The Great Goddess
Long before Science discovered the role of men in reproduction and propagation of the species, women were perceived to be spontaneously pregnant with new life. Therefore, it is only logical how people eventually began to worship the Great Goddess as females were considered divine and life-giving. The Great Goddess or the Great Mother is the source of all life and represents the earth's fertility as well. She is perceived in much archaeological evidence to be broad-breasted, very often pregnant and very fertile.
The worship of the Great Goddess appears to have occurred in Pre-Indo Europe in Neolithic times where agriculture was the main mode of earning a living. This is as such because the fertility (of crops and animals) was of paramount importance. During the Bronze Age where there is the rise of urbanisation and the trade of tools and metal, civilisations began to have expansionist sentiments and there was an emphasis on physical strength and war. It is said that this is the period of time where the Indo-Europeans began to invade Neolithic Europe from the East and bring in ideas of the male God and war, replacing the peaceful, egalitarian lifestyle of the Pre-Indo Europeans.
Some academics and anthropologists have pointed to certain early societies to be female-dominated because of goddess worship and such way of life is then driven aside by the spread of Christianity by Indo-Europeans in the Bronze Age. This theory of a possible matriarchy is proposed by Marija Gimbutas, who used evidence from excavation sites such as Catal Hoyuk in Turkey. Such a society entails that not only is the Great Goddess worshipped, females dominate in areas such as law and custom. She is the superior sex now. Although the theory that a matriarchy has existed has been criticised and has been proven to be discredited, there is still evidence of Great Goddess worship that we can hinge on.
Rosalind Miles in Women's History of the World suggests that the emergence of religions like Christianity and Islam that subordinate women and the rise of the phallus occurred only because of the suppression of males by females in the first place at the beginning of civilisation. She writes in her book that in the Great Goddess era, many males were made to consummate with the representative of the Goddess as a religious ritual and were abused repeatedly.
Although the dominance of females in Neolithic European civilisations is still questionable, it is no doubt that in such societies, there was little female oppression by males. Many academics have asserted that it is very possible males and females enjoyed equal rights and freedom.
Women in ancient Greece (before the Hellenistic Age) and Rome
With the integration of Indo-European ideas of male Gods and the discovery of the link between sex and pregnancy, religious worship of the Great Goddess started to dissipate. As we are familiar with, the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods consist of both gods and goddesses who are in charge of different areas.
Although the Greek and Roman mythology may include goddesses in the pantheon, this does not necessarily translate to equal rights for the Greek and Roman women. For instance, in patriarchal Roman society, the roles of women are merely to bear children and to be a good daughter, wife and mother. Their names were variations of their fathers', their identity as defined in relation to males as well.
The truth is - different women of different classes have different amount of freedom. Sarah Pomeroy, in Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, points out that "Roman women were involved with their culture and were able to influence their society ... Roman women dined with their husbands and attended parties, games, and shows." However, even if the Roman and Greek women had a certain amount of personal freedom, this does not translate into equality of the two sexes, especially in legal terms. Women were still not allowed to vote. Women still had inferior social positions. In Athens, women were not considered citizens at all.
Such a social order is in stark contrast to the one suggested in the age of the Mother Goddess. Furthermore, such a manner of social organisation will be seen to continue to modern day, much of it due to the entrenchment of religions such as Christianity in the European world, especially Rome.
Various interpretations of the Mother Goddess
In ancient Greek mythology, the mother of all things is Gaia or Gaea, which means land or earth. She is the primal goddess, the goddess who emerged from Chaos, the void in the universe. She is both the mother and wife of Uranus (the sky) and Pontus (the sea). Some anthropologists claim that Gaia is the later form of the Great Goddess worshipped previously in Neolithic Europe, but this is still something controversial. The Roman version of Gaia is Terra who is associated with motherhood and pregnancy.
Another interpretation of the Mother Goddess in Greek mythology would be Demeter, the Roman equivalent being Ceres. Ceres or Demeter is the goddess of fertility and harvest, giving rise to life and was worshipped by the peasants for good harvests along with Gaia or Terra.
For Hindus, the Mother Goddess comes in the form of Shakti, whose name means 'the force, power or energy'. She takes on various identities (Uma, Parvati, Gauri, etc) and is worshipped greatly over India, especially in communities in South India. This might explain why the community of Nair in South India leans towards a matrilineal social order. The religion of Shaktism worships Shakti alone and considers her to be the creator of the universe and essential for the existence of male dynamism as well.
Unlike in Greece and Rome, it has been suggested by some scholars that in ancient India during the Vedic period, women enjoyed equal rights as men. They were free to marry at any age they want and had the right for divorce. The early Indians argued that if they had a male God, there should be a female equivalent as well. In contrast to the India entrenched in patriarchy today, India during the Vedic period is truly reflective of a society where males and females have found a delicate balance in this age-old struggle.