Kali is a Hindu goddess whose worship as a war deity goes at least as far back as 600 CE. She was originally of special importance to tribal and low-caste peoples and was closely associated with blood sacrifice. Her temples were frequently located near the homes of low-caste families or cremation grounds. In this aspect she is a fierce and frightening goddess of death and destruction who wears severed human heads and body parts as ornamentation.
In other sacred writings she is the killer of demons and with her spouse, Shiva, she is the creator and destroyer of worlds. As a goddess of death she triumphs over death and can be seen as a goddess of salvation whose worship conquers the fear of dying. When the worship of Kali spread to Bengal, she began to be honored for her motherly characteristics. In one mythological story Kali, after winning on the battlefield, begins a frighteningly violent dance. It is only when her husband Shiva, in the form of an infant, cries out in fear that she stops her destructive dance and comforts the child. This aspect of the goddess is reflected by devotees who consider her to be the Mother of the Universe. In her deadly form she can also be seen as a benevolent protector of those unable to defend themselves.
Another myth of the frightening dancing of Kali, that takes place after a battle, goes that as she danced existence shook so violently that the gods asked Shiva to intervene. He first asks her to stop dancing but she, being in ecstasy, does not notice him and continues her destructive dance. It is then, after Shiva lays himself down among the corpses of the slain to absorb the shock of the goddess’s movements that she steps on her husband and is ashamed of her carelessness. This story reflects the development of the inseparable connection between Kali and Shiva. Her wildness is uncontrollable and only Shiva can calm her and this expresses the complimentary nature of the two. The most common image of Kali, being that of her standing on the apparently dead body of Shiva, is linked with this story. It also relates to the idea that Shiva is powerless without Kali. He is the divine consciousness but she is the divine energy from which everything flows. As one foot is over his heart the other touches the Earth, allowing for the passage of energy through Kali, who purifies it, and then back into the Earth.
In the eighteenth century certain poets pioneered the idea of Kali as the Great Mother. This is a stark departure from her previous incarnations as she is completely without violence of any kind. This leads us to the present day when Kali has been appropriated by many new agers and neopagans as an empowering figure of feminine strength and sexual freedom. According to some serious students of Hinduism this is an inaccurate view of the goddess and is caused by a general lack of knowledge of the history of Hinduism. Whatever the case, Kali is worshiped by many neopagans and seems to be here to stay.
She is often pictured with dark skin as, according to the Mahanirvana Tantra, "Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her." She is the goddess to whom the other gods, as well as her human devotees, look to for protection. Her garland of fifty human heads represents the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and speaks to her divine and infinite knowledge. Her girdle of human hands symbolizes liberation from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. She is the destroyer of the ego as symbolized by the severed head she holds in one of her many hands. She is rarely pictured clothed as she is infinite and there is no clothing that can cover her.
I've been a practicing witch and neopagan for nearly 10 years and am just now taking a serious look at Kali (and similar goddesses). Her status as a war goddess always repelled me and I was unable to reconcile her with my preconceived idea of all goddesses being "nice girls". And even though I am far from completing my studies I've come to the conclusion that though she can be terrifying she is a benevolent goddess. As a goddess of war she would seem to be an evil deity but the more I think about it the more I realize: as much as I may not like it, a war deity is necessary. War may not always be justified but, as long as humanity persists, war will be with us. And it is good to have a Great Goddess, with limitless energy and knowledge, in charge of it.
As a Great Goddess of death, war, creation and an overwhelming being of divine energy Kali is one of the very most complex deities. She is the slayer of demons who would harm the gods and humanity. She drinks their blood that would otherwise pollute the Earth. She is the divine mother, creatrix of all. She is the protector of humanity, the gods and all of existence. She is beyond illusion and delusion and false consciousness. She is the beginning from which all creation springs and she is the end to which everything returns.