elogo - Exemplary Childrens Literature Project for Scholarly Education
Mother Goose
Petra Mathers
elogo bottom Mother Goose: A Scholarly Exploration
what makes a Mother Goose a Mother Goose?
the nursery rhymes
Mother Goose visual challenges
life and history
Late 18th Century
Early 19th Century
Mother Goose in America
Early Iconography
Appendix A
Appendix B
zimmerli art museum
emergent literacy
social & political uses of Mother Goose
advertisement and imagery
digitization of early nursery rhyme books
an early Mother Goose play
mother goose online
research pathfinder
external resources
Appendix B
The Earliest Figurational Ancestors of Mother Goose

Paleolithic Bird Goddess

Figure 1 - Paleolithic Bird Goddess

"Upper Paleolithic female nude with pendulous breasts, wings for arms, and birdhead mask overpainted with 'macaronis.'
Pech-Merle (Cabrerets), Lot, S. France. H c. 70 cm. Painted with fingers; probably Magdalenian. She predates by some 10,000 years the Neolithic Bird Goddess, with bird heads of masks and with large breasts."

  • Gimbutas, Civilization of The Goddess, 230

Neolithic Bird Goddess
Figure 2 - Neolithic Bird Goddess

"Two views of the Bird Goddess's head with massive nose, coffee bean eyes, neatly combed hair with a bun. Sesklo culture, from Achilleion near Farsala. Found in temple dated to 5900-5800 B.C."

  • (Gimbutas, Civilization of The Goddess, 231)

Sumerian Lilith
Figure 3 - Sumerian Lilith

Lilith, Terracotta relief, Sumer c. 2000 BCE

  • (Neumann, The Great Mother, 126)

Adam McLean notes that Lilith appears in Judaism as "the promoter of erotic dreams and nightmares, and the destroyer of little children" (McClean, 97). This is a useful precis of her function, but might be usefully expanded upon. Adam's first helpmeet, Lilith was formed from filth and sediment rather than the dust that formed Adam. After an uneasy marriage, Lilith rebelled and left Adam, which moved him to complain to God. When found and threatened with death for her disloyalty, Lilith haughtily replied, "'How can I die, when God has ordered me to take charge of all newborn children: boys up to the eighth day of life, that of circumcision; girls up to the twentieth day?" God punished Lilith by "making one hundred of her demon children perish daily."
(*Alpha Beta Diben Sira, 47; **Gaster, MGWJ, 29 (1880), 553 ff.)

Lilith's animosity toward children is picked up elsewhere. Hieronymus, a fourth century Greek commentator, identified Lilith with Lamia, a Libyan queen deserted by Zeus, and then robbed of her children by Hera. In blind revenge, Lamia robbed other women of their children. Graves and Patai report that in Jewish communities a circle was drawn with natron or charcoal on the wall of a birthroom to protect a newborn child, particularly if he was a male. The words "Adam and Eve. Out, Lililth!' were written within the circle. If the sleeping child happened to laugh in his sleep, it was thought that Lilith had somehow succeeded in approaching the child, and was fondling him. The wary guardian or parent could banish Lilith and avoid catastrophe by striking thee sleeping child on the lips with one finger.

Writing in The Hebrew Myths, Robert Graves and Raphael Patai note that 'Lilith' is usually derived from the Babylonian-Asyrian word lilitu, but appears earlier in Sumerian mythology as 'Lillake,' on a 2000 B.C. tablet from Ur containing the tale of  Gilgamesh and The Willow Tree, which identifies her as a fertility goddess. Graves and Patai also usefully suggest that popular Hebrew etymology derived 'Lilith' from layil, night. The authors interpret the midrashic accounts of her sexual promiscuity to mean that Lilith had been a fertility goddess.

  • (Graves, Hebrew Myths, 12, 65-69)

Lady of the Beasts
Figure 4 - Lady of the Beasts

Bronze hydria, Greek, 600 B.C.E.

  • (Neumann, Great Mother, 135)

(See following commentary (fig. 5) on Boeotian Aphrodite for additional notes about "Lady of the Beasts.")

Figure 5 - Aphrodite

Terra cotta, Boeotia, Classical Period

  • (Neumann, Great Mother, 137)

Erich Neumann interprets the airborne Aphrodite as a symbol of humanity's maturing ability to control its creatural side and to recognize a deeper, spiritual nature. He finds evidence for this liminal moment in the shift from configuring the "Lady of the Beasts" as an animal to configuring her as riding or standing beside it. He writes, "Later . . . she ceases to 'be' the goose itself, but rides on it or wears its symbol on her cloak. . . . At this higher stage, she becomes a goddess in human form, ruling over the animal kingdom." To her task of presiding over animals, Neumann adds that "The Lady of the Beasts" had the care of the male, whom she domesticates, thus founding ". . . the first human culture." Finally, as "Lady of the Beasts," the Goddess symbolizes the continum that stretches between the instinctual world of the unconscious and the highest forms of psychic reality. (Neumann, 276-280)

Aphrodite 2
Figure 6 - Aphrodite 2

Aphrodite riding a goose. Rhodes, 470-460 B.C.E. Photograph by
Laurie Platt Winfrey. Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

  • (Pratt, Dancing With Goddesses, 110)

Maria Gimbutas writes that "Aphrodite Urania ... was portrayed as flying through the air standing or sitting on a goose or being accompanied by three Geese" (Gimbutas, Gods, 149). Alluding to Gimbutas's notions of an Old European Water Bird (see figs 1-2 above), Paul Friedrich notes that Aphrodite appears to be a humanized and "rationalized" descendent of "a female goddess which incarnated the creative principle" (Friedrich, 11). Annis Pratt enthusiastically finds Aphrodite's association with water fowl an important confirmation of her identification with "female sensuality, love, and lustfulness," and argues that the later arrogation of swan imagery to male gods exemplified the degradation of uncontrollable female sexuality (Pratt, 111-112).

Sources Cited in Graves/Patai's Hebrew Myths

*Alpha Beta Diben Sira
Two versions, one (a) in Aramaic and one (b) in Hebrew, of alphabetically arranged proverbs with explanations, attributed to Jesus ben Sira, author of the apocryphal Eecclesiasticus, but, in fact a much later compilation. Quoted by folio of Steinschneider's edition, Berlin, 1858.
**MGWJ: Monatschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums.
The foremost German Jewish scholarly journal. Appeared from 1852 to 1939, in Dresden and later in Breslau.

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