Holy families

I started by noticing similarities between two pictures. The one above is “The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist”, the so-called Burlington House cartoon (a cartoon in the Renaissance period was a finished drawing used in the preparation of a painting). It was created by Leonardo da Vinci about 1500 using pencil, and black and white chalk on paper. The painting it inspired was, like much of Leonardo’s work, left unfinished at his death.

The cartoon has always been one of my favourite works by Leonardo: the top half reproduced here shows the mysterious background, and the equally mysterious relationship between St Anne and the Virgin, also present in the painting, which has puzzled art historians. St Anne seems not merely slightly behind the Virgin, but part of her, and seems to support the other figures without herself having a support. She points heavenward, as the St John, Leonardo’s last painting, does. Her face is in many ways a mirror of the Virgin’s own. Leonardo, always interested in magic, was to become in his last years equally engrossed in geometry and anatomy; yet he also sketched out a Leda. The iconography here is of course that of the Christian holy family, the Virgin Mary, her mother Anne, her child Jesus and (according to a medieval legend) Jesus’ cousin John. Leonardo was the most accomplished and influential artist of the Italian Renaissance. He was also a magus, immensely learned. Could he have been referring in this composition to earlier sacred iconography, perhaps of Astarte?

The picture below is of an ivory plaque found in the ruins of Mycenae. It may have been made about 1200 BC, but the iconography goes much further back. According to Joseph Campbell (The Masks of God III: Occidental Mythology) the depiction is probably of a Sumerian holy family known about in western Asia from 4,000 BC, that of Inanna, Ereshkigal and Dumuzi: who assumed many forms, and later, in Greek mythology, became Aphrodite, Persephone and Adonis.

The masks of god

To understand further the relationship between these three figures one must  make a digression to another faith alive today, Hinduism. Christianity knows about incarnation, the divinity of god in the person of a human being, Jesus. Hinduism preserves two other concepts about the relationship between god and man, very ancient ones, that of manifestations, and aspects. The idea is that man cannot know the divine, but can comprehend, to worship, a manifestation of the divine in the person of a god, or a holy place or man: and that the divine can have many aspects, beyond human ability to integrate. So, many gods can be the same god, and gods are as nothing to the divine. Even Siva is but an aspect of god.

In 4,000 BC Sumeria, Inanna was the Queen of Heaven, her sign the planet Venus, the morning and the evening star. Her sister, her self, was Ereshkigal, Queen of the Night, of the Underworld. Both were aspects of the same creator destroyer god. Dumuzi was the son and lover of Inanna. In the myths and cults of Sumeria, Inanna descended to her dark self, her sister, and begged for immortality for mankind, but was refused. Only if she could find someone to take her place in the underworld could this gift be granted. Inanna could find no-one. But her lover/son Dumuzi was indifferent to her plea, and in anger she caused his death. Dumuzi too descended to the underworld. Inanna arose and took her rightful place in heaven. But through the intercession of her sister Geshtinanna, Dumuzi was allowed to arise from the dead. More than that, his rising gave life to all his followers. In the plaque, though fragmented, we can see the identity of the three gods, all parts of a process, life, death, renewal.

The same worship can be found on Crete, where the Goddess of Life and Death (one of whose names is Ariadne, the Pure One, who is also Europa, and Pasiphae) sacrificed her lover and son Asterion, also known as Poseidon, and as the Minotaur, who she resurrected to give eternal life to her worshippers.

Before I could proceed to find out more I had to untangle the many gods of western Asia who formed part of this process. So central was the cult of the goddess, Mistress of life, death and resurrection, in all the cultures of this region, that the same goddess appears in inscriptions and artifacts under different names, still performing the same function for her devotees. She was known as Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Attart in Syria, Ashtart in Phoenicia and Carthage, Ashtoret  in Judea, Astarte in Cyprus, Europa and Ariadne in Crete, and Aphrodite in Greece. The people of Sumer, the Akkadians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews, Philistines, Cypriots, Cretans and Greeks all saw her as Queen of Heaven, but also Queen of the Night and the Underworld, source of life, Mistress of animals such as the lion and the leopard, Lady of war, death and destruction but also of sexuality, fertility and regeneration. All these were aspects of her divinity, which was unknowable and terrifying to her worshippers.

Care has to be taken to distinguish between different conceptions of ancient mythologies. In the actual practice of these ancient faiths the divine was the effective power that the worshipper strove to direct by performing the rites, as Christians do through prayer. The attributes of the god were fluid, contradictory, shifted from one cult centre to another. Later, scholars attempted to ‘organise’ the cults, going so far as to create genealogies for the gods. They were left with many gods who had functions similar to others, and left out of their account some attributes. Aphrodite for instance became the god of sexual love. She was also at times a mother god, a creator of life, a god of war, and in some accounts she encompassed all other gods (as did, later, Isis). I am trying to imagine here the view of gods as effective, worshipped deities, not the subject of stories, ‘myths’. In this concept, Aphrodite was an aspect of Artemis, and both, of the Great Goddess.

