World MythologyNicole Boyd
Compare or contrast two major female fertility deities as to character, activities and role in the myth.
In the myths of the ancient world, a great deal of importance is placed on the rhythmical cycle of birth, maturity, death and rebirth. Ancient agrarian people observed the world around them, and from this observation they realized that their lives as well as every other living thing on this planet was a part of an intricate continuing cycle. Everything withered and died, but not before reproducing and continuing the cycle of life. Since female plants and animals were directly responsible for the birth of new life, people worshipped female deities to ensure that the earthly cycle of life was maintained in proper balance.
One such goddess can be found in Japanese mythology. The most ancient of Japanese deities, Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun. She is also the ruler of the gods and the universe. She is revered and given considerable praise, evidenced by the fact the Japanese imperial family traces its lineage directly to the Goddess Amaterasu. This reverence is understandable, given the sun’s extreme importance in the cycle of life. Without the sun, there would be no warmth, no plants, and certainly no humans. It also represents the important role that women played in early Japanese culture, where they occupied the same social roles as men.
In the myth of Amaterasu, her brother Susano-o-no-Mikoto has offended her by defiling her home and not respecting her. He has also committed an act of physical violence against one of her servants. In one version of the myth, one of Amaterasu’s weaving women dies as a result of a wound to her vulva caused by Susano-o-no-Mikoto. This so enrages Amaterasu that she closes herself into a cave and refuses to come out. Without her life giving rays of sunshine the world begins to wither and die.
Other Gods and Goddesses attempt to lure her out of the cave by throwing a celebration. They also set up a large mirror in a hope that when Amaterasu sees how brilliant she looks, she will want to come out and spread her radiance and glory. One of the Goddesses, Ame no Uzume, performs a dance in front of the entrance to the cave. The other Gods and Goddesses cheer so loudly in appreciation that Amaterasu becomes curious about why everybody is so happy. After all, they should all be depressed since she and her sunshine are gone. She comes out to satisfy her curiosity, and upon seeing herself in the mirror is so impressed that she returns to her position in the sky and life is renewed.
Another similar fertility story is that of Demeter and Persephone from Greek mythology. Demeter and Persephone are two Goddesses, mother and daughter, who live together in a state of eternal abundance. Hades, God of the Underworld, wants Persephone for his bride and kidnaps her and takes her down to the Underworld. Demeter is so mournful over the loss of her daughter that the world begins to die. Persephone is finally allowed to return to her mother, but because Hades tricked her into eating a couple of pomegranate seeds she must go back to the Underworld for part of the year. The time when she is in the Underworld represents the barren winter, and the when she is with her mother on Earth represents abundant spring and summer.
Despite originating at opposite ends of the globe, these two stories have a lot in common. In both stories, it is female deities who are responsible for perpetuating the cycle of life, causing plants to grow flowers to bloom and newborns to be born. In both myths men plead and make appeals for these women to return fertility to the Earth. Both deities are indispensable, and men in the myths do not realize how much they need these women in their lives until they are gone. In both myths it is also a women who is responsible for the return of the female fertility Goddesses to the world, Ame no Uzume in Amaterasu and Demeter in Persephone and Demeter.
Another similarity lies in the fact that the catalyst for the destruction of the cycle of life was sexual violence perpetrated against women. I think that this represents the fact female Goddesses, and women as a whole, need to be treated with respect and not simply as a means to an end. In both of these stories, especially in the latter, we see that a woman’s sexuality and fertility is something to be nurtured and respected, not plundered and exploited. When women are revered and treated with respect, flowers will continue to bloom and the sun will continue to shine its warmth down upon us.