Monday, May 15, 2017

Final thoughts, and a litany of titles

The intention in making this wall-hanging was as a tribute to my beautiful mentor and friend of 25 years, thea Gaia. Today is the first anniversary of her passing. Thea had already been working for many years in the area of women’s spirituality, firstly within the Congregational (laterUniting) Church as a minister, then stepping outside the rigid masculinist interpretations of divinity to explore with other women ‘a free and lively exploration of a female divine in women, nature, the earth, and the interconnectedness of life.’[1]

In working on the small shrines for each image, I wondered why thea had chosen these particular goddesses – and perhaps more critically about their relevance for today’s woman and today’s world. It is clear that the images presented in the work do not belong to the same era, nor do they have the same geographical location, though are generally associated with civilizations that came and went in the middle/near East. They do cover a wide area and very broad time-span of spiritual exploration, from Central Europe 30,000 years before the present era (Venus of Willendorf) to the last century (Kali) – much older than the patriarchal, Abrahamic religions, which are less than 3,500 years old, and offering great variety and depth of understanding.

Reflecting on the title and final presentation of the work I was aware of the relationship between the materials being used to construct the wall-hanging, and the valuable relevance of such ancient images of goddess in today’s societies. The use of natural and perishable materials, such as tapa, a cloth made by indigenous Pacific islander peoples from plant fibre, and a sloughed snake skin seemed significant in presenting an idea of female divinity that perished as a result of the overpowering of those earlier egalitarian, peaceful societies by a patriarchal mindset, one that set about establishing and maintaining through religion an ethos of domination over cooperation as the norm for social interaction. Then modern technology has produced the digitally printed images. During the time of its making, I began to think about the enduring presence of these indigenous goddesses from the northern hemisphere. They have the power to initiate personal and unique explorations of subjectivity outside the cultural domination preserved by a monotheistic male mythology for the divine. During the month-long process of construction many titles came to mind:
She is here: I am she”/ Shrines to She /Awesome Power / Soul Sisters / Bloodlines /Shrines to when God was a woman
Eventually it was settled on: “Before the beginning, when God was a woman”, using two other titles: the first part is taken from the prologue to Carol Christ's "Rebirth of the Goddess", titled 'Before the beginning', in which she quotes a beautiful poem by Christine Lavadas[2]. (thea, myself and Glenys Livingstone 'performed' this poem at a visit from Elizabet Sahtouris to thea's home when she lived in the Blue Mountains). And the second part is from the title of a text by one of the earliest spiritual feminist writers, Merlin Stone (1976). Here is the poem:

Evrynome – A Story of Creation
By Christine Lavadas

Long, long in the past, far, far in the future,
At that point, before the beginning, after the end,
Where time and space do not exist,
Where all colours and forms are lost in the blackness of the void.
There was a heavy, vast silence,
A profound eternal motionless,
And nothingness and everything were the same.

And then Evrynome, Gaia, Goddess of a thousand names,
Mother of all,

And the sound of her breath echoed pleasingly in her ears.
As if it were a foreseeing
And yet as if it were a remembrance,
She heard summer breezes ruffling tall green grasses,
And winter hurricanes howling through deep valleys,
And the pounding of the sea,
And the calling voices of all creation.
And so Evrynome, Gaia, Goddess of a thousand names,
Mother of all,
Pursed her lips and whistled for the wind.

Then slowly, smoothly, and with perfect sensuality
She rose up from the timeless bed of her infinite rest
And caught up the wind
In her cupped hands,
In her streaming hair,
In the billows of her skirts,
And in the warm secret places of her body,
And she danced.

She danced delicately, she danced frenziedly,
She danced in staccato rhythm and liquid movement,
She danced with pure precision and orgiastic abandon,
She danced gloriously.
She danced holding the wind in her close embrace,
She danced the love and joy of creation.
She danced and danced.

And from the arch of her foot leapt the circles of time,
And from the curve of her spine, the spirals of life,
Day and night,
Black and white,
Absorption, reflection,
Birth, death, resurrection.
And as the ecstasy grew, as the beat increased,
The wind blew wild and her belly swelled round.
And from the rivers of her sweat, oceans flowed,
And with each heave of her breast, mountains rose.
And when she threw back her hair and opened her hands,
Life teemed around her and harmony reigned.
Creation now danced in her perfect time

