Category Archives: Goddess

The Fearsome Wild Hag

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Baba Yaga flies away

Baba Yaga flies away

Baba Yaga

The Fearsome Wild Hag

     Baba Yaga is a Slavic folklore supernatural being, one of 3 sisters with the same name who appear as deformed and/or ferocious-looking women. Baba Yaga flies around in a cauldron shaped like a mortar, dwells, deep in the forest in a hut, usually described as standing on scaly yellow chicken legs, that walks about all by itself, sometimes twirls around and around like an ecstatic dancer. Her fence is usually decorated with human skulls. As she travels, she rows her vehicle with an oar shaped like a pestle. All the while she sweeps out the tracks of where she has been with a broom made from the hair of a person long dead.

 Baba Yaga is fearsome, for she represents the power of annihilation and the power of the life force at the same time. Even through Baba Yaga threatens, she is just. She does not hurt anyone as long as they treat her with dignity and respect. She expects honesty, courageous and straight talk. You must be able to accept her as she is warts, wisdom, and all. Respect in the face of great power is a crucial lesson. So many of her feminine attributes and forces are vast, all are formidable. It is understandable that the first time we come face-to-face with the Old Wild Powers, both men and women take one anxious look and make tracks.

She may help or hinder those that encounter or seek her out. At times Baba Yaga plays a maternal role. She is closely association with forest wild life. She sometimes frights a hero, (promises to eat him,) but helps him if he is courageous. According to Vladimir Propp’s folk tale morphology, Baba Yaga commonly appears as either a donor, Villain or maybe altogether ambiguous. A donor in a fairy tale is a character that tests the hero, or heroine and provides magical assistance to them when he/she succeeds. In many folktales she kidnaps and eats naughty children (usually roasts them in the oven.) She has her familiars, the three horsemen, red, white and black.  And of course, she has at least one black cat and crow.

Baba means Old Woman or grandmother. Yaga means horror, shudder, or chill, witch, pain or worry. She first occurred in 1755 listed among Slavic gods. The Slavic god Perun appears equated with the Roman god Jupiter. Baba Yaga appears to have no equivalence, attesting to her uniqueness even in this first known attestation.

Baba Yaga has bony legs, when inside her dwelling, she may be found stretched out over the stove, reaching from one corner of the hut to another. Her nose is repulsive, so are her breasts, buttocks, vagina.  In some tales a trio of Baba Yagas appear as sisters, all sharing the same name. Her long chin curved up and her long nose curved down, and they met in the middle. She has a tiny white goatee and warts on her skin from her trade in toads. Baba Yaga is the fearsome wild Crone.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, The story begins, ‘Once there was, and once there was not … ‘. This phase alerts the soul that this story takes place in the world between worlds where nothing is as it first seems. The woods can be that luminal space between realms. In my collage I show Baba Yaga flying about in her cauldron rowing with her pestle. Below you can see her hut and fence surrounded by forest. It is night and the moon is full.

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Baba Yaga – Ancient of Days

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Baba Yaga

In the past months we’ve explored in some depth the feminine archetypes Maiden and Mother.   As autumn season deepens and the old pagan year ends, it seems fitting to spend time with Crone.  We’ve chosen Baba Yaga, the Russian woodland hag to represent her.  Rather than focus on a particular story we will focus on Baba Yaga herself.

Basically Baba Yaga means ‘Grandmother Witch.’  It is wise when speaking of fearsome entities to address them with a euphemistic honorific.  For instance the Irish call their fearsome fairies ‘The Gentry.’  Both appellations carry an ironic undercurrent.

Baba Yaga appears at first glance to be quintessentially Russian, but she is much much older, predating any kind of nationalistic identity with its civilized and Christian veneers.  In her stories she often uses her keen sense of smell to sniff out “the Russian scent.”  Her origin lies deep in Slavic paganism; she comes from a time of endless taiga (forest) when boreal woodlands spread unchecked across northern Europe, Asia and North America. Her roots reach deep into the dawn of human history.  She is “the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth.”  Like that feminine symbol the Moon, her aspect is both light and dark.

