Goddess Myths & The Shape of the Land


By Arlene Decker

The subject of goddess myths is an interesting one as there have been many interpretations of significance placed on these myths. There are many myths from around the world that describe the great power of the goddess or goddesses. Ultimately we will never know how these myths started or the significance they held to the people of the time but that doesn’t mean their importance is any less. From around the the time period of the Upper Paleolithic, many small, voluptuous figures started being found - including the famous Venus of Willendorf which is estimated to be 35,000 years old. There are some that like to believe that the finding of these goddess figures points to the conclusion that there must have been a matriarchal society that worshipped the goddess above all else. Unfortunately it’s impossible to conclude this to be true despite some good efforts otherwise. As mentioned last time, it’s likely that paleolithic society was more equal between gender roles with the division of labour, hunting, and gathering, equally separated between men and women. But as agriculture developed, this equality started to disappear. As humans started to farm, and at larger scales, men started taking over agricultural production - interestingly it’s actually the use of the plow that signifies a gendered division of labour. And this is true of subsistence farming cultures today - where plows and animals are used to farm crops, men hold the control over the land. So as more land was used to produce food on a larger scale, more labour would have been needed to farm the crops, so women spent more time pregnant and conceiving children. This meant that women no longer contributed as much to the economic structure of the household, and consequently their rights and status were lessened. Ethnographic studies show that plow agriculture generally displaces women from their earlier role in hand hoed gardening. Men then control both sources of food supply, grains, and animals. Women still have major work roles, particularly in textile production and food processing. But male plow agriculture reshapes land ownership in a way that decisively moves societies in the direction of both class hierarchy and male domination over women.   

The Venus of Willendorf. Photo from the  Bradshaw Foundation.

The Venus of Willendorf. Photo from the Bradshaw Foundation.

The end of the Neolithic period and the explosion of agriculture saw the establishment of the first settlements of humans in places such as the Indus Valley, Egypt and the region of Mesopotamia which we know today as southern Iraq. Crops were abundant. And having this surplus allowed humans to stay in one place and stock pile crops to sell to other tribes. Sumer was one of the first of these new urban settlements in Mesopotamia which is thought to have established itself in 5500 - 4000 BCE although pottery evidence suggests the Sumerians were around as early as 6500 BCE and persisted till 1200 BCE and the on going bronze age. 

In Sumerian society, class stratification divided the elite class of temple, royal, and wealthy estate owners from a descending hierarchy of smaller landowners, semi-free dependent labour and slaves. Women were defined as secondary within each class. However female members of the aristocracy were appointed to administer large estates belonging to the extended family. They were also appointed as priestesses of temples. Middle level women had legal rights and could sell and buy land.

The concept of gods evolved through several stages that reflected changes in society. In the 4th millennium, the gods were seen as the vital power in natural phenomena - sky and earth, the power of the spring rains, the fertilizing power of the rivers, sap that rises in plants, and sexual attraction that generates life. The pantheon of the gods resembled the family and gods came to represent human bureaucracy. The entire cosmos could be seen as extended estates of divine royal families with various deities appointed to specific offices. The gods themselves were imagined as kings, warriors, and judges. They were seen as a political and judicial assembly that appointed or dismissed kings and decreed the fates of cities in war.   

