In the Cave of the Clay Goddess

First published in The Beltane Papers #30

My hands roam across my altar, seeking, but not knowing what they seek. My fingers light on a replica of a Goddess statue made thousands of years ago. It almost seems to tremble as if it were a living being. What is this pulse that is molded within the very clay of the statue? This replica made by modern hands merely imitates an object found in the commonest of rooms after many thousands of years. Still, from it I can almost hear a voice speaking to me from its first creator’s world that is so strange, yet profoundly familiar. I cannot understand the words, so I strive to listen to the language of the clay.

I wonder, who made the original of this statue, maybe the first Goddess statue? Did she know what she was creating? Did the first statue maker believe she was granting a body to Goddess Herself? Did she share our idea of time and ponder whether women in a far off age would behold her statue in bewilderment?

Perhaps she never intended to mold a statue at all. Maybe art was not yet necessary. It could be that our sojourn on earth was so young then that the realities of Goddess and human, of cities and civilizations, of individual minds, had not yet diverged and so no need existed for representations to bridge being to being.

Perhaps this is how the first statue was made. I imagine a woman, the first artist to be, digging her fingers in the muddy clay beside her bake oven while waiting for her bread to crisp. She only wanted to feel the wet coolness of the soil against her skin that had lately been parched by an unrelenting sun. Yet, she found her hand gathering up the clay and squeezing it. She first rolled the clay between her hands to warm it and infuse it with herself. Then , without looking, she created a pleasing roundness. Next she pinched off small pieces, modeling them into different kinds of shapes, some long, some knobby.

She was about to toss away her clay creation when her arm stopped and thrust it deep into a bin of grain instead. The next morning, when she was scooping grain from the bin for the day’s baking she found the clay figure again. Looking at it with the freshness of the new morning she saw it for the first time as not simply a molded piece of clay, but an object.

When her mother, the priestess of the village, came to visit at noon the first artist was still sitting, staring at the statue. “What is it?” she asked her mother. “Have you ever seen such a thing?” Her mother took the clay in her hand and turned it over and over, trying to determine what kind of a tool it could be. It was too fragile to cut or dig with. It had no apparent use as a cooking utensil. It had no hollows for carrying grain or water. “Never, ever create one of these again! Forget that you ever saw it and never tell anyone about it!” the first artist’s mother shouted at her. She held it out from her and looked at it, then dropped it on the tile floor of the bakeroom, shattering it into pieces that scattered against the walls and under furniture.

The first artist waited till her mother had gone, then decided that this clay must hold some great mystery. If it was an enigma she had somehow brought into being, she wanted to know what it was. She waited until everyone was asleep, then crept out and again dug her hands into the clay by the grain bin. She carefully fashioned another object that looked exactly the same as the first. This time as she molded she observed herself and her relationship to the object.

It began to have life. As the moonlight danced off the figure’s shape the first artist realized that images of women were coming into her mind. She stared at the object and squinted till it looked to her like a tiny dancing woman, but no woman who had ever been seen before. The shifting beams gave the figure movement. The first artist moved the figure to see what else it could do, then cupped it lovingly in her arms as she had her own babies. Was this some kind of clay baby that would begin to cry? Had she found a new way to bring people into being that did not involve pain and blood and death?

She heard her mother’s voice from behind her. She had returned to ensure that no pieces of the object remained that could be melded together again. “In our most secret wisdom we speak of a time when we will no longer be of Her as we are now, like infants nestling close to their mother. This time will begin when humans learn that they can create just as She can. We could never understand how humans could create, but you have done so by making a piece of clay that is like a body for Goddess. When the people learn that they can create, they will be like Goddess and so will no longer listen to Her. For why should they obey Her when they, too, have Her greatest gift?”

“You are the first to take this step and, now that you have, you are destined to make these images for the rest of your life. You have moved beyond where I can ever go and you cannot come back. However, perhaps we can hold off this prophesied time until your children and theirs have had a chance to live their lives knowing Her as we have. Beloved daughter, you must leave our village. You must go where no one can see what you make.

Perhaps if no one else sees the objects, no one else will ever make them.”

The first artist packed her few belongings – her clothes and cookpots and tools – and began to walk away from all that she was and knew. By morning she was far enough away from the village that she was sure no one would find her while foraging or seeking water. Her mother cared for the first artist’s children, giving up her priestesshood without a single word of explanation. The first artist made her way into a warren of caves, intending never to see another human again. She found a chamber with a spring for water and a tunnel to a nearby forest that could provide her with the nuts, berries, and greens she needed to survive. She began to create clay figures.