Her identity as the triple goddess archetype Maiden, Mother, Crone is reflected in tales, which include her two sisters.  Dealing with these archetypes is tricky – like all good scientifically minded children of this modern age, we want to analyze, identify, dissect, and isolate; we want to take things apart and see how they work.  But the three sisters work together and cannot be separated.  A woman is never only mother, maiden or crone. The memories, experience and intuitive wisdom of each phase mix, meld, and re-define themselves. They ebb, flow, whirl and lie in static pools of calm.  At any moment in a woman’s life she can be thirteen, thirty, or ninety-three.

And so with Baba Yaga, who can change shapes at will and replace her haggard features with young beauty any time she chooses. She can grow and shrink, fly hobble or run like the wind. She is a solar goddess governing the progression of the days with her three Knights (Red Knight = the day bright sun, White Knight = the dawn, and Black Knight = the night; red, black and white are colors long associated with triple goddesses.)  She is a lunar goddess with her thirteen fiery skulls set on posts around her chicken-legged house.  The house spins on its legs, just like the Earth and Moon when the Baba is away, flying through the air in her mortar and pestle while sweeping her tracks away with a broom.

The Crone is a rich and complex archetype but her chief attribute is wisdom.  She is the keeper of life’s memories and experiences.  She represents the power inherent in each woman and man to transform the pain and suffering of life into wisdom, the ability to learn from our mistakes.

In this collage we approach Baba Yaga carefully from the side, rather than head on. We come as the girl child who appears so often in her tales.  Children, not yet having lost their connection with the spirit realm from which their souls originate, hold their own particular brand of wisdom.  The Crone is able to return to a childlike place of open-eyed and hearted wonder and bring to it the wisdom of experience.  In between childhood and old age, we humans often bumble around on one quest or another searching for self, wealth, meaning, love, substance, answers – all manner of things. The Radiant Child and the Crone reach out to each other across that gap.  We often see this reflected in everyday life by the rapport between children and grandparents that seems to jump a generation.

The forest represents the untamed wilderness where the Baba is most at home.  Our own wild spirits, from which flow courage, grit, determination and endurance, are the raw materials we bring to the work. Baba Yaga, terrible flesh-eater though she is, responds well to respect and a willingness to learn. Beside her sit mortars in which to grind grain and herbs, baskets of seeds for planting, and pots to hold her spells. Cauldrons, pots, cups, bowls symbolically represent the womb – that most ancient vessel of transformation and birth.

For more on Baba Yaga as Crone I highly recommend the essay by Anonymous posted by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D. on her website Mything Links:

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

Finding My Flock

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Finding Your Tribe

I can’t stress enough the importance of finding your tribe.  Wild women make up mine.  You see them here – young, middle-aged, old – maiden, mother, crone.   Sisters, companions and beloved friends, peers, these are the commadras.  Isn’t it strange we have no feminine words for buddy, pal, compadre?  I think we women need more words to signify and define the nuances of our rich femininity.

The Ugly Duckling is about finding the companionship of peers; of those who share an orientation to the Earth and life, which coincides with your own.  Of course first you have to know what that is.  Hence the quest in the first part of life.  That’s the part where we waddle and quack about the world, making mistakes getting hurt,  enjoying and suffering huge tidal waves of emotion as we come to terms with our own humanity and the condition of being human.

Not everyone makes it.  Some crack, some break, some turn away and refuse further exploration, some never engage with solitude or introspection, some become addicted to the rush of novelty.  For me, there came a time when I began to know who I am.  When that happened, I I began longing for peers – those ones who also know themselves.

Mostly, I find them among women.

Femininity encompasses another layer of belongingness.

For the first three decades of my life I didn’t like other women much.  I thought men were smarter, more interesting, and led more exciting lives because, in my family, my Dad was the good guy.  He was calm in the midst of my mother’s erratic emotion and fair in the face of her injustice.  He “got” me, in a way I believed my mother never would.   Happily, in my thirties I discovered, the Goddess, the women’s movement and consciousness raising.  It changed my life and opened interior and exterior worlds to me, expanding heart, psyche, mind, soul and body.  It also opened the door to understanding and reconciling with my mother.

