Category Archives: God

The Light Bringer

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The Light Bringer Scan_Pic0019The Raven

Magic is in the air when Raven is present. The other day while at the coffee shop I was looking out the widow at the parking lot. High above everything perched on top of the tall light pole sat a bird. His outline fully formed against the light blue sky. It is a rather large size black bird with a prominent beak. He intrigued me so I watched him for a while.

Was he a Crow or a Raven?  A Raven for sure. A Raven is a member of the Crow family but a larger king-size cousin. This fellow was big. Two small birds joined him. They moved to the outer parameters of the light standard giving the Raven a wide berth. Crows and Ravens are the smartest of all birds having outwitted other birds, animals and humans from time to time. There are lots of Myths and stories about them. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a poem called, The Raven.

They are kept at the Tower of London, England. The Tower of London is located on White Hill and one legend tells of the Ravens always living there. Another legend is that after the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Tower was rebuilt and the ravens arrived. The British believe that “It is very unlucky to kill a Raven” and so they keep them as good luck symbols. The Tower Ravens are cared for by a Keep. Each Raven is named, fed and treated like a soldier. The Tower Ravens live to be 40 years old. Besides having one wing’s flight feathers clipped away, they have free rein of the Tower and the grounds. A Raven can be dismissed from the Tower grounds for “Conduct unbecoming of a Tower resident.” Otherwise, the Raven’s live a comfortable life.

In Rome, the Raven is associated with the God Apollo, the god of prophecy. They are considered good luck and a messenger from heaven who speaks to us. One myth tells the story of why Ravens are black.   In the story Ravens were as white as swans. One day a Raven brought bad news to Apollo who in his anger turned the Raven black. Since then all Ravens are black.

In Norse tradition, the God Odin had two Ravens who were his messengers.  Odin could shape-shift into a raven. In Biblical lore, the prophet Elijah was fed by Ravens and Crows while hiding in the wilderness. To the Athapaskan Indians of Alaska,  Raven was the creator of the world.

Ravens are symbols of watchfulness. They often perch high in the trees and can see for miles. Their Croak sound is so jarring that all can hear.  They can be taught to speak and are members of the songbird family . They have quite a range of vocalizations but they do not sing.

In many ways, the Raven is an animal that plays the confusing role of the trickster and the wise one.  Raven is comparable to the Coyote tales told by the Plains Indians.  In the Pacific North West, the Raven has this same aura about him. Raven stole the sunlight and gave it to the people of the Earth. He is playful and an excellent tool user. He cracks open nuts using stones.  In fact, many folks believe that Raven knows  he is  smart. He has chosen to remain a  crows rather then move on to some other area of evolution.  Raven  is associated with creation. The color of night, he brings forth the new day.  He is the light bringer.

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“Rumpelstiltskin Is My Name”

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In this collage I portray Rumpelstiltskin as an aspect of the wild and randy god Pan, ancient guardian of the wild.  We find him here creating the magic that will allow the miller’s daughter to spin the king’s straw into gold.

Pan was a god of woodlands and meadows, guardian of both wild animals and flocks with the torso of a man and the hind legs and horns of a goat.  His worship spread far and wide spanning a millennium that we know of and probably stretching back far beyond his first archaeological appearance in the 6th century BCE.

There is a story from the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37) that purports to report the death of Pan.

One day a ship piloted by a sailor named Thamus lay becalmed off the Echinades islands.  Suddenly a great voice sounded from the shore.  It called his name three times.  When he replied the voice shouted, “Tell them that great Pan is dead.”  As he sailed along the shore, the pilot shouted to the people on land that the god was dead, whereupon arose the sound of great weeping.  The news spread fast and when he arrived in Italy the emperor summoned him to be questioned by a committee of scholars.  The learned ones interpreting the event decided that the Pan in question was not the god, but a demon of the same name.  

Early Christians believed this story and took comfort in it, confident that it marked the beginning of the end of the pagan era, but in fact, well into the 4th century B.C.E. coins were being minted bearing the face of the god.  It takes more than a decree to banish a god or to convince people, especially those living close to the land, nature spirits don’t exist.  The spirit of Pan lived on in the tales of the fey, the ‘little folk’, fairies, brownies and gnomes and wood sprites such as Rumpelstiltskin.  Push them into the shadows as we will, such tales still leak past the borders we set; the lines of logic we impose on both our physical and imaginative landscapes._The_Wind_in_the_Willows

Maybe, Rumpelstiltskin wanted a child to raise in the old pagan ways and thus ensure their continuation.  Perhaps, it is belief that keeps gods alive – maybe they do need someone to clap for them.  Thanks to Kenneth Grahame I’ve been a lifelong believer in Pan.  His depiction of the god as the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in his beloved book Wind in the Willows* continues to be the only description of the masculine divine that’s ever truly moved me.

