Tag Archives: Magdalene A.D.

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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Cinderella BCE

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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.

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.