They also brought me to the profound realization that the Earth is one integrated whole soulful organism of which I am an integral part.  There is nowhere I go on this planet where I do not belong because the culture of nature is deeper and more encompassing than any human culture can ever be.

This collage celebrates my journey and all the different kinds of women who travel with me – my tribe, my commadras, my peers.  They bring me happiness, vitality, joy – each one of them holds home in her arms.

Calling the Muses

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Calling the Muses July Week #1

Calling the Muses
July Week #1

*The Month of July has 5 Wednesdays in it. This first week Christine is away traveling with her husband. I decided to do a single Post using a one entry Tale. Next week we will have a regular Tale for the month of July.
This first week, Calling the Muses, is a collage inspired by the myth … King Pierus and his Nine Daughters. In this tale the King is so full of pride that he calls the Muses to compete in a singing contest. He claims that his daughters who have been named after the nine Muses are even more talented than the actual Muses. In my collage I have three of the Muses listening to the King’s call.

When the daughters fail to best the Muses they are turned into chattering Magpies. Another tale about the Muses tells how the seven-tone musical scale was the Muses invention. They took the scale from the Music of the Seven Spheres. In modern English usage, Muses are implicit in words and phrases such as “amuse, museum, music, musing upon. Today authors, artists, poets, musicians, and other creative people call or invoke the Muses for help or inspiration.

Homer, In book 1 of the Odyssey wrote, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

I have experienced the presence of a Muse when creating.
It is the feeling the work came through you but not necessarily of your doing. You remember doing the work but it feels like it is being done by another more knowing or talented being. When this has happened I am in awe of the work as much as any other viewer. You feel blessed my the Muses.

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The Positive Mother

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Yashoda and Shiva 2_

 

As you probably guessed from my last post, the most interesting part of this story is the mother.  My heart goes out to her.  To me, she represents the feminine Divine, The Mother of All, She-Who –Hears the Cries of the World.  She is Wisdom, present at the dawn of creation waiting with that same half-smile to see if her god will choose to create light. She is the Great Mother, oldest of the old, the beginning of all things.  She is Eve, genetic mother of humankind.  The stories simply don’t work without her.  Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Dionysus all had mothers integral to their stories.

The mother in this collage is fruitful, you can tell by the dates she carries.  She loves the Earth.  She is the Earth.  Whatever else may happen in the cosmos, Gaia is home to us.

If you read the history of Mary in the Catholic Church you will find she wasn’t wanted by the establishment, but there was no way to keep her out.  The Church may have wanted to excise the feminine, but the people would and could not do without it.  They knew in their bones and muscles and guts; in the primal material of their bodies that there is no life, no spirituality, no joy without the inclusion of both masculine and feminine energies.  Both inspire awe; both nurture the psyche and sustain the spirit. Without both, we wither and cannot be fruitful.

One might say a mother is defined by the children she bears, but I say motherhood lies in the quality of the love she brings to bear on the world. After all, it is the nature of children to grow up and away, to separate from their mothers.  The mother, enhanced, enriched, empowered by the experience goes on to pour out her wisdom to those whose path she crosses.  She is the mother bear who walks away one day while the yearlings play, the mother cow who turns her back on the weaned calf.

The separation works both ways.  During pregnancy the gravid mother has months to turn inward, to contemplate, and reflect. Settle and come to terms with a new way of life.  When her children leave, she goes through the same process, never forgetting them or ceasing to love, but returning to her own concerns.

Krishna may be a god, may carry the universe inside him and weaken her knees with love, devotion and adoration.  Nevertheless, he is not hers, not her and in the end he may fly through space, doing his god thing while she ponders what she ponders and dreams what she dreams.