In same way that humans cheated Rumpelstiltskin, I think we cheat Nature – the carbon emissions, the methane, the GMO’s, the dams, the pesticides etc., etc., etc. are all ways we break the pact of reciprocity which is part of the evolutionary cycle.  It grieves me.  It breaks my heart.  If I can help restore balance by creating an image of a powerful Earth elemental at the height of his power, I’m glad to do so.  It’s the sound of two hands clapping – loud and long.

*I’m in good company.  Teddy Roosevelt wrote Grahame a fan letter saying that he had “read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends.”

Three Sisters: A Creation Story

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There were once three sisters, Spring, Summer and Winter, who loved each other very much.  They lived in a turbulent land full of smoking volcanoes and roaring rivers.  The countryside, subject to earthquakes, avalanches and floods, changed constantly.  But they were hardy children, the daughters of Titans – rugged, immortal and wild and they thrived in their tumultuous world.

Alas, their happy idyll could not last.  Unbeknownst to them, epic power struggles, played out on a cosmic scale across the breadth of the universe, were taking place as Titans went to war.  Near the end of the conflict, the three unruly girls, bound, gagged, but still defiant, were dragged before the Olympic high court to learn their fate.

“So you are the infamous nieces I’ve heard so much about,” roared Zeus.  “Your father begged for your lives on his knees.  I licked your mother’s tears from her cheeks as she cried mercy for you.  Look at you! Ragtail hoydens worth nothing, I wonder what they saw in you. “

Truthfully, the girls did resemble little goblins.  Their hair, matted with dirt and leaves had tangled itself into long stiff locks that stuck out from their heads in spikes; their dry chapped lips pulled back from sharp white teeth in feral snarls; rents in their ragged clothes revealed half- healed scratches, fading bruises, and a pattern of old scars that crisscrossed their legs from scabby knees to dirty bare toes.

He hesitated, pondering what to do.  The three girls were immortal, their ancestry divine.  The parents’ strengths had combined to breed true.  None of the girls had inherited the fatal flaws that allowed him to do away with his siblings.

“Since, you love your little planet so much, you will remain there forever!  Each of you will have a third of the year to do with it as you will.  But you can never meet again.  I won’t have you conspiring.  As soon as your time is up you will fall so deeply asleep and nothing will wake you until your turn comes round again.  Now go!”

He pointed a golden finger at the door but the girls sat down on the marble floors and began to wail piteously.  Tears ran down their cheeks in muddy rivulets washing the grime from their fine-textured skin.  As a glimpse of the girls’ true beauty shone through, a gasp of surprise travelled round the throne room.

Instantly, Zeus’s wife stepped between them, gathering the girls into her arms, pressing their wet faces into her ample bosom.

“Couldn’t they have just one day with me to say good-bye?” demanded Hera. “They need baths and supper.  They’ve lost their parents, after all.  Let me cut off this dreadful hair and fit them out with proper clothes.  These are royal children Zeus, blood of your blood.”

The more sentimental gods nodded in agreement.  A murmur of sympathy swept through the court.

“Fine,” growled the king.  He waved his hand negligently and Hera hurried off stage, dragging the girls along still clutched tight in her strong grip.

Once outside, she shoved them into the arms of her waiting maids.  “Take them away, shave their heads, clean them up, outfit them with sturdy sandals and cloaks and set them outside the gates at dawn.

Never return,” she whispered fiercely in each girl’s ear.

As it happened, their last night together fell on the winter solstice. Taking advantage of the reprieve granted by Hera’s jealous nature, the girls sat up all night, pooling their wisdom and weaving it into the inherent magic of the longest night.  They had many skills learned during their long sojourn on Earth; growing up they played with fire, water, earth and air.  They knew how to whistle the wind and tie it up in knots.  They knew how to speak the language of the birds, and they knew how to shape-shift, taking on the form of every living being that inhabited their home.

