Altar for Saraswati, Mangalore Kudroli Temple, Karnataka, India
Several years ago, a close friend of mine gave me a gift that altered my inner perception. It was a small bronze cast of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and wisdom. She sits atop a lotus flower, and in her four hands she holds objects which symbolize her purpose: a pustaka (holy script), a mālā (holy beads), and a veena (musical instrument). The particular pustaka she holds is the Vedas, which are the Hindu holy scripts representing the universal, divine, eternal, and true knowledge. The mālā represent the power of meditation, inner reflection and spirituality. The veena, which she holds in the foreground, represents all creative arts and sciences. Saraswati is also associated with anurāga, the love for and rhythm of music and its power for emotional expression.
“Saraswati” is a Sanskrit fusion word of Sāra (सार) which means essence, and Sva (स्व) which means “one self”: Saraswati, then, means “essence of one self”, or ”one who leads to essence of self knowledge”. This idea, which has long been my personal prerogative, and my personal human embodiment as a female musician, makes me feel very close to the Goddess Saraswati. When I received this gift I was struck with an inner resonance, and studying her more only confirmed and expanded my feeling of closeness with all that she symbolizes and represents. This aroused me to learn about other ancient Goddesses and Muses of music and the arts.
In Japan and China, the Buddhist Goddess Benzaiten is honored as the goddess of everything that flows: water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music, and by extension, knowledge. She is often depicted holding a traditional Japanese lute called biwa, just as Saraswati holds a veena.
The Egyptian Goddess Hathor was also considered a deity of music, love, dancing, joy and fertility — the columns which support her temple in Dendera are shaped like the ancient Egyptian musical instruments called sistra. She was also honored as the deity of the menat, which were rattles played by women during worship of the gods.
In Egypt, the famous cat Goddess Bast (or Bastet), was the sensual goddess of music, dance, perfume, and she also represented the protection of pregnant women and children. The highly sensual rituals performed in her temples were designed for healing, protection, and insuring fertility, and were full of music and dancing. The priestesses of Bast are widely considered the first “strippers”, famous for their erotic dancing.
The Celtic Goddess Cerridwen was the Goddess of moon, magic, agriculture, nature, poetry, music, art, science and astrology. She rules the realms of death, fertility, regeneration, inspiration, magic, enchantment and knowledge. Medieval Welsh poetry refers to her as possessing the cauldron of poetic inspiration — (the name “Cerridwen” derives from the Celtic word “cerru,” meaning “cauldron”).
Xochiquetzal is the mythological Aztec Goddess of beauty, pleasure, music, dancing, flowers, fertility, agriculture, and female sexual power. She extended her patronage mainly to artists, lovers, prostitutes, weavers and craftspeople.
The Yoruba people of West Africa worshipped Oshun, the Goddess of love and the sweet waters, the protector of the poor, the mother of all orphans, the healer of the sick, and the bringer of song, music, dance, prosperity and fertility. She taught the Yoruba the songs, chants and meditations of divination.
And of course there are the famous Mousai, or Muses, who were the Greek goddesses of music, song and dance, and the source of inspiration to artists. The most ancient works of art only reveal three Muses, all with musical instruments such as the flute, the lyre, or the barbiton — but this later expanded into nine, including Kalliope (the Muse of epic poetry), Polymnia (religious hymns), Erato (erotic poetry), Euterpe (lyric poetry), and Terpsichore (choral song and dance). These Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, born in Pieria at the foot of Mount Olympus — their most commonly understood power is that of delivering creative visions to mortal poets in the form of divine inspiration. Poets would invoke the power of the Muse in order to receive these gifts of grace.
Ancient polytheistic religions expanded beyond one source creator, and allow us to honor and resonate with the various aspects of the intelligent universe — in this case: music, beauty, love, fertility and knowledge. I appreciate having access to a rich human global history of philosophy and spirituality, through which I can access my own personal connection and reflection with sacred symbology. It is beautiful to me that many of these Goddesses of art and music are also benevolent representatives of knowledge itself — which reveals again the intrinsic relationship between universal knowledge and music.
Photo By Karunakar Rayker (originally posted to Flickr as Magnificient altar) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]