Dark Goddesses

Working with the Dark Goddesses (c) 2003 Sorita d’Este and David Rankine

This is lecture notes from a lectures given by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine in 2003 at Witchfest International, Craftfest Ireland and Witchfest Scotland conferences organised by the Children of Artemis.  Reproduced here with the kind permission of the authors. 

Before we can look at working with dark goddesses, let us first explore what exactly a dark goddess is. The term dark goddess is usually applied to goddesses who have challenging aspects. However, all deities have challenging aspects and in modern times we have tended to simplify our views of the deities. Closer examination of ancient perceptions of the deities we still revere today usually shows even the brightest of deities have their darker aspects.

There were no “dark” or “light” goddesses, rather there were different aspects of a goddess or god that you appealed to in particular circumstances. Classic examples of this would be the lioness-headed Goddess Sekhmet and Isis.

Sekhmet is a goddess who represents the ferocity of the noonday sun, the lightest time of the day. Apart from nearly wiping out humanity when they were being disrespectful to her father Ra, Sekhmet was the goddess who could heal or send diseases. So she is embodying the qualities of healing and of death; light and dark aspects.

Isis, the benevolent mother and dutiful wife, was also mistress of magick. She gained this power by making a serpent out of Ra’s spit and getting it to bite him. Nothing could cure him and Isis would only heal him after he gave her his secret name, giving her all the power of magick. So Isis used trickery and showed her dark side to get what she wanted: the power of magick.

Such aspects occur through all the phases of our lives and beyond. From birth and our first appearance into the world, there are dark goddesses associated with the transitions and transformations we undergo. So the dark goddess as divine midwife is our first encounter with her in the form of such goddesses as the Egyptian frog goddess Heket and hippopotamus goddess Tauret.

These are not pretty goddesses, they are powerful primal entities representing the mystery of birth at a time when civilization was in its infancy and man was struggling to order the chaos he found all around him. To placate nature the deities were often depicted as anthropomorphic entities i.e. they combined the human form with that of animals which were seen to have particular qualities. With the passing of time the divine midwife was represented as being fully human in form, but of a frightening aspect, like Ceridwen in the Celtic myths and Hekate in the Greek pantheon.

The next transitional stage in our lives is that of puberty, with the physical changes that this brings. For women this is the beginning of their coming into power as they first experience menstruation. Menstrual blood has had taboos attached to it in all cultures across the world throughout time. For the patriarchy menstrual blood represented a feminine power they could never partake of so it had to be controlled or subjugated. Menstrual blood symbolized feminine sexuality which left men feeling excluded and frightened. It showed that the creative power of life resided in women no matter how many creation myths men came up with showing Male Gods creating the world!

Also the whole question of parentage enters the picture, for there can never be any doubt who a child’s mother is, but short of locking a woman away from sight there was no way to ensure that a particular man was the father. Goddesses who were associated with sexuality and sexual pleasure, of the power of woman to attract men and provoke lust and desire were very strong entities and so they came to be demonized as representing unwholesome energies.

Women were encouraged to be demure, to subdue their desire for pleasure and be subservient to men. A goddess who challenged this notion and encouraged women to be proud of their sex and stand equal with men was inevitably going to be labelled as evil and dark.

The best illustration of this is Lilith. Lilith was Adam’s first wife and was not made from him like Eve later was. Lilith did not want to lie under Adam in the missionary position, which minimized her pleasure and showed his dominance. Lilith wanted to be on top and to enjoy herself fully. So Adam complained to Jehovah, and Lilith used the power of the secret name of JHVH to flee. The three angels sent after her were powerless to bring her back.

This shows the divine nature of Lilith and that she was no passive woman, but a ferocious and sexual goddess who could use the power of the name of god and ignore the angels with impunity. Inevitably Lilith quickly became demonized into a night hag who killed babies, playing on the greatest fears of women; the safety and health of their children, to turn them away from their inherent powers as embodied by Lilith.

Lilith was not alone in being demonized. A glance through medieval grimoires will quickly identify many of the so-called demons as corrupted versions of the names of old deities, like Ashtoreth being a corruption of Astarte or Ishtar.

Apart from the phases of life that are influenced by dark goddesses, there are other aspects we need to consider to give a clear picture of the range of qualities such goddesses represent. One such area is that of war and conflict. There have been many war goddesses, the Morrigan being one of the best examples.

