Category Archives: Women

Wanderlust

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Journeys

I loved the images Michelle sent me last time.  They included the suitcase, camel and art deco woman as well as the serrated map border.  The drummer was an image I sent her, which came back to me.  I suppose she picked the suitcase because I’ve been traveling this summer to Ireland. And thought there doesn’t seem to be anything Irish in the picture it does speak directly to many things about the journey.

It’s been a while since I’ve traveled anywhere unfamiliar or outside of the boundaries of the US.  I’d been getting restless and plagued with wanderlust so the opportunity to go to Ireland came at just the right time.  I went with a group of ten amazing women- strangers to me, but not unknown. They are all represented in the central figure of the young woman. There is a lovely camaraderie that occurs between women of a certain age who have worked hard all their lives seeking to know themselves.  We envision life as a journey of possibilities and value  it holistically, good,bad, ugly, sublime and ordinary all accepted as part of the whole. As within, so without. Once one accepts the inner journey than the outer journeys become full of metaphors and vice versa.  When the inner and outer journey merge and the lines between them become fluid magic occurs. It’s that feeling I wanted to convey here for indeed, my Irish trip was in all senses a magical journey.

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Paps of Danu

Specifically Irish, are the two matching hills in the scene behind the drummer’s head.  They look like two breast-shaped mountains located near Killarney in County Kerry.  These are the Paps of Anu long considered sacred first to the mother goddess Anu or Danu as she was known on the continent. Our trip was actually a pilgrimage to ancient sacred sites.  In the collage, you see this reflected in these hills and also in the  post card in the lower right hand corner depicting the ruins at Chaco Canyon in the American southwest, which resembles an aerial photograph of The City an ancient settlement at the foot of The Paps.citySatelliteThumb

A mythical Asian creature guards the corner. He and the camel represent the animal spirits whose protection and guidance we sought for our travels.  Along the way we journeyed shamanically  guided by the amazing Amantha Murphy and her equally delightful assistant Rose Mummery who patiently and mindfully drummed for us.  The vivid colors in the collage represent the intense exhilaration surrounding this adventure.

Finally, I can never think of traveling without thinking of my friend Naomi Bristol.  She was an inveterate traveler who welcomed new experiences without fear or judgement.  Naomi collected images of camels, a beast identified closely with long exotic journeys. Many years ago I wrote this poem for her, which seems to fit here as well…

THE CAMEL’S CARD(for Naomi Bristol)

 Camel as totem

is hard to define,

exceedingly helpful,

not always benign;

if, in your cards, she

appears on this day,

journey and travelling

will hold you in sway.

~

Camel can teach you

to walk shifting sands,

carry loads lithely,

state your demands;

garner resources,

reserving and holding

interior wisdom

for later unfolding.

~

Contrary camel,

who stubbornly spits,

hoarding her genius

to strike with her wits,

appears in the cards

to warn against waste

of talent and temper

squandered in haste.

~

Feminine creature,

long lashes, soft eyes,

deceptively docile,

inscrutably wise,

guide to the desserts

which hide in the soul,

uncovering well-springs

to keep you heart-whole.

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Through The Red Door

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Out the Red Door“Through the Red Door”
(It’s her imagination)

… As the curtain rises, we see little Johnnie all dressed in his new hat, red coat and black boots. He is standing next to the reading chair.
“I want to go outside and play,” he called to his mother.
It was early morning, even his cat Goldie was still asleep. Through the big window behind him he could see the garden with the cone flowers and the white picket fence. He wondered when his Mother would let him go beyond the white fence? He had a sandbox near the stone dove and a hiding place near the fountain. He loved to go through the red door into the garden. But he also longed to go over the white fence across the grass and beyond the meadow. He imagined exploring the forest. He heard there were creatures living in there. Perhaps he would see Winnie the Poo, Brer Rabbit, Mowgli or Mole and Ratty. He was sure the Hundred Acre Woods, the Riverbank, and the Jungle were in there among those far off trees. He wanted to check it all out for himself. He knew for sure that true adventures happened out there because his mother read to him from the night-time storybooks.

