Divine Grandmothers in Myths and Folklore

Divine Grandmothers in Myths and Folklore January 12, 2022

Archetypes of the mother and the grandmother are some of the most sacred ones in all cultures. Life would not exist without mothers. In myths and legends across the world, we can find powerful grandmother figures. They represent the crone aspect of womanhood and had dual roles being connected to aging, dying nature and to the powers of the underworld. These grandmother goddesses are caring, wise, supporting and powerful matriarchs. Like grandmothers are in real life.

Grandmothers of the North​

The saami´s, native people of Lapland of Scandinavia worshiped a goddess called Madderakka. She was the embodiment of the earth. Madderakka and her three daughters were mainly worshiped as goddesses of giving birth and creators of life. According to the legend, Madderakka received the soul of the child from Radien the god of community. It was her job to give the breath of life to the child and connect child´s body and soul together. Samoyeds worshiped a goddess called Kodanakkagoddess who makes the earth and the kuola-saami´s into a goddess called mändir-ähken which means grandmother of father or mother. Mändir-ähken was an ancient grandmother who had been buried in the ground. She was worshiped by the female members of the family asking her to assist them in giving birth.

Akka Finnish Goddess of the Earth

In old Finnish language, Akka was an honorary term that was given to a woman who had reached very high age. There are areas in northern Finland where words akkaand akku mean grandmother but in modern Finnish akka mainly means an old hag? What happened?

​The story of Akka began 7000 years ago when Baltic tribes arrived in southern Finland bringing their gods and goddesses with them. The character of Akka is partly based on Lithuanian earth goddess Zemyna and Madderakka of the saami´s. Very little is known about Finnish Akka. She goes by many names. Maannakka, Maanutar, Manteretar. All these names are derived from the word maa meaning earth. Akka mantereenalanen is a common title used in spells and it means the woman who lives beneath the earth. Akka was the goddess of earth, soil, and vegetation. She was the creator of snakes and worms (mato). It was believed that during matopäivä day of the snakes (spring equinox). Akka woke up after the long cold winter and all snakes woke up from their hibernation and danced in her honor. Worship of snakes was very common in ancient Finland and in all Baltic countries. Akka´s spouse was Ukko god of the rain, thunder, fertility, and community. She had a daughter called Manua spirit of the dry land and her sons were earth spirits called mantu´s. Sacred tree of Akka was the rowan tree.

It is suspected that the cult of Akka was destroyed in early Middle Ages when Christianity arrived in Finland. For a long time, Catholicism and pagan customs were practiced together. Akka emerged into Virgin Mary as the giver of all life. At the same, her image changed from a wise grandmother into an old evil hag. Same happened to Louhi Finnish goddess of the moon and shamanism who was downgraded to become the goddess of death and the underworld. In many myths, roles of Akka and Louhi are intertwined together. Akka´s spouse Ukko became UkkoYlijumala (Ukko the highest of the gods) and equivalent to Christian god.

Baba Yaga The Mother Of Witches

The character of Baba Yaga appears in many Russian folktales. Most famous one of them is Vasilisa the fair. In the story young girl Vasilisa is sent to house of Baba Yaga by her wicked stepmother. Who secretly wishes that the witch would eat the girl. Witches house is guarded by three riders of death and her servants are three pairs of cut of hands. Baba Yaga gives pointless tasks to the girl. She is respectful towards the witch and doesn´t ask too many questions. In the end, Baba Yaga rewards the girl. Her stepmother and stepsisters get burned into ashes and Vasilisa marries a prince.

In the story, Baba Yaga is not either good or bad. She has no children but Vasilisa always addresses her as the grandmother. Baba means both grandmother and old woman and Yaga means a witch. She appears as an ugly old woman. Her house is wooden hut and it stands on a pair of giant chicken legs. It has no windows and the gates are made of human bones. Baba Yaga flies in a magical mortar. She is the goddess of the hearth, the domestic kitchen witch who knows secret ingredients of plants and herbs.

​Finding Slavic pagan tales from pre-Christian times can be challenging because Orthodoxism arrived in Russia already 1000 years ago. Expressions such as Mother Russia and symbols like the nesting doll refer to Russian tight-knit family culture. Bigger nesting dolls birth to smaller ones like Babuska the grandmother has given birth to new generations. Worship of mother earth in Russia is mainly based on the beliefs of different ethnic groups like the Mongols, Turks, and Samoyeds who all worshiped mother earth as one of their most important deities. Russian culture was deeply influenced by the early Greek civilization. Baba Yaga is an archaic figure who represents desolation, chaos, and destruction and at the same time, she is the goddess of growth, re-creation, and eternal wisdom. She is a surviving image of the Greek goddess Hekate, the goddess of witchcraft. Hekate in her original form was the goddess of the universe, nature, and death. One of her aspects is Persephone, goddess of spring who eventually became the goddess of the underworld. Like Persephone who embraces Hekate, her dark aspect, Baba Yaga is unapologetic. She is not ashamed of her age, her appearance, neither she cares what other people think of her.

Mother Of The Mountains

​Cailleach is a Celtic goddess who was widely worshiped in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland in Pre-Christian times. Her origins, however, are in southern Europe. Archeological and genetic evidence makes clear that the Irish Celts migrated from Iberian Peninsula. Folklorist Sorita D´Este has suggested that origins of Cailleach can be traced into the island of Malta. In the island of Gozo there is a temple that was built between 3600-3000 BC and it was told be built by a giant Sansuna. She was told to be carrying a supporting stone of dolmen in her hands. This dolmen has a long history of use as a delivery stone by pregnant mothers. Her myth is connected to series of migrations of people from Spain to Ireland and from Norway to Scotland, where it was told that Cailleach or Carlin the giant woman, arrived from the north with stones in her apron creating the Scottish islands.

Women Who Doesn’t Reveal Her Age

​First literal mentions of Cailleach in Ireland mention her old age. She is told to be older than Biblical floods. Some sources even go as far as tell her having fifty children and seven husbands being the founders of all tribes of the world. Word Cailleach has several meanings including an old woman, hag, crone, the veiled one. It is possible that Cailleach has roots in the old priestess cult. In Scotland, Cailleach Mhor Nam Fiadh was the deer woman. She is connected to the element of water and healing wells which were common associations to priestess cults. In Celtic traditions, gigantic size was often seen as an indication of supernatural powers and the divine nature. This also hints to a priestess cult and large statues of Cailleach which could have been exaggerated over time.

In most legends, Cailleach shapes the landscapes. She created mountains, lakes, caves, and rivers. Her old appearance reflects the age of the earth and the age of our planet. Cailleach is told to bring winter and snow with her. Mentions of Cailleach as the winter goddess is not found outside Britain but she shares similarities with Germanic Goddess Frau Holda or Holde who created snow by shaking her apron.

Divine Grandmother​

Seasonal tides of the year have become associated with the ages of human life. In the springtime young maiden dances carefree and beautiful. She matures into an old crone of winter. A cycle that reflects the seasons upon the earth. Fairytale of Baba Yaga tells about the maiden accepting the crone aspect within herself. Across cultures old age has been connected to witchcraft. In Fairytales we come across two kinds of grandmothers. Little Red Riding Hood´s kind and caring grandmother and the cannibalistic hag witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Yet the image of the grandfather is missing. The archetype of an old wise wizard is never attached to a woman and rarely he has children. This is a reflection of patriarchal societies of past. The divine grandmother is the mother nature herself. She is not to be tamed or controlled. In nature, time loses its meaning. Everything dies to be reborn again. Life is a constant cycle that keeps recreating itself.


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