Inanna, the paradox … Inanna, the whole …

Rassouli..LightDance

Artist: Freydoon Rassouli*

‘…the very being of this goddess infuses and vivifies all nature and natural processes. She is the divine in matter. As such, she sustains the ebb and flow, the relentless paradoxical reality of the natural world. She exists between blessing and curse, light and dark, plenty and want, goodness and malevolence, life and death. Harsh as her reality may seem, it is the Real every living being must encounter. And she is thedivine in matter. Implicit in her presence is a divine plan, a sacred order and meaning. Enigmatic as the plan may be, it is inferred by Inanna’s careful attention to the workings of the world and the people in it. ….

We can think of Inanna, with her complex mix of characteristics, as an attempt to bring together the seemingly chaotic forces of the universe into one unifying, and therefore orienting personification.

She embraced the full continuum of authority from the darkest to the most brilliant. A creature of earth as well as heaven, she reflected paradoxical human nature.’

— Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna: the Queen of Heaven and Earth

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For more beautiful images from this artist, visit  http://www.rassouli.com

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Hymn to Durga – Night and Light, Beauty and Disease are You

durgaIn an important text of this tradition — the Devi Puranam — the goddess Durga asks Shiva, her husband, how she came into being. Shiva answers that she knows better than anybody else her own origin because she was there when nothing existed, yet because she is asking he will describe her appearance. In the process of this narration, he describes the attributes of the Goddess and the reasons that he pays respects to her. I will quote here some parts of the very lengthy hymn. This is my own translation.

‘The Wise and Invincible One…

The Valiant One…

The One who is worshipped by the gods…

I pay respect to you.

The Venerable and Virtuous One; you are the shelter of all living beings.

Your beauty is Un-manifested yet Manifested.

You are the Terrible Night/Emptiness, the Great Night/Emptiness, the Ender of Time and the Constant within change.

Your Face is as luminous as a burning meteor, the light of your body is as bright as fire…

Your three eyes are as vivid as the burning flame.

You are the Nurturer of the past, the Shelter of all spirits. But no one is your shelter. …

You are the Protector of all gods… I pay respect to you again.

The Goddess of Gods, your brilliance is comparable to billions of suns …

Mother_Durga_by_kris_digitx

Artist: Kris Digitx

O the shining light of suns, salvage your devotees.

The Auspicious One… you are known as the Nurturer and the Creator of the Universe. … I pay respect to you many times. …

From you the Universe is created, sustained and destroyed. You are the Past, Present and Future. Everyone knows you are the Greatest. I pay respect to you along with all other gods.

The Origin of Ultimate Knowledge, the Origin of Music, the Immeasurably Powerful, I bow down to you. …

O Goddess you are present in all levels of Creation.

O Bearer of Weapons, your beautiful form, your eye-brows and thighs steal the mind. …

You are the Earth; Death and Diseases are you. …

Goddess, you are the Mother, the Wisest Victorious One, the Nurturer, the Ultimate Warrior, the Will, the Absence of Will, the Killer, the Piercer, the Transcender… the Deathless and the Speaker of the Ultimate Truth….’

(my own translation from the Bengali version).[1]

Durga here is the origin of knowledge; she is not only wise, she is beautiful too. She encompasses everything across space and time. She is the most valiant of warriors and the protector of gods. The dualities in her become starker when she is described as both being and emptiness, night and light, will and absence of will, life and death, beauty and disease; her beauty both manifested and un-manifested. And yet she is the Mother, the daughter and the wife.


[1] Panchanan Tarkaratna (trs from the original Sanskrit to Bengali), Devipuranam (Nababharat Publishers 1984); for more hymns to the different forms of the Hindu Mother Goddess, see Sir John Woodroffe, Hymns to the Goddess (Ganesh and Company 1973)

Matar Kubileya: the Mountain Mother

Ancient Phrygian relief of the Mother Goddess, from Ankara, ca. 700 B.C

Ancient Phrygian relief of the Mother Goddess, from Ankara, ca. 700 B.C

Matar Kubileya was the Mother Goddess extensively worshipped and adored in ancient Phrygia, in west-central Anatolia. The location of Phrygia was in modern-day Turkey around the Sakarya River. The word Matar means ‘mother’ in the ancient Phrygian language. And Kubileya is an epithet (descriptive term) which means ‘of the mountain.’  She was most often referred to as simply Matar. She was the most important divinity in the ancient Phrygian religion. She represented hunting, war and prosperity and was symbolised by the lion and hawk that accompanied her. She might have also been the state deity of Phrygia, as her lion was also a symbol of the Phrygian royalty. She was associated with mountains and her altars and temples have been mostly found either just outside the city walls or far away from human habitation, in mountains and forested places.

