The Seven Ancient Mothers

In Brihat-Samhita, Indian astronomer Varahamihira (505–587 CE) says that “Mothers are to be made with cognizance of gods corresponding to their names” leading to the birth of Matrikas (“Divine Mothers”) who are then associated with some of the major gods of the Hindu pantheon as their shaktis (energies). The Matrikas are Brahmani (from the creator god Brahma), Vaishnavi (from the preserver-god Vishnu), Maheshvari (of Shiva), Indrani (of Indra, the king of the gods), Kaumari (of Skanda, Shiva’s son as well as the god of war), Varahi (of Varaha, the avatar of Vishnu in the form of a boar) and Chamunda (of Devi).

The Seven Mother Goddesses (Matrikas) Flanked by Shiva (left) and Ganesha (right).jpg
India, Madhya Pradesh, 9th century Sculpture Red sandstone 

The Matrikas have existed from as early as the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1700 BCE). The Rigveda (c. 1700–1100 BCE) merely refers to them a group of seven mothers who control the preparation of soma (the drink of the gods). However, by the fifth century CE, the Matrikas were already incorporated in Hinduism as Tantric deities. The Saptamatrikas (“The Seven Divine Mothers”) were especially connected with Skanda and later associated with the sect of Shiva. In the Western Ganga Dynasty (350–1000 CE) kings of Karnataka built many Hindu temples with carvings of the Saptamatrikas as well as memorials containing sculptural details of the seven mothers. The evidence of sculptures of the Matrikas is further shown in the Gurjara-Patiharas (8th – 10th century CE) and Chandella period (8th – 12th century CE). Also between the 6th and the 12th centuries CE, the Chalukya dynasty claimed to have been nursed by the Saptamatrikas themselves.

The idea of the seven mothers is not exclusive to the Matrikas. The Matrikas display many similarities with the ancient Greek Pleiades and ancient Korea’s Magos, including their depictions as mothers and the number seven which is associated with many divine groups in ancient mythology.

The Goddess Ambika Leading the Eight Mother Goddesses in Battle Against the Demon Raktabija, Folio from a Devimahatmya (Glory of the Goddess), early 18th century

The Pleiades are among the first stars mentioned in ancient literature, appearing in Chinese annals from c. 2350 BCE. The earliest European references of the star cluster are Hesiod’s Work and Days as well as in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. According to Greek mythology, the Pleiades were daughters of Atlas, the titan commanded by Zeus to hold up the earth, and the oceanid nymph Pleione, protrectress of sailors. The Pleiades were seven sisters – Maia, Alcyone, Asterope, Celaeno, Taygete, Electra, and Merope.

Like the Matrikas who are associated with the most prominent Hindu gods, the pleiades are also associated with the most prominent male Olympian gods. The sisters’ affairs with the gods resulted in the birth of their children. Zeus fathered Hermes, brothers Dardanus and Iasion, as well as Lacedaemon through Maia, Electra and Taygete respectively. Poseidon fathered Hyrieus, Hyperenor and Aethusa through Alcyone as well as Lycus and Nycteus through Celaeno. Sterope mothered Oenomaus through Ares and Merope, the youngest of the sisters, married Sissyphus and became mortal. She bore him several sons before she faded away – providing the background story to the fact that one of the seven Pleiades stars does not shine as brightly as the others.

Elihu Vedder - The Pleiades, 1885.jpg
Elihu Vedder – The Pleiades, 1885

The story Krittikas, the Hindu equivalent of the Pleiades, started with separations. In the Hindu mythology, the stars of the Big Dipper were the seven sages who were happily married to seven sisters named Krittikas until one day, the god of fire, Agni, fell in love with the seven Krittikas. Respecting the sages, Agni tried to forget his love by wandering through a forest where he met Svaha, the star Zeta Tauri, who fell in love with Agni. Knowing Agni’s infatuation towards the Krittikas, Svaha disguised herself as six of the seven sisters in order to seduce him. When Svaha had a child, rumors began to spread that six of the sages’ wives were the child’s mother. The six sages divorced their wives. As the six Krittikas went away to become the Pleiades, one one Krittika remained with her husband, thus never seen to shine as brightly as her sisters.

Although the Krittikas are the ones associated with the Pleiades, the Matrikas arguably have a closer relationship to the star cluster. The Zuni tribe in New Mexico associates the Pleiades with motherhood – They called the Pleiades the “Seed Stars”, as they seeded the planet and are the original seven divine mothers of the earth.  

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Lost Pleiad (1884).jpg
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Lost Pleiad (1884)

The Matrikas have many conflicting origin stories. According to Devi Mahatmya (“Glory of the Goddess”), the Matrikas appear as Shaktis from the bodies of the gods – Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu, Indra and Yama. They then approached Chandika (identified with Devi) with what ornaments and vehicle the gods possessed – together, they then slaughter the demon army. After the battle, the Matrikas dance drunk with their victim’s blood. Therefore, the Matrikas are goddesses of the battlefield.

The later episode of Devi Mahatmya provided a different version of the birth of the Matrikas by saying that the goddess Durga created Matrikas from herself and enlisted them to slaughter the demon army. In this version, the goddess Kali is described as a Matrika as she was given the epithet Chamunda. When the demon Shumbha challenged Durga to a single combat, Durga absorbed the Matrikas in herself as they are her different forms. In the Vamana Purana, the Matrikas were also said to have been born from  different parts of Devi and not from the male gods.

