Durga is an ancient grain-and-battle goddess who, in latter times (post 400 C.E.), was identified as a member of the Kali- Sati- Parvati- Durga- Gauri- Ambika- Uma- Candi class of goddess, all of whom are formerly regional "great" goddesses later syncretized as aspects of "the bride of Siva." In recognition of her origin as a grain goddess, in many Indian villages her effigies are placed on mounds of clay into which five types of grain have been pressed and embedded. She is said to only visit the villages once a year, during her annual festival, when she takes a vacation from her husband Siva. She is also a patroness of soldiers, and in some places a special feast day is set aside during which her blessings are invoked upon military weapons.
As with all the other Hindu goddesses, there are many contradictory popular accounts of Durga's origin and exploits. One of the most common modrn tales of Durga's origin centers around her most famed feat, the killing of the man-monster Mahisha, who took the form of a bull and attacked the gods. It is said that for this battle, she was armed with the weapons of all the gods, non of whom could defeat the demon because he was immune to death at the hands of a male. The medal above is from Thailand and depicts her as a multi-armed warrior-protector, riding her lion (alternatively, her tiger) -- here reduced to house-cat size -- and carrying the weapons of all the gods (the discus, noose, arrows, goad, and so forth) eventually cut the head off the demon with her kartri and then stabbed him to death with a spear, sometimes, as here, shown to be identical with the trident or trisula of the god Siva, her husband and consort. This medal is about 1 1/2 inches high, cast in brass, with a hanging loop at the top.
In some male-centered tales, Durga herself did not exist until the threat posed by Mahisha caused all the male gods to donate portions of their life-force in order to create her. In these stories, Durga is said to have been formed from "the emanations of all the gods." Thus, she is seen as a lesser or junior member of the pantheon of deities.
In another variant, a Parvati-centered purana, Parvati's black skin did not take on life of its own as Kali but instead became filled with "the emanations of all the gods" and took on a life of its own as Katyayani, a kindly version of Kali, who rides upon a tiger or a lion, just like Durga, who arose from "the emanations of all the gods." Thus it appears that Katyayani -- like the Mahavidyas (the ten aspects of Parvati) -- was someone's theological attempt to synthesize Kali, Parvati, and Durga into one entity, while giving Parvati primacy.
Finally, in regard to Durga there is also an odd little magic number triangle that is her characteristic icon. It appears on dozens of Hindu devotionary prints and posters, usually below Durga's feet when she is shown riding her tiger (or lion) in her "beatific" pose. This little Durga-sigil often contains the word "Sri" inside, which links its origins to the worship of an ancient goddess named Sri, who now primarily identified with the goddess Laksmi as Sri-Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune and monetary luck.
Despite these cosmological inconsistencies, most of the wrathful Indian and Himalayan goddesses have in common an identification with blood sacrifices. In addition, many of their devotees attest to a deeply held belief that these goddesses are motherly and protective to any worshipers who can humbly surrender to them despite their fearful visages. In Nepal, Kurukulla/Kali masks are hung at doors and windows to protect family members. They are also a featured decoration in the households of devotees who wish to worship Durga, Kali, Parvati, Kurukulla, et al in a wrathful or fierce form.
Related pages of interest:
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- The Relationship between Luck, Protection, Religion, and Magic
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