She sat in the corner and leaned up against the pillar She had her note book and pen ready and the story started to write itself. It was magical . What is it about the Red door that made her think of her cousin Johnnie. He was such a cute little guy. His daddy had bought him the boots. The black hat had come from her. The red door prompted the red coat with the black trim. Now dressed in the imaginary outfit little Johnnie stood in this imaginary room staring off, his hands clasp in front of him.”

I love the creative process. When I look at the finished Collage new stories and possibilities show themselves. The images prompt a tale of my own creation. Part of the fun of our image exchange is opening the mail and looking through the items enclosed.
Right away I fell in love with the child in the Red Coat. I also loved the Blue Rose. Which can be seen in the collage behind the stone bird. I eliminated a couple images but there were two other images I tried to include but even after altering there size and tucking them in here and there I couldn’t get them to work in this composition.

What’s it all mean? What do I see in the combination of images that have spoken to me?
I love the red door. It is unpretentious, strong but not threatening. I love the view of the flowers, their color, their form. I enjoy considering the white picket fence, the large evergreen tree and the mist on the meadow leading to the forest off in the distance. The chair, its style is formal but the fabric is delightful and reflects the petals on the garden flowers .I had the image of a pile of contemporary pillows for a while. I wanted to use the image but not as pillows. I like the pattern. I turned the pile on its side along the bottom third of the compositional frame but they migrated up to the top. They have a mask like quality to the design pattern, as if they represent a chorus watching the story or theater curtains lifted to expose the stage play. The scene has a safeness, a warmth about it. Is the young woman the child’s mother, his nursemaid, babysitter, a relative or an older sister? I also love the young woman’s gaze. She is lovingly focused on the child. The child is a wonderful, precious, innocent. How lucky women are to “know” the wonder of the new innocent. The cat, curled up under the chair reminds me of my cat, able to sleep anywhere. I find the pillar she is leaning against with its curves very feminine and sensual. The stone bird, missing its beak, makes it hard to tell if it is an owl or dove, both familiars of the Goddess. The blue petals of the rose form a halo behind the bird’s head. A Rose is also very special to the Goddess. This piece reminds me of innocence, safety, love, protection and the playfulness of our imagination.

Lunescence

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Drawing Down the Moon

The Moon has long been linked to women’s mysteries, particularly their menstrual cycles. The twenty-eight days of a woman’s cycle correspond to the Moon’s own waxing and waning. She is mistress of the dark night whose ebony depths are echoed in the wombs of women and the underground caverns of Earth. In our culture and many other’s the Moon is considered feminine with strong links to a host of goddesses – Artemis, Hecate, Áine, Sefkhet, Cerridwen, Selene, Chang-o, Ishtar, Hina Hine, Mama Quilla ‑ the list is long and comes from around the world.

moon worshipper

Most of the moon goddesses are associated with fertility, childbirth or the protection of women. While scientific data assures us the old stories linking moon and madness have no basis in reality; other studies confirm what women have always known – the Moon can affects their production of hormones and the onset of menses.

Little if any scientific research has been devoted to determining if the Moon actually affects the way plants grow but the amount of anecdotal evidence is enormous. There are over five million references on the web to planting by moonlight. Moon gardening continues to have Goddess knows how many hundreds of thousands of adherents as it has for millennia. Fertility is her watchword.

Women have always gathered on the full moon to perform their rites and practice their mysteries. To this day circles of women meet in circles at the full moon to seek sisterhood, counsel and support from each other.

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My collage shows a Mycenae priestess engaged in the rite of drawing Down the Moon, a ritual in which women gather together to focus their attention on invoking the Goddess while their priestess opens herself to the Goddess’s presence and allows Her to speak through her. The priestess holds a snake – powerful symbol of feminine life, renewal and transformation. The snake sheds its skin just as a woman once a month sheds the soft inner lining of her uterine wall.

