by Marguerite Rigoglioso, PhD
Reviewed by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S
“The lack of commentary on the tremendous female power embedded in some of our oldest religious stories has rendered virgin motherhood essentially invisible from the start…
…a Virgin Mother [is one] who produced life from within herself without a male consort.”
Dr. Marguerite Rigoglioso, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (15, 51)
Whatever one takes away from Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity by Dr. Marguerite Rigoglioso, the book certainly is a tour de force. Phrases like “parthenogenetic creator deity” and “virgin creatrix” readily convey the concept of a virgin mother from remotest times, like a splash of cold water waking up our long dormant female spiritual traditions. There can be no doubt that the virgin-mother concept did not originate with Christianity and that, in my opinion, the idea of the Virgin Mary as a historical personage appears unsupportable from this and much more evidence.
Suddenly, it all makes sense: Of course, the Great Creator of the Universe has been viewed as a female–a goddess–during a significant period of human culture. Evidence in many places points to this idea of a self-generative–essentially virginal—female creator preceding the development of a male counterpart. For, if God the Father or Yahweh is the creator, yet he has no consort, according to Christian tradition, and is basically asexual, then he too is virginal. Like Isis and so many others, God the Father is the Great Virgin. Nevertheless, like them he too begets. He is the Virgin Father–a concept applied to the Greek god Zeus as well, despite how many times he is said to procreate, since he is called in antiquity “parthenos” or virgin. As mythologist Robert Graves says, “Thus the Orphic hymn celebrates Zeus as both Father and Eternal Virgin.” (Graves, 361) Rigoglioso also discusses Zeus as virgin creator, as in Orphic fragment 167:
Zeus’s parthenogenetic capacity is expressed here in the idea that all existence was “created anew” in the moment of his ingesting of the older god [Phanes]. (Rigoglioso 2010, 46)
The role of Greek influence in much important religious thought is also highlighted in Dr. Rigoglioso’s earlier work, The Cult of the Divine Births in Ancient Greece, which she frequently cites in her quest to show the omnipresent divine Virgin Mother Goddess in pre-Christian religion and mythology, dating back several thousand years. In any event, the various concepts predate their origin in Greece and can be found in numerous other places in antiquity, such as Asia Minor and Egypt.
As Rigoglioso thoroughly demonstrates in Virgin Mother Goddesses, ancient parthenogenetic female creators include:
Chaos, Nyx and Ge/Gaia
Demeter and Persephone/Kore
Gnostic Sophia (essay by Angeleen Campra)
Space does not permit me to recount all the remarkable evidence and insights Rigoglioso provides; suffice it to say that my copy of Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity is full of plastic sticky tabs marking what seems to be every other paragraph.
Neith the Egyptian Prime Mover
While reading about the Egyptian virgin-mother goddess Neith, I was struck once more with how spiritually and religiously sophisticated were the Egyptians. Their high culture as revealed in their social structure and architecture is also expressed in their religion, mythology and spirituality. In many ways, in the Egyptian culture we are looking at an advanced level of civilization seldom reached since then.
Regarding Neith, Rigoglioso relates:
As a divinity of the First Principle, Neith was an autogenetic [self-begetting] goddess who, in the ultimate mystery, created herself out of her own being. …an inscription on a statue of Utchat-Heru, a high priest of Neith, relates that she “was the first to give birth to anything, and that she had done so when nothing else had been born, and that she had herself never been born.” (Rigoglioso 2010, 29)
After studying the attributes of Neith as a 7,000-year-old Virgin Mother, the parthenogenetic or virgin-birth capacity of other ancient goddesses becomes so blatantly obvious and cosmologically sound that discussions of whether or not a figure was “really a virgin” seem absurd. As does nitpicking a certain term, as to whether or not it might mean “virgin” or just a “maiden” who is fertile. The bottom line is that we are discussing a cosmological ideal, not real women who possess body parts.
The idea of the self-generating creator is logically female, based on observing nature–that is the virgin-mother concept in a nutshell, and the childish and unsophisticated fairytales placing this entity on Earth as a “real person” pale by comparison. These myths are, in fact, foolish when taken literally. As literal “facts,” they are also degrading to women’s sexuality, as opposed to the empowerment provided by the concept of the cosmic, formless and transcendent Virgin Mother.
Hera and Heracles
Although I have been studying Greek religion and mythology for decades, including in college and post-graduate studies in Greece itself, I was nonetheless intrigued to review the evidence concerning not only the antiquity of the pre-Olympian goddess Hera as a virgin mother but also her primacy over the male gods, who appear to be later interlopers and usurpers. (Rigoglioso 2010, 69ff)
Indeed, the struggle reflected in the mythology between Hera and Zeus, or the goddess and the god, in ancient Greece appears to have begun around 1,000 BCE and may have lasted some 300 or so years, before the Olympians finally ascended to the throne. As Rigoglioso remarks:
Before the Greeks as we know them existed, a series of invaders from the east and northeast successively overran the Greek peninsula throughout the second-millennium B.C.E. Such invasions culiminated with the Indo-European Dorians, who entered Greece about 1100 B.C.E. and brough what became the language of Greece. They also brought a patriarchal social structure and religion. (Rigoglioso 2010, 11)
Marguerite further states:
Strong indicators that Hera was originally conceived as a parthenogenetic goddess can be found in association with her cult on the island of Samos, located off the coast of ancient Anatolia (Turkey). On Samos, one of the primary and earliest seats of her worship, she was known as Hera Parthenia, “Hera the Virgin”… Such a title was apparently not uncommon in association with this goddess… (Rigoglioso 2010, 69)
Renewing her virginity annually in a river, Hera was nonetheless the mother who gave birth parthenogenetically to the Greek god of the forge, Hephaistos.
