The Pontifical Council for Culture meets in Rome on 4-7 February 2015 to consider “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” They’ve issued a preliminary document that tips their hand, in case you entertained any doubts that their ideas about women have changed a whit. It’s titled “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference,” and it endeavors — yet again — to convince women of what the male hierarchy insists is their rightful place:
“At the dawn of human history, societies divided roles and functions between men and women rigorously. To the men belonged responsibility, authority, and presence in the public sphere: the law, politics, war, power. To women belonged reproduction, education, and care of the family in the domestic sphere.”
Hold it right there. What happened to female responsibility and authority — women chieftains and medicine women and clan heads? For a long time, it was possible to get away with claiming that public female leaders never existed, but too much documentation has been piled up for this to fly anymore.
“In ancient Europe, in the communities of Africa, in the most ancient civilizations of Asia, women exercised their talents in the family environment and personal relationships, while avoiding the public sphere or being positively excluded. The queens and empresses recalled in history books were notable exceptions to the norm.”
These prelates are advancing a claim of universal male domination — a doctrine to which the church hierarchy is deeply attached. They don’t feel any need to substantiate this claim with evidence. Their fiat has been enough for such a long time, they can’t recognize that the world has moved on. Taking state-based societies as the norm, they pass over long epochs of human history, including neolithic societies with their many depictions of female leadership, and a vast array of Indigenous societies that don’t fit into the cramped sexual politics being touted here.
Women in ancient societies did not “avoid the public sphere”: not the African warriors, nor the Cretan and Iberian priestesses, nor even the Sumerian and Babylonian and Phoenician priestesses. Here we are talking recorded history, that leaves no room for ambiguity. Even in much later periods, we know of Turkic epic singers, the judges and scribes of Cambodia, the powerful market women’s associations of West Africa. But why discuss only these continents, leaving out the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific islands? They also count as ancient societies, and they have their own histories of prominent women, of female law-makers and diplomats and chieftains, of ceremonial leaders and warriors.
The Iroquois and Cherokee remember that “mocassin-makers” had the right to act as “war-breakers,” refusing to supply men who wanted to go to war without consent of the women’s council. In Yunnan, the Lisu people say that men had to stop fighting if a woman of either side waved her skirt to call for an armistice. Similarly, on the Pacific island Vanatinai, a woman could give the signal for war or peace by taking off her outer skirt. This is female authority. It is not a fantasy. It is historical reality.
The Pontifical Council’s statement passes over the great majority of Indigenous societies, including those in which female responsibility, authority, and public presence were and remain integral. Among the Six Nations of the Iroquois, the Gantowisas have structural authority to select chiefs and to “knock off their horns” if they fail in their responsibilities. These chiefs act as delegates of the people, not lords over them, a fact that continued to astound European observers who made very different assumptions about leadership, as well as about female power.
But there’s more: the women’s council of Gantowisas (“matrons” in European accounts) discussed issues and, as Seneca historian Barbara Mann writes, the men’s council could not debate any issue until the women’s council forwarded it over to them. They had a structural balance between male and female sovereignty. Mann also calls the women elders the “federal reserve board” of the Six Nations, referring to their control of economic resources.
And where, in the priesthood’s blinkered view, where are the female founders, like Ti-n-Hinan, the ancestral mother of the Imushagh / Tuareg people of the Hoggar, whose 4th century tomb is the most prominent monument of the region? What about the female chieftains of the Edomites whose names are listed in Genesis, or for that matter, Miriam the prophetess, Deborah and Huldah? Where are the Montanist prophetesses who were denounced as heretics in 3rd century Asia Minor? The women who led rebellions against conquest and colonization, labor movements, whose actions struck the sparks for the French and Russian revolutions?
The denial of female spiritual leadership is especially fraught for a institution fighting with all its might to hold back the tide of female ordination. To admit the massive evidence for female priesthood — the wu in ancient China, the mikogami in Japan, the mudang in Korea, to name some of the East Asian societies where female shamans once predominated (and still do in Korea) — would be to pull out the last struts supporting the crumbling edifice of an all-male power structure. This hierarchy has been severely shaken by scandals over pandemic child-rapes, and over the cover-ups by bishops, as well as over financial corruption in the Curia. Many people readily declare that women would do a far better job at running the church.
Having pretended that male leadership was a historical universal, an innate and essential quality, the Pontifical Councillors move on to the subect of women’s movements that have challenged and overturned old customary constraints:
“From the latter part of the 19th century onwards, especially in the West, the division of male and female ‘spaces’ was put into question. Women demanded rights, such as that of voting, access to higher education, and to the professions. And so the road was opened for the parity of the sexes.”
That sounds really good, right? That women gained our rights, and things opened up. Oh… wait. Uh-oh: “This step was not, and is not, without problems.”
What were these problems? They tell us: that women were taking on roles “that appeared to be exclusively meant for the male world” [meant, by whom?] and their reflections on their situation were “sometimes becoming entwined with political and strongly ideological movements.” These realizations, we are meant to understand, are far more problematic than the “strongly ideological” doctrines of female subordination that the institutional church has enforced through “political” means, from crusades to inquisitorial trials and witch hunts, to the modern laws and policies the church espouses, that still make women second class citizens whose lives and very bodies are expendable.
The Pontifical Council doesn’t deem patriarchal structures to be problematic; it continues to maintain that they are in line with god-given essential qualities. It is the female pushback against them that it dislikes and deplores. Women! stay in your place.
“Which kerygmatic proclamation [“preaching,” in plain English] should there be for women, one that is not closed in on a moralistic vision? Which indications do we need for a new pastoral praxis, for a vocational path toward marriage and family, toward religious consecration, in view of the new self-awareness that women have?”
What is “new” about pushing women “toward marriage and family”? This much is clear: by “religious consecration” they do not mean female ordination to the priesthood. More likely, they are dreaming up some new religious trappings for the role of wife and mother as a sop to women’s longing for greater inclusion in the church.
The worst thing that could happen, in the minds of the writers, is that women reject the feminine role as they define it: “It is a matter of protecting the dignity of women, respecting what is genuinely feminine (and this is the real equality), and avoiding that the woman, in trying to insert herself responsibly into society that is markedly masculine, lose her feminility [sic].”
This is nothing less than a restatement of the old patriarchal principle: women belong in the private sphere, under the authority of men. Not only that, but “society” means “men.” If women are included in how you think about “society,” there is no need for us to “insert” ourselves into it. We are already part of it. But the statement shows no awareness of that simple fact. These high-ranking prelates don’t believe that women belong in the public sphere at all — and least of all the priesthood.
In fact, they don’t really want women’s input in this initiative on “Women’s Culture.” As Soline Humbert informs me, “The Pontifical Council for Culture has 32 permanent members, all male, appointed for 5 years. Almost all are cardinals, bishops and priests, and a couple of lay men (“men of culture”…No “women of culture”…) There are also Consultors who are appointed by the pope… There are 27 male consultors, and 7 women, ( if I remember correctly), appointed last Summer by Pope Francis.”
In other words: that’s zero females among the 32 permanent members of the Pontifical Council, while in the outer circle of Consultors the ratio of men to women is 4:1, for a total of 59 men and 7 women. This is who is going to issue a definitive statement on “Women’s Culture” — and they expect that to pass for change, in their initiative to engage Catholic women.
This is a familiar pattern of high priestcraft: barring women entirely from the core of power, and admitting a few carefully screened females to an outer circle, where they are greatly outnumbered (and outranked) by men. Soline adds that “there has been a mention of a group of women working on the outline discussion document now released, but I have not seen the names of the members of that group (anonymous women?) nor how they were selected. In addition, while they mentioned there would be an ‘Open Day’ it seems it’s again by invitation only for a select few….”
The image selected for this initiative is highly symbolic: a naked, headless, armless, legless woman in bondage. It is Man Ray’s 1936 photo “Venus Restored.” This is their idea of Women’s Culture?!? It has already outraged countless women. Soline Humbert sums up the background of this piece on the We Are Church Ireland blog:
“Man Ray had a strong interest in Sade and sadism and there is a recurrent sadistic streak in his artwork, as well as in his relationships with women, characterised by domination and aggression. Man Ray photographed women wearing implements of bondage and enacting scenes of torture. He also helped others, like William B Seabrook realise in real life his fantasies of women bondage.
“What is behind this choice of female bondage image by the (all male)Pontifical Council for culture? Is it the choice of the group of women (Who are they?) behind this document? What message does it seek to convey?”
We may well ask.
The same goes for Pope Francis’ recent scoldings of Pilipina women for their high birth rates, after decades of churchmen steadily advocating the rhythm method! As if abstinence is a real option for most married women in this world. He does not have the least clue about the reality that these women live. When it comes to women, nothing has changed.
Neither has the cold attitude toward Indigenous people, whose enslavement, starvation, floggings, and other abuse in the mission system is being affronted by the planned canonization of Junípero Serra. (See 8:50 >> on linked video, where descendants talk about kidnappings, about their ancestors being starved on 700 calories a day, while being forced to labor, and made to kneel on tiles during the entire Mass, kept in line by guards with whips and bayonets.) In these two important social justice issues, women and Indigenous people, the tone-deaf pontiff does not even pretend to want change.
The backlash against women has even reached liberal San Francisco. It took 16 centuries to get the ban on females at the altar overturned, for a couple of decades, in some places, and now some priests are trying to turn it back. “The Rev. Joseph Illo, pastor at Star of the Sea Church since August, said he believes there is an “intrinsic connection” between the priesthood and serving at the altar — and because women can’t be priests, it makes sense to have only altar boys. “Maybe the most important thing is that it prepares boys to consider the priesthood.”
“The Richmond District parish is now the only one in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that will exclude girls from serving at the altar. Such a decision is “a pastor’s call,” said archdiocese spokesman Chris Lyford. “An altar boy program would be a male bonding experience, one that helps them socialize and develop their leadership potential, Illo said. Girls would still be allowed to perform readings during Mass.” Isn’t that special; girls will be allowed to read out loud.
This is not going to fly, because too many Catholics have awakened to the realization that they are the church. The women, especially, know that things must change, because they are the ones who are out there doing the real work, holding things together and picking up the pieces, as the number of ordained men drops and the hierarchy scrambles to find men to be in charge. All this has to change. The option for the poor doesn’t mean much without a recognition that women are the poorest of the poor, the ones who carry a tremendous load, on whose shouders the whole edifice rests. You can’t have a progressive agenda without recognizing that their responsibilities give them a spiritual authority of their own. It’s well past time for the prelates to recognize women’s knowing, women’s authority, women’s rights.
Irish oral tradition associates the Cailleach with many ancient hilltop monuments that date to the neolithic era. Some passage graves are called by her name, often named as her “house.” Others she is said to have built, or created by tossing boulders from hilltop to hilltop, or by carrying stones in her skirt or apron, which she drops, or the apron-strings break, scattering the stones across the landscape.
Countless Irish myths tell how the Cailleach constructed huge cairns and mounds, megalithic monuments, and even Christian-era round towers in a single night. Some are known by names like “one-night’s-work.” [Wood-Martin, 134] Some of the best-known Cailleach monuments are Slieve Gullion in Armagh, Loughcrew in Meath, and Carrownamadoo 2 in Sligo.
The Cailleach Bhéarra was said to live in a deep chamber under a hilltop megalith near Slieve Gullion in Armagh. It is called Calliagh Birra’s House. [O Hogain, 68] The highest-placed of all Irish megaliths, it sits on the southern summit of the mountain, where it aligns with solar movements. It was surrounded by kerbstones and had three flat stone basins within its chamber. The name Sliabh gCullinn means “steep-sloped mountain.” People visited this place on Blaeberry Sunday, a survival of Lughnasadh. [Ross 1973: 156] A lake near the summit is also named after the Cailleach, and on the western side of Slieve Gullion, the Ballykeel dolmen is known as Cathaoir na Caillí, the “Hag’s Chair.” [Fossard, 113]
Other traditions called the Cailleach of Slieve Gullion a “witch.” Nevertheless, folklore held that she was a guardian of the elixir of wisdom: “On the mountain somewhere, there is a well of wisdom and magic meather [mead], from which if we only knew the recipe, we could go to that marvelous ale, that once tasted — ‘age could not touch us, nor sickness, nor death’.” [T.G.F Paterson, Country Cracks – Old Tales from the County of Armagh, 1939, in http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/slieve-gullion/ ]
In Sligo, the megalithic site Carrownamaddoo 2 (Castledargan) is also called Calliagh A Vera’s House. [O Hogain, 68] In the mountains above Kilross, in western Tipperary, stands another stone formation the peasants call the House of the Cailleach. [Wood-Martin, 131] The Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in Cork is said to be her burial place; the name, from Irish Leabhadh Chailligh or Leaba Caillighe, means “the Old Woman’s Bed.” [Fossard, 133; http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/labbacallee/ ]
Sliabh na Caillíghe
The megalithic chambers of Loughcrew are perhaps the Old Woman’s most renowned namesake. They stand atop a low range of eastern Meath, Sliabh na Caillíghe, “the Old Woman’s Mountains.” Jonathan Swift was told of her prodigious deeds there in 1720, when he visited Loughcrew:
Determined now her tomb to build,
Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carnmore;
Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar,
And dropped another goodly heap;
And then with one prodigious leap
Gained Carnbeg; and on its height
Displayed the wonders of her might.
And when approached death’s awful doom,
Her chair was placed within the womb
Of hills whose tops with heather bloom.
The three hilltops in this story are covered with cairns (“passage graves,” in archaeological parlance, or “womb tombs” in ecofeminist recogntion of their symbolic configuration). Two of the hills are Carnbane East and West in Loughcrew. The monuments on a third hill near Patrickstown have been destroyed within recent centuries, with the exception of a few kerbstones and a single interior stone engraved with symbols. Carnbane East has seven womb tombs: Cairn T at the summit, surrounded by six others in ruins. Carnbane West has more, but is on private property and not open to the public.
The Loughcrew passage graves (that have been excavated) were collective burial sites. Remains of many cremations had been placed on the flat stone basins in their inner recesses, as was also done at Brú na Bóinne, Knowth, and other sites, and have been found in the soil under them, apparently as they were brushed away to place new remains on the stones. But the megalithic chambers were also sanctuaries of renewal and astronomical wisdom, as their solar alignments demonstrate, and places of ceremony. More than half the counties of Ireland are visible from these hilltops. Covered in quartz pebbles, the cairns would have gleamed in the sun from a distance, just as at their larger and more famous successor, Brú na Bóinne.
The megalithic stone chambers were originally covered by mounds, some of which remain. The major mounds are surrounded by giant kerbstones in the manner of Brú na Boinne. They are entered through a passageway lined with stones, more or less flat-faced, often engraved with symbols, including sun signs, concentric circles, vulvas, and cupmarks (some of these unusually deep). The narrow hall leads into a central chamber, usually flanked by three smaller recesses, one facing the entrance and two others off to each side. The plan of the interior is in the shape of a quadrant (see above).
In some cairns, the backstone of the recess facing the entryway is engraved with elaborate petroglyphs, which the sun lights up at certain times of year, such as the equinoxes. The backstone of Cairn L has an elaborate design of concentric circles (clustered in patterns suggestive of cell division), spirals, and vulvas. A blueish limestone menhir, called the Whispering Stone, stands in the central chamber and receives rays of sunlight at set calendrical intervals.
In Cairn T, solar symbols on the backstone are aligned to catch the rays of the rising sun on the spring and fall equinoxes. This excellent site has a video of the light moving through the chamber.
What amazed me most at Cairn T was the passageway orthostats. They were carved with concentric circles, curving lines, solar patterns, and portals, including a lot of very definite and deeply engraved vulvas. There are also numerous round cupules—some four inches deep—and grooved lines. Some of the cupules are clustered in honeycomb patterns. The concentric circles and vulvas repeat on the backstone as well. These patterns are repeated in other cairns. And yet no one ever seems to write about them. Some of the concentric circles are not in fact circular, but oval and peaked at one end, with a vulvular hollow at their center. These symbols bleed into one another.
Why vulvas on the stones? The entire shape of these ancient chambers is like a womb of Earth that receives the dead. Their cremated remains sink into the soil, returning to Earth to be reborn. The vulvas are portals of life, of rebirth, in the perpetual bones of Earth herself. They appear amidst concentric circles, suggestive of conception, suns, and energy lines.
The deep cupules on these same stones are known to be involved in conception magic in many cultures, and it is likely that women desiring to conceive children might have come to these ancestral sanctuaries, to touch or rub, make ablutions upon the stone vulvas — or to engrave new ones. What we are seeing in these shapes is a continuation of themes that begin before the megalithic era, in petroglyphs across the landscape of Ireland, of Britain, and in fact of the entire world.
