12

Is Kali, the dancing goddess, with skull necklaces, and blood licking tongue, unique? Specifically the mix of joyous rapture, death embrace, yet mothering and sexual.

Eros and Thanatos, at once a maiden, a mother and a crone.

Are there other divinities who mix warm embrace with destruction, love with death, sex with protection?

13

In fact, several! Four immediately come to mind: Dionysus, Inanna/Ishtar, Aphrodite, and Cybele.


Dionysus

First up is Dionysus, a god best known for wine and drunkenness, but surely you can see how that quickly is connected to other, darker qualities. Already in the earliest text mentioning him, Dionysus is a god of two natures, "joy and sorrow" as Hesiod (or Pseudo-Hesiod) in the Catalogue of Women fr. 179 Most (= fr. 87 Evelyn-White, for those with the older Loeb or are looking online) puts it:

"...Dionysus gave to Mmen as a delight and as a burden
Whoever drinks his fill, the wine becomes maddening for him,
it binds together his feet and his hands and his tongue and his mind
with invisible bonds, and soft sleep loves him."

(Trans. Glenn Most, Loeb Classical Library)

Clearly Dionysus embodies the very nature of alcohol.

Aside from the power which comes from over-intoxication, there were also his attendants, the Maenads (also called the Bacchae or Bacchantes). These women roamed the countryside in drunken, mad revelry. In their frenzy, though, they were also known to kill because of the altered state that received from Dionysus.

Two of the most famous of this event were the killing of Orpheus and the killing of Pentheus. Orpheus, the eminent musician of the ancient Greek world, who with his lyre charmed Hades himself into giving him back his wife, in grief after losing his wife again (he was instructed not to turn back to look at her before they left the cave, and yet when he neared the end he could not help himself), was torn apart by Maenads in Thrace.

The death of Pentheus is recounted in Euripides' Bacchae. There Pentheus the king of Thebes refused the worship of Dionysus, so the god made local women crazy, including Pentheus' own mother, and they tore him to pieces.

The ancients made it clear the god himself was part of this hallucinogenic enterprise:

While busily engaged, with sudden beat
they hear resounding tambourines; and pipes
and crooked horns and tinkling brass renew,
unseen, the note; saffron and myrrh dissolve
in dulcet odours; and, beyond belief,
the woven webs, dependent on the loom,
take tints of green, put forth new ivy leaves,
or change to grape-vines verdant. There the thread
is twisted into tendrils, there the warp
is fashioned into many-moving leaves—
the purple lends its splendour to the grape.
And now the day is past; it is the hour
when night ambiguous merges into day,
which dubious owns nor light nor dun obscure;
and suddenly the house begins to shake,
and torches oil-dipped seem to flare around,
and fires a-glow to shine in every room,
and phantoms, feigned of savage beasts, to howl.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.391–404, trans. by More 1922


Inanna/Ishtar

The next goddesses are Ishtar and Inanna, with Isthar being the Akkadian equivalent of the Sumerian Inanna, and therefore there is considerable overlap between the two. Nevertheless, despite Ishtar's recognition, Inanna precedes her.

One of the central myths of Inanna is the Descent of Inanna. Here Inanna comes to visit her sister Ereshkigal in the Underworld, when her sister has her stripped of her garments (symbolic of her power) and tries to force her to remain there. Inanna was able to escape by offering a substitute, and she ended up choosing her lover (husband?) Dumuzi.

It should be also noted that she utterly leveled Ebih, a mountain which refused to worship her. Yet clearly she's also a sexual goddess. The historical Shulgi, king of Ur, uses terms like "my consort" and "your beloved husband" in describing his relationship with the goddess.

This and other hymns lead some scholars to see her as a powerful goddess, whose personality could be highly erotic but simultaneously utterly destructive.

The Semitic people of southern Iraq borrowed these myths of Inanna for their goddess Ishtar, whom they equated. Not much more can be said about Ishtar and Tammuz (the Akkadian version of Dumuzi) that Gilgamesh, in his famous epic, hadn't already:

"Woe to him whom Ishtar had honoured! The fickle goddess treated her passing lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly for the favours heaped on them. Animals, enslaved by love, lost their native vigour: they fell into traps laid by men or were domesticated by them. 'Thou has loved the lion, mighty in strength', says the hero Gilgamesh to Ishtar, 'and thou hast dug for him seven and seven pits! Thou hast loved the steed, proud in battle, and destined him for the halter, the goad and the whip.'