The Bremen Town Musicians

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Bremen Town Musicians

Bremen Town Musicians

April fools us with five Mondays this year so Michelle and I have decided to each do a one-off tale of our own choosing.  I selected  The Bremen Town Musicians because it’s been a favorite of mine since childhood.  Since then I’ve revisited this tale several times, always with the same sense of delight.  I can pinpoint exactly where this sentiment resides – right at the top of my tummy – waiting to erupt into a gleeful sound, something between a chuckle and a gurgle.

In retrospect I  see that I loved the idea of animals (read non-entities and minions) upsetting the established order of things.  Their cheerful aplomb and raucous courage cheered my own rebellious heart.  I attribute that rebellious streak and longing for independence to my (at the time) terrifyingly angry mother, the strict hierarchy imposed on our family by the military culture we lived in, and the genetic disposition inherited from Dad’s determinedly individualistic family. The self-determination of the donkey, dog, cat and rooster endeared them to me.  To this day they remain great favorites of mine.

Male donkeys represent stubbornness, vulgarity and  laziness.  Though originally associated with Ra the Sun god ancient Egypt, later they became aligned with Seth the ‘evil’ brother and shadow side of Osiris.  Female donkeys, on the other hand, represent knowledge, symbol of humility, poverty, courage and peace. They appear twice in the Christ story – once to carry the Holy family to safety and again to carry Christ on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Apuleius also made use of the donkey in The Golden Ass.  He transformed his protagonist into a donkey in order that he might work through his thoughtless foolishness and eventually regain human form  under the divine auspices of Goddess Isis.  The juxtaposition  of Donkey’s differing traits remind me of the Tao, the spiritual path we must all, sooner or later,set foot up.fyVMtP8A

Being born in the year of the dog gives me a great affinity for canines.  Their wild ancestry sings in my bones and allows me, at least metaphorically, to run with wolves.   Dogs above all else, symbolize loyalty, an attribute I appreciate in others and aspire to myself.  Because of their dual nature (wild and domestic) the dog is said to walk between worlds.  Dogs are often guardian figures such as Anubis or Cerberus or the companions of powerful Goddesses  such as Hecate, Diana, Hel, and the Caillech.  The hounds of Hell, who run with the Wild Hunt through Celtic nights, are sometimes called The Hounds of the Mothers.  Cave canem!  Beware of the dog  who can focus her wild nature through the lens of her loyalty and fight to the death to protect what she loves.

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Ah cats, who can deny their insouciance?  Sacred since time immemorial in both their domestic and wild guises they remain to this day creatures of portent and mystery.  Long demonized by The Church because of their affiliation with the Feminine Divine, cats have managed to retain their popularity in spite of being drowned, hung, skinned and burned at the stake. One reason is their ability to destroy vermin.  Unlike dogs who serve man out of love and loyalty, the cat makes a pact with humanity in which both parties are expected to fulfill certain conditions.  Cats love the night and seem to have a special affinity for the moon, reflected in the luminous orbs of their dark-adapted eyes.  Their purported nine lives make them a symbol of transformation and rebirth.

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The Rooster is known for his courage.  Long associated with the sun he is a solar symbol in many cultures around the world, venerated for bravery, kindness, raucous good nature, eroticism and ability to keep time.  His appearance in dreams may be a call to “wake up” or, if he appears in full plumage, a sign to strut your stuff.   In Christianity the rooster stands for the risen Christ, but he is also affiliated with the Greek trickster god, Hermes.  Good fortune belongs to Rooster, but his self-assurance and confidence can slide quickly into vanity and fool-hardy “cockiness”.

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All these animals are rich in meaning, they appear in dozens of tales around the world as both bit players and heroes. I could go on and on about any of them, but I can  already see a pattern emerging. Self-reliance, connection to Spirit, rebelliousness,  good humor  are all qualities I prefer and can lay claim to on my good days. Their shadow sides are mine as well. I am glad my old friends don’t hesitate to crow, bray, screech or bark when I get too vainglorious, stubborn or aloof.  This story reflects so much of my own nature. It’s interesting, gratifying and very humbling to me to see how little has changed, how much remains the same.