The Hag’s Chair at Cairn T faces north, looking across the countryside. It is a ten by six foot stone seat engraved with concentric circles, portals, cupules, cup-and-ring marks, triangles, and maybe a snake. Most of the symbols have greatly eroded since the Eugene Conwell published a drawing of it in 1870, and have faded even more since the sketch in Wood-Martin’s Elder Faiths of Ireland after the turn of the century. Very few of the markings remained visible when I was there, especially on the upper parts of the stone.
Folklore says that the Cailleach looked out over her domain from this chair, where she watched the stars. [http://www.carrowkeel.com/sites/loughcrew/cairnt2.html ] “Local lore states that a modern visitor, seated on the chair, will be granted a single wish.” [http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/loughcrew/ ]
Garavogue is the name given to Cailleach in the stories about Loughcrew told to Jonathan Swift. Megalithic tradition in Sligo also names the Cailleach Garavogue [Gharbhóg], who shares her name with a river in that county. She may have originated there. In a later telling of the Loughcrew story, Cailleach Bhéarra comes there from the north to perform a magical act that would give her great power. She filled her apron with stones, dropping a cairn on Carnbane; then jumped a mile to Slieve-na-cally (Hag’s Mountain) to drop another, and on to the next hill, where she let another stone fall. On her fourth and final leap — here we see the repeated attempt to mythically kill her off — she slipped and fell to her death. [Wood-Martin, 251-3]
The many engraved stones at Cairn H on Carnbane West repeat the concentric circles and solar symbolism of the eastern cairns. This large passage grave is rimmed with 41 kerbstones. In the back recess was the largest of all the stone basins—a slab, really—found in the megalithic chambers of Ireland. It rested on six small stone balls and remains of cremations (which may have originally been placed on the stone slab).
Cairn H also contained evidence that ceremonial activity continued in these monuments into the late Iron Age. Slips of bone carved with La Tène swirl patterns were found there: “It may be that these decorated bone flakes were placed into the passage tomb, some 3,000 years after its construction, as a votive offering to its long forgotten, but still respected, spiritual powers. The appearance of bronze rings, bone pins, and glass beads also found in this location would seem to support that hypothesis. Another possibility is that the cairn was the location of an oracle, who may have “read” the decorated bone fragments, as would a fortune-teller.” [More at http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/loughcrew/ ]
In the western Caucasus, the Abkhazians call women who act as oracles, medicine women and ritual leaders acaaju, “questioner.” Their origin story says that they were preceded by male seers who became mediators between humans and gods. The first of these was the brave warrior Achi Zoschan. He chose a young relative Azartl to succeed him, but that candidate made a deal to give up the post if his sick female relative was cured. She then became the new mediator, and quickly proved her mettle during a severe cattle plague.
“The herds were saved, and since this time, the prophetesses, acaaju, have been active. They were given to living in mutual enmity, since some of them were subject to Afy, others on the contrary to Zoschan.” [One a thunder god, the other a deified hero.]
The acaaju determined which deity had caused an illness and what remedies should be used. “Sometimes she obtained ecstatic inspiration and cried out the name and the demands of the angered divinity. At other times she went lightly across the room or even sat on a high seat and acted as though she was carrying on a conversation with the divinity, to whom she directed questions and from whom she received answers. After a while, she made known the result.” The forge god might be angry over a false oath made in the smithy, a cult place. Blacksmiths worked closely with the acaaju.
In cases of false oath, she divined: “she spread out beans in front of her, and on the basis of the arrangment of these found out the name of the transgressor.” She also used astrology. Once she’d made her determination, the acaaju told people what kind of animals were to be offered. “She often carried out the sacrifice herself. Beyond that, she also performed various actions of a magical sort. Thus, for example, she led some domestic animal three times around the sick person, after which it was driven away toward the forest, supposedly carrying the sickness away with it.” People paid her in skins and meat of sacrificed animals, or in sizeable amounts of money.
The acaaju did not always lead the ceremony, but “selected other women for them, who acted on the instruction of this—as one may say with reason—authoritative medicine woman and carried out her secret lore.”
A major Abhazian deity was Dzidlan, the Water Mother or Mistress of Waters. She was especially important for women in childbirth, who offered her prayers and sacrifices after a successful birth. Some illnesses such as long fevers were ‘caused by the water’ and could be cured with the help of this goddess. Her ceremonies were carried out at a sanctuary “usually at a pure sweet water lake or a stream.” It was common for a “blameless old woman” and a prayer woman to lead the afflicted to the waterside. The first secretly took something belonging to the sick person and went to the water. “There on the bank she drew herself up and spoke: ‘Water Mother, Mistress, if the invalid is bound by you, release him.’ Thereupon she touched the water three times with the article taken along and, using alder leaves, took a few drops of the water which she had carried home and put over the hearth. Then she ran out of the house with the words, ‘Just so, may your sickness also run away!’”
If this gave relief, then the prayer woman was invited to continue the ceremonies, with a hen, cock, filled loaf of unleavened bread and three candles. One candle went to Water Mother, one to her husband, and one to her Maidservant or Benefactress, who acts as an intercessor. The patient went to the water with the prayer woman and knelt while she successively lit the candles and placed them on the shore, praying to the three divinities. “At the conclusion, the prayer woman rubbed her hand over the back of the patient and with this gesture she liberated him from the illness.”
Another ceremony aimed to cure a serious illness caused by the Rainbow. It too was carried out with offerings at the stream, but this time the women “threw a twisted yarn bridge from one bank to the other.” They covered the person with a piece of cotton; then “the prayer woman walked around him with a previously prepared doll in her hands and turned, with prayers, to the Water Mother and the Water Father. Little pieces of each sort of food were consecrated and thrown into the water. The doll was set into a gourd decorated with a lit candle which the prayer woman put into the river saying, ‘Instead of the patient, be satisfied with this.’ Finally, the old woman passed her hand over the back of the sick person, lifted him up, and told him to go home, however with a sharp warning not to look back.”
Johanssens notes that “the acaaju was called by a masculine name during the prophecy, and that one generally spoke to her as though she were a man.” Explained as her representing the legendary Zoschan. He adds that this was “a ritual change of sex” typical of shamanism; “her change of sex was fictive and temporary, that is to say, limited to the execution of the prophecy…”
“The social position of the acaaju was very strong, and her opinion was counted on in all public affaris, for example, even in the hearing of witnesses in criminal procedures. There were some among them who had succeeded to fame among all the Abkhazians and to whom people from distant regions came in order to get advice.” People wanted to be related to the acaaju, and sometimes sought be be adopted into her family.
The acaaju “exhibits elements, such as ecstasy, communication with supernatural beings, an exceedingly powerful social position, and last but not least, the change of sex…” which he sees as linked to shamanism.
He notes the influence of ”ancient Anatolia with its ecstatic religious practices,” as well later conquests by the Mongols who dominated the Caucasus during the 13th and 14th centuries. Doubtless there were other influences in between.
I found this article while searching for information about the Oromo goddess Atete on a scholarly database. Here the southern Ethiopian goddess hardly appears in her own right, most of the Oromo having (incompletely) converted to Islam or Christianity. Yet she has survived in women’s domain, especially in a ceremonial period around birth, known as Qanafa, which remains sacrosanct. The women fiercely defend this time sacred to Atete and, although they are abused at other times, militantly confront men who commit abuse during the Qanafa seclusion. Much of the information available about Atete revolves around these ritualized female protests rather than the actual rites of the goddess.
Oromo scholar Jeylan Hussein outlines the decline in women’s status in recent history, losses that have accelerated since conversions to Christianity (pushed by the dominant Amhara group) and Islam (embraced by many as a means of resisting these traditional enemies of the Oromo). He cites testimony of elders and historical records that indicate that women’s status was better in earlier times and that gender inequality hardened in the colonial era. [108-9]
It’s not that the old laws weren’t patriarchal. Oromo society was already patrilineal, with a harsh sexual double standard that stigmatized females and practiced boy-preference. Men who could afford it married several women, and senior wives ranked far above additional wives and concubines. Hussein analyzes numerous proverbs, showing how they describe women as inferior beings, as weak, fickle, irrational. They overwhelmingly depict women as men’s chattel. Several proverbs advocate beating wives, and compare them to donkeys and horses who could be tamed and beaten at will. As Hussein summarizes, Oromo sayings prescribe male mastery and female subordination. [121-28]
Men “actively excluded” women from the Gada generational system. However, when men held their assemblies, women used their work songs to make their position known with “pointed commentary… or a direct criticism of some unjust or unwise decision the men are contemplating.” [Legesse, 1973: 20-21, in Hussein,109]
Oral tradition also says that Oromo women received certain regalia and powers from the Gada system. An official called the Abba Gada brought to his wife two insignia of female honor and authority, a sinqe (ritual stick) and a qanafa (sacred piece of wood). She used the sinqe in anointments and other important ceremonies. The qanafa was to be tied around her forehead while giving birth, and for several months afterward. This wearing of the qanafa represented the high dignity of mothers, and served as the focal point of female protest and resistence.
Among the Shoa Oromo, most people are nominally Orthodox Christians, but the old religion is still in the mix: “One example of this is the periodic observance of muuda (anointment) by both men and women, and Atete (female divinity) by women.”  In Oromo religion, Hussein contrasts “the patriarchal view of Waaq, and the matriarchal view of women’s divinities such as Atete and Marame.”  Women’s Atete rituals belong to a cultural belief that women are intermediaries between the spiritual and physical, and “that Waaq listens to women’s desire and instantly responds to it.” 
Hussein disputes early British accounts of Atete as a fertility goddess with annual ceremonies. He says that there is no fixed date for her festival: “Whenever natural disasters fall, women gather and perform the ritual.” So when crops failed, the rains stopped, epidemics spread, or in times of war, it was the women who prayed to relieve the hardships. The men formally asked them to “gather around a sacred Qiltu (sycamore tree), distinguished ford or high ground, or any renowned ujubaa (tree shrine). The women gathered and prayed to revert the affliction.” 
Hussein offers one example of “rainmaking Atete hymns of the Arsi Oromo women” intended to win favor from Waaq. Once again, Atete is not named, only “the Lord,” indicating that revisions have erased the goddess from “Atete hymns.” Tradition held that after women’s prayer, Waaq “would immediately provide the community members with a much rain as they wanted.” He notes this as a female “leadership role” that also “indicates the subtle interconnection between ayyaan (spirituality), uumaa (nature) and saffuu (ethical and moral code). [111-112]
Women use the Atete ceremony, among other things, for rituals of conception. An Arsi couple would ask the saddeetoo senior mothers sodality to set up an Atete ritual for them. The village women would gather and celebrate a sing with call and response prayers. Among the Borana, a childless woman would come to a mother of dabballe (young men of rank) for blessing. Her forehead and belly were rubbed with butter and libations of milk and honey wine poured. [112; 137, note 11]
By all accounts, however, Oromo women have lost ground. The most traditional groups retained a base for female solidarity that reached across divisions of kin and marriage ties. The Arsi Oromo called this female organization saddeetoo or saddeettan hanfalaa. This group of married and older women “provides the women with the impetus to participate in village councils and the cultural vehicle to mobilize en masse against mistreatment by men.” [103-07]
It was these female groups that invoked Atete “to counter male atrocities and to enforce religious sanctions against related misbehaviors.” Women’s primary impetus to action was a violation of the qanafa post-birth sanctity during which family members are supposed “to please the mother and avoid annoying her.” The husband has to respect taboos surrounding birth, which include not abusing his wife. If he beats or verbally abuses her “while she is observing this ritual, the wife throws off any responsibility at hand and heads straight to communicate the matter to the saddeettan hanfalaa (council of senior mothers).” Even when the woman tries to kept such abuse secret, other women tell the female elders’ council. “Then, the senior mothers mobilize en masse against the atrocity committed by the husband. As a result of this, all of the women in the village abandon their individual houses, and protest against the offense.”
“The village women consider the offense committed against a single woman as violation committed against them as a group. Hence, no woman in the village is excused from the protest unless and otherwise she has an absolute inconvenience she has no control over.” They will not tolerate any woman who breaks this female solidarity. … After abandoning their houses, the women gather in the compound of the misbehaving husband and sing songs of resentment.” They may also decide to lay a curse on him. 
“Once they are in Atete ceremony, the women are observing a ritual and many taboos come into full force.”  No one can speak to them or cross their path as they go in procession. Bystanders have to stop and wait respectfully until they have passed, or risk a most serious curse resulting in incurable illness, ruin, or madness. To avoid these magical disasters, the male elders approach the senior women to find out what the problem is. If the male elders do not intervene immediately, the women leave and take refuge with another clan. Custom requires that they be received with honor, and their heads anointed with butter. The elders of that clan would then get in touch with male elders of the boycotted clan. These elders would have to ritually make amends and agree to deal with the abusive husband.
The ritual of reconciliation begins with the male elders taking a sheaf of green grass to the women (a sign of reverence) and reciting a formal apology for invading their space. The male elders say all together, Dhiltee dhinna (save us from your eyes). The women elders accept the grass, responding, Hoffola Hobbaya (Be saved!) or Ijarraa hafaa! (Survive our eyes!). [In the footnotes, Hussein explains that “Save us from your eyes” is a standard disclaimer when facing a big gathering, that looking at the group, in this case at the women, is not to be considered shameless or bold.] After this opening, the men ask the women why they are protesting. One of the female elders recounts the crimes committed against the female community, against motherhood (protected by Atete, thus this protest is named for the goddess). “If need be, she reminds the male elders the lallaba of the good old days, when they were granted honour.” 
The outcome is that the wrongdoer makes amends by “compensating the group and appeasing their divinity.” He usually does this by sacrificing a cow or calf for the women to feast on. “If the offender does not confess his mistake in person or in absentia, the women impose a more serious curse called abaarsa sinqee (the curse of sinqe). This is the stage when all of the women rest their sinqe (ritual sticks) on the ground and pray to Waaq for the offender to be ruined.” So the Atete society has two sanctions: this one against a single person, and the bidhaa against the council of male elders. 
Hussein writes that the Atete ceremony has two functions: one is regulating women’s morality (but she says nothing about this). The other is to enable women to challenge male domination as a group. She observes that this ceremony is seriously endangered, like so much other Oromo culture. He discusses the pressures from Islam, particularly the “fanatical” Wahabi sect active in her country: “In the region, the preachers of this movement indignify those who cling to indigenous creeds by calling them Awaama or Jahila (ignorant). They condemn the traditional religious practices in its entirety as shirk (heretical)…” Hussein observes that Muslim Oromo women are abandoning the Atete rituals, and thus losing a significant mechanism of solidarity and resistance. 
“The gradual expansion of the two universalistic religions, Islam and Christianity, has directly or indirectly contributed towards the decline of the value of the Oromo women’s Atete ritual over the last century. With the recent resurgence of the competitive religions, their religious influence on the communal practices of the people has gained maximum momentum.”
The women’s ritual stick is especially interesting, since this appears in the Saharan murals as well as in modern South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and other parts of Africa, as well as on other continents.
I originally posted this commentry on the Suppressed Histories Facebook page after a reader who challenged my suggestion that a woman’s bruised eye could have anything to do with male batterer pattern. It gives ample evidence of endemic and sanctioned wife-beatings in that cultural context, but the feminist Oromo scholar’s article is interesting for another reason. He shows how Goddess veneration provided a basis for female solidarity and resistance, even though it had shrunk to apply only to periods of pregnancy and birth, and even as the goddess Atete herself was being done away with by christianization and islamicization.
You may have read that the Zar religion originated among the Oromo people (also known as “Galla”). Atete is their great goddess. I’m sharing some information I found back in the mid-70s. The source cites are lost, but this is too important to leave out, all the more so because so far I’ve found no other sources offering this level of detail about the Oromo Goddess. I’ve left the account in the present tense even though this veneration has lost tremendous ground in the past century, under pressure from Christianity and Islam.
Atete governs the fate of people on earth. She is “power of life, abundance, fortune, wealth,” and Fridays are sacred to her. Women carry strings of specially colored beads (cäle) as a rosary consecrated to this goddess. Groups of women wear necklaces of Atete, hold a feast, and then go to gather herbs. She was originally the Oromo Great Goddess, but even the Christian Amhara have assimilated some aspects of her veneration.