...

Listen to me while I tell the tale of your lovers. There was Tammuz, the lover of your youth, for him you decreed wailing, year after year. You loved the many-coloured Lilac-breasted Roller, but still you struck and broke his wing [...] You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. You have loved the stallion magnificent in battle, and for him you decreed the whip and spur and a thong [...] You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks."

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet 6, trans. by Sandars 1972

Reference and further reading:

Gwendolyn Leick 1994. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. Routledge.

See in particular chapter 9 ("Inanna Rejoicing in Her Vulva") and chapter 10 ("'My Consort, Maid Inanna, Lady Voluptuousness of Heaven and Earth'").


Cybele

Next is Cybele, originally an Anatolian wilderness/mountain goddess who was later imported to Greece and Rome.

This goddess' most famous story seems a neat parallel with Inanna/Ishtar, though it's too speculative to say whether there is a direct connection.

Ovid in his Fasti (a lengthy etiological elegy of the Roman calendar) sums it up nicely:

I said ‘Where did this urge to cut off
Their members come from?’ As I ended, the Muse spoke:
‘In the woods, a Phrygian boy, Attis, of handsome face,
Won the tower-bearing goddess with his chaste passion.
She desired him to serve her, and protect her temple,
And said: “Wish, you might be a boy for ever.”
He promised to be true, and said: “If I’m lying
May the love I fail in be my last love.”
He did fail, and in meeting the nymph Sagaritis,
Abandoned what he was: the goddess, angered, avenged it.
She destroyed the Naiad, by wounding a tree,
Since the tree contained the Naiad’s fate.
Attis was maddened, and thinking his chamber’s roof
Was falling, fled for the summit of Mount Dindymus.
Now he cried: “Remove the torches”, now he cried:
“Take the whips away”: often swearing he saw the Furies.
He tore at his body too with a sharp stone,
And dragged his long hair in the filthy dust,
Shouting: “I deserved this! I pay the due penalty
In blood! Ah! Let the parts that harmed me, perish!
Let them perish!” cutting away the burden of his groin,
And suddenly bereft of every mark of manhood.
His madness set a precedent, and his unmanly servants
Toss their hair, and cut off their members as if worthless.’

Ovid, Fasti 4.221-242 (trans. Kline 2004)

Interestingly, several ancient authors (e.g. Apollodorus 3.5) state that Cybele taught to Dionysus the orgia, the ecstatic and frenzied form of worship in their respective cults. Orpheus, said to have been killed by Bacchantes, as aforementioned the ecstatic and frenzied worshipers of Dionysus, also had orgiastic mysteries.


Aphrodite

The last of the goddesses I'll mention is Aphrodite. The infamous goddess of love is called Venus by the Romans, there is thus a connection to Inanna/Ishtar, who were said to have been represented by the planet Venus (as too was Aphrodite and Venus).

Like alcohol, love can be good or bad, and it shows with her. Befitting the goddess of love, she was also said to be the most beautiful goddess. She was married to Hephaestus (= Vulcan), a lame and disfigured god but an excellent craftsman, and already in Homer she is caught by him having an affair with the more handsome Ares (= Mars).

Her destructive power was manifest in different ways. First, as the most beautiful goddess, she won the "beauty contest" (caused by a golden apple thrown at a party on Olympus on which was inscribed "to the most beautiful") with the Trojan prince Paris (also called Alexander, not at all to be confused with Alexander the Great) judging her, Hera (= Juno, Queen of the Gods, goddess of childbirth), and Athena (= Minvera, a goddess of wisdom, craft, and skill)—the event is now aptly named The Judgment of Paris). Most will know how this story ends: Paris receives as a bribery gift the hand of Helen of Sparta, wife to Menelaus, who thereupon with his brother Agamemnon and "all the Achaeans, Danaans, and Argives" attack Troy.

Ever since then, "love and war" was a major theme throughout all of Greek and Roman literature.

