As amazing as it sounds, a bird we now call “silly” was once a goddess so powerful she could (and did) create the mighty sun in the sky. One way to drain power from transcendent symbols is to wage smear campaigns against them. In medieval Europe, the Church turned people against Pagan deities by erecting statues of them in town squares and paying people to hurl rocks at the statues. It seems obvious that if Europeans had not been vigorously insistent upon worshiping these deities it’s unlikely the Church would have gone to this kind of trouble to get rid of them.
It’s also obvious that the goose became “silly” only because she was so intrinsically and numinously powerful. Her power extends far into the past. To the pre-patriarchal ancient Egyptians, the sun was created by a goddess who turned herself into a goose and then laid “the golden sun egg,”1 and in Old Europe, several millennia before the birth of Christ, goddesses in the form of geese watched over birth and destiny. Later, around 600 BCE, images of goddesses holding rabbits or geese were widespread in Greece, France, and southern Germany.2 Moving forward to the first century BCE, Caesar informs us that the ancient Celts were forbidden to eat the goose—due to its sacred connection to “the Sun Egg.”3
Just like Mother Goose, the Greek goddess Aphrodite rode through the air on the back of a goose. About this the archaeological record is clear: On the side of an ancient cup from Athens, the Greek Pixtoxenos Painter showed Aphrodite sailing through the sky on the back of a white goose, and a terracotta figurine from Tarentum, Italy, dating to around 380 BCE also shows her riding on the back of a goose or swan, this time with her son Eros. Other examples come in the form of a statue of Aphrodite with a goose at her feet and a drawing on a Celtic tile from Roussas, in Drome, France, showing her winging along on the back of a giant bridled goose.4
Geese were still powerful down into and through the European Middle Ages. The Germanic goddess Perchta had the foot of a goose; geese were supposedly ridden by witches; and according to Jewish folk religion from medieval Germany, Northern France, England, Austria, and Poland, anyone who killed a goose between mid-December and mid-February already had one foot in the grave.5
Eventually, however, the goose was battered and crushed into something as sacred as pocket lint. By the time Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the goose was not only not too sacred to eat, it was the main course for the most sacred of Christian holidays. From being a goddess so powerful she birthed the sun, the goose had sunk into a “silly goose,” responsible for the “goose egg”—no longer the celestial sun, but a large and painful lump on the top of one’s head.
In short, few other birds have suffered the kind of humiliation heaped upon the goose. This is a sure indication, however, of the extent of her former glory. The effort poured into ridiculing and degrading this bird is testament to the immense power she once held over people and to the fact that, for many of our ancestors, she was the epitome of beauty and all that was sacred and holy. I believe she was so powerful, in fact, that she still survives today—but in code. She survives in the form of an innocuous and seemingly inconsequential literary figure that holds sway over the hearts and minds of almost all Western children: Mother Goose.
- Neumann 1991.
- Gimbutas 2001: 178.
- Green, 1986: 114.
- Benard and Moon 2000: 17; Dexter 2011: 189, Figure 7; Johnson 1988: 77 and Figure 89.
- Trachtenberg 2004: 258.
Benard, Elisabeth, and Beverly Moon. 2000. Goddesses Who Rule. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Dexter, Miriam. 2011. “The Monstrous Goddess: The Degeneration of Ancient Bird and Snake Goddesses into Historic Age Witches and Monsters.” 2011. The Journal of Archaeomythology Vol. 7, pp. 181-202. Accessed November 21, 2013
Gimbutas, Marija. 2001. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Green, Miranda. 1986. The Gods of the Celts. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble.
Johnson, Buffie. 1988. Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Neumann, Erich. 1991. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Trachtenberg, Joshua. 2004. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.