Her feast days are the first of the Ethiopian calendar (a parallel with Isis in Kemet, ancient Egypt, to whom some modern Oromo indigenistas compare her). A great festival and rituals are celebrated every year to honor her, with ritual preparations of steeped barley. On the evening of the festival, women of each household chant invocations over the feast: “Atete Hara, Atete Jinbi, Atete Dula, forget not my children, watch over my husband and my cattle.” Or “My mother, my mistress, please look after me.” Then they burst into the women’s shrilling triumphal cry illi-li-li as they pick up the coffee beans and begin to prepare the drink. On this evening, the woman of the house enter deep trance and speaks as oracles of the zar. The spirits advise the women on the coming year and feast on the food set before them.
The zar (spirit) is passed from mother to daughter; husbands actively try to crush this shamanic tradition. Most zar-doctors are women. [This too has changed, to some extent.] The Gurri was a whirling dance invoking zar, to make them become Weqabi, protective spirits who ride their ‘horses,’ the entranced women.
This fleshes out a bit what several authors have documente about the Oromo origins of the zar religion: that among this people it was connected to indigenous goddess reverence. Not that she was the only spirit, but she is the heart of the religion. Here’s another tidbit from the Amharic side of Ethiopia, whose women massively adopted zar from the Oromo. (Enslaved Oromo women spread the religion into Sudan and Arabia as well, but that’s a much larger subject.)
The earliest known Ethiopian inscriptions are to the goddesses Naurau and Ashtar near Axum. The Ge’ez alphabet is older than Arabic or Greek, and many volumes of a later period fill a large royal library. Ge’ez means “free,” and is a Semitic language. Women of the royal line were called Makeda, like the Queen of Sheba (Sa’ba). One source refers to “The ‘crescent and disc’ of Astarte, a design common to the great fallen monoliths of Aksum, Blemy pottery, and the coins of the kings of Aksum”. [Astarte being the Greek word for Phoenician and Syrian ‘Ashtart, which was ‘Athtar in Arabia.] The Yemenites are the closest linguistic relatives to the Amhara, and since in southern Arabia Athtar was masculinized, I’m not sure that this was a goddess in Ethiopia. It’s possible, however; more to research on that.
More on Oromo, ethnicity, and religion: Ethiopian bloggers weigh in
The Oromo (“Galla”) are a large ethnic group in central and south Ethiopia. They speak a Cushitic language related to Somali, part of the much larger Afro-Asiatic family. They pushed up from southern Ethopia and became the majority population in central and southern Ethiopia. Most of them have converted to Islam or Christianity, although even they retain traces of their old religion, Waaqeffannaa. This means “belief in Waaq,” a supreme god, but they also have an important goddess, Atete, also known by the christianized name Marame. Oromo who adhere to the indigenous religion are now outnumbered by converts.
Oromo people are often referred to as “Galla,” but Ethiopian sources say that this name really designates indigenous religion. An Ethiopian blogger explains the distinctions: “Galla, like the terms Amara [Amhara] and Muslim refers to faith and not to race. Therefore, an Ethiopian is traditionally called Amara if he is a Christian, Muslim if he is of the Islamic faith, and Galla if he practices the traditional Oromo faith or is an animist.” [“Call Me By Name: A small talk with Debteraw, VIII” by Wolde Tewolde, alias Obo Arada Shawl]
In the Comments of the same Debteraw blog, Daniel adds (April 15, 2007): “To many of us who have grown up in the ‘Atete’ culture knew how the ‘Atete’ goddess cuts across ethnic lines. Those of us who still recount the ‘Atete’ ritual might not miss the mantra-like recounting of the ‘Gondare Sifa’.” [Not sure what this is, but I’m guessing that it’s a Christian litany, since Gondar was the imperial capital of the Amhara.]
Daniel sees “the ‘Marame’ goddess and the ‘Eme-Birhan’ i.e. ‘Mariam'” as belonging to a related cluster of Ethiopian folk goddesses (Mariam=Mary, so we see how the Ethiopian Goddess came to be linked with the Christian one). He also compares “the Amhara and Oromo peasant hut design and how they reflect female figurines,” and talks about “the matriarchal-paganism of the ‘Galla'” which was displaced by “the patrilineal androgenic God figure of the northerner.” [This is overstating the case, as you’ll see from my previous Note about an Oromo woman’s article on indigenous patriarchy and women’s resistance to it.] However, the Oromo religion does retain aspects of very old female potency. Numerous sources show Atete morphing into Mariam / Marame through Christian influence.
There’s a larger feminist issue here: patriarchal systems are commonly described as “egalitarian,” when in fact what is being described is a lack of class ranking / hierarchy. For example, look at this: “The Galla of Ethiopia are generally represented as an egalitarian people.” The author goes on to cite the Gada system, in which an all-male assembly elects its own leaders. That is the criterion for “egalitarian.” (See the next post for more perspective on male dominance in the Oromo family.) Further, class ranking has in fact intruded, as monarchies supplanted the Gada councils over the past 200 years). [Herbert Lewis, “A Reconsideration of the Socio-Political System of the Western Galla.” Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol 9, 1964, p 139 (139-143)]
An Ethiopian evangelical scholar gives more detail about the Atete ceremonies, although the article comes from a Lutheran conceptual framework that treats the indigenous religions as demonic. [Amsalu Tadesse Geleta, “Demonization and Exorcism,” thesis at The Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology.] I’m going to quote from this essay in spite of the very negative Christian bias and stereotypical terms (“cult,” etc.), because it does offer some valuable information, even if we have to read through the bias:
“Atete is a fertility cult in honor of the spirit of motherhood in Oromo tradition. The cult is known as conversion zar among the Amharas of Ethiopia. There is a similarity of practices between Atete and Conversion Zar. The preparation is the same. The main difference is that the conversion zar is practiced among the Amharas whereas Atete is practiced among the Oromos. Atete is a non-violent female goddess mainly connected with fertility. Women who seek supernatural help to become pregnant and bear healthy children are the main adherents.
“The clients of this cult are women. A girl will take over or be possessed by her mother’s ayana (spirit). Her ayana normally possesses or visits her once or twice a year. She spends her day preparing things that are needed for the ceremony. She has to prepare herself wearing special clothes (often of the opposite sex), putting on beads and ornaments, perfumes and carrying a whip, steel bar or an empty gun. Green grass (reed from river side) is spread on the floor as a sign of ceremony or anniversary.
“Different types of foods like porridge, butter, lemons, dadhi (honey wine, yellow in color), farso (home made beer), and coffee is prepared before the ceremony starts. There might be some more sacrifice prescribed by ayana on its previous possession. So chicken, sheep or goat of certain color is offered as a sacrifice and perfumes or different spices are presented as an offer. If the spirit is pleased by the offerings and the preparation it occupies her. People know that she is possessed when she starts yawning, stretching the whole body here and there, salivating, and becoming drowsy. Her body wavers, and she also cries, speaks as if she is in dream alone. She often falls down and covers her face with her dress.
“She may jump and run away and climb trees, not coming down until people beg her. Others stand on glowing wood or eat embers. She may cut herself with a knife, or crush pieces of glass and eat them. She speaks in a strange voice, often using a language understood only by the zar themselves. She may sing a song reserved for the occasion, or dance a peculiar dance associated with a particular ceremony. She acts very differently from normal strength, voice, activity, etc. which signify that the spirit has possessed her.
“This possession may last from a few hours to two or three days. The main function of the gathered spectators throughout the ceremony is to appease the ayana, sing songs, clap, dance and beat a drum, and beg the spirit not to hurt her. [This last may again reflect the author’s Christian bias] Geleta goes on to say that “In contrast to Atete which is dominated by women, seer zar is man’s zar.”
So we see repeated several shamanic themes: special ritual dress in accord with the spirits, trance states, falling to the ground, covering the face, imperviousness to fire or blades, supernatural strength, spirit languages, special songs for certain spirits, and not least in this case, involvement of ancestral spirits inherited matrilineally. The climbing up into trees (or onto roofs) also occurs with new shamanic initiates in Zambia and other African countries.
Another interesting aspect of Geleta’s article is that it plainly states the equivalence of indigenous Oromo religion with Zar. We’ve already seen one author make the case for an Ethiopian origin for Zar, which is backed up by other experts, and here that idea receives further support from a hostile witness.
Two short mentions of Atete appear in Literatures in African Languages, ed. B.W. Andrzejewski et al, Cambridge University Press 2010.
J…lq…b… b…rsisa [characters won’t reproduce] an Oromo textbook published in 1894, contains legends, proverbs, and oral poems; “there are even some hymns to Atete, the goddess of fertility.” [B.W. Andrzejewski, “Written Literature in Oromo,” p 409]
“Atete, also called Maram [that is, after the Christian goddess Maryam or Mary] is the goddess of fertility worshipped in some regions of Ethiopia by the adherents of the traditional Oromo religion.” [B.W. Andrzejewski, “Oral Prose: the Time-Bound Stream,” p 415]
Other present-day testimony comes from web sites on Waaqeefannaa (indigenous Oromo religion):
“Based on the story of Irreechaa, the Oromo started celebrating Waaqayyoo beside Odaa tree, which was for the first time planted by Atete as a symbol of Ora-Omo (resurrection of Ora, who raised from death to celebrate the reconciliation with his murderer, with his brother Sete). [Here referring to Kemetic Ausar and Set] Since then, the other Cushitic nations also celebrate this event either under a tree (Odaa) or beside a statue of stone (like beside the Axum Obelisk) or beside a temporarily planted Demera as it’s now done almost all over Ethiopia. [This caught my interest because of the megalithic statues and standing stones in southern Ethiopia, and the symbolism of a plant or tree which recurs on many of them, which is repeated on female belly tattoos among some indigenous Ethiopian peoples.] Interesting is to observe this relation between Atete’s original plant as a symbol for the resurrection of Ora with the Oromo’s Odaa tree, lately replaced by the statue of Agew’s (Tegaru’s) Axum Obelisk, which is now further replaced by Demera, to be planted only temporarily during the transition time from a winter (darkness, unsuccessful, death) to a spring (a new start of light, a new start for success, a new start of life) every year. Knowingly or unknowingly, all Cush nations, including those who claim to be Semites (Tegaru, Amhara, Gurage, Harari, Argoba, etc), celebrate Irreechaa, which is the celebration of Ora’s resurrection. That is why Irreechaa is actually the holiday for all Cush nations, including those who deny their origins and try to identify themselves with Semetics (with David, with Solomon, with Arab, etc).
No pictures exist of two Indian medicine women who led resistance movements against the Spanish mission system in southern California. We don’t even know the name of the Chumash prophetess who preached a return to the old ways of her people at the Santa Barbara Mission.
In 1785, the 24-year-old medicine woman Toypurina inspired her Tongva people to rise up against the mission system in San Gabriel (now Los Angeles). She allied with two chiefs from traditional villages and Nicolas Jose, a convert who was angry that the monks forbade the mission Indians to hold their native dances. A soldier who understood the language overheard people talking about the revolt, and the rebels were captured. The military governor of California ordered them flogged to prove “that the sorceries and incantations of the woman Toypurina are… powerless in the face of the True Faith.”
Toypurina told the Spanish military judges that she had instructed chief Tomasajaquichi to tell the mission Indians not to believe the friars. “I commanded him to do so, for I hate the padres and all of you, for trespassing on the land of my ancestors…” They deported the seeress to Monterrey, where they forced her to convert and to marry a soldier. In this captivity she died of grief.
Many people don’t realize that the California Missions enslaved Indian people, whose mortality was high, not just from European diseases but from overwork, rape, floggings and other abuses. They were not free to leave, as the following history shows.
The Chumash Prophetess of Chupu (Earth Mother) was a Chumash woman (whose name the Spanish colonials did not record). She had a vision in 1801 after ingesting the herb sacred datura (known to the Chumash as Momoy, the Grandmother). She started a spiritual and political movement that culminated in the Santa Barbara rebellion of 1824.
Chupú, Mother Earth, appeared to this seeress, telling her that Indians who remained baptized would die, but that those who bathed in the “tears of the sun” could throw off the baptism. As word spread among the Chumash, people came from far away to see the prophetess and to honor Chupú. They made small shrines out of wood, cloth and feathers. The missionaries flogged the builders of these altars whenever they discovered them. While the monks suppressed the outward signs of this movement, the Chumash continued to venerate Chupu in secret. Finally they mounted a revolt in which half of the people succeeded in escaping inland, into Indian Country. Mexican soldiers suppressed the rebellion, and the institutionalized violence resumed at more ferocious levels.
Junípero Serra led the first colonial wave in Alta California (what is now the US state). He had been an inquisitor who repressed Indian religion and culture in eastern Mexico. Later he founded a series of prison-missions between San Diego and San Francisco, run on captive Indian labor serving the monks and the soldiers garrisoned there. The Franciscans flogged Indian residents for acting like free people, practicing their own customs or refusing labor. Armed soldiers stood by during the mandatory masses, while the congregation was kept on its knees by the whipping and caning of church bailiffs.
The colonists infected Indian “neophytes” (baptized captives) with contagious diseases that killed thousands. Soldiers abused the Indians living in the missions and committed mass rape against Indian women, as Serra knew. Such crimes, combined with the whipping of mission Indians who attended a traditional dance, precipitated the Kumeyaay revolt of 1775 at San Diego. Indian resistance to the totalitarian mission system for decades. As early as 1656, the Timucuas had revolted against Spanish missions in far-away Florida. In 1734, Baja California rose in insurrection against the mission system; it took the Mexican army two years to suppress them. The Yuma staged a successful revolt along the southern Colorado river, expelling the Spanish from their lands in 1781.
These revolts ultimately failed to stop the invasions and colonizations. The California peoples were too socially advanced (in real terms, not fake “civilization” hierarchy and accumulation) and this worked against them as they faced European-style militarized colonizers under central command structure. Not to mention they were totally outgunned against invaders totally lacking in morals, scruples, or humanity.
I’ve drawn from various sources, but the best I’ve found so far is:
Daniel Fogel’s Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology, San Francisco: Ism Press, 1988.
My original post elicited this great comment from Andrew Lara:
‘Here’s to Modesta Avila (Juaneño), who in 1889 refused passage of the newly placed Santa Fe Railroad track in San Juan Capistrano. She placed a sign that read, “This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars.” She was arrested and died in San Quentin in her early twenties. Fight on!’
I came across a book, Surfing: the Spirit of Hawaiian Kings, with lots of information about women’s surfing. (The female inclusiveness is pretty untypical for a 1966 publication.) The book names several oral traditions about women surfers, as well as accounts by European naval officers and missionaries from a time when Hawaiian culture remained intact. Some excerpts follow.
In the first European account of Hawaii, Captain Cook described how a princess” (meaning a woman of the ali’i – other accounts call such women “chiefess”) “paddled her board through heavy surf to catch an ride the rolling waves,” and observed that women were just as ready “to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge.” 
Many later accounts emphasize that women were active surfers in eastern Polynesia. Finney and Houston say that In the western islands, adults didn’t surf, and that boys surfed.) But they say that “…both sexes rode waves on tiny Rapa, south of Tahiti. In Hawaii everyone enjoyed it, men and women, young and old… The same was true of New Zealand and among the Marquesans, northeast of Tahiti.”  Morrison, one of the officers on the famous British ship Bounty commented of Tahiti, “at this diversion all sexes are excellent… the children also take their sport in the small surfs.” 
But the most extensive development of the sport and art was in the Hawaiian Islands, where all genders, ages, and classes took to the waves. On Hawai’i itself, the missionary Ellis remarked that when good surfing waves started running, “the thatch houses of a whole village stood empty; daily tasks such as farming, fishing, and tapa-making were left undone whie an entire community—men, women and children—enjoyed themselves in the rising surf and rushing white water.” 
Oral tradition recalls that king Kamehameha and queen Kaahumanu surfed side by side…”  Chiefly surfers had praise-singers who sang special songs for their surfing. Certain surfing areas were reserved for the aristocratic ali’i. On Maui, the surfboard was “an article of personal property among all the chiefs, male and female, and among many of the common people,” according to C. S. Stewart (another missionary, the place was plagued with them) in 1823. [38, 35]
Finney and Houston are refreshingly informative about female participation in surfing. “Although early accounts do not mention who surfed the most, eye-witness descriptions usually refer to adult men and women, with an occasional mention of children riding small boards close to shore. Except on those beaches where the most dangerous swells peaked, men and women shared surfing areas equally.” 
And again: “a large percentage of wahines of early Hawaii was skillful surfers, and sometimes champions.” Early engravings show women riding surfboards. As a 19th century publication called Thrum’s Annual related, ‘Native legends abound with the exploits of those who attained distinction among their fellows by their skill and daring in this sport, indulged in alike by both sexes; and frequently too… the gentler sex carried off the highest honors.” 
