myths are a backdrop for getting to know a god. Without myth we’re groping in the dark. Modern life teaches us to avoid superstition, to question the numinous, to eye askance any encounter with a non-corporeal being. In a world ruled by science and skepticism, we are on shaky ground when we can’t validate experiences empirically. We’re at a loss when we know that inexplicable voice is a deity, but not one we can identify.

Let’s take a closer look at a few.

One such goddess is Maia, mother of Hermes. We have her parentage, daughter of Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione. Maia is the oldest of their daughters, the Pleiades. Hesiod tells us she is a shy, cave-dwelling nymph, who nonetheless catches the roving eye of Zeus. Their union produces the Olympian god Hermes. She has a very small role in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, and fosters the son of Zeus by Kallisto. Beyond that, she’s just a nameless Pleiad who helps raise Dionysos, and one of the Seven Sisters who commit suicide over the fate of their father, Atlas, and are catasterized, i.e., turned into stars.

But if you have the nerve to venture deep underground, where the only illumination is glowing fungi growing on wet walls, you could find a cave with an immense goddess seated on a stone throne. Her belly might be enormous, gravid with stories, endless tales and schemes, which she bequeaths to her trickster son, Hermes. Ask her for her name.

Better known but equally tenebrous is Leto, the Titan mother of Apollo and Artemis by Zeus. We do have some wonderful stories about her, primarily the birth story of the Divine Twins. Due to persecution from jealous Hera, Leto has a terrible time finding land on which to birth her children until the little, untethered isle of Delos accepts her, becoming sacred and revered in the process. There are several stories of Leto’s children defending their mother from both physical and verbal attack, and wreaking terrible vengeance. But there are almost no tales of her without connection to Zeus or her famous children.

The one tale in which she wields power solely her own is that of Leukippe, a girl born to a father who threatened his wife that if she bore a daughter he would expose it. She hid the baby’s sex from her husband, but the girl, Leukippe, matured and became too beautiful to pass as a mere boy. Her despairing mother prayed to Leto, who changed Leukippe to a boy. In the region of Phaistos where this occurred, Leto was given the epithet of Phytia, ‘the Grafter’, for attaching male organs to the doubtless surprised young woman.

You may find Leto in a grove, lounging with sleeping lions and baby wolves. Don’t make the mistake of Niobe – if you want to reference her glorious twins, be complimentary. But you might just tickle her fancy if you display interest in her beyond her role as mother. Try it.

Iris is referenced frequently in myth, but trying to get a sense of her, beyond being the personified rainbow and messenger of Olympos, is almost impossible. Her father is Thaumas the Wonderful, a Titan who comes to our notice as little more than a personification of the wonders of the sea. Her mother is the ocean nymph Elektra. Zeus and Hera both busily send her to give directives to humans, or even other gods, but we see very little of her undertaking exploits on her own.

I’ve found that one way to approach her as more than a beautiful archetype is to consider her in relation to her sisters, the terrible Harpies. The Greek sense of balance can give one some insight into this goddess composed of sea mists and sister to creatures of horror and stench. Mirrors and opposites often grant surprising insights when mythic revelations are scarce.

Nike, the goddess of victory, is an example of a personification of a virtue who has developed the attributes of a deity, along with Tyche (Luck) and Tyche’s sister Nemesis (Retribution). All three goddesses have a documented history with parentage and siblings, and were worshiped extensively throughout the ancient Greek lands. But their spheres of influence are narrow compared with the Olympian goddesses. Their tales as well as their cultus are focused exclusively on the traits for which they are well-known, without the nuance and contradictions we find in the more famed goddesses.

Having cult centers devoted to them, these goddesses are relatively easy to research. Upon establishing a relationship, it should be possible to open oneself to a deeper understanding of any lost and forgotten traits, if indeed they exist as divine beings.

Nyx, the embodiment of night itself, is a protogenos or primordial deity, one formed at the beginning of creation and one who brings other beings into creation. In a world where the night was dark and full of terrors (thank you, GOT!), it’s no surprise that Nyx is often referred to as evil, vengeful, and terrible. She’s depicted as a veil of dark mists drawn across the bright air of day, banished at dawn by her sister, Hemera, who brings the light. She often appears in ancient art as a black-figured charioteer driving raging black horses. The Thebaid is one of the few sources describing actual cultus to her, but this is a Roman and thus much later work. She is mentioned (usually with dread) in connection with other tales. The most common involve witches such as Circe and Medea.

Nyx is sometimes invoked with her father, Erebos (Darkness) or sister Hypnos (Sleep), but caution is the watchword. Perhaps in today’s brightly-lit world she is more approachable, but even night-loving modern humans are wise to tread lightly around this ancient power.

Hebe, the goddess of youthful beauty, is a bit of a puzzle. As one of Zeus’s few legitimate children, she should by rights be considered an Olympian goddess. But although she dwells on Olympos, she is considered a minor deity who has little to do with humans beyond being the ideal of a girl on the cusp of adulthood. When we see her she’s always behaving as a Good Girl should, hitching her mother’s chariot horses, bathing and tending to her brother Ares, carrying messages or acting as a cupbearer. We also find her frolicking with other maidens such as the Muses and Charites. The myth in which she is most prominent is the one where she’s given to the hero Herakles as his bride, after his apotheosis. Altars to her were usually in conjunction with Herakles’, although she was also worshiped in some sacred groves. She is credited with the power to make the old young again. But the few tales about her all relate directly to her sphere of ripe girlishness.

Unfortunately, the main thing she’s known for in our modern day is creepy predatory abuse, which would not have lifted a brow in ancient Greece. But wouldn’t it be interesting to get her take on what it’s like to be such a magnet for male attention? How would she like a modern woman today to pay cultus to her?

One of the most reliable ways of testing the provenance of a possible goddess is to ask, with respect, for a name and a sign. The fae are easily distracted and prone to give false information that won’t hold up to scrutiny. Nature spirits tend to be focused on the locus of their territory, so if your insistent voice is whispering to you about things beyond the purview of a tree or pond or meadow, it’s time for deeper research. Ancestors can sound and feel very much like some gods, so if you haven’t yet set up some sort of watchword with your ancestors, do so. That way you can possibly start to identify an obscure goddess through the process of elimination. Use divination to help narrow down your answers, and find a reliable seer if you’re too attached to the outcome.

It doesn’t happen often. But if you’re sensitive and open to the possibility, you may be the one who re-ignites the cultus of a lost goddess in the modern world.

And that is everything.