The goddess figure of Inanna, or Ishtar, of the Sumero-Akkadian traditions startepd to appear in the third and second millennia BCE . Inanna was associated with love and the evening and morning stars. She was born from the moon god and goddess Nanna and Ningal. Like many royal families, the family of the gods was quarrelsome, with younger members vying to equal and replace the power of the elders. Inanna's ascendency owed something to Sargon, ruler of Akkad, who sought to create a united empire of Sumer and Akkad under his hegemony shortly after 2350 BCE. So he shaped an Inanna royal myth to validate his own rise to power. He constructed a story that positioned him on the throne through the union with Inanna. He then consolidated his power over Sumer by naming his brilliant daughter Enheduanna a high priestess of Ur. Enheduanna then created a cycle of hymns to Inanna that expresses the royal ideology of the new dynasty and Inanna is praised as the first lady of Me (all governing powers). Inanna's importance was continued as an exalted patron of the dynasty of Sargon. Her exaltation was rooted in her identification with two key mythic cycles central to kingship ideology: namely, the sacred marriage, and the descent and ascent from the underworld. Inanna incarnates heated female sexuality. She is the female side of courtship and sexual union, but never a dutiful wife or mother. She does not patronize motherhood, child care or weaving. She establishes kings on their thrones, but she does so as a nubile bride who never becomes a submissive wife. In the myth that tells the story of the sacred marriage Inanna weds the shepherd-king Dumuzi, who becomes a god through his marriage to her. Every year in ancient Sumerian society a Sacred Marriage festival ushered in the new year in most Sumerian cities at the time of the spring equinox when the moon disappeared. At the culmination of the ritual, Inanna, played by the high priestess of her temple, invites Dumuzi, her consort/lover, played by the king, to her bed to consummate the marriage. Elements of the ritual that were observed throughout Sumer included the ritual setting up of the bed, the bathing of Inanna – the priestess, then the entrance of Dumuzi – the king or his representative. Her invitation comes in the form of a love song. 

Burney Relief Panel depicting the Goddess Inanna. The panel can be found in the British Museum. 

Burney Relief Panel depicting the Goddess Inanna. The panel can be found in the British Museum. 

The Sumerian love songs from that period are extraordinary. They are luscious, and explicit and written entirely from the woman’s point of view. The themes of the Sumerian love songs are unique in ancient sacred literature with Archeologists having found among the remains of inscribed clay cuneiform tablets, thirty‐seven of the love songs containing some 1700 lines of poetry. The songs detail Inanna’s desire, her insistence on sexual satisfaction, her descriptions of sexual arousal, and her explicit instructions on how to give her pleasure. Not one of the songs mentions having babies or motherhood. As mentioned previously, Inanna was never a mother.   

I’m going to stop here for a minute and talk for a little bit about Enheduanna. She was the daughter of Sargon and was afforded the role of highest priestess in the land which she served for 40 years writing some of the most beautiful poetry. She wrote three long poems dedicated to Inanna and 42 hymns to important temples in 36 cities across Sumer.  Did you know that she is the first author on historical record?? No, you probably didn’t. Let that sink in for a moment. The first author on historical record. The first author on historical record is a woman and most people have never heard of her.

This is an excerpt from one of the love songs of Inanna : 

“peg my vulva
my star‐sketched horn of the Dipper
moor my slender boat of heaven
my new moon crescent beauty
I wait an unplowed desert,   
fallow field for the wild ducks
my high mound longs for the floodlands
my vulva field is open
this maid asks who will plow it? 
vulva moist in the floodlands
the queen asks who brings the ox 

the king, Lady, will plow it
Dumuzi, king, will plow it
plow then, man of my heart
holy water‐bathed loins
holy Ninegal am I

The other key myth associated with Inanna involves Inanna’s descent into the underworld to come to the aid of her grieving sister Ereshkigel, the Queen of the Underworld who is mourning the loss of her husband. Inanna goes to her sister’s aide dressed like the Queen of Heaven she knows she is, only to be stripped of all her finery at the 7 gates into her sister’s abode. Despite the fact that Inanna has come to help the grieving Ereshkigel, Ereshkigel is still terribly jealous of her sister and when Inanna finally reaches her, she strikes her dead, Inanna is turned into a corpse, a piece of rotting meat, and hung from a hook on the wall. After not hearing from her mistress in 3 days, Inanna’s faithful servant goes to implore her celestial relatives to help Inanna and bring her back from the underworld. Only Enki, the god of Wisdom and water agrees to help. He makes two servants from the dirt beneath his fingernails to go down the underworld equipped with the food and water of life. Able to adopt any disguise, they are able to slip past all the 7 gates of the underworld as flies, to present themselves to Ereshkigel who is still mourning her husband. The empathy they show Ereshkigel is what she craves most of all and so offers them anything they want in return. They ask for Inanna’s body and feed her the food and water of life. Inanna is restored but before she can leave the underworld she must choose a substitute to replace her. Looking around she notices that Dumuzi, her husband, hasn’t even noticed that she was missing and is still dressed in all his finery. This enrages her and she proclaims that he will take her place in the underworld. Dumuzi’s sister is distraught by this and offers to take his place. Moved by her self-sacrificing nature, Inanna agrees to let Dumuzi’s sister spend half the year in the underworld and Dumuzi the other half. In this way the cycle of life could begin again, and spring return to the Earth when Dumuzi left the underworld to join his wife above. Thus life and the land is restored when Dumuzi returns to earth in the spring.

