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Great Mother Goddess

Great Mother Goddess, in ancient Middle Eastern religions, mother goddess, the great symbol of the earth's fertility. She was worshiped under many names and attributes. Similar figures have been known in every part of the world. Essentially she was represented as the creative force in all nature, the mother of all things, responsible particularly for the periodic renewal of life. The later forms of her cult involved the worship of a male deity, variously considered her son, lover, or both (e.g., Adonis, Attis, and Osiris), whose death and resurrection symbolized the regenerative powers of the earth (see fertility rites). Although the Great Mother was the dominant figure in ancient Middle Eastern religions, she was also worshiped in Greece, Rome, and W Asia. In Phrygia and Lydia she was known as Cybele; among the Babylonians and Assyrians she was identified as Ishtar; in Syria and Palestine she appeared as Astarte; among the Egyptians she was called Isis; in Greece she was variously worshiped as Gaea, Hera, Rhea, Aphrodite, and Demeter; and in Rome she was identified as Maia, Ops, Tellus, and Ceres. Even this listing, however, is by no means complete. Many attributes of the Virgin Mary make her the Christian equivalent of the Great Mother, particularly in her great beneficence, in her double image as mother and virgin, and in her son, who is God and who dies and is resurrected. See E. O. James, The Cult of the Mother Goddess (1959, repr. 1961).


Diana, in Roman religion, goddess of the moon, forests, animals, and women in childbirth. She was probably originally a forest goddess and a special patroness of women. She was identified with the Greek Artemis, and at her temple on the Aventine at Rome she was honored as the virgin goddess. Her most famous cult, however, was at Aricia, near Lake Nemi; there she was worshiped as an earth goddess and was associated with fertility rites and with the Great Mother Goddess.


Ishtar, ancient fertility deity, the most widely worshiped goddess in Babylonian and Assyrian religion. She was worshiped under various names and forms. Most important as a mother goddess and as a goddess of love, Ishtar was the source of all the generative powers in nature and mankind. However, she was also a goddess of war and as such was capable of unremitting cruelty. Her cult spread throughout W Asia, and she became identified with various other earth goddesses (see Great Mother Goddess). One of the most famous of the Babylonian legends related the trials of her descent into the underworld in search of her lover Tammuz and her triumphant return to earth. In Sumerian religion, where her cult probably originated, she was called Inanna or Innina.


Isis, nature goddess whose worship, originating in ancient Egypt, gradually extended throughout the lands of the Mediterranean world during the Hellenistic period and became one of the chief religions of the Roman Empire. The worship of Isis, combined with that of her brother and husband Osiris and their son Horus, was enormously resistant to the influence of early Christian teachings, and her mysteries, celebrating the death and resurrection of Osiris, were performed as late as the 6th cent. A.D. The functions of many goddesses were attributed to her, so that eventually she became the prototype of the beneficent mother goddess, the bringer of fertility and consolation to all. She was the daughter of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. Her symbol was a throne and later the cow, and she was frequently represented with a cow's head or cow's horns. During the Hellenistic period, her image outside Egypt became increasingly Hellenic, with ideal features and locks framing her face. Isis was also a goddess of magic, and legends tell of her ability to counteract evil by casting spells. See R. E. Witt, Isis in the Greco-Roman World (1981).

 Greek religion

Greek religion, religious beliefs and practices of the ancient inhabitants of the region of Greece.


Although its exact origins are lost in time, Greek religion is thought to date from about the period of the Aryan invasions of the 2d millennium B.C. Those invaders encountered two other peoples who had existed in the region of Greece from Neolithic times: the Aegeans (Pelasgians) and the Minoans of Crete. The Aryans fused with the Aegean and Minoan cultures to create what is now considered Greek culture. The result, known as the Minoan-Mycenean civilization, flourished in the period from 1600 B.C. to 1400 B.C. Previous to the invasions, the Helladic communities had been widely separated geographically, but the attacking foreigners swept everything along in their path, including various beliefs that were prevalent in the outlying districts. At first the result was a confused conglomeration, but gradually a certain systematization of the gods began to take place. The marriage of Zeus, a sky god of the conquerors, and Hera, a fertility goddess of the conquered, symbolized the attempt at fusion, although the constant conflict between the divine pair, as seen in the Iliad, indicates the tensions of the match. The classical Greek pantheon was peopled with gods from all the cultures involved: Zeus the sky father, Demeter the earth mother, and Hestia, the virgin goddess of the hearth, were borrowed from the Indo-European invaders; Rhea was an indigenous Minoan goddess; Athena was Mycenean; Hera and Hermes were Aegean; Apollo was Ionian; Aphrodite came from Cyprus and Dionysus and Ares from Thrace.

