Human consciousness has developed infinitely slowly out of nature. Before we knew ourselves as human, we were animal and plant, stone and water. For countless millennia, the potential for human consciousness was hidden within nature, like a seed buried in the earth. Then, very slowly, it began to differentiate itself from nature. Deep in our memory is the whole experience of life on this planet: life that has evolved over the four and a half billion years since its formation; life as hydrogen, oxygen and carbon; life as the most minute particles of matter; life as water, fire, air and earth; life as rock, soil, plant, insect, bird, animal; life as woman and man evolved from this aeonic experience. Finally the point was reached where planetary life evolved a brain which enabled us to speak, to formulate thoughts, to communicate with each other through language, to endow sounds with meaning, and invent writing as a way of transmitting thoughts. Over these billions of years life on this planet has evolved from undifferentiated awareness to the self- awareness of our species. All this can be described as an instinctive process, each phase blending imperceptibly into the next.
Self-awareness and reflective consciousness as we know it now is a very recent development, yet consciousness as genetic patterning present in plant and animal and human life, consciousness as awareness or instinctive reflex is carried within us as part of the reptilian and mammalian brain system that took many millions of years to evolve. From these have come the highly differentiated consciousness of the neo-cortex that we call rational mind. The ability to think, to reason, to reflect, to analyse, to store information and be able to retrieve it through memory, is itself a development of the older brain systems, and is interdependent with them, but our conscious awareness is focused in the most recently developed part of ourselves and is out of touch with the roots from which we have grown. And what are those roots? Does our consciousness originate in the greater consciousness of the cosmos? Is our brain a vehicle, just as all planetary life is a vehicle, of that cosmic consciousness? Is the cosmos the ultimate source of our thoughts, our feelings, our fertile imagination, our creative ideas, our musical genius? These are questions to which science as yet gives no answer but older traditions from ancient civilizations, do offer answers.
As consciousness evolved, the sacred image was like an umbilical cord connecting us to the deep ground of life. From about 25,000 BC., perhaps far longer, the image of the goddess as the Great Mother was worshipped as the fertile womb which gave birth to everything, the great cave of being from which she brought forth the living and into which she took the dead back for rebirth. To this day, the cave is still, in dream and mystical experience, the place of revelation and communion with the unseen ground of being. The earliest images of the Great Mother known to us are the figures of the goddess carved from stone and bone and ivory some 22,000 years ago. The Great Mother was imagined to carry within her being the three dimensions of sky, earth and underworld. She was the great pulse of life reflected in the rhythm of the moon, the sun, the stars, the plants, trees, animals and human beings. All these were her children and she was the numinous presence within her manifest forms, continually regenerating them in a cyclical process that was without beginning and without end.
In the Neolithic, a deep relationship was formed with the earth through the rituals of sowing, tending and harvesting the crops, and breeding domestic animals for food. The images of the Great Mother as a profoundly experienced life process of birth, death and regeneration develop and proliferate around many different images of the goddess. Sky, earth, and underworld were unified in her being. As bird-goddess she was the sky and her life-bestowing waters fell as the rain from her breasts, the clouds; she was the earth and from her body were born the crops that nourished the life she supported. As serpent-goddess she was the darkness beneath the earth - the mysterious underworld - which concealed the hidden sources of the water which became the rivers, springs and lakes and which was also the home of the ancestral dead. She was the sea on which the fragile boats of the Neolithic explorers ventured into the unknown. She was the life of the animals, trees, plants and fruits on which all her children depended for survival. Whether we look at the goddess figures of Old Europe or those of Çatal Huyuk in Anatolia, or further East, to Mesopotamia and the Indus valley civilization, the basic forms are the same. It is hard for our modern consciousness to imagine how life in that time was lived in the dimension of the Mother, in participation with the rhythms of her being, or how these images of her kept people in touch with their instincts, and were the foundation of their fragile trust in life.