Over the next few months she made thousands of them. She was careful never to bring one out of the cave on her forays for food and fuel lest it be found. However, one day a figure that had dropped into her gathering basket fell to the forest floor.

Within hours another woman who ventured far from the village to find a special herb came upon the figure. She discovered that she, too, was not able to stop looking at it, though she also could not fathom what it could be. She brought it home and hid it in her grain bin. Not knowing that what she had was forbidden she showed it to the other women of the village who then began to flock to the forest to encounter figures of their own. One day someone saw the first artist return to her cave and followed her, begging her to make more statues.

The first artist would not show herself, but could not deny her friends from the village the figures. So, each morning she would place a basket of figures outside the cave. By noontime the basket was always empty.

For each woman who found a statue for herself the experience was the same. She would hear of the figures from some whispering friend, then after several days find that she could not stop herself from leaving behind her day’s work to venture to the forest. She would be drawn to the basket, perhaps meeting another woman. Neither one would speak as they were choosing their statues or when they saw each other after returning home.

Each woman would bury the figure deep in her grain bin and that night would have a dream. In it she would awaken as always, but instead of immediately setting out to warm yesterday’s bread for breakfast she would discover that she was waking up to a great nothingness where she was accustomed to seeing earth and sky. She would look up and see a great blackness of fertility awaiting her command. She would imagine a turquoise sky and it would come into being. When she wondered where her village was it would appear. She would look beyond her village to where the river should have been and think of its cooling draughts and water would come into being, in oceans, brooks, and wells. When she had wished the entire world into being her night’s sleep would be at an end.

During the day she would forget the dream, but would begin to gather clay and make her own figures. As she did so she would feel a great aloneness, but also a great freedom. This is like the moment of giving birth, she would think, yet a hundred times more exciting. One woman who served as the village midwife and so had seen a thousand births considered what being able to make the figures truly meant for those whom she served. “Before now women were vessels for the acts of creation of Goddess but now women are like Goddess Herself, ” she thought. “Now we can do what we like with what we make.”

Soon the village was filling with thousands of the figures and they could no longer be hidden. The grain bins were overflowing with them and they were being buried under sleeping platforms and in the fields. When the women were not sculpting they were painting on the walls of their homes, singing poetry at their work, and carving designs on the theaters and temples they built.

Still, at the same time, the prophecies of the first artist’s mother seemed to be coming true. Houses began to burn and angry neighbors would be seen running from the flames. Violence took the lives of children, the old, and the weak. Some even talked of trying to move the river from where it flowed best by another village to come directly to their own village.

Only the first artist’s mother had never been to the forest. Still, once it was clear that nothing she could do would stop the figures from coming to the village, she, too, ventured to encounter her daughter’s work. She came to the basket and chose a figure.

The mother took the statue home and had the same dream as all the other women and in the morning made her own figure. But, she was not like the other women who were doing what they had to do. She was doing what she chose to do. She gathered stones from each corner of the village. She built a small hut, the first that had ever been built without a purpose for feeding, sheltering, or clothing. In the middle of the hut she built a table so that all the people might come and gather around it to ponder what they had done. On the table she set a statue.

Perhaps this is how the first Goddess statue, the first altar, the first temple came into being. I stare at it and do not believe that Goddess would give us the grace of creation without the means to gain the wisdom for a new kind of women’s creation. This creation would be as Goddess creates, without the need to own, to control, to destroy. I observe my altar and see that it is really a map. Its objects are those that mark the land of my underworld and my upperworld, my journeys bidden and unbidden. The stones from places I’ve been, photos of those I love, images that remind me of who I wish to be are all signposts. In the center is my Goddess statue, standing like a beacon.

Perhaps She understood that before we could be truly create as Goddess, we must make the same journey to the worlds below and above that She did to become the Goddess She is. We must descend our souls into the caves and the deserts, then ascend into the mountains and clouds. In order to do that, She first gave us the gift of creation, knowing that we could do no other than use it to descend to the depths of all that is. But then She gave us stories of Herself, the first story, that of Inanna, to go with the first statue in order to show us how to ascend again and so that both may grace our altars.

As I think back to my own life and that of other women I have known I realize that it has always been so. Once women have made their Goddess journey their creations become strong and clear. Perhaps our descent has ended. Perhaps the time to create like Goddess, like true women, has come.

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