Birth of the Mother

Mythographers such as Joseph Campbell, who is my guide in these matters, have discerned a sequence in the way the cults of the goddess developed. Sometime about 10,000 BC an unknown genius realised that the small, oval hard objects hidden in the enveloping leaves of some grasses were seeds, and that these could be gathered, sown in a place of human choosing, and the new crop harvested. This was the beginning of settled communities, and the end of most hunter gatherer cultures. As groups and tribes formed settlements of grass huts and of more durable materials, they enjoyed regular food supplies from their crops, and their populations increased. But they also realised they were vulnerable to weather, enemy attack and crop disease, which could cause starvation. They began to pray to the Great Mother, she who had led them to new pastures for centuries of their lives as hunters and gatherers, then herders. Watching the grains germinate, ripen and ready for the harvest they began to have a closer idea of the life forces within the planet which nourished them. The concept of worship of the Great Mother was born. Mother Earth, Mother of new life in animals and humans, Mother of Grain. This is the period when some conjecture that matriarchy may have prevailed in human cultures across the continents.

The next development archaeologists have found is of peoples and cultures associated with the rise of cities, which date from about 6,000 BC, in Harappa in Pakistan, Jericho in Palestine, and elsewhere in western Asia. Most of these sites were occupied by smaller settlements dating back some centuries before the rise of cities. There seems to have developed more sophisticated and elaborate religious concepts, such as ideas about aspects of divinity, during this period. In western Asian cultures trinities of gods began to be worshipped, and the first holy families appeared in surviving cult objects. The cultures are perhaps those of invaders from central Europe, but they assimilated those of territories they conquered, including arts, foods and religious cults, at least to some extent.

The saviour god

A male principle was admitted to the divine trinities that were elaborated, at first in a subsidiary, but important, role. For Inanna, there was her son and lover Dumuzi. For Ishtar, Tammuz. For Aphrodite, Adonis. All these were children, lovers, husbands and aspects of the Great Goddess. All had to die, sometimes in great suffering, and enter the underworld. In all their cases the Great Mother was able to save them, and they were bought back to life. And in the cult the participants identified with the dying and resurrected saviour and they too partook of everlasting life. This was celebrated at a great festival which, in Greece, took place in our month of April, and which in Christian times was the date of Easter. This male principle was lunar, its sign the waxing and waning moon. Its symbol was the bull, with horns that formed the crescent moon, the horse, earthquake, the sea with its lunar tides. By Greek times the mystery cults seem to have elaborated yet further on the role of this male principle. In Crete, for instance, Ariadne, priestess/goddess of the labyrinth, whose aspect was Europa the Mistress of the Bull, was killed by Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon. The god Dionysios, like Orpheus with Euridice, Inanna with Dumuzi, went to the kingdom of Hades and bought Ariadne back to life. Yet Dionysios himself was to die, rendered to pieces like his opponent Pentheus (note the termination of this name) and his body and blood consumed to give new life to his worshippers.

In the Garden of Eden, Eve, the mother of all, revealed the secret of eternal life through the words of her aspect of wise serpent. But Adam chooses life in the underworld, the mortal world, because he ate of the fruit of the tree which gave knowledge of good and evil, not that of eternal life. The old myth would have shown Adam sacrificed and saved by Eve so his worshippers could gain eternal life. But the second writer of Genesis has introduced a new concept to the story: guilt. Adam and Eve, in his version of the myth, are driven from the Garden, never to return. In the myth of Christianity there are traces of the same story, in the changing role of the mother Mary. Perhaps the Great Goddess Mary, wife and mother to aspects of god, allowed her son Jesus to die then resurrected him and bought him to eternal life in heaven, so her worshippers too obtained eternal life. This telling was never to be, however, because in the interests of monotheism the role of Mary was all but obliterated: she is merely a passive bystander in Jesus’ story. Yet in the medieval period and later, Mary was rehabilitated, gaining many of the aspects of divinity, if not the role of goddess. By the Renaissance she was the chief subject of religious painting.

