Seasonal Salon

Power of Images, Power of Names

Where do I go to find
Images of woman woman-made?

-Sheila Chandra, La Sagess (Woman I’m Calling You)

No one showed us, no one told us how. We were nine-year-old girls roaming on the land (“vacant lots” in 1950s Americanese, but we called it “the fields,” “the forest.”). We discovered chunks of hardened clay shot through with golden veins of ochre, and discovered that they crumbled easily. We took them home to our block of little tract houses and, sitting at the curb, pounded them with rocks into fine powder. This in itself was pure pleasure, but eventually we started mixing the ground clay with water. Then we searched for flat rocks and molded the fresh clay into relief on them. When they were dry we painted them.

There was more. My best friend Nancy Keiler started making little dolls out of clothesline rope. She unbraided the coiled cotton, cut out the stiff core of tow, and whipped the freed strands repeatedly to bring out the soft luster of the fibers. This became the dolls’ long hair, as long as their bodies. They had no faces or other attributes, being simple vehicles for our imagination. Because we played with them at the mossy roots of a big tree in her front yard, she called them “mossies.” Eventually the four-inch mossies shrank at the base from being bounced from place to place (their method of locomotion when not flying). Their rope bottoms flattened out more and more, until they became too short and “died.” Here’s the good part. Nancy cut off the hair of the dead mossies (to be saved)-then she painted them red and buried them. All this out of her own head, her archaic memory, without knowing a thing about red ochre burials.

What cultural foundations do we stand on, we who revere Goddess? We move outside the dominant culture-in our values and allegiances, though we certainly live under its socio-political and economic dictates. Feminist pagans are cultural exiles who insist on affirming female sovereignty and inviolability, who reclaim the authority that patriarchal religion stripped away from countless billions of women. We reaffirm the sacredness of what has been violated and colonized and despised. We search for authentic spiritual roots, and we create new expressions for our time and lives. We seek to connect with the Earth, our Source, with Wisdom.

Our wisdom cannot be lost, and our spirits cannot be broken
Our wisdom cannot be lost, and our spirits cannot be broken

-Sheila Chandra, La Sagess (Women I’m Calling You)

It’s true that much has been lost, and that many have sunk in despair and been disconnected from their real selves by oppression. But this song affirms that we can renew ourselves, and restore our access to the source even after being knocked down.

A large number of ancient peoples created female figurines, in stone and ivory and clay. We could say that these female icons represent the primary cultural emblem for a wide range of societies. We could go further and say that they are the focal sacrality, expressing connection to the Source of all life. They also reflect ritual practices of long-vanished worlds, in their face and body painting (or tattooing), their headdresses and adornments, their gestures to breast and belly and vulva, their arms outstretched in invocation or benediction. These female icons are pivotal finds in places that define major archaeological “horizons,” such as Valdivia (Ecuador), Halaf (Syria), Vinca (Serbia), Punuk (Alaska), Merhgarh (Pakistan), Tlatilco (Mexico), Badarian (Egypt), Condorhuasi (Argentina), or Balzi Rossi (Italy). To name a few!

Yet the classifications of neolithic and paleolithic and bronze age still dominate. Does the technology mean more than the presence of these icons in such a vast range of human cultures around the planet? What about the eventual suppression or recession of the female figurines: how did the cultural matrix visibly defined by them fade away, and what did this relinquishment mean to women? To society? The ancient female icons call for much deeper study than they have received up til now, whether you call them goddesses or ancestral women or sacred dolls (dogu, in Japanese) or teraphim (Hebrew, usually rendered in English as “household gods”). The current academic term of choice is “fertility idols,” a reductionist concept if there ever was one.

I’ve spent the past two months going over the oldest images of the female Divine, culling through my Matrikas slideshow, scanning slides from some of the other shows, and looking through the digital files in the Suppressed Histories Archives. I wanted to bring together for the first time a truly global assemblage of these female icons, to illustrate how widespread they actually were (and are, in those few places where the tradition still lives). My desire was to show them in all their roundness and angularity, naturalistic or abstract; red with ochre-coatings, “painted up” in sacred patterns, as the Aboriginal Australians say, or incised with tattoos; with their eyes dreamily closed, or round and wide open, or sketchily dashed with a single stroke; their faces near-portraits or a simple pinch of the clay; their hands cupping breasts or holding belly or outstretched; their vulvas outlined with numinous patterns of swirls or dots, or wrapped in red fibers.