Homeric Religion

Just before the violent Doric invasions, the Achaeans fought the Trojans of Asia Minor. The chronicle of that war, the Iliad, furnishes the first clear picture of the early Greek religion as it evolved from a blending of Achaean, Dorian, Minoan, Egyptian, and Asian elements. This phase of Greek religion is called Homeric, after the author of the Iliad, or Olympian, after Mount Olympus, the Thessalian mountain where the gods dwelled. The early Egyptian influences represented by half-human, half-animal deities vanished, and the Olympians were purely anthropomorphic figures. Zeus was the supreme lord of the skies, retaining his original Aryan importance; he shared his dominion with his two chthonic and pre-Aryan brothers, Hades, lord of the underworld, and Poseidon, lord of the waters. Through a vast set of myths and legends (the clearest illustration is Hesiod's Theogony) the other gods and goddesses were carefully related to one another until a divine family was established with Zeus as its titular head. The Homeric pantheon was a tightly knit family group in charge of natural forces but not equal to the natural forces themselves. The gods had supernatural powers (particularly over human life), but their power was severely limited by a concept of fate (Moira) as the relentless force of destiny. The gods were not thought to be omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent. Shorn of the usual godly attributes, the Olympians often took on the property of being simply bigger than humans, but not different or alien. The Olympians fought one another and often meddled in human affairs (this intervention was called the deus ex machina, or divine intervention). The superhuman features of the Olympians were their immortality and their ability to reveal the future to humanity. The Greeks did not consider immortality a particularly enviable property. Action was crucial and exciting by the very fact of life's brevity, and people were expected to perform by their own particular heroic arete, or virtue. Death was a necessary evil; the dead were impotent shades without consciousness, and there are only vague images of the Isles of the Blest in an Olympian world. The Greeks, however, did expect information about their future life on earth from the gods. Thus divination was a central aspect of religious life (see oracle). The Olympians were, perhaps, most important in their role as civic deities, and each of the Greek city-states came to consider one or more of the gods as its particular guardian. There were public cults that were devoted to insuring the city against plague, conquest, or want. The religious festival became the occasion for a great assembly of citizens and foreigners.

Later Developments

The civil strife that followed the classical period (from c.500 B.C.) placed the old gods on trial. Often the gods did not answer with the visible and immediate rewards that were expected. Although the Homeric gods had distinctive personalities, their reality still had to be accepted intellectually. This form of religion suited the sophisticated city dwellers, among whom there was even a strong monotheistic tendency; however, it did not meet the needs of the people of the provinces, the farmers and shepherds, who retained primitive notions steeped in superstition (see animism). Once the gods were placed on trial, the door was open for the popular religion of the Greek countryside. Since the gods could no longer be trusted to make life agreeable, an emphasis was placed on regeneration and on the afterlife. The mysteries gained importance after Homeric religion was established, but the origins in the seasonal festivals that underlie many of them go back as far as 1400 B.C. The Eleusinian Mysteries were perhaps the most widely practiced of the mysteries. Other popular rites were the mysteries of Dionysus and the Orphic Mysteries. In reaction to Dionysian excesses, Apollo eventually appropriated many of the virtues of the older gods, such as justice, harmony, legalism, and moderation. The tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian strains was particularly illustrated in the work of the tragic poets of Greece, the dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who had begun to question the justice and integrity of the gods. It was in the area of philosophical thought that a clear-cut monism developed to augment and also shift Greek religious thought to a new type of speculation. The Greek philosophers sought a more rational and scientific approach in humanity's relation to nature, espousing a logical and important connection between humanity and nature, not a mysterious and secret one between humans and god. It was Plato who made an absolute abstraction of the highest virtue, giving to that abstraction the quality of Absolute Good to which even the gods must be true. Philosophical inquiry led to the rationalization of myths and completed the destruction of the Homeric pantheon. The vacuum was eventually filled by Christianity. Bibliography See M. P. Nilsson, A History of Greek Religion (tr. 1925, 2d ed. 1964); W. W. Jaeger, Paideia (4 books in 3 vol., 1939-45, repr. 1960-62); W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods (1950, repr. 1956); R. Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vol., 1955, repr. 1959); B. C. Dietrich, The Origins of Greek Religion (1974); W. Burhert, Greek Religion (1985); A. H. Armstrong, ed., Classical Mediterranean Spirituality (1986).


