Words Which I Command Are Immortal

sappho“Though only breath, words which I command are immortal,” wrote Sappho almost 3000 years ago, and since we are reading them all these millennia later, I would say that she was right. Words not only endure, however, but also transform, move our spirits forward, and fly us to realms and into universes and ways of thinking where we would never otherwise go.

Feminists have always known the power of words and so have, from the beginning, insisted on pointing out the oppressive nature of some words that describe women and others that exclude women from religious, social, economic, and political life by making assumptions, for example, that Divinity or those who fill political positions are male and so should be called by male names.

But, I think we are also bound by a lack of words that really express the truth of our lives and, if they do not exist, we must create them. One set of words that seems especially problematic to many women is the maiden/mother/crone description supposedly of triple goddesses representing stages of women’s lives. As most people probably know by now, the maiden/mother/crone trio is not an ancient triple goddess, but rather a modern creation of Robert Graves. However, if the maiden/mother/crone concept was not resonant in some way with many women, it would be long forgotten. But, yet, many women who may find it to be of some use, whether to help them frame their thinking about their own lives or in some other way, do not really see themselves as maidens, mothers, or crones. One major step forward was made when Barbara Ardinger and Donna Henes both came up with the idea of adding “Queen” between “mother” and “crone” to describe that midlife period when women have come into command of themselves and are very active in the world, and are not ready to consider themselves “crones.”

But what about the other words? I do not see the young women I know in the term “maiden,” which to me has a bit too much of an image of a medieval sweet young thing gamboling among the May flowers.  What about changing “maiden” to “Gum Lin,” the name of a smart, courageous, self-confident young woman from Chinese folklore who, with her female BFF, saved her village by distracting a dragon through song long enough to steal his key that opened a gate to irrigate the village crops?

For “mother,” a word that overlooks all those women who have not given birth, how about “matrix” for that time of life after “Gum Linhood” when we are deep in the thick of life in the outside world? “Matrix” retains the creative sense of “Ma,” whether the creation is of people, artwork, communities or what have you, while also evoking the ways that women in this time of life are often the center of complex webs of connection, whether of family, workplace or community.

I personally like “crone,” so I’m keeping that one.

Another word we need to invent depicts women’s spiritual power, that deep, primeval, power that gets us through each day, no matter what challenges we face, and that manifests itself when women are shamans, leaders, brilliant artists, and in other ways bring spiritual power into our world through our actions and who we are as people. I would like to propose the word “Mlima,” which, as I understand it, is the Swahili word for “mountain.” It is appropriate, I think, for the word to come from Africa, where all humans originated, just as women’s spiritual power comes from the most original and central place in our being. Our spiritual power can be wild and overflowing, like a volcano. It can be verdant and creatively abundant, like a mountain with forests and rivers. It reaches into our deepest places, like the base of the mountain in the Earth, and also connects us to heaven, as when we reach a mountain’s summit.

Finally, I’d like to propose the word “Uzume” for the many women who are modern-day priestesses, not just those who have an official capacity but the millions of women who lead other women to a sense of their own sacredness in their everyday actions as family, friend, artist, or other role.  Uzume is the Japanese goddess of merriment who, when the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu hid herself in a cave, created such a ruckus with her dancing that Amaterasu came out of her cave, saw her sacred beauty in a mirror placed by the cave’s opening, and returned again to bring light and life to Earth.

When we create new words, we conjure new ways of thinking that can transform us, and through us, the world. What other words do you think we need? What should those words be?

The stories of Gum Lin and Amaterasu come from Patricia Monaghan’s amazing New Book of Goddesses and Heroines, published by Llewellyn Publications in 2000.

Moving the World Forward on the Spiral of Life

To read a new blog post on Feminism and Religion about the power of thinking of your life as a spiral, please click here Moving the World Forward on the Spiral of Life.

FROM THE HANDS OF OUR ANCESTORS TO OURS

Yesterdaytorso I visited the magnificent new Harvard Art Museums. I saw hundreds of objects but the one that has stayed with me is not a Cassatt, Matisse, the Monet, or monumental Greek or Roman statue of a deity and ruler, or piece of provocative modern art but a simple tiny female torso. This object is in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Art section. Someone carved it of steatite or chorite about 8,000 years ago, in the Neolithic era. It is only about an inch and a half long, but the details are familiar to anyone who has seen photos or examples of the thousands of statues of women or goddesses from that time. The torso is without a head, arms, or feet, focusing all attention on the torso and triangle from which all human life comes.

