In the eyes of westerners, Kali is a goddess dark of mind, body and soul, a mysterious goddess of death and destruction. However her story is far more complex and far-reaching; she cannot be easily fitted into a typical western narrative of good verses evil, and in fact transcends both.

It is likely that Kali’s origins begin, as do the origins of most divine figures, with tribal folklore deeply rooted in the history of humankind. The name Kālī first appears in the Atharva Veda, a collection of hymns and mantras published between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE. However she is not a goddess but rather a fierce black tongue, one of seven belonging to Agni, the god of fire. It is another 400 years before Kali is described as an individual in her own right, when she appears around 600 CE in the Devimahatmya as a battlefield goddess personifying the wrath of Durga. Her aspect at this time is terrible – a skeletal and frightening crone, coloured black (a literal interpretation of her name), wearing animal skins and carrying a khatvanga, the skull-topped staff associated with tribal shamans. Other texts of the period associate her beginnings with Shiva. The Linga Purana (500 to 1000 CE) describes how Shiva asks his wife Parvati to defeat the demon Daruka, whom only a female can kill. Parvati merges with Shiva, reappears as Kali and does the deed, but at a terrible cost; her bloodlust becomes uncontrollable, only calming when Shiva intervenes. The Vamana Purana (900 – 1100 CE) has a different version. When Shiva addresses Parvati as Kali, "the black one," she is affronted and performs certain austerities to lose her dark complexion, ultimately generating Kali as a separate entity.

Kali is often associated with Shiva. Her very name is the feminine form of Kāla, an epithet of Shiva, thus tying her inextricably to him. She is regarded as the shakti (power) of Shiva, and he her consort. She is closely linked with him in many of the Puranas and when she appears in these writings besides Shiva, she plays an opposite role to that of Parvati. While Parvati soothes Shiva, neutralising his destructive tendencies, Kali actively provokes and encourages him. As scholar David Kinsley states, “it is never Kali who tames Siva, but Siva who must calm Kali”.