(Essay 5) The Animal Mother Goddess by Hearth Moon Rising

This is the final installment of “The Animal Mother Goddess,” an excerpt from Hearth Moon Rising’s book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess. This book is published by Moon Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing. http://moon-books.net. All five installments are copyrighted material used by permission. For ordering information go to  http://invokinganimalmagic.com.

The goddess Diana, who subsumed Artemis in Greco-Roman times, is sometimes portrayed as a black cat. Originally a local goddess of Lake Nemi, Diana’s a tough lady to sort out, because her history is complex. It’s easy to assume when a goddess is worshiped at a lake, mountaintop or grove that she’s a goddess of that particular waterhole, mountain or forest, but in forested regions these are also places that give worshipers an uninhibited view of the sky. Encyclopedia Britannica says Diana’s name is related to Latin words for sky and daylight. Others have translated her name as Queen of Heaven, Queen of Light, Holy Mother, or simply Goddess. It’s difficult to understand how Diana was first perceived, because the earliest Latin tribes had a rather abstract concept of their deities and did not produce statues or develop mythology. At any rate, their perception changed with Etruscan influence and then with more direct contact with Greek culture.

Diana Reclining by Lucas Cranach, sixteenth century. Note the quail and cave in the background.
Diana Reclining by Lucas Cranach, sixteenth century. Note the quail and cave in the background.

The oldest known temple to Diana was built outside Rome in 540 BCE by the heroic King Servius Tullius. Servius was inspired by stories of the collective efforts of Greeks on the coast of Anatolia in rebuilding the ravaged temple to Artemis of Ephesus. He believed a similar project would unite the Latin tribes, and Diana was presumably chosen as a parallel goddess to Artemis. The statue of Diana inside the Roman temple was a replica of the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. Diana immediately absorbed the symbolism and legends of Artemis, although her structure of worship remained more Roman. Servius had been born a slave, and the temple was designated as a refuge for slaves. During the Roman occupation, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (renamed the Temple of Diana) also became a slave refuge.

With few exceptions, Roman conquest resulted in local deities being renamed Apollo, Faunus, Mercury, Venus, Minerva or—especially—Diana. These gods grew in complexity as the boundaries of the Empire expanded. The Romans, like the Greeks, viewed deities with superficial similarities as manifestations of their own gods. The outcome of this view was that aspects of many local deities disappeared, even before the imposition of Christian theology.

Christian leaders saw Diana as a persistent challenge. This is first documented in the Bible in Acts 19, when Diana’s worshipers at Ephesus chant her name for two hours to drown out speeches of Paul and his supporters. After becoming the official religion of the Empire, the Church initially responded to the intransigence of Diana’s worshipers in the time-honored way of changing her name to Mary, appropriating festival dates and erecting a church at the site of former temples or groves. This strategy does not appear to have been entirely successful, at least from their point of view. Edicts of bishops and Church councils from the fourth to the fourteenth century continued to condemn the worship of Diana and equate it with demon worship. Women were particularly mentioned as the misguided followers of demonic Diana. The biggest mistake Christian leaders made in trying to destroy the Pagan cults was failing to incorporate women into their priesthood. Since even in patriarchal Pagan cultures priestesses held vital roles, it’s hard to see how resistance could not have persisted.

Diana with stag. Second century. Photo Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons.
Diana with stag. Second century. Photo Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons.

Writings of Inquisitors attest to the tenaciousness of Dianic worship. Italy is most often mentioned as the site of Dianic covens but the worship of “Diana” (the Roman name for the local goddess) continued across Europe. Nor was Dianic worship confined to clandestine meetings of pocket Pagan rebels. A group of English friars were chastised in the fourteenth century for keeping a woodland shrine to Diana. Erasmus (who died in CE 1536) wrote in disgust about a ceremony involving a stag in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and likened the worshipers to “the mad votaries of Diana.”

The intensification of witch persecutions and the reaction of Protestants against paganism in Christian worship meant that Diana eventually had to leave church. This does not appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of artists and poets for the old gods, however, and Diana features prominently in Renaissance art. Queen Elizabeth I, though she furthered the Protestant goal of removing Pagan elements from Christian churches, enjoyed comparisons with the virgin goddess and capitalized on Diana’s popularity to mute criticism of her decision not to wed. Diana reached an apogee of favor during the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, when nature’s virtues were an aesthetic and political ideal.

Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Read more of Hearth Moon Rising’s work.