While we can never know exactly how these statues were used, the small size, in particular, strikes me as evidence that this object was created for daily use by ordinary people who might, for example, need to pick up and move often. Perhaps it was carried in a small bag or set carefully on a small household altar, much as many women I know place objects that remind them of the sacred within themselves, or of qualities of goddessness that they would like to develop, or of the faith of their foremothers that makes them feel at home in this world. I think that such an object would perhaps have been passed down from a woman to her daughter or niece or granddaughter or maybe an apprentice or priestess-in-training over many generations. Then, at some point, it came to rest somewhere until it emerged in our own time and came back to us.

I think of the lives of the women who first used it. While I imagine they had moments of great joy and love when they would come upon an especially beautiful landscape or gaze at the face of a beloved, I think that, like many of us in the 21st century, they also knew times of hunger and mortal danger and hatred and violence. They also suffered from serious illness and felt their life force ebbing from their bodies, yearning for a few more moments on earth. There must have been days when they felt as if waking up to face one more day was not worth the challenges of getting through it.

But they did. No matter where our personal ancestral lines take us in the world, and for most of us that would be many continents, whether or not the genes of the women who actually used that statue still live in some of us somewhere, we are all the result of generations and generations of women who go back to that Neolithic time and beyond. We all carry within us the flesh of women who lived in that time and, most likely, cherished some object like that on the 3rd floor of the Harvard Art Museums.

When I gaze at that object, I see not just a small piece of stone carved thousands of years ago, but all that my foremothers overcame in the strong, unwavering belief that life on earth is not only worth living for themselves, but passing on to future generations, including me. The statue is not just an object, but a message from the women who lived all those thousands of years ago – “Go forth. Make this Earth a place where my great-granddaughters and great-grandsons can live better lives than I or you did. Know that every morning you wake up is a good morning, no matter what your circumstances on that day. Revere the life that comes from me and make all that I went through for you to be here worth my while.”

Photo credit: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Louise M. and George E. Bates

Dancing with Kali Gets Us to the Other Side

I’m very grateful to the site “Feminism and Religion” for posting a piece I wrote titled “Dancing with Kali Gets Us to the Other Side.” To read it, click here!

Out From Behind A Mask: Young Women Claim Their Right to Be Proud of How They Look

Bravo to the 84, ooo young women whose signatures on a Change.org internet petition persuaded Seventeen Magazine to adopt a “Body Peace Treaty” that promises not to change the shapes of the bodies and faces of their models, to “celebrate every kind of beauty,” and to feature “real girls and models who are healthy.”

Two things about this are profound to me: one is that 84,000 young women care enough that they have the right to be happy with themselves as they are that they signed this petition (which was started by a 14-year-old). Clearly, the “maiden generation” is already many steps ahead of where many women of my generation of feminists were at their age. It took me a long time to banish the vicious influence of all those magazine ads from my teen years and I’m thrilled that these women have already done so.  And maybe my generation of feminists can be justly proud that what we have done over the decades has made a difference to these young women.

The second deeply important message of this victory is that it begins to undo thousands of years of damage done by narrow and unattainable standards of women’s beauty that can do sometimes irreparable harm to women’s self-confidence and our ability to love ourselves as we are.  To realize how important this is, if you are my age – 50+ – consider how your life might have been different if at 14 you not only knew you were great as you were but also felt you had the power to persuade a gigantic corporation to change how they do business with you? What will happen now that there are so many women in this generation who will not stand down, give in, be ruled by society’s boundaries for women?

This is not only important for women in general, but also for the women’s spirituality movement. To me, one of the great transformations that occur when women begin to see and feel the presence of the Divine Feminine is that we understand that there are many ways women are beautiful. Thin was not in to the makers of the ancient statues of women that are robust, healthy, and plump. The faces of goddesses from around the world reflect many, many kinds of beauty from every heritage. When you look at goddess images you see 10,000 ways to be beautiful and it is clear that however you look is yet another.  How wonderful that these young women already know this message of women’s spirituality.

So, congratulations to those young women (and, two more young women who have started another petition to get Teen Vogue to adopt similar guidelines).  May this victory be one of many for you as you make a new world that is deserving of all you are and all you have to give.

Spring Goddesses with Their Golden Apples of Hope

I tried, I really did. I so wanted to write a light and happy post for spring and went looking for sweet, floral, and effervescent goddesses to welcome in the season. But, it seems that every time I found a good candidate, she ended up having tragedy in her story.