While Rigoglioso depicts the Greek hero and demigod Heracles (Hercules) as an antagonist to parthenogenesis, I would have liked to have seen a discussion of his own alleged virgin birth both from the mortal woman Alcmene and from Hera herself, as suggested by an older version of the myth that likewise reflects male domination of the matrilineal hierarchy. Speaking of Hera, Dr. Jane Ellen Harrison says, “Her first husband, or rather consort, was Herakles.” (Harrison, 491; see also Jung, 539) In this scenario, Hera and Heracles take on the typical role as found around the Near East and Asia Minor: The virgin-mother goddess and her consort-son. The later myth of Zeus raping Alcmene, virgin daughter of Amphitryon, appears to have been serve as yet another instance of the violent usurpation of the virgin-mother goddess motif by the invasion of patriarchal religion.
Also, whereas Rigoglioso (92ff) sees in Heracles’s labors the same male-dominant Olympians’ overthrow of the goddess, the 12 tasks clearly possess astronomical or astrotheological meanings; yet, her thesis could help explain why these astrotheological events, rather than being joyous events as is found in other myths, are labors in this particular one. It is precisely these sort of factors that shape universal myths and make them culturally unique.
The concluding chapter, “The Gnostic Sophia: Divine Generative Virgin” by Dr. Angeleen Campra, ties the subject together nicely by providing a bridge between Paganism and Judeo-Christian tradition, as it shows precisely how this ages-old concept of the divine feminine as primordial creator was demoted, at precisely the same time when Christianity was being formed, with its subordinate female figure of the Virgin Mary. Says Campra:
Sophia rose out of a patriarchal worldview, but I argue that both iterations–Hochma/Sophia of the Wisdom literature of the fifth to first centuries B.C.E. and Sophia of the Valentinian Gnostic myth of the first centuries C.E.–reveal the attributes of the more ancient Virgin Mother deities from the areas neighboring West Asia. (Rigoglioso 2010, 193)
Campra’s extensive survey clearly reveals that parthenogenesis was part of the enigmatic Gnostic doctrine, which brings this extremely ancient concept right down to and into the Christian era, with its evident remake of the Virgin Mother Goddess in Mary, whom I and many others contend is a mythical not historical figure, largely based on this widespread and ancient goddess concept.
The Great Matriarchy v. Patriarchy Debate
Rigoglioso’s important study goes a long way in resurrecting the works of Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler and Merlin Stone in the “Great Matriarchy v. Patriarchy Debate,” in which their thesis of Goddess or female primacy has been assailed and claimed to be “discredited,” replaced with more oblique terminology describing “partnership” versus “dominator” cultures. Indeed, in this regard Marguerite has come out in support of this earlier research (Rigoglioso 2002) and says in VMGA (9):
Critics of the theory that a matriarchal phase of human history preceded patriarchy will no doubt deride the fact that I am even considering such a concept as basis for this book. Haven’t we thoroughly trounced the notion and shown it to be archaeologically and anthropologically untenable or unprovable, after all? Haven’t we shown, in fact that matriarchies never existed?
I would argue, no.
Concerning Gimbutas in specific, Rigoglioso also remarks:
Although controversy surrounds Gimbutas’s methods and conclusions…, the viewpoint I adopt is in accord with those of archaeologists and other scholars who are verifying and expanding on various aspects of Gimbutas’s theories… I believe that, because prominent classics scholars…independently held to similar theoretical views, the assumption of an early matriarchal substratum in Greece, upon which my analysis is based, is built on firm, if not conclusive, footing. (Rigoglioso 2010, 210-11)
Riglioso even suggests that the derision of the opposition to the matriarchal thesis represents “women-on-women violence.” (Rigoglioso 2002) In the same essay, Marguerite also says of this academic debate, in which the goddess movement has been assailed:
So the attack has been particularly virulent–involving the even more vicious tactic of professional discrediting when scorn alone won’t do–because we pose a threat to the reigning paradigm.
In the end, Rigoglioso’s work also clearly shows the Goddess primacy being overthrown by the male gods and patriarchy, demonstrated through myths and religious, historical and cultural developments over the centuries.
The Root of Female Oppression
It is not simply the solid evidence Rigoglioso puts together so abundantly that delights, it is also her very thesis itself that is enticing and refreshing. I thoroughly enjoyed her conclusions, albeit they reflect a tragedy, a violent usurpation riddled with sexism and misogyny that have led to incalculable suffering worldwide over the past three millennia or so. Yet, I was relieved to see this sensible explanation for female oppression within religion and mythology coming to light, as I always am when I read the writings of other writers such as Barbara G. Walker. Indeed, Walker’s fantastic work on women’s spirituality is beautifully complemented by Rigoglioso’s undertaking. These endeavors go far in restoring dignity and respect to the female aspect of creation, so badly derogated, abused, oppressed and enslaved by the patriarchal Abrahamic and other religions the past several thousand years.
