Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Goddess Maia

Pronounced May-ah, the Goddess Maia appears most commonly in Greek and Roman mythology but is typically represented as a fertility goddess associated with spring and the month of May.

In Greek mythology, Maia is the eldest of the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. She was said to be the most beautiful of all of the daughters but was shy and chose to live alone in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia and is therefore sometimes referred to as a mountain nymph. The God Zeus fell in love with Maia while he was married to Hera. Zeus met with Maia secretly in her cave where, according to the Homeric Hymn they were “unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep should hold white-armed Hera fast."

Maia fell pregnant to Zeus and gave birth to Hermes. One night while Hermes was still an infant, (in some stories on the very night of his birth) after Maia had wrapped him in a blanket and fallen asleep, Hermes crawled out of the cave and went to Thessaly where he stole some of Apollo’s sheep and hid them in his mother’s cave. Apollo was enraged by the theft and confronted Maia who showed him Hermes who, as an infant, should not have been capable of such a deed. Apollo was not satisfied, however, and appealed to Zeus, who sided with Apollo and declared that the sheep should be returned to Apollo.

During this debate, Hermes invented the lyre using a turtle shell, which he was playing when Apollo returned to the cave to reclaim his sheep. Apollo was instantly enchanted by the lyre and exchanged the stolen cattle as well as other gifts for this new and wonderful instrument.

Maia is also sometimes referred to as the “Grandmother of Magic” due to her son, Hermes, having been the one to discover and master this art.

Other than Hermes, Maia had no other children of her own but she was charged by Zeus to raise his son, Arcas, when his wife, Hera turned Arcas’ mother, Callisto into a bear upon discovering Callisto and Zeus’ affair. Arcas is thought to be the namesake of Arcadia, which is a region of Greece in the Peloponnesus.

Maia and her sisters Taygete, Elektra, Alkyone, Asterope, Kelaino, and Merope were turned into doves by Zeus. In some stories this was said to be deliverance from the pain they felt at their father, Apollo’s punishment following he and his brother, Menoetius, siding with the Titans in their war against the Olympians in the Titanomachy (or War of the Titans). As a result of his involvement, Zeus ordered that Atlas to stand at the western end of the earth and hold up the heavens on his shoulders (not the earth as is the common misconception due to later artistic interpretations). In other stories, the transformation into doves was deliverance from the pursuit of Orion. As doves, they flew into the heavens and turned into stars to form the Pleiades in the constellation of Taurus.

As a Greek goddess, Maia’s name is given to mean “great mother”, "midwife", "female doctor", “nurse”, "good mother", "foster mother", or "aunty". As a Roman goddess, however, Maia is also called Maia Maiestas, meaning the “good goddess”, “great or powerful”, “more” or “she who is great”. Other names for Maia in Roman mythology include Bona Dea, Fauna or Ops and she is celebrated as the Goddess of Spring, typically on the 1st of May but also sometimes on the 15th of May, which is also the date of her son, Mercury’s, dedication of his temple (NOTE: Mercury is the Roman name for the God Hermes).

Maia was often associated with Vulcan, sometimes as his wife, as both were deities of heat – she in terms of the increasing natural heat of the earth at the commencement of spring and he in terms of fire and volcanos. In ceremonies held on the 1st of May, a pregnant sow was often sacrifices by the priest who oversaw the rites of Vulcan, however some sources indicate that a sow-shaped wafer could be substituted. The choice of the sow represents the fecundity (pronounced fi-kuhn-di-tee, meaning fruitfulness, fertility and also referring to the capacity to produce many offspring) of the earth and therefore of the goddess Maia.