Of course, probably the best known spring goddess is Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. Unfortunately, as we all know, Persephone was kidnapped and taken to Hades, causing Demeter to withdraw her vitality from the Earth, resulting in winter and hunger.  Only when Persephone was rescued did spring and summer return, but only for a few months a year.

I find the stories of the Rusalkis, Russian goddesses of spring, to be mesmerizing.  They come from rivers and dance to make the rains come so that the crops and flowers will grow all spring and summer long.  Then, when it is time for fall, they settle down into their feather nests and sleep till next spring. How sorrowfully mysterious it is that these beautiful creatures are the spirits of women who have drowned or killed themselves.

I’ve  just begun to learn more about Scandinavian goddesses and have become captivated by Iduna. She is a goddess of spring who dwells in a place of blossoms and fruit and all good things associated with abundance and life. Her special gift is a treasure box full of golden apples that she gives to the gods and goddesses so that they may remain immortal. But, she, too, is kidnapped and taken to a place of death and barrenness. Without her apples, the goddesses and gods become mortal and begin to age and wither. She is rescued by being turned into a seed and flown back home in the beak of a god in the form of a falcon so that she can once again give away her golden apples.

When I first began to ponder these stories, I remembered that at the time when they were first told, spring would be tinged with the grief of losses of loved ones over the winter with its harsh cold and famine, as it still is in so many places. In fact, this year these stories are particularly poignant as we rejoice in the first bird call and sprouting blooms while being mindful of those who have perished in natural disasters and violence in the past weeks.

But, when I change my thinking, and consider them not as stories about spring, but as stories about coping with the tragedies and challenges of life, they take on a new meaning. Winter’s sorrows come to all of us at times in our lives and, at any time, there are others suffering somewhere in the world. How can we respond in a way that is both compassionate and effective?

Perhaps these stories hold one key.  These goddesses not only experience loss, but also rebirth. In each case, the goddesses come back from some deep place with the hope of spring and the re-creation of a world of happiness and peace. They are kidnapped, or lost through death, but they return with the message that there is an innate joy and beauty in the world, one that does not disappear even when all seems to be lost, and that it is worthwhile to keep striving to make that vision manifest in daily life. And, not only do they bring a message, but they also use their gifts to bring spring back to the earth.

This remembrance that the earth could be a place of paradise is powerful and not to be wielded by the faint of heart. Nothing can spark a revolution, or bring someone lost in grief into life again, or be the push to get moving on a piece of art or a project or a new enterprise, faster than the conviction that joy is within reach if we will only keep on going and then work to make it happen. Suddenly, these spring goddesses seem to be no longer victims of suicide or death or kidnapping, but gatekeepers to all that makes life worth living.

How do we become Persephone, a Rusalki, Iduna? How can we a goddess of spring on the threshold of this most joyful season? By doing what they did and going deep inside ourselves to find that certainty, those memories of those moments when we just knew that love and happiness are the hallmarks of our true realm and then bringing our golden apples, or rain, or harvest, to those who need them. This year, find your own treasure box of manifestations of spring  – whether it is acts of kindness, or poetry or song or dance, or whatever else is an expression of your unique talents – and give them away.

Apocalypse…Not So Much

It has been awhile since I have posted. The past year has been spent doing important but time-and-mind consuming day-to-day tasks.  I wanted the first post in a few months to be humorous and uplifting. What came out of my fingers isn’t really – it has been snowing in New England. A lot. These are the snowshoes I have needed to get to work for the first time ever. After about the fifty millionth person said to me “Hey! Where’s that global warming when you need it???” not realizing that climate change is what we are shoveling, I ended up writing about apocalypse. Not so uplifting, but maybe thought-provoking. And I promise to post more often and with a lighter touch soon. But, for now, here‘s what I’ve been thinking about …

I have spent the past six weeks shoveling snow. Here in New England we have had snowstorm after snowstorm and, for the first time since I moved here 20 years ago, the snow is now piled over my head almost everywhere I walk.  As my son was helping to shovel, he said “These giant piles of snow no longer have wintry charm but are instead just apocalyptic.” Later, our neighbor pointed to an icicle about six feet long hanging from his house and called it “The Icicle of Doom.” We went inside and watched his favorite tv show, Torchwood, a BBC series in which an alien species demands that humans give up ten percent of our children or face species-wide death. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Independence Day, about another alien attack that threatens to decimate the planet. Clearly, we live in a culture that views just about everything through the prism of apocalypse, from very bad weather that truly is likely caused by catastrophic climate change to the best way to boost tv and movie ratings.

