Monday, July 24, 2017

Tidal Runes

There is a language the world speaks, and I think I have been listening for it my whole life. For a long time I thought it was only something that existed in the fantasy novels so beloved to me as a girl, where women spoke with birds and knew the whisperings of plants and the medicine they carried. But I know it for something real now, of this world, the one I live in, the one my body moves through every day and every starry night, the one that feeds and sustains me in every way. I know it for something we humans once knew how to understand, and still can. I know that the books I read as a girl preserved, under the guise of magic, what all of our ancestors knew, if you follow the rivers of your blood back far enough. 

Now, the voice of the thrush in the hazel tree, the spotted towhee rooting in the huckleberry, the patterns left by kelp on the shore, have started to become deeply familiar. Kin, and beloved. I do not know what they are saying, but I know that what they are speaking, and that their meaning is one of the most precious things in this world. 

One day last month while on the Mendocino coast for a family reunion, where my father's family is from back to the 1860's, I stopped in my tracks on the seashore. The tide had washed up a collection of words. In wave-wracked kelp and mussel and crab and bone I saw them. Ocean runes whose meaning I did not know, but whose shape I recognized for something oracular, something spoken by the sea.  

Looking around I began to see words everywhere. In lines cut by time and pressure in sedimentary rock. In the tide-cast of driftwood, like the yarrow stalks of the ancient I Ching.

Every time the waves rushed up the shore, indigo and bracing with the summertime California Current, they cast the runes anew. Battered kelp stalks crissed and crossed with the skull of a gull into fresh patterns. I was transfixed. In me an old woman stirred; the old woman who knows the reading of such things, and always has.

So often we humans think of the idea of divination as a communication that only concerns our own lives. A question about health, a relationship, a career choice.

But as I watched the tide move in and out I was struck by a wholly different possibility. That originally, oracles like those who prophesied by the rustling leaves of the oaks of Dodona, were translating a non-human language into human terms; that what it said was not about our affairs at all, but rather about our relationship to the oak, to the wooddove, to the mountain or the sea, and theirs to earth herself.

I began to suspect that those old sibyls were attuned to what the ocean or the oak said, on their own terms. Kings might come and ask about the fates of wars, and the sibyls did their best to prophecy them, but what the tidal runes speak of is not the destiny of men but the destiny of oceans, and the lives of kelp and sea snail, seal, oystercatcher, bladderwrack and loon. 

That a word written in driftwood, shell and kelp-stalk is as old as time, and alive; a saltmade rune that is a doorway into other worlds, the ones that live mostly deeply within this world, just beyond our normal sight. 

Gutted sandcrab, moonbead of jellyfish, cross of saltgrass, stone and dulse, green moss marbles and coiled calligraphy of rotting kelp; what word does the solstice tide spell through you, cast upon the shore? 

I think it is a lifetime's work, to understand the first word of such incantations. 

But simply to be on the lookout for them is its own pleasure and beginning; to rest your eyes on patterns made by wave and time and wind, and know that they are slow and ancient words spoken in the many tongues of the living world, more unhindered and alive than any words we have ever known.

Words that abalones carry under their pink-bound shells; words that urchins chant over and again from their secret orange navels; words that carry all the holy strangeness of this earth, where looking into the low tide pools of the summer solstice while gathering seaweed is to scry another world, where all of precious life on earth began. 

It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

- Ursula K. Le Guin, from A Wizard of Earthsea

Cast out, little brindled snail, upon the slicklands of the tidal kombu; may your way be well and fathomless. May we bend our heads to watch the words you leave behind in your iridescent wake, and in that bending, pray.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Quail Woman

Quail, the lady of bronze and smoke, she died midmorning. Neck snapped, not a mark.
The little sparrowhawk with red eyes must have dropped her in the long grass.

Mother found her. I carried her limp and warm in my hands, stroked her feet and her beak, laid her with yellow tidytips lupine, baby blue eyes, at the uproot of an old pine.
Her eyelids closed, peace on the dust-blue lids, full in elsewhere now.
A male called from the bough.

Once she danced for him, tail feathers swinging, a fan of desire: charcoal copper dun.
The sway of her plump body
in the leafmold
in the amber duff
in the thrushsung dusk
was the sway of all abundance, the promise of worlds.

A man with brown feet and brown hands helped to skin her. One cut at the breast, the rest with fingertips, like taking off a coat. I gave her juniper smoke and roses.
Cicadas clicked their wings in the dry oak hills, and called it summer.

Before Olympus there were the Titans. Big women and men of earth. Asteria, daughter of Phoibe, was mother of falling stars and dreams. She gave birth to Hekate. Her mother was the moon. When Zeus chased after her for sex, she became a quail to escape him.
She fled, leaping into the sea, and became the island Delos in the blue Aegean.
It had no bottom. It floated, and the quail flocked there on their journeys south. Later when Zeus chased after her sister Leto, the island sheltered her.

Asteria was aunt of Artemis who loved the woodbirds and the wood, who loved the ones she hunted, who was the deer she ate. Artemis wore quail feathers at her waist, and helped them birth their spotted eggs.

I placed the quail in the adobe brick kiln we built at dusk to fire earth-made pottery.
Skinless, plump, wet, she smelled of sweet flesh and comfort, an offering
to the clay to the fire to the night and stars, to her mother and her sisters
Asteria, Artemis, Leto: women of the quail, of instinct, wilderness, care

She burned with her tailfeathers still on so she could take them up there with her, dancing
Her fat glazed the pots, her fat popped and sparked, her bones turned to white dust, delicate as crabshells by morning.

