Gracious and Cruel: Contemplations on the Great Mother

For a very long time, I have understood the Mother — the All-Mother, the Great Mother, the Great Goddess, or simply the Mother — as Freya or Frau Holda. For those interested, Varga wrote an intriguing post on Freyja here. To me, however, she is the heaven and earth itself, a goddess whose appearance is bedecked with moon-silver and chthonic gold. She is the spinner of fate, a queen who rules over the waters along with the dead. But, as I have come to learn later, Freya means ‘lady’. It is both a name and a title and a face, but not all that she is.

Although I do not adhere to the “all goddesses are one goddess” manner of thinking, I have come to experience the all-encompassing nature of she who I call Mother and the fluidity of her identity. As time went on, I found myself drawn towards the Vedas along with Buddhist-Hindu beliefs. I find myself catching glimpses of the Mother in the texts I read. What struck me immediately was how mercurial and synchronistic the gods and goddesses of the Hindu-Buddhist beliefs are. Soft polytheism, as one may call it, is a norm here. Deities are often avatars or aspects of other deities. In Hindu beliefs, Devi (whose name translates literally to means ‘goddess’) manifests herself in limitless forms, including that of Parvati, Kali, Amba, Lakshmi and Saraswati (Kinsley, 1988). In Shaktism (what could arguably be called a Buddhist-Hindu belief, associated with Tantric and Vajrayana Buddhism), the Divine Mother is approached as ten cosmic personalities: Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamalatmika (Shin, 2018). 

“Seen as a principle, She deserves Her many names. For while it is perhaps true that these epithets indicate that more than one female deity has been absorbed into Her character and that some of these epithets may be ways of explaining otherwise puzzling cult iconography or ritual, Her names, together, do finally described what She is — the vital principle of the visible universe which has many faces: gracious, cruel, creative, destructive, loving, indifferent — the endless possibility of the active energy at the heart of the world.”

Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess

Just as the universe can be painfully paradoxical, so can she. Gracious, cruel, creative, destructive, loving, indifferent: she is like the world she embodies. Her destructive and transformative nature is present in the way Chhinnamasta decapitates herself, only for her blood to flow like fountains, feeding her attendants the way death nourishes life. Her awe-inspiring wrath and nightmarish terror can be seen in the void-darkness of Kali’s flesh, the demon-head trophy she holds in her hand and the garland of skulls wreathed around her neck. I also feel a sense of familiarity when I meditate upon Aditi, a Vedic goddess often associated with Hindu Devi, for she is the personification of the infinite and the cow-mother of many gods.

Aditi’s name means ‘unbounded’, which could be translated more easily to mean ‘freedom’ (Oldenberg, 2004). As the fetters of sin and suffering threaten man, the Adityas (the gods who are the children of Aditi) are those who control these fetters. Thus, one prays to them to free oneself of these binds, and Aditi – the mother of the celestial gods – is the personification of boundlessness (Oldenberg, 2004). Additionally, in the Vedas, many gods are described to be “belonging to the water, celestial, earthly, born of cow” or more specifically, “born from Aditi, from the waters, from the earth” (Oldenberg, 2004). Moreover, Aditi’s association with the cow extends to ritual, sacrificial texts that warn individuals “do not kill the sinless cow, the Aditi” (Oldenberg, 2004). What better animal to represent the Mother than the cow? Cows give milk, the sacred substance that nutrifies life. Similarly, rain within the Rigveda is often referred to as milk, for rain is what feeds and sustains the earth. In many other religions, the cow too is a Mother, such as Nut of the Kemetic religion who is represented as a cow, or the Auðumbla, the primeval cow of Nordic beliefs.

When I think of the mother, I am reminded of the Madonna–whore complex. The Mother is not one thing or another. She is not a helpless wife whose power is to be dismissed, nor is she a blameless victim of sexism whose occasional callousness is to be ignored. The mother is death as much as she is life, something I often noticed to be either demonized or sensationalized when it comes to the Western (mainstream) audience. I believe this poem excerpt encapsulates the ever-changing nature of the Mother very well:

“I understand now, Tara, I understand:
You’re a master at magic.
However a person conceives of You.
You willingly assume that form.”

Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Benga

The Mother, to me, is a Witch Goddess as much as the Witchfather is. It is in my experience that should you make an uneducated assumption, she will play to your conception of her and exceed whatever box you’ve placed her in. How, then, could anyone connect with the Mother whose identity is complex and contradictory? The easiest answer, as I have learnt through experience, is through meditating upon her names and epithets. It is an act I am familiar with as per my initial background in Hellenic polytheism. My dear friend, Red, has also written about the importance of names here. It is believed in many societies that a name of the person or an object was directly related to the essence of the person or object (Benard, 2002). The evocation of a name is efficacious because the name itself holds power. This is one of the reasons why the power of words has always played a vital role in Indian thought (Benard, 2002).

According to Benard (2002), a name is a linking reference point between the deity in their saguna (form aspect) and their nirguna (formless aspect). Tulasidasa, the great bhakti poet, has said that “… the name acts as an interpreter between the material and the immaterial forces of the deity, and is a guide and interpreter to both.” Thus, by reciting the names of a deity one can: (1) become more familiar with the deity; (2) be protected by the deity, (3) receive blessings and experience the deity in their saguna form; and (4) be directed to the transcendent deity without form (Benard, 2002). However, it should be noted that even if the names given in various hymns and prayers such as the namastotra are the important ones, a deity cannot be fully described by any number of names as they are nameless and limitless. Names are an important access point, but a deity should not be reduced to their names or titles either.

The recitation of the namastotra (a name-praise) is a simple ritual which can be performed by anyone who wants to be closer to the deity (Benard, 2002). Ideally, as one chants the names of the deity, one contemplates the deity and identifies with all the aspects of the deity. This is a personal and intimate ritual which requires nothing costly, except time and devotion (Benard, 2002). One such example of a text which praises the name of a deity is the Lalitasahasranama, the thousand names of the mother goddess Lalita. As Lalita is a manifestation of the Divine Mother (Shakti), and the text is therefore used to worship other goddesses such as Durga, Lakshmi, Parvati and Kali as well (Wikimedia Foundation, 2022). Within the text are names/titles/epithets that are often contradictory. For example “she who has a form (Moortha)” and “she who does not have a form (Amoortha)”. Some other epithets are benign such as “she who gives redemption (Mukundaa)” whilst others are more wrathful such as “she who is very angry (Prachanda)”. An English translation of the Lalitha Sahasranamam can be found online here.

There also exists an inherent magical power to the recitation of holy names. By reciting their names, deities are believed to aid a practitioner and to become their source of help, strength, and encouragement (Benard, 2002). Likewise in the Atharvaveda, there is a belief that uttering a deity’s name will bring the deity’s protection (Benard, 2002). Similarly, the recitation of the name has a consecratory power and imparts a blessing conferred by the deity (Benard, 2002). In many of the praises of names, such as the Lalitasahasranama, it is said reciting the names will free the practitioner from evil, that all accumulated sins will be destroyed, and one will achieve prosperity, eloquence and whatever one desires (Benard, 2002). The recitation of names can also be spoken alongside the usage of prayer beads. According to Benard (2002), in the Bhakti Cult of Ancient India, it is stated that “to chant therefore the holy names with the help of the sacred rosary of beads […] may be then viewed as the essence of worship and the culmination of worship.” Furthermore, the Lalitasaharanama states that if one “mesmerizes” ashes with the thousand names and applies these ashes over a sick person, the person will be healed. Or, if water “mesmerized” with the thousand names is poured over a possessed person, the possessor will flee at once (Benard, 2002).

