Inspired by the Goddess

Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

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On a recent Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, I visited the Historical Museum of Heraklion where I saw this beautiful embroidery on silk of a mermaid identified as having come from Koustogerako, a village in western Crete. As it is unlikely that a man in Crete would have known how to embroider, in this case "Anonymous" most definitely "was a woman."

In this thread painting a mermaid surrounded by fish is holding the anchor of a ship in one hand and a fish in the other. In Greece the mermaid is the protectress of sailors. In a well-known legend, a mermaid said to be the sister of Alexander the Great, emerges from the sea in front of a ship during a storm and asks: “Is Alexander the Great still living?” If the sailors answer, “Yes, he lives and reigns,” the ship is saved.

In this image the mermaid–who does not much resemble “the little mermaid” of recent lore—is identified by the woman who embroidered her as: “GORGONA, H THEA TIS THALASSIS,” MERMAID GODDESS OF THE SEA.”

Assuming that the woman who created this embroidery was probably a Christian, I was surprised to see that she nonetheless referred to the mermaid as a Goddess. Was this phrase passed on to her down to her from pre-Christian times? Did she see any contradiction between her Christian beliefs and the “Goddess of the Sea?”

Looking more closely at the image, one can see that the scales of both the mermaid and the fish are portrayed as diamond shapes with a circle in the center. According to Marija Gimbutas, in the language of the Goddess, the widely repeated diamond shape, which she calls a “lozenge,” is a symbol of the vulva, while the circle or dot represents the opening of the womb and the seed of life. The tassel on the apron of the mermaid, a red “V” shape outlined in black and crowned by a red circle, can be read as vulva and womb.

At the church of the Panagia Kera in Kritsa, Crete, in a fresco painting, Mother Earth, portrayed as a Byzantine Queen, gives up the dead buried in her body for the Last Judgment. Across from her the Mermaid gives up the bodies of those who died in her realm, the Sea. I have always marveled at how in these two paintings, Christian beliefs are melded with older religious ideas. Though Christ the Judge is clearly to have the last word, the artist portrays Mother Earth and Mother Sea as beautiful queens—not as evil temptresses.

When I look at these images I cannot help wonder if others have asked: ‘Who do you prefer: Mother Earth and Mother Sea who accept everyone into their bodies, or Christ the Judge who redeems only those who believe in Him and who condemns many to the everlasting torment that is vividly portrayed on the walls of the church?’

Western Europeans have been taught to picture the mermaid as a tragic figure who falls in love with a human man but cannot live on land. This figure is often blonde and very young. In my childhood imagination mermaids were classed along with fairies as beautiful images of soft femininity that I did not associate with the strong powers of Mother Earth and Mother Sea.

The Greek woman who created the embroidered painting of the mermaid knew more than I did. She perhaps knew that her forebears called Aphrodite (or Venus) the Goddess of the Sea. She may not have known that Homer portrayed a defeated Aphrodite limping off the battlefield.

She would not have been told that the defeat of the Goddess of the Sea is widely repeated in Mediterranean cultures. She would not have learned that Tiamat was the Mesopotamian Goddess of the Salt Sea Waters and that the Gods Anu, Enlil, and Marduk established supremacy by slaying her and cutting her body into pieces.

For “Anonymous,” the artist who created the mermaid embroidered on silk preserved in the museum in Heraklion, the Goddess of the Sea lived and reigned.

Originally published on Feminism and Religion.

Carol P. Christ  leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall through Ariadne Institute.  There she gives thanks for the gift of life to Mother Earth and Mother Sea. Space is available on the spring or fall pilgrimages 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

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Carol P. Christ is a author of the much-loved books Rebirth of the Goddess, She Who Changes, Weaving the Visions, and Womanspirit Rising, and forthcoming in 2016. Goddess and God in the World and A Serpentine Path. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 30 April 2014

    Wow, that mermaid is Enormous! I am struck by the word Gorgona, as in Medusa and her sisters. Wikipedia tells me that the Greek "gorgoso" means dreadful or terrible, which is an apt description of a Being that large. Can it also mean Mermaid?

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Thursday, 01 May 2014

    Gorgona is the modern Greek word for Mermaid. I am not an expert in ancient Greek, but I suspect that dreadful or terrible could also have the connotation of awesome, as in Otto's mysterium tremendum. It would be interesting to trace the progression of the word from ancient to modern meanings. The only thing I can say is that both the ancient and modern meanings of the word suggest that the underlying meaning could have to do with the Goddess who holds the powers of life and death, or birth, death, and regeneration.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Thursday, 01 May 2014

    PS Insofar as the Greek Mermaid emerges from the Sea during a storm with a riddle whose answer leads to life or death, she is a fearful character.

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