Inanna and Dumuzi 

Inanna and Dumuzi 

In a similar Ugaritic myth from 1500 - 1200 BCE, the war goddess Anat goes in pursuit of her beloved Baal into the Underworld and avenges his death. Anat is violent and war-loving yet establishes conditions of peace in the land. Imperious yet fiercely loyal to her beloved Baal, she is sexual and brings forth offspring without ever ceasing to be a maiden. Similarly to Inanna, she is the power behind the throne. Ugarit was an important sea port city and kingdom established on a headland in what is now northern Syria. Through Anat the Kings of Ugarit are assured their dominion and the fertilizing rains on which agricultural plenty is based. Anat became a favorite goddess of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II because of her warlike nature and her role as a protector in battle. When she finds Baal in the Underworld she is not only stricken with grief but she is also overcome with rage and seeks out Mot, the god of Death, to enact her revenge on. “With a knife she split him, with a fan she winnowed him, with fire she burned him, with millstones she ground him, with a sieve she sifted him, in the field she sowed him, in the sea she sowed him” Then Baal is resurrected and the fertilizing rains are restored to the earth and the crops can grow once more. 

As we move forward in time and power shifts in the region, Egypt becomes the most powerful kingdom and we see the Isis myth starting to develop in the 3000 years before the first dynastic period of 3000 BC. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the myth of Isis or at least are familiar with her as figure in ancient mythology. There is no complete text of the story of Osiris's death and his restoration by Isis and in fact, the main source of the story is a heavily Hellenzied version by Plutarch, written in the early 2nd century CE. During the Ptolomeic period, when Greek kings reigned of Egypt, the cult of Isis and Osiris was reshaped as a mystery religion similar to the Eleusinian mysteries and became a religion of personal salvation disseminated throughout the Greco-Roman world. 


Isis carries on her head the symbol of the royal throne while Nephythys (Set’s wife) bore the symbol of the palace. Together they represented the basis for kingly power as the house and the seat upon which a king was enthroned.   

In this myth, Horus represents the living king whom Isis generates from the dead body of Osiris. Unlike Inanna and Anat, wifely and maternal devotion are central to the nature of Isis. A favourite image of Isis and Horus show the young King seated on her lap suckling from her breast - an image that would be taken over into Christianity as the image of Mary suckling the baby Jesus on her lap. 

In the early dynastic period Osiris became identified with new grain that rises from the earth, nourished by the waters of the Nile. He is pictured lying as a mummy beneath the grain which sprouts from his body, while a priest pours water on him. It’s interesting to note that at this time mats of earth with sprouting grain were placed in tombs of the dead, therefore making the connection between grain that rises yearly from the earth and immortal life. A similar identification of seed dying in earth and rising as new grain is used by Paul in the New Testament. 

In some versions of the death of Osiris, he falls into the flooding Nile and drowns but is dragged out by Isis and Nephythys to save him. In another version Osiris is explicitly identified with the grain “drowned” in the waters of the Nile and risen to new life. In other versions of his death, he is connected to a rivalry with Seth, the adversarial brother of Osiris and husband of Nephythys, in which Seth becomes jealous of Osiris and and tricks him into lying in a chest or coffin which Seth quickly slams shut and seals with molten lead. Seth throws the chest into the Nile and eventually it washes up on shore far away. Isis wanders the earth looking for the body of Osiris. When she finally finds it lodged in the roots of a tree, she cuts the chest out, opens it and embraces Osiris’s body. In some versions, she is depicted as a bird, hovering over the mummified body of Osiris, whose rising life is depicted through his erect phallus. Isis takes his seed into her and conceives the child Horus. 