Bast, ancient Egyptian cat goddess. At first a goddess of the home, she later became known as a goddess of war. The center of her cult was at Bubastis. Her name also appears as Ubast.

 Egyptian religion

Egyptian religion, the religious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Egypt. Information concerning ancient Egyptian religion is abundant but unsatisfactory. Only certain parts of Egyptian religious life and thought are known; whole periods remain in the dark. What we do know is that the religious beliefs of the Egyptians were riddled with inconsistencies and confusions. Many gods and goddesses seem more or less identical, and yet they existed together. Contradictory myths explaining the creation of the world, natural phenomena, and the like were accepted without argument. Attributes of deities were freely and indiscriminately adopted from one group or locality to another, and combinations and fusions of gods were frequent. It is impossible to discern an orderly and consistent picture of Egyptian religion, and much scholarship remains hypothesis and conjecture.

Early Beliefs

Probably the oldest form of religious worship in Egypt was animal worship. Early predynastic tribes venerated their own particular gods, who were usually embodied in a particular animal. Sometimes a whole species of animal was sacred, as cats at Bubastis; at other times only individual animals of certain types were worshiped, as the Apis bull at Memphis. As Egyptian civilization advanced, deities were gradually humanized. Many were represented with human bodies (although they retained animal heads) and other human characteristics and attributes. The wolf Ophois became a god of war, and the ibis Thoth became a patron of learning and the arts. We do not know precisely how or why certain animals became associated with certain gods. Moreover, the relationship between a god and his animal varied greatly. The god Thoth was not only identified with the ibis, but also with the baboon and with the moon. Occasionally a god was a composite of various animals, such as Taurt, who had the head of a hippopotamus, the back and tail of a crocodile, and the claws of a lion. Just as a god could represent various natural phenomena, so could a single phenomenon be given different explanations. The ancient Egyptian conceived of the earth as a disk, with the flat plains of Egypt as the center and the mountainous foreign lands as the rim surrounding and supporting the disk. Below were the deep waters of the underworld, and above was the plain of the sky. Several systems of cosmic deities arose to explain this natural phenomenon. Some attributed the creation of the world to the ram-god Khnum, who styled the universe on his potter's wheel. Others said that creation was a spiritual and not a physical act, and that the divine thought of Ptah shaped the universe. Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation of the creation was that the sun-god, called either Ra or Atum, appeared out of primeval chaos and created the air-god Shu and his wife Tefnut, to whom were born the sky-goddess Nut and the earth-god Geb, who in turn bore Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. Some early cosmological myths represented the heavens as a great, star-studded cow, sometimes called Hathor or Athor, curving above the earth. Regardless of the different creation myths and ranking of gods, it is clear that the ancient Egyptian venerated many deities, that those gods were inherent in nature, and that they enabled the Egyptian to correlate human, natural, and divine life.

