IN PRAISE OF THE GREAT MOTHER
by H. Jeremiah Lewis
I know why they call you the Great Mother – Rhea, Cybele, Idaia or whatsoever thy name may be. You are the Mother of All Nations, the Queen whose Name is glorified everywhere and at every time.
You, Mother were the first, before you there were no gods. You brought all things into being and from your holy womb came the multitudes – stars, gods, men and all creatures that populate the world. We all share the same birth, the same flesh, the same Mother. It is to you that we return, when the measure of our days has been poured out. You are the comforter, and you welcome us back to you with wide-open arms. Mother, you are the end, and yet you promise us a new beginning as well – for in you all is made new.
Men know you by many names and by many faces. Sometimes they call you “One”, sometimes “Many”. You are the fulfillment of the gods – you are the power by which they rule. This is why men call you “Great”, for in the world and among the gods you are indeed the Greatest. Like Zeus you have authority and power. Your words are commandments, and the whole of nature hearkens to you. If you say “Mountain, be lifted up,” the earth shall tremble and the great Parnassus shall be torn from its foundations and hang in the air before you. If you say, “River, roll against your course,” the water will leap at your word and rise like a salmon against the current.
And yet you are the one who set down Themis, who laid out the eternal law by which even gods are bound to obey. With Pallas you are the keeper of peace, and the protector of cities. You defend us from the wild beast, and the arrows of our enemies. You also assure that neighbors treat each other with civility, and that our appointed leaders govern us according to your precepts.
The home is your primary concern, as it is with Hestia, and you watch after women with a careful eye. You make sure that there is a good home for children to be raised in; A clean place, with much laughter and joy, and always enough food for their bellies. In a house where you are well honored, there is peace between the husband and wife and love is the foundation of the family.
But you watch over even the unhappy family. When the man stumbles home after too much time with Bacchus, you make sure that he passes out before he can set into the woman, or you stop his angry hands from doing too much harm. Anyway, men like this usually die early and leave happy widows – which I think you have something to do with.
You are the Mother that Hera should be, for you do not make distinctions in your love. All men and all gods are your children. You do not pay overmuch attention to our sins, and even when we fall short of our goal and disappoint you, your love is evident in the chastening hand. Men should recognize that we share a common Mother and stop this endless bickering. Do we think that it will make you love us any more?
Men and gods are not your only children. The animals share in your love, as they share in Artemis’. You delight in the wild creatures, in the lion and the hound and the stag in the forest. You join them in the hunt, in wild dances through moonlit trees, and in the tearing of raw flesh. You are honored in the spilling of warm blood and in the glory of life continued. I have seen you appear, goddess, in a swarm of bees and in a squirrel in a tree. You are the kitten’s warm underbelly, and the wise old crow that I share my lunch with.
That bread – I recognize as a gift from you, even as I give it to you as the crow. For you, goddess, as Demeter discovered and bestowed to man the gift of grain, that we might put aside uncivilized fare, and eat that holy and nurturing food, bread. You have ordained that we should eat other food as well. Life-giving grains and fresh salads and grapes from the vine and so much more. And all this bounty comes from you Mother, for you are the earth itself.
You are broad bosomed and firm of foundation, for it is on you that we build our homes and live out our lives. You rise up in the mighty snowtopped peaks, and you slope down into the gentle valleys rich with corn. The forest is one of your faces, and so is the desert valley. A single blossom reveals your presence in a barren field, and your hand is felt in my garden. What extraordinary beauty you show to us goddess, it fills me with excitement just to think about it.
How like Aphrodite you are in this, for love of the general can easily shift to love of the specific. For instance, I hold in my heart a love of all mankind, but when that pretty girl with the big brown eyes comes along it’s not her noble spirit that I am thinking about! O goddess, thank you for lust! When I am with my love, how great it is to feel your warmth throughout my body, and to feel my flesh rise under your gentle coaxing. The smell of her hair, the taste of her lips, the softness of the skin beneath her knee, the breath she releases as I explore her body – these all are sacraments and together we worship you, goddess, for you are the one who delights in life and all of its expression.