Drawbacks and Omissions
The only serious criticism I have of the book is its price, which is unfortunately that of an academic press and too great for the average reader, who will thus miss out on all the fascinating and important information. As a publisher, I know I could make this tome for far less and with many images to boot! Fortunately, it is likely that the book will become available in paperback, as is the case with Rigoglioso’s previous work The Cult of Divine Birth.
Moreover, for the average reader this book may seem dense and, at times, tedious, as well as challenging because of the academic style of citation that includes the author, year and page number parenthetically in the text, rather than as footnotes or endnotes. Non-scholars may find the style initially distracting or intimidating, but they may also get used to it in their quest to pull out all the gems, which are plentiful.
At certain points, I felt as if the author was overreaching in her conclusions, but such is always the case when one is seriously attempting to prove a controversial thesis with as much evidence as is possible–and it is my studied opinion that Rigliogoso has proved her main thesis of the widespread presence of the virgin-mother goddess concept in antiquity, as well as this mythological motif’s overthrow by the male-dominated cultus.
In addition, as a scholar and enthusiast of the astrotheological meaning of much religious doctrine and many mythical motifs, I would like to have seen more of a discussion of the virgin birth theme as reflecting characteristics of celestial bodies or events, as well as their interaction with the earth and its inhabitants. In this regard, in ancient myths we find a theme of the virgin and inviolable dawn goddess giving birth to the new, morning sun. Likewise, many parthenogenetic goddesses are equated with the earth, moon, Venus and Virgo. In this regard, I was interested in various brief references by Rigoglioso to the moon as it related to certain goddesses, such as the African Nyame (42) and the Greek Artemis (57, 211).
Importantly, Marguerite and I differ substantially in our conclusions as to what this evidence means in the overall scheme of things. While she avers that the Virgin Mary was a real person, I evince in my numerous books and articles that these various characters, including the Christian figures, represent mythical motifs reflective of ancient nature worship, solar mythology and astrotheology. In this regard, I am of the opinion that VMGA is one of the great works to be used in proving the mythicist position: To wit, while many of the ancients did indeed perceive certain figures such as Hercules or Osiris to have been “real people” who “walked the earth” in remote times – a notion explored most famously by the Greek philosopher Euhemerus (c. 330-260 BCE) – these characters were in fact anthropomorphizations of very ancient, cosmic ideals and concepts. As ancient writers attest and as we know from such simple notions as the days of the week, many of our most important gods and goddesses are unquestionably astrotheological in nature, including the sun and moon gods and goddesses, as well as the various iterations of the planets and constellations. In other words, the personifications of the celestial bodies are clearly not real people, whether or not divine.
Moreover, in the chapter on Demeter and Persephone, whom she demonstrates were “originally conceived as Virgin Mothers” (100), Rigoglioso goes into a lengthy discussion of the rape of the virgin goddess and the ritual use of a phallus by initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries, both male and female. This section is important for historical purposes, but it may make some readers uncomfortable in its frankness and graphic depictions.
From her style and thoroughness, Dr. Rigoglioso is clearly a first-rate scholar. Yet, some of her thesis will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for many, and if she had composed this work a century ago based on those conclusions she may have been deemed “third rate” by the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, which disparages with just such a moniker scholars of an earlier era who came to the same deductions. Obviously, these facts are threatening to Christian dogma, showing that the virgin birth is unoriginal and firmly rooted in mythology, not history.
As a passionate scholar of mythical motifs such as the virgin birth, which I have been discussing for nearly 20 years, including in my earliest published book The Christ Conspiracy in 1999, I can only wish and hope for other professional scholars like Rigoglioso to tackle all the other common mythical motifs in the same rigorous and unbiased manner. Another such effort that comes to mind is The Riddle of the Resurrection by Dr. Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, which basically proves that the motif of a god or goddess resurrecting from the dead is present in the religion and mythology of several pre-Christian cultures, as we would logically expect it to be.
Although it is a scholarly work that may be difficult for some to tackle, Virgin Mother Goddesses readily proves Rigoglioso’s major points, including and especially the existence in the human psyche, religion and mythology extending back millennia of the concept of a self-generating or parthenogenetic female divine creator. Regardless of the author and my different opinions as to its overall significance, I feel that Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity is an indispensable resource for scholars and students of comparative religion and mythology, as well as women’s spirituality and goddess studies, and I personally will be using it for years to come.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1966.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Kessinger, 2003.
Jung, Carl Gustav. Psychology of the Unconscious. New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1916.
Rigoglioso, Marguerite. “Women’s Spirituality Scholars Speak Out: A Report on the 7th Annual Gender & Archeology Conference at Sonoma State.” belili.org/marija/rigoglioso.html, 2002.
—The Cult of the Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
—Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
For more information, see Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity.