This is an excerpt from our recent ‘RudraGanika – A Study In Eternal Return As Manifested Through The Sky Father’s Female Retinue Across The Indo-European World’ : looking at one of the ways in which this typology persisted in later Indo-European religion.
In this case, in the form of the Matrika clade that accompany Rudra – and often His Son, Skanda / Kartikeya – to war.
You can find the full-length piece this is drawn from here –
Art, as ever, by our excellent associate, HC – and I’m rather amazed at how he’s managed to skillfully integrate recognizable characteristics to various of the later-prominent specific Matrikas into this rendering !
The Adi Female Alpha
The obvious question confronting us here is if the Vedic texts are so pronounced in their hailing of the female Retinue of Rudra – where is this Retinue to be found in the subsequent annals of scripture? Did it become de-emphasized and simply drop out of common knowledge for some reason?
Of course not. In fact, if anything, the opposite occurred. The female figures in question were regarded with such incredible esteem that over a period of centuries they became identified as expressions of the Goddess themselves. This is the aforementioned trajectory of development correctly identified by Sayana which sought to connect the Ugana of the Sri Rudram with the SaptaMatrikas of the later Shakta-Shaivite corpus.
This occurred alongside an ‘intermediary’ yet also ‘parallel’ stage wherein the female coterie of Rudra became hailed as the ‘Matrikas’ – the Mothers. Which has therefore meant that while it seems quite likely that the SaptaMatrika concept is a furtherance of what has occurred with the ‘Matrika’-ization of Rudra’s retinue (or, rather, a ‘corralling’ of several already-extant Goddess-expressions into such a semi-coterminous clade *with* the Matrikas and thusly labelled accordingly) – the impressive Seven Mothers have never displaced the more general Matrika clade. We still find Them just where They have always been – in various realms of scripture, in accompaniment of the most formidable of War Gods. The Mahabharat presents a Matrika retinue for Skanda / Kumara ; we might sensibly ponder whether certain female retinues of Durga are likewise linked ; but for our purposes, we are of course focused in upon those Matrikas Who Ride in accompaniment to Rudra.
One very prominent occurrence of this expression is to be found in the work of the famed poet, Kalidasa.
To quote from the Griffith translation of his Kumārasambhava [‘The Birth of the War-God’]:
“The Matrons [Matrikas] followed Him, a saintly throng,
Their ear-rings waving as they dashed along —
Sweet faces, with such glories round them shed
As made the air one lovely Lotus bed.
On flew those bright Ones — Kali came behind,
The skulls that decked Her rattling in the wind :
Like the dark rack that scuds across the sky,
With herald Lightning and the Crane’s shrill cry.
Hark ! from the glorious bands that lead the way,
Harp, drum, and pipe, and shrilling trumpet’s bray,
Burst through the sky upon the startled ear
And tell the Gods the hour of worship ‘s near.”
Now this is rather curious, because what we see here is Kali accompanying Lord Shiva … as Lord Shiva goes to meet His Bride – Parvati, the Daughter of King Himavat. An appropriate mythic occurrence to cite here as it is, of course, in large measure what MahaShivRatri is all about. Except whereas these days the more contemporarily-familiar expression for the Bhole Ki Baraat [armed wedding procession of Lord Shiva] is to be found in human devotees adorning themselves as the fearsome BhutaGana [‘Ghost Company’] and parading through the streets in accompaniment of a Shiva murti as an act of Eliadian Eternal Return / mythic resonance … here, as we can see, in the archaic perception there was also scope for our *female* mythic coterie of Rudra to be present in the wedding processional as well.
And we shall also address the broader scope for Eternal Returning and mythic engagement later in the piece.
To return to the perhaps under-expected scenario of Kali in amidst these Matrikas, this is enormously instructive as to the true nature of what these fearsome female figures really are.
These are, in essence, the ‘Shaktis’ of Rudra (per Manasataramgini’s, and no doubt others’ analysis; which also posits these as the effective underpinning of the Yogini & Tantrika Kaula traditions) – and hence, are continually there even when the major locus of Shakti, His Wife, is separated from Him. Kali, we might suggest, is there as a sort of ‘Shadow-expression’ of Her likewise. We may also healthily opine that what is observed via the array of terms utilized to describe the female Gana members in the AtharvaVedic and YajurVedic scripture – is that these are all, in essence, traits we would often associate with their Lord, Rudra.
The female retinue members are, therefore, embodying traits of Rudra in just the similar manner that other Ganas of Rudra elsewhere in the Shruti are said to. Indeed, we may consider them in some ways to be expressions of Him likewise. Something which certainly comes through in the later materials which detail the mythic origins of the RudraGanikas (whom we shall be meeting shortly) as His Daughters, as well.
To briefly return to the situation of the Matrikas in Their subsequent development, what we also see is a trend whereby what are general qualities in the Vedic expression are ‘focused’ into characterizations for specific individual members of Rudra‘s associated sphere in subsequent texts. The figure of Kesini presents a clear exemplar – being a particular individual Matrika both in service of and congealed by Rudra, whilst also bearing the name closely coterminous with that utilized to describe Rudra‘s female Ganas via that quality in the Vedas. I suspect that this typology is also in evidence in some of the Western Indo-European (i.e. European) situations we shall be considering later on – in particular, certain of Odin’s Valkyries, who would appear to bear names directly commensurate with generalized qualities of both the archaic Vedic female Ganas of Rudra, as well as, one supposes, the general milieu of Valkyries within the canons of the Nordic / Germanic mythic perception.
However, it is also necessary for us to acknowledge another point of key resonancy here. The Wife of the Sky Father is resonant with Him in various traits – They are counterparts, co-expressive, and in our terms, a unity that is a greater whole viz. Ardhanarishvara … the re-combination of which is, in part, what we are celebrating tonight. It is therefore entirely logical that just as these female Ganas of Rudra bear traits which are identifiably, indeed iconically Roudran – so, too, do we see various of these traits also in Her.
The presentation of Kali at this point in Kalidasa’s verse is exactly this – a Goddess-form Who is widely renowned for Her traits that we have earlier met in the Shruti in application to these female Roudran retinue-members: ‘Resoundingly Voiced’ (indeed, outright *Roaring* – viz. RudraKali) [Ghoshini], ‘Wild-Haired’ [Keshini or Vikeshi], ‘Devouring’ [Sambhunjati], (Piercingly) Well Armed [Vividhyanti] and ready to attack [Ugana], etc. … it is a salient comparanda.
Indeed, it is a situation wherein what we in truth observe is that She is (also) the archetypal apex for the typology which these other female figures are, to some degree, co-expressive of. A leader, a commandant, of the clade in question as well. Ever alongside Her Husband – whether Her or He is necessarily overtly spoken of as present or not.
And whilst Kali may present the obvious exemplar here, it is a pattern persistently found – when Shiva appears in Kirata form alongside a legion of His female retinue in the Mahabharata – He and they are accompanied by Uma, likewise in Kirata form as are the retinue. Similarly, if we consider the figure of Vikesi, we once again see a trait which is identified closely with Rudra’s female Ganas in the AtharvaVedic hymnal aforementioned … and which comes to demarcate a naming for a form of Rudra’s Consort in the later scripture (indeed, interestingly the Mother of Mars / Mangala by Shiva as Sarva (‘The Archer’), and represents an Earth form Herself of notably frightful appearance).
In terms of the broader Indo-European typology at play here, we may observe immediately the situation of Perchta / Holda / Holla (and it is particularly interesting to consider a potential alternative etymology there wherein ‘Holla’ etc. might instead derive from the *other* PIE *Kel, the one which also underpins Kali in Sanskrit) acting as Leader of the Wild Hunt in the (Continental) Germanic sphere. Not for nothing do we find Holla as ‘Frau Wodan’, etc. in such a context. In various regards, one supposes, we may also speak of those other Goddess-expressions Whom one can link to Odin – Skadi, as we know from previous analysis upon the subject, is both a Huntress, and a ‘Black Avenging Form’ in the same fashion as Kali relative to Parvati (indeed, Skadi is also very prominently a Mountain dweller as well); Freyja, meanwhile, rules over a counterpart realm to Valhalla in the form of Folkvangr – it should seem eminently logical that just as Valhalla has its Valkyries and Einherjar, Freyja might possess similar linkages.
Similarly, we may also point toward the situation of ‘Melia’, a consort of Apollo. There is an identically named figure occurrent as consort to Poseidon. We have earlier demonstrated significant ‘resonancies’ between both Poseidon and Apollo with Rudra, so this should be unsurprising in the extreme. Although the reason that the Meliae (plural – also seen as Meliai) had come to my attention most pointedly was due to their featuring so prominently within the war-procession of Dionysus. There, the Meliae present as, we might say, ‘Spear-Nymphs’; the term in Ancient Greek enjoying a multi-faceted resonancy of direct relevancy to our pursuits here. We shall be meeting this ashen clade, too, in due course – however it seemed eminently appropriate to ‘signpost’ at this point the parallel occurrence of this identification of the God’s Consort as an ‘apex’ of the female retinue. We may perhaps surmise that the figure of Thyia, another consort of Apollo (and yet also, again, per Pausanias seemingly romantically linked to Poseidon), as an archetypal / apex expression of the Thyiade (‘Priestess’ – Female Sacrificer) clade most usually encountered in the worship of Dionysus, to be likewise.
Yet let us return to the most fascinating ‘broader’ expression of the typology.
Namely, the one wherein it starts to emanate out into our human, sidereal, mortal realm.