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Journey to Meet the Goddess

The Triple Goddess sculpture is still unexhibited - too big for all the potential spaces so far. Her feminine curves, multifarious pinkness and multiplicitous lips/wounds dominate my studio and all activity takes place centrifugally from her. What was I thinking of not to set her projected girth against a standard door width? Last year I made a couple of small versions - the one below is called (working titles) Triple Goddess: Inward, Facing Death, or Triple Goddess: The Crossroads. I was thinking about Norns and Fates: huddled, sought, inexorable...

I have always been attracted to images of archaic gods and goddesses; mythologies from the Western classical world and other cultures. I seek out ethnographic museums in other cities: Paris' Quai Branly, the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum are favourites.

The multiplicity of lips on the Triple Goddess were inspired by a many breasted Diana of Ephesus statue I saw in Naples. The bonelike surfaces and pared down abstraction of Cycladic figurines infuse the careful pattern making of my small hand held abstract dolls.

In the British Museum I am attracted more to the tusked Gorgons, skeletal Chamundas and ferocious Kalis than the plump Parvatis and nubile nymphs designed to satisfy a male gaze. Gods have played a part too - imagery of Aztec Tlaloc (wrathful and fertile) echoes in some of my geometrical mazes, and the knobbly subcutaneous exterior of a statue of the flayed lord, Xipe Totec, inspired the ruched inner surface of my mourning pod. Rawness and regeneration. The hexagonal patterning of Mourning Pod's exterior is an echo of the Ompholos stone of Delphi. I have written before about Sheela-na-gigs and Baubos and used this blog to explore Triple Goddess imagery in fiction. The images go deep, deeper than knowledge. Just writing this down I can see how I have been attracted to archetypes whose character or form has answered emotion needs which were/are inarticulable. And perhaps needs of the spirit too?

Years ago I read Erich Neumann's Jungian classic The Great Mother. More recently looking at Marija Gimbutas' The Living Goddess, I find reiterated the idea that the archaic goddess' frequent animal manifestations link back to belief systems that privilege seasonal, cyclical change over linear progress. The goddess appears as bird (especially raptors and waterbirds), she is a snake (which hibernates, sheds its skin, skims the earth - fabulous symbol of rebirth), I recognise these in my work. But Giambolas goes also points to a link between the Sheela-na-gig/Baubo and frog imagery (the frog life cycle being another vivid symbol of transformation). She shows a prevalence of goddesses wearing masks, the recurrent symbolism of the net (and the lozenges and triangles of net forms) and the red room - more imagery that I have unconsciously incorporated in my work.

Neumann has chapters on the Lady of the Beasts and the Lady of the Plants. A Convolvulaceae horn shape (think both pretty Morning Glory and reviled Bindweed) has been a recurrent form in my work, pert or drooping - plants with an obvious circadian rhythm and a pentagonal structure. Impelled by a February deadline for my first exhibition of 2018. I am rushing to finish a series of these yellow "flowering" women. A grove of renascence.

I have also been reading a book about mother daughter relationships in which analysis of that interpersonal relationship is is expanded to the transpersonal by including the mother archetype in her vast and contradictory forms. Mother goddesses. Following Neumann, Carlson presents two aspects of the mother archetype: elemental and transcendent, each of which can be positive or negative. In her elemental positive form the mother nurtures and contains (she is home/cave). In negative form she binds, traps, merges (coffin and underworld). As transcendent positive she is growth and change, but as negative she destroys and banishes. Encounters with the negative aspects are painful and wounding but are also triggers to evolve and become stronger. And even when the mother daughter relationship is actually very positive, sometimes a negative mother image needs to be projected by the daughter to inject noxiousness as an aid to separation. Teenage fury? The necessity of villain. Positive becomes negative, negative becomes positive.

Interesting as all the theory is, i am wary of reading too much; i don't want to illustrate goddesses. I have somehow collided with the imagery, goddessery has chosen me and I have found self expression through aspects of her archetype.

