Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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She Who Feeds the World



Your words to me are as the milk of your breasts.


In many Wiccan circles, as—on the Goddess's behalf—the priestess recites The Charge of the Great Mother, it's customary for her to stand in the Star or Goddess position, with legs and arms spread wide. It's a posture of revelation and self-offering.

Well and good. But there's another liturgical possibility here, a very ancient one.

In Russian painter and mystic Nicholas Roerich's 1910 Idols (Pagan Russia), shown above, we see a depiction of a pre-Christian Slavic sanctuary featuring standing wooden images of various gods, surrounded by a temenos wall.

Let me call your attention to the second figure to the right. Clothed in a checkered skirt, the goddess here depicted cups her hands beneath her breasts.



Here we see a detail from another, earlier (1901) painting on the same subject. What at first glance looks to be abstract red patterns at the sides of the torso prove to show the same act: the goddess' presentation of her breasts to the worshiper.

Roerich here is being very clever. Ancient Slavic traditional religion (and modern, for that matter: ask any Rodnover) was indeed characterized by standing posts carved in the likeness of the gods. Of these, however, no surviving examples depict a goddess. How, then, to represent an ancient Slavic goddess?

In fact, Roerich has borrowed the breast-presenting motif from ancient Middle Eastern religious iconography, which frequently depict the gesture.

Here are two “Ashera” figurines from Iron Age Jerusalem:



A Phoenican “Astarte” from Cyprus, circa 900 bce:



A Mesopotamian “Ishtar” (1500 bce?):



Oldest of all (2200 bce), an example from Kültepe (Turkey):



You get the idea. Examples could be multiplied by the hundreds, if not the thousands. What Roerich has done is to create an entirely convincing Slavic image by translating a trope of Near Eastern iconography into a Russian visual idiom. He has here a powerful lesson to teach all modern pagans, if we're wise enough to listen: When something is lacking, look to other cultures, but don't steal, translate.

It's well worth asking what the presentation of the breasts might have meant to the ancestors.

In the modern West, where women's breasts have been highly sexualized, the gesture no doubt reads to some as a sexual overture.

In archaeological circles, though, the breast-offering figure is often known as a Dea Nutrix: the Nourishing Goddess.

An infant, of course, can only nurse at one breast at a time. To offer both breasts, then, would symbolize the feeding of more than one. One, two: many. The Mother is She Who Feeds the World. The breast-offering gesture is not only a statement of Who She is: it articulates who we, the viewers, are as well. We are Her children.

Well, I'm no Wiccan priestess.

But if I were, I think I know how I would stand while reciting the Charge.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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