What resulted is this poster of Female Icons, Ancestral Mothers. Here is what we want to know, to gaze upon, to drink in: the matricentric spiritual legacy whose vision has been denied us, buried in the technicalities of excavation reports, unpublished in the summaries of archaeological finds. You can see the poster in larger view, read more about the dates and placesof the images, and see more icons in two new videos.

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Awaken to your power. Awaken to your power. Awaken to your power, ayeiyeii...
Awaken to your power. Women, women, I’m calling you. Calling out to you...

-Sheila Chandra, La Sagess (Women I’m Calling You)

The power of names helps us to deepen the value placed on women, women’s work, ideas, contributions, and spiritual leadership. The stories that are told are so important, and in our time it is the stories on the mass-media platform that are most influential. Most of them insidiously downgrade women and set up negative expectations for us. One example: the plotlines of the one TV show I’ve watched over the years, ER, feature men as the heroic and skillful figures, while the female characters are wrapped up in stories of self-doubt, even self-destructiveness, error, an their love relationships, and don’t get featured very often in dramatic saves.

I get weary when well-meaning people name great sages and leaders as examples of social consciousness and wisdom, and the list turns out to consist entirely of men. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr almost invariably lead the list. You can doubtless think of others. (Sometimes Mother Teresa makes it in, a sad tokenism now that her letters full of despair have surfaced posthumously as the flip side of her fervent endorsement of papal androcracy.) Even women, some feminists too, will give these same examples, maybe adding one female like Dorothy Day. Sometimes Harriet Tubman is named, as well she should be, and Sojourner Truth.

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This is not to disparage the achievements of Gandhi or King, but it is rarely recognized that both drew on the courageous non-violent resistance of the suffragists in demanding women’s rights. Gandhi was already formulating his own non-violent strategies when he returned to England in 1906 at the very moment when the women suffragists were ramping up their activism, mass-marching on Parliament, being arrested, hunger-striking and refusing to pay fines. Gandhi met with the leaders numerous times, and the influence they had on him is clear in his writings:

"Today the country is laughing at them and they have only only a few people on their side. But undaunted these women work on, steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise for the simple reason that deeds are better than words. . . . If women display such courage will the Transvaal Indians fail in their duty and be afraid of jail? Or would they rather consider jail a palace and readily go there? When that time comes, India's bonds will snap of themselves". ["Deeds Better than Words", in Indian Opinion, Oct. 26, 1906]

It is not the fact of leadership that is the issue, but the naming and recognition of it. Who is remembered, who is credited and honored? We could say the same of Ella Baker and countless other African American women activists in the civil rights movement who built the platform for King. And this culturally-induced amnesia grows thicker the further back we move in time. In attempting to draw women back into the picture, we have to contend with the obliteration of countless powerful women from history, and the fact that peoples among whom women took leading roles have been systematically ignored. Few of us have ever heard the names of such women, especially spiritual leaders, as opposed to the usual queens. And society keeps on repeating the names of men as the Greats.

Here are some of my nominees: Wanankhucha, the intrepid mganga who led the Somali Bantu out of slavery. Essie Parrish, the great Yomta of the Kashaya Pomo in northern California, whose title “Song” pays tribute to her as a heritage-carrier, in a time when settlers subjected Pomo culture to persecution. Parrish was also a great healer and Indian doctor, and her daughter Bernice Torrez also became a powerful healer.

The prophetess and philosopher Sosipatra, from what is now Turkey, was celebrated in her own time but is forgotten today by all but a few classicists. A generation later, Hypatía of Alexandria is usually cited for her fame as an astronomer, mathematician and Neoplatonist philosopher, and for her martyrdom at the hands of fanatical monks. But she was known in her time as a powerful spiritual teacher with followers all over the eastern Mediterranean. And her death was precipitated not only by misogyny (including charges of witchcraft) but also came in reaction to her courageous leadership in opposing attacks on the Jewish community of her city.

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And how would the world be different if the visionary Bernedette Soubirou of Lourdes had been welcomed as a bearer of revelation instead of being packed off to a faraway nunnery where she was forbidden contact with the public and forbidden to speak of her encounters with the Lady who appeared to her at the rocks of Massabieille?

Or what about the Sufi saint Hazrat Babajan, who adamantly refused marriage and ran away from purdah, trekking alone through the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. She spent years as an ascetic near Rawalpindi. There is a story that she left the Punjab after being buried alive for blasphemy for words she uttered during a state of divine bliss. She finally wound up in India around 1903, and lived under a neem tree in Poonah for decades, teaching, prophesying, blessing, healing, and initiating people. People came to her from all over India, and told stories of blindness removed, conceptions induced by touch, and dramatic healings.