I can’t mention this rite without pausing to remember Margot Adler who died this year on my birthday.  She is was just my age.  Below you can see a copy of her original well-thumbed and much-loved book. In 1979 we were just beginning to re-member the feminine divine and revive Her mysteries.

Margot Adler 1946-2014 Author of "Drawing Down the Moon"

Margot Adler 1946-2014
Author of “Drawing Down the Moon”

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A small catlike form perches on the priestess’s head. Cats were once considered sacred and revered in their own right. Cats are nocturnal creatures, prowling the night with luminous round eyes. They too have a long association with birth, fecundity, motherhood and milk.

People see different things in the Moon – rabbits, faces, buffalo and sometimes a beautiful woman with long dark hair.  My moon is based on medieval Celtic design. It contains a woman tangled in her own hair and surrounded by ancient symbols. She represents the strange and prophetic nature of dreams, visions and intuitions sent by the Moon to those who seek her counsel.  She also stands for the danger inherent in stepping between worlds to engage with either the numinous  or one’s own unconscious.  The gods can drive you mad if you strive to penetrate their mysteries to vigorously, tangling you in a labyrinth of self-reflecting thoughts and imaginings.

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If you look closely, you will find several flakes of mugwort incorporated in the design of the background. Mugwort is a common name for several species of aromatic plants in the genus Artemisia, named after the moon goddess Artemis. Mugwort can be used as a sacred smoking or smudging herb for protection or divination. Used in a ritual context it may enhance astral projection, lucid dreaming and altered states of consciousness. Keeping mugwort under your pillow or in your bedroom encourages prophetic dreams.

“Driving into the Moon”

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Driving Into the Moon

Driving Into the Moon

 

The Night Owl and Driving into the Moon

I am a card-carrying member of the Night Owl Club… I have been my whole life. Even as a child, I was never one to fall asleep easily or get up early. Getting to school on time was always a challenge. Recently a friend of mine said, “I’m a heavy sleeper and it’s impossible for me to wake up and jump to it.” I don’t know if I’m a heavy sleeper but I know I do not wake up and jump to it.

My collage, The Night Owl, shows the big-eyed owl in flight. The moon, the trees and the night sky with thousands and thousands of stars are the owl’s domain. The Owl has binocular vision and can easily estimate the depth of field. His ears are not symmetrical. One ear is lower than the other. This makes it possible for the owl to locate its prey. Their night vision is excellent. Their wings have feathers on the edge that make it very difficult for their prey to hear them coming.

My second collage,” Driving into the Moon”, is about an experience I had a few years back. I was driving across a bridge at night heading east towards the hills. The lights on the bridge were yellow/orange. There were very few cars. The moon was huge. It was huge and orange and it sat at the end of the roadway. As I traveled along, rather alone, encased in an orange cocoon of light, the blackness of the bay and of the darkness of the night carried me into another world. I was driving into the moon. It was the strangest feeling, otherworldly, very cosmic. I kept looking down at my hands on the steering wheel reminding myself that I wasn’t dreaming. My senses told me it wouldn’t be long before I would be off the bridge and I wondered if the Moon would move and let me pass.

I haven’t forgotten those moments of confusion. That enormous orange moon, the night sky, the stars and the sounds in the darkness are both magical and scary. It is a time when the imagination can paint all kinds of pictures in our head. It was the fodder of science fiction stories.

