Remarks given at the initial awarding of the annual Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill Endowed Faculty Fellowship and the announcement of the Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill Conference Room, Women’s Success Center, Utah Valley University, August 26, 2021

I am honored by the presence of vice presidents, deans, department chairs, directors, and faculty of Utah Valley University, and by my family and friends who have joined us today. What a delight it is to be with you to share a few things I have been thinking about. As I begin I would like to acknowledge the many scholars whose understandings and interpretations have contributed to these ideas.

For some time I have been curious about ideas of what a woman is, and where those ideas have come from. I have also been fascinated by the images of ancient goddesses, and wondered how their images have influenced thoughts about women through the ages and whether goddess images have any influence on how women are seen today by others and themselves. So, I decided to study ancient goddesses whose stories have been handed down in every culture from one generation to another for centuries. This was probably a huge mistake because to date I have found 2,725 different goddesses, with many of them taking on different forms over time. I am not sure I have enough lifetime left to study them all, but I love the journey.

I want to know how women have experienced goddess concepts, and whether or not we carry with us encoded memories of goddesses that like seedlings, take root here and there in our views of women and of ourselves. Along with Joseph Campbell, the important thing to me is “not whether women sat on thrones and rules in matriarchal social structures; it is whether the quality of Woman, the being of Woman, the sense of Woman was understood, known, and respected” (Campbell, 2013 p. 219).

Overall, I have found all kinds of goddesses. Generally, they have been credited with the development of agriculture by teaching their people how to plant and harvest. They have also been extolled as healers, dispensers of curative herbs, root, and plants. And, from time to time, they have tried to right wrongs, sometimes fighting for justice. I also found that each goddess was unique in her own way, with her own powers, and her own abilities.

There are so many stories I would like to tell you, but today I want to focus on three things about goddesses that have surprised me.

First, I was surprised that many goddesses are credited with bringing knowledge to their people.

Usas brought light personifying the dawn. She was a “beautiful, young, regal maiden rising across the sky in a chariot drawn by purple and white horses.” The light she brought with her stirs humankind at the start of each new day and “reflects the destruction of ignorance and the appearance of knowledge” (Foulston and Abbott, 2009, p. 46).

From Semitic peoples we have the Goddess Asherah who was considered the mother of all wisdom. In her sacred groves she taught the people carpentry, and with the clay of the earth she taught them how to build shelters from heat and cold and sacred shrines for worship. In this way, she taught them to anticipate what would come and to see into the future (Stone, 1991).

The Sioux goddess, White Buffalo Woman, was considered the most beautiful young woman “with red spots on her cheeks and clad in white buckskin that gleamed in the sun and was richly embroidered with porcupine quills.” She taught the people the sacred significance of things, how to pray and participate in the seven sacred rites. She explained to the women that the work of their hands and the fruit of their bodies kept the people alive and that they, the women, were as important as the warriors (Leeming and Page, 1996, p. 36).

Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, also known as the goddess of education, invited everyone to her feast of wisdom. Her seven handmaidens are depicted as the seven pillars of Wisdom’s temple and stand for: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy (Matthews, 2001).

An Aztec goddess is said to have brought knowledge of spinning and weaving: gifts for the eyes of painting and carvings; gifts for the ears of pipes and drums. She also taught her people about the cycles of life of the flower, from which they came to understand the flow of life eternal (Stone, 1991).

Nearly everywhere goddesses were revered as wise counselors and prophetesses. A Celtic goddess was the goddess of intelligence and knowledge, and the goddess of Ireland provided the wisdom of divine revelation, “while the Greek Demeter and the Egyptian Isis were law-givers and sage dispensers of righteous wisdom, counsel, and justice” (Stone, 1990, p. 4). And the Greek goddess Themis first taught of peace. She gathered the holy ones and spoke words of wisdom. It is said they listened carefully to each word of advice she gave, recognizing true wisdom’s voice (Stone, 1991).

Then there is Erzulie, who is honored in West Africa, Haiti, and New Orleans. She has a color and it is pink and “she is said to cry the tears of the world because people simply don’t do the right thing.” She encourages them to be better: “to be honest, truthful, respectful, considerate, and kind” (Dorsey, 2020, p. 95).

Yes, I was surprised: surprised that goddesses everywhere were involved in bringing knowledge to their people.

The second thing that surprised me was that some goddesses are credited with inventing writing.

Alphabets, especially the Sanskrit one, are often tied to old goddesses. Kali Ma, a Hindu goddess, wore a necklace of skulls around her throat, “and these skulls were inscribed with the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.” Stories say that Kali called these letters “mothers” because she was able to form words with the symbols (Conway, 2020, p. 85).

From Bridget, a Celtic deity, came “the Gaelic trick of painting pictures with words. She revealed that sounds might be turned into written marks, so that another many miles away could hear them with their eyes” (Stone, 1991, p. 64).

The goddess Sarasvati was known as the presiding deity of the arts: music, painting, carving, and especially associated with the acquisition of writing. She is said to have brought “the gift of language, the poetry and words of ancient knowledge.” She designed letters and holds tablets in her holy arms, known as the mother of the written word (Stone, 1991, p. 225).

The Sumerian goddess Nidaba was regarded as the deity of writing, preceding many male deities to whom this important cultural contribution was later credited. She also authored sacred laws, fifty decrees of righteousness by which humankind was judged. She created the stylus to press into the dampness of the soft flattened clay, thus preserving ideas in mortal minds for those yet to come (Smith, 1991).

