Creating in Mnemosyne’s Circle of Memory
Appeared in The Goddess Pages, Summer, 2010
As I’ve gotten older, the distance between the past and present has gotten shorter and become an easier journey. When I was in my 20s and first learned about ancient Goddess-focused cultures, they seemed as if they were so far away that they almost did not exist in the realm of possibility.
Now that I am twice as old, I can count the centuries in fewer of my own lifetimes and milestones between our own time and theirs seem much closer together. Two of my half-century lifetimes ago, women were still in their struggle to get the right to vote and Seneca Falls, the Convention commonly thought of as the birthplace of national women’s rights in the U.S., was only a generation in the past. Four lifetimes ago, Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” was relatively new. If you go back only ten or fifteen times the distance between my life and Wollstonecraft’s, the Goddess statues that are being unearthed now were freshly carved or molded.
For me, the maker of the Snake goddess of Crete, the priestess who penned the first hymn to Inanna, and the builders of the European standing stones in the shape of ancestral women now all seem to be within “memory” rather than “history.” They had the same emotions, thought processes, concerns about beloved family members, and love of the sacred feminine divine as I do. They are no longer so alien and ancient as to be in a world apart, but their realities are in a continuing line leading up to my own life.
“Memory” is powerful. Mnemosyne, the Greek Goddess of memory, was the mother of all the Muses. Artistic inspiration comes from her, according to legend. In ancient times, before writing was widespread, poetry, music, stories, and all such art forms lived only in memory and so the relationship between the arts and Mnemosyne made sense. But on a deeper level, memory connects us to a deep well of creativity, and, in fact, Mnemosyne is said to have flowed like a fountain in the underworld of Hades. Many of the themes in my own work come from memories or stories of my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. That motherline connects us to insight and wisdom that seem to come from beyond ourselves into the world through our lives and work. But, like so many modern women, my motherline faded past my great-grandmothers because I do not even know the names of my women ancestors beyond the third generation.
What happens when we are able to conceive of our motherline going back not just four generations, but reaching thousands of years? When we really understand that all women are a part of a timeless community with us? Why do stories and images of those women who are part of our “memory” instead of just “history” move us to creation and action? I wonder if perhaps the freedom to create what we wish is always ours, but bringing women from eras long gone into the circle of memory enriches what we create — defined broadly as any work we do that comes from our minds and spirits — so that it is not just for women of our own time, but for those of all times.
When I think of my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, I am inspired by their love for me, expressed in their work to improve the lives of future women. My great-grandmother sewed dresses for neighbors so that my grandmother could go to college. My grandmother passed along that love of education through her influence on her granddaughters. Our women ancestors not only loved us through their work that benefits us, but showed that what we create is richer when molded from love for women of the future. Now, when I write a poem or story, I will not simply think “does this satisfy me and express my life?” but “how can I write this so that it will make some descendant woman’s life better?”
When I think of my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, I feel the pain of their sorrows and suffering. I remember how they all struggled against the mores of their times to join the Navy as a nurse, learn to fly an airplane, be a poet, or get a university education. Now I can hear the “cries of the world” much farther back and all the despair of millennia of women. I listen and know that what I create must reflect the reality of women’s lives today, especially those living with the worst forms of repression, violence, discrimination, and more. Now I will say to myself “does this work bring up from the depths of my experience every bit of wisdom and vision I possess? Do I need to rewrite it so that it says something unique and insightful enough to truly move human consciousness even a micron closer to a world of universal peace and respect?”
Now, when I go back beyond my own lifetime, I understand how quickly progress towards women’s rights has actually been made. Only six of my lifetimes ago, women and some men were hanged for witchcraft not too far from where I now live. Only three of my lifetimes ago domestic violence was first made illegal in the U.S. The right to truly live my life in a way that celebrates my own sacredness seemed unobtainable once, but now seems inevitable if only we keep moving forward. This creates a great responsibility to do work that brings about the same level of positive change that the work of women before me did.
The ability to skip across time and live in the memory of ancient women is a true gift of the goddess Mnemosyne. Perhaps we can think of time as a bond between ourselves and women of the past and future rather than a measure of distance. Memory is what fills the space between us so that we are all part of one world, one sacred expression of all of our divinity. When we breathe the air of memory, we fill our creative spirits with the souls of all the women who have gone before us and our work is illuminated by their wisdom, perseverance and sacrifice, and hope that our own time will be better than theirs.