Ancient peoples around the world had many different stories about the moon. Babylonians gave the Moon precedence over the Sun. Oriental nations in general worshipped the Moon before the Sun. In central Asia, it was said the moon is the Goddess’s Mirror reflecting everything in the world. The Sioux Indians called the Moon
“The old woman who never dies.” The Iroquois people called her “The Eternal One.”
The Moon is the “Moon Goddess “who created time, with all its cycles of growth, decline and destruction, which is why ancient calendars were based on phases of the moon…

The Vedas say all souls return to the moon after death, to be devoured by the maternal spirits. Pythagorean sects viewed the Moon as the home of the dead, a gate (yoni) through which souls passed on the way to the paradise-fields of the stars. Greeks often located the Elysian Fields, home of the blessed dead in the moon. In advanced cultures the themes of the moon as the land of the dead or the regenerating receptacle of souls … between reincarnations, it sheltered both the dead and the unborn, which were one and the same. The symbol of the moon is the Crescent shape. The ancient Gaul and the modern day French make moon-cakes … a crescent shaped pastry they call, Croissants. The crescent moon worn by Diana is said to be the ark or vessel of fertility or the container of the Germ of Life. As the Moon governs the sea’s tides so she is supposed to govern the tides of life and death.

The Auger

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The Auger

… If a bird flying from right to left

disappears, it is favorable; but if it raises

its left wing, flies away and disappears,

it is unfavorable.  If a bird flying from left

to right disappears on a straight course,

it is unfavorable; but if after raising

its right wing and flying away it disappears,

it is favorable …

~translated by Derek Collins from an inscription at Ephesus (late 6th century B.C.E.)

As the above description demonstrates, augury, divination by interpreting the flight, action, song and colors of birds, dates back to ancient days.  One can safely assume with most inscriptions of this kind of lore that the procedure described was in actual practice for many many, years before anyone bothered to write it down.  It’s the same with fairy tales, folk songs or myths – they didn’t appear the moment someone actually decided to record them, instead they are part of a long oral tradition whose original telling disappears into the mist of prehistory.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs, survivors of the great worldwide destruction by comet that marked the end of the Cretaceous period.  They have been around for the entire history of the human race – good fairies at our birth, flying between the worlds of imagination and physical reality to bring us messages from the gods and from our own innermost selves.

Interpreting their messages requires a profound knowledge of bird behavior.  Once upon a time, when most people lived close the land and saw the divine in everything, folks paid much closer attention to the way things work and connect.  But as time passed, many of us moved to cities and our work became so specialized we diverted our attention from the wider world and began to focus on the inner workings of one or two things instead of the interrelationship of the many.  Gradually, we came to rely on prophets, priests, oracles and augers to pay attention in our stead and tell us what meaning the signs, we once interpreted ourselves, held.

My collage depicts just such a person.  She sits  on the edge of a large pot or cauldron symbolizing the primordial womb that contains and sustains, protects and gestates, provides food and gifts and gives birth.  It represents the dark void out of which the universe sparks into being.  Out of  her pots fly seven birds whose flight will inform her answer to the question I have come to ask.  She is a priestess of the night and her rites are conducted in the light of the full moon.  Her special guide is an owl, once sacred to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.  tetradrachmOwls have long been symbols of wisdom, sorcery and magic.  The owl was believed to have the power to illuminate Athena’s shadow side, thus enabling her to speak the whole truth.  Ancient Romans believed that an owl’s heart, placed on the breast of a sleeping woman, forced her to tell all her secrets.  Egyptians drew owls, sculpted them and wrote with them.  Egyptian owl 2To this very day, Algerian folklore states that to make a woman tell you everything, put the eye of an owl into her sleeping hand.  Most cultures attach symbolic meaning to the owl, for good or ill they associate it with femininity and magic.  Owls are found in all regions of Earth except Antarctica and some remote islands; their DNA dates back to the very first birds.  Humans have held them in special regard since the beginning.  Witness the cave paintings  of Chauvet, France, which date back 35,000 years, and contain a depiction of an owl, drawn the way today’s children still draw them.

Owl from Chauvet 35,000 BCE

Owl from Chauvet
35,000 BCE

Owls are considered evil omens by some, but I think that dread arises from fear of the dark.  Once one accepts darkness and learns to appreciate its gifts, fear diminishes, though a certain amount of awe and respect is appropriate and necessary to approach the divine in any aspect.