The next morning they were pushed off Olympus.  Shod in servant’s sandals, wearing cast-off clothes, they tumbled head over heels down the sacred mountain.  At the bottom they embraced for a long moment.  Thunder rumbled, lightening flashed.  Flipping defiant fingers at the mountaintop, each set out in a different direction; two of them hunting caves in which to pass the long months of enchanted sleep.

Winter trudged on alone.  She had a plan to follow; soil to prepare.  The days would be lonely, the nights lonelier, but with all three working diligently at their allotted tasks, eventually the Earth would bloom, life would flourish, humanity would arise.  And every solstice night, the magic they had woven and the disguise each had chosen would shield them from Zeus’s oversight.   Spring would appear as a young human; Summer, as an apple tree; Winter, as a white hare.  Every turn of the year, on the longest night, they would meet to celebrate their sisterhood and tell the stories of their season.  Together they would roam their world, consider all they had wrought, and call it good.

Abraham and Sarah The Big Picture

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AbrahamSarahScan_Pic0003Abraham and Sarah

 This story comes from the Bible and the book of Genesis. About 2,000 BCE Abraham lived in Mesopotamia what is modern day Iraq. Abraham’s father, Terah was the tenth in descent from Noah. Abraham believed in one god, Yahweh. At that time, the majority of the people worshiped many gods. In Egypt there was Isis and Osiris, in Sumer the people were familiar with the story of Inanna and Dumuzi.

 In a dream or vision Abraham’s God told him to leave his home, the place where his family had lived for almost 75 years. God said he would lead Abraham into the desert to Canaan, the promised land, where he would start a new nation. God said he would bless Abraham with sons. God also said that if Abraham was obedient and make God his only God, Abraham and his children would be God’s chosen people. This was the covenant Abraham made with God.

 Abraham was married to Sarah. Sarah was barren. The couple had no children. They were both elderly. But Abraham believed in God and knew that what God told him would come to pass. God said, “Look up at the stars, you will have a son. He will have children, and from them a great nation will come. Because of God’s promise all people on earth would be blessed.

 Sarah felt bad that she had not given Abraham children and decided to offer her husband Hagar, her maid servant. Hagar was young and Abraham agreed. After Hagar got pregnant with Abraham’s child her behavior changed and Sarah got angry and treated Hagar poorly. In time Hagar runs away. God appears to Hagar and promises her that if she goes back and serves Sarah that he will make sure Hagar will see that her son Ishmael will be the father of so many children that no one would be able to count them. When Ishmael is born Abraham was 86 years old.

 When Ishmael is almost 14 years old Sarah conceives Abraham’s son Issac. This is a miracle because Sarah was over 90 years old and Abraham was almost a hundred.

 In my collage I show Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Issac and Ishmael. From Abraham and Sarah comes Issac, and Issac gives birth to Jacob and from this line comes Jesus. From Hagar and Abraham comes Ishmael and from this line comes the life of Mohammed. From the figures in my collage comes 3 major religions.. They are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

 

 

Sacrifice

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 Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah;

and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains, which I will tell thee of.

Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son;

and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.

~ Genesis 22: 2 & 6

The rabbis tell two midrash of Sarah’s death.  In both versions she learns that her husband Abraham has taken her son to the mountains along with wood and a knife to make a sacrifice to God.  Fearing the worst, she runs distraught from camp to camp searching for news. In one version an angel appears to say that Isaac survives; overcome with joy her heart gives out and she dies.  In the second version, when Satan appears and lies to her, proclaiming Isaac’s death, she drops dead from grief.

In this collage, which focuses on Isaac, you find Sarah, almost invisible at this point in the story, in the shadow of Isaac’s coat, shrouded in mourning.  Her role is over.  There’s nothing left for her to do but die.  Her marriage and her faith are lost to her.  How can she ever forgive God or Abraham?

Isaac carries a branch in his hand to represent the wood he carried, the wood for his own sacrifice.  The mountain looms ahead of him with its high altar.  The fire is built, the knife is honed, but an angel appears to stop the proceedings.  Instead of Isaac, a lamb will be slaughtered to complete the rite.

This story is full of drama and dilemmas.  Many interpretations have been offered over the years, from awe at Abraham’s faith, devotion and overwhelming love/fear of God to stark horror at the idea a parent would be willing to sacrifice their child to some abstract cause.  But, how can we forget the sons sent off to die in Vietnam or disowned for refusing the honor?  In the Iran/Iraq War children were given plastic “keys to heaven” and sent to die. Children are recruited by the thousands in Africa and Central America. An estimated 300,000 children are currently involved in 33 armed conflicts around the world.  In El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost a third of little soldiers are girls. Europe is no exception – thousands of child soldiers fought during the Balkan wars between 1991 and 1995.  And who can forget Europe’s infamous Children’s Crusade?  Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of children routinely murdered around the world since classical times for simply being girls.