Sometimes Matar Kubileya were confused by later historians with another goddess very prominently worshipped in the early-Hittite city of Karkemish or Karkamis on the river Euphrates. Her name was Kubaba. In spite of similar names, they are separate goddesses with different set of attributes. Though they might have been also considered as two aspects of the same divinity.

Remains of an ancient monument of the Matar in Yazilikaya, Turkey

Remains of an ancient monument of the Matar in Yazilikaya, Turkey

The Phrygian Matar was also associated with hunting. She was commonly accompanied by a bird of prey, a raptor. The lion too was possibly associated with the hunt. And these two animals also symbolised her ferocity and power.

The worship of Matar Kubileya spread to Greece around 800 B.C. In Greece, she became known as Meter Kybele (pronounced as mitir kibele). The religion of the Meter spread quickly and in time she was absorbed in the pre-existing Greek pantheon. She was often considered another form of the Greek mother goddesses Rhea and Demeter, and called Mother of the Gods. The fourteenth Homeric Hymn reads –

‘Sing to me, clear-toned Muse, daughter of great Zeus, of the Mother of all gods and of all human beings; she takes pleasure in the resounding of castanets and tympana and the roar of flutes, the cry of wolves and bright-eyed lions, the echoing mountains and the wooded glens. And hail to you too, and all the goddesses who join in song.’[1]

Kybele.1But in spite of this conflation, in her Kybele form, she retained unique characteristics that distinguished her from other Greek goddesses. Her worship often involved rituals and rites that were very different from the worship rites of the pre-existing Greek goddesses. Most prominent among them were the loud music and unrestrained dancing that accompanied her worship. The collective dancing and raucous music was said to help the devotees to reach the highest peak of spiritual experience and connect to the Mother in their ecstasy. Much of the Greek Meter’s religion was also a mystery cult as it was only revealed to the initiated ones and were not openly discussed or recorded. At this time the tambourine became an important symbol of the Mother. In Greece, she became revered and worshipped ‘as the omnipotent goddess, progenitor of all divine and human life.’[2] The lion also became a more prolific presence in her iconography possibly symbolising both her general power and her untamed nature.[3] Her image gradually became more Greek from Phrygian. In the following centuries, Meter Kybele became one of the most widely worshipped divinities in Greece though ambivalence remained within the population about this goddess whose ways often seemed alien and strange, yet who connected powerfully with her followers through personal spiritual experiences. The worship of the Meter brought a very new dimension into the Greek religious experience.

In 204 B.C. Matar Kubileya was brought to Rome from Anatolia and established there as a state deity. In spite of her apparent alien characteristics from that of her Roman counterparts, her worship and reverence spread among the Romans extensively. In time she was considered the goddess who protected and saved Rome from alien invasion. Her temple was built in the most prominent place in the city and she was transformed to city goddess from the original Phrygian Mother, whose monuments were chiefly found in mountains and wildernesses. In Rome, the Matar came to be known as Cybele or simply the Magna Mater (Great Mother). Her worship and religion enjoyed considerable prominence but yet again evoked fear, awe and even revulsion among the Roman populace. Literature and history of the time shows this ambivalence in interesting ways. The most moving among them is this excerpt from a hymn by the Roman poet Catallus –

Dea magna, dea Cybebe, dea domina Dindymi

procul a mea tuus sit furor omnis, era, domo:

alios age insitatos, alios age rabidos.

‘Great Goddess, goddess Cybele, goddess and mistress of Dindymus, may all your insanity, Lady, be far from my home. Drive others to frenzy, drive others mad.’ – Catallus 63: 91-93

Roman Magna Mater Cybele from 50 AD

Roman Magna Mater Cybele from 50 AD

I will write more about the Greek and Roman forms of the Matar in later posts. Here I end by noting that the Matar was one of the most important goddesses of ancient Near East and by far the only one who maintained her influence for so long and spread into Europe while still maintaining much her Anatolian characteristics in addition to the one acquired in the new lands. She was powerful. She was intensely feared and loved at the same time. She inspired awe, fear and often ambivalence in the hearts of her devotees. But she was still loved and considered the Mother of all, including gods and humans.


[1] Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1st edition, 1999) 122

[2] Same as above

[3] Same as above.

