Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Dark Side of the Goddess

The goddess in her more fearsome and destructive aspect occupies a larger place in the imagery of non-Western civilizations than it does in the West, where the concern has so often been to play down the power of the female. The Aztec earth goddess Coatilcue-the name means 'Serpent Skirt' in Nahuatl- was a symbol of the earth as creator and destroyer, mother of both gods and mortals. In the best known representation of her, her skirt is made of interwoven snakes, which here symbolize fertility; her fingers and toes are claws, to indicate that she feeds on corpses; and her breasts are deliberately portrayed as flabby, to indicate the myriads she has nourished. In addition to being an earth goddess she was the goddess of childbirth, but also, in another of her aspects, the deity of sexual impurity and wrong sexual behaviour.
         In the Hindu pantheon, Kali (the name in Sanskrit means simply 'black', and the goddess is often represented as black in colour) is the destructive, terrifying aspect of the supreme goddess Devi, who in her other aspects is peaceful and benevolent. Kali is shown with bared fangs and protruding tongue. She is garlanded with the heads of her victims, and her multiple arms hold attributes that symbolizes her destructiveness - a sword, a severed hand, a severed head. Among other functions, she is the patron of assassins- the thugs, gangs of professional murders who operated in India until the nineteenth century, made their offerings to her. Her best-known temple is the Kalighat, in Calcutta, the focus for a prolific output of folk paintings, like the one illustrated, which celebrate the goddess and her powers. Made rapidly to be sold as cheaply possible, these paintings are produced by both men and women, who follow traditional designs that are passed down from one generation to the next. 
           Neither of these incarnations of goddess hood represents an acceptable ideal for contemporary women, but they are included here as a reminder that the image of the female as an all-powerful nurturer does incorporate within itself much darker forces. The hidden presence of these forces undoubtedly adds to the potency of the more familiar benevolent image. The inability of Western art to come fully to terms with the goddess in her destructive aspect is significant in itself. 

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