Goddesses

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The African female divinity system, or sacred mother tradition, is one of the oldest God concepts in the world. In traditional African societies, national cosmologies focus on (a) a masculine God, (b) a feminine goddess, or (c) a masculine and feminine (androgynous) God. Goddesses perform the same functions as Gods. In traditional African societies, goddesses are omnipotent, omnipresent beings who control and influence the lives of mortal beings. In myth and cosmology, African goddesses are beyond human; they transcend man and woman, and thus their mysteries may not be completely understood by human beings. Throughout the continent of Africa and manifested in the African Diaspora, goddesses have traveled through time and space to express themselves in the contemporary moment. This entry looks at some of the general characteristics of goddesses and then reviews some specific examples from different parts of Africa and the Diaspora.

General Characteristics

The stories indicating how African goddesses came to be worshipped suggest that they entered human consciousness often through prophecy or are self-existing like the Gods. However, as a manifestation of the African mother image, goddesses possess a direct and logical connection for their existence and attributes through the act of human creation by females. Therefore, because African goddesses teach sacred lessons to human beings, they are archetypes of the divine woman.
African goddesses are most associated with the process of human creation in terms of womanhood, motherhood, fertility, childbirth, and pregnancy. African goddesses are often linked to the symbolism of sacred vessels, bowls, and other containers that signify the womb so they oversee the initiation of birth. In doing so, the womb and menstrual blood (which are sacred waters) cause goddesses to be keepers of great bodies of water. With the advent and rise of the masculine divinity system, many gendered attributes are assigned to goddesses, although some of them indicate a quixotic nature of female Gods. In addition, many goddesses are wives or consorts of Gods. Often African goddesses are depicted as powerful, but also as elegant and majestic in stature.
The extent of human reverence over time is indicative of this perception. People celebrated African goddesses by holding festivals in their honor, establishing shrines for worship, developing temples and priestess societies (initiations into sacred mysteries), performing ritual dramas, wearing symbols, celebrating their “birthdays,” and planting crops in their names. In African societies where goddesses are powerful, women tend to be influential (in terms of matrilineal structures, property transference, bride price, and polygny). Two of the most discussed examples of African goddesses come from Northeast and West Africa.

Isis and Maat in Egypt

In Northeast Africa, Egypt (Kmt), Egyptian goddesses such as Nut (Nit, Net, Nekhebt) existed thousands of years before the Christian era. She is understood to have existed before anything else had been created. Nut then created the cosmos and put Ra into the sky. The ancient Egyptian goddess who captured the imagination of initiates from Africa and beyond was Isis (Auset). As the wife of Ausar and the mother of Horus, she is also believed to have been in existence at the time of creation; thus, she symbolizes sunrise (rebirth and regeneration). Although nature, agriculture, healing, and law are her domain, she is most associated with the resurrection mythologies surrounding her divine marriage to Ausur. Using magical words, Goddess Isis searched for her dead husband's scattered body, resurrected him, and produced the divine son, Horus, with him. Thus, she is the quintessential symbol of the divine wife and mother. Goddess Isis is often found depicted as a seated sacred mother nursing her child. She is represented among the first of numerous Black Madonna figures of the ancient world. She was worshipped widely in North Africa, Syria, Palestine, Nubia, and Rome until the 6th century.
The Northeast African goddess Maat represents the oldest known design for spiritual justice and divine order of the cosmos. The African goddess Maat embodies truth, justice, order, righteousness, bace, and harmony of the universe. Goddess Maat is present when the dead are judged, where she weighs the heart of the dead against her feather of truth. Ancient Egyptian males who supervised the courts of law were known as the “priests of Maat.”
Other Northeast African goddesses include Sekhmet, who represented war and battle. Goddess Sekhmet symbolized the destructive aspects of the Sun. Goddess Seshat was married to Thoth (Tehuti) and, like him, is aligned with knowledge, writing, astrology, and measurement. Goddess Telfnut, the spouse of Shu (a primordial God who symbolized air), represented moisture in the form of rain and mist. Heket was also an Egyptian creation goddess who was a patron of midwives because of the way in which she supervised the birth of the sun each morning. Goddess Heket is also associated with the Nile River and the act of resurrection. The strength of Egyptian (Kmt) culture and religion has produced a goddess corpus subject to various interpretations with the impact of migration and conquest, yet a coherent system of knowledge.