Up there in the stars, quail women are dancing.
They are dancing with her spirit they are singing in the smoke
They are shaking their hips and lowering their blue-dusked lids to look upon their lovers

I was so sad at first for her beauty, lost to death. Her body was perfect in my hands.
I could not bear it. I thought of her mate, his loss. I did not want to erase his sorrow, the love that birds know. I felt so sorry for him, for her.
But she was far wiser than I, that quail, little woman.
She showed me her death, she let me see it
How her beautiful feathers were only a skin; no less precious for it, but a skin nonetheless.
That what was underneath was tender, that it could nourish me, a gift.
The body is a gift, but more than that the body is an offering on the fire
Borne on embers above the coiled pots she was transmuted
She became smoke and heat and air
She glowed, her bones molten. She became starmade again, the first sacrament

A woman offers a quail to the goddess, offers flesh to the earth and stars
In the face of what we perceive truly there is nothing else to be done
Learning to be fully human is learning to handle the dead this way
The old hunters say that animals offer themselves to the arrow because they want to come into the human camp to be sung, to be turned to fire, to be danced, to be part of that pathos, that beauty, that blaze.

I did not understand fully how to offer her, but she did. She went to my hands and the fire and taught me that we are not whole without this, without looking into the underworld, into the body of the quail, into the earth's hearth and there giving up what we know for the sweetness of a grief that is feathered, that is wise.

Down there quail woman is carrying an ember in her feathered hands. Through the underworld she is carrying it. Underground the dead are but sparks in the bellies of seeds. The spark does not go out, only leaves our view for a time. Quail woman is dancing there. Quail woman is dancing in the stars. As above, so below, and the kiln in the center where all is transformed.

Back home I buried her bones, half dust, in the bishop pine wood where she was born. With rose petals, red wine and a pot sherd from her fire I buried them. At dawn, two quail called, flapped, sang, right outside our door, nearer than I'd ever heard them. All through the daybreak they carried on. Mating maybe. Mourning, maybe. She lives everywhere now.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Return of the Snake

Greek lekythos (oil jar) detail of a woman in the Garden of Hesperides, feeding one of the sacred snakes
who guard the golden apple trees there. Made in Paestum, Italy
The First Dragons

When the Earth, deep-coated with the slime of the late deluge, glowed again beneath the warm caresses of the shining sun, she brought forth countless species, some restored in ancient forms, some fashioned weird and new. Indeed Earth against her will produced a Serpent never known before, the huge Python, a terror to men's new-made tribes, so far it sprawled across the mountainside. The Archer god Apollo, whose shafts till then were used only against she-goats and fleeing does, destroyed the monster with a thousand arrows, his quiver almost emptied, and the wounds, black wounds, poured forth their poison.

- from "Apollo and the Python" in Ovid's Metamorphoses

These days, whenever I come upon a snake or a dragon in an old story, I see the tracery of something ancient. The key to a lost door, a track in the sand of things that points straight back to indigenous ground. Earth's ground. A red flag of sorrow stands there, from a forgotten battleground. 

When you see a dragon slain in a fairytale by a good knight, look again. When you see Medusa beheaded, Tiamat defeated, the Python of Delphi dismembered, the snakes banished from Ireland, the evil serpent guarding the apple tree in the garden of Eden, look again. That Serpent made by Earth, whom she supposedly never knew before? That "huge Python, a terror to men's new-made tribes"? She was anything but new. She was the oldest deity of all, but making her a him and making him monstrous domesticated the power of what had been told before. 

These are stories laid over older stories. They are dangerous in their power. I love stories, but I also fear them equally, because a story can destroy through centuries what a single sword or even an army cannot. We in the west have inherited a demonized snake. We have inherited a virgin-stealing dragon who ravages whole towns. Little do we realize that these are colonized stories. They are stories told by those who conquered, who wanted to kill what was most sacred or take it for their own. Because of its very power, its potency in the imaginations and hearts of the women and men who worshipped thus. You cannot truly kill the Python of Delphi, not with a real sword. But with a story you can, until no one remembers the older one, the older name Drakaina. Then, the conquest is complete. 

Proto-Attic snake pot, Athens, circa 650 BCE. Courtesy of Max Dashu's Suppressed Histories Archives

In Homer's Hymn to Apollo, the serpent is no male python, but drakaina. Demonized still, but female—nearby was a sweet flowing spring, and there with his strong bow the lord, the son of Zeus, killed the bloated, great she-dragon, a fierce monster wont to do great mischief to men upon earth, to men themselves and to their thin-shanked sheep; for she was a very bloody plague. Ancient traces slip through the lines of later histories, poetries, plays. Drakaina was the daughter of Ge, Gaia, Earth herself. The snake lived coiled deep in the ground beneath the Oracle of Delphi, Navel of the World. Back then the holy place, that Grecian omphalos, Center of the World, was called Pytho. And Pythia continued as the name of the female oracle at Delphi even after Apollo's takeover. The woman and her snake. She prophesied from her adyton in the sanctuary where two fault lines met and exhaled chthonic gases. She sat on a tripod, holding a laurel leaf and a bowl of spring water, and became entranced. Her utterances were rhythmic, an old and fearless poetry. They say her inspiration came from the breath of that very chasm; the whisperings of the Python, Drakaina daughter of Ge, daughter of Earth.

Apollo and Python, Athenian black-figure lekythos, circa 6th B.C., Musée du Louvre

It was not always a safe wind. Modern geologists believe that the grinding of the two limestone faultlines below Delphi produced methane and ethylene gases. Ethylene smells sweet, as many of the ancients described the breath of that underground oracle, and produces mild euphoria and a floating feeling. But it is dangerous too. The Pythias always made a ritual approach; tested the space with a goat-sacrifice; watched her skin shiver under the ritual libation. If it did not, the prophesying could not go forward. Who knows what strange canary-warning the goat's skin made, or why. Plutarch tells the tale of one priestess forced by priests to sit upon her tripod in the fuming adyton despite the failure of the goat to shiver, despite her protestations, despite her terror. Shortly after, she fell down dead. Earth's winds, her sacred breaths, were not to be handled lightly. Snake-tongued are the old tectonic plates, life out of death, death from life, a never-ending circle. So the first Oracle might have sung there in the dark ground, dreaming of the dead and of the distant living yet to come. Of us, at the ending, at the beginning, at the place where the snake is eating her tail.  