Here is an excerpt of the conception of Horus found in several  Egyptian texts: 

“Thy sister Isis acted as protectress of thee. She drove away thine enemies, she averted seasons, she recited formulae with the magic power of her mouth...She went seeking him untiringly. She flew round and round over the earth uttering wailing cries of grief and she did not alight on the ground until she had found him. She made light appear from her feathers; she made air to come into being by her two wings, and she cried out the death cries for her brother. She made to rise the helpless members of him whose heart was at rest, she drew from him his essence and she made therefrom an heir. She suckled the child in solitariness, and none knew where his place was, and he grew in strength and his arm increased in strength in the House of Keb.” 

Once again, like Inanna and Anat, Isis is a “kingmaker” who places the royal heir on the throne. However unlike Inanna and Anat, she does so as a lover, faithful wife and devoted mother. She uses magical powers instead military vigour and evokes a symbolism that makes clear that while men rule as kings and lords, it is the power of the goddesses that puts them on their thrones. As Osiris represents the grain and the fertility of the earth and is linked with the cycles of nature and the flooding of the Nile and the germination of the wheat, it is through Isis that these processes are restored. Osiris and his creation as god of the afterlife, the underworld, transition, and resurrection is only possible through Isis.  In a description of Isis from around 1300 BCE she is described as “a clever woman. Her heart craftier than a million men; she was choicer than a million gods; she was more discerning than million of the noble dead. There is nothing which she did not know in heaven and earth, like Re, who made the content of the earth.” (I don’t know about you, but I would love to be described as “choicer than a million gods”) 

What’s fascinating about these three goddesses, apart from being incredible, powerful women, is how you can trace the evolution of the same myth through these different time periods. These goddesses evolve into one another as they reflect different kingdoms and different cultures. The same story is told with slight changes to the central actors that better reflect the traditions and practices of the people for whom they represent meaning. The story of the goddess and her beloved in the underworld only starts to deviate with the Greeks, with the Persephone/Demeter myth where the relationship is between mother and daughter instead of woman and lover. In the gender-segregated society of classical Greece, the Persephone/Demeter myth held deep meaning for women who shared the experiences of loss and hope as most saw their teenage daughters snatched away from them and given to an older man for marriage. In the Greek myth Demeter is the goddess of corn, giving the gift of grain and fertility. Her with-holding the harvest is what finally drives the gods to release Persephone from the Underworld and allow her to return to the earth for 8 months of the year. It is this story that is used to explain the seasons as well as to illustrate the power of female fertility. In all four stories the goddesses are linked with agricultural plenty and political stability, instating kings and restoring the land to a state of plenty.      