Among the Yoruba

There are many feminine orishas (goddesses in the Yoruba pantheon). One of the most ancient of the African Yoruba goddesses was Are in Ketu. Goddesses such as Are are believed to be so old that their details have been lost in time. The orisha Oduduwa, which is most associated with male divinity systems, has a feminine side depending on her location in Yoruba land. Oduduwa, it appears, evolved over time to have the image of a male-centered deity, but evidence of the worship of Oduduwa as female exists. The Yoruba orisha, Yemoja, is associated with the Ogun River and the aspect of womanhood. Goddess Yemoja is believed to have overseen the souls in the holocaust of enslavement (Middle Passage). The Yoruba warrior goddess Nana Buruku (Nana Bukuu), who is also found in Brazil, is the Mother of Obaluaiye. She protects women and dispenses courage; although she oversees birth, she also takes life.
The male Yoruba orishas possessed powerful goddess-mates. Oba was the first wife of Shango, God of Thunder and Lightning. Shango's wife, Oya, is responsible for storms and is present at the time of a warrior's death. She is also the goddess designate of the River Niger. Oshun is another river goddess who exemplifies beauty, love, and wealth. She also governs fertility and divination. Many of the African goddesses, particularly in the Yoruba tradition, are descended from or related to Mother Earth spirits, such as Iya Fera, Iya Lata, and Mama Lata (African French Creole).

Elsewhere in Africa

Other important African goddesses include Minona of the Fon (Benin). She is believed to be the sacred mother and grandmother of powerful goddesses and is a guardian of women. Minona is the mother of Mawu, the Earth goddess creator of the universe (alongside her husband, Lisa = Mawu/Lisa). She gives birth to another important Fon goddess, Gbadu. As the African goddess of Fate, Gbadu shuns human warfare.
The Asante (also called Ashanti) of Ghana in West Africa revere the ancient goddess Asase Yaa as one of the most divine feminine beings important to their cosmological system. She is the wife of the sky god Nyame (Nyankopon). Goddess Asase Yaa represents the Earth, ferility, birth, and death. West African goddesses have many similiari-ties to other parts of Africa, including southern African female deities.
Among the Zulu, Mbaba Mwana Waresa (Lady of the Rainbow) has a story of searching for her divine spouse. The Zulu also revere Inkosazana, who introduced corn and beer. African goddesses tell important stories about human possibility by offering information about the supernatural realm.

In the Diaspora

African goddesses survived and developed in the Black Diaspora as a result of the holocaust of enslavement (Middle Passage) and the subsequent migration of African people. Some African goddesses brought their ingenious names with them, whereas others took new names and new forms. They consistently brought their God attributes.
They include, among many others, Yemoja (Yemaya), Oya, Oshun, Anansi, Isis, and Maat. They exist within African women's rites of passage ceremonies. In terms of women's rituals, some scholars believe that female circumcision is a mock form of masculine castration in order to achieve a greater alignment with the feminine goddess. In the African Diaspora, as on the continent of Africa, goddesses perform a variety of specific functions in support of humanity and the cosmos. Their responsibilities include
  1. creating the universe;
  2. protecting humanity, especially women;
  3. exemplifying the role of great wife and mother;
  4. serving as oracles in the divination process;
  5. bringing wealth, abundance, and prosperity;
  6. controlling nature (water, wind, fire, etc.);
  7. giving life and taking it away;
  8. healing the sick;
  9. mediating between good and evil, as well as dispensing law, wisdom, and hidden truths;
  10. providing sustenance to the people; and
  11. balancing and bringing order to the universe.

References

Keywords

  • goddess
  • maat
  • gods
  • middle passage
  • Africa
  • wives
  • diaspora

Author(s)

Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Idowu, E. B. (1994). Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. New York: A&B Books.
  • Karenga, M. (2006). Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
  • Mbiti, J. (1970). Concepts of God in Africa. New York: Praeger.
  • Monges, M. M. K. R. (1997). Rush the Jewel of Nubia. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
  • Walker S. African Gods in the Americas: The Black Religious Continuum Black Scholar 11 (1980, November)(8) 25–36.
  • Zahan, D. (1979). The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.