Development of a National Religion

At the end of the predynastic period (c.3200 B.C.), when a combined state was created, a national religion apparently grew out of the various primitive tribal and local religions, but still there were great inconsistencies and variations as various priesthoods attempted to systematize the gods and their myths. Changes in the political power of various localities also changed the status of the gods. In that way Amon became Egypt's most prominent deity, and by similar shifts of power Suchos, Bast, and Neith rose to importance. Some scholars have believed that the history of Egyptian religion was a sort of war of the gods, with the dominance of a god following directly the political dominance of a city or region. Others have pointed out that the national prominence of gods often centered in obscure cities or regions that never had political power. Nevertheless, shifts and changes did occur, making for new identifications and associations. Egyptian religion was remarkable for its reconciliation and union of conflicting beliefs. Some scholars have held, in fact, that the syncretism of Egyptian religion reveals a basic trend toward monotheism. But only during the reign of Ikhnaton, who based his theology on the solar god Aton and denied recognition to all but that god, was a monotheistic cult actually established. That unique cult apparently proved unsatisfactory to the ancient Egyptians; after Ikhnaton's death, polytheism was restored.

The Major Cults

The most important of the many forms of Egyptian worship were the cults of Osiris and of Ra. Osiris was especially important as king and judge of the dead, but he was identified as well with the waters of the Nile, with the grain yield of the earth, with the moon, and even with the sun. A bountiful and loving king, Osiris was the protector of all, the poor and the rich. His myth, portraying the highest ideals of family devotion, expressed aspirations that were close to the people. His murder by his brother, Set, and his restoration to life by his wife, Isis, made him the great symbol of the eternal persistence of life. The revenge exacted by his son and successor, Horus, showed the triumph of good over evil. The worship of Ra, the great sun-god, chief of the cosmic deities, was perhaps more closely related to the fate of the royal house than to that of the people, but his cult was nevertheless one of the most important in ancient Egypt. His symbol, the pyramid, became the design of the monumental tombs of the Egyptian kings. Ra was said, in fact, to be the direct ancestor of the kings of Egypt, and in certain hymns was even addressed as a dead king. But he was more specifically thought of as a living power, whose daily cycle of birth, journey, and death was a fundamental theme in Egyptian life. Besides Osiris and Ra the other most prominent Egyptian god was Amon. By the XIX dynasty he was Egypt's greatest god, united with Ra as Amon Ra.

The Role of the King

Most scholars have concluded that, in later times at least, there was no close personal tie between the individual Egyptian and the gods, that the gods remained aloof, that their relationship to humans was indirect, communicated to him by means of the king. There was no established book or set of teachings, as the Bible or the Qur'an, and few prescribed conditions of behavior or conduct. Humans were guided essentially by human wisdom and trusted in their belief in the goodness of the gods and of their divine son, the king. An important concept in Egyptian life was the idea of maat [justice]. Although the Egyptian was entirely subservient to the state, the king had the duty of translating the will of the gods. The universe had been created by bringing order and justice to replace primeval chaos, and only through the continuance of order and justice could the universe survive. The law of nature, of society, and of the gods was an organic whole, and it was the duty of the king to administer that law, which was guided by the concept of maat. As Egypt flourished, so did the state cult. As the pharaohs grew more powerful, they poured riches into the state cult and built huge and splendid temples to their gods. The priesthoods thus grew very powerful.

Life after Death

The populace found its expression of religious feeling in the funerary cults. The great body of mortuary texts has, in fact, provided us with much that we know of ancient Egypt, particularly of belief in the afterlife (see Book of the Dead). The dead were provided with food and drink, weapons, and toiletry articles. Tombs were often visited by the family, who brought new offerings. Proper precautions and care for the dead were mandatory to insure immortality (see mummy). Although the ancient Egyptians strongly believed in life after death, the idea of passing from life on earth to life in the hereafter was somewhat obscure, and the concepts concerning the afterlife were complex. The ancient Egyptian, however, hoped not only to extend life beyond the grave, but to become part of the perennial life of nature. The two most important concepts concerning the afterlife were the ka and the ba. The ka was a kind of double or other self, not an element of the personality, but a detached part of the self which was sometimes said to guide the fortunes of the individual in life, like the Roman genius, but was clearly most associated with a person's fortunes in the hereafter. When people died they were said to join with their ka. More important perhaps than the ka was the concept of the ba. The ba is perhaps loosely identifiable as the soul of a person. More specifically the ba was the manifestation of an individual after death, usually thought to be represented in the form of a bird. The Egyptians also believed in the concept of akh, which was the transformation of some of the noble dead into eternal objects. The noblest were often conceived of as being transformed into stars, thus joining in the changeless rhythm of the universe. Bibliography See J. H. Breasted, Development of Religion in Ancient Egypt (1912, repr. 1970); E. A. T. W. Budge, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (1934, repr. 1972); H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1948, repr. 1961); J. Cerny, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1952, repr. 1957); S. Morenz, Egyptian Religion (tr. 1973).