So, wanting to go deeper but in a different way, I booked onto an "Open to the Goddess" workshop in Ireland. It was an extraordinary experience and I want to write without shining too much light; to muse upon it but maintain some mystery for myself and others. It is also difficult to think about; memories have a quality of dream. So what I write is not all that happened, or necessarily in sequence. I have focused on my own images and experiences because although participating in other people’s rituals was important and memorable, that content is not mine to share.

Beginning. Invoking the elements: earth, air, fire, water. In turn we made a concrete offering to each element, something personally resonant which we had brought along or selected from her stash: a particular stone, feather, candle; water from a special place. Through these objects we amplified our associations, began to share and speak, noticing the emotions evoked by each element. For me fire exploded, condensing into a livid ball in my stomach. Unexpected. If art therapy is about having an object beyond oneself, this involved a further beyond somehow, a portal to the universal as well as the personal.

Moving around the circle, choosing blindly, we each pulled a goddess card and were given a brief summary of her character and cultural context. Then a visualisation exercise to meet our goddess, finding a portal to an underworld and feeling our way through forest, cave and shore to encounter her. I was anxious that nobody would appear but in the end she manifested as rather odd Walt Disneyish figure, an amalgam of Cruella De Ville and the witch in Snow White. Skeletal, holding an apple, surrounded by a cool green flame.

Then, over the next two days, a ritual for each participant. We focussed on the goddesses one by one, drawing out life stories, conflicts, characters and developing appropriate scenes and enactments. So much of the alchemy lay in the contingency or fate which brought together six women, strangers, whose personalities and life stories overlapped or contrasted. Would my associations have been different if I was with a different group of women, or if the sequence of rituals had been different?

My goddess was Hestia - a hearth goddess. It was interesting that I chose (was chosen by?) a goddess of fire, given my response to that element at the beginning of the workshop. Hestia is a goddess of fire in a modest, controlled way. Heart of the home. I was initially disappointed by the association with domesticity, which I struggle to reconcile with other responsibilities. The Hestia card brought up issues around anger, competitiveness, domesticity, relationships, materialism and ambition.

I am afraid of fire. Fire is essential to habitation and home although it is usually tamed and tempered into invisible central heating, rekindled with a switch not a tinder box. Fire is heat and fire is light. Out of control fire can be catastrophic, rendering shelter into ashes, destroying, exposing. Who will ever forget the terrible recent images of Grenfell Tower. Yet fire allures. I have "played with fire" recently with the elemental dolls. Fire and anger are both forms of energy. I am an Aries - a fire sign, which has always seemed such a misfit with my character that I disregard it.

I recently read a lovely essay by PL Travers where she challenges "the monolordship of the zodiac": that astrological signs are generally represented by males of the species (ram, bull, lion, goat) , and that the unrepresented female consort has different traits which deepen and expand the symbols. Travers frequently alludes to reconciliation of opposites in the yin yang symbol - the white eye in the black fish, the black eye in the white. She protests that the one obvious female figure of the zodiac: Virgo, ignores the fact that men can be virgins too, and that maybe that sign contains the wisdom that "in both male and female some part should be capt intact , unravished, his or her idiosyncratic own, the secret seed of a self". Echoes of Winnicott's inviolable centre?

In Aquarius, represented by the man and pitcher of water Travers sees male and female elements, both of which for her have subjectivity: "i will pour out." "I will be poured".

My star sign is a Ram. My name means ewe.

So, my turn; after what felt like hours of talking, peeling away layers of myself, exposing more than I had anticipated, various characters emerged - real figures in my life and also archetypal ones with whom I identify or reject. I was sent away while the rest of the group created an experience for me.