For some reason I gave this Germanic (notice the dachshund)  tale a Japanese setting – perhaps because of the import these creatures retain in so many diverse cultures around the world.  Their meaning differs, sometimes radically, but these four animals all make their home in our collective unconscious.  They are messengers from our deepest selves and most ancient community, bearing lessons and rewards for those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear.

As a child, I never noticed this story was about old animals being discarded by their community.  Now, my own aging eyes and ears perk at tales dealing with the end stage of life. After seeing my mom in and out of several nursing homes and watching my dad’s decline into old age, I am poignantly aware of how many of our old relations are shuffled off to deteriorate in death’s waiting room.  It’s an awful way to go.  I thank whatever gods may be that both my parents died at home, surrounded by family.  My own ageing process remains both fascinating and frightening .  I hope to meet it in the same spirit as Donkey, Dog, Cat  and Rooster meet theirs.  You’ll notice I used a lot of color (our prompt from Leah for April) in portraying them and yes, I used the word hope, upon which I cast such aspersions in the previous post.  The story speaks to me of color – the rainbow colors of diversity and change, creativity and novelty, courage and carnival, persistence and possibility.  I really like this story.  I like it even more now than when I first heard it.  It’s a noisy tale.  It says, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Coloring

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Pandorawk4color

Coloring

Week #4: Prompt; Color

How does the word color work with Pandora’s Box?  This week I have no insight nor make any connection between the prompt Color and  Pandora’s Box.   What keeps coming up are the words Coloring and Coloring Books.

When I was young, sick and had to stay in bed, my mother would buy me a new Coloring Book and a box of crayons. I loved the dot-to-dot pictures. I loved the new crayons with their perfect points. I decided to turn my previous collages into black and white images. I then colored them using colored pencils. My enthusiasm for coloring did not last long. Perhaps it didn’t work back then either. When I was sick, I often fell asleep mid-page.

I decided to look up the word color in the dictionary. I hoped to find a new definition, something I could expand upon. Something to peak my imagination. What caught my interest is the word coloring. When used  as a verb … to misrepresent, especially by distortion or exaggeration – to color the facts. … I agree.  In the story of Pandora, the subject of  distortion  and misrepresentation  apply … the story colors Pandora and Eve as scapegoats. It’s women’s fault that there is evil in the world.  See my last post … First Sinners.

I looked up Color in my symbols dictionary and read what it had to say. “Color as a symbol is the differentiated, the manifest, diversity, and the affirmation of light. Black and White represent negative and positive, and all opposites. God, as light, is the source of color.” As I colored my black and white collages, I note that whatever is “colored” becomes more meaningful, pops-out, turns into a highlight …the red apples, the red heart, the yellow pears, the flowers, the bird and the Box. Pandora’s face, the butterflies, the blue shirt and the torn paper all take on a special focus. So what do I make of this collage? A Poem.

 Red apples, yellow pears,

Fruit from the Gods

Flowers briefly announce

Spring, Summer and Fall

Temporary, fragile, juicy heart,

Open faces, dot-to-dot the branch

With bird flutter and orange butterflies

Dancing gold coins tossed before the blue

Torn truth, black and white, splashes raindrops

Down to color  the feminine psyche.

The Box

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On Opening the Box

 

This week, I embrace the most accepted meaning (in our culture) of negativity – bad, evil, yucky, eech, nasty, unpleasant, dirty, harmful, damaging etc.  These are the attributes normally attributed to the evils Pandora let loose on mankind.  These are also  qualities often associated with women. (Yes, Virginia there is a misogynist.)

To this day, many forms of Christianity blame Eve for expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  Furthermore, any child born of woman gets stained, tainted, indelibly marked with sin as he/she slides through the birth canal.  These negative notions manifest in all sorts of ways in our society – you, no doubt, can easily name a dozen or so.  For example, women have a plethora of ugly sobriquets, which don’t bear repeating, so do their genitalia.  The mis-translation of Pandora’s jar to Pandora’s box doesn’t surprise me.  As Freud said, “There are no accidents without intentions.”

Jars, cauldrons, and pots are archetypal symbols of the great and holy mystery of the womb.  Even without vulgarization, the association is obvious but why does this ancient story connect women’s sexuality with ill?