A speaking earth, a sacred snake, the power of prophetic women. This is not easy to kill, and yet all through the stories, threaded like a bloody red string, we find their deaths. 

Laurel leaves & berries, from an ancient stone path on the island of Ithaca (c)2016 Sylvia V. Linsteadt

Recently I've noticed talk of serpents among writers and thinkers who I very much admire. Some of what has been written troubles me, the suggested equation of the rise of Trump & similar horrors as an exiled serpent's return. Perhaps I haven't understood the whole argument or the whole story, but this sounds a little bit too close to the rise of the stinking Python who Earth bore unwillingly, who would have destroyed us all if not for Apollo and his sword. 

A slightly different way of thinking about serpents has been coiling around in my mind since last September, so I thought I'd offer it now, to add another layer to the conversation, keeping my focus narrowed on the Greco-Roman world, as it carries the root of many of our narratives & mythological tropes to this day. For I'm weary of beheaded dragons. They fill me with sorrow for what we have lost. I'm weary of the serpent in the garden. The evil virgin-eating wurm. The snake was never our enemy. The man with the sword and the rapist's eye; he was. 

We have certainly exiled the serpent as a culture; we have driven her deep into the caves, hidden her deep in her native underworld, where she has been largely forgotten. But I don't think her return is the rise of Trump, or even the more general rise of what is ugly and mean and monstrous in us. I would like to free the snake from her long-suffered monstrosity. Before, she was Earth's daughter, holy and revered. I think the rise of the snake is the rise of Earth herself, both in her terrifying aspects—drought, flood, hurricane, earthquake, disease—and in her gentler gifts, manifesting through us in our work with food, soil, seed, story, song, paint, clay, herbs, animals, and each other. It may very well be true that the serpent has returned from long exile. Certainly she has come slithering through my own psyche, demanding to be written. But I do not think it is she who will destroy our kingdom. We've done that ourselves. 

Cadmus, Harmonia and the Ismenian Dragon, Paestan red-figure krater, circa 4th B.C., Musée du Louvre

It all began a year ago last June, up in the dry golden hills of Mt. Tamalpais, among oaks and bay laurels and the calls of acorn woodpeckers. There, I came very close to stepping on a young rattlesnake, curled for a nap by a warm log. That day something serpentine entered my life, and I've been following its traces ever since. At first I didn't know I was following anything at all. What I was following lived far, far down in me, coiled, subducted, but still alert. It took a journey to Greece to uncover it fully, because in the limestone bedrock of that ancient land the snake still speaks. She never quite stopped being revered. And what she has been saying since the beginning of time is of the utmost importance to us now.

Polis Cove, on the island of Ithaca (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2016

We went in September, to the island of Kefalonia in the Ionian Sea, to visit my partner's brother and his family. I spent mornings sitting out on our tiny balcony looking into an olive grove, writing. I left milk and grappa in the lines the sunrise wrote on the gentle waters of the Ionian that lapped just beyond our front door. Sometimes I went for dawn swims. Always, for afternoon swims. The Ionian is very salty. It buoys you up without effort. Drifting, my mind learned many things. Writing, those things came out. Writing for me is a kind of awake dreaming. I discover when I write, chthonic worlds from deep inside myself and sometimes, when I least expect it and when I am not trying at all, from the earth. Snakes began to appear in my writing and in our daily journeys. So too did strange underground riverways. Serpentine places. 

We visited a cave called Drakaina on the southern edge of Kefalonia, so named, people said, because the cliffs around it seemed to have been scratched by dragon-claws. She-dragon. Later I learned that drakaina was the first and oldest name of the Python of Delphi. It was a small cave, a humble one high up a cliff where a whistle echoed forever back and forth between the limestone face of the gorge. Simon reported this to me after climbing all the way to the top; I made it only halfway up, panicked by the height and the sheer slippery cliff. This was no tourist destination and certainly not a safe ascent; when the old men at the village bakery finally understood the place we were trying to get to and directed us, they laughed and looked at my leather sandals and said something to the effect of you'd better hold onto the branches. Little did I know at the time that they meant this very literally; there was nothing else to hold on to but the springy branches of brave young oaks growing sideways out of the limestone. So while Simon actually ascended the final bit, and whistled to the rocks, and climbed through the chain-link fence to see the cave, and brought me down a piece of sage, I crouched clinging to the cliff on crumbling stone, holding a little oak tree's hand, my legs shaking uncontrollably, muttering my apologies and my reverences to that old drakaina. 

Athenian snake goddess votive offering, found in the Agora but date of manufacture unknown, pre 7th century BC

Archaeologists have found female figurines tucked away in the Drakaina cave from as far back as the Neolithic, and offerings to nymphs and to Pan up through the Classical period. But in the name Drakaina perhaps resides the cave's most ancient truth. The oldest female deities of indigenous Greece almost always have snakes by their sides. In a sense, they are snakes, for the snake is the earth speaking, the earth manifest. Life-force, endlessly creating, dying, and being born again out of the darkness. Underground the seed always carries the light of new life, even through death. The snake teaches this, whispers it, sheds her skin and lives again. So it was in the beginning, before Zeus. So it will be at the end. 