Mistress of life and death

In some versions of the myth aspects of the goddess are seen as dark or evil. Ereshkigal is the Queen of Death in Sumerian myth. Yet she allows Dumuzi to rise from the dead. A Hindu parallel is the trinity Durgal (warrior aspect of the Great Mother, in Anatolia known as Kybele, in Greece Artemis), Parvati (a benign aspect: in Greece, wise Athene) and Kali (the aspect of time, change and death, Greek Hekate), the shakti power each contain giving rise to all the gods. Though Durgal or Kali may destroy, it is a death linked to life, both death and life being the faces of existence. In Greek myth Hekate was an aspect of Artemis, as was Selene. She, like they, was the Great Mother, in an aspect that included reign in Hades, the moon and magic, childbirth and the hunt, or mortality.  Hekate’s functions and attributes flowed between hers and other aspects of the Great Mother. The Mother goddess in Anatolia, Kybele, was a goddess of animals, shown hunting with lions and tigers in her train, a nurturing goddess who could also bring great destruction unless placated. The Romans worshipped her, and called her the Great Mother.

In Greek myth there is a more organic duality. Demeter, the corn goddess whose worship formed the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and her daughter Persephone, Queen of the underworld, whose return to life in the Spring brings the new crops, are aspects of the one god, ever dying, ever replenishing. It brings to mind the English folk song, “The Story of John Barleycorn”, in print in Shakespeare’s day and recited and sung long before that. Perhaps John Barleycorn’s name was once Dumuzi.

There were three kings come from the East

Their fortunes for to try,

And these three made a solemn vow:

“John Barleycorn must die.”


They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,

Threw clods upon his head,

‘Til these three men were satisfied

John Barleycorn was dead.


They let him lie for a very long time,

‘Til the rains from heaven did fall,

When little Sir John raised up his head

And so amazed them all.


They hired men with their scythes so sharp

To cut him off at the knee;

They rolled him and tied him around the waist,

And served him barbarously.


They hired men with their sharp pitchforks

To pierce him to the heart,

But the loader did serve him worse than that,

For he bound him to the cart.


And they hae taken his hero blood

And drank it round and round;

And still the more and more they drank,

Their joy did more abound.

In this song Adonis has become a crop, the barley. Perhaps the folktales that tell of rising from the dead of vampires and zombies are an almost lost memory of these ancient rites, given a perjorative slant by the dominant Christian faith of Europe.

Invasion of the hero

Sometime about 2,000 BC a series of invasions of Indo European tribes entered Greece, Anatolia and northern India to establish a radically different culture wherever they settled. They were horse tamers, chariot riders, and worshipped a number of sky gods. The earlier cults of the Great Mother and associated underground, earth divinities was suppressed, but still formed part of the religious practice of cultures in Mycenean Greece, Persia and northern India.

The newly dominant cultures were patrilineal, formed a patriarchal society, and worshipped predominantly male gods, and some were monotheistic. In India worship of the hero gods such as Indra, Brahma, Siva formed dominant cults, but they were all assimilated into prevailing mythologies. Reverence for the transcendence of the divine in the religious practice of all Indian cultures resulted in all gods being seen as aspects of the divine. Hinduism simply expanded to fit in the new gods.

In Persia the religion of Zarathustra became a state cult, and Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, became the supreme deity, though other deities such as Mithra were also worshipped. The Great Mother had no place in Zarathustra’s religion, and survived as the half hidden deity of subject peoples such as the Lydians. In Greece the Myceneans established the cults of the Olympian gods, incorporating some of the aboriginal traditions in their cults and rejecting others. The Olympian gods became the state cults, but older forms of worship survived in mystery religions and magical practices.

Slightly later in date a group of Semitic tribes led by Moses entered Canaan from the south and made their worship of the sky god Yahweh dominant in the area. The Great Mother became an inferior, and reprehensible, figure in the Jewish cult. One of her aspects, called Lilith and going back to Akkadian and Sumerian times, became in Talmudic tradition known as Adam’s first wife, created in the same way as he. Later Jewish tradition reviled her as an evil spirit. Eve, of course, became a Pandora figure, not the source of all life, but the source of all evil.

The now dominant culture introduced a new mythic figure, the hero. And the hero’s first job was to conquer the snake and the serpent, figures which in the cult of the Great Mother had meant a less heroic male attribute, king and father, but born to die and to be resurrected by the Mother.

The survival of the earlier culture, according to Campbell, can be seen for a time in Minoan Crete, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and early and mid constructions at Stonehenge.

The holy family of Isis, Horus and Osiris were the most widely worshipped gods in the Roman Empire until the sixth century AD, but were gradually replaced by first, the cult of the Persian sun god Mithra, then by the trinity of the Christians, god, Mary and Jesus, these last forming the holy family we are most familiar with.

The search for freedom from the bounds of mortality, and reverence for figures, gods, who were so free, has led to recognition of primary cycles of life, death and renewal, in the human mind, in all the aspects of nature, and, as far as modern science has been able to see, in the universe. Crystalised, as it were, throughout history, and surviving in fragments of pottery, paintings and sculptures from earlier times, as well as masterworks of surviving culture, is recognition of one aspect of this ever continuing process, the trinity of the family: the mother, source of life, father, source of change and death, and the child, source of renewal and new life.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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