One of the best surfing spots in Kou was Ke Kui o Mamala in the harbor of Honolulu: “The break was named after Mamala, a famous woman surfer and prominent Oahu chief. According to legend she was first married to Ouha, the shark man…” But Mamala left him for Honokaupu, the owner of a nearby coconut grove. Ouha then cast off his human form to become the shark god of the coast between Waikiki and Koko head. A song was sung about this love triangle. 
Another surfing love story involved a supernatural woman who lived in a cave overlooking the North Shore of Oahu. A prince of Kauai’I came to surf in the renowned, colossal breakers at Sunset Beach. A Bird Maiden who lived in a cave above watched him surf, then sent her bird messengers to bring a lehua lei to him and bring him to her. They spent months together as lovers, until surfing season came around again. He promised to never kiss another woman, but broke this vow when a woman came up after his surfing and put an ilima lei around his neck. The birds brought word back to their mistress. She ran to the beach, tore off the ilima lei and reclaimed him with her lehua lei. The Bird Woman ran back to her cave, with him in hot pursuit. He never caught her, but turned to stone halfway up the mountainside. [39-40]
Surfing had definite romantic connections. If a man and woman happened to ride the same wave together, “custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach. More formal courtship was also carried out in the surf, where a man or woman tried to woo and win a mate by performing on the waves.” 
If a man and woman happened to ride the same wave together, “custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach. More formal courtship was also carried out in the surf, where a man or woman tried to woo and win a mate by performing on the waves.” One story tells how Kauai’i champion Hauailiki courted an ali’i woman at Keeau, Hawai’i. But she was unimpressed by his surfing, so he resorted to a display of body-surfing. She called him to her and placed a lehua lei around her neck, as it was her custom to recognize good surfers—but he got no farther than that. 
Another story reflects more coercive behavior. Kelea, sister of the king of Maui, “was famed as the most graceful and daring surfer in the kingdom. One day while surfing at Lahaina, she accepted an invitation to ride in the canoe of a visiting chief from Oahu. A sudden squall swept them out to sea, and taking advantage of the storm, Kalamakua abducted Kelea and sailed for Oahu. He presented her to his high chief Lo-Lake. Kelea was furious, but she was a captive. To make things worse, this “husband” liked to live inland, well away from Kelea’s beloved waves. She vowed to return to Maui. The story says that she stopped to surf at Ewa, and wound up accepting Kalamakua’s proposal of marriage. 
Kapu (taboo) was used to exclude commoners from some surf areas. Some accounts describe ali’i and commoners surfing in the same areas, but this may date from after the kapu system was broken in 1819. At least one fine surfing place was reserved to a single ali’i woman: “a special surf at Waikiki that was taboo to everyone but the Queen. For riding to shore on one of the royal lady’s waves, one young man was severely beaten and nearly put to death.” This story recalls what was said earlier about customary connections between sharing waves and sexual intimacy, and now it seems to intersect with kapu against men of lesser rank being sexual with ali’i women. 
Queen Emma had a special surf chant. The chiefly class of ali’i had praise-singers who chanted songs for their surfing. [46, 38] Another story turned on an old woman who was the personal chanter for Naihe, a champion of Ka’u, Hawai’i. His enemies were conspiring to kill him, and secretly agreed that no surfer would return to shore until their chant had been sung. He didn’t know, and neither did his chanter. She fell asleep, not expecting to be called on, and he was forced to remain at sea. But one man woke up the old chanter and revealed the plot. She ran to the shore with streaming tears to sing the song, and saved Naihe.  Oral tradition may name her, but these authors do not.
Huge changes took place when Europeans colonized the Hawaiian Islands. Even before the coup that seized power from the Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893, the missionaries had already wrought havoc on Hawaiian culture, in every sphere of life: dress, ceremony, dance, and culture. Surfing was no exception, and came in for repression on grounds of “scanty costume,” “immorality,” sexual freedom, and its connection to to the Aboriginal religion. [62-4] It languished in a climate of fear and cultural lockdown.
Tahiti underwent similar cultural colonization, and by the late 1800s had abandoned surfing and swimming, along with dance, games, and their old religious customs. Instead, according to this book, their only entertainment was singing Christian hymns. [62-4]
A revival of Hawaiian surfing was underway in Oahu by 1907. Native Hawaiians had to band together in a club to get access to the fabled beach in Waikiki. But the interruption of the surfing tradition, along with all the other cultural changes, had cut down women’s participation severely. It took many decades for women to regain some of the ground they had lost. Today, women surfers are riding the waves again, as well as women open-sea rowers like those who race from Moloka’i to Oahu every year.
Surfing: the Spirit of Hawaiian Kings. Ben R. Finney, James D. Houston. Rutland VT: Charles E Tuttle, 1966
(The book does not identify the engravings shown, but they would be from the early to middle 1800s.)
The Private War of Mrs. Packard by Barbara Sapinsley is a classic case of the legal subjugation of women in Euro/American society, a legacy of Pauline scripture and medieval law all the way through Blackstone and the Napoleonic code. An Illinois housewife in Kankakee, married to a Calvinist minister, dared to disagree with the dogma of humankind’s “total depravity” (by original sin) and to refuse the absolute obedience that her husband demanded.
After browbeating her for years, in 1860 Theophilus Packard had his wife forcibly removed from home and locked up in a mental hospital for years. Illinois law, as of 1851, allowed husbands absolute authority to do this, without any restraint whatsoever: “Married women and infants who, in the judgment of the medical superintendent of the state asylum at Jacksonville, are evidently insane or distracted [i.e., distressed or upset] may be entered or detained in the hospital at the request of the husband of the woman or the guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases.” [p. 66]
There was ample precedent for this in the chattel status and legal minority of women in most European law. The medieval term for it was couverture; the male literally covered the woman, eclipsing her personhood, her name, and her rights with his own privilege as head of household. Countless laws allowed him to beat, to “chastise” and “correct” his wife (and children), with the smug approval of church and state. He had absolute control over her body, her property, and her children.
Having failed to force Elizabeth’s submission on doctrinal questions, and furious that she left his church and joined the Methodists, Theophilus enlisted the support of the church deacons to get her out of the house and on the train to Jacksonville. He needed them, because Elizabeth stoutly refused to go: they were forced to carry her out of the house and onto the train. On the long trip south, she told other passengers what was going on, and they were appalled. The husband meanwhile lectured his wife about how god was on his side, because he was winning “while all your efforts are defeated.” Sapinsley comments, “The Lord may have been on his side, but the passengers were not. A few offered to hide Elizabeth and help her escape…”
Elizabeth gradually won over most of the staff at the hospital and was even given a set of keys because of the duties she assumed there. She wrote voluminously, telling the story of the injustice she was suffering. The doctors denied her paper at one point, but she managed to get hold of it thanks to assistance from other patients and staff. She hid her most important writings in the backing of a mirror. At first she had her own room – class counted for something, but only for a while; after increasing clashes with the head doctor, he had her removed to the open wards. Elizabeth adapted to that situation too, and set about cleaning the filthy rooms and restuffing the mattresses, one by one. She cared for other inmates.
When her oldest son turned 21, he had legal authority to remove her from the asylum, and convinced his father to agree. But Elizabeth resisted leaving, because she was finishing her book about what had been done to her, and was afraid her husband would try to lock her up somewhere else. (That proved to be true.) She also refused her cousin’s counsel to divorce Theophilus, knowning that she would lose her children. So once again she refused with passive resistance: “And here in the presence of these witnesses I claim a right of my own identity, and in the name of the laws of my country, I claim protection against this assault against my personal rights. I claim a right to myself. I claim a right to remain unmolested in my own hired room.”
She came home to a dirty and disorganized house, her husband having forced her daughter to take over all the housework and child care at the age of 11. Theophilus had placed locks on everything, so that she could not even get food or clean linen without his permission. Soon he locked her into the nursery, having nailed the windows shut, and prevented anyone from seeing her. She was now his prisoner, as she had foreseen, and remained so for a month and a half. She was forced to live in a room without a fire and without warm clothing. Then she discovered, through an fateful series of events, that her husband was plotting to get her locked up in another mental ward “as a case of hopeless insanity.”
She managed to slip a note out through the inner and outer windows to a transient who had been using their water pump, and notify her friends that she had to escape. The Hasletts took her in. Now, after almost four years, Elizabeth Packard finally succeeded in getting a court hearing. Some 200 female supporters packed the courthouse. Before the trial was over, Theophilus “mortgaged the house and everything in it, including what was hers,” and decamped to Massachusetts, with her children. He failed to appear in court, and she was finally set free.
Now Elizabeth Packard began to print her story and sell “tickets” for forthcoming editions of a series of books that she would publish from 1864 on. They made the case for women’s rights, rights of people committed on grounds of insanity, and the harms of religious absolutism. She overcame numerous obstacles to do this, and succeeded in getting positive press attention for her work. Next, she organized support in the Massachusetts legislature for reform of the laws around commitment for insanity and treatment of people confined in madhouses. And she began to win.
Packard sold thousands of books, funding herself, and effectively lobbied legislators, civic leaders, laborers, anyone who would listen. She gathered petition signatures and made speeches. She got a law passed in Massachusetts, did a campaign in Connecticut, and forced Theophilus to finally return her clothes and other property he had withheld from her for all those years. (As the husband, he had full legal control of anything belonging to her.) Packard returned to Illinois and started a petition to change commitment procedures there. She used this to leverage support from the governor, and used the press to great effect. The Illinois State Register wrote about her book on the front page: “The book is designed to inform the public of the power husbands may assume under the law over their wives. Mrs. Packard designs to bring the subject matter of complaint before the general assembly to the end that relief may be provided other unfortunates who are suffering under similar persecution.”
Meanwhile her old nemesis Dr. McFarland, and his associates, were defaming her as an unhinged and indecent woman in order to defeat her measure, which the medical establishment (all white men) opposed. When the state senate debated the Personal Liberty Bill that she had gotten introduced, women filled up the gallery. But they had to leave to fix dinner before the bill came up. Many senators were pushing to adjourn, and various procedural difficulties followed. It was due to her utter determination every step of the way that the bill got read, necessary edits added and, when mislaid, located and signed into law.
Packard publicized testimony from former attendants at the Jacksonville wards about abuse, humiliation, and horrific beatings of straitjacketed patients (the Victorian language hints at rape). “The cold baths, O my God! it makes me shudder to think of it. The patient, often for a small offence… is taken to the bathroom, made to strip… and after being tied hand and foot, plumped into [the water] and held there under it until almost dead, and then drawn out only long enough to catch their breath and then plunged in again..” Torture, in other words.
Her next fight was an issue pressing on her now that she was free: female rights in child custody, and women’s right to property and earnings. She got more bills passed in Illinois on these causes. Then she went to court and won custody of her now teenaged children. Her husband did not contest this time. In the summer of 1869, her family gathered together, “the first time mother and all six children had ever been together,” and celebrated at the house Elizabeth had bought in Chicago with earnings from her books.
After her children were grown, she went back to lobbying on protections for people locked up in mental wards. She got a bill passed in Iowa, then in New York. Connecticut followed. Maine was a tougher nut to crack, and so she switched tactics. She decided to go to the federal level and went to Washington. She won over the First Lady, then President Grant, and worked on a bill with Belva Lockwood, a feminist lawyer (first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, which she had to fight to do). The bill was passed. Packard spent the following fifteen years organizing in 25 other states, traveling by railroad. She got laws changed in many of them, with a greater emphasis on rights of the “insane” as the years went by.
The Suppressed Histories Archives (founded 1970) is entering a new phase. We’ve already begun the huge task of digitizing the 15,000+ slide collection, and expanding the website. This will make more of its visual treasures and resources accessible on the worldwide web—much more!
Now we are raising funds to digitize the slide collection and reconfigure the website. Please take a look at the video, and contribute if you can. We’re at a crucial juncture for the survival of this groundbreaking global women’s history project. Your support is needed to sustain it into the future, and to enable women’s cultural treasures to be shared around the world.
The process of reconfiguring the Suppressed Histories web site has already begun, with a new main page and site design in the works. A mass of new material will be added: many more image galleries, articles, video clips, and content from Max’s online courses (and this blog). The biggest task is organizing four years worth of daily posts from the Suppressed Histories Facebook page into a meaningful and searchable format, hyperlinked by subject and region. Doing this will make valuable cultural and educational resources available to the public.
All of these tasks involve labor: design, information architecture, and content migration / formatting. It’s a huge undertaking. Some skilled labor is being donated, but most of the organization and labeling can only be done by Max, who has most of the knowledge in her head. She has kept the Archives going with no external funding, an achievement made possible through long hours — decades — of unpaid work. Community funding will accelerate the capacity of the Suppressed Histories Archives to pour out cultural resources (and political history) that women need to combat the demoralizing climate of backlash. We are so much more than we have been told!
I spend a lot of time digging around for cultural records of women. This information is not yielded up easily, and the sources are often problematic for their bias, whether masculine or Euro-racialist and colonialist. So it is gratifying to come across a source that contains very hard-to-find information, in this case historical accounts of female spiritual leadership in the Pacific Islands. I proceed on the assumption that a great deal of information is preserved in oral traditions I don’t have access to, and that documents written by missionaries and “explorers” (traveling with colonial navies) can be problematic because of their biases. Yet they sometimes contain important testimony, as shown by what follows.
The following is drawn from an article “Oral literature of Polynesia” in a book with a most unlikely title for such a subject: The Growth of Literature: The ancient literature of Europe, by Hector Munro Chadwick, Nora Kershaw Chadwick, Kershaw H Chadwick. London and NY: Cambridge University Press, 1940 (1968). The book came to me via a roundabout search triggered by an Hawaiian oral history that set me looking for prophetic and priestly women. It was a story about the prominent kaula wahine Pao.
The prophetess Pao was consulted by chief Kihapiilani, whose elder brother had forced him into exile from Maui. Before he could set out on the long voyage to Hawaii, he had to first get his wife’s permission to leave: “As soon as he was allowed to go [!] Kihapiilani started for Waikapu where the prophetess [ke kaula wahine] by the name of Pao was living.” Before his arrival, Pao had already predicted to her entourage that a chief was coming to petition her for assistance.
Later in the story, the chief’s sister prevailed upon her husband to assist him in his war against the oppressive older brother. “At this, Umi decided that he must obey his wife’s demand and so he gave his consent.” [Fornander, Abraham, Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore, 1917, pp] This story from one of the early written collections of Hawaiian history offers a unique perspective on women’s authority—and it also gives an important name for tracking that.
Kaula wahine translates as prophet-woman, priestess, seeress. But I’ve found it difficult to locate more information on the female kaula. Fornander, like so many other early recorders of the traditions, used the European masculine default, which makes it impossible to tell whether he is talking about all-male “priests.” In one place he does mention male and female. This male-default language is a major structural barrier that conceals women of power.
So in searching for the kaula wahine, and not finding much in libraries or online, it occurred to me that there might be another angle to research. Southern Pacific languages use taula because of the regular sound shift Tahitian T > Hawaiian K. A whole range of island traditions attribute spiritual powers and priestly authority to the taula (also taura or taua). And a web search for taula wahine did pay off by turning up this valuable article, “Oral literature of Polynesia.” One of the things I appreciate about the authors is their genuine respect for the Pacific cultures and their willingness to acknowledge the gaps in their knowledge:
“Our information relating to saga-telling in the Pacific is not very extensive, considering the wealth of saga texts. The most important of the historical and antiquarian sagas were recorded from the recitation of the tohungas, who were undoubtedly the chief specialists in this class of literature. … But saga-telling was by not means confined to the priesthood. It was a very general accomplishment among men and women of all ranks, and in Hawaii seems to have been something of a profession in itself. The prominence of saga-telling in the intellectual life of the Cook Islanders will have been observed from what has been said already…”
The Chadwicks tell us that women were often custodians of historical knowledge: “Among the Maori also saga-telling was a favorite form of intellectual entertainment, particularly among the women [emphasis added]. Graham refers to the sagas which he heard in particular from an old lady, a certain ‘old Mereri,’ who, he tells us, was well versed in ancient lore. Not infrequently the wife of a chief enjoyed a reputation as a saga-teller.” 
And again: “The composers [of poems and songs] are frequently women. In Hawaii, to judge from the repertoire of the hula dancers, and the evidence of the sagas of the Pele Cycle, the composition of poetry by women was especially common in the past.” Two women composed the mele of the Huala Pua’a, about Hama-pua’a, for example. This pattern was not unique to Hawaii: “Among the Maori the composition of poetry was especially common among women, and in Samoa the songs of the siva are said to have been frequently composed by women.” 