Poros Gorge, site of the Drakaina Cave, Kefalonia. (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2016
I started writing a story those Kefalonian mornings while looking out into the olive trees. I did very little research about any of this at the time. I wanted to be a clean slate. I wanted to let the air and the stones and the sea talk as directly as possible to me and through me, without my mind overlaying them too much with what it wanted to see. What came out was a novella full of snakes and full of underworlds. I thought I'd discovered some old secret. Something hidden deep under the surface of that limestone land. That my sudden obsession with snakes was some kind of revelation. Don't we always harbor a few secret egotistical fantasies that we will be the first to have thought of something, to have seen the connections between things? And yet in the end it matters little, for it is that very process of discovering something entirely for yourself, right up from the earth, that is so moving; and to find that others have done so before you is in fact a great comfort, a delight. For when I came home and began more serious research into the iconography of the snake in the ancient Mediterranean world, I had to laugh at myself. I discovered that the important question is not was the snake important in ancient Greece but where was the snake not revered in ancient Greece? Or, in other words, when did the snake stop being at the center of religious ecstatic practices and become a monster that needed slaying instead?

The Beginning

Traces of the sacred serpent are everywhere across the pre-Indo European landscapes of Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and the Middle East. The shape of rebirth in a shed skin. The serpent eating his tail in the endless round of seasons. The buried seed, reborn. The energetics of tectonic chasms, earthlines, underworlds, subterranean waters; their rise and fall, their undulations, their fertility. In our earliest days as ancient humans and Neanderthals, we lived in caves, in their safe and cool darkness, womb-like and near. There, snakes both real and mythic still dwell, in the dark of those mysteries. Dragons too. In fairytales we are taught they guard their treasure jealously in such caves, but perhaps the treasure they have guarded all this time is not the gold and jewels of kings, and their ferocity not evil or demonic but simply necessary. Necessary so that they might survive all those eons alone, all those eons demonized and hunted; so that they might return at last from the inner reaches of our imaginings to the surface again, bearing the treasures of an underworld we turned our backs on while we were busy trying to live forever, busy trying to get to a kingdom in the sky. 

Grotto dei Vallicelli, Mount Cilento, Italy (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2017
In Lithuania, snakes were actively revered all the way through the middle of the twentieth century, and surely still to this day to a lesser degree. "They occupied the place of honor, the sacred corner of the house, and were fed milk in addition to their regular diet. The snake protected the family, or more exactly, symbolized its life force. [...] Peasants celebrated a sacred day of snakes (kirmiu diena) around January 25, when snakes symbolically awakened and abandoned the forests for the houses. This special day marked the beginning of everything, the awakening of nature. On this day farmers shook the apple trees so that they would bear fruit, and knocked at beehives to awaken the bees." (203-204, The Living Goddesses, Marija Gimbutas). One can only infer that this was the continuation of an unbroken reverence from a very distant past; for something so pagan as snake-worship would not have actively arisen within the confines of Christianity, but rather would have remained a kind of fertile marginalia from long ago. 

Cucuteni storage jar from Neolithic Ukraine, painted with serpentine forms, circa 4500 B.C. 

The temples and pottery of earliest Neolithic Europe abound with snake imagery, and probably abounded with live snakes too, kept there by priestesses. The most obvious remnants of a pre-Olympian Grecian culture, an indigenous Aegean culture perhaps, can be found on Crete among the ruins of the Minoan civilization (named for King Minos in whose labyrinth dwelled the sacred bull, and whose daughter Ariadne danced that labyrinthine ground before ever it was a trap for fresh young bodies, its bull a demon and not a fertile god). There's no getting around the abundance of potent snake imagery in those old Cretan artifacts. Most famous among them I think is the sculpture of the"Snake-Priestess" from Knossos, her eyes wide and staring in trance, a snake in each hand. 

Cretan snake goddess/ priestess, from the palace of Knossos, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Other Cretan sculptures and frescoes show women variously crowned, carrying or cloaked in snakes, and the beautiful golden seals which bear strange and potent visions of lost women's ceremonies often depict snakes rising in little zigzags through the air, as if indicating altered states, lifeforce, vision, or perhaps all three. But even by the time of their depiction in gold, clay and rich ocher paints alongside the exquisitely-adorned ladies of Crete, the relationship between women and snakes in Greece was doubtless already very old. As old as the hearthfire in the center of the oldest cave. It was a language spoken in symbols, a language older than words. A symbolic narrative that continued like a subterranean river through the iconography of the Classical Greek and Roman worlds, and managed to survive within the Virgin Mary herself. Carefully crafted narratives might have told one story, a new story, the story of the serpent slain and buried, sent back to the dark where it belonged, a newly demonized dark. But in the sculptures and in the paintings, a different story persisted. The snake stayed beside the woman, her companion, helper, healer, protector. He is there still. 

Ancient Cretan Seal depicting women in ceremony with a double axe, crocus flowers, two snakes floating past the sun and moon, a fruiting tree. Courtesy of Max Dashu's Suppressed Histories Archives
Around Christmas this year, my younger brother and his girlfriend got a pet snake, a miniature Australian python. They are reptile lovers and have been since they were children; I knew it was a good match when I saw them both run gleefully after a fence lizard at the same time, just to cradle it in their hands for a moment and exclaim over its beauty before letting it go. Hearing that they'd gotten a pet snake, I, deep in snake-writings and serpent-dreamings already by then, excitedly told them they should name it Pythia, tumbling out the whole tale of the Delphic Oracle. This, I think, was perhaps a bit much. Sometimes our privately researched obsessions and passions don't quite translate to others when we speak them out-loud, bright-eyed and messy-haired, fresh from the studio. In any case, they named her Lulu, a more suitable name for the gentle little creature that she is.