Most of the other women’s rituals took place in shades of day and twilight, and outside, taking advantage of the beautiful secluded grounds to create zones, dens, bowers. My ritual took place at night and largely in a succession of interior spaces. Some were rooms I had already entered, but most were unfamiliar: a shed, an adjacent cottage I hadn’t realised existed, the bedroom of the workshop leader (seat of power!).

During the ritual (my personal Punchdrunk promenade theatre) and accompanied by the workshop leader (Virgilian companion) I encountered 4 female archetypes, played by the other participants, retrospectively I have called them the businesswoman, the housewife drudge, the wicked queen and the wise crone. I met them respectively on the staircase, in the scullery, the boudoir and the forest hut and they finally all came together in “the home” (my home). Five places, each decorated more or less elaborately to bring out its essence – “ the scullery” was actually a bathroom, but represented that aspect of home which routinely (resentfully) processes the needs and mess of daily life. The boudoir was dominated by bed and mirror. In the tenebrosity of the forest hut, witchy things hung in a murky interior, a clutter not of domestic necessity but ingredients for spells and solitary rituals. The wise woman sat in its centre incanting a special phrase – one of my habitual self-lacerations spoken backwards to undo its power. Finally, the house, my house, full of clean clear blue light. We danced on the threshold, cackling like crones and then we danced inside, softly and more soberly, and then I stayed on for a while and danced alone.

These were female archetypes – all in a terrifying aspect: ruthlessness or abject, sexually threatening or ferociously liberated by age. The power-dressed business woman was paired with the furious drudge in the bathroom. And perhaps the wicked stepmother/queen from Snow White was in opposition to the sour, merry hag brewing spells in her remote hut. The queen is interesting because of course she does take a crone disguise in the fairy tale. Snow White has never been a favourite but her (triple goddess?) imagery definitely dominated this experience, from that first garish visualisation. Even to a the hut in the woods. No dwarves, huntsman or prince here though. I re-read the story when I got home. I had forgotten the opening refrain - if only I had a daughter as red, as white, as black... (colours of the triple goddess). In the original 1812 Grimm version there is no stepmother onto whom the envious hatred is displaced; the queen is Snow White's blood mother, cannibalistic and vengeful. Funny how that leads on from the Ferrante blog.

In Jung's process of enantiodromia, some intensely held position inverts into its opposite, regaining equilibrium by flipping poles. I remembered (was reminded?) that the wicked stepmother was also actually a beautiful woman, former most beautiful woman in the world, and I when I met her in my ritual I took back some of her energy, bit into her apple of knowledge and appropriated her clothes. I felt amazing!

There had been so much energy and challenge in the promenade ritual that I ran out of steam for the final goddess rite. Maybe I didn't have enough belief to really feel Hestia embodied in me. Perhaps it was being the centre of attention, and I didn't really want to relinquish my glamorous vamp attire for hippy robes. Maybe the goddess rites need to be an annual occurrence. In this, my first experience I was aware of keeping a tight hold on my emotions - not really letting go. There were others in the group who had been before, knowing the sequence and able to go deeper; pervaded more fully by goddess energy in each repetition. But for me, this first time, the archetype encounters were enough.

The space was so important. Therapy rooms tend to be bland, institutional – or else one is in the home of the therapist: judging their capacity to understand and contain you from the persona of their home furnishings. Here the room was richly decorated with seasonal vegetation, images and statues of goddesses from all cultures. There were cushions and scarves, soft filmy things. The beautiful outdoors was always visible through a huge bay window and we made frequent forays into the surrounding woods.

And the environment: a watery, mossy landscape with decaying wood and streams tiny but very deep. So green. In the immense silence I could see and hear local gusts of wind emerge at a distance and travel towards and beyond me. They seemed like personifications of busy spirits. I could feel or imagine (does it matter which?) the presence of old gods and fairy people. There seems to be something particular to Ireland, some quality of miniature in the landscape suggesting that a giant has just walked past, or walked past eons ago, it is hard to tell. There was no phone signal or internet and it was an effort to get there, travelling solo by plane and bus; a long walk to the home of a stranger and then a car journey in the dark with someone’s huge dog sitting on my shoulder. Stressful, exhilarating, surreal. Each phase of travel took me further from everyday life, opening the possibility of separating myself from myself. And the absolute remoteness of the place allowed total freedom of movement, of voice.