Themis, in Greek religion and mythology, a Titan. Sometimes identified as an earth goddess, she was more commonly a goddess of law, order, and justice. She was the mother by Zeus of the Horae (the Seasons) and the Moerae (the Fates). It was also said that she was the mother of Prometheus by Iapetus.


Fortuna, in Roman religion, goddess of fortune. Worshiped under several forms, she appears to have originally been a goddess of fertility. She was later identified with Tyche, the Greek goddess of chance, and like her was represented with a ship's rudder and a cornucopia.


Cybele, in ancient Asian religion, the Great Mother Goddess. The chief centers of her early worship were Phrygia and Lydia. In the 5th cent. B.C. her cult was introduced into Greece, where she was associated with Demeter and Rhea. The spread of her cult to Rome late in the 3d cent. B.C. was marked chiefly by her Palatine temple. Cybele was primarily a nature goddess, responsible for maintaining and reproducing the wild things of the earth. As guardian of cities and nations, however, she was also entrusted with the general welfare of the people. She was attended by the Corybantes and Dactyls, who honored her with wild music and dancing. At her annual spring festival, the death and resurrection of her beloved Attis were celebrated. She frequented mountains and woodland areas and was usually represented either riding a chariot drawn by lions or seated on a throne flanked by two lions. Cybele is frequently identified with various other mother goddesses, notably Agdistis.


Neith or Neit, in Egyptian religion, goddess of hunting and war. Her cult was very popular during the XXVI dynasty, particularly at Sas. She also assumed the attributes of a mother goddess and was frequently identified with Isis.


Hestia, in Greek religion and mythology, goddess of the hearth; daughter of Kronos and Rhea. Both public and private worship of Hestia were widespread; she represented personal and communal security and happiness. An Olympian goddess, she was thought of as the kindest and mildest of the gods. She was of little mythological importance, appearing in only a few stories. The Romans identified her with Vesta.


Helen, in Greek mythology, the most beautiful of women; daughter of Leda and Zeus, and sister of Castor and Pollux and Clytemnestra. While still a young girl Helen was abducted to Attica by Theseus and Polydeuces, but Castor and Pollux rescued her. Later, when she was courted by the greatest heroes and chieftains of Greece, her foster father, Tyndareus, fearful of their jealousies, demanded that each suitor swear to defend the rights of the man Helen chose. She then married Menelaus, who, when Paris carried her off to Troy, reminded her former suitors of their oath. They then recruited an army and defeated the Trojans in the Trojan War. Some legends say that Paris forcibly abducted Helen; others that she fell in love with him and went willingly. In one peculiar account, originating in Stesichorus and used by Euripides, Helen was rescued by Proteus in Egypt, who substituted in her stead a phantom that sailed to Troy with Paris. Proteus then cared for Helen until Menelaus finally claimed her. In the Iliad and Odyssey, Helen becomes Paris' wife but is in sympathy with the Greeks. She is easily reconciled with Menelaus after the war, and they return to a peaceful life at Sparta. There are several other accounts of the story of Helen. Some say that after she and Menelaus returned to Greece, Orestes vengefully tried to kill her but that Zeus deified her. She bore Menelaus one daughter, Hermione, and, by some accounts, a son, Pleisthenes. Helen had cults in Sparta and elsewhere and is considered by some scholars to be a faded goddess-perhaps an ancient fertility goddess-who became a mortal woman. 