Now we come to the taula wahine. The Marquesans had “three classes of priestly and mantic persons—the atua, the taua (kaula), and the tuhuna (tohunga) [kahuna in Hawaii].” In the late 1700s, Crook wrote that the atua were regarded as divine persons. “These atua… were few in number, not more than one or two on an island at most, and they lived in great seclusion.”  (“Divinity” or “numinous person” are ways that atua could be translated.)
“Evidence of human atua in Hawaii [or rather, akua] appears to relate exclusively, or at least principally, to women.” But now the authors counterpose to that statement an implication that the entire prophetic class was male: “There was, however, a class of men known as kaula (‘seers’)” who went into states of divine inspiration, in which a deity warned them of important future events. “Their utterances during their periods of ecstasy were known as wanana, the word by which the Hawaiian translators of the Bible translate our word prophecy, but which appears to have reference any ‘inspired’ utterance of a sustained and formal character.” 
Having declared the kaula “a class of men” as distinguished from the mostly female group of living akua, on the next page they contradict themselves: “The kaula might be either a man or woman, if we may judge from the evidence of the sagas. A legend of Kalunuiohua, a chief of the royal line of Hawaii about three generations after the Migration Period, associates a prophetess or kaula called Waahia with his expeditions, or with the negotiations for his release out of captivity.”  They add that the Hawaiian kaula are included among the kahunas but are more powerful, “owing to their prophetic gifts.” 
The authors also express skepticism about the existence of priestesses in the Pacific Island: “In general our authorities do not distinguish between the priestess, or temple official, and the female seer. We have not found any satisfactory ground for supposing that any women of the former class have existed in Polynesia in historical times, except possibly in Samoa. On the other hand, women claiming possession by a divine spirit are by no means rare.”
The authors footnote their claim of no real evidence for priestesses in Pacifica by admitting to “[a] number of instances” in the written record, “but we are inclined to suspect that these have reference in reality to women of prophetic class, or to rare instances in which women’s names have become attached to the priestly class, owing to some other circumstance, such as the descent of a priestly line from a female, or because a woman has become for some other reason the repository of the lore of the priests.” This rather labored explanation shows no awareness of Hawaiian traditions assigning ceremonies of the female akua to priestesses and of the male to priests, as knowledgeable Hawaiians have told me.
On the preceding page the authors have already mentioned, but with the same unwarranted skepticism, that “A number of notices of priestesses have been recorded in the Tahiti Group, and in the Marquesas and elsewhere.”  All this after having already given dramatic accounts of the priestesses of Pele, who were regarded as “divine beings, the living and permanent incarnations of the goddess.”  Let’s look at those.
The priestesses of Pele
The authors write that the akua “are represented in Hawaii by certain women who lived in the craters of Mount Kilauea and neighboring volcanoes. Early missionaries speak of these women as the priestesses of the volcano goddess Pele…” [444-45]
The missionary Ellis recounted an 1825 meeting of Oani the priestess of Pele with a group of early missionaries. She declared to them, “Pele is my deity,” and sang and danced her story before them, “pronounced in a rapid and vociferous manner accompanied by ‘extravagant gestures’.”  This description betrays the missionaries’ assumptions and judgments that rendered them incapable of understanding what the priestess was about, as she entered into an inspired state.
“Toward the close she appeared to the missionaries to lose all command of herself. Nevertheless, she was able immediately afterwards to carry on a logical and balanced argument in discussion with them.” The ministers revered the biblical prophets, the ecstasies of David or of the Pentecost Christians, but they could not recognize a similar attainment in a Hawaiian priestess, any more than they were able to understand her attempts to reason with them about the value of her culture. They fixated on her declaration that she was Pele, which she reaffirmed when Ellis questioned her, and could not see anything further. 
The same missionary also described “an official visit of a different priestess of a priestess of Pele, arrayed in her prophetic robes, having the edges of her garments burnt with fire, and holding a short staff or spear in her hand, preceded by her daughter, who was also a candidate for the office of priestess. On this occasion the priestess claimed that ‘in a trance or vision she had been with Pele’ who had charged her to lodge certain complaints against the foreigners who had violated her sanctuary.” 
C.S. Stewart, another of these missionaries, described an encounter with a different priestess leading a procession across the land. I am going to quote from him in spite of his disrespectful account of the Hawaiian priestess, while taking note of his discounting of her spiritual ecstasy according to a well-worn European pattern of viewing such states as madness, delusion, and even demonic possession. Still, reading across and through his prejudices, we can catch sight of the spiritual potency of this priestess, and her defiance:
”I unexpectedly met her in an evening walk, followed by a considerable company…. She was dressed in a fantastic manner, with disheveled hair—her eyes flashing in a half-frenzy, from the degree of excitement to which she had wrought herself—and appeared altogether like a maniac: such as I supposed her in reality to be, til undeceived by the exclamations of the crowd, ‘it is a goddess—it is a goddess!’ As if to intimidate, she approached me with a fierce and daring look; and waving before her a small flag of tapa, appended to a light staff, supported the claim by the declaration, ‘I am a goddess—a goddess indeed’.” [445-46. Kapa, rather than tapa, is the Hawaiian name for bark-cloth.]
The last chief priestess of Pele visited this same Stewart after her conversion to Christianity (still accompanied by her retinue). He coughed up a short description of her ceremonial leadership for us: “At the time of the sacrifice the priestess had been accustomed to descend into the depths of the volcano, and approaching the place most accessible and most active with fire, she had cast the gifts into the flames, with the exclamation: ‘Here, Pele, is food for you.’ Her father was the hereditary kahu, or steward, as she was the priestess of Pele. His duty was to provide the materials for the general sacrifices [her food and raiment] – and to have all things in readiness for the offerings at the appointed seasons.” 
The authors claim that the oral traditions offer “no clear instances” of female temple officials, “though instances are not lacking of women gifted with second sight, and described as ‘prophetesses’ [here probably translating kaula wahine] and ‘sorceresses.’ An early Hawaiian saga refers to a renowned seeress of this class called Kukelepolani as having been employed by Kila in Tahiti to help him find his brother La’a-ma-i-kahiki. We are also told in the same saga that Olopana had been wont to consult her.” 
Recognizing Pacific priestesses
Here’s another reference to taula wahine: “In general the distinction between the priest and the prophet that we have noted for the northern and eastern Pacific seems to underlie the systems in Samoa and Tonga also. In Samoa there were at least four classes of priestly and mantic persons who were known as taula-aitu. Here also the god was supposed at times to enter into the taula, and here also female taula are not unknown. Indeed, according to Stair, certain aitu, or gods, are said to have been served by women priests…” And then once again the authors go on to minimize that fact.
In Tonga, they tell us, the priesthood was numerous and powerful. “According to West they were divided into two classes, the taula, ‘or priests inspired by the gods,” and the feao, who offered the sacrifices, and maintained the temples in good order and repair. According to Mariner, the priests are hardly ever drawn from the chiefs, but more often from the landed class, or even the peasants; but this observation seems to have particular reference to the taula class. Such people are said to have differed in no respect in regard to their status or way of life from other people, but to have been more taciturn and given to reflection, and more observant of what was going on.” [453-54]
Sometimes Tongans who were not taula connected with ancestral spirits or deities. They refer to a young prince who “was sometimes inspired by the tutelary spirit of his family, but was not on this account regarded as a ‘priest’.” There were people “who were frequently inspired by a particular god. Such sporadic divine visitations are here most commonly attributed to females.” [emphasis added, 454]
The Maori waka or kauwaka “seem to correspond in all respects to the kaulas, acting as the medium of the god, whose oracle they received in trance or dream, and also acting sometimes as the guardian of his [sic] sanctuary. They also acted as a medium of communication between the living and the dead. The mantic gift was often hereditary, and shared alike by women and men. [emphasis added] Gudgeon refers to a great tohunga of the early European period who could boast a long line of mantic ancestors on both sides. His mother was a renowned ‘sorceress,’ and his wife even more famous, being descended from a tribe of ‘spirits’.” 
The areoi of Tahiti and the hoki of Marquesas
Pacific Island cultures had many forms of sacred dance, song, and theater, usually combined. In Tahiti the areoi had to try out for selection by the elders, then train for a long time, and finally give a performance (though that is surely not the right word) before being admitted with great ceremony. Wearing headdresses of feathers and flowers, they moved from place to place in canoe flotillas, singing to the music of of drum and flute. They held all night performances in brightly lit longhouses. Peace was observed during these festivals, which contained religious and origin stories. [425-27]
“The costume of the areoi, both men and women, suggests that of the dead, while they refer to themselves as maru, ‘shadows.’ The uritoy of the Caroline and Ladone islands resemble areoi in some respects, but the closest analogies to them are in the Marquesas Islands, where the hoki carried out sacred performances known as kappa. 
A long Marquesan narrative attributes the origin of kappa to a woman. It tells how two gods carried off the maiden Taa-po to the world of the dead. There “she sees a group of young people performing a kappa, and on her return to earth she teaches her relatives the kappa which she has heard sung by the atua in the land of the dead, and which consists
largely of a catalogue of islands, together with the chiefs who rule them—another indication of the serious educational character of these performances. The girl suggests to her relatives that they should set out as a ‘singing troupe in her honor’, carrying the kappa with them. They sail accordingly to Paumau in Hivaoa—a district which we are told was anciently famous for hoki.” 
Thus the underworld-journeying maiden Taa-po is credited with founding the entire tradition. (I wonder, too, about the similarity of her name to Samoan taupo, the title of a chiefly maiden who presides over preparation and serving of the sacred drink kava.) “The saga goes on to speak of further performances of the kappa, part of which consists of a duet between the heroine and her father. In the saga of Tona-Hai-Eee we hear of a singing festival in honor of a female chief, in which various people are represented as singing i’i as eulogies on the chief herself, partly in the form of solos, and partly in chorus, by the whole assembly. 
One of the last peoples of western Asia to retain their aboriginal culture are the Kalasha of upper Pakistan. They speak an ancient Indo-Iranian language, Dardic, which conserves very ancient features. They took refuge in the mountains of Chitral a long time ago, surviving many waves of invaders. One of the last of these named them Kafir Kalash, “Black Pagans,” after the black robes of the women, and their refusal to convert to Islam. The individual tribes call themselves by older names: Kati, Kom, Vasi, Presun.
A neighboring group of Kalash people speak a different Indo-Iranian language but shared many cultural ideas and deities. [Witzel, 2] They live in the northwestern region of Afghanistan, which Muslims dubbed Kafiristan, Land of Pagans. In 1895-96, the Afghan emir Abdur Rahman Khan led an attack on the country, declaring “that either the Kafirs would be converted to Islam or be wiped off the face of the earth… Even the names of their villages were Islamised.” [Zaidi, online]
The emir’s armies forcibly converted the Kalasha, and destroyed their temples and icons. “Altars were burned, priests murdered, boys kidnapped and conscripted to military school in Kabul. Only several hundred Kati Kafirs (the Red Kafirs of the Bashgal Valley) managed to flee across the border.” [Witek, online] The conqueror renamed the region Nuristan, “Land of Light,” symbolizing what he saw as their rescue from pagan darkness.
On the Pakistani side, the Chitrali Kalash have lived under steady pressure to convert to Islam, and about half the remaining populations have done so, to date. Three valleys, with about 3500 inhabitants, hold on to their ancient culture. [Mohammed Bugi, personal communication, June 5, 2013] They are like a besieged island, trying to survive surrounded by the dominant, highly conservative Pakistani society, with the added pressures of poverty and tourist bombardments.
By their own telling, the cultural distinctness of the Kalash goes beyond their pagan beliefs. They have a saying, “Our women are free” (homa istrizia azat asan), and they assert that Kalasha women have “choice” (chit). Wynne Maggi’s fine book, Our Women Are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush, gives a detailed portrait of the culture. She explores the contradictions between that affirmation and the patriarchal aspects of the culture, which are considerable. (For example, Maggi says that “The concept of women’s freedom is entirely without connotations of women’s solidarity.”  I won’t attempt to summarize her contributions, which would be a much longer article. Instead, this article concentrates on the Kalasha goddesses.
A key source on Kalash religion is The Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush (1896) by George Scott Robertson, who traveled in Kafiristan five years before the forced conversions began. He listed 16 principal deities, writing “The gods are worshipped by sacrifices, by dances, by singing hymns (Lálu Kunda) and by uttering invocations (Namach Kunda)…”  (I’ll be quoting extensively from this source.)
Richard Strand recorded testimony from a Vasi man named Zaman Xan: “In pre-Islamic times they had this quality, right? They were the god-callers; they would call the gods. They recited history… History like, ‘We came from such-and-such a place. Imro’s praise is this. Mone’s praise should be this.’ A person’s — uh, what was her name? – ‘Disañi’s praise is this type.’ They would shout it out. Yes.” [http://nuristan.info/Nuristani/Vasi/VasiCulture/Zaman16.html
Gullam Ullah told Strand, “There was Křumâi – they used to call it Mercy-Pleading Křumâi’s [place], right? That woman’s — she was a holy woman. Křumâi, a woman, Křumâi. Another — she [Křumâi] was lower, right? — like, higher, divine, important woman, a holy woman, was Disaňi. One of our peoples’ gods was Disaňi; she was a woman. The rest were males, for instance, Gish and Mone, and whoever else. You know them all; you’ve written them down, right?” [History of the Kom,” http://nuristan.info/Nuristani/Kamkata/Kom/KomTexts/KomHist.html
The Kalasha spoke of a male creator, Imrá, who had numerous shrines. He endowed other gods such as Moni, Gish, Satarám with life from his breath; “but Dizane sprang into existence from his right breast. Placing her in the palm of his hand, Imrá threw her violently upwards. She alighted in a lake, and was there concealed and released…” [Robertson, 381] The goddess is conceived of as an emanation from a male creator, but also as coming into being independently. By other accounts, she is his sister.
Dizane is the great Mother Goddess of the Kalasha. Variants on her name are Disani, Disni, and she is also called Dezalik (“sister of Dezau,” another name for the creator god). This sister-brother pairing is a deep matriarchal pattern in many cultures around the world. Disani “is important; she is the goddess of the hearth and of life force; she protects children and birth giving women…” [Witzel, 5; he derives her name from the same root as the goddess Jeshtak (or in her Hindu form, Jyeshtaa.]
Robertson noted, “Dizane is a popular goddess, and is worshipped wherever I have been in Kafiristan. The Giché, or new year festival, is entirely in her honor, and she also has special observances during the Dizanedu holiday.” That the goddess presides over the new year—as Auset/Isis did in Egypt—is testimony to her great importance. Hers was the greatest festival of the Kalasha, which Muslims described as “the Kafir Eid.”
“In the evening and throughout the night there were feasting and rejoicings in most houses at
Kámdesh. At the first glimpse of dawn on the morning of the 17th, in spite of a heavy snowstorm, men and women issued from every house carrying torches of pine-wood, and marched up the hill crying, ‘Súch, súch,’ and deposited their brands in a heap in front of Dizane’s shrine. The blaze was increased by ghee being thrown on the fire. The Debilála chanted the praises of the goddess, the people joining in the refrain at regular intervals.” [Robertson, 583]
“Dizane takes care of the wheat crop, and to propitiate her, or to increase the produce of wheat-fields, simple offerings are made unaccompanied by the slaughter of an animal.” More patriarchally, the men of Giché offer a goat to Dizane every time a son is born (although she presides over all births). [Robertson, 410]
Several hymns to Disni recorded in Shtiwe, Nuristan, celebrate her as a giver of life-force. This one, sung in early spring when the flocks are taken up to the mountain pastures, calls to mind Avestan paeans to the milk-giving Iranian goddess Anahita:
O Disni, you are the protector of the gates of God and moreover you have eighteen grades: Keeper of the temple Giver of milk to human beings, Protector of infants, Well-wisher of man-kind [sic], Bearer of welfare from God, You keep the door of milk flowing, You bring sensuality to mankind, You increase what is created, You are the one who receives permits from God, And you are the keeper of the nine gates of mercy.