Even yet, girls are often considered second best to sons in the patriarchal model we still live under.  Primogeniture – inheritance of a Father’s property by the first born – has long been a part of that model.  Notice that when the Lord speaks (see opening quote) he calls Isaac Abraham’s only son.  What happened to Ishmael?  When she was freed/exiled did “ownership” of her son revert to Hagar?  Did banishment automatically make Hagar and Ishmael “other” – not one of the “people” and hence not eligible under the laws of inheritance?

And what about poor little Isaac, trussed like a lamb and laid upon his funeral pile by Dad?  Not only was he betrayed in the most traumatic way by his trusted father, he returned home to find his mother dead.  Perhaps in the end Ishmael did get the better deal.  Though their father betrayed both his sons, at least Ishmael didn’t lose his mother.

What did God really want?  Isaac’s name means he laughs or perhaps he will laugh.  Is God laughing?  Is this some elaborate cosmic set up?  What if he wanted Abraham to defy him and put his son’s interest first?  Of course we’ve already seen the Abraham couldn’t be counted on in a pinch to remain loyal to family.  Twice, he pandered his sister/wife Sarah to men richer and more powerful than himself.  Perhaps God was hoping against hope Abraham would put Isaac’s interests above his own. As we know, God visits the sins of the father on future generations.  Today we see the rivalry between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac still going on at the cost of incalculable human suffering, billions of dollars and countless lost hours of creativity, community and collaboration.

This story is rich in odd details, extensive in its scope and cast of characters, yet full of puzzling gaps.  It’s a complicated tale that inspires our curiosity with its unanswered questions.  Grappling with it has been exhausting – calling up a whole gamut of emotions I wasn’t expecting.  It doesn’t take much to crack the surface and begin floundering in its depths.  But the struggle is rewarding.  Jump in and join us at the deep end …

The Goddess in the Details

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TerebinthI couldn’t help noticing while researching this story and reading the passages in Genesis over and over, how often the word terebinth appeared.  I wasn’t even sure what a terebinth was, though it seemed like some kind of tree.  And then there was the Oak of Mamre, named as if it were a landmark of some kind.  The inclusion of these details fascinates me.  The centuries act like sandpaper on stories; planing and refining away extraneous detail until only their essence survives.  Ergo propter hoc,the details must hold some significance.

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Terebinth of Hebron in today’s Israel

The Oak of Mamre mentioned in Genesis may in fact be a terebinth.  There seems to be much confusion in translation around oaks and terebinths. Both trees are found in Palestine with the terebinth filling the oak’s niche in the south and east where the climate is warmer and more arid.  The terebinth, of which there are many species, is a gnarly tree with a full bushy canopy. The leaves can be used medicinally, as a culinary seasoning, the shoots may be eaten as vegetables and its bark oozes aromatic resin and may be tapped for turpentine. Galls, produced on the leaves as a result of insect bites, were once used for tanning leather. “As ordinarily met with today, the terebinth attains the stature of thirty or thirty-five feet. The root is substantial, and penetrates deeply into the ground; the boughs spread widely, and at a considerable angle, and being clothed, except in winter, with dark and shining foliage, the tree presents, during the larger portion of the year, a beautiful and conspicuous spectacle. The reddish hue of the branches and of the petioles, especially while the parts are young, contributes to the pleasing effect.” The trees usually stand alone, providing recognizable landmarks in the stark landscapes they prefer. To this day terebinths are often chosen to mark the graves of nomads who die in the desert.

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Terebinth in full glory – notice the resemblance to pomegranate seeds. The pomegranate figured prominently in Temple decor and is another ancient symbol of feminine spirituality.

Terebinths, including those at Mamre, have long been associated with cultic sites and have a venerable association with concepts of death and rebirth across eastern Mediterranean lands possibly because of their deep roots, regenerative properties and red inflorescence.  In ancient Israel the terebinth was associated with Asherah, a Hebrew goddess thought by some scholars to be the consort of Yahweh, by others as the feminine aspect of God.

