Separated from the ambiguous position she has long occupied in the traditional Christian hierarchy, the goddess figure is once again thought of as a force existing in her own right, rather than being. as the Virgin Mary is, a divinized human who exercises powers of intercession and redemption delegated to her by the Father and the son. But the analysis of the earliest goddess figures is, because of the complete absence of all written evidence, inevitably beset with difficulties.
The most celebrated of all Palaeolithic goddess figures, the so-called Venus of Willendorf, is an example. We can go only by what we see. The Venus is a small statuette - only 11.5cm (4 1/2 in) high - a steatopygous nude with massive buttocks and breasts, her head sunken towards her chest and with a complete absence of facial features. She is usually interpreted as an image of the life-giving mother - her rounded belly suggests she may be pregnant - whose characteristics emphasize her power to give birth, her power to nourish the infant once it is born and her power to survive famine because of her surplus body fat. In other words, she creates, she nurtures and she endures.
However, other, rather different, interpretations can be attached to the same figurine. Physically she is close to the women of the Kung tribes of the Kalahari Desert. Recent research confirms that these tribespeople are the closest living relatives of the earliest humans so far known to us, whose remains have been found in the Rift Valley in East Africa. The Venus of Willendorf can therefore be regarded as another piece of evidence for humankind's descent from an originally black race. The 'naturalistic' interpretation - that this is a closely observed portrayal of a particular type of female - in some respects conflicts with the symbolic one. The symbolism becomes less powerful if the artist simply portrayed what he or she saw, and the religious significance is correspondingly diminished, even if it does not vanish altogether.
The response of some contemporary artists to this might be that his is essentially irrelevant. They have ritually identified themselves with the imagined Mother Goddess, seeking to revive and reinterpret the myth in their own work and to make it valid for others in their own time. Their attitude corresponds with a general tendency in contemporary art, which is to see the modern artist, despite the wide difference in social context, as the equivalent of the primitive shaman, who performs redemptive rituals to preserve the health of the tribe.
One of the best known of the artists who have shaped their work following this assumption is the Cuban Ana Mendieta (1948-85), whose mud figures based on imprints made by her own body have helped to generate one of the most powerful legends in recent art. Mendieta came from a mixed culture, in which African elements were prominent, though she herself was not of African descent. Arriving at a very young age in the United States, as a refugee from Castro's revolution, she rebelled against American culture and tried to reintegrate herself with things remembered from Cuba, borrowing from Cuban Santeria rituals, which are themselves remnants of Yoruba religion brought from Africa by the victims of the slave trade.
One feature of these rituals, as with similar voodoo rituals in Haiti, is that the participants offer themselves to be 'ridden', or taken possession of, by a god or goddess. Essentially this is what is implied by Mendieta's images, which she preserved by taking photographs of them. They were acts of possession. A similar attitude is implied by the image of herself reclining, entwined with snakes, by the performance artist Carolee Schneeman (1939). Here, as in Minoan art, snakes are emblematic of the power of the goddess. A woman who entwines herself with them is wrapped in the goddess's aura. The phallic interpretation suggested by the story of the Fall, and followed by Freud, is here replaced by another, in which the goddess, and the priestess who is her representative, demonstrates her dominion over venomous things.
Certain goddess representations specifically promote the idea of a deity who is the incarnation of the power to nurture-life -giving, beneficent and fertile. perhaps the most celebrated, and certainly the most forceful,embodiment of this concept is the Diana of Ephesus, originally the cult status in the great temple at Ephesus in Asia Minor, now known to us through Roman copies. This status has also been used as a basis for striking images by leading contemporary artist, among them Louise Bourgeois (1911). In 1978 Bourgeois presented a Sculpture called Confrontation, a latex costume with multiple breasts. She devised a performance in which men and women had to parade up and down wearing versions of the costume. The performance was both a parody of fashion shows, which the artist considers to be demeaning to women, and a way of putting forward her views about the essential ambivalence of the sexes.
Betsy Damon used Great Goddess imagery in a similar way for one of her performances. The potency of the image is affirmed by the ease with which it bridges the huge span of time between the world of the early Greeks and our own day. There are, however, other implications as well - the many breasts of the goddess also suggest her direct links to the animal world. It is part of her power that she is not simply a human divinity, but the mistress of the whole of nature. The image is not meant to e beautiful in any conventional sense; it is, instead, meant to convey the idea of fecundity.
In conventional Greek mythology, Diana is the goddess of the hunt, a virgin averse to the company of men. The use of her name is this very different context reminds us that the Great Goddess was always a deity with three aspects- virgin, mother and crone. She contained within herself all the female possibilities, and those who worshipped her in the ancient world were always aware of this, just as they were aware of the fact that the nurturer could, in an instant, transform herself into a destroyer.