One important tradition shows Dizane as the Sacred Tree. Robertson had collected a “good story” about this tree, “but the record of this story was lost in a mountain torrent.”  He remembered bits of it: “Dizane the trunk of the fabulous tree whose roots were the goddess Nirmali, while the branches were seven families of brothers, each seven in number. Some Kafirs affirmed that Dizane was the daughter of Satarám. She may have been originally the goddess of fruitfulness. She usually shares a shrine with other deities, but at Kámdesh she has the pretty little temple… all to herself. There, at the Munzilo festival, those Kanesh who live in the upper village have to sleep in the open.” [Robertson, 411] The emphasis on outdoor shrines in Nature is pervasive in Kalasha culture.
Another story told by a Kám priest reveals more about what became of Dizane after Imrá threw her up in the air and she alighted in the waters: “In a distant land, unknown to living men, a large tree grew in the middle of a lake. The tree was so big, that if any one had attempted to climb it, he would have taken nine years to accomplish the feat; while the spread of the branches was so great that it would occupy eighteen years to travel from one side of it to other.
Satarám became enamoured of the tree, and journeyed toward it. On his near approach he was suddenly seized with a mighty trembling, and the huge tree burst asunder, disclosing the goddess Disane in the center of its trunk. Satarám had, however, seen enough; he turned round and fled in consternation.” [Robertson, 382-83]
“Dizane began to milk goats…. While she was engaged in this occupation, a devil observed her. He had four eyes, two in front and two behind. Rushing forward, he seized Dizane, while she bent her head to her knees, quaking with terror. The fiend tried to reassure her, saying, ‘It is for you I have come.’ She afterwards wandered into the Presungul, and stepping into the swift-flowing river, gave birth to an infant, who at once, unaided, stepped ashore, the turbulent waters becoming quiet, and piling themselves upon either hand, to allow the child to do so.” The people were amazed at this, and at his starting down the river by himself. He took the name Baghisht, given him by a man who asked for his name. This son of Dizane was one of the Kalash gods. 
In Chitral, Kalasha women invoke Dezalik in the bashali, the women’s house where they go to menstruate and give birth. If a birth is difficult, they offering walnuts to her, praying, “Oh, my Dezalik of the bashali, make her deliver quickly, bring the new flower into her arms, don’t make things difficult; your eating and drinking.” And again: “Oh, my Dezalik of the bashali, one has come under your care. Bring health, set the flower in her arms, your eating and drinking,” as the women throw more walnuts to the goddess. [Maggi, 145]
The goddess Disni plays a key role in another story. The gods wanted to get control of the House of the Sun, inhabited by a wealthy demon. His death will mean the healing of the world. The god Mandi gathers a company of the gods, including the goddess Disni, and leads them up the hill. They find the house, and an old woman is there. Mandi goes to ask her about it. “It is a house between up and down; inside there are seven brothers (called Dizano, cf. Dezâlik of the Kalash) who have many things: the sun and moon, gold, silver, water, fields where they sow.”
The Old Woman instructs Mandi on how to make visible the rope that suspends the house between heaven and earth. But when he goes back to relate this to the gods, he forgets what she told him. This happens three times. Another god has to follow him and report back her instructions. The gods’ first attempt, by shooting arrows, fails because the house is made of iron and the cords holding it up are invisible.
“They ask Disni to sow seeds, which ripen quickly, and are threshed. The chaff attaches itself to the thread and it is visible in white.” Then Mara is able to shoots arrow through the cords, bringing down the house. But its door will not open. Disni tells Mandi to look at her white, full thighs. He becomes excited and is able to jump against the door with enough force to break it. He kills the seven demons. [Witzel, 5. The seven brothers are called Dizano, which seems to relate them to Disane and the seven branches of her tree in the earlier story; though here they are demonized, and Disni works against her sons.]
Dizane is also remembered as a builder. In Presungul is “a great irrigation channel” “which it is affirmed that Dizane herself constructed. There is also a good bridge in the same district called by her name.” [Robertson, 410] This recalls European faery stories of Melusine as a builder of bridges or castles, or the Basque lamiñaku, as well as Indigenous traditions of ancestral female shamans in Yunnan. But a much closer parallel exists among the Dards of Ladakh, where the goddess Gan-si Lha-mo “is especially associated with irrigation and the building of water canals.” The Darnishi (fairies) also aid people in these tasks. [“Religion of the Dards in Ladakh,” http://texts.00.gs/Religion_of_the_Dards_in_Ladakh.htm, with a truncated cite of fn. 202: “Snoy 1975:51 & 175]
“When the men of a tribe are away raiding, and the women collect in the villages to dance day and night to propitiate the gods and sing their praises, Dizane is one of the chief deities they supplicate for help. Her hymn goes something like this: ‘Send my man home safe and unwounded’…” But they call on the god Gish to bring plunder. [Robertson, 410] These women’s dances must have been something to see.
Kati women wore horned headdresses, with four horns made of human hair. (The birth of a four-horned goat was considered a very auspicious omen of divine favor.) Robertson witnessed one of these women’s dances at Lutdeh in Kafiristan. He wrote that while the men were away on a raid, the women leave off their field work and gather in the village. For most of the day and all night long they do nothing but dance and feast. 
“They have elected three Mírs, the chief of whom is Kan Jannah’s wife. These three persons direct the revels, and contribute greatly to the feasting. Kan Jannah’s wife is carried from one place to another as a ‘flying angel’ on the shoulders of a stalwart young woman, each of the other Mirs holding one of her hands. The little party staggers over the narrow shaking bridge, and then starts off at a run, to the outspoken delight of the onlookers. Occasionally the women dance on some convenient house-top. In the afternoon they invariably feast and dance under the big mulberry tree in the east village, and use the east or west vllage dancing-place according to the position of the sun. During the night all congregate at the east village dancing-place. 
“Although they all seem abandnoed to feasting and holiday-making, they are nevertheless engaged in strictly religious ceremonies. To watch them at night, when the majority are obviously tired, leaves no double in the mind on this point. I have… observed by the fitful light of the wood fire how exhausted and earnest the women looked. One young woman, shrugging her shoulders in time to the music, had streams of perspiration rolling down her face, although she was all muscle apparently. The exertions these women undergo are astonishing to see. Many of the very old women have to give up from sheer exhaustion, but the midde-aged and the young work away singing and dancing 622 hour after hour and night after night.” 
“The aged are very earnest and solemn; the young girls, on the other hand, are ready to seize every opportunity to make improper remarks to any male spectator of whom they do not stand in awe. Stlll the great majority of the dancers at all times attend strictly to the dancing… They evidently believed themselves to be engaged in an occupation which did them infinite credit in every way. I could read as much in their faces and in their gestures.
“All wore horned caps except the little girls…” The women were dressed in their finery, wearing the national budzun [a dark woolen cloak]. A large number carried dancing axes, and not a few had daggers.” One old woman flourished her dagger before Robertson’s eyes for a few minutes, to the delight of the other dancers. [625-26]
The women of Lutdeh danced to Imra, Gish, Dizane, and the other deities in their turn. “After each dance there was a short rest, after which the women collected again in the centre of the platform.” They did a call-and-response anthem, and began dancing again. 
She lives on her sacred mountain Tirich Mir, home of the fairies. [Maggi, 12] She had a shrine at Badáwan, where the Afghan Kalasha used to sacrifice goats to the deities and mountain fairies. [Robertson, 384, footnote 1] Robertson first thought Krumai was a male god, “but after seeing her effigy in one of the dancing-houses in Presungul, no doubt could remain concerning her sex. She is worshipped everywhere probably…” though he saw no sacrifices to her. 
“The goddess Krumai, in the shape of a goat, came over from Tirich Mir, and went among them [the other deities], but none recognized her except Imrá, who took an opportunity, when she was not looking, to push her into the mountain-stream. Struggling out of the water, Krumai ran diagonally up the steep rock, leaving the marks still visible in a vein of mineral of a color different from the rest of the rock. When she got to the top she began kicking down showers of stones on to the gods below, to their great annoyance. Imrá told them that the goat was Krumai, and added that he alone had been clever enough to discover that fact. On hearing this they all adjured Krumai to behave better. She thereupon assumed her proper shape, came down amongst them, and subsequently entertained them all at a sumptuous banquet which she brought from Tirich Mir and served on silver dishes.” [Robertson, 383-4]
Some Krumai traditions resemble stories about Dizane. She flees from a giant, hiding in a tree, but is impregnated when he urinates on the tree. Krumai then gives birth to the god Mande. [Snoy: 160-161, in http://texts.00.gs/Religion_of_the_Dards_in_Ladakh.htm This web page elsewhere refers to a “C^omo Mandi [who] is said to be, along with Le`i Nakr.n, the ruler over all the deities. The title C^omo stands for queen … and clearly shows the female aspect of the deity.”]
Ceremonies always ended with a dance to Krumai: “a comical dance performed in her name… always winds up the performances at the regular ceremonies, when each important deity is danced to in turn.” [Robertson, 411] Her goat aspect is reflected in the horned headdresses of Kati women.
“Saranji is the tutelary deity of the village of Pontzgrom. She has a little shrine on the top of the village tower, and a second near the mouth of the Pontzgul She is also worshipped in the Bashgul Valley.” [Roberston, 411]
“Nirmali is the Kafir Lucina. She takes care of women and children, and protects lying-in women. The women’s retreats, the ‘pshars,’ are under her special protection.” Recall that Nirmali is the roots of the Sacred Tree, underlining the earthen nature of these places, the female quality that the Kalash designate as pragata.
“Besides creating the gods, Imrá also created seven daughters, whose special province it is to watch over the work of agriculture with a protecting hand. As the time for sowing approaches, goats are sacrificed in their honor, in order that crops may be ample and the earth beneficent.” [Robertson, 382]
The vetr (fairies)
The fairies are everywhere. “They have to be propitiated in order that the millet crops may be good. A fire is lit in the center of the growing crop, juniper-cedar, ghee, and bread are placed upon it, and a certain ritual intoned. No animal is sacrificed. At the time that the ceremony to the fairies is being prepared, certain thick bread cakes have to be offered to Yush the devil. So also when Dizane is being invoked to protect or improve the wheat, Yush has to be simultaneously propitiated.” But no one dances for him. [Robertson, 412]
“There is a certain powerful fairy called the Charmo Vetr, who lives high up the Kutaringul [stream]… This vetr (fairy) continually receives offerings of goats and kids from the Kam tribe, and in return has given that people great help against its enemies.” [Robertson, 412]
Another fairy lived in the branches of a magnificent cedar, in whose branches was an Imrá stone. Cheese and other offerings were left there unguarded, since no one would be foolish enough to steal from this tree. The mischievous fairies like to carry off the basket of flour from sacrifices, and torment the priest in other ways, tearing his robes, or setting upon him. But they “are more benevolent than malicious. On the night preceding the Dizanedu festival [for Dizane] there is an annual dance in honor of the fairies.” [Ibid, 412-13]
Another story alludes to female ancestors as founders of nations. Imrá sat on the rocks where the Kti and Presun rivers join, “making butter in a golden goat-skin churn. From the skin three women emerged, who went and populated different countries. Imra then added water, and a fourth woman was created, who settled in Presungul.” [Roberston, 385]
Robertson notes limits on the importance of Imra, athough he has temples in every village, with a wooden idol or block of stone. His shrines “are small, and have no peculiarity to distinguish them from those of the other gods.” Kalasha shrines are little towers with masonry rubble bases, wooden frames with door or window through which the idol looks, and often above are poles hung with iron pieces. Imra virtually always has his own shrine, while three to five other deities can share one shrine. 
“At many of the religious dances he is not more honored than many of the other gods and goddesses. He receives three rounds, but there is none of the enthusiasm which is infused into the dances for Gish, or the light-heartedness which accompanies the comical steps and posturings in honor of Krumai. Possibly in former times Imra the Creator was chiefly worshipped, but at the present time Gish is certainly the popular deity in the Bashgul valley…” 
At Bragamatál village was a hillside shrine “hung with juniper-cedar all along the front,” with four windows for Dizane, Shumai or Krumai, Saranji, and Satarám, with another empty window. “Dizane’s idol has a round face with white stones for eyes, and an irregular white quartz for a mouth.” She looks “cheerful,” while the others are mouthless. [Robertons, 395] (This distinction of having a mouth was also observed of the Disni statue hidden in a cellar wall at Shtiwe, Nuristan; see below.)
Many sacred stones stood out on the land, where sacrifices were offered; some placed for deities, others “to the memory of ancestors.”  “There are distinct traces of ancestor-worship in Kafiristan, although it is strenuously denied by the people. The effigies erected to the memory of the dead are sometimes sacrificed to, and have their pedestals sprinkled over with blood by descendants suffering from sickness. Long fragments of stone are set on end in many places. These, no doubt, are partly intended as a kind of cenotaph, but a goat is always killed when they are erected. The Marnma festival is in honor of the illustrious dead.” [Roberston, 414]
Animal sacrifices were important in Kalasha religion. In fact, all killings of animals for food were ceremonial. Men would pour water on the sheep or goat, which could not be killed unless it then shook its entire body vigorously. (Robertson notes parallels in Greek custom—this was also a requirement, for example, in the ceremony of the Delphic oracles—and among the Thugs of India, who were devotees of Kali.) When the animal shook itself, everyone present made a kissing sound, and the sacrifice proceeded. 
Islamic influences had already appeared among the Kalasha that Robertson talked to, as in this origin story naming “father Adam.” “After Imrá created the world, Baba Adam and his wife were in Kashmir. They and their forty children were on one occasion sleeping in pairs, and when they awoke no single pair understood the language of another pair.” Imra sent them off in couples to populate the world, but they were reluctant to leave Kashmir and protested.” (This may reflect the paradisical reputation of Kashmir rather than a historic memory of Kashmiri origins.) Another change was that the male gods came to be referred to by the Persian word “prophets,” apparently in a bid to downplay the old polytheism. [384-86]
The Kalasha have been subjected to violence and intimidation since the forced conversions at the end of the 19th century. They still tell stories about people throwing themselves into the rivers rather than convert. [Iara Lee, 2013] Muslims consider conversion to be irreversible, the penalty for “apostasy” being death. Some people could not bear to give up their deities, and hid them. One was found hidden, face to the wall, in a cellar in the town of Shtiwe, some 80 years after the Emir’s persecutions:
“People in Shtiwe said that the statue represented the goddess Disni. It had been hidden at the time when the people of Shtiwe began to read the ‘kalima’ [i.e. when they became Moslem]… It is an old legend that the name of the statue was Disni. It is shaped like a woman. Her vulva is hidden behind the head of the horned goat. The two horns are grasped by the hands of Disni… When Islam came to Nuristan, the grandfather of Abdullah Jan (Wäci) was frightened and hid the statue in the wall… In Kafir time the statue had its place in the western part of the sitting room near the wall with its face turned to the room.”
The old Wäci had hidden the goddess during the Emir’s forced conversions, placing her in the cellar wall where the ghee was stored. “Disni is protector of the cattle and the milk products. She might still have been able to execute some of her power from her hiding-place.” She looked like she had been anointed with butter, and was in good condition.
The old man’s grandson, a hajji, had been out of town and was going to burn the statue, but the government intervened and saved it. He swore if any others turned up, he would burn them. [L. Edelberg, 6-7] One man said, “You ask me when we danced in front of [the goddess] Disni. We did it in winter, in zhibulu. But the songs used have disappeared with the old men and women… Now only one Kafir is alive and he does not remember the songs. He is stupid.” [Edelberg, 7]
Another wave of attacks on Kalasha was launched in the 1970s, but a cultural revival began around 1975. [Maggi, 106] Abbas Zaidi writes that the Taliban seized large tracts of Kalasha land from 1981 to 1995, forced Kalasha women into marriage, and killed people. Their poverty is exacerbated by government discrimination, which treats them as ineligible for loans, while police and courts ignore the appropriations of their lands. “Within the Chitral society they are completely ostracized for being ‘Kafirs’…” and are, as Akbar S. Ahmed wrote, subject to “formidable social, and psychological pressures resulting from being viewed as ‘dirty’ non-believers by aggressive and powerful neighbors.” [Zaidi] They are targets; some Muslim children throw stones at them. [Maggi, 13]
But as Wasiara Aya said to Wynne Maggi, “Why should we convert, ne baba (right, sister)?… Kalasha is good, isn’t that right, sister?” 
A new film “The Kalasha and the Crescent” deals with the ongoing pressures of conversion and the tourist industry, with footage of Muslim Pakistanis strenously denying coercion and the Indigenous people trying to cover their faces from intrusive tourists snapping pictures. A Kalash woman says: “We believe only in one god – we have goddesses, yes – but only one god.” (Their multiple gods seem to have collapsed into one in response to monotheist pressure—but they aren’t giving up their goddesses.) [Iara Lee, 2013] The insistence that the Kalash only had one god is belied by the historical record, though it is understandable that in a Muslim-dominated society, they would want to escape the stigma attached to polytheism as “ignorance.”