And she smiled.
In spite of their origins, they still have the power to inform my own sense of being ‘indigenous’ to Earth in the land of my birth Australia, through my European cultural heritage. We know that the attitude of the Indigenous Australians to the arrival of the Europeans on their shores was one of honouring them, in the expectation of a customary reciprocal and fair exchange.[3] While we also know that this is not how it has finally played out, the images tend to awaken another sense of how it might have been. Maybe that’s why these images remain important, needing to be revived and re-viewed: to remind us of how it once was - “In the beginning, when god was a woman”, and of the possibility of how it might be if we go full circle by restoring the female to her awesome power, through contemporary women. These images live in a continuum encompassing living women, spirits and ancestors, qualities that are essential governing principles for a fair, just and egalitarian society. Further paraphrasing the thoughts of Max Dashu, these goddesses express, embrace, and invite the awe that is the sense of Mystery aroused by the beauty in nature, art, music and dance, and the interconnections between self and other - not the mystification practiced in authoritarian, hierarchical institutions that demand submission without knowledge[4] (commonly expressed as having ‘faith’). ‘What is divine can be found within our embodied selves rather than in a transcendent disembodied theology,’ [5]…and looking at images of ancient empowered women across time and across the globe can only help! I feel that thea would agree.

[1] Barbara Caine, ed. 1998, Oxford Australian Feminism: a companion, OUP: Melbourne p. 270
[2] Prologue in Carol Christ, 1997, Rebirth of the Goddess: finding meaning in feminist spirituality, Addison Wesley Pub Co: NY
[3] Meyer Eidelson, Melbourne Dreaming: a guide to important places of past and present, Aboriginal Studies Press.
[4] Max Dashu, 2012, That which is sacred, Feminism and Religion website
[5] Barbara Caine, ed. 1998, Oxford Australian Feminism: a companion, OUP:Melbourne  p.272

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Goddesses: last two in my quilt

Two enigmatic faces: Astarte/Asherah (Kalili) and Medusa
The “look at me” moments coming to us from antiquity, (minus the ‘Kath n Kim’ recriminations of women) in Lilith, as the goddess image is developed in different ways by the last two images to be discussed here. There are two faces at the bottom of the quilt, on the right and left hand positions, both enigmatic and full of the paradox that is life as it is lived. Like the other goddesses in the shrines, they contain and hold the Mystery that is Goddess knowledge (I use the term ‘gnowing’, with the inflection of knowledge gained through insightful intuition, observation and experience) embodied through differentiation without losing a sense of an organic, living and sacred one-ness in which all participate. They are the Medusa and the so-called ‘woman at the window’, who is also named as the Mona Lisa of Numrud, for obvious reasons – the latter for where she was found, and the former due to her gorgeous smile, one that extends to her eyes –and tongue. Of course, both titles have been super-imposed by the limited and limiting patriarchal concept of women and their roles in society.

The Sumerian name of Kalili is assigned to this Mona Lisa, though she is likely be associated with Astarte and Asherah, mentioned in the Bible. The name conferred by thea in the card appellation is “Seer”, and looking at her image, while recalling the name of the women looking out of a window, it is not difficult to understand why she chose this title. She is very beautiful and does appear to gaze directly back at the viewer, unabashed and clearly with insight.

The one image on the quilt that perhaps stands out from the others, being on her head (bottom left hand row). She is of course Medusa, perhaps my favourite, since she is so ancient, so powerful, and so humorous in her way – with her eyes bulging and tongue sticking out in derision and ‘gnowing’, her head full of writhing snakes. Be afraid, be very afraid – because she is in charge!

Much maligned as she has been over the millennia since the onset of deliberate, concerted and through the continual patriarchal project of demonizing women, she has offered herself as a role model. Though they have succeeded in belittling her through inverting the story of her as protector, her ensign was marked on battle shields to instill fear into the opponent, to turn the enemy ‘into stone’ in battle – I wonder if that story worked. As might be expected, the final version of this evolving story goes that the ‘hero’ Perseus had to conquer her completely by cutting off her head through a clever and insidious ploy of smoke and mirrors. No more powerful snakes to instill fear – or respect!

A short text from thea accompanied each of the images, as can be viewed in the previous posts. During the quilt formation I quite coincidentally uncovered four lovely postcards stored in a box and sent to me from thea Gaia when she was visiting the underground cistern to the Basilica in Istanbul. They showed two very large renditions of the Medusa’s head, placed at the bottom of huge columns originating in the Roman conquest of Constantinople (not Istanbul) over 1600 ago. One is standing on her head, the other glancing up sideways at the visitors to the place. For thea, Medusa represents the “Mystery” that always is. She had a wonderful way with words, and had written her words of wisdom on the back of the postcards, remembering my birthday at the time of her visit to the cistern. She wrote:
            …as you go into the Mystery of the underground may you go into the Mystery of your underground self and celebrate your own being. And do not be surprised when you find a Medusa there, at the foot of a column, looking up into the world above.

The obvious question is why is one upside down? Thea’s answer:
she is there to keep her eye on Mary in statue and fresco form in the building above her – “next door” – and to give acknowledgment to the innerness and outerness of us all.
And thea’s reflection on the other Medusa head, which is looking out, curiously sideways? She suggests that she ‘continues to look within and wonder, reflecting on the Mystery of the divided world in which we live’, adding a short mantra…
May we recognize her wisdom and her power and her presence waiting to be confirmed in our depths.           