Though you share Poseidon’s realm, there is no animosity between you and Athena. Indeed, Mother, you are both wisdom and the inspiration of wisdom. All knowledge comes from you, especially the inspired and impassioned sort. You bring thoughtful men to greatness, and those that govern themselves according to your precepts are called “Wise”. You, Mother, are a Mystery. Only those who approach you with humbleness in their heart will gain an understanding of you, and even then, it will be a partial understanding – for you are too great to know in full. The fool approaches you boldly and proclaims that he knows all of your mysteries, but when questioned, he replies with nonsense. He knows nothing. (Although I know I’m right, I wonder if you give a special revelation to the fool. Is he more knowledgeable in your ways than I? Would you tell me if it were so?)
Like the Muses you delight in music and in song, and you share these things with men. It was you who taught us to stretch skins across the drum, and to bring out its wonderful rhythms. You taught us to play on the pipes as well, and to chant hymns to you and your honor. This was the first music, and is still the best to my mind.
I shall come to you, Mother, whenever I am trying to craft a poem, and you will help me discover the right words and the right shape for the thing. This is how it has always been, even with this poem. It shall remain so forever.
The moon and the sun govern time, and you are revealed in both. Like the moon, you delight in torches, drums, and rituals at night. You, Mother, are many-formed like the moon, passing through one shape into another, embracing a multitude of meanings. You also govern magic, and bestow on your followers the utmost power. Your servants are only limited in what they can do by their imaginations, for you have taught them the secrets of the universe, and put into their hands the power to change their world.
Like the sun you are strong and all-powerful. You reach down and comfort us, pushing back the shadows that we might grow in the light. One may know that you are near by the attendant warmth and glow that can be found in only one other place – the sun. One of the greatest joys that I have had is to spend a day in the fields with a good book, lying out in the sun. This is another pleasure from you.
We come to you from diverse paths. War brings many, and disease. Old age is a great man-harvester, and so too the passions of youth which are frequently attended by folly and haste. You embrace all who come to you, Mother, and in your arms we find comfort and the pain that we felt in dying is gone. You wipe aside our tears, and sing to us comforting songs, for we are your children. All of the miseries that we felt in life, the pains and sorrows that continually assailed us are washed away in your embrace, and all that is left is joy. Death is not forever, and soon we are returned to the living, to struggle once more and to find joy in the moment.
In your many facets, you do not abandon those who are among the dead and those who are dying. No, you are with them ’till the end, and beyond. The soldiers laid out with their wounds too great, they call upon you, each one. “Mother,” they whisper and shout, as you walk among the line, offering what comfort you can. You stroke the cheek of this one, wiping the sweat from his brow, while the next man’s pain is too great, and all that you can do is close his eyes and help ease his way into Hades’ land.
You were with these brave young men when they were in the field, and you helped steady their spear and shield and urged them on against the enemy. You made them noble, Mother, you filled their hearts with bravery and gave them strength to do what they must in this terrible situation. And if their bravery began to wane, you were close at hand, riding with them in the chariot, marching with them through the mud.
To offer one’s life for the defense of another is the noblest thing that a man can do, and all who do so receive honors from you as well as from Ares, for you, Mother, are the Queen of Hosts, and the defender of the innocent. You share with Hades the world below, and to you come all the multitudes to be reborn. For the grave is your womb, and in its shadowed depths men find rebirth.
Another deep place that you rule is the sea. All waters belong to you, and their flow is governed by your hand. The mysteries of the ocean are your mysteries, and you know all that is hidden within them. You protect the ships on the surface, and many are your companions below the waves. The dolphin and octopus are most sacred to you, but you delight in all the creatures of the sea. It is fitting that this is one of your elements, for water sustains life. Without water nothing in the world could live. It is the same with you, Mother. No man could draw breath but for you.
This, then, is why they call you the Great Mother – for in all the world there is not another who possesses so much power and beauty, and unifies so many within herself. Blessed is the Mother, and blessed all who call upon her!