The Madonna of the Annunciation
From a Drawing by Theodora St. John
God, the Mother
Mary K. Neff
(Originally published in The Liberal Catholic, August 1927)
[Towards the end of his life CWL became interested in the Feminine aspect of the Divine which he called the World-Mother. He offered his help in the development of a rite for the worship of God under the Feminine aspect, which had been written by Dr Mary Rocke, his personal physician in Sydney at that time. It was called ‘The Temple of the Motherhood of God’ and was an activity not related to or connected with the Liberal Catholic Church. A number of young girls, then resident at The Manor, in Mosman, Sydney, took part in the performance of that ritual. The focus of reverence and devotion in it was Pallas Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, but it also incorporated devotion and reverence to other Greek Goddesses as well and also to Lady Mary, Mother of Jesus.
In the article below, Mary K. Neff, a well-known writer and the author of Personal Memoirs of H. P. Blavatsky and at one time personal secretary to CWL, explores the deep philosophical and esoteric foundations of the traditions of the Divine Feminine in different cultures. It is also referred to as the Mother-Goddess, the Universal Shakti. The core of such traditions is transformation through worship.]
‘God the Mother’ is a strange phrase to the modern Christian; not so in the early days of Christianity. Many of the Gnostic systems defined the Holy Trinity as God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Son.
If one turns to the first centuries of the Christian era, G. R. S. Mead tell us that ‘he gazes round a religious world of immense activity, a vast upheaval of thought and a strenuousness of religious endeavour to which the Western world gives us no parallel. Thousands of schools and communities on every hand, striving and contending, a vast freedom of thought, a mighty effort to live the religious life. Here he finds innumerable points of contact with other religions; he moves in an atmosphere of freedom of which he has previously had no experience in Christian tradition. Who are all these people – not fishermen, slaves, the poor and destitute; though these are striving too – but these men of learning and ascetic life, saints and sages?
‘So far from finding a sharp divorcement between science (or philosophy) and religion (or theology), it is just the boast of these communities that it is possible to know the things of the soul as definitely as the things of the body. They strove for knowledge of God, the science of realities, the gnosis of the things-that-are. They were called by many names by those who subsequently branded them as heretics; and one of the names which they used for themselves custom has selected to be their general title. They are now usually referred to in Church history as the Gnostics.
‘The Gnostics claimed that there were two lines of tradition; the public sayings of the Christ and the inner teachings given in private to His disciples, dealing with things that the many could not understand. To them the ethical teachings, or Logia (Sayings), the parables and stories of the Lord, required interpretation. The literal meaning was sufficient for the people; but for the spiritual-minded there was an infinite vista of meaning, an esoteric doctrine, which was imparted to the worthy, and to the worthy alone.’ (1)
There were numerous Gnostic schools and systems. Unfortunately, our knowledge of them is chiefly derived from the biased reports of the Orthodox Fathers of the Church, who some time later excluded them as ‘heretics’ from the rapidly crystallizing dogma of the Councils, which ultimately formulated a fixed doctrine that must be subscribed by all who would call themselves Christians. In these first two centuries, however, ‘Christianity has been a mode of life, not a dogma.’ These early Church Fathers spent much energy in refuting Gnostic teachings; and it is from the ‘Refutation’ of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, written about the year 190, that the following statements relating to the Feminine Aspect of God are taken:
‘Wisdom was the first Conception (or Thought) of My Mind, the Mother of All, by whom in the beginning I conceived in My Mind the making of the Angels and Archangels. This Thought, leaping forth from Me and knowing what was the will of Her Father, descended to the lower regions and generated the Angels and Powers, by whom also the world was made. And after She had generated them, She was detained by them. As for Myself, I am entirely unknown to them.’
‘In the Unutterable Depth there were two Great Lights; the First Man, or Father, and His Son, the Second Man; and also the Holy Spirit, the First Woman, or Mother of all living. Below this Triad was a sluggish mass composed of the four great ‘elements’: Water, Darkness, Abyss and Chaos. The Universal Mother (Holy Ghost) brooded over the Waters. Enamoured of her beauty, the First Man and Second Man produced from Her the Third Great Light, the Christ. This was the right-hand birth of the Great Mother; but a drop of Light fell downward to the left-hand into Chaos. This was called Sophia or Wisdom, the World-Mother. By mere contact with the Space-Waters, she had already generated a son, the Chief Creative Power of the Sensible World. This son was called Ialdabaoth, who in his turn produced a son, and he another; till there were seven in all, the Seven Great Formative Powers of the Sensible World.’
