Get to Know a God – Kali

The Hindu goddess Kali is somebody whose good side you want to stay on. On the one hand, Kali is seen as the benevolent protector of the innocent. On the other hand (or rather, one of the other hands), she has also been known to dance on the corpses of those she killed. She protects the innocent by wreaking vengeance and destruction on those who do evil, and she isn’t dainty about it.

Kali (her name means “time”) is often considered a scary figure, with dark blue skin, red eyes, and four arms, each of which holds a different symbolic object. She’s usually dressed in tiger skin and festooned with a garland of skulls, and carries a skull-topped staff, or a sword and a severed head. Sometimes, instead of a tiger skin, she gets dolled up in a skirt made of human arms. But don’t let her intense appearance fool you—beneath that ferocious exterior lies a profound message. The sword represents the power to cut through the illusions of Maya, the cosmic illusion that veils the true nature of reality. The severed head symbolizes the ego—the ultimate illusion that keeps us trapped in the cycle of suffering. Kali is showing us that liberation lies in letting go of our attachment to the false self, embracing our true essence. She represents the raw, untamed forces of the universe. Kali, as the goddess of destruction, is primarily concerned with destroying the illusions of ego and the shackles of attachment.

She’s usually portrayed standing with her right foot on her husband Shiva’s chest. This is a reference to a story about a time when she was on the battlefield and so completely enraged that she was on the brink of destroying the universe. Shiva laid down under her foot to break her focus and calm her. She’s shown sticking out her tongue, which symbolizes her insatiable hunger for truth, her unyielding thirst for knowledge and wisdom.

Kali and Parvati are two aspects of the same goddess; where Kali, the goddess of destruction, represents the raw and unbridled energies of creation and destruction, Parvati, the gentle and nurturing goddess, embodies grace, beauty, and love. Her story often revolves around her dedication to her spouse and her role as a loving mother to their children. Parvati and Kali may appear as contrasting forces, but they are not in opposition to each other. In fact, they are intricately intertwined and mutually supportive.

Like a lot of gods and goddesses, Kali has a number of other names. According to various Hindu traditions, Kali has 8, 12, or 21 different forms:

  • In Bengal, she’s Dakshinakali, the benevolent mother and protector of children.
  • Occasionally she shows up in a more advanced form (it’s like Pokemon; gods and goddesses can take different forms as they advance) as Mahakali (“Great Kali”), the manifestation of ultimate reality. The main physical difference being that Mahakali has ten arms instead of just the four. Also ten heads and ten legs, which might be a bit excessive to western eyes.
  • She sometimes takes the form of Samhara Kali, the embodiment of destruction. This is her most powerful form.
  • Other forms include Raksha Kali (form of Kali worshipped for protection against epidemics and drought), Bhadra Kali, Guhya Kali, Adya kali, Chintamani Kali, Sparshamani Kali, Santati Kali, Siddhi Kali, Dakshina Kali, Bhadra Kali, Smashana Kali, Adharvana Bhadra Kali, Kamakala Kali, Guhya Kali, Hamsa Kali, and Kalasankarshini Kali.

Lessons we can learn from Kali:

1. Embrace all aspects of yourself, including the unconventional and scary parts.

2. Seek the truth and be unafraid to confront your fears and illusions.

3. Step outside your comfort zone even if it frighten the neighbors.

Get to Know a God – Freyja

'Freyja and the Necklace', 1890. Freya, goddess of love, who wore a necklace as a sign of social status. Illustration from "Teutonic Myths and Legends" by Donald A Mackenzie, 1890.
‘Freyja and the Necklace’, 1890. Freya, goddess of love, who wore a necklace as a sign of social status. Illustration from “Teutonic Myths and Legends” by Donald A Mackenzie, 1890.

Freyja, described as  “the most glorious” of the goddesses, is usually associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, and a specific type of Norse magic called “seiðr” that involves both telling and shaping the future.

Freyja is generally referred to as the Queen of the Norse Gods, the wife of Óðr (Odin). The complication here is that Frigg is also known as the Queen of the Norse Gods and the wife of Odin the All-Father.

Freyja may or may not be the same goddess as Frigg. (That’s a debate that continues among Norse scholars and historians, but we’re going to leave them to it.) If you think Freyja and Frigg are two names for the same individual, simply substitute the name “Odin” for “Óðr” wherever it appears; the truth is, in Old Norse they are the same name anyway. If you think Freyja and Frigg are two different people, then simply assume that Odin and Óðr are also two different people; Odin is the king of the gods, and Óðr is the god of the mind and Divine Madness. Don’t fret too much about the fact that, like Clark Kent and Superman, they are two guys who look a lot alike and are never seen together even though they know all the same people.

