A thin partition divides fantasy writers and readers from those – they include some feminists (see Feminism), New Agers, devotees of Wicca and speculative theorists – who argue that the Underlier figure we may name the Goddess is as real as the God – who, according to the most accepted story of Her fate, supplanted Her circa 2000BC – and who treat her subjugation and/or disappearance as due to a conspiracy on the part of an oppressive world order.
Unfortunately, God – i.e., the Judeo-Christian-Moslem figure whom it is usual for Westerners to designate as God – is a far better-documented figure of belief than the Goddess. This may be simply because history is told by winners, but there is little evidence for anything like a pre-Indo-European belief in a Great Mother – and even less that any Goddess-dominated religious life was necessarily (or even usually) matriarchal, on lines promulgated by the Goddess's less cautious late-20th-century advocates. We know, in fact, very little indeed about the relation between female deities and political power in the prehistoric world. Nor is it safe for us to assume that Gaia or Gaea (one of the Goddess's better-known early names) promoted a now-lost rapport with the Earth, a rapport forcibly violated (in Archetype-generating scenes of rapine) by Indo-European blonds.
However, given the basic understanding that writers of fantasy know they are writing fiction, it does not matter that the Goddess, as a historically worshipped figure, is a concept severely questioned by modern anthropologists, archaeologists and scholars of religion, nor that the rapport of her people with the Earth is no more plausible than that supposed (by sentimentalists) to have been enjoyed by Native Americans. What matters for writers and readers of fantasy is the fact that the Goddess is an ample source of Story.
That Story begins in the Palaeolithic, perhaps 50,000 years ago. Most of the carvings extant from this period are of women, usually with exaggerated sexual features. Images that seem to associate the vulva with openings into the Earth are common. These images depict – it is useful for fantasy writers to think – a primal Earth Goddess: Gaia (according to early Greek myths) or Nut (according to early Egyptian versions). As time passes, and we come into near prehistory, the Earth Goddess takes on greater individuality, and in becoming the Great Mother – a term used to describe the Sumerian Inanna, or the Canaanites' Astarte, or the Egyptian Maat, or the Aztec Coatlicue, or the Pueblo Spider Woman, whose story shapes the narrative structure of Sheri S Tepper's Shadow's End (1994) – she becomes the creator of the world, the fertile source of all new life, the guardian of all that lives and grows. But the Goddess is not wholly benign. She contains in her nature the darkness and violence that designate the end of things, and she continues the Cycle. She has not yet been divided into two, into the good Goddess aboveground, and her Shadow in the Underworld; she has certainly not yet become the Triple Goddess: maiden (symbol of Virginity), mother (symbol of Fertility) and crone. Men are not yet important; neither virginity nor marital fidelity (in the Pantheon or, by hopeful extension earthwards, in life) have yet become, therefore, issues of much interest.
As soon as a consort enters the picture, however, it becomes necessary (for those who believe in the Goddess) to begin to decipher the "true" story out of the interstices of the victors' version of the nature of the world, their rewriting of the stories of creation and birth and guardianship. Inanna becomes Ishtar. Figures like the Anatolian Cybele (who according to some scholarship represents a different tradition, deriving from the Iranian Anahita, but one which ultimately combines characteristics with other Goddess figures), or the Indian Parvati, the Egyptian Isis, the Greek Demeter, the Norse Freyja/Freya and the Celtic Rhiannon, are all participants in a much more complex Story; they share essential characteristics, and fantasy literature tends not to be particular as to which version of the Goddess most legitimately represents which part of the Story. These versions of the Goddess tend to have consorts (who may, as in the tale of Isis and Osiris, be siblings, or, as in the tale of Cybele and Attis, sons) and (like Inanna/Ishtar's Dumuzi/ Tammuz) they tend to make Season-renewing journeys to the Underworld (see also Golden Bough), where their shadow-sisters dwell, in order to bring their consort back to the light, if only for a while. They continue to lie at the centre of things, and to generate all life from their wombs – but they can be dismembered, they can suffer anguish, and their berserker side increasingly comes to be seen as an opposing principle rather than as merely an aspect. It is this version of the Goddess that underlies, according to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) by Ted Hughes (1930- ), the Venus-and-Adonis myth that was a central engine of the genius of William Shakespeare.