3. The baptismal formula of the Marcosian Gnostics was as follows: ‘(I baptise thee) Unto the Name of the unknown Father of the universals; unto Truth, the Mother of All; unto Him who descended on Jesus; unto the union, redemption and communion of powers.’
Bishop Hippolytus, a disciple of Irenaeus, in his book of the ‘Refutation of All Heresies’, which was found in Mt. Athos in 1842, and which had been written about 222, speaking of an Ophite System of Gnosticism, reports of it: ‘There are three principles of the Universe: the Father, or Spirit, who is the Creative Power, called Elohim; the Good, or All-Wise Deity; and the World-Soul, called Eden, symbolized as a woman above the middle and a serpent below. From Elohim (a plural used as a collective for three or more) and Eden, twenty-four Cosmic Powers, or Angels, come forth: twelve follow the will of the Father-Spirit in the subtle worlds, and twelve the nature of the Mother-Spirit in the sensible worlds. The lower twelve are the World-Trees of the garden of Eden.’
The ‘Anonymous System’ mentioned above is a beautiful symbol of: 1. The Trinity on its own planes – divine, monadic, spiritual – as the Two Great Lights and the Holy Spirit, the Universal Mother; 2. The descent of God into the four lower planes, a dual descent – ‘the right hand and left hand birth’ – of the Dual Second Person, as Christ and Sophia, spirit and matter, masculine and feminine Aspects of God. This is a dual descent also in the sense that both the Second and Third Aspects are reflected in the lower worlds, ‘the Second Man’ and the ‘Universal Mother’, but not ‘God the Father, seen of none.’
This descent of the Dual Second Person into worlds lower than the triple home of the Divine Trinity is plainly seen in the Egyptian religion, in the descent of Osiris and Isis to reign as joint sovereigns. When Set, the darkness of the lower planes, captured Osiris, Isis followed and found Him – in the worlds of the ego, atma-buddhi-manas; and when Set once more captured Him and tore His Body to fragments in the still lower worlds of the personality – physical, astral, mental (worlds of separateness, farthest from the Unity), again Isis followed and found all the fragments. The Dual Aspect, Husband-Wife, is strongly stressed in this symbol.
Christianity, after the exclusion of the Gnostics, lost for many centuries all knowledge of God the Mother. During the Middle Ages it reappeared, clothed in a devotional rather than an intellectual form, as more suited to the blind faith and devotion of that period than was the abstruse conception of Gnostic cosmogenesis. Under the guise of the Lady Mary, Mother of Jesus, Christians once more reverenced the Divine Mother.
In the Liberal Catholic Church, Our Lady is being restored to something like the high position occupied by Sophia, the World-Mother, among the Gnostics. Indeed, we are told, that the office of World-Mother, Head of the Department of Motherhood on this earth, under the King of the World, is never vacant; and that during the Middle Ages, Mary, Mother of Jesus, attained to that great office. The object of this branch of the government of the world is to look after all mothers, because of the great work done by mothers and the terrible suffering entailed by motherhood.
A similar conception to the Gnostic idea of God the Mother as Divine Wisdom appears in Northern Buddhism, under the guise of Kwan Yin, the Compassionate Mother, feminine aspect of Padmapani, or Avalokiteshvara. Her name, Kwan Yin, implies ‘Hearkener of Cries’ or ‘Self-Existent Observer of the Sounds of the World.’ She hears and responds to every cry of pain; and so she is called by the Chinese ‘Great Love’, ‘Supreme Sympathy’. For China and Japan she is the representative of the Feminine Aspect of the Deity.