The fact that we are the first generation of all humanity to live under the threat of actual apocalypse of our own doing – from first the atomic bomb and then global climate change — is one of those astounding facts that are so much a part of our daily lives that we do not realize its profundity. We are the first generation of humanity in which each of us does not know if our children will be the last generation of humanity. We are the only generation that can truly save or destroy the world. Perhaps figuring out how to respond effectively to this new truth is the underlying mission of our times.

While apocalypse has not always been in our hands, concern about it has certainly been in our consciousness since the earliest times.  In fact, ancient goddesses from around the world seem almost to be the anti-apocalypse, focusing on preserving or renewing the world when its end is threatened. When the demon Hindu Mahisa battled the gods for control of the world, Durga appeared and she alone was able to rescue all we know for mortals and immortals alike.  Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, dances the end of creation, but then all comes to life again under her feet. Chalchiuhtlicue, an Aztec goddess, destroyed the world by a flood for humanity’s wicked behavior, but then built a bridge to a Fifth World, a renewed universe, for the deserving to cross over. Even the more humble Russian goddess Koliada creates embroiders a new world as the old one disappears each winter solstice.

In fact, the worldview that the time and existence will continue eternally, though transformed, in a constant round of being seems to be an intrinsic part of goddess divinity. Life-Death-Rebirth, these we see over again, whether in the triple goddesses of maiden-mother-crone, or Changing Woman’s endless circumambulations around the earth as she goes from young to older and back again or any of other goddesses who are  vehicles transporting all creation from one era or state of being to another. Of course, women’s life-giving ability is the greatest anti-apocalyspe of all because what could be a greater statement of faith in the continued existence of creation than giving birth?

I have found over the years that sometimes the most significant changes happen by simply consciously altering how we think.  What if we had not grown up in a apocalypse-obsessed society in which the end of time was virtually assumed? What if we truly believed that solutions to environmental disaster and non-violent answers to conflict would be found because they must be found in order for life to continue, as it inevitably must? What if apocalypse was not an option? What would that world look like?

The springtime brings us a story that holds, for me, an answer.  Perhaps you know the story of Demeter and Persephone.  Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth’s life-giving fertility, had a daughter, Persephone, who was kidnapped and taken to Hades, the underworld. Did Demeter, in apocalyptical fashion, strap on a world-destroying death ray gun and storm Hades to seek revenge even if all the universe was destroyed in the process as might happen if her story were made into a feature film of today?  No she did not.  She wandered the earth in mourning until the Olympian gods demanded Persephone’s return, though only for nine months of the year because Persephone had eaten of the pomegranate. During the time of her sojourn underground, the world would become the winter wonderland with which this blog post began. And, as a result, we now have four seasons.  This compassionate and creative solution resulted in even greater abundance since so many of the earth’s plants, beasts, and birds depend on the cold season for survival, germination, and reproduction. In fact, as we know now that the earth is warming, our world’s survival as we know it depends on Demeter’s cold winters.

Demeter’s response went beyond simply retrieving her daughter and then continuing with life as it had been before, with the continual separation of the upper and lower realms and the potential for conflict between them. Demeter’s vision created an entirely new world, one with seasons and winter, one in which Persephone was the bridge between Earth and Hades.

If we are to avoid our own self-destruction, assuming we are not too late, we must create an equally powerful and compelling vision of a world, one that does not simply lack annihilation, but one that is as transcendently beautiful and powerful and life-giving as Demeter and Persephone’s creation of winter.  Even if we are able to solve this environmental problem and find a way to control nuclear arms, if we continue to think in terms of an apocalyptic future, how long will it be before the next catastrophe? Just as Demeter created the seasons by redeeming Persephone in a creative and compassionate, way, so must we work diligently on the issues before us, but also with a view to a future that does not include an end to all we know from our own hands.

The next time an apocalyptic worldview creeps into my consciousness, I think I will say “not on my watch.” Let our generation’s solutions to climate change and violent conflict become models for future generations faced with global challenges. Let us turn our realization of our unique place in history into commitment to the art of vision-making, working collectively to create a response to our problems that are, in their own way, as spectacular as Demeter’s winter.


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