In Matsya Purana, the Matrikas were said to have been the creation of Shiva. Shiva created them to combat the demon Andhaka, who had the ability to duplicate from each drop of his blood that falls from him when he was wounded. To help Shiva defeat the demon, the Matrikas drank Andhaka’s blood, thus preventing any duplicates to be created. However, the Matrikas soon became drunk and began a rampage of destruction by devouring other gods and demons. Narasimha, Vishnu’s man-lion incarnation, stopped the Matrikas by creating thirty-two benign goddesses to calm them down. He then commanded the Matrikas to use their war-like qualities to protect the world and be worshipped by mankind as their mothers.

Jacopo Tintoretto – The Muses, 1578

The Mahabharata later narrates the birth of the god of war Skanda and his association with the Matrikas. Indra sent the goddesses called “mothers of the world” to kill Skanda. However, upon seeing him, the Matrikas decided to follow their maternal instincts and raise him.

Both Muses and Matrikas bear a close resemblance to the Korean Magos. The Korean Magos includes Mago herself as the primodial mother goddess, her two daughters and eight granddaughters. Mago was a primodial goddess who came into existence through the movement of Pal-ryeo (“Cosmic Music”) along with the earth and the moon. Mago was the supervisor of the earthly systems in accordance with Cosmic Music. She was also revered as the progenitor and ultimate sovereign as she was the originator of life on earth. She also oversees births, deaths and rebirths of all things. Mago procreated two daughters through parthenogenesis and, together with her two daughters, she comprises the primordial triad. Her two daughters then each gave birth to four daughters without a male counterpart.

Photo Of Mother Carrying Her Child

Mago’s role as the mother goddess echoes the Devi Sukta of the Rigveda which declares that the ultimate metaphysical reality is, in fact, a Devi (“Goddess”):

I (Devi) have created all worlds at my will, without being urged by any higher being, and I dwell within them.
I permeate the earth and heaven, all created entities with my greatness, and dwell in them as eternal and infinite consciousness.

The gynocentric notion of Pal-ryeo is also evocative of the Muses of the Greco-Roman world. In fact, the Magos offers a mythological background for the tradition of Muses. Originally, the Muses were represented as virgins of the strictest chastity which, taken literally or figuratively, it echoes the so-called virgin birth of the primordial triad in Mago’s cosmogony.

Mother and Daughter Preparing Avocado Toast

This fixation with chastity takes us back to one of the most memorable myths involving the Pleiades – the story of how these sisters became stars. A version of the story said that after a chance meeting with the hunter Orion, the Pleiades became the objects of his pursuit. To protect their chastity from Orion’s relentless advances, Zeus changed the sisters into a flock of doves which he then set in the heavens.  

The number seven has always been a sacred number. Among many others, the Rigveda describes seven stars, seven concentric continents, and seven streams of soma. The Egyptians mapped seven paths to heaven, and the Islamic heaven and earth consist of seven layers. According to the Old Testament, the world was created in seven days.

Mosaics, Worcester Art Museum - IMG 7575.JPG
MNEMOSYNE. Antioch mosaics in the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. 

The three-and-seven symbolism relating to the divine female dates back to pre-patriarchal times. The pattern of three and seven appears on a plaque unearthed from the site of Mal’ta, Siberia, dated to 16,000-13,000 BCE. The Mal’ta site is known for its archaeological finds of at least 20 female figurines alongside an inscribed plaque. This plaque has the seven-fold spiral coming out of the central hole as well as the three snake-like waves on the obverse side. The seven-fold spiral is reminiscent of the seven strata notched round the head of the Venus of Willendorf from present day Austria.

The three-and-seven symbols are also apparent in the Greek Muses. The  Muses were originally a triad, bringing to mind the primordial Triple Goddess. The Muses invented the seven-tone musical scale supposedly based on their music of the seven spheres. Both the triad and the seven-tone-musical scale is closely resonant with the notion of Cosmic Music in Korean mythology.

The changes in the number of Muses from three to nine is also not an isolated phenomenon. In the story of Mago Halmi (“Great Goddess Grandmother”), Mago had eight daughters and dispatched seven daughters to seven regions who each became the shaman progenitor of a region. She lived with her youngest daughter, whose region was the center of the seven regions. A parallel between this and the worship of the Astamatrikas (“Eight Mother Goddesses”) is striking as, although the Matrikas are mostly grouped as seven goddesses over the rest of the Indian Subcontinent, an eighth Matrikas has sometimes been added in Nepal to represent the eight cardinal directions. In Bhaktapur, a city in the Kathmandu Valley, a ninth Matrika is added to the set to represent the center.

Woman and a Child Sitting on Concrete Road

The Pythagoreans considered the figure seven as the image and model of the divine order and harmony in nature. As the harmony of cosmic sound takes place on the space between the seven planets, the harmony of audible sound takes place on a smaller plane within the musical scale of the seven tones. Therefore, the syrinx of the nature god Pan consists of seven pipes, and the lyre of Apollo (the god of music) consists of seven strings. As the number seven is a union between the number three (the symbol of the divine triad) and of four (the symbol of the cosmic forces or elements), the number seven points out symbolically to the union of the divine with the universe.

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