Hel, in Norse mythology, the underworld (sometimes called Niflheim) and the goddess who ruled there. In early Germanic mythology, Hel was the goddess who ruled the majestic abode for the dead. Later, particularly after the advent of Christianity, Hel became a place of punishment, similar to the Christian hell.


Hathor, in Egyptian religion, celestial goddess of love and festivity. The personification of the sky, she was represented as a star-studded cow or as a woman with the head of a cow. She was identified with many other goddesses of fertility and love, such as Aphrodite. Her name also appears as Athor. 


Freyja or Freya, Norse goddess of love, marriage, and fertility. Her identity and attributes were often confused with those of the goddess Frigg. As a deity of the dead, Freyja was entitled to half the warriors killed in battle, the other half going to Odin. She was the sister of the god Frey and was frequently represented as riding in a chariot drawn by cats.

Bona Dea

Bona Dea, in Roman religion, ancient fertility goddess worshiped only by women; also called Fauna. She was said to be the daughter, sister, or wife of Faunus. No man could be present at her annual festival in May.


Bubastis, ancient city, NE Egypt, in the Nile delta, near the modern Zagazig. Capital of Egypt in the XXII and XXIII dynasties, it began to decline after the second Persian conquest (343 B.C.). Bubastis was the center of the worship of the lion-headed (or cat-headed) goddess Bast. In the time of Herodotus it had an annual Saturnalia, an orgiastic festival honoring the god Saturn. As Pi-beseth, Bubastis is mentioned in Ezek. 30.17. Excavations were made in 1886, 1887, and 1906. Among the finds were a chapel of the VI dynasty (proving that the site dates back to the Old Kingdom) and a great temple built in the 8th cent. B.C.


Eris, in Greek religion, goddess of strife. Angered at not being invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, she threw down the apple of discord (see Paris, in Greek mythology).


Eos, in Greek religion and mythology, goddess of dawn; daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia. Every morning she arose early and preceded her brother Helios into the heavens. Her husband was Astraeus, by whom she bore the stars and the winds-Notus, the south wind; Boreas, the north wind; and Zephyr or Zephyrus, the west wind. Because Eos made love to Ares, Aphrodite cursed her with an insatiable desire for young men. Among her many lovers were Tithonus and Cephalus. The Romans called her Aurora.


Dione, in Greek religion and mythology, earth goddess. In some legends she is the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys; in others she is a Titaness, born to Uranus and Gaea. In yet another version she is the mother of Aphrodite. Her name is the feminine form of Zeus. Her cult was associated with the oracle at Dodona.


Demeter, in Greek religion and mythology, goddess of harvest and fertility; daughter of Kronos and Rhea. She was the mother of Persephone by Zeus. When Pluto abducted Persephone, Demeter grieved so inconsolably that the earth became barren through her neglect. Searching for her daughter, she wandered to Eleusis, where the Eleusinian Mysteries were inaugurated in her honor. She revealed to Triptolemus, an Eleusinian, the art of growing and using corn. The Thesmophoria, a fertility festival held in her honor at Athens, was attended only by women. The Romans identified her with Ceres.


Osiris, in Egyptian religion, legendary ruler of predynastic Egypt and god of the underworld. He was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. The great benefactor of mankind, Osiris brought to the people knowledge of agriculture and civilization. In a famous myth he was treacherously slain by his evil brother Set, who cut his body into 14 pieces and spread the fragments throughout Egypt. Thereupon, Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, sought and found his scattered body. She buried the pieces, making each burial place a sacred spot. According to another legend Isis did not bury Osiris, but collected the pieces of her dead husband and miraculously brought him back to life. Osiris' son Horus later killed Set and became the new king of Egypt, while Osiris became ruler and judge of the underworld. The worship of Osiris, like that of the sun god Ra, was one of the great cults of ancient Egypt. It gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean world and, with that of Isis and Horus, was especially vital during the time of the Roman Empire. Identified variously with the waters of the Nile, the grain of the earth, the moon, and the sun, Osiris was the great symbol of the creative forces of nature and the imperishability of life. He was commonly represented as swathed in mummy wrappings, wearing the crown of Upper Egypt (a dome-shaped hat with a papyrus tuft) and holding a whip and a crook. See J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris (1907, new ed. 1961); E. A. W. Budge, Osiris (1911, new ed. 1961, repr. 1973); J. G. Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris (1966).