Recently a friend found a small owl dead beside the road.  She is drying the body out in cornmeal and in a month or so we will respectfully and ceremoniously pluck and divide the feathers.  Owls hold special symbolic significance for me and form part of my individual cosmology.  I feel honored that Owl has made its presence known, once again, and am glad for the privilege and opportunity of acknowledging it through art.

The Language of the Birds

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Lakshi Listened

The language of the birds has a venerable history dating back to the ancient Greek world.  Aesop was supposed to have understood it, as did Tiresias.  The figurehead of Jason’s ship, the Argo, carved of wood from a sacred grove of trees at the oracle site of Dodona, could speak with birds.  The priestesses of Dodona received their prophecies from the rustling leaves of the oak.  Herodotus reported that:

“… two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine …”  

Sacred trees and birds naturally share a long association, one I am sure will reveal itself in artwork to come.  Meanwhile, we can’t leave Greece without mentioning Aristophanes and his satirical play The Birds, in which two men conspire with a hoopoe bird to try and overthrow Olympus.

The hoopoehoopoe was valued for his virtue by Persians, but seen as a harbinger of death in Scandinavia.  He introduced King Solomon to Sheba.  In Egypt they painted his sacred image into the walls of their tombs.  Jumping ahead two thousand years to the work of the Sufi mystic poet, Farid al-Din Attar, we find the hoopoe leading a Conference of Birds on a quest for enlightenment.  About the same time, on the other side of Europe, troubadours were thought to write poetry and sing in the language of birds, while alchemists claimed that same avian lexicon as an arcane mystical language holding the secrets of the universe.  Others considered the language of the birds another name for angel-speak.

As you can see, it’s a fascinating topic.  There are even some fairy tales written about it, giving me enough material to inspire several weeks of work.  This week I started out as usual to create a collage, beginning by digging out my bird file and cutting images for a couple of hours.  However, I couldn’t make them coalesce into anything interesting.  Instead, I wrote a poem, Lakshmi* Listens, and illustrated it with a power point slide.  I then saved the image as a jpeg and posted it here.  I am still not as “outside the box” as I would like to be, but already the chains feel a bit looser…

* Lakshmi – the Hindu goddess of spiritual and material prosperity, wealth, purity, generosity, and the embodiment of beauty, grace and charm.

MADRE LAKSHMI

  Lakshmi Listens

Living alone

she learns to listen

distinguishing tweet from chirp

 chitter from squawk, constricting

 tongue and throat, rasping 0ut

syllables harsh enough to splinter ice;

whistling refrains so sweetly pitched

Lakshmi stoops to overhear, dripping

nectar tears

into the dimpled lake.

©2014 Christine Irving

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.

The Domavoya *

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Crick, crack, crinkle

babushkas lash twigs

to birch handles, muttering

small incantations.

 

Swish, swash, swish, swash

shuffling backwards

bending forward, they

sweep the roadway clean.

 

Rub a dub dub at forest’s edge

gnarled thumbs smooth fragrant oil –

poppy, castor, clove

deep between wrinkled thighs

 

mount their brooms

scream Baba Yaga’s name

and shoot like wild comets

over tundra, taiga, steppe.

 

Clip, clop, clip, clop,

a horseman is coming

clad in gold armor

riding a golden horse.

 

Babushkas fall from the sky like bats

drifting down to doze in doorways

lizard lids closing

on bright blackberry eyes.

 

Someone creeps shadow-wise

across a darkened threshhold;

bony hands snap out to clutch and catch,

exacting a fierce reckoning to pass.

 

Who wants to cross? And why? they ask

What you most fear, will find you here.

What will you trade to get in?

What will you give to get out?

 

 

* Russian word roughly equivalent to concierge

© 2010 Christine Irving

Talisman

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Baba1Sadly, Michelle’s new computer has also malfunctioned so her silence is based on a lack of means rather than will or desire.  We wonder if we have slighted some creature of myth or overlooked some entity in one of the tales.  If so, we are heartily sorry and do here apologize.

