Time for Change: What Do the Goddesses Say?

I have a new post at Feminism and Religion, all about time. To read it, please click here.

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.

Tanya Tagaq Sings with the Voice of Gaia

Tanya Tagaq sings with the voice of Gaia. She is an Inuit throat singer and much more with award-winning albums, including the recently released Animism. Her music isn’t sweet or pretty by mainstream musical standards. Her Gaia isn’t the tall, blonde, lithe, blossom-crowned Gaia that so often is the way Earth is depicted, but the powerful, strong, non-human Earth of blizzards, tsunamis, and earthquakes, and also the immense abundant force that has given and supported life on her skin for millions of years and is now being devastated by only one species, our own.

Tanya’s compositions are a fusion of traditional throat-singing and modern electronic music with some non-throat singing but lots of sounds – shrieks, moans, howls, and more –  that come from the depths of the human body as it reveals and represents the life force of Gaia, her animals, and her environment. Some commentators call Tanya’s music “scary,” but that only reveals how frightening it can be to truly face both the force and the love of the Earth and the truth of what is happening to the Earth.  Many others comment that Tanya’s music brings up in them profound depths of emotions and so it does.

Tanya Tagaq is 39 and an immensely gifted composer, performer, and graphic artist. She has won a number of awards in Canada for her work, including the Polaris Prize for album in the year in 2014. She is well-known for collaborations with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet. She uses her voice not only for singing, but for political activism on behalf of the Inuit people, including the murder of Inuit women and the importance of seal-hunting to Inuit culture. Here is a youtube video of some of her work.

The Seven Summits Women: Together We Reach Higher

sevensummitsOn December 23, 2014, four young Nepalese women of the Seven Summits Women Team reached the summit of Mt. Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. This was the final climb in their goal to scale the highest mountains in each of the seven continents, a goal reached by only 350 people, including 51 women, in the past. These women, and the three other members of their team, pursued their goal not to “conquer” the mountains or principally for their own self-development, but to make a better world for everyone, especially women and young people. On their website, they identify their message as “Together We Reach Higher.”

The early lives of the members of the team were as challenging as their mountain-climbing. All were well aware of the especially strong constraints on opportunities for women in their home communities in Nepal.  One left home at age 14 to escape plans for an arranged marriage. Another was told that she would be too ugly to marry and so she was sent to school to become self-sufficient.  Others come from families who struggled without the financial resources to provide food and shelter for all the children.  Education and a love of the outdoors was the means for each to overcome her early difficulties and go on to join the team.

Not surprisingly given their backgrounds, they climb the summits both for the joy of those experiences, but also as a means to further the causes of, as they state on their website, “education, empowerment, and environment.” Surrounding each adventure, they have visited and given presentations at schools, universities, and organizations, engaged in “empowerment exchanges” with local women, met with national and local officials, and more, all promoting their three causes. In the seven years they have been climbing, they have already reached tens of thousands of people. Ultimately, they plan to produce a book for young people about their seven climbs to encourage readers to believe in themselves and reach high for their dreams.

Their relationship to nature is an extremely important aspect of their work. They say on their website, “We believe that any development in education or empowerment is meaningless if we do not consider environment along the journey. We understand environment not as something around us but it’s who we are as well.  We have experienced in our close encounters with nature that we are not separate from her. We are part, product and process of environment. It is our mission to share this with the world as we aspire to reach higher together.” Rather than seeing their climbs as ways to “conquer” nature, they view them as a means to become closer to the Earth, to realize that they are part of the Earth and She is part of them. These climbs are sacred homage to Nature.

Another essential component of their story is that they did not reach the tops of these mountains alone. As with any expedition, they needed significant resources and the list of sponsoring organizations is amazing, including international, national, and local groups, and individuals. These young women have not only made individual achievements, but have brought together immense resources globally to further the goals of education, empowerment, and environment, not an easy task in these days of division among nations and people.

The older and more experienced I become, the more I have come to believe that it is efforts like these – international, inclusive, bringing people together for positive change – that will make the biggest differences as we seek to bring about a world that is peaceful, just, and sustainable and further the causes of women’s rights and well being. Take a look at the website of these young women – www.sevensummitswomen.org – and be inspired! As their website says, “We welcome all, women and people of the world to come join us in the epic journey. Together We Reach Higher!”

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.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: QUEEN OF AFRICAN MUSIC AND HUMANITARIAN, ADVOCATE, AND ACTIVIST

Beninoise singer-songwriter-humanitarian-advocate-activist Angelique Kidjo has been called by London’s Daily Telegraph “The undisputed queen of African Music.” She has won Grammy awards. She has recorded numerous albums since 1991 and her music is influenced by traditional African music, jazz, Afropop, reggae, gospel, Latin music and more. She has served as an ambassador for UNICEF for 12 years for which she has traveled to many African nations. The Batonga Foundation, which she co-founded provides and advocates for education to girls in Africa through many different means. She has campaigned for many other organizations and causes, including Oxfam and the International Federation of Human Rights’ Africa for Women’s Rights initiative, and participated in innumerable special performances and concerts. She has won a long list of awards for both her music and her humanitarian, advocacy, and activist efforts.

In 2014, she released her latest album “Eve” which she dedicated “to the women of Africa: to their resilience and their beauty.” It features stunning music made by Kidjo and an array of musicians and women’s choirs from Benin, Kenya, and Cotonou. On her website, she describes it as ” a 13-track set of melodically rich, rhythmically powerful expressions of female empowerment.”  To see and hear a track from it yourself, watch this youtube video in support of polio vaccination that Kidjo made to her song “Eve” from the album. You can read more about her at her website.

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

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