Tag Archives: death and rebirth

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.

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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