The Earth, the Goddess and the Color Green

Green is a colour that is universally known as representing nature and the environment. It is also the color of growth, renewal and rebirth. However, green also forebode death. In Egyptian wall paintings, Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, was typically portrayed with a green face. In Ancient Greece, green is associated with Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. For the Romans, green was the color of Venus who, despite being the Roman counterpart of the Greek Aphrodite, also served as the goddess of the gardens, vegetables and vineyards. The Roman poet Lucretius ( c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) opens his didactic poem De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by addressing Venus as a mother of nature and a personified symbol for nature’s generative aspect. 

The feminine goddess archetype in Hindu Mythology as well as the most popular figure in the Tibetan pantheon of deities, the goddess Tara, is a female Bodhisattva who governs heaven, earth and the underworld, as well as birth, death and regeneration. She also governs life, love, war, the seasons and the moon cycles. She  is said to have come into existence from a tear of Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas, which fell to the ground and formed a lake. Out of its waters rose up a lotus which then opened and revealed the goddess. Like Avalokitesvara, Tara is a compassionate deity who also helps souls cross to the other side, protecting those travelling whether it is in the physical or the spiritual realm along the path to Enlightenment.

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Amoghpasha lokeshvara images in Guitabahi

The name “Tara” is a generic name for a set of Bodhisattvas of similar aspect.  As the Mahatara (“Great Tara”), she is the supreme creator and mother of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Tibetan Buddhism, om tare tuttare ture soha (““I prostrate to the Liberator, Mother of all the Victorious Ones.”) is an ancient mantra that is related to Tara as the “Mother of all Buddhas,” and especially to her manifestation as Green Tara. These days, Green Tara and White Tara are probably the most popular representations of Tara. Khadiravani (Green Tara) is usually associated with protection from fear and the following eight obscurations: lions (pride), wild elephants (ignorance), fires (hatred), snakes (jealousy), bandits and thieves (fanatical views), bondage (miserliness), floods (attachment), and evil spirits and demons (deluded doubts). She is associated with enlightenment and abundance. As one of the three deities of long life, Sarasvati (White Tara) is associated with longevity. White Tara counteracts illness and thereby helps to bring about a long life.

Green Tara is usually depicted as a compassionate being ready to step down from her lotus throne to offer comfort and protection from sufferings. She is shown in a relaxed posture, with her left leg is folded in the contemplative position, while also depicting her readiness for action with her right leg outstretched, ready to stand. The green Tara’s left hand is usually in the refuge-granting mudra (gesture) as her right hand makes the mudra of blessing. In her hands she also holds closed blue lotuses, which symbolize purity and power. 

As perhaps the testament of the power of Tara and her wide-reaching influence in the ancient world, variations of her name are found in other cultures. Tara is also a sea goddess in Polynesian Mythology who turns blue, red or yellow in stormy weather  and white or green when the weather is calm. As the noun tara means “star” in all Sanskrit-based language, in the early Sanskrit tradition, Tara was also called Dhruva (“the pole-star”). A legend of the native American Cheyenne people also tells of a star woman who fell from the heavens to earth and released the essential foods for humanity out of her body.

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Green Arya Tara, statue with silk clothes, flowers, and Foo Dogs, with dragon lamp, Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Seattle, Washington, USA

On the other side of the world, in Irish mythological cycles, Brighid, whose name is derived from the Celtic brig (“exalted one”), is the daughter of the Dagda, a powerful deity in Irish mythology. This makes her one of the Tuatha de Dannan (“tribe of the gods”). Brighid was the patron of poets and bards, as well as healers and magicians especially those specializing in prophecy and divination. She was also known to watch over women in childbirth. Her sanctuary was at Kildare, Ireland, which later became the home of her Christian variant, St. Brigid of Kildare

Due to her roles as both a pagan goddess and a Christian saint, Brighid became somewhat a bridge between the old and the new ways. One of Brighid’s possession found in both pagan and Christian legends is her green mantle. The mantle is known as the brat Bhride. In pagan stories, the mantle carries blessings and the power of healing. The mantle also provides protection for women in labor and newborn babies.

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Da Loria Norman, “The Passing of St. Brighid” (c. 1935)

The Christian legend relating to Brighid puts her as the daughter of a chieftain who went to Ireland to learn from St. Patrick. Later, the girl who later became St. Brigid went to the King of Leinster, and petitioned him for a land so that she could build an abbey. The king, who was still a devotee of old practices, told her that he would give her as much land as she could cover with her mantle. When Brigid covered the land with her mantle, her mantle grew wider and wider until it covered as much property as she needed for her abbey.  

In her earliest incarnation, as Breo-Saighead, Brighid was called the “Fiery Arrow”. When she was born, a tower of flame appeared from the top of her head to the heavens. Perhaps due to this and her capacity as the protectress of women and children, Brighid evolved into a goddess of the hearth. In the Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis by Archdeacon and historian Gerald of Wales (1146 – 1223), Brighid and her nineteen priestesses took turns in guarding a sacred fire which perpetually burned and was surrounded by a hedge within which no male might enter. In this case, Brighid is similar to the ancient Roman Vesta and the Gaulish Minerva who was also worshipped by a perpetual flame in Britain.

Saint Brigid of Ireland in stained glass.

For centuries, Brighid was honored with a sacred flame maintained by a group of nineteen virgin priestesses. These women were called Inghean au dagha (“daughters of fire”).As fire-keepers, the priestesses were known as Breochwidh. According to the 12th century Lebor na hUidre (“The Book of the Dun Cow”), Brighid’s sacred number was nineteen, as it represents the nineteen year cycle of the Celtic Great Year, the time it took from one new moon to the next to coincide with the Winter Solstice.

The Brudins, this place of magical cauldron and perpetual fire, disappeared when Christianity took hold and, when the pagan Brighid was sainted, the care of her shrine fell to Catholic nuns. The fire was only extinguished once in the thirteenth century and was relit and continued to be maintained until Henry VIII of England set about supressing the monastaries. Brigid’s shrine at Kildare was active into the 18th century until it was permanently closed down by the monarchy.

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