Due to her sexual and combative nature, the Morrigan could not be assimilated into the pantheon of saints like Bride and became demonized into the banshee. Ishtar is another good example of a ferocious, sexual and martial goddess who challenged the male stereotypes.

Why should a goddess represent combat, when war has often been considered the domain of men? Well men have known for a long time that the scariest person on the planet is a mother protecting her children so perhaps it is not that surprising!

Revenge and retribution are another aspect that we see embodied in the dark goddesses. Goddesses such as Nemesis, who punished people who transgressed against Themis and the natural balance of events would feel her wrath.

Another transition which has always brought challenges is that of old age. Old age brings fears of mortality, of facing our shadows, the fear of what is beyond and the unknown and unknowable. The death goddess represents the fulfillment of all the earlier phases of life. No longer fertile, her creative power is not that of life but of wisdom and death. Her totems are those associated with death like the crow and the vulture.

The images of death and decay associated with death deities have always frightened man and continue to be one of the main undercurrents of our society. Death can steal our dignity and come at any time. It is the unwelcome stranger to those who have never faced death.

Sex and death (the Eros and Thanatos principles of psychology) are probably the two strongest forces that have shaped the way we live our lives. For as sex is a creative and life-affirming act, so death is the inevitability of the end that awaits us all.

Goddesses of death, like Kali, are often depicted as being hideous or very frightening, ancient and unstoppable. She is the devourer who will swallow us no matter what we may do to placate her. Again this aspect has tended to be demonized through fear, rather than accepted as part of the natural cycle of existence.

The wisdom of old age is ignored in the fear of death so society hides its older people away in homes instead of valuing them as the knowledge keepers with the wisdom of experience to guide the younger members of the clan through their transitions. Essentially this shows a removal of the initiatory qualities of old age and death for who better to guide people through transitions than those who have already been through the whole range of human experience.

Beyond death there is the underworld and judgement, where you will be measured on your deeds. Excuses are irrelevant; it is the quality of your life and deeds that will determine how you are judged by the dark queen of the underworld by goddesses like Hekate and Ereshkigal. Everyone will end up in the underworld.

Hekate stands at the entrance to the underworld with her keys, choosing which part of the underworld the soul will be sent to, the beauty of the Elysian fields or the suffering of Tartarus. Ereshkigal sits in the underworld with her judges, waiting to measure the deeds of the human soul. The Egyptian underworld was one of the most extreme domains where anyone whose heart did not measure up against Maat’s feather of truth would be thrown to the devourer and their being annihilated.

The vastness of the stars which dwarfs us and makes us feel insignificant is another classic aspect embodied by some of the dark goddesses as the mother of all creation. When faced with the limitless potential of the void, the eternity of space, it is much easier to turn our gaze closer to home to more manageable and less challenging perceptions.

Goddesses such as the Egyptian Nuit, Greek Nyx and Indian Kali all represent the totality of all, of which we are but fragments. Nuit is depicted with stars in her body and Kali has been described as “clad with the stars”. Both are often depicted naked which may be where the term skyclad comes from.

An aspect that cannot be ignored is that of the moon and lunar mysteries. The moon has fascinated man for a long time; its waxing and waning influencing the tides, vegetative growth and us. The moon embodies change and the length of its cycle has long linked it to women’s menstruation.

Ancient man must have looked in wonder at the ever-changing face of the moon in the night sky using its light to hunt or hide and with the changing moon came time; the division of the environment into cycles and seasons.

The moon does not shine with its own light, it reflects the sun’s light. The moon represents the depths of the unconscious beneath the solar light of the conscious mind. Lunar goddesses embody the powerful tides lurking beneath the surface; the worlds of dreams, emotions and the irrational. Small wonder then that the moon should be linked with witchcraft and sorcery, with those who choose to work with nature’s tides rather than trying to control them.

The four phases of the moon represent the changing tides of our lives and yes it is four, not three. The moon waxes from new to half moon in the first week and from half to full in the second week. Then she wanes to half moon in the third week and wanes to dark in the fourth week.

For some reason many people choose to ignore the dark moon which is a very powerful time magickally and perhaps the most scary, for there is only the dim light of the stars to light the dark of night.

