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Cats And The Goddess: Mapping Pagan Iconography Of The Divine Feminine

Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.

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The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity.
Hinduism Durga Mata, wikimedia commons
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By Tania Bhattacharya

 

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association.
Ms Tania Bhattacharya

The feline species have enjoyed a special place in the pantheons of global Paganism. Long before the advent of the three Abrahamic religions that came to dominate humanity, the world used to be pagan. It was in this Polytheistic atmosphere, that animals came to be represented, and associated with the divine beings.

 

Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.

 

Among Native Americans, the bear, the eagle, and the wolf, hold a special status and are feted as powerful beings worthy of worship. Among the peninsular Arabs of Pre-Islamic times, the Camel and the Bat were similarly attributed magical powers. The sub-Saharan Africans have placed their wildlife on a pedestal in their oral mythologies. The Chinese have named their New Years after their own. Greco-Roman pantheons were thick with images of owls, and bulls, the most iconic being the Minotaur. The Fox, the snake, and the monkey, are regular fixtures in Japan’s homemade Shinto faith, while India’s Hinduism and its myriad aboriginal or Adivasi beliefs, incorporate many animals from the South Asian landscape, like monkeys, boars, elephants, bulls, peacocks, and mice.

 

Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Goddess Cybele’s chariot puled by a pair of lions

While the emphasis on the animal kingdom and Polytheism’s anxiety in elevating the association of humans with beasts is not only unique and worthy of emulation, there is one species of animals that stands out from the rest. It has the longest, and most robust history of being borrowed into myth, legend, and religious ditties. The reference is to the Felids of the earth. A community of creatures that humans have admired for thousands of years, for their stealthy hunting practices, intelligence, cleanliness, fearlessness, pride, reclusiveness, and rodent exterminating qualities.

 

Does the pan-Feline presence through the various Pagan folklores of human history, signal at a common thread that runs through us all? It would be safe to say so. This one species has ruled and dominated our imagination like no other.

 

Let us begin with the Egyptians, the grand old daddies of Polytheistic heritage. The ancient Kemites of Egypt, were quire impressed with the domestic cat. It featured in funerary rituals and worship, and was used as a totem to keep evil forces at bay. The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship. Mummies of famous ancient Egyptian figures, have been found beside life size idols of gilded cats with septum rings, and pearl embellished collars.

This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.
Idol of Goddess Durga

The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity. With their majestic muscle composition, flexible vertebrae, spread eagle skills, playful nature, large, liquid eyes, and stealth hunting, the big cats came to be incorporated in imagery, most often being placed alongside, or below, figurines of Cybele, the divine goddess of war. Since Neolithic times, Cybele was venerated with much fanfare among the Mediterranean’s pagans. With the arrival of the proto-Indo European Hittites, who managed a sprawling empire in Anatolian Turkey, Cybele consolidated her position as the Lion Lady of West Asian iconography.

 

Not to be left behind, the neighbouring Babylonians, a Semitic civilization that occupied the landscape of ancient Iraq, began to correlate the Leopard with their Supreme Mother goddess, Asherah. She was portrayed as riding the big cat in all her glory, proud and defiant. The pre-Islamic Arabs, placed the Desert Lynx, a powerful feline hunter, next to the triplet of female divinities they called Al Uzza, Al Lat, and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.

 

The Persians, products of the Asian continent’s most inspirational, and splendid culture, and the one that stood the ravages of time for millennia, immortalized their Mother Goddess Anahita or Nahid, as riding atop the Lion, as she communicated with successive Persian emperors. Meanwhile, in distant Scandinavia, the Vikings and the Nords, had proceeded to dovetail and make synonymous, the divinity of the Panther with their goddess of beauty, Freya, after whom Friday has been named. Freya’s chariot was depicted as being drawn by a pair of wild panthers, making them an extension of her latent powers, and her fierce, protective nature.

This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin.
Pre-Islamic Arabian goddesses named Al Uzza, Al Lat and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger. As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent. Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.