We don’t know what exactly what changed during the 3rd and 4th millennia B.C.E. to subvert the worship throughout southern Europe of the Great Mother as a primary deity, but I tend to agree with Marija Gimbutas that a widespread invasion from the north took place by a people with superior technology whose primary deity was masculine.  Since human psychology is based in our mammalian brains, it has continued pretty much the same for thousands of millennia.  We were as susceptible to a good smear campaign in 4,000 B.C.E. as we are today and just as capable of manufacturing propaganda, mis-information and lies.  It isn’t difficult  to imagine a new religion dissing the old in order to replace one god with another.  We can find many historical examples of this in our  history, it’s not a stretch to imagine pre-historic predecessors engaged in the same activity.

How ere it came to be, modern twenty-first century women still suffer from it, as we have for generations. This collage is a picture of that lie.  It shows evils in the form of insects (other beings suffering a bad rap) emanating from Pandora’s “box”.  The vulture and the bronze representation of a liver are elements from the related Prometheus myth and denote the cruelty of Zeus (depicted at the lower right).  The liver also stands for the art of hepatoscopy, a kind of divination based on reading the liver.  It’s a reminder to search for the meaning below the meaning (see previous posting).

The vulture is one of the oldest known symbols associated with a goddess.  Even before Isis, with whom it became closely linked, the vulture belonged to Nekhbet whose oracle shrine is the oldest yet discovered in Egypt. (3100 B.C.E.)  Her priestesses were called muu (mothers) and wore robes of Egyptian vulture feathers.  The vulture stands for regeneration, maternity and the mystic cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  In my collage she represents the lost power and sanctity of the feminine.   However, the vulture’s wing encircles Pandora like a mother’s arm; the power, beauty and sanctity of the feminine are still Pandora’s to call upon if she will waken and remember.

The Papess

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Pope Joan with pigs 200

La PapesseDivinatory meaning
~Upright ~

Intuition, wisdom and secret knowledge, the feminine side of the male personality. Something remains yet to be revealed, but patience must be observed. Duality and mystery. Hidden influences affect both home and work and intuitive insight suggests new solutions. The influence of women.

~Ill Dignified or Reversed~

Lack of personal harmony and problems resulting from a lack of foresight. Suppression of the feminine or intuitive side of the personality. Facile and surface knowledge. Repression and ignorance of true facts and feelings. In women, an inability to come to terms with other women or themselves. Things and circumstances are not what they seem.

The most interesting part of this story for me was the odd inclusion of the Pope in the wife’s list of ambitions. Those of you who have read my novel Magdalene A.D. know how interested I am in feminine Christian religious figures. It’s taken years for me to accept my Christian cultural heritage because of the long history of misogyny so deeply entwined in it. Only by going back to the beginning and learning how the divine feminine insisted on her reappearance, despite concerted efforts to excise her, could I finally begin to reclaim some part of Christianity as my own. Magdalene A.D. was an exercise in active imagination in which I rewrote a traditional story, filling in the blank spots with my own midrash in an attempt to help heal this deep historical wound.

So, of course the idea of a female Pope fascinated me. There is a legend, dating in written form back to the thirteenth century, describing the reign of Pope Joan. As the story goes, enamored of learning, she disguised herself as a man and became a priest in order to peruse her studies. (It’s hardly unusual for women to disguise themselves as a man).  Joan, erudite and wise beyond her years, rose quickly in the estimation of her peers to the point that they elected her Pope. Perhaps she had a lover; perhaps she was raped – at any rate two years and seven months into her reign she gave birth to a baby boy during the middle of a public procession right in the middle of the street. Some versions say she died; others that she was done away with; still others that she repented and spent the rest of her life in a convent doing penance.

As with many other traditional tales, one can safely assume that oral traditions long predated the actual inscription of the story. The story of Pope Joan may antedate the written account by two or three centuries or more. The most interesting part for me is the persistence of this legend. The Papess found her way into the earliest tarot decks and also into folk tales like The Fisherman’s Wife. Why did so many people believe it? What, about this particular story, appealed to the popular imagination so much that scholars and novelists wrote about it and engravers illustrated it?