Moving on.

Freyja’s a member of a group of gods known as the Vanir, who are known for their associations with health, fertility, wisdom, and the ability to see the future. The other pantheon of Norse gods is the more famous one, called the Æsir; they are the big guns: Odin, Thor, Loki, Baldur, all those guys. At some point, the Æsir and the Vanir have a big ol’ fight, but it ends up with a single unified pantheon, and they all live happily ever after. For a while.

For those keeping track, Frigg is a member of the Æsir; another way of separating the two.

The confusion seems to be reasonable, since Freyja has a lot of names, including Gefn (“the giver”); Hörn (“flaxen,” a reference to her blonde hair); Mardöll (“sea-brightener” or “the one who makes the sea swell”); Skjálf (“shaker”); Sýr (“sow,” pigs were an important symbol of the Vanir); Thröng and Thrungva (“throng”); Valfreyja (“Lady of the Slain” or ‘Freyja of the Slain”); and Vanadís (“the dís of the vanir”; dís translates to “lady” but usually refers to a ghost or spirit of Fate.) Freyja adopted most of these names  while traveling incognito looking for her wandering husband Óðr.

There’s also an epic poem, Lokasenna (part of a poem cycle called the Poetic Edda, in which both Freyja and Frigg appear. In the poem, after Loki and Frigg have engaged in the Norse equivalent of a rap battle in which Loki called Frigg a slut, Freyja chimes in and reminds Loki he is an idiot for bragging about being a terrible person and that Frigg knows everything about everyone, and he should be glad she doesn’t say everything she knows.

Loki turns around and says Freyja has no room to talk, since everybody knows that she’s done the Horizontal Mambo with every god and elf in Asgard, including her brother Freyr; Freyja calls him a liar and says he just wants to brag about his own misbehavior, and so it goes. Eventually, Njörðr, Freya’s father, pipes up and says nobody cares who Freyja has gotten busy with, because everybody does it, and besides, Loki is every bit as much of a slut as Freyja. Njörðr calls Loki pervert, and reminds everyone that Loki has actually given birth to children. (Loki once transformed into a mare and got busy with a stallion from Jotunheim, after which he gave birth to an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, who became Odin’s favorite mode of transport. Yeah, Odin took one look at his grandson and said “I’m going to put a saddle on that kid.” The Æsir are weird, man.)

When she’s not spreading love, fertility, beauty, and gold, or messing with the future, what Freyja mostly does is sit around weeping tears of red gold because her wayward husband spends more time outside Asgard than at home. Óðr/Odin is a travelin’ man, the Ricky Nelson of Asgard.

Freyja’s necklace, named Brisingamen, turns up in a number of later literary works, including Beowulf, The Silmarillion, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Rocannon’s World, and as a Yu-Ki-Oh! card.

The story goes that Freyja, who was by this time a temple priestess and the concubine of Odin, happens upon a group of dwarfs forging a necklace that she thinks is just the prettiest thing she’s ever seen, and she offers to buy it. The dwarfs think she’s just the prettiest thing they’ve ever seen, so they tell her they have plenty of gold and silver, but she can have the necklace if she’ll give each of the four of them a roll in the hay. Freyja goes for it, gives them each a night to remember, and heads back home with her new jewelry. She doesn’t mention her adventure to anyone.

But somehow Odin got wind of it. Okay, “somehow” means Loki ratted her out.

Odin told Loki to bring him the necklace, so Loki transformed into a fly to sneak into her bed-chambers without using the enchanted doorway that nobody could pass through without Freya’s permission. He saw she was sleeping with the necklace on, so he turned into a flea and bit her cheek, which caused her to turn over, and he was then able to get to the clasp and open it. He slipped the necklace off her and made a hasty getaway.

In the morning, Freya found her enchanted doors open (apparently it allows people to leave without permission), and knew instantly what had happened. She went straight to Odin and tells him off for sending Loki and demanding the return of her jewelry.

Odin tells her that considering how she got it, she’s not getting it back, then decides on a complicated task for her to complete to earn it back; she has to get two kings to go to war, each with 20 kings under them, and enchant them all so that every time one dies in battle he will get back up and keep fighting, and this will go on forever until a Christian man of a particular stature goes into the battle and kills them hard enough that they stay dead. Freyja agrees. I think it’s safe to say that this last bit was thought up after Christianity started making inroads in the North and there was a desire to make the Norse gods look bad.