 

Why was this particular animal singled out for veneration, over time and space, in the human imaginarium of our Polytheistic ancestors? Lions and other Big Cats were often used for symbolizing royalty. This is cogent with our perception of what royalty constitutes of and how it can be made to synergize with the admirable traits of the feline species. The Lion Capital of the Hittites at Anatolia’s Hattushah, centrally located in modern Turkey; the obsessively frequent appearance of Lions in portraiture, reliefs, and wall friezes during the fearsome rule of the Assyrian emperors like Ashurbanipal; and the minting of royal coins with cameos containing one or the other of the Felids has been commonplace. An animal that possesses so much energy, brute force, and intelligence would naturally be equated with seats of power. But this does not adequately explain why the Felids were sought out over cultures, for accompanying the Divine Feminine.

Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Goddess with their divine animals, The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship.

All this would change in 1945. That year, an Egyptian farmer at the village of Nag Hammadi, had accidentally struck at a hidden library while tilling the land. The Egyptian Department of Archaeology was summoned and a Pandora’s Box was laid bare. The library was found to contain some fifty gospels, belonging to an Alexandrian spiritual community, which was active some two thousand years ago. Calling themselves the Theraputae, the oblates from this distinct order, drew upon Polytheistic creativity to weave fantastical tales that hid great truths about the Sciences, and Moral conduct. According to the Nag Hammadi literature, the Lion and by association, other members of the Big Cat family, were representative of the zodiac of Leo. At the tail end of Leo, was Virgo. This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin. However, in some of her most evocative folklore, she dons the garb of the Divine Virgin, and thus transforms into the symbolism for the sign of Virgo. The reason the Lion and the remaining felids had been made parallel with her, was because Virgo immediately followed Leo, the zodiac sign represented by the Lion. This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.

 

Of the many virtues of Polytheism, one of the greatest has been the visualizing of the feminine gender in the role of the divine, and placing as much emphasis on her being, as much as on her male counterparts. Goddesses were powerful in their own right. These were no shrinking violets hanging on the arms of their male consorts. Instead, they multitasked as warriors, mothers, avengers, and nurturers. Many later man-made religions would remove women from their lofty position of divinity and reduce them as sidekicks or even worse, as insignificant others, who played second fiddle to the male Almighty and his necessarily male adversary, Satan.

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger.
Goddess Durga Idol, As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent.

It is ironic, that in our present times, both the feminine and the feline, are endangered. Women, despite great strides in education and professional visibility, are walking a slippery slope that impacts their dignity and sense of self. Their self=assertiveness has been misconstrued by elements of society, as ‘rebellion’ which needs to be quelled with violent force, and many a times, without her consent. In a parallel universe, the felines have lost ground to the rapacious greed of the human species. Their territories have been taken over by property developers, they have watched their natural prey disappear or relocate, and some have been reduced to man-eating, to survive. This is a cruel conspiracy against the Laws of Mother Nature, who watches in despair.

Also Read: Pakistani Christians Not Feeling Safe After The IS Attack

 

The creator of the twenty nine thousand year old Venus Figurine of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, had imagined womanhood resplendent in all its flaws. The Venus Figurine has sagging breasts, and wide, rounded hips, that suggest the high position which lactating women, mothers, and older females in general, enjoyed in prehistoric Dolni Vestonice. Archaeologists and historians have concluded, that women of this era, wore important mantles and occupied positions of administration and priesthood. How far we have come from our original innocence is projected by the fact, that the very naturalness that had inspired the art of Dolni Vestonice, is long gone, having been replaced by cosmetic surgery, botox, fillers, and the overlying need to look ageless and untouched by time.

 

Perhaps it is the need of the hour, to revert to the wisdom of the ancients? A time of innocence, when we considered Mother Nature and the wild kingdom with approaching awe, that prevented us from mindlessly mowing them down in the name of development? A time also, when a woman didn’t have to look perfect in order to please society?

 

Replacing patriarchy with matriarchy seems just about right. The Mother Goddess and her mount, have long awaited their turn. Let us give them what is their due.

 

Tania is a freelance writer with a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies who has a wide range of interests. 

 

 

 

 

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Maa Durga and Cosmic Divinity

Maa Durga is considered an epitome of Shakti (ENERGY) that is GOOD which can triumph over EVIL.