I on the other hand am stuck!  I simply can’t find any more images, so far, that resonate for me with Baba Yaga.  I think we erred in picking an iconic figure rather than delving into a particular story, though it does underscore our point about the efficacy of story in deepening self-knowledge, connecting to community and inspiring creativity.

As I mentioned earlier, Baba Yaga has been part of my personal mythic line-up for a long time.  Several years ago, I created a Baba Yaga figure out of one of those small wooden anatomical figures used by artists to remind them of the proportions of the human form.  I decided to photograph her for you in lieu of a collage.

Much as I love collage, if one is not a painter (I am not; Michelle is.) it can be very restrictive if one is attempting to express a specific idea – for example finding the picture of an ugly old woman is difficult.  Google springs immediately to mind- but somehow to me it feels like cheating.  Silly isn’t it! Or I could go out and buy a new magazine, but that seems to violate the element of serendipity I value in my work.  Collage, the way I do it, has to do with recycling, rearranging and refreshing already created images into new contexts and juxtapositions.  The work reflects the larger work of nature, in which basic elements are constantly being shuffled and redealt into new alignments to produce a novel shape or configuration.  Collage is humbling because one can never forget that the parts and pieces, the ideas and symbols are part of a larger whole and derive from many sources.  Painting, drawing, sketching leaves more room for ego and idiosyncrasy.  In it, connections, borrowings and derivations are more subtle and the unique contributions of the artist more immediate and visible.  I often long to be able to paint what I see, but there is some disconnect between hand and eye for me that increases my frustration level to the point it is no longer satisfying to attempt.

Doll making on the other hand – at least with a basic body shape to work with, seemed more within my grasp.  Actually assembling the pieces parts was rather like making a collage.  My Baba Yaga wears purple velvet pantaloons tucked into felt boots sporting pearl buttons.  Her long-sleeved peasant shirt is silver to represent the moon.  She wears a fur-lined vest in the colors of autumn leaves and her fur-collared velvet cloak is springtime green.  I sewed three small brooms to the hem so she can sweep away her footsteps as she goes.   A tiny skull hangs around her neck, reminiscent of her Indian cousin Kali.  A babushka – the traditional head scarf worn by Russian women – covers her gray head (I donated a lock of my own hair) and her face is fierce and smeared with red.  Nose and teeth are made from real shards of bone.  She wears a bunch of keys at her waist because she holds the keys to our questions about the mysteries of Life/Death, our relationship to nature and our connection to the past and future.

Working with the doll, gluing my own hair on her head, engendered a more profound grasp of what it means to be a crone, a wisdom holder, an elder and a quintessentially wild woman.  As always, I am deeply grateful to my estimable guide Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She is a mentor par excellence; her book Women Who Run with the Wolves is one of my Bibles.  In it Dr. Estes explores Vasilisa, the story most often associated with Baba Yaga.  It contains many parallels with Cinderella (the reason M. and I chose to concentrate on the witch).  However, in Vasilisa the dead mother is represented by a doll.  Not until I reread the chapter for this essay did I realize the connections between my doll and the one in the story.

The talismanic numen of the doll is that it reminds us, tells us, sees ahead for us.  This intuitive function belongs to all women. It is a massive and fundamental receptivity … possessing immediate access to a profound wisdom that reaches to women’s very bones.    ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Baba Yaga provides a direct connection, not only to our own old age, but also to our oldest ancestors.  (From another perspective – our youngest predecessors) Her lineage is very old.  I think she probably first came to consciousness among the hunter-gatherers of the primeval forests of Northern Europe.  As people became more agrarian and expanded the clearings and meadows into farmland they kept her stories alive. As Pupul Jayakar states so eloquently in her book The Earth Mother, speaking of Indian history:

    … like a spiral it coils and uncoils.  Within this movement nothing is totally rejected, nothing discarded, no issues polarized. The alien and heretical are neither confronted nor destroyed; instead they are transformed.  The rural tradition has a skill of genius, in inventing myths and reinterpreting texts, that reduces the alien to familiar symbols and metaphors.

