Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ever wonder why Ishtar, Cybele, Rhea, and other aspects of the Great Goddess ride lions?

In a recent post, we discussed the rising constellation Leo in the evening sky, prior to midnight. The Lion will be seen in a vertical angle rising into the sky behind Cancer (difficult to see) and the Twins (easy to locate -- see also this previous post for the location of Gemini the Twins). You may also want to look for the familiar figure of the Big Dipper to the left of the Lion in the sky (for viewers in the northern hemisphere), also vertical and roughly parallel to the Lion, not far away, with its bowl pointing upwards and its handle downwards towards the horizon.

As the chart above indicates, if you wait for Leo to rise far enough, you will be able to see the red planet Mars near the base of the constellation of the Lion. If you can wait still later, you will see the large and important constellation of Virgo the Virgin rising behind Leo. The moon is currently near this constellation (and making things somewhat difficult to see), as is the planet Saturn.

For help seeing the outline of the constellation Virgo, see this previous post. The brightest star of Virgo, Spica, rises above the horizon around midnight, for observers at the latitude 30 N.

The presence of two planets near Virgo makes spotting this constellation especially rewarding right now, but there is even more to the story.

Have you ever wondered why so many goddesses in mythology are described as riding on a lion, riding in a chariot that is pulled by a lion, or sitting on a throne flanked by lions? Take a look at the sky chart above, and see that the constellation Virgo follows the constellation Leo, and then ask yourself the same question again.

These goddesses were extremely important in ancient mythology, and usually are identified as different aspects of the same goddess (given different names by different civilizations or languages). This goddess in her many civilizations and under her many different names was often given the title of the Great Goddess, or the Queen of Heaven.

In ancient Greece, the goddess (or Titaness) Rhea was often shown seated on a throne flanked by lions. The same goddess was also known as Cybele (often called the Earth Mother) who was also associated with lions and closely identified with Rhea by scholars. Cybele is usually described as originating in Anatolia or Phrygia. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar was also closely associated with lions, her symbol, and the Ishtar Gate of course features lions. The Sumerian goddess Inanna is often identified with Ishtar, as is the Ugaritic Ashtoreth or Asherah.

In India, the goddess Durga is often depicted riding on a lion to slay her enemies.

Here is a website discussing these various manifestations of the Great Goddess and their association with lions. It contains numerous excellent examples of images of this goddess from various cultures.

In spite of the great volume of literature written about this extremely important goddess in the ancient world, very few historians appear to make the connection that the fact that Virgo follows Leo probably accounts for the fact that this goddess either rides in a chariot pulled by a lion or rides on a lion herself.

However, if you go out and watch the constellations of the night sky over the next several weeks, you will be able to see it for yourself.