White-Ground Pyxis with Maenads (followers of wild Dionysus), 460-450 B.C. 
The first time I held her she went straight up my shoulder, around my neck and into my hair, which I mostly wear in a coiled bun. At this, my brother exclaimed that she liked women much more than men; she was more comfortable with us, and would always slither straight up into our hair, perhaps enjoying the safety that longer locks provided. She would have sat up there in my hair all day if I'd let her, her head just peaking out next to my ear, her tail coiled firmly out of sight. Medusa, I thought to myself. I thought too of the ancient women of Crete, the snakes twining their arms. Of Athena and her snake-cape. Before actually holding Lulu and letting her coil around on my head, I'd found the idea of actually carrying snakes like that a bit alarming. I wasn't expecting the profound and simple pleasure of her cool, slithering body tucked safely in my hair, the rippling of scale and muscle and vertebrae as she moved, sticking herself right to my neck, the calm her presence brought. I think she enjoyed it as much as I did; the warmth, the company, the kinship. We seemed to understand each other, strangely and simply, across that species-divide which sometimes feels so vast, and sometimes no wider than a single layer of skin. And I felt with a strange clear knowing that I could understand the women in the frescoes a little bit better; how, snake-haired, something in them slanted, opened, saw.

Cretan fresco of a woman with an offering, possibly pomegranate pips.
She appears to have a serpent atop her head. Courtesy of Max Dashu

The Sibyls of Campania

The Asklepion of Teggiano, now a church (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2017

At the ancient dream temple of Teggiano, the sibyls buried their snakes in urns and put the urns right inside the walls. The walls are held up not by limestone and ash-plaster alone, but a writhing weave of snake-ghosts. So it seemed to me when I visited the temple this past April with Gail Faith Edwards, and sat upon the ancient center-stone where down below rested the bones of thousands of years and the memory of the first ones who worshipped here, who loved their snakes as friends and guides and mourned their deaths. The walls seemed to seethe with golden snakes. The floor too. Far below I felt them. Reverence still pooled there, in the stones, in the walls. The memory of worship and of love. 

Some speculate that these seeresses might have actually developed a partial immunity to snake venom via slow inoculation, and that their trances were induced by snakebites, which caused hallucinatory states in which the sibyls saw and spoke in a kind of poetic incantation, a wild verse. It's hard to know for certain, and perhaps it doesn't matter how precisely they communed with their serpents. What matters is that women had relationships with temple snakes, that snakes were seen as sacred beings whose gifts of prophetic speech and healing were revered. This is of course a very old pattern. The dream temple of Teggiano is only a piece of a much greater lineage.

A snake-urn in the wall of the Asklepion of Teggiano (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2017

In ancient times men and women came to such places for healing. They came with something that needed mending, whether in their psyches or their bodies, or both. A priestess had them bathe in sacred water, and brought them to a special side chamber, an "incubation" room, where they slept and dreamed. Perhaps she fixed a tea of artemisias for them to drink before, to help their dream recall. In the morning they came to the priestess who sat in the center of the temple with her snake, and told her their dream. She spoke with her snake, listened to his whispering, became entranced; and sought the meaning and the medicine of that dream.

Such places were called Ascleipions, sacred to Asclepius, Greek god of medicine and bearer of that famous snake-twined staff that we still see as the symbol of the medical profession today. Cults of Asclepius were very popular across the Mediterranean world from the 5th century BC and onward, and Ascleipions proliferated, making their way as far as Teggiano and all across southern Italy, which was then known as Magna Grecia.  

Asclepius, from an ivory diptych, 5th century CE; in the Liverpool City Museum, England.

But as you know by now, you can be certain that wherever you see a snake, especially a healing snake, it's worth looking again, lifting a few layers, seeking roots. Asclepius, as it turns out, was the son of Apollo and of Coronis (sometimes known as Rhea Coronis, Rhea who is daughter of Gaia and a Titaness), who was killed for being unfaithful; Asclepius was rescued from her womb just before the funeral flames engulfed her. Not a promising start, if you ask me. But interestingly familiar. More interesting yet is Asclepius' slew of daughters, all of whom were goddesses of healing in their own right. Given the pattern of Greek narrative as it relates to powerful women and their snakes, it strikes me that these women might have been around before Asclepius. Sibyls, maybe? Women who healed with snakes in far more ancient temples? Particularly fascinating to me are the first two of his daughters, Panacea and Hygeia, whose names mean "All-Healer" and "Health." In very ancient times it is said that these two were personifications of the breasts of a Mother Goddess. Hygeia is always depicted with a snake who drinks from a bowl of water in her hands, late into the Roman period. 

Hygeia, goddess of healing, with her ever-present snake who feeds from a bowl of water in her hands.

And to this day, a wooden icon of Mary stands watch in a dreaming-corner of the old Asklepion of Teggiano, one breast out offering milk and a bronze snake hanging from her ear. She is not Panacea, not literally, but in her one can begin to sense the incredible resilience and longevity of these images and beliefs, their continuity despite centuries upon centuries of repression, oppression, and violence. 

The Virgin's Serpent

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked [...]

-The Fall, Genesis III

Well, we all know that story.

And I think we are all currently looking right into the eyes of its end. But reading these words now, reading them from the roots up—they look different to me. They show a darker, more sorrowful betrayal— of woman, of snake, of man, of wisdom, of the pleasures of all four together and independently, and our holy knowing flesh and our personal relationships with earth and soul and the divine. But also they reveal an astonishing continuity. There she is, the woman beneath the sacred tree, talking to her snake, learning from him the wisdom of life, of death, of love, of loss, of Earth's own cycling ways, the light that springs from darkness, the holiest of seeds. She is sibylline, she is listening to her snake for the prophecies of trees. 

