On July 13, 2018, Ariana Grande declared, in a four octave vocal range, “When all is said and done / You'll believe God is a woman.” From the pool of iridescent paint resembling the female anatomy, to the shot of the pop star suggestively straddling a globe, every candy-colored scene in the accompanying music video delivered a heaven-sent message: it’s a woman’s world. And, accordingly, the Internet erupted in feminist applause.
In the context of theological history, though, it’s actually remarkable that Grande’s assertion would make such a splash in 2018. True, female Gods have been considered heretical in many cultures for millennia, and the suggestion that God is anything other than an old, white man in the sky is, for some, still a deeply troubling thought. (Just look at Harmonia Rosales’s 2017 reimagining of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” depicting both God and the first man as Black women, for proof that daring to widen religious imagery can cause serious uproar.) But if we travel back to the ancient origins of human civilization, we find evidence that female deities were worshipped far and wide for millennia. Long before the main world religions were established, during the earliest periods of human development, many belief-systems venerated a supreme female creator.
In her ground-breaking 1976 book, When God Was a Woman, historian Merlin Stone traces ancient worship of the Goddess back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages. In the Near and Middle East, she writes, we can find evidence that the “development of the religion of the female deity in this area was intertwined with the earliest beginnings of religion so far discovered anywhere on earth.” This Goddess was unquestionably the supreme deity to rule them all; “creator and law-maker of the universe, prophetess, provider of human destinies, inventor, healer, hunter and valiant leader in battle.”
It’s worth noting that many anthropologists believe these Upper Paleolithic societies are likely to have followed a matrilineal structure, meaning women held supreme status at the center of the household. Stone explains that these communities revered ancestor worship, whereby “the concept of the creator of all human life may have been formulated by the clan’s image of the woman who had been their most ancient, primal ancestor.” In other words, the Divine Ancestress. Indeed, anthropologists studying the rites and rituals of Paleolithic communities over the last two centuries have discovered countless stone figurines of pregnant women across Europe, the Middle East, and India—some dating back to 25,000 BC—that point to the worship of the divine feminine.
During this period in the ancient world, worship of female deities was widespread and immensely powerful. But it was with the advent of agriculture after the Paleolothic age that Goddess worship really started to take off. Statuettes from that period representing the Mother Goddess have cropped up in Canaan (now Palestine/Israel) and Anatolia (now Turkey), and Goddess figurines have appeared all over the Neolithic communities of Egypt dating back to 4000 BC. “The deifications of the Goddess in the ancient world were variations on a theme,” writes Lynn Rogers in Edgar Cayce and the Eternal Feminine, with representations of a supreme female Creator in Sumer, Egypt, Crete, Greece, Ethiopia, Libya, India, Elam, Babylon, Anatolia, Canaan, Ireland, Mesopotamia, and even ancient Judah and Israel. But there could be no doubt that She was, as mythologist Robert Graves described it, “immortal, changeless, omnipotent.”
In her book Mother God, Sylvia Browne offers a detailed history of the female principle that flourished after the Paleolithic period. The Inuit people had Sedna, the goddess of the sea and mother of the ocean, while the Assyrian and Babylonian cultures worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. In Aztec culture, Teleoinan was considered the Mother of the Gods. According to the ancient Egyptians, Isis was the goddess of children and magic, while in ancient Sumer, the primary goddess was Inanna, the goddess of love and war. Meanwhile, the ancient Phoenicians actually had two female goddesses of equal status: Anat, the fertility goddess, and Astarte, the Mother goddess considered to be the planet Venus. Creators of the universe, bearers of children, providers of culture, valiant warriors, and wise counsellors, these goddesses were anything but an afterthought.