Another of Freyja’s hobbies is collecting the souls of the dead slain in battle, bringing them to her personal plane of existence, Fólkvangr. She has a deal with Odin; half the dead warriors go to Odin’s Valhalla, the other half to Fólkvangr. This indicates she may have some association with the Valkyries, depending on who you ask. Or maybe Frigg does.

A lot of different species of plant in Scandinavia were originally named after Freyja, but eventually most of them were renamed in honor of the Virgin Mary, who also got credit for everything previously attributed to Freyja except the naughty bits. She got to keep those, winding up in the local folklore as something of a floozy, though she also stayed active as a fertility goddess to rural swedes well into the 1800s. There are about 30 places in Norway that incorporate her name into theirs.

In Värend, Sweden, the tradition held that Freyja would arrive at Christmas night; she used to shake the apple trees to produce a good harvest and consequently people left some apples in the trees for her sake.

After a few centuries, Freyja came to be seen as more or less the Norse version of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. She also lent her name to the calendar; Friday is Freyja’s Day, because everyone likes to get an early start on the weekend.

Lessons aspiring goddesses can take from Freyja:

1. Don’t let anyone try to shame you.
2. Don’t be surprised if somebody else gets the credit for your work.
3. Know when to tell the future, and when to shape it.

Get to Know a God: Coyote

Coyote is watching you.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Coyote is that most entertaining of gods, the trickster. Like Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, Coyote takes the traditional role, beloved by Shakespeare, of the “wise fool” who uses his wits to gain the upper hand. (indeed, he invented the role.) Sometimes he uses his gifts for his own enrichment, but often he finds delight in handing out sweet justice, most especially by visiting disaster on people who have it coming. Coyote can often be found puncturing the self-important, destroying the greedy, humiliating the vain.

He often uses his cunning on behalf of mere mortals, but more often trips himself up, finding that he’s not always as smart as he thinks he is.

There are dozens of trickster gods in the various pantheons, ranging from the mostly-good-hearted Anansi to the more malicious Loki, but Coyote is a pretty good example of the middle of that spectrum. Most often, Coyote’s efforts involve subverting the status quo in order to gain an advantage, sometimes for himself, but often on behalf of man, whom he seems to like and care for. In the most common story, Coyote, like Prometheus, is involved with the creation of humans, and steals fire from the Great Creator in order to give it to man. Unlike Prometheus, Coyote is not punished for his act.

Common to the myths of most of the Native tribes of the American Southwest, Coyote sometimes serves the role of court jester, with other gods (and man) being alternately entertained or irritated by his stunts, especially the self-serving ones. When he’s provoking the other gods, it’s usually meant to oppose some injustice toward humans, such as taking water from the Frog People, or stealing the sun from the gods and sharing it with man. At other times, he plays the clown who falls victim to his own schemes, as illustrated by his famous descendant, Wile E. Coyote.

Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
Curses! Foiled again!
Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner are © and TM Warner Brothers. Used here under the Fair Use Doctrine for educational and journalistic purposes.

In some parts of North America, Coyote may take the form of a rabbit, a fox, a crow or raven, and many of his stories bear striking similarities to African and European characters like Anansi the Spider and Reynard the Fox.

Coyote is on a mission.

Some Native traditions hold that laughter is essential to any contact with the sacred; According to Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, people could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.

For the beginning god, Coyote offers several tips:

1. The best way to defeat someone stronger is to trick them into messing up their own plans.
2. It’s fun to be a smartass.
3. Be careful that you’re not actually fooling yourself.

Get to Know a God: Zeus

Zeus of Otricoli”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century. From the villa of Cassius near Tivoli.Zeus, the Greek god of the sky and thunder (in Rome he was called Jupiter), is proof that being a god does not require any sort of moral center or principles, because boy howdy, this guy’s a piece of work. He could probably blame it on bad parenting; his dad went to extreme measures to avoid fatherhood, because he assumed his kids would be as rotten to him as he was to his old man.

Zeus’ pop was Kronos the Titan. Kronos’ dad was Uranus, ruler of the universe, who was kind of a jerk. When Uranus’ wife/mother, Gaia, gave birth to some weird ugly kids, he packed them off to the underworld so he wouldn’t have to look at them. This ticked off Gaia enough that she asked her son Kronos to get involved. Kronos used a sickle to castrate Uranus the next time he showed up at Gaia’s place for a booty call.