 The Temptation of Eve, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, 19th century

There she is, doing what she always did. Before ever came God or Adam, the women were out under the trees listening to the whispering of snakes. They knew already what this new God knew. And out there with them were the men who loved them—fathers, husbands, sons, friends, lovers, brothers. For I do not mean to privilege women above men in this essay, or even to create such a dichotomy, neglecting to speak to the beautiful spectrum of gender that exists in this world; only that sometimes you have to tip the scale far back the other direction, to achieve a new equilibrium, to see clearly what has been written over, and over, and over again. As Navajo poet and activist Lyla June said in a recent interview on For The Wild, when you break a woman, you break the men who love her. Thus, you shatter a culture. So the snake and his woman were broken, long ago and every day within us, as long as we continue to tell these tales this way. 

And yet there is a certain triumph latent in this narrative, if you look not to the words but to the iconography alone. When that new and militant culture conquered the older, more peaceable, largely matrilineal cultures of Greece and appropriated the local goddesses and gods as they found them, the snake and her association with women could never be wholly destroyed. Athena, most masculine of goddesses, was often depicted in her cape of snakes, or with snakes across her breast, and the head of the Gorgon pinned there. In Athens, at the acropolis, her snake had his own sanctuary beside hers, perhaps the older of the two.

Archaic statue of Athena with her snake-rimmed aegis (cape), from the Parthenon Museum in Athens
She was a woman wreathed in snakes, just like the Cretan statues of long ago. 

"Athena with the cross-banded aegis", from the Sanctuary of Athena. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

But it is not Eve or Athena who is still spiritually alive in southern Italy or in Greece to this very day. It is Mary, mother of God, the Madonna, who carries the memory of the sacred snake still in her arms. Or, more literally, at her feet. All across the little churches and sanctuaries of Southern Italy, the Virgin often stands with her feet on a crescent moon and a snake. It is as if the two together carry her aloft. Officially, this is because the Virgin conquered the serpent of the garden with her purity. But for the once largely illiterate and largely pagan-rooted peasant-folk of southern Europe, here was a goddess who held in her arms what had been long beloved and long revered. She was the vessel that carried beliefs from a Paleolithic past all the way into the present. The beautiful mosaic below is not just the Madonna who conquered the snake, but the Holy Mother, goddess of skies and seas, with the snake, the moon, and the rose as her sacred symbols speaking a familiar language from long, long ago. 

Madonna of Mt. Cilento, Italy (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2017

Greek philosophy, mythology and political thought are the foundation of the intellectual western world as we know it. But what lies beneath them, at the root of things? I have found there not the deeds of heroes or of gods, not the words of great philosophers or politicians, playwrights or poets, but the blessed, life-giving snake. The voice of Earth herself. I think that this is where we must look now, if we want to welcome the serpent home again. If we want to heal what we have exiled, and listen again to its fork-tongued speech.

This talk of snakes might seem peripheral in such dire times, but I think what we have done to the snake and to female divinities in these old stories we are doing to the earth and to each other right now. I think we are living the pinnacle of this poison. And recently, an unseemly rage has been flaring through me at the thought. They took the snake from us. They took the earth. We were tricked, we were trodden, we were turned on each other, the snake became our enemy. We lost our hope, we lost our way. 

But the good news is, neither the snake nor the earth can ever truly be held or taken. Stories shed their skins. Look for the river under the river you've been taught. There is an older, darker, wilder water there. 

Persephone being abducted by Hades, who has some snakes on his side? Or possibly Zeus come to seduce her first in serpent-form? From the Cathedral of St. Andrew, Amalfi (c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2017

What if all the woman-napping dragons in the fairytales we've been taught are not metaphors for our own suppressed poison, our inner demons, our exiled darkness, but are in fact no more than the remnants of a narrative of domination? Suppressed, exiled, yes, but also damaged as symbols? Can we use the facets of such a story to psychoanalyze ourselves, if those facets themselves carry an older brokenness, the shards of the story that shattered the ones who came before? Wouldn't it be better to get beneath the serpent-as-evil-force, so we don't continue to perpetuate upon ourselves the same old story without meaning to? 

I love fairytales, I love myths, but they can carry as much oppression as they can wild magic. It's important to distinguish the threads, to pull them apart and find what is earthbound still. Just because psychologists wrote about it and called it a facet of your psyche doesn't mean it's always true. They are on the whole a wise lot, those psychologists, especially the Jungians. But that doesn't mean they're always right. After all, these are very powerful, very seductive stories. They are about seduction. A fall from grace. The apple, the snake, the mother. Only they got the fall all wrong. The snake, the woman, the holy tree, the dark and tunneled earth, they were already there. They watched a fall, and  grieved.  

I pray that we will return to them in story and in offering, so that they might be here with us beyond the next fall, when we will need them most. 

Bibliography & Inspirations

Max Dashu's Suppressed Histories Archives and her 5-month course Pythias, Melissae and Pharmakides: Ancient Greek and Aegean Women's Cultures

Jane Ellen Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (discovered at the end of writing this piece; a marvelous confirmation of a few things that had previously felt only intuited. She is absolutely brilliant, her work an incredible trove of wisdom.)

Robert Graves' The White Goddess and The Greek Myths (tread carefully, he can go a bit off the deep end; compare with other sources, but still a treasure-trove)

Marija Gimbutas' The Civilization of the Goddess and The Living Goddesses (incredible controversy abounds around Gimbutas' work; go read it for yourself before you judge. She is one of the most brilliant archaeologists and mythographers I have read; question why her work might be quite so triggering before rejecting and dismissing it all. Any patterns emerging here? Can you find any other scholars with comparable qualifications to make the kinds of claims she makes? 

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's The Odyssey, Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology (for context, for the classical approach)

Gail Faith Edward's Earth and Spirit Tour and her book Through the Wild Heart of May

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Riding on the Back of the Bear King, Part II.

