Naturally, human beings began to give thought to the phenomena around them. Trying to find out why these things happened. One could say this was the precursor of scientific temperament.
Science has two main elements. Explanation-the reasoning behind something that happens, and verification- going on to prove this reasoning to establish a theory.
To quote this very clearly explained article, "Not only does science propose answers, it proceeds to test these answers, and if the answers prove incorrect, they must be rejected or modified. Mythology differs from this. A myth offers an explanation that is to be believed. Acceptance, not verification, is what is called for."
So myths developed from a need to explain things. The explanations translate the unfamiliar and therefore fearful phenomena into the familiar, making them easier to understand and assimilate. The forces to which the phenomena were attributed developed a persona over a long period. Since human beings knew themselves, and their own likes, dislikes, feelings, intentions and actions best, the mythical creations took form of persons behaving much in the way human beings do. Also, since human beings then lived in close proximity to nature, these elements also got incorporated into myths where we often have changes of form between animals, trees, and gods /goddesses.
Since early humans considered procreation- the creation of a new human being from the body of another-as the biggest miracle- the female of the species was considered to be very powerful. So all early cultures had myths about goddesses...power in the feminine form. The specifics vary from culture to culture, but the concept is the same. Recent work at National Geographic points to a common ancestor for all human cultures, and this is probably why myths from diverse cultures are similar in essence, also pointing to an even earlier beginnings of mythology.
So much for the history lesson. And now for our book.
Published by Barefoot books.
Do you know that the Japanese believe that there is a goddess called Benten at the bottom of the sea, in the form of a sea dragon, and that she quietens the deep-sea serpents who create earthquakes beneath the Japanese islands?
Or that Echo was a mountain nymph who was such a chatterbox that Hera, the queen of the Greek gods, angry with Echo for distracting her, punished her by taking away her voice? Thereafter Echo was only able to repeat the last syllable of anything she heard.
Or that Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune, was blind, and made decisions based only on intution, as she could not see what was actually happening?
Or that Gaia was one of the oldest creation goddesses, and was worshipped as Mother Earth by the Greek?
Or that Nu Wa was a Chinese goddess, who created humans in her own form, and made equal number of males and females, so that they could then create more of themselves?
Or that the Maori goddess Papatuanuku symbolised the Earth, who, with the Sky god Rango, gave birth to the sun, moon, animals, plants, and all creation? And that even now the two are still looking at each other?
Or that Hel was a Scandinavian goddess of the underworld, who rode on a black horse every night, calling out the names of those who would die of old age or disease before dawn?
Or that Estsanatlehi, the Navajo goddess of time, magic, life, death and immortality walks towards the east when she begins to age, until she meets her youthful self walking towards her?
Or that Ix Chel is the Mayan goddess of the moon, who bestows fertility upon women, and who brought the art of weaving cloth to humans after learning it from a spider?
Or that Roman women who were childless prayed to the goddess Juno, who ruled over anything that had to do with matrimony and childbirth?
Or that Nike was a Greek goddess whose name means victory, and that she wore a wreath of laurel leaves on her head- still a symbol of success?
As we go through the book, which has about 100-odd stories about individual goddesses in nugget form, we realise that across such diverse cultures as Norse, Greek, Mayan, Chinese, Hindu, Native American, African, Eskimo, Aborigine, etc., there are similarities in the goddesses they tell us about. In most stories, the goddesses were also considered the all-powerful supreme beings, often against formidable odds.
Many of the goddesses have much to do with creation, childbirth, matrimony, fertility, home, hearth, health, happiness, justice, peace, success, arts /crafts, sports, etc., as also with natural phenomena like the wind, rain, thunderstorms, earthquakes, rivers, lakes, seasons, phases of the moon, day /night, life and death.
A lot of these myths have religious overtones, and in many parts of the world following polytheistic faiths, many of these goddesses are still being worshipped, and are believed to have power over the fortunes of those people. Here, in India, we have just concluded the 9-day festival dedicated to goddesses- Navratri- which is celebrated in as many different ways as there are cultures in this wonderfully multicultural country.
Those in parts of the world which now follow a monotheistic faith consider them just that...myths. Some, like those about nymphs and spirits have now become part of folklore in the form of fairy tales, and are primarily classified under children's stories.
This does not, however detract from the fact that these myths, and the stories that abound about them, remain a valuable cultural heritage.
The author, Burleigh Muten, who works in the field of empowering women and girls has brought to us thousands of years worth of feminine mythological stories literally in "a nutshell." In her introduction to the book, she says, "The strength and power of goddesses continue to inspire women and girls all over the world...I wrote this book with the hope that you will discover how adventurous and powerful woman deities have been for thousands of years. Maybe you will find one or two or three or four who remind you of yourself."
The book is beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Guay. The picture on the cover gives a foretaste of the full colour illustrations inside. With classical intertwining vine patterns framing each double page.
The book can be read on many levels. It can become a one-stop reference to the many goddesses in mythology. Each goddess story can stand on its own. There can be comparisons made about similarities between goddesses from diverse cultures. There can be drooling over the fascinating imagination and imagery about every myth. We get a peek into the sensibilities of diverse cultures, and the living conditions and beliefs in ancient times, as by their very nature, myths reflect reality. We get a feel of how people made sense of their surroundings, and what they expected out of life.
Most important of all, it can be a wonderful picture book for children that can be dipped into many times, bringing them many wonderful stories full of fantasy and adventure, which can be layered at every reading, teaching them many things as they grow with the book.
Image courtesy Barefoot books.