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Maa Durga
Maa Durga encompasses all three incarnations. Pixabay

By Salil Gewali

October is here, and we are all set to welcome Maa Durga for a few days. For many of us, Durga Puja is more of an excuse to eat, drink and be merry. We buy ourselves new clothes, move from pandal to pandal, and forget our exercise and diets for a few heavenly days. But is that all Durga Puja stands for? Are we aware of the philosophies behind this annual celebration? There is not one single philosophy, actually.

The word Durga is derived from the root word ‘Durg’ which means Fort. Just as a fort stands tall and mighty around low lying land and water and jungles, and protects the inmates from all kinds of dangers, we look upon Maa Durga as our “divine protector” from all evil. We feel safe and secure in her divine embrace and feel her all-pervasive energy around us and within us. Divinity has always been looked upon as something far removed from science, mundane logic, and facts. But modern science is only just beginning to realize that the energy of Maa Durga which we refer to as Shakti does have strong underpinings in every aspect of our life, and is actually the governing philosophy behind many of the relational dynamics – visible and invisible.

Maa Durga
Maa Durga and cosmic divinity

Of course, the philosophy behind our worship of Maa Durga is not just an amalgamation of sundry religious rites. A rational scientist would find many similarities in facets of her story and our real life. For example, let us look at her weapons.  Trident or trishul: The three-headed sharp weapon is said to symbolize the three gunashuman being is made of, i.e – tamas, rajas and sattva – this itself a very complex and vast subject to understand. Discus or Sudarshan Chakra is Lord Vishnu’s gift symbolizes the centre of creation. Thunderbolt or vajra: Indra’s gift meaning steadiness of character, determination, and supreme power. Conch is the symbol of the primordial sound of “creation” – AUM. Spear represents auspiciousness which is a gift of fire also symbolizes purity of power. Sword symbolizing intellect and wisdom with the complete sense of responsibility and the understanding to discriminate right from wrong. Bow and arrows are the combination of potential and kinetic powers symbolizes all segments of ENERGY. Axe symbolizes the power of Vishwakarma, and have the power to create as well as destroy. Lotus represents wisdom, “LIBERATION though KNOWLEDGE”. Snake symbolizes consciousness and the masculine energy of Shiva.

When you juxtapose this life-giving form of Maa Durga against the Trishul and sword-wielding warrior form of the Mother Goddess, she comes across as the Destroyer. The target of her weapons of destruction are the evil forces which she wishes to protect her children against. So the philosophy of Maa Durga encompasses all three incarnations in one form – The Destroyer, The Life Giver, and The Creator.

Maa Durga
She embodies the perfect amalgamation of power and mercy which we see in Mothers everywhere.

Yes, it is easy to look upon the fable of Maa Durga as a story we have created for our own consumption. But like the examples we have illustrated above, there are several ways in which the legend of Maa Durga finds reflection in our daily life and helps to underline some of the philosophies she represents. Let us examine a few of these.

According to mythological accounts, Ramba was an asura who pleased the fire God Agni with his devotion and got a boon that a son would be born to him who could not be killed by any God or man or animal. This son was named Mahishasura and he grew up to be a strong and powerful warrior. When he heard of the boon, it made him incredibly haughty and merciless, and he went around defeating all kind of men and demi-Gods and expanding his own kingdom. This cold-blood massacre and destruction soon left Gods worried, and they went into a huddle to plan an effective counter to Mahishasura without tampering with the boon he had been granted.

The solution came from the Gods themselves, who took advantage of the syntax of the boon. The boon had mentioned God, man, and animal, but had no mention of the “woman”. So the Gods put together their powers and created Maa Durga, she who would fight for the forces of good and vanquish the evil. Armed with all the boons and weapons that the Gods could provide, Maa Durga took on the EVIL represented by Mahishasura. After a long and ferocious battle, she finally put an end to the cursed life of Mahishasura. This story is a fable, but the philosophy it underlines is profoundly cerebral. Every force of evil in this world would be balanced by an equivalent force of good. Whenever the evil goes beyond a certain level, the forces of good come together to destroy the evil and restore the balance of this world.