I’d also nominate the late great Miriam Makeba, the !Xhosa singer of liberation known as Mama Africa, and Violeta Parra, the Chilean singer-composer-artist whose songs were saturated with the desire for social justice. And Koshida Toshiko, who was the first Japanese woman to speak in public, in the late 1800s, and whose advocacy was for women’s rights. A brilliant orator, she drew crowds all over Japan. She was once jailed for saying that women’s horizons should be “as large and free as the world itself.”

Anna Julia Cooper, who was born in slavery and lived to see the civil rights movement of the 1960s, spoke out on black women's "despairing fight, as of an entrapped tigress, to keep hallowed their own persons." In A Voice from the South, she urged white feminists to overcome caste bias, and called on black men to become their sisters' keepers. Like Maria Stewart who went before her, she clearly articulated the aim of liberation for all aspects of African-American women’s identity. Stewart however faced the watchdogs of male headship and female propriety, who forced her to stop her prophetic oratory on the grounds that women should not presume to speak in public. We remember also the brave Quaker and Anabaptist women who defied these prescriptions. Antoinette Brown who was the first American woman to be ordained as a minster and Olympia Brown, the first to be ordained by a major seminary, both became important speakers on behalf of women’s rights in the USA.

Matilda Joslyn Gage was a major leader of the 19th-century women’s rights movement that was later shamefully written out of its history. She envisioned women’s liberation together with African emancipation, Indian sovereignty, labor and prisoners’ rights. Gage broke ground in women’s history, pointing to ancient priestesses and “the Matriarchate,” and she courageously spoke of how the Church had subjugated women. As Gloria Steinem says, Gage “was AHEAD of the women who were ahead of their time.”

Nehanda Nyakasikana was a Shona lion spirit oracle of Zimbabwe, who came from a centuries-old line of female spiritual leaders with the title Nehanda. She led the Chimurenga against the Rhodesian invasion in 1896-7, and won so many early battles that Rhodes was forced to telegraph to South Africa for mercenary reinforcements. The invaders brought in machine guns, and Nehanda eventually decided to surrender because of the devastation this inflicted on her people. She refused baptism and smilingly sang out her defiance until her last breath on the imperialist gallows.

The woman-loving Apache medicine warrior Lozen guided her people as they fled for their lives from the US and Mexican armies. Her power made her hands tingle when she faced the direction of approaching troops, and she was able to tell how many soldiers there were, and how far away. She was honored for her strength and courage fighting in many battles, and for guiding the Chiricahuas on their refugee path with impressive feats of second-sight. The only picture of her shows her beside her wife, Dahteste, among a group of Apache prisoners at El Paso en route to a POW camp in the southeast. [Thanks to Carolyn Gage for calling my attention to the depiction of this couple in the photo; in the closeup version I had, Dahteste had been cropped out.]

One of the must-have names on my list would be Teresa Urrea, la Santa de Cabora. She was born of a very young Indian mother and a Mexican rancher. After being attacked and beaten by a ranch hand, she spent months in a coma during which she had numerous visions of the Catholic goddess. Reports say she returned to life smelling of roses and with dramatic powers of healing and foreknowledge. Teresa began healing people of incurable diseases by laying on hands and gazing into their eyes, and thousands of Indian people congregated at her ranch. She continued her healing work throughout her life.

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Because Teresa spoke openly and eloquently for Indian sovereignty and human rights, the dictator Porfirio Diaz deported her to the U.S., where she continued both her healing and her activism. Some historians have acknowledged her as a precursor to the Mexican Revolution, and in fact several revolts in the 1890s were staged by the Teresistas, whose battle cry was “Viva la Santa de Cabora!”

Teresa’s articles were published in a Mexican paper in El Paso and she was one of the authors of the Plan de Tomóchic. The principles it outlined, demanding abolition of “all laws or social practices that maintain inequality based on gender, grace, nationality or class,” sound as progressive today as they did back then. It called for new laws “declaring both men and women, whites and blacks, natives and foreigners, rich and poor, have the same rights, duties, and privileges, and that they be absolutely equal before the law.”

So why aren’t these women on the list? They are now.

Send your nominees of great female spiritual leaders with a strong social or political impact to Max Dashu.

Category: Winter Solstice 2008