Ancient Goddess Religions

“To Dictaian Zeus, one measure of oil; To the Daidalaion, two measures of oil. To the Priestess of the Wind, four liquid measures of oil; To the Lady of the Labyrinth -- Honey!”
(Fragment of Clay Tablet from Knossos in Linear B, administrative archives, Minoan Bronze Age, Crete, showing the letters for “Labyrinthos Potnia” -- “Lady of the Labyrinth”, a title for the Goddess or the high priestess of the labyrinthine initiation temple of Knossos. )
For centuries, even millennia, women in many, if not most, parts of the world have been deprived of their rightful space -- as half of humanity -- in the political, public and spiritual spheres. Women have also been deprived of their true history. As part of the struggle for general human rights and individual freedom that has been taking place for some time now, it is important to recover the lost history of suppressed people, traditions, of women and of people who do not fit into the stereotypical gender limitations. Monotheistic religions have pressed the idea of an all-male concept of divinity that serves to legitimize negative and oppressive attitudes which limit the individual potential of human beings based on gender. Neither men nor women benefit from such enforced limitation and oblivion.

The Stone Age

he first anthropomorphic (human-like) images made by Stone Age people were overwhelmingly dominated by female imagery. Throughout the Palaeolithic Ice Age, countless naked female figurines were made in a manner that suggested a ritual or magical purpose, strongly indicating an appreciation of feminine spiritual powers, and very likely concepts of feminine divinity.
As people began to cultivate the earth, the artistic theme of female figurines that was already age-old and widespread, exploded. Powerful looking women were carved, shaped and painted. These figurines are often “dismissed” as “fertility charms”, reflecting the last centuries´ attitudes to women and to goddesses as being purely about fertility, and to Stone Age people as savages,  single-mindedly concerned with physical survival. By analyzing figurines, the symbols that they were painted with, and the circumstance in which they were found, renowned archaeologist Marija Gimbutas were among the first scholars to propose that they were part of an ancient and deeply religious (or spiritual) civilized Stone Age culture that focused on goddesses -- or a Great Goddess of many shapes of the kind that we know was common in later times.

The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age was a time of great civilizations, increased stratification, hierarchies and warfare, a tendency which began during the late Stone Age all over the world. The status of women and the position of goddesses varied greatly during this time, but the ancient goddess worship and priestess traditions were still strong in most places. Kingship in the early city-states of Mesopotamia had to be legitimized by the king marrying the goddess of the land during a ritual of Sacred Marriage. The king would be called the “overseer” of the goddess, who was probably represented by a priestess. The tradition spread to many parts of the world, indicating an ancient reverence for goddesses and priestesses to which the warrior castes and their kings had to accomodate.
The Minoan Culture on Crete was one civilization that seems to have had no kings at all, but were ruled by a powerful priestess caste and dominated by goddess worship. Minoan society was probably hierarchic, but there seems to have been no gender oppression, and it was a remarkably peaceful culture compared to the surrounding ones.

Iron Age

The Iron Age was the time of the great Classical civilizations which based their power on military pursuits, slavery and strong class hierarchy. Women´s power and space in the public spheres were Ancient Mystery Cults, many of which held pantheist concepts of  a Great Goddess.
generally severly limited in most places. Women could mostly wield power only through their men, and only if their men were powerful -- and even most men were not, these being class divided societies. However, very few cultures disregarded women´s participation in the spiritual spheres, and very few would go so far as to disregard the power of goddesses. Thus we see many patriarchal cultures of the Iron Age that still held a space for priestesses and other “wise women”, and goddess worship was still common even for men of the highest classes. Among the most interesting goddess oriented religions of that time do I find the 
In less “civilized”, tribal cultures, such as the Celtic, Germanic and Skythian ones, clan belonging seems to have been more important than gender divisions, and there is evidence for powerful female priesthoods, oracular traditions, and female warriors. Goddess worship and Sacred Marriage were powerful traditions, and priestesses seem to have played a significant role even in the initiations of young men and warriors.

Asian Goddess Religions

Many Asian civilizations have and have had a polytheistic religion in which goddesses and women have assumed their natural place, even in increasingly patriarchal societies. In India, the concept of Mahadevi -- The Great Goddess -- as apantheist Supreme Being as the source and unifying essence of all other deities -- exists within devotional, goddess-oriented traditions such as Bhakti and Tantra.
Many Asian cultures, such as the Sora tribe of India, and in Korea, Japan and Siberian/Mongolian cultures, know of female shamans.

Tribal Religions and Shamanism

By tribal I refer to religions practiced by people who do not live in “civilizations” -- that is, people without great cities, writing, written (by themselves) historical records and complicated political and societal systems and trading complexes. These societies often center their spiritual life around some form of “shamanism” or similar -- the belief in various realities and different kinds of intelligent beings (spirits etc), and a close contact with the surrounding nature. Such societies are sometimes used to illustrate how things may have been in the past, such as the Stone Age, but have often been in touch with civilizations for centuries, and may have been heavily influenced by them. Still, tribal cultures provide insight into the amazing diversity of human cultures, countering the idea that concepts of gender are static, natural or god-given.

Transcending Gender

It is often argued that the differences between men and women are biologically determined. To some extent this is in my opinion probably true -- the difference in body functions certainly must make an impact on an individual, no matter what culture one belongs to. Most cultures have spesific gender roles for men and for women. What is interesting is that these spesific gender roles actually are different in different cultures. Whereas in the West and most of the modern world, weaving has been considered a particularly female task, many tribal cultures in Latin-America, for instance, consider weaving the job of men. Western cultures for the last century or so have tended to regard women as physically weak. In my family, it was unthinkable that we women should have to carry water or fix things, yet only a hundred years ago or so, this was the work of women, and a Norwegian (ironic) proverb said: “Who needs a horse if you have a wife?”  Many African cultures leave most of the heavy work to women, such as building houses and carrying water.
Even so, most human societies have tended to leave the work closest to home to the women, since they tended to be pregnant or having to nurse and take care of small children. Men tended to be more involved in hunting, warfare and tasks that had to take place far away from home. We can say that most societies have recognized and nurtured gender differences that have a biological origin (the birthing and nursing of children for women, the body strength and agility of men).
But there have always been, and still are, people who do not fit into the gender categories of their particular societies. In our day, such people are often labeled as “queer” and have suffered a great deal of persecution. This has not always been so. Countless cultures have accepted, even valued, people who transcended the borders of gender, and androgynous people, transexuals, transvestites,  and intersexed people have very often found a particular place within the spiritual realms. The knowledge of cultures and times in which transgender behavior was seen as “special” rather than “queer” has been violently suppressed by religious institutions for a long time.
I believe it is important for human beings to be able to safely be exactly who they are, and to show solidarity and support to those who have to needlessly struggle because they cannot fit into the stereotypical gender categories of their societies. I also think it is important to recover all aspects of being human, and to realize that diversity is what classifies human beings and make us rich, and to share the great variety of human experience. In our time, it is still overwhelmingly common even for the most progressive of people to dismiss transgender behavior as different and to assert ones own “normality” (As in the often heard statement “I do not have anything against “queers” as long as they do not show who they are in my face” -- meaning that one will not allow people to be who they are in one´s presence). It is time to include variety in our concept of what is normal. It is time to also recover the lost history of alternative gender behavior, and recognize that there are more than one way of being man or woman -- or both.
Spiritually, there is a power in transcending gender that has been forgotten, but was well known in many ancient and tribal cultures -- the spiritual power of being both sexes and of transcending the limitations of gender identity.
Maria Kvilhaug