Lily of the Goddess

Water Lilies. Photo by Derek Harper.

Water Lilies. Photo by Derek Harper.


The lily is the symbol of the Hebrew great goddess Asherah. Although her cult was heavily suppressed, we know about this goddess from archaeology and passing references from her detractors. The lily is also sacred to Juno, the Latin goddess of being or essence. Recall from the earlier article about Juno that in the form of a lily she impregnated herself with her son Mars. Marija Gimbutas found lilies among the many recurring symbols in the archeology of Old Europe. Usually these images are painted on pottery, but one terra-cotta frog with a lily head from the sixth millennium B.C.E. is quite similar to an image Gimbutas found of wooden frog lily on a nineteenth century Lithuanian tombstone.

The lily has survived as a religious symbol in Christianity with a totally different meaning. The resurrection of Christ by the Father God is symbolized by the Easter lily, and the white lily also symbolizes the purity (as in asexuality) of the Virgin Mary.

Madonna Lily. Photo by Maciek Godlewski.

Madonna Lily. Photo by Maciek Godlewski.

The lotus is the Eastern equivalent of the lily and has historically been considered a close relative. Biologists say that despite the similarities between the true lily, the water lily and the lotus, these plants are unrelated and developed along different evolutionary lines. Nevertheless all three are involved in similar creation stories. In Hindu religion the world emerged from the womb of a golden lotus. This lotus was called Matripadma, and was a manifestation of the goddess Lakshmi, worshiped today as the bringer of wealth and good fortune.

Just as Christianity changed the lily-goddess in the Mediterranean, Buddhism changed the lotus-goddess in the East. In this case the function of lotus as creation source remained the same, but the sex of the lotus creator became male. As Padmasambhava, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara created himself from a lotus. Avalokitesvara is the most important figure in Buddhism next to the Buddha himself. The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text describing his teachings and his 33 manifestations. In China “he” manifested as the bodhisattva Kwan Yin (Guanyin). Feminists have speculated on what native East Asian goddess may have been merged with Avalokitesvara to become Kwan Yin. Not to discredit the conflated deities hypothesis, it might not have made sense to people introduced to this lotus self-generating deity to conceive of Avalokitesvara as male, if they associated the lily/lotus — not to mention birth — with the Great Mother. (Notice the lotus in the left hand of the Kwan Yin statue in this previous article.)
Lakshmi standing on a lotus holding lotus blossoms in two hands. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma.

Lakshmi standing on a lotus holding lotus blossoms in two hands. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma.



Is the lily part of a shared creation myth that stretches very far back in pre-history, or did these myths develop along separate evolutionary lines like the flowers themselves? Certainly the lily belongs with the Goddess religions, and we should not be shy about taking this symbol back, despite its prominence in Christianity and Buddhism.


Sources

Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion. Boston: Shambhala, 1977.

Douglas, Nik and Penny Slinger. The Secret Dakini Oracle. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1979.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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One Response to Lily of the Goddess

  1. Britomartis says:

    Very interesting! I had not really thought to look into other flowers mythologically related to the lily like this.