Kamakhya – the Goddess of Desire…

The Indian Great Goddess, Adya Shakti, is not only wise, valiant and the source of creation, she is also very much in touch with her sexuality, fertility and related bodily functions. She is worshipped as yoni (vulva) in her Kamakhya form. The name Kamakhya literally means ‘She whose title/definition is Sexual Desire.’ The Kalika Purana, an important Hindu text, gives the description of the innermost cave of the main temple where the deity resides –

‘Inside the cave there exists a very lovely pudendum on the stone which is 12 angulas (9cm) in width and 20 angulas (16 cm) in length gradually narrowing and sloping… It is reddish in colour like vermillion and saffron. On that female organ the amorous Goddess Kamakhya … The primordial force resides in five different forms.’[1]

The main Kamakhya temple is situated near the city of Guwahati in Assam, India.

Kamakhya Temple in Assam

Kamakhya Temple near Guwahati, Assam

According to another important text, the Devi Bhagavata Purana

‘…in Kamakhya-yonimandala[2] …the goddess…dwells forever, the site being the jewel of all the holy places. No sacred place can excel this one in which the goddess is seen menstruating every month… It will not be an exaggeration if it be said that though the wise persons have identified the entire world with the body of the goddess, the said Kamakhya-yonimandala has no second in reflecting her real glory.’[3]

Goddess sculpture in the Kamakhya temple.

Goddess sculpture in the Kamakhya temple.

The relevant myth with slight variations is the story of Sati, an incarnation of Adya Shakti (Primal Power), and daughter of the celestial king Daksha. She married Shiva, the destroyer god, the personification of the Great Time, the first Yogi, without her father’s consent and angered him. Once when Daksha organised a gathering of the most honoured gods, goddesses and celestial beings, he purposefully left out Shiva and Sati from the invitee list. His intention was to publicly reject Shiva as a god of any importance. Sati could not believe her father would do this on purpose and decided to attend the ceremony anyway. Shiva refused to attend and tried to stop Sati from going, but in vain.

Sati reached her natal home and were publicly humiliated by her father. Shiva too was insulted and maligned in his absence. In anger and pain, and in protest, Sati burnt herself to death. Shiva reached the spot in a terrible rage and inconsolable grief. He sent his most terrifying aspect to kill Daksha; then he picked up the lifeless body of Sati on his shoulders and started dancing the tandava (dance of destruction). Everything went in turmoil and the whole creation came under imminent threat of annihilation. But Shiva in his terrible grief proved unstoppable by any force in the universe. The god Vishnu devised a plan to stop Shiva’s madness and sent his weapon to slice away Sati’s body without Shiva noticing. Sati was sliced into pieces which fell in various parts of the earth. Shiva came back to his senses and stopped when he realised Sati’s body had incrementally disappeared from over his shoulder and creation was saved. Wherever these pieces of Sati’s body fell, it became auspicious; and temples were built over them. These 51 temples of Adya Shakti are called the Shakti Peethas (Abodes of Shakti). The place where her yoni fell, became the abode of Mother Kamakhya, one of her forms.

This picture is not of the main temple is Assam as photography is not allowed within the main temple. This is the Kamakhya Yoni worshipped at the Kamakhya Temple in Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh.

This picture is not of the main temple is Assam as probably photography is not allowed within the main temple. This is the Kamakhya Yoni worshipped at the Kamakhya Temple in Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh.

It has been argued that yoni worship is a much older tradition than the myths themselves. According to Biswanarayan Shastri, the yoni is regarded as the symbol of creation and worshipped with the utmost regard. The creative female force is conceived as the visible symbol of the invisible female and is identified with the Goddess.[4] Every year the festival of Ambubachi celebrates her menstruation for four days; the temple is closed during these days and when re-opened is considered the most auspicious time to pray to the Mother.[5]

Brenda Dobia writes about an interview she conducted with a temple priest on her pilgrimage to the Kamakhya temple –

‘He repeatedly affirmed the yoni’s fundamental role in srishti, creation, and elaborated Kamakhya’s central importance as the yoni of the Earth itself. Significantly, the annual Ambuvaci festival which celebrates the menses of the Goddess involves a ritual remembering and replenishment of her powers, with Tantric adherents from Goddess sites all over the sub-continent converging there. Julia Jean reports that the regeneration of both the Earth and the devotees at this time is understood to derive from the shakti (power/energy) in the menstrual blood of the Goddess.’[6]

The temple of the Great Mother Kamakhya is located in modern India in the district of Kamrup (literal meaning, embodiment/manifestation of desire) in the state of Assam. It is named after the ancient kingdom of Kamrup (or Kamarupa) which took its name from the presence of goddess Kamakhya. The superfast cross-country train that runs daily between my city and Kamrup is officially called the Kamrup Express. As a teenager, I remember being intrigued by the name of the train and the ‘mysterious’ place it connected us with. With years, the sense of mystery had given way to a feeling of awe at the myths of this Mother who shares the most intimate pains of my womanhood, who bleeds like I do; who is defined by her sexuality and yet holds the capability to lend her name to entire kingdoms and districts in the past and in the present.

