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Although the village goddesses are typically characterized as protecting, ordering, and instituting village civilization, they also have a reputation for behaving in disruptive, violent, and dangerous ways, particularly during festivals held in their honour. This is particularly clear during festivals in honour of village goddesses during epidemics. Many village goddesses are specifically associated with diseases, and during epidemics they may play several apparently contradictory roles. They may defend the village from the disease, which may be identified with invading demons. They may be identified with the disease itself.
Or they may be cast in the dual role of inflictor of the disease and protector from the disease. In whichever role, village goddesses during these festivals reveal an awe-inspiring, disruptive, violent aspect. Like the disease itself, the village goddess seems to erupt on the scene, to wake up from a state of quiescence to a state of frenzied activity. During an epidemic, or during her festival, which often coincides with an epidemic, the village goddess forces herself on the awareness of the villagers(26).
The goddess’s presence is as immediate, as real, and as disruptive and threatening as the disease that attacks the village. In fact, the two usually are inextricably related. In the case of Shitala, the North Indian goddess associated with smallpox, the disease is said to be her “grace.” Except in times of smallpox epidemics, Sitala is quiet, withdrawn, perhaps beyond human ken(27).
Traditionally, village-goddess festivals were not undertaken regularly or routinely, although this seems to be the increasing pattern in some places today. Festivals were only held and the goddesses were only worshiped when some disaster, usually an epi- demic, struck the village. Such disasters are taken to represent either the presence of demons in the village because the goddess’s defenses have broken down or the anger of the awakened goddess, who is demanding worship by punishing her people for neglecting her for so long.
From either point of view, or from both points of view simultaneously, during the festival the village is overcome with the immediate presence of the goddess. At this time she makes herself unmistakably known, particularly in the fever of disease victims and in those she possesses.
The theme of the relationship of an epidemic or a disaster to the invasion of the village by hostile demons from outside echoes the mythic theme of the goddess’s mistreatment by males in the society. In the festival context the goddess confronts and overcomes the demons, and in this struggle she is helped by the villagers. While the villagers are struck down and overcome by the demons and suffer fever and sometimes death, the goddess too is said to become possessed, afflicted, or somehow invaded by the demons. Both she (in the form of her image) and the villagers afflicted by the epidemic are cooled with water and other substances, and in cooling one victim it is understood that the other is treated as well. It is as if the two are suffering the invasion of the village together.