In my own practice, the Mother is associated with Venus and the Moon. These two planets hold many similarities, for they are both feminine and are from the same nocturnal sect. The fact that Venus is dignified in Taurus whilst the Moon is exalted in Taurus is also no coincidence. Hence, I would ideally pick 49 or 81 names to recite and meditate upon (for the 7 is the number of Venus and 9 is of the Moon) depending on my needs and circumstance. If others wish to adapt this method to connect with the Mother — whoever she is, for your Mother and mine may not be the same — then I fully encourage it. Just remember that the Mother has infinite names, and countless forms and faces. I would like to end this little post with an excerpt from Bernard (2002) on chapter eight of the Mahabhagavata Purana that emphasizes the multiplicity of the Mother.

Here, as relayed by Bernard (2002), Sati is portrayed as a dutiful Hindu wife asking her husband’s permission to attend her father’s sacrifice. Since they were not invited by Daksa. Siva insisted that she should not go. However, Sati insisted that they did not need an invitation because she was Daksa’s daughter. Since all entreaties failed, Sati decided to remind Siva that she was no ordinary woman but a powerful being with awesome aspects.

Sati thought (to herself), "Siva had received me as his wife by my choice but today he censured and slighted me. I will show him my power."

Seeing the goddess with her lips trembling with anger and her eyes blazing like the conflagration at the end of an aeon, Siva closed his eyes. Suddenly she displayed her terrible teeth in her fierce mouth and laughed. Observing this, Siva became very afraid and trembled with an averted face. With much difficulty, he reopened his eyes and beheld a terrible form. Abandoning her golden clothes, Sati's skin became discolored. She was nude with disheveled hair, a lolling tongue and four arms; her black body was covered with sweat. Decorated with a garland of skulls, she was exceedingly fierce and had a frightful roar. On her head was a crescent moon and a crown as luminous as the rising sun. In this terrific form blazing with her own effulgence, she roared and stood in all her glory before Siva. Bewildered with fright, Siva forsook her and trembling with an averted face, he fled in all directions as if deluded. With a terrific laugh, Sati roared and said to him, "Don't be afraid."

Hearing these sounds, terrified Siva swiftly fled in all directions. Seeing her husband overpowered by fear, Sati became merciful and having only the desire to restrain him, she appeared in a transcendent form in each of the ten directions. In whichever direction Siva fled, she was there. Seeing one terrible form, Siva ran in another direction in order to escape but he was always confronted by another one. Siva remained still and shut his eyes. When he reopened them, he saw before him the Dark One (Syama, which is another name for Kali), whose smiling face was like a fully-opened lotus. Nude with large breasts, with fierce, wide eyes, disheveled hair and four arms, she blazed like ten million suns as she stood in the southern direction.

Seeing Syama, Siva, overcome with fear, asked, "Who are you, O Dark One? Where is my beloved Sati?"

Sati replied, "Siva, do you not see that I am Sati who is before you. Kali, Tara, Lokesikamala, Bhuvanesvari, Chinnamasta, Sodasi, Tripurasundari, Bagalamukhi, Dhumavati, and Matangi are my forms.”

If disrespected, the Mother is prone to wrath. She is, however, still capable of mercy and kindness. Her forms, although beautiful, are also terrifying. Her sexuality should not be erased either. She is everywhere and within everything, all-pervading in her existence. I may not ever truly understand her and all her complexities. All I know, without doubt, is that she is my Mother.

(Before I truly finish this post, I also wish to give a shout out to Upyrica whose relationship with the All-mother has inspired me greatly and gave me the courage to pursue my path as well. ❤ )


  1. Benard, E. A. (2002). Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. Motilal Banarsidass. 
  2. Kinsley, D. (1988). Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-06339-2.
  3. Oldenberg, H. (2004). The Religion of the Veda. Motilal Banarsidass. 
  4. Sen, R. (1999). Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess. Hohm Press. 
  5. Shin, J. (2018). Change, Continuity and Complexity: The Mahavidyas in East Indian Sakta Traditions. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-138-32690-3.
  6. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022). Lalita Sahasranama. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from 

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Ivy Senna

occultist, animist and astrolater.

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