There is a connection with Inanna/Ishtar, too. First, Aphrodite used to be connected to war more intimately than merely the cause of the Trojan War. Some early depictions of Aphrodite have her suited up for battle. There's also the story inside the Iliad in which Aphrodite fights, is wounded by Diomedes, and cries to her mother, the goddess Dione, after which Zeus then chastises her for being out of place in war:

This only drew a smile from the Father of men and gods. Calling golden Aphrodite to his side, he said: "War is not for you, my child, tend to the loving deeds of wedlock, and leave the fighting to Ares the swift and to Athene."

Homer, Iliad 428-430, trans. Kline 2009

The whole scene is a close parallel to Ishtar who, after Gilgamesh insulted her (referencing Tammuz/Dumizi), flies up to her father Anu, and asks him to release Gugalanna the mighty Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh, though it was then slain by Gilgamesh's companion Enkidu, who himself died because of it).

Homer therefore is likely to be combating the existent idea of Aphrodite as a goddess of both love and war. Even if he was fairly successful, her destructive powers were still seen. I always found this vase to be a nice representation of this: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K9.1.html

To further this connection, Aphrodite also had a lover, whose name was Adonis, most certainly connected to the Semitic word adon, meaning "lord" (whence Hebrew adonai meaning "My Lord"). Pseudo-Apollodorus has the best summary (shorter than Ovid's, whose is the best story, but not a summary):

Because of Aphrodite's wrath (for she did not honour Aphrodite), Smyrna developed a lust for her father, and with the help of her nurse slept with him for twelve nights without his knowing it. When he found out he drew his sword and started after her, and as he was about to overtake her, she prayed to the gods to become invisible. The gods took pity on her and changed her into the tree called the Smyrna. Nine months later the tree split open and the baby named Adonis was born. Because of his beauty, Aphrodite secreted him away in a chest, keeping it from the gods, and left him with Persephone. But when Persephone got a glimpse of Adonis, she refused to return him. When the matter was brought to Zeus for arbitration, he divided the year into three parts and decreed that Adonis would spent one third of the year by himself, one third with Persephone, and the rest with Aphrodite. But Adonis added his own portion to Aphrodite’s. Later on, while hunting, he was attacked by a boar and died."

Apollodorus Bibliotecha 3.18 trans. Aldrich 1921

(I highlighted above a nice phrase summarizing this response!)

There is also concerns of the Underworld, similar to Inanna and Dumuzi:

On his death Adonis was obliged to descend into the lower world, but he was allowed to spend six months out of every year with his beloved Aphrodite in the upper world. (Orph. hymn. 55. 10.)

"Adonis" in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, ed. by William Smith.

  • Freyja, the Norse goddess of - amongst other things - love, sex, war, and death might also qualify. – yannis Jun 24 '15 at 9:37
  • 1
    really amazing answer. i like this – natarajan physicist Jun 24 '15 at 11:43
  • Thanks, natarajan! It took me hours to put together, so I'm glad it's useful! @Yannis, I'm not as familiar with Germanic mythology, so that's interesting to note! Hopefully someone else will put together a post on her, otherwise I may do so later. – C. M. Weimer Jun 24 '15 at 14:21
7

The Irish goddess the Morrigan is a fearsome war-goddess who also embodies sovereignty. As such, she mates with the chief god, and in the Cattle Raid of Cooley she offers victory to Cuchullain if he will be her lover. He refuses, and she then proceeds to destroy him. She's a very complex goddess, incorporating lover and death aspects, as well as being a goddess of the land. There's a number of books and websites dedicated to her. (Some connect her to Morgan la Fay in the Arthurian legends, but that's controversial.) Her emblem is the crow, a carrion bird.

  • "...she proceeds to destory him" that's not how I remember it (see chapter 15) – femtoRgon Jun 25 '15 at 3:56
  • Point taken - she does do her best to kill him, however, and if I understand linkch. 26, she goes about stirring up strife between the two sides. I was thinking of the famous statue of Cuchulain with the raven on his shoulder. I think the larger point that she is an erotic and destructive goddess still holds. – solsdottir Jun 25 '15 at 22:58
  • Ah! The bird is part of the tale of his death. After being mortally wounded by Lugaid, he ties himself to a stone before expiring, and his enemies are afraid to approach in case he might yet live, until a bird flies up and settles on his shoulder. I don't know of any indication the bird is the Morrigan (or even a raven) though. But yes, I agree that the Morrigan is a good example. – femtoRgon Jun 25 '15 at 23:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.