    The gap between orthodox dogma and heretical belief is never unbridgeable. Deities and systems maligned and ostracized in one age become benevolent and respectable in another.

This is why folk tales are so important because they contain the seeds of the past and future.  Seeds thousands of years old, found buried in tombs or encased in long-forgotten storage jars have been sprouted by anthropologists.  Just so, ancient concepts and insights can be held in folktales to re-emerge centuries later and blossom into something with contemporary relevance.  Who knows what of our wisdom, understanding or technology will disappear to re-emerge in the future?

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Death and Ambiguity

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The Crone

While Baba Yaga may have her more benign moments, in truth, she is a terrifying creature of great power; a cannibal, said to have devoured the flesh of those whose flaming skulls form a palisade around her chicken-legged hut.  Cannibalism seems repulsive and horrible to modern eyes, but originally people ate bits of the dead in order to share their manna, their spirit, and make it their own.  Taking a bite of one’s ancestor meant incorporating some of her/his power and wisdom into oneself and opened a door to communication with the dead.  In the same way, eating some of one’s enemy allowed access to their courage and intelligence. In a way its about conservation, recycling and continuity; learning from the past and bringing its lessons forward.

Skulls served the same purpose.  Many ancient cultures from Celts to Mayans collected skulls and incorporated them heavily into their culture and art considering them the repository of intelligence and  home to the soul.  Within it repose the organs of all the senses including touch (though skin spreads across the rest of the body as well). To behead a person is to sever his/her connection to Earth; to collect it is to retain some of their essence.  To preserve the skull of one’s ancestor maintains an immediate and personal souvenir, which acts as both a mnemonic device and a means of communication with the dead.  Read more about skulls on Magdalene A.D.’s Facebook page.

The skull has long been a symbol of death, but in more ancient times it also stood for rebirth.  After all, bones last longer than any other part of us – sometimes for century upon century – look at our own far distant great, great, great, great, etc. grandmother Lucy!  Thus, in a weird paradox bones represent both immortality and mortality.  The witch Baba Yaga embodies that same ambiguity with capricious displays of ferocity and benevolence. So too, do her familiars the cock and the cat.  These animals are powerful symbols in many cultures around the world – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  Both are psychopomps – spirit guides who move between worlds carrying messages and leading souls through the veils that separate one plane from another.  Out of all the tangled myth and meaning associated with these animals two things stand out for me.

The cat, a known familiar of witches, hunts in the dark, pouncing on her prey and bringing it into the light.  She symbolizes the work the Crone demands of us- to hunt through our own shadows for whatever gnaws, festers and corrupts and bring it into the consciousness.

For Malays, the foot of the rooster represents a three-way cross roads; a place where destiny can change. Hecate, ancient Queen of witches, herself the crone aspect of a pre-Olympian triple Goddess (Persephone, Demeter, Hecate) was worshiped outdoors at places where three paths crossed. The number three has been considered sacred since the dawn of time and still survives in modern Christian culture as The Trinity. Hecate’s crossroads can represent the past, present and future as well as possible new directions to take in one’s life.  It’s interesting that she offers a three-way choice, rather than an either/or decision.  Hecate, like Baba Yaga represents choice and ambiguity.

The Crone understands connection and entanglement and yet she is essentially simple, basic primitive. Her mantra is easy to understand: Change or die.  She grasps the meaning of life’s most basic paradox: the one is contained in the many and the many in the one; all entities formed from the same matter, connected by the same life force, but each one singular and unique.

This is a lot of telling to explain what the collage intends to show!  Hopefully, it’s all there.  If nothing else, the feminine symbols carved into the trees, half-hidden behind their trunks, indicate  the unequivocally feminine nature of this goddess and her mysteries. Or do they?  As humans age their bodies change; women and men become more and more androgynous in  appearance and wisdom.  Individuation is about becoming more completely human.  The true Crone integrates within herself both cat and rooster, feminine and masculine.