This was the phase in human evolution when magical rituals were devised to keep the community in harmony with her deeper life: to propitiate her with offerings that would bring protection and increase, and ward off her power to destroy. In relation to human consciousness at that time, the image of the Great Mother was numinous and all-powerful. The discoveries in the territory of Old Europe and at Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia and the Indus Valley show cultures as early as 7000 BC. with a deep sense of relationship with the mother goddess, where women were engaged in all kinds of creative work that was focused on her worship, where shrines and temples to her abounded, filled with the beautiful pottery, cloth hangings and sculptures and the baked offerings that were made in her honor. It was in the Neolithic that mountains, hills and groves became sacred and that springs and wells became places of healing. There are still places all over the world where pilgrimages are made to these sacred sites. Deep in the psyche we carry ancient memories of the sacredness of the earth, and of the earth as Mother. This Neolithic vision was transmitted to the poetry and traditions of the First Peoples who are helping us now to recover our lost sense of the sacredness of the earth.
The Paleolithic and Neolithic eras give us the earliest images of the Great Mother but we hear no words. It is only in the Bronze Age that we begin to hear the human voice; for the first time we can listen to the hymns addressed to the great goddesses of Sumer and Egypt. The voice of the Divine Feminine comes alive, speaks to us, reflected in the words addressed to the goddess which are inscribed in hieroglyphs on the walls of Egyptian temples or on the sun-baked clay tablets of Sumer. These reveal a rich mythology of the Divine Feminine which may already be millennia old. It is in the Bronze Age that the feeling for the sacredness of life is clearly expressed in words - a feeling that is transmitted through the hymns and prayers to the goddess or where she herself speaks in the great aretalogies that have come down to us from Egypt and Canaan and the remarkable early Christian Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. In these she announces herself to be the source, ground or matrix of all forms of life; the fertile womb which eternally regenerates plants, animals, human beings; the life-force which attracts the male to the female; the power which creates, destroys and transforms all forms of itself. The goddess speaks as the source and embodiment of all instinctive processes. She is the life force which is nurturing, compassionate,, beneficent and also the terrifying and implacable force of destruction which can nevertheless regenerate what it has destroyed.
With the Iron Age, which begins about 1200 B.C., and the development of patriarchal religion, the story of the goddess becomes more difficult to follow as the god takes her place as the supreme ruler of sky, earth and underworld, yet in the West, the great goddesses of the Bronze Age are still worshipped as late as Roman times and the Greek and Roman goddesses, as well as moving closer to the concerns of civilization in their patronage of human skills and the creative arts, still bring through the cosmic dimensions of the older Great Goddess. Now they embody wisdom, truth, compassion and justice. They reflect the divine harmony, order and beauty of life. Inanna, Isis, Cybele, Demeter were the focus of mystery religions which gave access in the cultures over which they presided to a deeper perception of life than that which prevailed in the popular religions of the day. The magnificent lunar myth of Inanna's descent to and return from the underworld may be the foundation of the later image of the Shekhinah that emerges in the mystical tradition of the Hebrew religion. Through the celebration of the great festival in honor of Demeter, the Thesmophoria, and the rites of her temple at Eleusis, women and men were given a vision of eternal life and the mysteries of the soul.
The legacy of the Divine Feminine in Western culture lies in the great mythological themes of the Quest which direct us toward the roots of consciousness, the source or ground of being: the goddess Isis gathering the dismembered fragments of her husband, Osiris, Odysseus returning home to Penelope under the guidance of the goddess Athena; Theseus following Ariadne's thread through the Cretan labyrinth; Dante's journey into the underworld and his reunion with Beatrice; the medieval quest for the Holy Grail - all these marvellous stories define the Feminine as immanent presence and transcendent goal.
Further to the East, in India, while the Vedic sages expressed with extraordinary clarity their vision of the divine ground in the sublime poetic imagery of the Vedas and the Upanishads, the ecstatic poets whose traditions belonged to a culture which existed long before the Aryan invasions, sang of their passionate devotion to the goddess, while to the north, the mountain people named their great mountains in her honor and worshipped her as the dynamism of the creative principle, locked in the bliss of an eternal embrace with her divine consort. Still further to the East, the wise masters of the Taoist tradition never lost the shamanic understanding that relationship with Nature was the key to staying in touch with the source of life. They never followed the ascetic pratices of other religions which sacrificed the body for the sake of spiritual advancement. They were never in a hurry to reach the goal of union with the divine or to renounce the world for the sake of enlightenment. Of all the religious traditions, with the exception of those of the First Peoples, they were the only ones not to split body from spirit, thinking from feeling, so losing touch with the soul. They never became lost in the mazes of the intellect and its rigid metaphysical constructions but, through patience and devotion, were able to realize the difficult alchemy of bringing their nature into harmony with the deeper harmony of life. They did not lose sight of the One.