But time does not stand still for the Goddess. Grossly to simplify almost unimaginably complex histories, the slow irruption of Indo-European cultures into older worlds, from India to the Atlantic Ocean, arguably marks a transition from Goddess-dominated to male-dominated worldviews. It is hard to imagine a testosterone-choked god like Zeus, with his constant philandering, coming into existence in a world much earlier than that of the Greeks, who created him in all his rampageous glory in the first millennium BC. In the world of Zeus, the Goddess is Hera, whose shrewishness and obsession with the married state neatly – as David Leeming and Jake Page suggest in Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine (1994), and as Hughes insists in his book on Shakespeare – demonstrate how completely patriarchy has won the war against the Goddess whom it (in Hughes's language) "abhors", for she lends "female approbation to the very institution by which the old matrilineal rights were most clearly usurped by the patriarchy that saw wives as belonging, like other valuable objects, to their husbands". Hera's concerns are the concerns of her master: control of female sexuality is necessary to maintain paternal lines of descent. Female virginity is (according to the advocates of the Goddess) of innate interest to men for the same reason.
When the Babylonian Tiamat, descended from early Goddess figures, causes chaos in Heaven, young King Marduk kills her outright. When Gilgamesh is tempted by Ishtar, he decides not to become a Year King and declines her "favours". When Lilith turns out to be an unsuitable spouse for Adam, because too vividly reminiscent of the Goddess of whom she is a late version, Adam takes a second wife, and Lilith turns into the Serpent (and also is identified as a Lamia). The all-replenishing vulva of the earlier Goddess becomes, in the very late story of Pandora, a "box" which, when opened, brings to the light-irradiated world of men all the moist infections of the mortal world. The Goddess becomes Chimera; becomes Medusa; becomes Circe.
Once tamed – but always dangerous – the Goddess enters the literate Mediterranean world as Athena/Minerva, Artemis/Diana and Aphrodite/Venus. Athena is sexless; Artemis destroys Actaeon for looking at her naked; and Aphrodite, whose morals are loose, is treated by men with a gingerly respect neatly characterized by Thorne Smith in The Night Life of the Gods (1931). She becomes Maeve, who in turn becomes the Fairy Queen. She evolves (it may be) from the Mórrígan to Morgan Le Fay; the protagonist of two novels by Dion Fortune – The Sea Priestess (1938) and Moon Magic (1956) – is Miss Le Fay Morgan, a priestess and avatar of the Goddess, who is (perhaps for the first time in popular fiction) seen here as autonomous, rather than the consort of a patriarchal god. The Goddess also becomes the Virgin Mary/Madonna, who is intended to be not worshipped but (less dangerously) "revered". She is an Underlier figure helping to shape the Femme Fatale who dominates much of the erotic or erotized fantasy of the 19th century, and becomes the "She" who dominates so many Lost-Race novels. She is, of course, many beings. In the imaginations of many 20th-century fantasy writers, however, the Goddess is one, however cloaked by the machinations of patriarchy. The storylines of much modern fantasy move therefore – as on a plumbline into the depths of dream – towards a declaration of Her underlying unity.
Tales in which the Goddess variously figures are very numerous. They include: Lynn Abbey's Rifkind series (1979-1980) and her Unicorn and Dragon series (1987-1988); Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain (1964-1968); Constance Ash's Glennys series (1988-1992); A A Attanasio's The Moon's Wife: A Hystery (1993); Peter S Beagle's The Folk of the Air (1986); Hans Bemmann's The Broken Goddess (1990); Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Forest House (1993); The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892) by William R Bradshaw (1851-1927), one of many lost-world novels that could be instanced; Anthony Burgess's The Eve of Saint Venus (1964); Moyra Caldecott's The Lily and the Bull (1979); Catherine Cooke's Eleven Kingdoms series (1985-1988); Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series (1965-1977) and Seaward (1983), whose Janus-faced Goddess figure engages in a Godgame-like Chess match with her father/brother/son; Kara Dalkey's Euryale (1988), which pits the eponymous Goddess/Gorgon figure against a patriarchy-defending Athena, and her Blood of the Goddess sequence beginning with Goa (1996); E R Eddison's Zimiamvia sequence; Ford Madox Ford's Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (1911) and The Young Lovell: A Romance (1913); Robert Graves's The White Goddess (1947), ostensibly nonfiction, intensely mythopoeic; Joyce Ballou Gregorian's Tredana Trilogy (1975-1987); H Rider Haggard's Ayesha books, primarily She (1886) and Ayesha (1905); Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994); Ursule Molinaro's The New Moon with the Old Moon in Her Arms (1990); Alis A Rasmussen's The Labyrinth Gate (1988); Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel series (1989-1992) and Star Dancer (1993), the former about Morgan and the latter about Inanna; Linda Lay Shuler's Time Circle series (1987-1992); various novels by Thomas Burnett Swann; "Dream on Monkey Island" (1967), in Dream on Monkey Island and Other Plays (coll 1970) by Derek Walcott (1930- ), in which the White Goddess is executed as part of a black man's emancipation from the white hegemony which has thinned (see Thinning) his people's culture into near extinction; and Gene Wolfe's Latro series (1986-1989) and There Are Doors (1988). [JC]
see also: Gods.