In this second part of our love goddesses series, we’ll have a look at goddesses from the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, Oceania, Latin America, and indigenous peoples in North America. Far from being lost in history, some of these goddesses have strong followings today, while all have hopeful and powerful messages for our modern lives.
A loving goddess with less troubled stories is Benzaiten, the Japanese goddess of joy, luck, talent and wealth. Just as the Yoruba goddesses we showcased in part one, this deity has travelled, with iterations in Sanskrit, Burmese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tibetan and Vietnamese cultures. She is both a Buddhist goddess and an adopted Shinto goddess in Japan, yet her origins are in India, where she is Saraswati of the Hindu religion. One of Benzaiten’s stories is of a terrifying dragon that was marauding over the area where she lived. Coming upon her one day and hearing her eloquence and joyfulness, he asked to marry her. She refused, angry at his bad treatment of the local people. He reformed under her influence, and they married. Later, the poet Basho came to her, having fallen in love with a woman whose poem he had read. He petitioned Benzaiten to help them meet, and she brought the soulmates together. Benzaiten’s stories are filled with her independent loving nature and her willingness to believe in and help those in love. She represents what is optimistic and encouraging, with her positivity allowing a greater expression of our talents and all we can be.
Another goddess that came to Buddhism via Hinduism is the many-named Tara. She travelled from India to China and Tibet, where two of her emanations, Green Tara and White Tara, have become among the most respected and emulated bodhisattvas (a deity in making). The name Tara means ‘star’, and she is the light in the darkness of our journeys. One of her origin stories centres around the creation of the world. The Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, looked down on the world, promising he would not go onward toward total enlightenment and nirvana until all of humanity did too. Thousands of years later, he looked down again and saw there was no progress – the humans were suffering just as before. Avalokiteshvara cried, and from his tears grew Green and White Tara. They had chosen to be born female, wanting more women to be freed from suffering and misery. They carried peace and love to calm and aid the people they met. Green Tara is seen as the most active and dynamic of the two – she is often shown as a maiden who is playful, mischievous and who laughs at self-righteousness. In Tibetan Buddhism, green is seen as a colour of action, and she is a swift helper to those who call on her.
Like her Green counterpart, White Tara is an important part of the Shaktism Hindu movement in north-eastern India. Shakti is a part of Hinduism concerned primarily with goddesses. There is one supreme force and that force is female, composed of many goddesses. In India, Tara’s followers are almost as numerous as those for Kali and Durga – two hugely formidable goddesses of power. White Tara is sometimes seen as the primordial energy of the universe itself. A quieter presence than Green Tara, she is usually shown as a voluptuous woman, whose calm envelops all who are brought to her. She has a forest goddess aspect, healing all creatures, and is often called on to counteract illness and bring a long life. Those in grief seek comfort from her. She is white because she is as radiant and calm as the moon, her all-enveloping love just as eternal and bright.
By contrast, one of the most famous Shakti goddesses is Kali: the terrifying, many armed, knife-wielding, skull necklace wearing goddess, shown with her tongue out. Feral and confrontational, she is a warrior who is ready to defeat demons. She nearly killed her own husband, Shiva, a vastly powerful god. Kali is a part of the cosmic goddess focused on power: over the self and over enemies. She is often controversial as she looks aggressive, her knife often dripping with blood. But Kali’s followers describe her as the ultimate protector with the sort of tiger energy a mother gets when protecting her children. Kali’s presence in Tantric meditation and sexual practices helps an adherent confront their fears and secrets. She is brave and unstoppable; a feminist icon dating from independent worship as far back as 1000BCE. Bengal, Nepal and Kerala are among her largest worship centres, but her influence is global and growing.
The heat and strength of the sun are often seen as masculine traits – except in the Oceanic countries, where the sun is mostly seen as female and responsible for creating all life on earth. One example is Bila, a goddess with contemporary worshippers in Southern Australia, among the Adnyamathanha people. In one of Bila’s stories, she was building a fire on which to roast and eat her victims – the origin of the sun as a blinding light. Lizard Man (a goanna figure) felt sorry for her victims and chased her away, but he knew she would return when he had gone and that the world needed her or all would be dark. So he threw a boomerang after Bila, which caught her and caused her to move back slowly in a curving and predictable arc. He would always be ready for her when she returned. That is how the sun got its cycle and why you must respect it – its power is huge and can be deadly. So Bila is loved for keeping the planet light, but feared and respected for her destructive qualities; Lizard Man lauded for his heroism in saving the people from her deadly strength. They are a power couple: always in tension with one another, each as necessary as the other to maintain the environment.