Asherah is always identified with trees; sometimes she is the living tree and sometimes pillars of wood, called Asherah poles, or carved wooden images represent her.  The pillars of the Temple are said by some to originate in her worship. Trees are closely associated with the Tree of Life and the Menorah, both powerful symbols in Judaism to this day.  Taken together, these symbols with their deep deep roots (like the terebinth) in Jewish culture, hint at a lost tradition of  feminine spirituality that could explain why the stories of Hagar and Sophia with their references to women’s mysteries (fertility, sexuality, childbirth, blood) resonate so strongly to this day.

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Votive figures thought to represent Asherah, found in the hundreds along with their molds indicating their widespread use and popularity

Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael

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Sar and Hagar

There’s so much to say about this story it is hard to know where to start.  We usually begin with an overview.  So, here we see Sarah the barren old woman who has been promised a child by God himself.  Even after the promise, this mythical child is a long time coming.  Worried about Abraham not having an heir from their own family (Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister) , Sarah has sent her handmaiden Hagar to lie with Abraham and bear his child.  That child, according to Jewish tradition, now belongs to Sarah and Abraham.  (Echoes of this practice reverberate down through the centuries in both real life and story.  Consider surrogate mothers and Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

The starry heavens behind the three characters represent God’s covenant with the two women – he has promised them both that nation’s will arise from the seed of their sons.  In this collage Isaac has not yet been conceived and Ishmael is still a little boy.  Jealousy has already begun to bedevil these women.  The heavens also represent the ubiquitous God, who just can’t seem to keep from meddling in these people’s lives in the most clumsy manner.

In reading the Bible stories about women, keep in mind how seldom women are named and how little description surrounds their names. When a woman is named we can assume her story held great import for her contemporaries and that the story associated with her holds enough meaning to continue to reverberate down the millennia.

Hagar looms the largest for me in this story. She is the least powerful figure here; even her fertility can be co-opted.  Nevertheless, Hagar haunts every action and even God keeps track of her comings and goings.  We can deduce from the story that she is a straightforward woman, lacking in subtlety or cunning until motherhood empowers her and she becomes proud, defiant, stubborn and ambitious for her child. I can’t help but identify with her.  She seems to represent the status and position of so many women today, in this country and around the world.

Perhaps Hagar and Sarah together represent the precarious nature of motherhood.  The women in this tale are both hostages to fortune.  They live and die at the whims of men and their gods.  On the one hand, fertility bestows a certain amount of power; on the other, women are easily interchangeable. Perhaps the meaning lies in what these women fail to do, rather than in their actions.  Perhaps, we are being shown how divisive and enervating jealousy can be; how it saps the strength and diverts the will to the point that the welfare of children becomes compromised rather than enhanced.

We don’t know how Hagar felt about being sent to Abraham’s bed.  Was she repulsed by his age?  Or attracted by his power and prestige?  Whichever it was, once pregnant she began to enjoy her new status.  No doubt, as her time approached she was relieved of many duties and when she gave birth to a son – well the feasting and rejoicing are easy to imagine.  It all went to her head, and she began to put on airs and disrespect Sarah.

Remember that Sarah and Abraham are very old by this time and Sarah has spent decades living down the shame of being barren.  The fact that she has been a beautiful and desirable woman makes it all the worse; makes her feel like a fraud.  Perhaps, all along she has harbored a sneaking suspicion that her childless state may be the fault of Abraham.  Now that the younger woman Hagar has borne a son, even that secret comfort is denied her.  Hagar’s airs, which may be just the normal delight and pride of a new mother, act like salt in Sarah’s wounds. The humiliation and shame of a lifetime overcome her.  Sarah beats Hagar and Hagar runs away, taking the baby with her.  However, God isn’t done with these people.  He sends an angel to talk to Hagar and convince her to return.

There’s a blank in the story here – one of many.  In Jewish tradition the rabbi’s often make up a scenario to fill in the blanks.  These are called midrash and they are teaching anecdotes that carry a moral or make a theological point.

What I imagine happened here is that when Hagar ran away, Abraham was furious and worried.  I imagine he berated Sarah for driving Hagar away.  Perhaps Sarah, too, was horrified at losing her son.  No doubt they sent out search parties and prayed for them to return.

We can extrapolate from other stories in the Bible, that Hagar would have been welcomed back with rejoicing and forgiveness.  In my version, when Hagar and the baby came back, the two women come to an agreement; sharing the child and living harmoniously for a time –  at least, until Isaac arrives on the scene…

To Be Continued…