The idea of the triple moon goddess and her aspects as maiden, mother and crone (although it works well) is a modern invention. It was created by Robert Graves in the mid nineteenth century and presented in The White Goddess. But it ignores the power of the dark and so keeps people away from this time of power, especially strong for women.

If you look at all the goddesses through history, you will see that there are no triple goddesses that embody all three of the phases – i.e. maiden, mother and crone. When you find goddesses represented in triple form, like Bride or Hekate they are depicted as all being the same age often as beautiful young women, which brings us to another point of how dis-empowering stereotypes are still being perpetuated in modern paganism.

For example, Hekate is depicted in ancient Greek art as a beautiful young woman. So why is she so often referred to in modern paganism as a crone or old woman? Think of the songs that are sung and you will see what I mean e.g. “Ancient queen of wisdom, Hekate, Ceridwen, old one come to us”. Hekate is not an “old one” in the sense of her appearance, even though she is an ancient goddess, but instead as being one of the Titans who predates the Olympian Gods of Greece.

Likewise Ceridwen is a mother goddess, not a crone or hag, although she is very much depicted as a Witch with her herbs and spells! Surely as modern pagans we should be able to go back to source and connect with the original forms of the deities rather than perpetuate repressed and uninformed views when the information is so freely available.

The final aspect that we should consider is the dark Goddess in the Wheel of the Year. In the Wheel of the Year the dark goddess represents the dark half of the year i.e. autumn and winter.

At the autumn equinox the goddess descends into the underworld, back into the earth and death surrounds us as the fruit and meat harvests take place. At the autumn equinox the balance of the year tips and once again there is more dark in the day than light. At the same time the fruits are gathered reminding us of the cyclical nature of life as we devour the fruit that comes from plants that may one day feed off our corpses.

Then we move to Samhain, where the veil is at its thinnest. Phantoms and faeries move about the land causing misfortune and chaos, as man was shown how nature controlled him through the weather, not the other way around. Now the dark goddess is enthroned in the underworld as goddess of death and judgement and the cattle were slaughtered to provide meat through the bitter winter months that would follow.

In the past we looked to the ancestors and those who have gone before learning from their wisdom. Now society does what it always does with things it fears through ignorance; it makes a farce out of them, making old customs into part of the race for bigger profits.

The winter solstice brings the shortest day of the year, the least light. Yet this time is also that of the re-birth of the sun for now the days will start to get longer. Yule reminds us that in all things there must be balance. At the darkest time the seed of light is reborn, each opposing polarity containing the seed of the other within it, like the yin-yang.

Figures such as the Cailleach as queen of winter embody the bleakness of this time, but also the need to look within. During winter we spend more time indoors and are more passive. This gives us the opportunity to look within and explore our inner landscapes rather than direct all our energy outwards. Winter is as vital a time of year as any other, a necessary part of the cycle of nature as death is necessary in the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

You can see that dark goddesses are essentially goddesses who embody transition and transformation and this is their appeal, for they challenge us to grow and to change, to take responsibility for our actions and be the best we can be. They are not sinister, or weird although people who glance superficially at them and do not take the trouble to find out more and venture into the darkness may think they are.

The mindset of picking a goddess to work with for a perceived cool value is not a smart one. Go around saying I work with Lilith or Kali because you think it makes you look cool and you may get a shock if that goddess decides to take you up on your boasts and starts rearranging your life for you!

So how can we work with dark goddesses in Wicca? Well for a start many of the ceremonies are performed in the dark! Remember that too much light will leave you as blind as too much darkness. In Wicca we strive for balance, we have the solar Sabbats and the lunar esbats and to ignore one aspect is to leave yourself open to the problems that arise from imbalance. As Wicca is a path of inner transformation and spiritual growth in harmony with nature, working with such dark goddesses can help realize our full potential into manifestation.

It is important to remember that Wicca combines the three strands of spirituality: magick, mysticism and religion. The mysticism is very important and can be neglected at times. Mystical experience of the divine and the universe are food for the soul and help give us the impetus to change. Working with dark goddesses can provide very powerful mystical experiences! As a religion, Wicca enables us to put these experiences into a valid and useful format and magick of course helps facilitate such experiences.