Like Our Lady of the Christians, she is often pictured holding a child, but that child is Humanity, and ‘symbolizes her readiness to give discarnate sufferers another chance by a speedy rebirth.’(2) She is also represented in the act of sending her babe from the realms of light down into this world of sorrow and tribulation. She stands in the midst of resplendent clouds, holding in one hand a willow-spray, while from a flask in the other there falls a drop of the water of wisdom, which will illumine the darkness of the lower world now about to close round her child. The drop expands into a bubble enclosing the babe, who looks back with yearning to his Heavenly Mother. She knows the toils and trials that await him; yet her inexhaustible love sends him forth, with sufficient wisdom to meet and master them, if he will; and so she smiles upon him as he sinks downward into the darkness below.
Many centuries ago, a heart-broken maiden of China sent this prayer to Merciful Kwan Yin; it may be seen today engraved upon her tomb:
Mother of Pity, hear my prayer:
That in the endless round of birth
No more may break my heart on earth;
Nor by the windless waters of the blest,
Drifting, drifting, I abide not anywhere.
Yet if by Karma’s Law I must
Resume this mantle of dust,
Grant me, I pray,
One dew-drop from thy willow-spray;
And in the double lotus keep
My golden heart asleep. (3)
In Hinduism, worship of God the Mother takes a different form. The Hindu Trinity is that of Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer, or Regenerator. Each of these Persons or Aspects of the Deity, in manifesting Himself in the universe, bodies forth His Power, or Shakti, in a Divine Consort. Here, then, the Divine Wife is emphasized rather than the Divine Mother; the Dual Personality, Husband-Wife, is stressed. It is the eternal ‘pair of opposites’, existing from God to atom: Purusha-Prakriti, Spirit-matter, positive-negative; for science has found the atom to be, not an ‘atom’, or irreducible unit, but a duality composed of positive proton and negative electron. Thus (1) Brahma, First Person of the Trinity, the Creator, manifests His Power through Sarasvati, Goddess of Knowledge, Learning, the Hindu Pallas Athene; (2) Vishnu, Second Person of the Trinity, Narayana, Hari, has as Consort Lakshmi, Goddess of Beauty and Love, called also Padma; Kamala; and Shri, the Lotus of the World; (3) Shiva, Third Person of the Trinity, Kala, or Lord of Time, the Destroyer; Lord of the Burning Ground; the Great Ascetic; Shankar, whose power once awakened in man burns away the lower nature and sets free the Divine Self within, has as His Consort Parvati, Goddess of Strength, whose symbol is the lion. She is called by many names: Uma Himavati, daughter of the Himalayas; Mai Kali, Lady of Time, the Destroying Mother; Gauri; Durga, the Inaccessible One; Sati, the Pure One; Bhagavati, the Holy One.
The Hindu consciousness does not think of male and female as separate. The Hindus have defined the human being as a man, his wife, and their child. Mr Jinarajadasa remarks that ‘so much is this association thought of as inseparable that, though Sri Krishna, the teacher of the great gospel of the Bhagavadgita, is an incarnation of the Male Aspect of God, sometimes He is called Radhakrishna, which has the name of His consort prefixed to His own.’(4) So too with Gaurishankar.
Egypt affords a unique opportunity to study the growth and development of religion, because its history covers so vast a stretch of time. The Egyptian religion in its very composite structure contains elements of all its stages of growth and of mankind’s attempts to represent God, beginning with primitive man’s zootypes (animal gods), passing through the intermediate stage marked by representations of animal-headed human-gods, to the purely anthropomorphic (human) gods.
This evolution is plainly discernible in the Egyptian conception of God the Mother. Far back in the mists of antiquity, the Sky-Cow, or Cow of Heaven, was the giver of all life. Between her feet lay the world of men, beneath her body stretched the sky, from her daily was born the sun. In course of time, this animal form altered to that of Nut, the Sky-Woman, whose bent body, legs, and down stretched arms encircled the world of earth and sky. Hathor was another very early form of the Great Mother, represented successively as cow, cow-woman, horned woman. In her later forms of Neith and Isis, she still wore the animal symbol, often bearing the moon between her horns.
