Tag Archives: gods

“Rumpelstiltskin Is My Name”

Standard

Straw into Gold_0001

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.”

Advertisements

Three Sisters: A Creation Story

Standard

3 seasons_0001

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.

Cinderella BCE

Standard

Hawk 4

In this collage I return to the oldest known Cinderella story, Rhodopis.  It comes to us from the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BCE – c. 24 CE) who heard it in Egypt.  Another account of Rhodopis has survived in Aelian’s (175 – c. 235) writings implying the Cinderella theme remained popular throughout antiquity. Interestingly, the story mentions Aesop of fable fame who lived 500 years earlier, indicating that the story probably originated much earlier than the 1st century CE. Aesop used stories featuring animals to teach lessons in morality; from her very beginning, Cinderella is doubly linked with the animal world.

In this version Rhodopis is a slave girl who is teased unmercifully by the other servant girls for her fair complexion.  After her master gives her a pair of rose-gilded slippers, they dislike her even more.  At the next feast day they give her so many chores she cannot attend the celebration.  As she washes clothes in the Nile, her slippers get wet and she puts them on the bank to dry. The god Horus swoops down in his falcon form, flies off with her sandal, and drops it in the Pharaoh’s lap.  He goes in search of the owner and you know the rest of the story!

I’m struck by how very old this story is and how long it retained the shoes and the bird as part of its bones. In my last post I mentioned the symbolism of ownership and possession inherent in the shoes. Years ago, I moved to Saudi Arabia where I lived for sixteen years.  One of the first things I learned was not to ever point the soles of my shoes at someone.  It is considered an insult.  I always thought it was because shoes touched the dirt and were unclean.  I see now that it might imply ownership.  In a part of the world where slavery existed officially until very recently and still continues unofficially in some households, I understand how this might indeed be a grave offense.  It also explains why shoes are left at the door of the mosques (and in other countries and faiths, the temples).  The holy places belong to God and no human can possess them or claim ownership.

Of all the places in the world where one might need shoes, the desert takes the cake.  Given the heat, the stones, the difficulty of walking in sand, a shoe offers freedom of movement and the ability to travel long distances.  Freedom and travel are hardly synonymous with possession and ownership, in fact they seem opposed.  Like many seeming opposites, they simply occupy different ends of a spectrum.  Or perhaps they are mirror images of each other.  Maybe the point of them, in this story, is to teach that two things can be true at the same time. Or that one thing can simultaneously be true and not true …

In my collage there is only the god Horus, the sandal, the sky and the desert.  I wanted to capture a tiny bit of the majesty and terror and beauty of this stark realm.  The collage represents a moment of suspension, of transition and transformation.  In a moment the shoe will drop into Pharaoh’s lap and everyone’s life will change.

The collage recalls a passage in my novel Magdalene A.D. in which Mary Magdalene, the protagonist, has been stung by scorpions.  Lying in a fever, near death, she dreams three dreams.  In the second dream she falls through the sky like the sandal in my collage.  In the third, she dreams of flying over the desert in the shape of a sacred vulture.  These images also recall my vision quest in the Mojave, during which I spent three days and nights in the desert in the company of a Joshua tree.

I feel deeply satisfied with this image (though the blue of the sky didn’t scan very well because I used a metallic electric-blue paper that was really hard to work with).  It seems a far cry from all the busyness of the story and its complex overlay of worldly socio-economic concerns, yet somehow Cinderella brought me to a place of immense solitude and hushed expectancy.  Cinderella consistently retains its ties to the spirit world – whichever of the many versions one reads there is always some mystical connection made by an animal, plant or ancestor that connects the feminine to the divine.   Perhaps this is the true meaning of the story.   Buried in a midden of lust, ambition, greed and cruelty the heart of the world still beats for us, still offers connection.

Yashoda and Krishna

Standard

Yashoda and Krishna 1

I’ve loved this story ever since the first time I heard it – maybe because giving birth seemed like such a cosmic event to me.  For me this story is about motherhood.  I’ve always felt so entrusted with my children-not in any way proprietary, but rather as if some awesome power had delivered them into my care – mine to love, but never own.  Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese poet/philosopher said it more eloquently than I ever could:

“Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the make upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He also loves the bow that is stable.”

(Sweet Honey in the Rock sings The Prophet’s lyrics)

There’s another story in the Krishna cannon in which Yashoda becomes completely frustrated with her son and tries to catch him and tie him up – to no avail.  In this story too she must come to terms the fact that though her child looks like a little boy, he is in truth a divine being over which she has no power. Reading these stories again, I am struck by the similarity to the stories about Mary as a young mother found in the Apocrypha.  Mary, too, has problems raising her baby god, who insisted on going his own way to the point of actually killing other children who harmed him.

Power may well be the operative word here.  We’ve all heard the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The child parent relationship can be viewed as a power struggle from day one.  The danger of corruption inherent in this situation between large functioning adult and tiny helpless infant is obvious.  The danger is equally obvious when we see large functioning adults emotionally in thrall to a tiny scrap of humanity.  Happily for us in many families these two situations balance out  into a fairly equitable balance of power.  Still this doesn’t solve the problem of corruption.  That can only be dealt with by a different  kind of power – power that comes from within and is connected to the universe of all -that-is.

These stories seem to question the usefulness of punishment as a teaching tool; especially in the face of that inner power.  We can of course get many human children to shut-up by punishing them, we can even get them to stop acting in certain ways, but are their minds changed, have they actually learned anything?  Or have we really taught cunning, resentment, stealth and prevarication? These stories seem to be saying that the only effective energy one can bring to relationship is love.

They also teach that the sacred is all around us – the Kingdom of Heaven i.e. the cosmos, exists within every speck of dirt and inside every child.