          The following is a sequel to the essay titled “Riding on the Back of the Bear King,” posted today on the Dark Mountain Blog as part of their “Myths We Live By” series. It tells the story of our move into a Mongolian ger in the woods of Point Reyes this winter, the coming of The White Bear King Valemon tale into my life, and a little bit about what I think it might point us toward in these times, and what it might teach us. What follows below is a deeper look at the story’s main seven facets, which seem to me to offer a shaggy-edged map into deeper belonging with the living land. It is a map that you might follow in a single day’s wander alone among the pines, listening and watching and laying long on your back under the trees; but it is also an entire life’s journey. If I give the impression of experience or expertise, know that in reality I have little, as little as a very young tree; I can only offer what my first foray into this wise old tale has taught me thus far, what I sense of its shapes and movements and gifts.
             As described in the first part of this essay over on Dark Mountain, I learned the story in order to tell it as part of an animal tracking workshop near my new home in Point Reyes. I was curious to see how such a big old myth might be woven into the experience of tracking animals on the wild edge of coastal California; how we might track traces of the story as well as the pawprints of coyotes. 
         All the while, the story was teaching me about coming home. 
         This map, these seven pieces, are only a beginning, the first sketch of the map-pelt of the white bear king. The first and most important part of this journey for me has been to actually tell the story out loud to the land. The rest, I think, unfurls within us and without us in its turn. 

Greek golden laurel wreath, 4th century BCE

The Golden Wreath

Relationship starts with longing. Longing starts in the body, in the senses. The smell of manzanita flower nectar on the February wind. Storm-puddles rimmed with a golden tideline of pine pollen. Wind through the bay laurel trees, ruffling their slender leathery leaves like one skin, turning them all to flashes of light. 
This is maybe the easiest part; to follow the gleaming of what delights you, not just in your mind but in your body. To notice the wholeness of its impression upon you. The back of a river otter in a swollen creek between tules and a marshy field, shining gold with sun as she curves in one great sinuous movement and dives under again. The eyes of a young-great horned owl peering from a myrtle bush near dusk, two rings of yellow around the black pupils, opening into total darkness. The late, rut-polished antlers of male tule elk as they rest together, lounging in a meadow on Tomales Point, their bodies tawny, russet, strong.
The golden wreath the king’s youngest daughter dreams of, pines for, and finds in the paws of the great bear king has much to do with true wholeness. No facsimile will do, though we are being sold facsimiles right and left every day.
It all begins here, in your senses, where the bright wholeness of each living thing rests, and shines. Where does this longing live in your body? Of what is that golden wreath made? 

Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Riding the Bear’s Back

Sometimes, just for a moment, I can sense the Point Reyes Peninsula as one great, breathing animal, shaggy with firs and pines, oaks and bays, with a long grassy snout cropped close by tule elk, and granite claws deep down in the ground, under the sea floor. Such sudden glimpses produce a vertiginous feeling; how a single humped hillside clad in young bishop pines is suddenly part of an unbroken skin, and all that unseen sinew, vein, blood, there in the invisible watertable where the rain goes, where roots spread and spread and spread, one touching another touching another. Imagine it, all the roots across an unbroken swathe of wild land. The mycelium between them. A skin, a pelt, indeed. 
            This is the body of the beloved. The bit of land that claims you, the bit of land you long for. The great bear king. The story says that you must give yourself to the bear king in order to have that golden wreath. You must give your whole self to this feeling of belonging. When the bear asks each of the king’s three daughters upon his back in turn “have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?” he is asking what my tracking teacher would call a sacred question. "What are the bobcats eating on this land at this time of year?" is also a sacred question, though of a different variety. The latter, followed to its end, leads you deeper into relationship with the outer world. The former brings you right into the center of your own self. And then what?
            Where have you truly sat softest? When have you truly seen clearest? Can a whole landscape be a great unknowable creature, willing to carry you home? What does it feel like to dream this, and sit thus?

from The Blue Fairy Book's version of East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The Art of Beholding

        When he takes her to his castle, all the bear king asks is that the girl look after the hearth and keep the fire going. And, of course, never to lift that tallow candle and look upon the man who comes to her bed by night. Tending the fire is easy enough. It is a tender, gentle courtship. She learns the language of embers. But when her mother forces a little candle stub into her hand, saying my daughter, you must look, she can resist no longer. With that flush of light, and the drip drop of three bits of tallow, she beholds the most precious thing she has ever known, and loses him.
I find that both stories and wild animals have to be approached sidelong. Staring fixedly at a doe in a field will only scare her off. What stares fixedly and desirously at a deer in a field but a mountain lion? This is a predatory gaze. You will never get very close behaving that way. Even so, I’m afraid my default is often the cat-stare. I can’t help myself. When I see something beautiful, or an idea for a story or poem flickers through me quick as marshlight, my tendency is to pounce. To turn the whole intensity of my gaze there, smoldering, a little too bright with eagerness. And yet I have learned as both a writer and an animal tracker that the approach has to be a little bit more roundabout than that.  More subtle, intuitive, humble. Both stories and wild animals are shy. The gentle steps of a slow approach are important. Walk sideways, look the other direction, crouch down and eat a bit of miner’s lettuce. Glance up, and you will find the doe has gone back to grazing. Such steps allow her to read you, to smell the air around you, to sense your heart. Same goes for stories, and perhaps whole landscapes too. Learning each other mostly in the dark; the soul can see well there, even if your eyes cannot.
There is a time to tend, to gently approach, to never seek anything brighter than the soft glow of the embers. But there is also a time to bring what is being courted into full consciousness. To raise that candle and look. Its light, after all, is still hospitable to shadow, as John O’Donohue so beautifully says. But inevitably, the bear king flees. And inevitably, the girl goes chasing after him. There is no other way to step deeper. He is guiding her into the heart of the land, beyond the warmth of his hearth and arms, to learn for herself the Way—the way of trees, the way of streams, the way of stones, the way of birds, the way of coming home.
Part of this process will always involve reaching too far, trying to grasp too soon, and losing what felt so close. Failure, perhaps, is a sign that you are doing something right; that now is the time to run deeper into the forest and not look back!
What does it mean to sit quietly, tending the embers of something holy? Sitting day by day under the hazel, watching its ruby-filamented flowers open until at last you hear the beginning of words? What part of your life requires a slow and embered approach? What part of your life requires that you drop everything and run to catch up?