This too is a picture of a family of mother worshippers in the Kamakhya Temple at Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh

This is a picture of a family of Mother worshippers in the Kamakhya Temple at Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh

There are many more Kamakhya temples dotted around India, but the Kamrup Kamakhya is the predominant in fame. Again, the menstruating goddess is found in other forms in many places in India who too are worshipped as forms of Adya Shakti herself – for example, goddess Bhagavati in the Chengannur Mahadeva temple in South Kerala.[7] The temple website says –

‘…[The] festival of this Temple is Triputharattu which is considered as a symbol of fertility. This festival is connected with a menstruation ceremony, which is observed periodically in the temple. That is why this temple is also considered as Shakthi Peedam (a local language version of the word Shakti Peetha).’[8]

In Orissa, the annual festival of the earth goddess (Harchandi) is called the Raja Parba (literally, menstruation festival). The earth is believed to be menstruating on these days and the worshippers refrain from ploughing, digging or interfering with her in any other ways.[9] To Harchandi’s worshippers, women’s menstruation is the gift from and continuous with the menstruation of the goddess.[10] In my marital home in Orissa, my in-laws celebrate the earth mother’s menstruation with utmost respect and love; women wear new clothes and dress up to mark the renewal of mother earth. Intriguingly, one of the main rituals for this festival is for girls to swing on a rope-swing. This in all probability symbolises female exuberance and fertility as a creative force.

A poster of the Menstruation festival of the goddess or Raja Parba

A poster of the Menstruation festival of the goddess or Raja Parba

Another poster

Another poster

Raja_Doli_khela_Odia_festival

A girl’s first menstruation too is celebrated by women as a gift of the goddess; it is one of the most significant days of her life. My sister-in-law was extremely disappointed that I could not travel from the UK to India for her daughter’s first menstruation rite. It is almost as if I had not been able to attend a close relative’s wedding. In the Shakta (Shakti worship) traditions, menstruation is not just a biological fact; the cyclical changes in a woman’s body are believed to represent the cyclical changes in the environment, the seasons and in the very order of the cosmos.[12] But the Great Mother’s close relationship with the bodily processes of menstruation, sex and birth do not devalue her divinity or her status as the all-powerful primal force in the universe, nor undermine the notions of her wisdom. She is a woman, a lover, a mother, a creator, a protector, a warrior, and the all-knower, all-powerful all in one.


[1] Kalika Purana, as quoted by Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani  available at

https://www.indianfolklore.org/journals/index.php/Ish/article/viewArticle/284 (accessed 21 May 2011)

[2] The word yonimandala in all probability means ‘the circle of the yoni’ or ‘the place of the yoni.’

[3] Devi Bhagavata Purana, 8.38.15-18 trans. follows N.N. Bhattacharyya, The Indian Mother Goddess (New Delhi: Manohar, 3rd edn, 1999)

[4] Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani (online journal. See note 1 above for the url)

[5] Same as above.

[6] Brenda Dobia, ‘Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire,’ Feminist Theology, 16 (2007) 61, 74

[7] Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani (online journal. See note 1 above for the url)

[9] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia 69, 78

[10] Same as above.

[12] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia 69, 72-73

Inanna — Queen of Heaven and Earth

Goddess Inanna was worshipped primarily in ancient Mesopotamia or Sumer. The daughter of the Moon-God Nanna and Goddess Ningal, she was described as the ‘mountain born.’ She was a warrior goddess. But her power encompassed far more than just winning in battles. She was one of the most worshipped and revered goddesses in the ancient Sumerian pantheon. She is described in contemporary literature as ‘greater than the great gods,’ as the ‘queen of heaven and earth.’ She was also the only deity in the pantheon that accommodated opposites and reflected both light and dark, terror and love, destructiveness and creativity. She is the goddess of war and at the same time the goddess of all kinds of love. From the love for one’s child to the erotic love for one’s partner are all within Inanna’s domain.

In her iconography, she is depicted as a lady with lions/lionesses at her feet. Her lion/lioness is the symbol of her unrestrainable power. She holds in her hand the Sumerian symbols of fertility, plenty and prosperity. She is also represented by an eight-pointed star. She is associated with the planet Venus and is named the Morning and Evening Star.

