Many religious and philosophical traditions have given death a feminine face because the things most feared by the “masculine”dualistic ego are associated with the feminine principle. For example, if the sun and bright light of day are associated with safety, the Father God, life, and consciousness, then the moon and darkness are related to danger, Great Mother, death, and the unconscious.
In Greek mythology death is seen as the daughter of night and sister of sleep. Demeter, the Greek mother goddess of life, also has the power of death. When Hades will not return her abducted daughter Persephone (who symbolizes the death of innocence), she refuses to let anything grow on the earth, thus causing famine and death. Only when she is reunited with Persephone, who is now married to Hades and therefore the goddess of the underworld, does Demeter allow the earth to be fertile again.
Hinduism’s black goddess Kali, the Mother of Eternal Time, is similar to the Nigerian Yoruba goddess Oya, the Polynesian goddess Pele, and the Aztec snake goddess Tlillan, all of whom represent the creative and destructive breathing of the universe. In her “corpse” aspect Kali is shown with a fleshless rib cage. She is also depicted as a horrible hungry hag who feeds on the entrails of her victims. As a bloodthirsty warrior arrayed in blood and a necklace of human skulls, she dances on the corpse of her husband, Shiva, to celebrate her victory over her enemies and signify the ongoing process of creation. We’re talking serious fear of feminine power here!
While none of this is literally true, of course, it is nevertheless very real to the psyche. The death goddesses and their myths are, in part, metaphors for loss: the loss of youth and innocence, of important roles and relationships, of personal power, of fertility. In dreams as in life, death symbols point to the outworn attitudes and assumptions we need to slough off, like a snake shedding a tight-fitting skin so it can keep growing. They are reminders to take our inner lives seriously and examine beliefs that deny reality; for instance, that our honest feelings and emotions are unworthy and pretending and conforming will bring happiness and fulfillment; or that keeping rules, performing certain spiritual practices and attending worship services regularly will keep us safe and protect us from pain and death.
Resisting the Mistress of the Dead just brings Old King Ego more fear and pain; but surrendering to her brings freedom. Tolerating the tension of our suffering without dulling it with dogma and drugs or escaping through addictions and denial eventually brings the gut-level realization that if we really are going to die someday, we might as well live more honestly and fully in the meantime. To quote Kris Kristofferson, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The death of the fearful old ego is the supreme liberation and a prerequisite to a psychologically whole and spiritually mature ego. In descending to the Mistress of the Dead, we, like all dying goddesses and gods, acquire greater wisdom and power because kissing the false self goodbye and welcoming the truth connects us with the sacred Mystery. As Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols notes, death “is also the source of life — and not only of spiritual life but of the resurrection of matter as well. One must resign oneself to dying in a dark prison in order to find rebirth in light and clarity.”
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.