A much more gentle sun symbol is Yhi, an aboriginal Australian goddess. She slept in the Dreamtime (the period when life was created), and on being woken by the Great Spirit, descended to Earth and lit the world. As she journeyed back and forth across the land, grasses, trees, animals and birds sprang into existence wherever she looked. She journeyed to ice caves and the underneath parts of the land, where insects, fish and amphibians came into being in the shining of her warmth and happiness. Eventually, Yhi restored her Dreaming, promising the creatures she would come back and visit them often. As she left, the land grew dark and the creatures worried, but when she awoke the next morning she came back, and so it carried on. On seeing man over many years, she thought him lonely, so she took one of her flowers and placed it next to him. As he slept, Yhi transformed the flower into a woman, to be loved, treasured and forever seen as the beautiful creation of a goddess that she is: human and divine.
A fierce goddess and protector of the oppressed and threatened is Pomba Gira. She is an orixa (ancestors who has been deified) of the Umbanda and Candomblé tradition in Brazil, and strongly associated with sex workers and transgender women. The ultimate representation of unapologetic female energy and sexuality, she is said to be wrathful when not respected. Like Kali, she is often shown bare-breasted with a necklace of skulls, totally at home in her skin. She is said never to judge because she carries all experience within her and can comfort all sorrows. No matter what you have done, no matter how confused you may feel, Pomba Gira will listen and comfort; she understands the harshness of subsistence. The pain of the loss of love can be taken to her.
A goddess can be of great influence because her culture is in the ascendant historically. Such was the case with Chasca, the Incan Goddess of the Moon who was originally from Peru. Between roughly 1400 and 1533CE, the Incan empire was the largest in the world, and Chasca (or Ch’aska) was recognised along the Pacific coast and Andean highlands, in Ecuador and Chile. The Incans believed that time, for agriculture, moved in 800-year cycles as well as seasonal ones. While her husband Inti controlled the harsh sun of day, Chasca was associated with dawn and twilight, along with the renewal of spring and protecting virgins and young girls. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in this quietly loving goddess, who is seen as a sign of hope – whether what you have planted in your life grows or not, you can try again with the next repeating cycle. Also, inside you lives still the innocence and hopefulness of the original girl – you just need to call her forth and feel her loving confidence.
Creation is an important part of the Corn Mother, a goddess symbolising a different kind of love – that of sustenance and nurture. She is a goddess of the indigenous Pueblo peoples of North America, the vast area in the Southwest. Her people number the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Cherokee and Huron groupings as well as others. She is a goddess that makes the corn grow, in some cases introducing it as a food source. But when the people discover how it’s made, she takes it from her body – which they find unacceptable – they chase her away and often kill her. Yet where she lay sprouts more corn. In a way, it is a fertility myth of sacrifice, but it is also a tale that women cannot be denied or put down – even as we fall, others rise to take our place: we are what we create. We sustain, we nourish, we rise.
Also from indigenous communities of North America is Sedna, the Inuit peoples’ sea goddess. Many stories swirl as to how she came to rule the underworld of the sea and its creatures, with the most prominent being that she didn’t like the suitors her father sent and either he forcibly took her to her suitor or the suitor kidnapped her. Sedna’s tales all end with a struggle with her being taken against her will and thrown into the sea by her father, who then chops off her fingers when she tries to get back onto the boat. As Sedna sinks back into the sea, her bleeding fingers change wondrously into seals, walruses and fish. She populates the sea, and the peoples of the surrounding fishing communities live bounteously at her desire, as she is now in charge of the marine creatures. In some versions, Sedna grows a fish’s tail and swims through the sea with her creatures. Despite the violence, Sedna gained a kingdom of her own, which she shares with her female goddess companion, Qailertetang, who controls the weather. Rising above circumstance, Sedna created her own reality, and shared her future with a partner of her own choosing.
And so back to the message of love and hearts that the month of February has become. The underlying theme of our goddesses is that love can sustain you every day, in many surprising ways, and at all times. Let the goddess, orisha or orixa that speaks to you sustain your heart and keep you strong.
Cover image: John Hill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Read part one of our Love Goddesses series