When women rise to prominence, misogyny often ensues, and by 1500 BC, Goddess-worshipping civilizations had mostly fallen from grace. Scholarship differs in its analysis of why, but many experts assert that the dominant masculine religions and patrilineal customs brought to Europe by invading Indo-Europeans seriously upset the state of play. The suppression that followed makes for bleak reading. “At the dawn of Western civilization,” writes Rogers, “25,000 years of ‘her-story’ of the Goddess’ bountiful creativity were obliterated.” Creation myths were rewritten, symbols of Goddess worship were denigrated, and “the ancient belief in the Goddess as the Ground of Being, The Universe from which The All emerged, was overturned.”
As Judaism, Christianity, and Islam evolved in the Middle East and Europe, the monotheistic religions began to cement the worship of a new, exclusively male order: God, King, Priest, and Father. These new theologies placed the goddess in a subordinate status, with a man as her dominant husband, or even as her murderer. In her book, Stone writes at length about the erasure of female deities, arguing that at that time Goddess worship became the victim of “centuries of continual persecution and suppression by the advocates of the newer religions which held male deities as supreme.” Worse yet, this major about-turn in religion meant the status of women around the world declined, too.
Not all religions that followed in the wake of Goddess worship obscured the female deity, though. In The Path of the Mother, Savitri L. Bess points out that Hindus have never stopped worshipping the Mother. “The Mother, who has been obscured in the shadow of Western religions for thousands of years,” she writes, “is considered to be the sum total of the energy in the universe.” From Durga, the fearless goddess who vanquished her foes atop a tiger, to Saraswati, the four-armed guardian deity of knowledge, the vast spectrum of venerated Hindu goddesses highlight the power of the feminine principle, none more so than Shakti, the divine force sometimes called “The Great Mother.” There are multiple expressions of Shakti, Bess notes, though her cosmic energy is entirely responsible for the creation of the universe; she is “known to be the activity in all things, the great power that creates and destroys, the primordial essence, the womb from which all things proceed and into which all things return.”
Buddhism, too, celebrates the feminine principle by way of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, whose name means “the one who hears and sees the cries of the world.” With beauty, grace, and boundless compassion for the suffering of humanity, it has been said that Yin’s “greatest significance is as the outpourings or embodiment of the divine feminine.”
As the major world religions evolved over thousands of years, however, the supreme female deity increasingly faded from view. While, around 27 BC, the first emperor of Rome gave the goddess Cybele the title of Supreme Mother of Rome, by 500 AD, attitudes toward female Gods couldn’t have been more different. The last Goddess temples in Rome and Byzantium were closed by the Christian emperors, and the so-called polytheistic “pagan” religions were driven out of worship, taking the female deities with them.
Today, instead of a history of the ancient female religions that were celebrated for thousands of years, we are most familiar with the creation story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden courtesy of Eve, making her, you know, responsible for the downfall of mankind from Paradise. As for the supreme female deity? “The Old Testament does not even have a word for ‘Goddess,’” writes Stone. “In the Bible, the Goddess is referred to as Elohim, in the masculine gender, to be translated as God. But the Koran of the Mohammedans was quite clear. In it we read: ‘Allah will not tolerate idolatry...the pagans pray to females.’”
Some might say the disappearance of the Goddess occurred naturally with the march of modern civilization. But, as many historians and theologians have pointed out, it’s likely no coincidence that the patriarchal cultures that conquered earlier indigenous populations are fundamentally intertwined with the downfall of the Goddess, and the reframing of this revered form of worship as cultic, lewd, and primitive.
So, Grande’s single is not only a sexy pop anthem, it’s also—very subtly—a reminder that there lies before us a rich history of Goddess worship altogether separate from the patriarchal religions, customs, and laws most of us were raised on. Archaeological evidence suggests that God was considered female for the first 200,000 years of human life on earth, even if male-dominated religions sought to displace the matriarchal order. Ultimately, by making ourselves independent of male culture, we can better understand our heritage, and, as Stone writes, cultivate “a contemporary consciousness of the once-widespread veneration of the female deity as the Wise Creatress of the Universe and all life and civilization.”