My ritual recreated an occasional type of recurring dream where I discover an unfamiliar annex to my home: a new suite or rooms to inhabit. Jung often recounts dreams of houses, dreams involving a descent in space, which is also a going back in time, to an archaic cellar or cave. Jung said of his own annex dream that it represented an unconscious aspect of his personality. I wonder if it is not also a yearning for "also"; to be myself and other? My four characters seemed like opposites but do they have to be either/or? The glamorous queen and the solitary crone, the woman of ambition and the woman who builds and nurtures home: I want to be all those things.

Jung is the analyst who actually built a house for himself, that series of symbolic dwellings at Bollingen, his “concretisation of the individuation process” 252 . A quick skim of Freud on dream houses finds an emphasis on sexuality; opening doorways represent penetration and staircases symbolise copulation (the breathless ascent). It doesn’t resonate with me but I will keep it in the cauldron.

I am still feeling the richness of the experience pulse through me, wordlessly deep and complex. Was it therapy? Ceremony? Play? Do I need to categorise it? I had some definite insights about myself – which indicated need for more or less radical life changes. Which I haven’t taken. Yet. Although I have had the chimney swept! I am playing with the images, trying not to stifle them in thought. Even writing seems risky, taking it too far from the muddle of communal and "sacred" experience into solitary control, into my comfort zone. The retreat was often very uncomfortable for me, I I am no actress, too inhibited to improvise freely and paralysed when all eyes turn upon me.

We were invited to bring or make a “gift to spirit”. I took a calico doll "skin" and coloured pencils. On the second day I stuffed my doll with green moss from the garden (a conscious decision to ingest a magical place to which I would love to return). And, in deference to my fire goddess, I decorated her with a motif of flames which slipped from heart to groin - Freud spits from the cauldron! This gift doll remains somewhere in Co. Wicklow, decaying on a communal outdoor altar with objects and poems made by other group members during the workshop.

Making is important for me – something miraculously apt often comes together in a fabricated object, something that I couldn't have seen or said. I can usually be confident that an image will come. Performance is definitely an inferior function, but maybe it has potential just because that path is so hard: brinked with brambles of self consciousness and inhibition. As Travers says "in lack lies treasure if you are willing to find it". But perhaps this doll was my embodiment of goddess: small surrogate.

The workshop was somewhere between belief and performance, seriousness and play. I didn't have to pretend to be more "new age" than I am - it was somehow a given that we were all open to goddess as metaphor and archetype. Belief was never discussed and humor rippled beneath the surface. Did I do I believe in the goddess? Eyes skimming my bookshelves I notice Karen Armstrong’s memoir, The Spiral Staircase: there is something important I can half remember: something about the relationship between belief and ritual, I find the section again: Armstrong's conversation with a rabbi and her conclusion that maybe it is less important to agonise over belief, than to just participate; that religious rituals offer an opportunity to live in the moment: are a form of mindfulness.

Carlson says that you can “think of the Goddess as a personified Being or as energy that occurs within and between women” 77.

I have been selective who I have told about the retreat. I noticed a wincing shutter go down in the minds of some friends with whom I risked the subject, reading in their minds the thought don't force this weirdness upon me! But I have called my next exhibition Finding the Goddess, even though my largest representation of a feminine divine will be absent. I seem also to have outed myself, finally stepping out from the mask of Quiet Medusa.


Carlson, Kathie: In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughter's Search for Her Mother

Travers, P.L: What the Bee Knows - Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story

Jung, C. G: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Gimbutas, Marija: the Living Goddess

Neumann, Erich: The Great Mother

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