You might be thinking so what about Hekate and the Morrigan? There has not been much on those goddesses yet. And why these particular goddesses? Well there is a bit of personal bias as well as some very sound reasons. Hekate is the patron of our training circle Vitriol Grove and I am a priest of the Morrigan.

Let us start with Hekate. Hekate is the protectress of witches, a very good reason to work with her! Hekate was a very important goddess to the ancient Greeks and was the only titan to be honored in Olympus. Although she never lived in Olympus, Zeus gave her dominion over parts of Heaven, Earth and the Sea and they alone shared the right to grant or withhold gifts from humanity.

Hekate was worshipped as goddess of abundance and eloquence who bestowed generous gifts upon those who honored her. We can see a common mythical theme here: that of a member of the earlier more primal pantheon being accepted into the incoming pantheon so that they had a means of dealing with the “chaos” represented by the earlier deities.

Hekate’s powers are considerable. She had a variety of roles, the most important of which seem to have been as guardian against evil spirits and as a guide through difficult transitions. Hekate is typically represented as a goddess of the liminal: she guards doorways, crossroads and guides people through change.

She was also involved in the Eleusinian mysteries, as the goddess who leads the candidate to initiation, a very relevant role in Wicca! Hekate was the only goddess depicted with two torches in Greek art which is important as it stresses her role as light-bearer, or phosphorus. As the light bearer she leads the initiate through the darkness of struggle and hard work to the illumination of initiation.

Hekate’s link with nature is often ignored which is shocking as it is so dramatic. In the Chaldean Oracles, Hekate is described as the world soul and as the bestower of virtues and source of souls! Here she is portrayed as the pre-eminent feminine energy of awesome power and scope, a far cry from the Shakespearen portrayal of a night hag of little power.

Under Hekate’s command are both the iynges, divine messengers which are basically angels (remember angelus means messenger) and also her demon dogs to hound wrong-doers. Hekate was seen as the soul of nature, the fate of all, for she was present at birth, initiation, through life and again at death. For Hekate also carries the keys to the Underworld and it is she who decides who goes to the Elysian fields (i.e. Summerlands in Wiccan terms).

Hekate feasts were held on the Dark Moon where rich people would leave food at crossroads in her honor. This food was eaten by the poor. One writer commented that it had scarcely left the hands of the contributors before it was in the mouths of the poor! Hekate also has special festival days on 13th August and 16th November. So in groups, holding a Hekate feast on the dark of the moon is an obvious way to honor Hekate as well as leaving offerings at a crossroads.

You can of course work with Hekate at any phase of the moon as she is also a stellar goddess. Her twin torches symbolize Venus as the morning and evening star. Hekate was also goddess of storms. If you were a farmer and you wanted to be on her good side, this may be why the festival on 13th August arose, so that the farmers could propitiate Hekate with offerings to not ruin their crops.

Hekate was often depicted in triple form, as the same beautiful maiden times three! It is thought that statues of her like this may have been left at crossroads which were sacred to her as Hekate Trivia, Hekate of the three ways. We often interpret crossroads as being four-ways, but in the case of Hekate the texts are all very specific calling them Trivia which are in fact three-ways thus naming her as Hekate Trivia. So Hekate of the three ways would face each of the paths to the crossroads.

Boundaries and meeting places were believed to be the places where you were most likely to encounter spirits and supernatural creatures and Hekate was the ideal guardian to protect you from harm. Of course the three ways could also be thought of as the earth, sky and underworld.

Hekate is most often translated as “she who works her will”, and what could be more appropriate for a goddess who is leading you through transformation and is the protectress of witches? She does not have a set partner as many of the Greek gods did. She could not be conveniently paired off with a god to make a nice couple!

The god she is most associated with was another deity of magick and transformation, Hermes. Statues of Hekate and Hermes were to be found outside some of the Greek cities guarding the gates and these two deities were also central in different versions of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, as the deities who led Persephone back from the underworld and of course when Persephone was abducted, Hekate was the only deity who heard her cries!

Hekate played an important role in the Eleusinian mysteries as the goddess who led the candidate through the darkness with her torches to initiation, perhaps echoing Persephone’s journey through the underworld. In fact the more you discover about Hekate, the more you will find she is a very complex goddess with many aspects, ideal as a goddess of modern witches.