Powerful economic, political and social forces are brought to bear, that intimidate people out of fear for their survival and that of their children, to cede cultural traditions they would have otherwise kept. It’s called religious supercession. Certain kinds of words are used to degrade and crush Indigenous spiritual traditions: “folk stories,” “superstition,” “magic,” “demonic,” “devil-worship,” “ignorance of the true god.” The same pressures are at work eroding the aboriginal culture of the Amazighen (Tuareg), and the Nuba of Sudan. Christian missionaries are working to get aboriginal peoples in Southeast Asia and South America to convert.
Now a movement has begun to support the rights of Kalasha, to retain their cultural traditions and to determine their future. Please support this initiative to the United Nations with your signature: http://www.change.org/petitions/secretary-general-of-united-nations-help-preserve-kalash-a-tribe-in-pakistan-for-united-nations-protected-site#share
Lennart Edelberg, “The Statue KK ii A and Its Circumstances.” in “A Kafir Goddess,” by Ahmad Ali Motamedi, Arts asiatiques, 1968 Vol. 18, Issue 18, pp. 3-21 http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arasi_0004-3958_1968_num_18_1_1603#
Wynne Maggi, Our Women Are Free: Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. (Chapter 5 on the bashali – women’s menstrual and birth retreat house – is online: http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472097830-05.pdf)
Michael Witzel, “Kalash Religion,” from “The Rgvedic Religious System and its Central Asian and Hindukush Antecedents. in A. Griffiths and J.E.M Houben (eds.) The Vedas: Texts, Language and Ritual. Groningen: Forsten 2004: 581-636 http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/KalashaReligion.pdf
Abbas Zaidi, “Ethnic Cleansing of the Kafirs in Pakistan.” http://www.gowanusbooks.com/kafirs.htm
Many online resources on the Kalasha can be found here: http://kalashapeople.blogspot.com/p/books.html
Iara Lee, “The Kalasha and the Crescent.” (2013 film) http://films.culturesofresistance.org/kalash “The film documents the challenges faced by the Kalash people of northern Pakistan, who are struggling to retain their cultural identity under the combined pressures of poverty, tourism, and religious tension.”
Thanks to M. Bugi Bugi for some of the photos of statues shown here. I confess that I no longer remember which already were in the Archives, and which I got from him. You can see more of his photos here: http://pinterest.com/bugiandassociat/kalash-a-living-personification/
Please support this initiative with your signature: http://www.change.org/petitions/secretary-general-of-united-nations-help-preserve-kalash-a-tribe-in-pakistan-for-united-nations-protected-site#share
Korean tradition holds that the first shaman was female, Bari Gongju (also transliterated as Pali Kongju). Her name means “Princess Thrown-Away.” Her father cast her off at birth for being a girl, the seventh in a series of daughters. He tore her from her mother’s arms, locked her in a jeweled box, and cast her into the ocean. Turtles or dragons rescued her and brought her to a peasant couple, who raised her. She eventually became a mudang.
Her story turns on her filial behavior, years later, when her parents became sick. The Mountain God appeared before her and told her that her parents were sick. Only water from the Western Sky Heaven could cure them. Bari Gongju went to the palace and, disclosing her identity, said that she would undertake the dangerous journey to find the water.
It was a long journey through the spirit world to the Western Sky. Disguised as a boy, Pali Kongju passed between the North Pole Star and the South Pole Star. She met the Old Farming Woman of Heaven, who made her plow and sow a field by herself. Then she had to get past the Laundress of Heaven, who forced her to wash all her laundry from black to white, causing a monsoon. Finally, she reached cliffs that led to the Western Sky. Once again, golden turtles came to her rescue, forming a bridge to get her there safely. She found the well with the water of life, protected by the Guardian, a rather disagreeable old man. Still dressed as a boy, she asked him for some of the water, but when he learned she had no money to pay for it, he refused. [Tara, online; i retain her spelling in this excerpt.]
But Bari Gongju convinced the Guardian to let her become his servant. After three years of work, she was no closer to getting the water. Then the Guardian discovered that she was female, and asked her to marry him. She did so, and bore him seven sons. Only then did he give her the elixir of water. She returned to find that her parents had just died, with funeral ceremonies underway. She sprinkled them with the water and brought them back to life. They gratefully offered her a place in the palace, but she refused.
She returned to the spirit world, where she became a goddess who helps souls of the dead journey to the otherworld. “Except for Cheju [Jeju] Island, Pali Kongju is regarded as the ancestor of modern shamans in Korea, even though she has been known by many different names.” [Lee, 169, note 9] She is a prototype celebrated in rituals in which the mudang enact the story of her passing through a portal of the Underworld. They wear sleeves striped with a rainbow of colors.
A Lakota Medicine woman
The wana’gi wapiyé Lucille Kills Enemy treated Mel Lone Hill for recurring pneumonia in the early 1950s, when she was in her 80s. She came to Mel’s house to doctor him when he was near death. “She had to go find me on the other side. She was probably the only one I knew of who was that powerful.” [St Pierre and Long Soldier, 199] Here the account of the shamanic journey is missing – which is not to say it did not exist, only that it does not appear in print – but stories of soul retrieval from “the other side” recur over and over in the annals of shamanic healing, all over the world.
Stories about the co-founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Yeshe Tsogyel, retain aspects of shamanic culture even though firmly placed within a Buddhist context. She is described as a khandro, or dakini, rather
than as a “shaman.” It is through meditation that she acquires siddhis, or powers: “Where shale and snow met, I found the mystic heat’s inner warmth…” [Dowman, 94]
These powers include the classic shamanic art of spirit flight: “The fledgling dakini-bird nesting in a crag / Could not conceive how easy was flight /Until her skill in the six vehicles was perfected; / But her potential released, wings beating with hidden strength/ Breaking the back of even the razor-edged wind,/ She arrived at whatever distination she chose.” [Dowman, 160]
Thangkas often show Yeshe Tsogyal wielding a phurba, a ritual knife that Himalayan shamans use in healing. It also has an esoteric significance as “remover of obstacles.” Without enumerating all the parallels between Buddhist adepts and Indigenous shamans, I’ll simply note that her siddhis extended even to the power to revive the dead: “In Nepal, I resurrected the corpse of a dead man… My body became a sky-dancing rainbow body…” [Dowman, 94]
Inanna and Ishtar
Returning to the theme of shamanic goddesses, both Inanna and Ishtar are winged, and emanate the me (powers, rites, skills, and offices) from their shoulders. Among these me are religious offices, the scepter, staff – the caduceus occurring first in the Mesopotamian iconography of Ishtar—magicianship, descent to and ascent from underworld, various arts, and five different kinds of drums.
The drum figures in a story of Inanna planting a magical huluppu tree in her garden. In its three levels came to live the serpent, the wild-woman Lilitu, and Anzu the thunderbird. Inanna caused the magical tree to be felled and a drum and drumstick made from its wood – but gave them to Gilgamesh. So the shamanic power is displaced from Inanna to the male hero, ultimately with negative results.
But it is Inanna/Ishtar who descends to the underworld, passing through its seven gates. She did not perform this pre-eminently shamanic act to bring back a dead soul, however, but as a journey of spiritual discovery and transformation.
Other ancient parallels
Other shamanic women are described as having the power to raise the dead to appear before the living, though not to revive them. The “Witch of Ein Dor” called up the shade of Samuel at the command of Saul. This king had himself persecuted such women, as the biblical account explains; but he set aside the death penalty when he himself needed their services. Her actual title in Hebrew reveals her shamanic dimensions: Baalat Ob, “Mistress of the Talisman,” or to put it another way, “medicine object.”
The Cumaean Sibyl had the power to conduct Aeneas to the Underworld. Mount Cuma overlooks the bay of Naples and a group of volcanic fumeroles called the Flaming Fields. The nearby crater lake Avernus was known as the entrance to Tartarus, land of the dead. Ancient writers referred to an oracle of the dead in this place in the time of Odysseus. [Strabo, V, 4, 5] The rock of mount Cuma was riddled with wide underground galleries and chambers and caves “from which a hundred wide tunnels, a hundred mouths lead, from which as many voices rush: the sibyl’s replies.” [Aeneid VI, online]
According to Livy, the first sibyl came to Cumae after the burning of Troy, but Virgil shows a sibyl already living there when Aeneas fled Troy. Arriving in Italy, he came to consult the Cumaean sibyl, addressing her as “O most holy prophetess, you who see the future…” [Aeneid VI] The old seeress Deiphobe sat in silence, gazing at the floor, and slowly entered trance. She agreed to help the Trojan hero descend to the underworld to search out his father. But first, she told him, he must seek the golden bough (mistletoe, “sacred to Proserpina”) as an offering to the guardians of the gates of Hades.
Then the sibyl guided Aeneas on a journey to the realm of the dead. She began with an offering of four steers and a heifer before “a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast and rugged.” Entering the cave, they descended deep into the earth. When challenged by Charon, she opened her robe to show the golden bough, and he allowed them passage. Aeneas communed with his father’s shade, and then the sibyl brought him back to the world of the living. [Aeneid, VI, 50-1000]
Teresa de Cabora
A modern Mexican woman underwent an otherworld journey that was precipitated by a traumatic attack. A ranch hand beat and raped Teresa Urrea when she was only 15 years old. She remained in a coma for months; doctors then pronounced her dead, and she was very nearly buried. But she revived, sitting up next to the coffin that had been brought in. During the months when she appeared unconscious, she had experienced visions and became transformed into a healer with deep prophetic insight. She began curing people suffering from cancer, blindness, stroke, and paralysis.
Teresita became known as la Santa de Cabora, and thousands of Indian people came in a steady stream to the Cabora ranch to see her and be healed by her touch and gaze. This daughter of an Indian teen and a wealthly rancher in Sinaloa was a skilled healer even before her extended near-death experience, having trained under the midwife/curandera la Huila and a Yaqui medicine man.
But Teresa was a political visionary too. She became an inspiration to Indian rebels as a prophetess of Indian rights and a forerunner of the Mexican Revolution who co-authored el Plan de Tomóchic, one of the most radical declarations of human rights ever written. It called for new laws “declaring both men and women, whites and blacks, natives and foreigners, rich and poor, have the the same rights, duties and privileges and that they be absolutely equal before the law.” We have yet to attain those goals today.
For more about medicine women’s journeys in the spirit, take a look at the video Woman Shaman: the Ancients (released in April, 2013).
Covell, Alan Carter, Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. Seoul: Hollym (1986)
Tara the Antisocial Social Worker, “How a Woman Becomes a Goddess: Pali Kongju” The Daily Kos, Aug 19, 2009. Online: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/08/19/769300/-How-a-Woman-Becomes-a-Goddess-Pali-Kongju Accessed Dec. 29, 2012
Lee, Jung Young Lee. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. Walter de Gruyter, 1981
Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel, Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 1996
Mark St Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier, Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers-Medicine Women of the Plains Indians. New York: Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1995
After three years laboring in the tech trenches, my new video on medicine women around the world is finally here. It reveals a rich (and long disregarded) cultural record of medicine women, oracles, healers, trance-dancers, shapeshifters, drummers, and dreamers, with commentary and music.
I dug through libraries, journals, the internet and my own archives to put together rare images of women’s ceremonies in Saharan and Azerbaijani rock art; Indus tiger women, Spanish wolf women and Zimbabwean lion women; ecstatic dancers in Chinese bronzes, Mexican codices, Cretan seals; shamanic sculptures from Ecuador and Japan and the Arctic.
This unprecedented global view of female shamans uncovers overlooked depictions in rock art, sculpture, codices, bronzes, and ceramic paintings. The double-disc set includes chapters on sacred dance, staffs, rattles, fans and mirrors; flight; entheogens; serpents, animal spirits, and goddesses with shamanic aspects.
The video (nearly 3 hours total) is underscored with archival world music from Smithsonian Folkways, and
music from Flute by Cynth; Yolanda Martinez; Layne Redmond; Luisah Teish; Tiokasin Ghosthorse; Suzanne Teng; Viviana Guzmán, Ensemble Pachamama, and more. Taste the trailer! To experience the beauty, power and wisdom of these spiritual legacies is medicine for the spirit. More info, including a complete list of chapters and musician credits, plus orders, here.
In future, I’ll be adding the full transcript, open source, along with additional notes, pictures, and links.
From the Commentary that ends the video:
What I’ve tried to do here is to open up a view of the cultural treasures that have been obscured and denied, because they are female, Indigenous, non-Christian—not European.
Cultural gatekeepers screen out certain kinds of images and information, often unconsciously. Their omission of women has a tremendous impact. Even when significant evidence of female shamans exists in archaeology, the habitual focus on males acts as a filter that screens them from view. There is also a marked geographical and ethnic screening-out, the omission of entire regions outside the centers of political power, and exclusion of non-dominant peoples and cultures.
This is not a final analysis but a starting point, for a mosaic that can be arranged in countless ways. It’s a process of re-collecting, comparison, connecting. Many realities remain to be brushed in and fleshed out. We’re approaching a planetary web of history and heritages, of meaning and power. Much more remains to be known, and told, and shown.
But we need this knowledge; it is medicine for the spirit.
This traditional Manchu longpoem was eventually written down, with some Confucian editorializing. It gives a view from within Manchu culture of the female shaman* Teteke who was considered the most powerful of all shamans, so potent that she could bring a boy back from the dead. This story is a classic example of soul-retrieval from the underworld, by a shaman who chants and drum, goes into an ecstasy so deep that she falls as if dead, makes her journey in the spirit, and must be revived by her assistant.
During the Ming dynasty, the only son of a rich official died. The distraught family mourned him with a lavish funeral. An old hunchback came and said, Are you just going to let your son go? Why not send for a skilled shaman to bring him back to life? The family replied that the shamans around there weren’t much good, and asked for a recommendation. “Rich sir, how could you not know? There is a shaman by the name of Teteke who lives on the banks of the Nisihai River not far from here. This shaman has great power; she can revive the dead. Why don’t you go ask her?” Then the old man left and ascended on a five-colored cloud (like a Taoist immortal or Buddhist arhat; the implication is that the family’s piety and good deeds were being rewarded).
So the father went in search of the great shaman. He asked a woman hanging clothes where the Nishan shaman lived. She smiled and told them that she lived on the opposite bank (the first of several times that the story shows this shaman as a trickster). The father came to find out that the laundress was in fact the shaman herself, and returned. She demurred at his request, saying that she was only a novice and that they should seek out other, more capable shamans. The tearful father begged her to take the case, and she finally relented.
The Nishan shaman washed her face, set out an incense table, and threw round Go pieces into the water (performing a divination). She sat on a stool in the middle of the room, grasped her hand drum and drumstick, and drumming, “she began to entreat.” Chanting hobage and deyanku, “she implored in a chant, and the spirit permeated her body.” She began to sing a prophecy that described all the relevant happenings leading up to the son’s death. (This prophetic description of the situation at hand recurs in innumerable shamanic tales around the world.) She asked for confirmation, and the father affirmed that everything she had said was true. The text underlines that she was entranced during the ceremony, after which: “The shaman grasped a stick of incense, raised it up, and revived. Then she put away the tambourine and drumstick.”
After more imploring from the official and another demurral from the shaman, she agreed to come to his house to do a ceremony. They loaded up her cabinets of spirit receptacles and brought her on a sedan chair. They set up the spirit placings, and the shaman ate. The other shamans of the village came, but their accompaniment was out of harmony with the chant. Nishan shaman said she would not be able to travel to the underworld that way. So they sent for her assistant, the 70-year-old Nari Fiyanngo who, she comments, “has been filial and obedient.”
When he arrived, Nishan shaman humorously asked him to harmonize beautifully with the tune. “If you do not harmonize with the chanting and murmuring, I will beat your buttocks with a wet drumstick made of cherry wood!” Nari Fiyanngo laughed and replied, “Powerful, strange Nishan shaman, I, your younger brother know this. I do not require a lot of instruction!” And he sat down, ate, and then began to drum. The shaman put on her garments, bells and skirts, “and put the nine-bird cap on her head.” Her body began to wave like a willow and shook with her chanting. She began beseeching her spirits:
Hoge yage Please come, escaping / Hoge yage from the stone pit Hoge yage please descend quickly / Hoge yage…
And the shaman began to go into ecstasy. The incantation continued as she instructed her assistant to prepare a rooster, a striped dog, and many offerings of bean paste and paper bundles as offerings for the underworld gatekeepers.