So what effect did these goddess myths have on the physical space of these ancient kingdoms? Or indeed, what effects did the physical landscapes have on these goddess myths? It was during this time that the first designed landscapes arose from the contemplation of the miraculous effects of irrigation on a dead world. The area of Mesopotamia known as Babylonia, after the capital Babylon, was threaded with canals used equally for transport and for trade. Uruk was the second city state to arise in the Tigris-Euphrates delta and is described in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh: One third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field, with the precinct of the goddess of Ishtar”  which of course was another name for Inanna. If we look at the etymology of the  name Ishtar, we see that it’s possibly derived from a Semitic term meaning "to irrigate" - or "she who waters", or "is watered" or "the self-waterer" deriving from irrigation and agricultural fertility. Therefore Inanna is further linked with the restoration of the land through flooding water and designed irrigation. As a part of ancient temple complexes, Paradise Gardens started to evolve that idealised the flooding of the landscape from the Euphrates river. This was seen as the metaphysical expression of the pantheon of the gods and goddesses.  The temple complexes in Mesopotamia were called ziggurats which would have evolved from devotional platforms from the Neolithic period and were usually constructed of sun-baked bricks and between 2 to 7 storeys. Ziggurats were not places of public worship; they were believed to be dwelling places of the gods and therefore only accessible to priests and priestesses. The Mespotamians believed that the ziggurat and it’s paradise gardens, connected heaven and earth and in fact the Tower of Babel was most likely an ancient ziggurat called the Tower of Etemenankia or, "House of the Platform between Heaven and Earth". The Hanging Gardens of Babel are of course an incredibly famous expression of the first manufactured landscapes. The ziggurats and paradise gardens eventually evolved into the pyramids that characterise Egyptian society. The geographical location of the pyramids in Egypt are related asymmetrically to one to another, yet precisely orientated to the cardinal points, linking the pyramids with the cosmos. The Nile formed a continuous metaphysical linear landscape whose annual flooding meant stability and symbolised divine order and permanence. Parallel with this cycle of nature went the cycle of human life, death and resurrection which is no better illustrated than in the myth of Isis and Osiris. Today you can still find ancient temples in Egypt, Greece, Rome and other parts of the Mediterranean that were devoted to Isis. The Egyptian temple at Philae is thought to have been one of the locations where Osiris was buried and was held in high reverence by the Egyptians. The temple of Isis is the most ancient part of the site. So as we can see, the physical landscape and spiritual landscape of the ancient Mesopotamians, were reflected back into each other creating a rich expression of architecture, myth, and designed gardens. The stories of the goddesses had deep meaning physically and spiritually.    

In some feminist thinking, there have been those seeking some original feminist alternative to reach back to an earlier time before the rise of patriarchy, to search for ancient goddess religion that will transform the self and society. For others, reclaiming and reinterpreting elements of patriarchal religions for feminism is more meaningful. For the historian and theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose excellent book, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine, helped inform this episode she has this to say: 

“Although I regard this notion of a prepatriarchal feminist alternative as mythical rather than literal history, it clearly speaks to deep psychocultural structures in our culture that lie in many religious traditions, including Christianity. ...... That we are not likely to clearly identify feminist goddesses and cultures from prepatriarchal histories means that reclaiming goddesses from the ancient Near East, such as Inanna, Isis, or Demeter, or Kali and Durga from India, is also a work of feminist reinterpretation for today, not a ready-made feminist spirituality that we can lay hold of literally and reproclaim in its ancient historical form. This means taking responsibility for our own work of reinterpretation and new myth making today...”    

How can we apply this reinterpretation in our own lives? What strength and inspiration can we draw from these goddess myths in modern society? And how can we use them to root us more deeply to our sense of place on this earth? As these myths show, the divine energy for life and renewal of life is imaged as both male and female that celebrates diverse bodies and energies that leads us to a place of common ground. So let’s repent our power over others, and reclaim our power within, start reinterpreting our own mythologies and begin to renew our own worlds together.



I am Enheduanna
High Priestess of Nanna
with single heart
I am devoted to Nanna
(then 20 lines missing, she continues) 

I plead with you
I say STOP
the bitter hating heart and sorrow 

my Lady
what day will you have mercy
how long will I cry a moaning prayer
I am yours
why do you slay me
may your heart be cooled toward me
I cry I plead
for your attentive thoughts 

may I stand before you
may your eyes shine upon me
take my measure 

I who spread over the land
the splendid brilliance of your divinity
you allow my flesh
to know your scourging 

my sorrow and bitter trial
strike my eye as treachery
tear me down from heaven
mercy compassion attention
returning your heart to someone
folded‐hand prayer are yours Inanna 

your storm‐shot torrents
drench the bare earth
moisten to life

moisture‐bearing light
floods the dark 

O my Lady
my Queen   
I unfold your splendor in all lands
I extol your glory   
I will praise your course
your sweeping grandeur
return your heart to me