When The Goddess Was A Cow – Ancient & New Paths Converge

September 28, 2023

by Hagar Harpak

Harvest Season, Sukkot, Cornucopia, and Moon Mothers

When the goddess was a cow she was The Great Mother. Her presence represented abundance and nourishment. Her power was both protective and dangerous, she was loving and ferocious, nourishing and devouring, gentle and horrific. She invites us to connect and weave together ancient symbols and new paths.

She was Hathor, Egyptian maternal deity of fertility, sensuality, music, dancing, beauty, bounty, food, pleasure, and love, who wore the horns of a cow on her head, with the disc of the sun nestled in between. 

She was Nut, one of the most ancient Egyptian deities, goddess of the sky, arching over the earth, sometimes as a woman, other times as a cow, devouring her son, the sun, each night, as she becomes the milky way, digesting all the experiences of the day, and births him again each morning. She wore a pot of water on her head, a symbol of the womb, of the vessel that receives and generates life, and the life giving power of water. 

She was Hera, Greek mother goddess, whose earlier versions belonged to matriarchal societies, and whose primordial feminine complexity was later reduced to a goddess subordinate to Zeus, who governed over home and marriage, and became mostly known for her jealous rage over Zeus’ infidelity. 

In India, the cow is a sacred being, regarded as the Great Mother, the source of life, an ultimate provider of nourishment in the form of milk, fertilizer, building material, and fuel in the form of manure, and tools made from her bones after her death. 

She is Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of beauty, abundance, wealth, and everything that is good in life. Lakshmi is golden and graceful, bedecked in jewels, she’s got coins pouring out of her hands, garlands of flowers over her neck, her breasts are full, and her presence is a blessing. 

Lakshmi, the nectar of immortality, and a wish fulfilling cow, along with many other interesting characters and substances, emerge from the churning of the ocean of milk (this is an amazing story that we can get deeply into another time). 

And she is Kali, Hindu mother goddess who slays demons, lolls her tongue and gets drunk on their blood, severs their heads to make a garland of skulls, and their arms to make a belt, dances on the corpse of her beloved, and roars with fury, all while her darkness is the womb that holds the universe in its entirety, her breasts nourish all that exists, and her wild dance of dissolution is the ground of creation. 

Kali’s consort is Shiva, lord of yoga, who rides Nandi, the bull. 

The nature of the cow is patient, peaceful, caring, calm. She is gentle, and it is easy to see how a cow became a symbol of abundance in many ancient cultures around the world. 

These nurturing qualities related the cow to many goddesses. Ancient mother goddesses held the well rounded wholeness of life, which is always interwoven with death. And so this caring, calm, and gentle creature, was also entangled with the ferocity of nature. 

In Norse mythology, the cow was associated with Freya, goddess of sexuality, love, beauty, and fertility, goddess of the earth, the sea, the underworld, and the moon, goddess of life and death, magic, and of fate. The “fierce cow” was a Valkyrie, who guides the soul of the dead. And the creation of the world was attributed to the giant Ymir. But even though his blood and body are said to make up the universe, it was the cow who preceded him, and he lives nourished by her milk. 

The cow was associated with the moon from Asia to Africa. Perhaps because of the horns on her head resembling a crescent moon. Possibly because the milk and the moon are both the color of sexual fluids and of ashes and death. The milk flows and feeds, the moon changes and lights up or darkens in the night sky. Both reminded people of the nurturing aspects of nourishment and rest. The moon cow goddess has many faces and many phases. She is cyclical. She is not one thing, but many. 

The whole continent of Europe is named after a moon goddess, who was also a cow. The Greeks tell of Europa, who was a Phoenician princess. Zeus is said to have been enamored by her beauty, and so he turned himself into a bull, and carried her on his back to the Island of Crete, where he revealed who he was, had sex with her, and then turned her into the first queen of Crete. She is the mother of king Minos, whose wife has a passionate night with a big bull, and gives birth to the beast of Crete, the Minotaur. 

But Europa’s form as a Great Mother Lunar Cow predates the patriarchal Greek story. According to Barbara G Walker, there are pre Hellenic images of a moon priestess riding a bull. Bulls were a common sacrifice to the lunar goddess. Europa’s alternative name was Io, which was also one of Hera’s names. While the patriarchy turned Hera and Europa against one another, the same lunar cow appears in the images of both, which tells us that they were once the same goddess. 

This can initiate us into a process of reclaiming exiled parts of ourselves, inviting us to reconsider the ways in which we turn against ourselves, heal the self inflicting wounds, and remind us that we are also a part of one another. 

Europa was also one of the names of an ancient form of Demeter. 

Demeter is the great mother goddess. “Meter” means mother. De is the delta, the triangle, the female genital, the womb, the yoni, and the Greek alphabet letter known as “the letter of the vulva,” which corresponds with the Hebrew letter Dalet, which relates to the word door in Hebrew, and to the Celtic Duir, which also means door. She was an ancient doorway of birth, death, and rebirth. The triangular doorway was a symbol of this goddess, who like many other ancient goddesses, was the trinity of Maiden, Mother, Crone – creator, sustainer, and destroyer. 

Demeter is known for being the goddess of the grain, bestower of bounty, life giving, nourishing, and nurturing. She is the mother of Persephone, who travels to the underworld in Autumn each year to become queen of the dead.