Again, I was surprised: surprised that ancient goddesses are remembered for writing knowledge down so others could read it.

Scholars believe that goddesses represent powers that live in every woman in the world.

According to Joseph Campbell, deities are “personifications, metaphorical representations of the powers that are operating in our lives right now” (Campbell, 2013, p. 152). Many of the goddess stories speak of gold hidden in caves and mountains, representing the gold hidden in each of us, in you. In other words, goddesses are mirrors of you, representing the possibilities of your experience.

So, the powers of goddesses to bring knowledge and write it down must be reflected somewhere in your abilities.

Today we see and celebrate these powers here and there in one remarkable woman and then another. And these women are remarkable because they found their abilities, loved their disciplines, and fell in love with their ideas and their work . . . they brought knowledge. Furthermore, they could not deny giving voice to their contributions and wrote them down, not worried about whether or not they would be accepted. Rather, they were determined to bring their contributions to light.

But these are just a few women. Can you imagine the advances that could be made if all women realized their potential, the gold within them, and brought forth their ideas and findings to benefit all?

There is a story from India about the goddess Kali. All the gods, who were her children, had been impotent in slaying a monster called the Monster Buffalo. So, they stood in a circle and gave their powers back to their mother. A great dark cloud emerged and out of this cloud came the beautiful form of a goddess with eighteen arms, each arm holding one of the powers her child god had given back to her. With all of them together, she had sufficient power to slay the monster (Campbell, 2013). Note that it took a combination of all their powers to accomplish what needed to be done. And it will take female scholars together to do what we must do.

No woman by herself is too insignificant to matter; we need everyone.

I learned this from an experience I had some time ago.

For many years I lived in the middle of New York City, one block west of Tiffany’s and one block east of Carnegie Hall. The city never slept in midtown Manhattan. Lights were always flashing, cabs were always honking, and people were always laughing. One morning my husband and I awoke to total silence: no honking, sirens, or dogs barking. We were stunned! We looked out our window at a city buried in deep snow. We went out. There were no cars to obey the ever-faithful traffic lights turning red, yellow, and green again and again. Department stores and restaurants were closed, Wall Street was closed, schools and universities were closed. There was no one anywhere. As we walked along the benches of Central Park soaking in the quiet, I caught one little snowflake on my finger and watched it quickly melt before my eyes. I wondered how such a vulnerable little snowflake could transform such a magnificent city. Then I realized it was not just one snowflake; it was millions of snowflakes, together.

Together we have the powers we need, and what needs to be done is right in front of us.

Together we need to study, to research, to think, invent, design, and imagine our ideas. Together we need to create a substantive thoughtscape of feminine perspectives and feminine wisdom. The influence of a community of female scholars is desperately needed in every discipline.


Although we are standing on the shoulders of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, in every field it has been produced primarily by men, their research, their findings, their interpretations, and their histories. Consequently, our mounds of knowledge are dominated by the accomplishments of men and their perspectives. This has resulted in making our accumulated knowledge out of balance because it has not sufficiently included female perspectives. Women ask different questions, make unique observations, and come to different conclusions. We need a community of female scholars to round out and balance the bodies of knowledge and creative works we already have, thereby transforming them into more complete understandings. Only when women’s contributions are combined with men’s will our knowledge bases be transformed, take on new meanings, and lift our wisdom to new levels.

This brings me to the third thing that surprised me about ancient goddesses; goddesses were considered transformers.

In early concepts of the female goddess, emphasis was on the breasts and loins of the woman as a birth and fertility goddess. One of the earliest images of a goddess was carved from a green stone about 5800 BC and portrays her in two roles. She was “presented back to back with herself; on the left she is embracing an adult male, and on the right holding a child in her arms.” It was believed that she is the transforming medium that transforms semen into life. Hence, goddesses became known as transformers. Initially they were seen as physical transformers, but in time they began to be seen as enabling birth of the spiritual life in the individual. It was believed that it is through the goddess that the material life is transformed into the spiritual life. She was viewed as the source of inspiration, the muse. Some scholars believe this is the principal role of the goddess: she awakens in us our spiritual nature, which is our higher human nature, a life to be lived above the level of food, sex, economics, and politics (Campbell, 2013, p. 25).

I believe that one way you and I can become transformers is to make scholarly contributions. Then, coupled with male contributions, we will help to create unequaled wisdom and insights not available in the works of either males or females alone. I invite you all, and challenge you to bring forth new knowledge, write it down for generations to come, balance and expand our bodies of knowledge with your works, thus transforming our understandings of our world.

The purpose of the Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill Endowed Research Fellowship and the Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill Conference Room is to provide resources for you to do just that: research, write, and contribute.

I congratulate the Women’s Success Center for encouraging women to engage in these scholarly pursuits. And I congratulate professor Cherilyn Worthen, the first recipient of this Endowed Fellowship. Her project, Unsung Saints and Heroines, will develop female composers, conductors, poets, and dancers to amplify the perspectives of women.

I also want to express my deep, deep appreciation to all those who have made this endowment possible. And I thank each of you for sharing these few minutes with me celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Thank you.


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Full Citation for this Article: Ballif-Spanvill, Bonnie (2021) "Goddesses," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 3 (Fall 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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