Nut, in Egyptian religion, sky-goddess. She was the sister-wife of the earth god Geb, to whom she bore Osiris, Isis, Set, and Nephthys. She was sometimes represented with her hands and feet on the earth and the curve of her body forming the vault of heaven.


Selene, in Greek mythology and mythology, moon goddess; daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia and sister of the sun god Helios. There was no known moon cult among the Greeks, but Selene was a significant figure in Greek poetry and sorcery and was often identified with Hecate and Artemis.


Rhea, in Greek religion and mythology, a Titan. She was the wife and sister of Kronos, by whom she bore Zeus, Poseidon, Pluto, Hestia, Hera, and Demeter. She eventually helped Zeus overthrow Kronos. Her worship, which was orgiastic and associated with fertility rites, was particularly prominent in Crete. The Greeks often identified her with Gaea and Cybele. In Rome, Rhea was worshiped as Magna Mater and identified with Ops. See Great Mother Goddess.


Persephone or Proserpine, in Greek and Roman religion and mythology, goddess of fertility and queen of the underworld. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. When she was still a beautiful maiden, Pluto seized her and held her captive in his underworld. Though Demeter eventually persuaded the gods to let her daughter return to her, Persephone was required to remain in the underworld for four months because Pluto had tricked her into eating a pomegranate (food of the dead) there. When Persephone left the earth, the flowers withered and the grain died, but when she returned, life blossomed anew. This story, which symbolizes the annual vegetation cycle, was celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which Persephone appeared under the name Kore.


Minerva, in Roman religion, goddess of handicrafts and the arts. Probably of Etruscan origin, she was worshiped in various parts of ancient Rome, most notably with Jupiter and Juno in the great Capitoline temple. Her temple on the Aventine Hill was a meeting place for skilled artisans, actors, and writers. She was identified with the Olympian Athena.


Gaea, in Greek religion and mythology, the earth, daughter of Chaos, both mother and wife of Uranus (the sky) and Pontus (the sea). Among Gaea's offspring by Uranus were the Cyclopes, the Hundred-handed Ones (the Hecatoncheires), and the Titans. To Pontus she bore five sea deities. Because Uranus had imprisoned her sons she helped bring about his overthrow by the Titans, who were led by Kronos. She was worshiped as the primal goddess, the mother and nourisher of all things. The Romans identified her with Tellus.


Flora, in Roman religion, goddess of flowers and fertility. Her festival, the Floralia, Apr. 28-May 1, was celebrated with great gaiety and licentiousness


Fire, the phenomenon of combustion as seen in light, flame, and heat; it is one of the basic tools of human culture. In ancient Greece and later, fire was considered one of the four basic elements, a substance from which all things were composed. Its great importance to humans, the mystery of its powers, and its seeming capriciousness have made fire divine or sacred to many peoples. Fire as a god is a characteristic feature of Zoroastrianism, in which, as in many sun-worshiping religions, fire is considered the earthly representative or type of the sun. The belief that fire is sacred is widespread in mythology, and such beliefs have survived in some highly developed cultures. The connection between the Greek colony and the metropolis was the fire kindled in the colony from a brand brought from the mother city's fire. The most carefully preserved cult in Rome was that of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, and her virgins guarded the holy fire. One of the greatest Greek myths is the story of Prometheus, the fire bringer. The theft of fire is a common element in the myths of many other cultures. The ramifications of the human ideas about fire are tremendously complex, extending as they do into the concepts about light and the heavens. See J. G. Frazer, Myths of the Origins of Fire (1930, repr. 1971); G. Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire (tr. 1964).


Fates, in Greek religion and mythology, three goddesses who controlled human lives; also called the Moerae or Moirai. They were: Clotho, who spun the web of life; Lachesis, who measured its length; and Atropos, who cut it. The Roman Fates were the Parcae-Nona, Decuma, and Morta. In Norse mythology, the three Norns wove the web of life.