Thus the Great Mother came down from antiquity as Sky-Cow, Nut, Hathor, Mehurt, Neith, Isis, Ta-urt, goddess of generation or rebirth, called the ‘Devourer of the Dead’, and other forms; but she is best known as Isis, second person of the Egyptian Trinity: Osiris, Isis, Horus – father, mother, son. It would be more nearly correct to define the Egyptian Trinity as Ra, the Unmanifest, pure, untrammelled Spirit, who was to the Egyptians as is to us ‘God the Father, seen of none’; Osiris-Isis, the dual Second Person, Manifested God, ‘cribbed, cabined and confined’ in matter; and Horus, their Son, the rise, triumphant God, who conquered Set, the darkness of matter, and became the Lord of Victory.
Not only was Osiris-Isis God, but also man; for this Second Person of the Egyptian Trinity – and it is always the Second Person in every Trinity who incarnates (becomes man) – descended upon earth, and reigned as Divine King and Queen among mankind. Osiris taught men to plough the soil, to cultivate fruit trees, and gave them wheat and the vine; while Isis taught women spinning, weaving and the healing art. Together they reigned for many years, until Set, the Evil One, the wicked brother of Osiris, came to their place and slew him by imprisoning him in a great acacia chest, which he set afloat upon the Nile and which drifted down to the city of Byblos (spirit descending from atma to manas, the realm of the soul, the ego.)
Isis, mourning and lamenting, sought Osiris; and at last found the acacia chest embedded in a great tree that had become a pillar in a king’s palace. She returned with it to the Nile, and by Her mighty Power restored it to consciousness. Then was born their son Horus. But again Set discovered them. He tore the body of Osiris into fragments and scattered them far and wide. This slaying and dismembering of God-Made-Manifest is the symbol found everywhere in exoteric religion to indicate the great inner truth of the One becoming the Many in manifestation (spirit again descending from the mental to the physical world, the realm of the body).
Once more the faithful Isis set out on her search, and one by one she found the precious fragments. When all had been collected, she swathed and bandaged the broken body, as all Egyptians afterward swathed their dead in the form of mummies; and she and her sister Nephthys tried by all their magic to restore the dead Osiris to life, but in vain. Then Ra, in pity, sent Anubis, his messenger; and he, making the third attempt, was successful, symbolizing that not as personality shall we find life, not even as ego (soul), but only as monad, spirit, can we truly live.
Henceforth Osiris ruled in the kingdom of Amenti, the Underworld. He is not Lord of the Resurrection; He is Lord of the Dead, the Mummified God; for He is God-in-Manifestation, Spirit immersed in Matter. It is in His Son, Horus, that He rises to victory over Set; that is, in Man Perfected; Man, Master of the Lower Worlds, the Adept, is the fruit of Manifestation in Matter. Osiris remains in Amenti, He continues to administer the lower worlds. He does not rise from the dead, but those fragments of Him which plunged down into the darkness, unknowing its properties, which have struggled and grappled with it through the ages in the various kingdoms of Nature, the Great Mother, till they are able to return consciously its master – the risen Horus, said the Egyptians; ‘hid in Christ with God’, says the Christian.
There have been many other forms of worship of God the Mother: Cybele, the Great Mother, Astarte, Artemis or Diana, Demeter, etc. Indeed, mankind’s recognition of the Motherhood of God appears to have been universal both as to place and time. And this is not strange; for Nature is the World Mother. Studying Nature, men learned of God the Mother.
Blessed art Thou, O Handmaid of the Lord!
Maia or Mary, Isis or Ishtar,
What matter how men call Thee? Every star,
Each planet, system, sun, moon, universe,
Doth know Thee, know Thy Power!
Each in its season that brings forth its young
Doth whisper, ‘Mother! Mother!’ With one tongue,
Creation utters a soft-breathed prayer:
‘Hail, Holy Mother!’ Thou art everywhere:
In all Creation is Thy Power felt,
By all Creation Thy great Name is spelt,
Through all Creation doth Thy Love extend.
Thou art Compassion, Man’s divinest Friend!(5)
1. G. R. S. Mead’s Fragments of a Faith Forgotten.
2. ‘Kwan Yin’, by the Rev. Spurgeon Medhurst, in The Theosophist, November 1921.
3. The ‘double lotus’ in China is the emblem of the happy union of two lovers.
4. The Law of Christ, a collection of Sermons delivered at Sydney in 1919 and 1922.
5. From ‘The Great World-Mother’, by Mary Bright.