The Norns (1889) by Johannes Gehrts

Following the Golden Thread

There are always three old women in this story, whichever version you read. I like it best when they give gifts of thread and spindle and carding comb. These are the gifts of the Fates, the Norns who sit in the roots of the World Tree, spinning out the stuff of lives. These are the ones the girl must encounter in her quest for her bear king, her wholeness. These are the ones we must bow to, pray for, and seek. In the European tradition they are the old, old deities of the land, whose names are sometimes the names for the Earth. The Fates and their threads of Being are everywhere. They are in the little spiderwebs on the magenta-flowering hazel trees, the tiny threads between manzanita branches that flash rainbows in the sunrise, the footprints left behind by animals, the pulse of blood or sap or water or lymph in eddies and pathways and spirals through all things.
When the king’s third daughter comes seeking, the first old woman gives her a golden ball of yarn and says here, throw this ball before you and follow where it leads. Follow its gleaming. If you want to find the bear king, there is no other way to walk. No trails will do, but only the bright gleam of intuition, where the sun falls on spiderstrings, and what it is that makes you sing.
When what seemed close, and clear, is lost, seek out the Fates, the threads that bind things, that make a place a living being and not just so many disparate parts.
Where do you sense these old spinners in the landscape around you? Where do you glimpse that web-wise wholeness? What is the name of the making, the place in you that creates?

Growing Claws

“Only one with wings or claws could make it up the mountain where the bear king went,” the last old woman tells the king’s youngest daughter, and gives her a pair of bear claws so she can climb it.
It’s time to become a little bit more animal. To look out at the land through other eyes. Sometimes, when I cup my hand over a coyote track and close my eyes, reaching out along that golden thread to the paws of the very being who made the prints, those little needle-pricks of claw, I get a jolt of brief sensation that both terrifies and thrills me. I can feel the feeling from inside the body of the coyote. Panting, the air cold and sweet on my tongue, my coat shaggy and good and thick; but mostly it’s a brief explosion of sensory awareness that is totally other than my own. The whole landscape woven of smells that seem in my mind to be colors or shapes or brightnesses, all of it vivacious and layered one layer upon the next, shivering with potency with the trilling of birds the tiny vibrations of gophers underground the fluid unbroken being of it all, colors that are smells that are sounds, every creature singing out its name every creature singing out its death every creature singing out its life.
            Sit here, among your own senses and the senses that are not your own. Feel your own nails as claws, the place on your backside where once was a tail, the memory of paws.
For only animals can climb that mountain.

1915 watercolor by John Bauer

Meeting the Troll Hag

I’ve learned to pay attention when women as large as mountains, women as ugly as roots and underworlds and rot, show up in stories. My furry cat ears perk up. Trolls, Titans, giant stone-heaving Cailleachs—I’ve come to see each as a sign left behind in a colonized story, a glimmer of its most ancient strata, of an indigenous Europe before the many Bronze Age invasions from the east.
     On the surface, the story tells us that the bear king has been cursed by a terrible Troll Hag, and that when the king’s youngest daughter fails to break the enchantment, he must return to said Hag and wed her. On a deeper level, this is all part of the necessary process of becoming whole; this is how a seed sprouts. It must first be held in the arms of decay, of the great life-death-life crone. Earth herself is the most ancient keeper of justice, the most ferocious of devourers.
            “Human beings have made much of purity, and are repelled by blood, pollution, putrefaction,” writes Gary Snyder in his piece Unnatural Writing. “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots. Coyote, Orpheus, and Izanagai cannot help but look, and they lose her. Shame, grief, embarrassment, and fear are the anaerobic fuels of the dark imagination.”
            Until we face the Troll Hag and barter with her—golden ball, golden carding comb, golden spindle, all the pieces of Fate—for a deeper understanding of what we love, of the bear king himself, we will only have encountered half of his wholeness, and our own. This is about looking at the darkest places in us and in the land—shit, rot, waste—and allowing them to be part of something bigger, essential even. Perhaps most of all, our own fear—not as a stagnation, but as a necessary expression that may be released at last into rot, and thus reborn.
Else this, nothing ever grows.

Snake Tube ritual libation vessel, from 2nd/1st millennia Greece, courtesy of the Suppressed Histories Archives

Cleaning Out Three Drops of Tallow

            It was the three drops of tallow by which she lost him. Three drops from the tallow light. It is by cleaning them from his furred coat that she wins him again, back from the Troll Hag and into her arms.
            I will be honest. This part of the story still mystifies me, and yet it satisfies me deeply too. The first time I read it, I was disappointed; I felt like our heroine won back her bear by playing the neat housewife. It felt too domestic, too patriarchal. And yet I believe now that there is something deeper at work here, something about ritual purification before an altar, something about the haleness of clean water. Something also about a power that only women know. And my mind comes back round again and again to Tomales Bay, where the harbor seals watch with dark eyes. The bay is narrow, made by the San Andreas Fault zone, and its tidelines gleam with mica. My mind comes back round to the feeling of a dunk in cold salt water. How much the water eases from me in one cold rush. Always it seems to give me a new skin, a baptism by salt.
            What would it mean to release the parts of you that want to know, to grab, to hold? What would it mean to give back something that is asked of you by the land, purely? What is it you can give? What bits of tallow can you remove from the pelt of the earth, left there by over eager hands? What act of cleansing and of absolution can you offer back again, with a mind at last as clear and empty as water, and a heart as full?