I’ve dressed my fisherman’s wife in sumptuous robes and a diamond mitre. As in the story she is surrounded in flames. I still don’t know what these staggered torches stand for. Do they echo the myriad lights carried by the faithful in religious processions? Perhaps they represent the enormous super-sized candles on the high altars of cathedrals. Candles were an extravagance and burning dozens at a time might seem the height of luxurious abandon to a woman only days away from life in a pigsty. Fairy tales were often told to illustrate the vast divide between rich and poor. They provided a safe way to criticize and make fun of the establishment (church and state) and to rewrite abhorrent circumstance into an easier more bountiful existence. The many lights might have been a critical look at the extravagance of the church at the expense of the poor. The fisherman’s wife might be an allegory for the vain ambition and worldly lusts of a supposedly sacred institution dedicated to the precepts of a Master who asked his followers to walk away from all worldly goods.

I like my little Papess. She seems to have a sly peasant twinkle in her eye, as if to say, “I’ll just play this out and see how far I can take this joke.” I think her good common sense tells her that the deck is stacked against her and this ride can’t last. I also think that under her cynicism and street smarts lies rage – hot and fiery as the flames that surround her. She’d like to burn everything down and start over- even if it means starting from scratch again in her pigsty.

Speaking of pigs! Pigs are ancient symbols of both fertility and death – earthly dwellers and creatures of the underworld linked since long before recorded history with both the moon and the feminine divine. Pigs are ferocious omnivores who will devour shit, grain, human flesh and their own off-spring with equal abandon. Fierce hunters, their tusks appear in the mouths of both demons and gorgons, but their large litters and fleshy bodies also symbolize abundant life and fertility. Their sacred nature is acknowledged in Egyptian, Semite, Indian, Native American, Polynesian, Scandinavian, Celtic, Asian and Greek myth. European culture links them most closely with Persephone and Cerridwen. Their inclusion here hints at a deeper more arcane mythic level to this story. I’m reminded of Kali dancing on the body of Shiva. The Wikipedia article explains the Tantric interpretation of that image thusly:

“The Shiv tattava (Divine Consciousness as Shiva) is inactive, while the Shakti tattava (Divine Energy as Kali) is active. Shiva and Kali represent Brahman, the Absolute pure consciousness which is beyond all names, forms and activities. Kali, on the other hand, represents the potential (and manifested) energy responsible for all names, forms and activities. She is his Shakti, or creative power, and is seen as the substance behind the entire content of all consciousness. She can never exist apart from Shiva or act independently of him,just as Shiva remains a mere corpse without Kali i.e., Shakti, all the matter/energy of the universe, is not distinct from Shiva, or Brahman, but is rather the dynamic power of Brahman.[45] Hence, Kali is Para Brahman in the feminine and dynamic aspect while Shiva is the male aspect and static. She stands as the absolute basis for all life, energy and beneath her feet lies, Shiva, a metaphor for mass, which cannot retain its form without energy.”

(More on pigs – Jack and Catherine Hart have created a wonderful mythic resource on their website – the page on pigs is fascinating.  The Harts deserve big kudos for their generous sharing.)

I mustn’t forget to mention the moon- a feminine symbol if there ever was one, and profoundly associated with water and emotion. The fisherman’s wife’s next ambition will be to become Lord of the Sun and Moon. All her efforts have been leading up to this. She wants to have mastery over both feminine and masculine – perhaps she wants equity both within herself and without; perhaps, her struggle with her husband has been all about righting the balance between masculine and feminine. But, here the Prince disguised as a fish finally balks. It’s beyond even his power to give her mastery over the Sun and Moon (i.e. masculine and feminine, in other words, herself). Maybe the lesson of the story is that equity of this kind can only be achieved internally by individual effort. No matter who we are or what resources we command, happiness and contentment are contingent on learning to know ourselves. We ignore this lesson at our peril.