Ronald Hutton, author of Pagan Britain and The Witch, returns with Queens of the Wild, a history of the goddess-like figures who evade both Christian and pagan traditions, from the medieval period to the present day.
In this riveting account, Hutton explores the history of deity-like figures in Christian Europe. Drawing on anthropology, archaeology, literature, and history, Hutton shows how hags, witches, the fairy queen, and the Green Man all came to be, and how they changed over the centuries.
Looking closely at four main figures—Mother Earth, the Fairy Queen, the Mistress of the Night, and the Old Woman of Gaelic tradition—Hutton challenges decades of debate around the female figures who have long been thought versions of pre-Christian goddesses. He makes the compelling case that these goddess figures found in the European imagination did not descend from the pre-Christian ancient world, yet have nothing Christian about them. It was in fact nineteenth-century scholars who attempted to establish the narrative of pagan survival that persists today.
In this extract, Hutton examines the early development of the goddess-like figure variously named Natura, Mother Nature, Mother Earth, and (in recent times) the Great Earth Mother, the Mother Goddess, or simply the Great Goddess.
Mother Earth in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods
The next great development in the figure took place in that major efflorescence of Latin Christian culture, produced by a mixture of political stability, economic prosperity and a large-scale recovery of ancient texts, which has become known as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. In particular, it was associated with one of the most notable schools which embodied this movement: that attached to the superb cathedral which was being constructed in the French city of Chartres, south of Paris. The scholar connected to it who took up the figure of Natura, and in spectacular fashion, was Bernard Silvester, working around 1150, who gave her a major role in an epic for the first time. He portrayed her as a divinity created by the Christian God who initiates the formation of a beautiful world from the crude matter of primal creation. In his allegorical fable, she persuades the divine intellect (also personified as a goddess, and identified with the Roman Minerva) to undertake the work of making an ordered and lovely universe. The resulting achievement is then animated by Plato’s world soul, likewise represented as a female being, and Natura fashions the bodies to contain the souls engendered by the world one. The divine intellect then gives her the task of creating and instructing humanity, which she does with the help of two other goddess figures, Urania, representing the heavens, and Physis, representing the earth, under the overall authority of the Christian Trinity.
Bernard’s work was immediately followed up by another scholar associated with Chartres, Alan of Lille, between 1160 and 1184, in a pair of works which begin by saluting Natura as the ruler of the world on behalf of the Christian God and the maker of humanity. Under her master’s instructions, and emphasizing her utter dependence on his authority, she makes humans the gift of procreation to continue their species, enlisting the aid of the pagan goddess of sex, Venus, though Venus mars the work by investing humans with sinful and sensual desires as well as the healthy and preordained one of producing children. Alan supplies a vivid visual portrait of Natura, her crown glittering with jewels representing the heavenly bodies and her clothing embroidered with images of animals and plants. She travels in a glass coach, drawn by peacocks and driven by a handsome male giant. At her arrival on earth, the birds and fish come to greet her, the sun shines more brightly and the fields sprout flowers. She is also the heroine of his second work, a poem in which Natura sets out to make a new and better kind of human, lacking the flaws in the existing one. It gives her a home, a columned palace set in a forest and painted with images of famously wise and brave people, to which she calls the virtues, personified as her sisters, to assist her. God sanctions the project and creates the soul of the new being, while Natura models its body, and so a new and better era begins. Both Bernard Sylvester and Alan of Lille knew the poems of Claudian and were influenced by them.
Their books, though philosophical and theological allegories, were wholly or partly in verse, and, just as in antiquity, genuine poets now followed where philosophers had led. Already in the 1180s another Frenchman with connections to Chartres, Jean de Hauteville, composed a work in which a young man goes on a quest to find Natura and be healed of his woes and learn from her the meaning of the world and the best way to live in it (which he does, and she gives him a wife, Moderation, as well). During the following two centuries, the greatest poets of their time in both France and England made use of her. The French one was Jean de Meun, in his version of the Roman de la Rose, a quest romance embodying a discussion of erotic love, which he wrote in the 1270s. Once more, Natura has responsibility for the making of mortal beings and the continuity of life on earth, as God’s chamberlain there and queen of the world. De Meun does not provide a portrait of her, commenting only that her beauty is beyond description, but equips her with a palace that comes complete with a Christian chapel. He reveals that those who keep her laws go after death to an especially delectable pastoral paradise caught in a perpetual springtime. The Englishman, a hundred years later, was Geoffrey Chaucer, in the poem commonly known as The Parliament of Fowls. His Nature is a goddess fairer than any other earthly being, enthroned in a palace of green boughs set upon a hill covered with flowers. She presides over the annual springtime assembly of birds, at which they choose their mates for the year: Chaucer references Alan of Lille for the idea that she represents the God-created world and acts as God’s deputy there, and he was well acquainted with Le Roman de la Rose.
This celebration of her at times provoked counterblasts. One of the most notable was a long poem composed by a fourteenth-century French monk and translated into English early in the following century. It was at least in part a reply to Le Roman de la Rose, and portrayed Nature as a quarrelsome old woman, in order to elevate the spiritual and eternal over the material and changeable. Generally, however, late medieval representations of her were admiring, largely due to the great influence of Le Roman. One of the most delightful was in a French quest romance, composed around 1400 and rapidly turned into English, in which Nature manifests to the princely hero on a spring morning as a bright goddess clad in a robe woven with pictures of all earthly things. She fills his bedchamber with the scents of ambergris and roses and sends him on his search for worthiness. Her appearances became rarer as the Middle Ages ended and allegory became less popular as a literary form, although she resurfaced when it was adopted: notably, for example, in The Faerie Queen, the epic produced by the Elizabethan Englishman Edmund Spenser. His Nature is a radiant, ageless and mighty supernatural being, invested with divine authority to carry out her tasks. A pavilion of trees spontaneously grows up to receive her, flowers spring up beneath her feet and the spirits of rivers pay her homage, even as the classical deities of Greece and Rome recognize her as much greater than they.
Early modern scholars, however, were more inclined to envisage a great female entity embodying or superintending the earth on behalf of the Christian Almighty in the form of the Platonic world soul, which underwent a revival at this time in accordance with the revival of interest in Plato’s works in Western Europe. The seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, publishing in Rome, prefaced one of his books with a woodcut of the goddess Isis in this role, as described by Apuleius. A Jacobean English occultist, publishing in Germany, also made Isis the Soul of the World, this time using ideas from another author working in the Roman Empire, Plutarch. In his frontispiece illustration she stands nude, with flowing hair and a crown of stars. A crescent moon covers her pudenda, another her left breast and a star her right one, though it is clear that rays or seeds are streaming to earth, like mother’s milk, from the nipple beneath the star. The hand of God holds a chain attached to one of her arms, while in turn she holds another attached to an arm of Man. She has one foot on land and another in water.
It may thus be seen that the concept of a mighty female figure embodying and ruling over the terrestrial world was embedded in Christian intellectual and literary culture all through the periods in which Christianity most completely dominated Europe, the medieval and early modern. The idea that this being could be supplicated as part of fertility and medicinal rites seems to be confined to the earlier Middle Ages, as no more is heard of it after the eleventh century: it appears to have functioned as a transitional notion. Allegorical use of a goddess-like entity called Nature or the world soul, however, only gathered strength thereafter, to become an enduring component of elite Christian thought.
Ronald Hutton is professor of history at Bristol University and a leading authority on the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on ancient and medieval paganism and magic, and on the global context of witchcraft beliefs. He is the author of seventeen books, including Blood and Mistletoe, Pagan Britain, and The Witch.