Terracotta Plaque depicting Inanna; southern Iraq (1800 and 1750 BC)

Terracotta Plaque depicting Inanna; southern Iraq (1800 and 1750 BC)

Inanna is unbound by the social rules of behaviour and she transcends our ideas of good and bad. She guides us to confront the fact that we are capable of both great good and great evil; that the capability for evil does not live outside of us, but in us. She is the unified manifestation of all that is pleasurable, beautiful, kind, loving, uplifting and bright with all that is painful, ugly, harsh, cruel, downgrading and dark.

Another ancient depiction of Inanna.

Another ancient depiction of Inanna.

‘Inanna’s presence draws us into the realm of the inner life. She is the guide who insists we face our shadowy contradictions, that we own who we really are in all our painful and wonderful complexity. As the goddess of paradox, she is the model of unity in multiplicity. Each of us reflects a bit of her discordance within ourselves. Each of us is burdened with the chore of gathering our many conflicting pieces together into a semblance of order and congruence.’ (Betty De Shong Meador, Inanna: Lady of Largest Heart, page 22)

Inanna was revered, loved, feared and worshipped for thousands of years in the ancient Sumer, that is, (roughly) modern-day Iraq. Of course, now her religion and worship are a thing of the past. But she still lives on and captures our imagination.

A Modern depiction of Inanna

A Modern depiction of Inanna

In these pages, I will attempt to unearth her myth and literature. I will journey to the heart of Inanna’s religion and try to understand the love her worshippers had for her. She is one of the most prominent manifestations of the divine feminine. And she shares many characteristics with the Indian Great Goddesses – she rides lions, just like the goddesses, Durga and Sheranvali; she is a paradox of light and dark, terror and love, just like the Indian goddesses Kali and Durga; and she is the ‘mountain born,’ just like the goddess Parvati. Sheranvali’s name literally means ‘the lion rider’ and Parvati’s name literally means ‘of the mountain.’ So I see Inanna as another facet of the universal divine feminine, the ancient creatress, the Primal Power. Here I will share my journey to her with you.

Most beautiful Hymn to Durga

This is one of my favourite renditions of one of the most powerful hymns to Ma Durga. Its a very long hymn. I will post the translation once I find a satisfactory one or once I do it myself. In gist it describes the attributes of the goddess Durga and bows down to her. She is called the merciful one, the victorious one, the terrible and beautiful one, the auspicious one, the three-eyed one, the beautifully attired one, the mother, the daughter of the mountain, the wife of Shiva, the sister of Vishnu. Her victory over Mahushasur (the Buffalo Asur) is hailed. Her immense strength, immeasurable power and her beauty is praised.

Witchcraft — the Old Religion of the Goddess

Witchcraft is a word that frightens many people and confuses many others. In the popular imagination, Witches are ugly, old hags riding broomsticks, or evil Satanists performing obscene rites. Modern Witches are thought to be members of a kooky cult, primarily concerned with cursing enemies by jabbing wax images with pins, and lacking the depth, the dignity, and seriousness of purpose of a true religion.

But Witchcraft is a religion, perhaps the oldest religion extant in the West. Its origins go back before Christianity, Judaism, Islam — before Buddhism and Hinduism, as well. and it is very different from all the so called great religions. The Old Religion, as we call it, is closer in spirit to Native American traditions or to the Shamanism of the Arctic. It is not based on dogma or a set of beliefs, nor on scriptures or a sacred book revealed by a great man. Witchcraft takes its teachings from nature, and reads inspiration in the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, the flight of birds, the slow growth of trees, and the cycle of the seasons.

Artist: Freydoon Rassouli

Artist: Freydoon Rassouli*

According to our legends, Witchcraft began more than thirty-five thousand years ago, when the temperature of Europe began to drop and the great sheets of ice crept slowly south in their last advance. Across the rich tundra, teeming with animal life, small groups of hunters followed the free-running reindeer and the thundering bison. They were armed with mainly the most primitive of weapons, but some among the clans were gifted, could “call” the herds to a cliffside or a pit, where a few beasts, in willing sacrifice, would let themselves be trapped. These gifted shamans could attune themselves to the spirits of the herds, and in so doing they became aware of the pulsating rhythm that infuses all life, the dance of the double spiral, of whirling into being, and whirling out again. They did not phrase this insight intellectually, but in images: the Mother Goddess, the birth-giver, who brings into existence all life; and the Horned God, hunter and hunted, who eternally passes through the gates of death [so] that new life may go on.’

– excerpted from Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess (20th Anniversary Edition; HarperOne, 1999)

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*To see more paintings by Freydoon Rassouli, visit www.rassouli.com