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Birds in Goddess symbolism

Birds have always been deeply associated with the powerful cycle of Earth’s seasons of new existence, new beginnings, demise and an unsolicited source of renewal. In ancient myths, beginnings were conceived as the cosmic world egg in the deep abyss bringing forth the shape, space and passage of time in the Universe, sometimes encircled by a snake, as in the myth of Eurynome, (from which my wall-hanging in part takes its title: “Before the beginning…”). As the snake in its environmental habitats brings the upper, earthly and lower worlds together, so does the bird, which flies in from the absence of the sky-place, can live and breed on the ground, or float and feed on the waters. Veneration for the bird’s association with the seasonal return of the sky’s life-giving waters and women’s procreative powers is easily imaginable, of course embodied in the breaking of the amniotic waters in giving human birth. Natural recurrent cycles resonate across time and space, corroborated by human observation and experience, most importantly in the birth-giving powers of the body of woman and other female animals. No wonder the bird was such a strong symbol of the powers of goddesses. There is much more that can be explored by way of bird symbolism through the ancient images and artifacts uncovered in recent times.[1]

The dove in particular has been woven through story and myth from earliest times, and remains a powerful symbol today. Though co-opted into Christian mythology as the (male) Holy Ghost and general symbol of epiphany, (think Noah’s ark; the annunciation to Mary of her divine conception, the dove hovering over Jesus when he was being baptized by John in the Jordan, and many others), it is significant that the dove had always been a female symbol associated with very early Goddesses, as well as being a central image of goddess in the Minoan culture of Crete. Two doves are in the crown of the little Goddess with her arms upraised at the epiphany of a full harvest moon behind her. Since she was found at Knossos, it is not surprising that there are bull’s horns on her crown also, though it must be acknowledged that the skull and horns of a bull is an image the dates back to the Neolithic village of Catal Huyuk as likely a recognition of female reproductive anatomy;[2] and even further back into the Palaeolitic period, where it is thought that the shape may have been associated with the new moon.[3]

The moon is present in seven of the nine shrines, and is a personal addition, not present in the original images on the cards. It was through our group moon rituals that I grew to understand, accept and cherish my power as woman, and I have come to watch and recognize the phases of the moon as they appear in the southern hemisphere, from waxing to waning. the moon is a daily (nightly?) visual symbol of the energies of birth, life and death in its cycle of fullness, demise and renewal. It is an organic reality that cannot be discounted, with women’s monthly menstrual cycles having been closely entrained to shedding and renewing according to the pull of the moon cycle. Moon, woman and earth are all entrained to the cycles of gestation, nurturance and regeneration.
Goddess known as Lilith stands on a moon that could be seen as being in the last stages of waxing to fullness – or the first stage of waning: in the southern hemisphere starting on the right and moving back to the left. It is after all a cycle, without precedence of one stage over the other. She stands proudly in the top right corner shrine of my wall hanging.  She is named Lilith in the cards produced by thea, and is also referred to often in relation to the Goddess Innana/Ishtar. There are similarities to the images of Inanna, in particular the tall, slim and upright, naked body, the beehive headdress/crown and holding the symbols of power in her arms, upraised in a gesture of epiphany. Lilith is the first discredited woman in literature, the woman who told the first man, Adam that his sex didn’t please her, providing grounds for the first divorce. How dare she? Her disgrace and demonisation may have become apparent through the Bible story around the same time as the tribes of the Hibiru were getting together to sort out political ways to deal with the other tribes, and the various goddesses being venerated regionally, becoming the ‘lady of the might’. However, her primordial physical manifestation tells another story. She not only holds the symbols of power and wears the regal crown, she herself bears large wings, in a similar way to the Egyptian Isis. She is also flanked either side by two owls, birds that see in the darkness of night (as seen in the original image of the card, shown in an earlier post). Here, her bird claws stand on the snake skin, not to suggest the conquering of her supposedly uncontrollable sexual rapaciousness (remember Adam and Eve, where the snake was the helpless temptor (is this the masculine of this word, usually used in the feminine?) that she succumbed to - a story women have been burdened with for millennia since), but the snake as her powerful consort. With her shape-shifting capacity, she offers a cultural re-empowerment for women: she dares us to revision and reclaim her powers for ourselves, to transform our ways of viewing reality of patriarchal interpretations from an insubordinate woman to an autonomous woman.

[1] see Baring and Cashford, 1993, The Myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image, Arkana:London (pp. 58-62)
[2] Dorothy Cameron, 1981, Symbols of Birth and of Death in the Neolithic Era, Kenyon-Deane Ltd: London
[3] Baring and Cashford, p.129