Later, after Kronos took up with his sister Rhea, Gaia told him that his kid would take him out the way he took out Uranus, so Kronos decided that the best way to prevent that was just to swallow every kid his wife/sister delivered. Rhea was a bit put out by this, so when kid #6 (Zeus) arrived, she gave birth in secret, hid the kid, wrapped up a rock in a blanket, and handed it over. Kronos swallowed the rock and was none the wiser. Rhea had Zeus raised on the island of Crete, either by his grandma Gaia, or by a nymph named Adamanthea, or a goat named Amalthea (reports vary). If he was raised by a goat, that would explain his later romantic exploits.

The Jupiter de Smyrne, discovered in Smyrna in 1680.Eventually, Zeus grew up, came home, and made the old man barf up his two brothers (Hades and Poseidon) and three sisters (Hestia, Demeter, and Hera ). He then promptly married Hera. They became the parents of seven gods and goddesses (Angelos, Ares, Eilethyia, Enyo, Eris, Hebe, and Hephaestus), but Zeus fathered about a hundred other gods, demigods, nymphs, sylphs, and the occasional monster, with a few dozen random women, because the dude just can’t keep it in his toga. He also hooked up with at least one guy, Ganymede, who earned the distinction of being the only one of Zeus’ paramours to be granted immortality (today he’s the constellation Aquarius).

Naturally, Hera was more than a bit put out by Zeus’ side-action; she usually lashed out at the other women instead of blaming her errant husband. Depending on who’s telling the story, either Hera turned Io into a cow, or Zeus did, so as to hide her from Hera. There are a lot of these sort of interludes, with Zeus disguising himself as everything from a swan to his daughter Artemis in order to get close to some pretty girl. Somehow he always got away with it.

Zeus was a pretty popular god among the mortal set, mostly because he had a soft spot for humans. As the god of the sky, he was more often kindly-disposed toward people than one might expect from a guy who was also the god of thunder; there are surprisingly few accounts of him smiting folks with his thunderbolts, despite being frequently portrayed wielding them in paintings and statues, but there are many tales of him taking pity on weary travelers and those in need.

For you as an incipient god, the lessons to learn from Zeus might include:

1. Be nice to the peasants.

2. Don’t let toxic family relationships and bad upbringing set the course for your later life.

3. If you’re going to cheat on your wife, you have to be ready to support all those kids.

4. Use your godhood responsibly.

Get to Know a God: Bastet

Statue of Bast


BastetThe goddess Bastet (sometimes called Bast) is familiar to anyone who has ever lived with a cat; the cat-headed goddess of the eastern Nile Delta represents both the docile and the vicious, just like your own cat.

On the docile side, Bastet is protector of the home, hearth, women (particularly pregnant women), and children. She’s friendly and affectionate with those she loves. In her vicious aspect, her original persona as a lioness, she is a fierce fighter, the war goddess and protector of Egypt, a relentless predator who kills without mercy and takes delight in it. Just like your cat.

Also like a cat, she’s nocturnal, which connects to the moon. Her son, Khonsu, is god of the moon. In her lioness persona, she’s associated with sunlight, since she is the daughter of Ra, the sun god. Again, just like a cat, she spends her days lying in the sunshine and her nights hunting.

Statue of BastBastet doesn’t have a mother; Ra is seen as embodying both genders and is both mother and father to her and his other offspring. Sometimes Isis is identified as her mother, but this is because Bastet is said to be the personification of the soul of Isis.

The Egyptians weren’t really in the habit of telling epic tales about their deities the way the Greeks and Romans did, so the stories of Bastet’s exploits are relatively few; the best-known is her killing of the evil serpent-god Apep. Dude had it coming.

Bastet’s temple was in the city of Per-Bast (in Greek, Bubastis) on the eastern side of the Nile. Her spring festivals were a precursor to the parties you used to see in those old “Girls Gone Wild” commercials. According to Herodotus,  during the Festival of Bast, “more wine is consumed than during the whole of the rest of the year.” Picture thousands of drunken crazy cat ladies (and the guys who are into that) having a party. Now imagine that going on for a few weeks at the world’s biggest Spring Break. We can see why Bastet was popular in Egypt.

Things we can learn from Bastet:

1. Gentle does not equal weak.

2. It’s possible to be playful and affectionate and a stone-cold killer.

3. Don’t blame yourself for the excesses and shenanigans of your followers.