Like Hekate, the Morrigan was also a member of the incumbent chaotic pantheon that was superseded by a new order. In her case it was the Fomorians, who Morrigan sided against with the Tuatha De Danaan. That she was Fomorian or earlier is clear from the fact that she was already in Ireland when the Tautha De Danaan arrived and she certainly has a chaotic nature compared to the gentler gods of the Tuatha De Danaan.

This is why, like Hekate, she was incorporated into the newer pantheon and like Hekate, she could not be neatly pigeonholed. This is why she survived in folklore through such characters as the banshee, Black Annis and the Gwyrach y Rhybin and was not canonized like many other deities such as Brigid.

The Morrigan has a strong earthy aspect, both through her connection with cattle and horses (as Macha) and also as the hag who bestows sovereignty of the land onto the rightful king (as in the tale of Niall of the Nine Hostages) and removes it when the king is not up to scratch, as with King Connaire in the tale Da Derga’s Hostel.

Local Irish lore illustrates how the reality of the goddess’ connection with the land is preserved, with the tradition of the Cally Berry, the Hag of the Harvest Festival made of oats. A figure or plait of oats would be made with the last oats and ritually severed with a sickle (c.f. the severed head), placed around the neck of the woman of the house (as the guardian of the hearth and as the Earth Goddess) and then above the table looking down (giving Her blessing) during the ensuing feast.

The local legends of the Cailleach Beara (from Whom the Cally Berry is derived) shows the goddess actually forming the landscape. The stones which drop from her apron forms the hills and valleys, so we can see her in a sense giving birth to the landscape and showing her aspect of Earth Goddess again.

The Morrigan is also connected with fate, as the washer at the ford who cuts the thread of life and foretells doom. She also made prophecies, such as her victory prophecy when the Tuatha De Danaan were victorious.

“After the breaking of the battle and the cleansing of the slaughter, Morrigán, Queen of War, proclaimed the triumph and the great victory to the royal hills of Ireland, to its spirit army, to its waters and rivers and estuaries. And the great deeds are still spoken of. “What news?” the people call out, the reply comes, even from fierce Badb, the sister of Morrigán:

Peace up to heaven, peace down to earth.
Earth beneath heaven, strength in each.
A cup very full, full of honey.
Mead in abundance, summer in winter.
Peace up to heaven.”

This piece shows some of the Morrigan’s qualities, including sovereignty of the land (the royal hills of Ireland), her link to the otherworld and faerie as Phantom Queen (the spirit army) and her link with water such as rivers and estuaries.

One of the translations of her name is “Witch Queen”, along with other possibilities like “Great Queen”, “Phantom Queen”, “Terrible Queen” and “Sea Queen”. Although she is best known as a goddess of sex and battle, she has aspects relating to the earth and waters, sovereignty and fate, as well as oracular, poetic, otherworldly, magickal and shapeshifting aspects.

An important consideration with both the Morrigan and Hekate is that they represent the primal creative power of the feminine. They have not been sanitized or made into nice friendly social stereotypes. They are goddesses who challenge you to grow and fulfill your potential, which is a boon for those walking a spiritual path.

So both goddesses have links to nature, fate and a whole host of entities they rule. I think it is clear from what we are saying that both these goddesses are ideal to work with as Wiccans, to explore a whole range of qualities both in yourself and in the universe around you, and to encourage and deal with transformation in your life. So how do you work with them?

For solitary practice, a good start is to set up a shrine to the goddess you work with. Of course this is good practice if you are doing devotion to any deity, but in this case you should put objects you feel appropriate and sacred to the goddess you are working with on your shrine.

A daily practice is strongly recommended. Not only is this good discipline, which helps develop your will, but it also helps develop a stronger bond with the deity and shows you are serious in your devotion. Lighting candles, chanting, meditating and performing invocation are all ideal aspects to include into a practice, as is making offerings. Who said deities couldn’t be bribed?! Though in the case of the Morrigan this might mean having to go and feed mince to the crows, or in Hekate’s case leaving food at a crossroads!

Be sure to keep a diary when you are doing daily practice, both of any events or relevant thoughts and also your dreams. Both these goddesses are associated with dreams and may communicate ideas with you through dreams. Timewise, you may work with both these goddesses at any phase of the lunar cycle. Samhain is especially sacred to the Morrigan, as it is the time when she mated with the Dagda and when she leads the faery across the land.