(Explore the story of Demeter and Persephone more deeply in the Fall Equinox Somatic Ceremony, along with other myths and archetypes, as well as practice-rituals that bring these symbols and metaphors into the body.)

Predating Greek mythology, Demeter was all the forms of the goddess in one. She was the maiden traveling to the underworld during the dark season, and the beauty of Spring as she returns. She was the mother in her abundance and generosity. And she was the ferocious crone character; a subterranean, dark and dangerous one, with the head of a mare, known as Melaina, the one who brings nightmares, a Gorgon, mingled now with Medusa and her sisters, associated with Hekate, who in the later version of the myth helps Demeter find Persephone, and becomes the maiden’s guardian.  

It was the horn of the Mother Cow, as well as that of the Mother Goat (who really wanted to join this party today, but the cow took over, so the goat will get her own stage some other time) that became the Cornucopia – the Horn Of Plenty – an emblem of the Great Goddess. The cornucopia is a horn with fruit, flowers, nuts, and all good, yummy, nourishing, beautiful things pouring out of it in abundance. 

The cornucopia became a symbol of the harvest season, particularly associated with the second harvest holiday, which is now linked with the Fall Equinox. when the goddess was a cow, her lunar horns overflowed with the abundance of the earth.

This is the time of year when the Jewish people celebrate Sukkot, which is the Jewish harvest holiday. 

After leaving Egypt and escaping slavery, the Israelites traveled through the desert for forty years. They built huts called Sukkot. Those were temporary homes, which they could break down relatively easily, and be on their move. The holiday tradition is to invite family and friends to come eat and celebrate under the palm tree branches that make up the roof of the Sukka, through which you can see the moon (the holiday begins on the first full moon night of the Jewish new year). It’s a celebration of the season’s abundance, and the generous gifts of being in community. 

The Sukka is a structure of hospitality, as well as a symbol of life’s ever changing nature, of how temporary form is, of the dissolution embedded in the process of creation. 

The story tells that while Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments from God, he was gone for forty days and nights. Scared that he will never come back, the Israelites, with the support of Aaron, Moses’ brother, built themselves a golden calf. They wanted to worship the cow and the bull, they wanted to be connected to form, to symbol, to the moon, to other cultures around them. They wanted to ensure their security somehow, through direct relationship with a tangible expression of the divine. 

God was pissed off. I’m always amused by how insecure this god is – always needs proof of faith, always needs validation, always gets furious when people do something he doesn’t like. It’s his way or no way. Sounds like a patriarchal asshole to me, but I digress. He told Moses about what was going on down in camp. He threatened to destroy the people. But Moses convinced him to spare them. However, when Moses came down and saw the Golden Calf, he was enraged, and he smashed the two stone plates on which the ten commandments were written. 

Of course this story was told in order to spread this new religion, this new faith. As a witch who is ethnically Jewish, not religious in any way, a spiritual atheist practicing sacred secularity, I am able to see the wisdom that permeates this concept of an unseen god. And I also see how manipulative it is. Not that worshiping a golden calf isn’t.  

Faith, in general, for me, is the ground of dogma, the household of certainty, and wherever there is certainty, there’s closed mindedness and festering tyranny. We can’t explain everything. We cannot know what the whole picture holds. And there is no force in the universe that does. Nothing can explain the unseen, Whether I like it or not, the unknown will continue to make up the majority of the universe. There’s always going to be more unseen than seen – within us and around us, in the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, in the relationship between energy, matter, space, and time  – because the universe is always expanding. 

So I stand in this space where I want to sip on the (vegan) milky nourishment of the cow goddess, not to worship the mystical, but to receive the gift of the mythical, the abundance that pours out of the Horn Of Plenty of the personal and the collective imagination. And to generate more possibilities and new ways of being that aren’t under the control of religion.

I breathe with the invitation into the generosity and hospitality of the Sukka, the delight of nurturing and being nurtured by a community, by nourishing and being nourished by the world of which I am a part. And I breathe into the grief and the gratitude held in the Sukka, moving within a world that is an ever changing structure, breaking down and reconnecting in new ways, dissolving and redefining, breaking up with patterns that don’t work, and melting in the fire, to be molded into new forms. 

In a way, this is one of the season’s greatest invitations; gather the abundance that overflows, share it, offer it, become it, and begin the journey to the underworld, to where the cow becomes the crone, to where we decompose, become fertilizers, only to later give birth to new life. 

The Fall Equinox Somatic Ceremony is up for grabs. You will love this deep journey through symbols and myths, that will come into your body through breathwork and movement, and fill you with inspiring contemplation and reflection that will continue to unfold and enrich your life. All the details are here.

And if you want a 35 minute practice that explores the unseen, ambiguity, and a little embodied philosophical, mythological conversation, check out this FREE Embodied Bhagavad Gita video

May the Horn Of Plenty nourish your inner life and the world around you. May your Sukka (actual or metaphorical) be filled with gifts of food for belly and soul, with good conversations, and with loving presence. And may its reminder of how temporary everything is inspire deeper connection and invoke meaning making magic.

All my love,

Hagar

Resources:

The Woman’s Encyclopedia Of Myths And Secrets by Barbara G. Walker

The Taschen Book Of Symbols

June 21, 2024

June 6, 2024

May 29, 2024

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