Hoge yage I am going to pursue a soul Hoge yage into a dark place Hoge yage I will go to the land of the dead Hoge yage I am going to raise Hoge yage a fallen soul.
Nishan Shaman instructs her assistant to help her return by reviving her by throwing buckets of water around her face. “Having uttered this, she was thrown down and immediately her appearance began to change.” In other words, her body fell as if lifeless while she began her otherworld journey. The assistant came and laid her down, lined up the offerings next to her, and began to drum and chant in support of her spirit voyage.
Leading the rooster and dog and carrying the offerings, the shaman started off for the land of the dead. As she went, animals ran, birds flew, and snakes slithered. (These represent the creatures of the three worlds — upper, middle and lower — that the Manchu have in common with the Mongols and other North Asian peoples). “Traveling like a whirlwind she arrived at the bank of a river.” She looked around for a way to cross, and called to a lame boatman to take her across so that she could meet her dead relatives. She named her father and mother, then gave a long list of matrilineal relatives (a theme that is repeated further on). She paid him with bean paste and paper, and he ferried her over.
Then the shaman came to the Red river. This time there was no boat. She invoked the great eagle and the silver wagtail, the river snake and eight pythons. She threw her drum in the water, stood in it, and crossed the river “like a whirlwind,” again leaving behind bean paste and paper bundles for the river spirit. In the same manner she went through all the underworld gates and gave offerings to their guardians. (Drum as boat, as horse or other conveyance in the spirit realms is a common theme in North Asia; so is the shaman’s coat adorned with bells, mirrors and pendant amulets, and the cap with feathers or horns.)
“With skirt bells shaking, cap waving, and small bells ringing, the Nishan shaman was making her voice clang like metal.”
Finally she confronted a lord of the underworld who had carried away the son. Getting no satisfaction from him, she went to the higher lord of the underworld, whose city walls were tightly locked. The shaman made a long invocation to dozens of animal powers to enter the city and bring out the child spirit. “When she finished, all the spirits rose up in flight and became like clouds and fog.”
A great bird snatched up the boy and brought him to the shaman. Infuriated, the underworld king confronted his underling, who replied that it must have been the Nishan shaman who did this. He pursued her, calling out, “Shaman, elder sister, wait a moment.” He appealed to her, saying that it was not right to take the boy away without paying a fee, since he had made great efforts to bring him there and was in trouble now. They negotiated; the shaman offered him bean paste and paper bundles, but he protested that it was not enough. She added more, but still it was not enough; he asked for the rooster and dog, since the king of the dead has neither, and thus everyone would be satisfied. She agrees, but only on condition that he lengthen the child’s life. A long bargaining session ensues, with the shaman piled up more years of long life, and the spirit throwing in good health and progeny. The deal is done, and the shaman leaves.
But Teteke had one more obstacle to confront. The spirit of her long-dead husband confronted her beside the road, and demanded that she bring him back too. She answered that it was not possible, since his tendons and flesh were rotted, but said that she will make offerings at his grave and take care of his mother. He became enraged and started to reproach her with old marital disputes. She retorted that he had left her with nothing, and yet she had cared for his mother all these years. Making no headway, at last she called on a great crane to come and fling him into Fungtu City (Taoist world of the dead). Then she sang an anthem of female independence and nonconformity that affirms the old, pre-Chinese matrilineal traditions of the Manchu:
Deyanku deyanku Without a husband Deyanku deyanku I shall live happily Deyanku deyanku Without a man Deyanku deyanku I shall live proudly Deyanku deyanku Among mother’s relatives Deyanku deyanku I shall live enjoyably Deyanku deyanku Facing the years Deyanku deyanku I shall live on Deyanku deyanku Without children Deyanku deyanku I shall live on Deyanku deyanku Without a family Deyanku deyanku I shall live lovingly Deyanku deyanku Pursuing my own youth Deyanku deyanku I shall live as a guest Deyanku deyanku
After singing this, she led the boy quickly through the underworld. Now they came to a beautiful, majestic tower surrounded by five-colored clouds and guarded by two gods in gold armor. She asked them who lived there, and they replied, “Omosi-mama, who causes the leaves to unfurl and the roots to spread properly.” Omosi-mama is the Manchu goddess who gives life to all beings. She endows human beings with three souls: the true soul, which is the lifeforce that, once departed, causes death; the soul-that-precedes, which can travel during dreams or soul-loss, and which the goddess gives to another person after death; and the external soul, which returns to the god of the underworld after death (probably the physical body-soul).
Here Nishan shaman negotiates again with various guardians, giving them offerings. She encounters among the goddess’s attendants the deceased wife of her assistant and exchanges friendly greetings with her. Then she goes to pay her respects to Omosi-mama, an old woman with snow-white hair. She is described as ugly (much like the spinner-faeries in early modern European lore): “her eyes protruded, her mouth was large, her face long, her chin stuck out, and her teeth had become red-unpleasant to behold!”
But however demonized by the storyteller, this Old Goddess remains the life-giver. Around her, women were bustling around making babies, passing around yarn, carrying children to be born, putting them into bags and taking their on their backs out the eastern door. Nishan shaman prostrated nine times before Omosi-mama. The old goddess did not recognize her at first, but then exclaimed, “How could I have forgotten? When you were to be born, I became annoyed with you because you absolutely refused to go, and I placed a shaman’s cap on your head, tied bells on your skirt, put a tambourine in your hand, and causing you to act as a shaman, I playfully brought you to life.”
Omosi-mama spoke of how she had ordained the future fame of the shaman, and how she fated destinies for all the souls who came from her realm. She had her helpers show Teteke around so that she could see the flourishing forests whose willow branches were used to send forth souls who have not eaten horses or cattle, and the sparse woods for those who have (in a bit of Buddhist editorializing against meat-eating). In another building all kinds of animals, birds and fish were being created. There was also a city where ghosts wept and lamented, and where souls were judged for a long list of crimes. The graphic descriptions of punishments also show strong Buddhist overtones, as does the bodhisattva preaching and predicting the future rebirths of the various souls, from palace-dwellers to animals and worms.
After witnessing all this, the Nishan shaman retraced her steps, paying more fees to the various spirits and guardians so that she could return. The ferryman hailed her triumph in bringing back the son from the land of the dead. She reached his father’s house, and her assistant poured the buckets of water on her as she had instructed. Then he burned incense to revive her, singing an incantation praising her achievement and calling on various animal spirits to help her awaken. The shaman got up and began to chant an account of what she had done, and reporting the blessings of Omosi-mama:
Kerani kerani When you serve Omosi-mama Kerani kerani with respect and purity Kerani kerani Omosi-mama’s flowers are good Kerani kerani Therefore do only good.
Then the shaman was thrown backward again, and censed again by her assistant. “Then, because the shaman herself fanned the soul into the empty body of Sergudai Fiyanngo, he suddenly came to.” He asked for water and said he had been sleeping and dreaming for a long while. The family rejoiced as he sat up. The father offered wine to the Nishan shaman and her assistant. She praised Nari Fiyanggo, modestly quoting a saying that if a shaman was worth three parts, she will not come back to life unless helped by an assistant of seven parts. Everyone laughed. Then the family loaded up wagons full of payments for the shaman and her assistant.
But the final episode shows the social and political pressures on such a powerful woman at the time this old epic was written down. Her mother-in-law heard that Nishan had refused to bring back her dead husband, and even thrown him into Fungtu city after he threatened to boil her in oil. The mother was furious, and accused the shaman of killing her husband a second time. She went to the capital and filed an official complaint. Nishan shaman was arrested, and her testimony matched the mother’s. So the officials condemned her as a disloyal wife. They could have executed her for this but instead, because she had not lied, they destroyed her shaman’s regalia and drums.
The epic ends with an tacked-on admonition similar to those added to other classics of orature, such as the Icelandic Völuspá, when they were committed to writing by men determined to defuse them. The writer claims that the Manchu poem contains “evil teachings contrary to the great law. People in the future must not imitate them.”
Three different written versions of this story exist. The other two texts lack this sermonizing conclusion. One does not mention any destruction of the shaman’s power objects; the other describes it in a single final sentence which also appears to be tacked-on. The original poem was performed in a broad-based Manchu oral tradition that was dissolving under Chinese influence. At the same time, Manchu kinship patterns moved toward patriarchal Chinese patterns. However, the persistence of maternal kinship terms led Shirokogoroff and other scholars to posit an original Manchu matrilineage. The passages affirming maternal kin in the poem seem to bear out these older maternal loyalties. The very reason offered for the shaman’s downfall was her disloyalty to patriarchy, much more than Confucian or Buddhist officialdom’s disapproval of shamanic rites.
Manchu clans were structured around shamanic spirits—both ancestors and animal guardian spirits. [Nowak and Durrant, 96] The Manchu kept their clan lists secret, guarded in spirit receptacles. Nishan Shaman brings these sacred receptacles with her for the ceremony, implying that ancestral spirits were important for such rites. Her song places strong emphasis on the maternal relatives, and Margaret Nowak suggests that it is “a plea for the old order.”  Teteke’s self-affirming chant to her dead husband is “a strong and surprising denial of all that a woman in Manchu culture should live for: husband, husband’s clan, children, descendants.” Nowak contrasts the patrilineage-preserving task of restoring the son to the shaman’s repudiation of marriage and motherhood.
Toward the story’s end, having seen the punishments for sins in the underworld, the shaman ends a love affair with her assistant and breaks from “all strange dissolute matters.” Here Nowak takes the wording of “elder sister”/”younger brother” at face value, and frames the wrongfulness of the relationship as breaking clan taboos around sexual relationships. I disagree; this kind of kinship language is a common Indigenous framing that does not necessarily indicate direct blood relationship, or in many cases a much broader concept of kinship. Here it functions to signal the shaman’s seniority over her assistant. It is the “elder,” not “sister,” that is significant here; and what is disapproved is that the widow has any love affair with anyone.
But this entire theme of transgression is another late interpolation tacked on at the end. The real meaning of Nishan shaman, as Nowak comments, is that “she transcends social norms”and mediates between the worlds. [101-2, 107] Her cleaving to “mother’s relatives” stands in stark contrast to the Confucian norm that drives the story: the official has lost his only son, the second, and thus his patrilineal posterity.
Nowak remarks on another interesting pattern in the poem: that water figures in passages between realms. The shaman throws her divinatory Go pieces into water; she and others wash their faces before the shamanizing begins; she crosses rivers to the underworld; her return to ordinary consciousness is accomplished by pouring water; and the first thing the revived boy does is ask for water. (Passage across the waters is also important in Korean ceremonies of the mudang.)
Nowak also makes an key observation on the realm of Omosi-mama “Here nothing new is ever added; nothing old totally disappears. In cyclic fashion life keeps appearing and reappearing.” Omosi mama is “autonomous,” and oversees this endless process “significantly symbolized by the turning stone wheel.” [112-16]
The epic illuminates the way Manchu shamans did their ceremonies, the kind of incantations they sang, even mentions the cabinets with ancestral regalia referred to by other sources. It portrays Manchu beliefs about life, death, and a great Goddess who is both life-giver and fate-giver. It also repeats the theme of the greatest of all the shaman who is nevertheless modest and retiring, that we have already seen with Pa Sini Jobu.
* Shaman is a word of the Tungusic languages, including Evenk, to which Manchu belongs. Attempts to read it as sha-man, and pluralize it as sha-men, are misinformed. The second syllable -man has nothing to do with English “men,” and in fact the word is not sex-specific.
All quotes are taken from Margaret Nowak and Stephen Durrant, The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: A Manchu Folk Epic. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977)
Manchuria was historically connected to Korea, and influenced as well by Mongolia on its western border. (They adopted a central Asian script from the Mongolians.) In 1931 the Japanese invaded, followed by the Chinese after World War II. The Manchu are best known for their own conquest of China, founding the Qing dynasty in the 17th century. You are far less likely to read about many Indigenous groups such as the Orochen, Numinchen, Dagur, and others who are culturally closer to their Siberian relatives, the Evenk and Even.
In the 15th Rune of the Kalevala (Finnish folk tradition) a valiant witch-mother brings her son back to life. She is not named, but other clues in the tradition identify her as Ilmatar. She notices baleful omens –the hairbrush of her absent son Lemminkäinen’s is exuding blood . Knowing something is amiss, she rushes north to Pohyola, the northern land of the dead, where her son had traveled on a rash quest, against her advice.
She travels in a shamanic manner:
On her arm she throws her long-robes, Fleetly flies upon her journey; With her might she hastens northward, Mountains tremble from her footsteps, Valleys rise and heights are lowered, Highlands soon become as lowlands, All the hills and valleys leveled.
Ilmatar interrogates Louhi, mistress of the dead, whose daughter Lemminkäinen had come to court, to discover what became of her son. Three times she asks before she gets a straight answer, and she goes to find him. Again she travels in a shamanic manner:
Now the mother seeks her lost one, For her son she weeps and trembles, Like the wolf she bounds through fenlands, Like the bear, through forest thickets, Like the wild-boar, through the marshes, Like the hare, along the sea-coast, To the sea-point, like the hedgehog, Like the wild-duck swims the waters…”
She questions the forest, the pathways, and the golden moon, but all answer that they don’t know, being preoccupied with their own concerns. Finally the sun answers her, saying that Lemminkäinen disappeared into the whirlpool of the river Tuoni.
The mother goes to a smith, asking him to forge a special rake she can use to plumb the waters. She takes it to the river Tuoni, calling on the sun for strength, and rakes the waters looking for her son’s body. She finds his clothing, then his parts of his body—dismembered by animals—and continues until she has found them all. “Then the mother, well reflecting, Spake these words in bitter weeping: ‘From these fragments, with my magic, I will bring to life my hero’.”
Now the poem evokes a very old healing incantation. It resonates with the chant of “bone to bone, flesh to flesh” that is found across northern Europe, including in a rare 10th century pagan incantation in Old German—the Merseberg Charm. Ilmatar
Shapes her son from all the fragments Shapes anew her Lemminkainen Flesh to flesh with skill she places Gives the bones their proper stations Binds one member to the other Joins the ends of severed vessels Counts the threads of all the venules Knits the parts in apposition…
Then the healer invokes Suonetar, goddess of the veins, to reunify the severed parts, using charms of spinning, sewing, and rowing to call up the desired transformation:
Skilful spinner of the vessels, With thy slender, silver spindle, With thy spinning-wheel of copper, Set in frame of molten silver, Come thou hither, thou art needed; Bring the instruments for mending, Firmly knit the veins together, At the end join well the venules, In the wounds that still are open, In the members that are injured.
Then the healer invokes a maiden in a copper boat, floating in the ether, to come “from the belt of heaven”:
Row throughout these veins, O maiden, Row through all these lifeless members, Through the channels of the long-bones, Row through every form of tissue. Set the vessels in their places, Lay the heart in right position, Make the pulses beat together, Join the smallest of the veinlets, And unite with skill the sinews. Take thou now a slender needle, Silken thread within its eyelet, Ply the silver needle gently, Sew with care the wounds together.
For good measure, Ilmatar calls on the heavenly god Ukko to mend the wounds. She succeeds in restoring the integrity of her son’s body—but he is still lifeless. Now the medicine woman asks, “Where may I procure the balsam, Where the drops of magic honey,” with which to anoint and restore Lemminkäinen. She sends a bee to gather honey from sacred forests, but to no avail. She sends the bee again to fetch a stronger honey, across the seven oceans to a magic island (a staple of Russian healing charms, too). Still the inert body cannot speak. So she dispatches the bee to the seventh heaven, and tasting the honey, finds it full of healing virtue. She anoints her son’s body and this time succeeds in fully restoring him to life.
She asks Lemminkäinen how he came to this pass, and before long is reproaching his foolhardiness: “O thou son of little insight/ Senseless hero, fool-magician/ Thou didst boast betimes thy magic / To enchant the wise enchanters/ On the dismal shores of Lapland.” The Kalevala contains several of these female commentaries on the recklessness of male heroes, the harms of war, and attempts to dissuade men from battle.
Like Isis, Ilmatar gathers up the parts of her loved one, and like her, uses charms—words of power—to restore him. Also like Auset, she is a goddess—another avatar of the creation goddess Luonnetar—who is represented as a living woman. As in the tradition of Pa Sini Jobu, Lemminkäinen’s body is represented as hopelessly beyond repair: dead for days, rent by beasts. These accounts highlight the revivifying power of the female shaman; even in the direst of circumstances, she is able to resurrect the dead.
We will see this theme repeated in the Manchu epic Nishan Shaman, in the next installment.
The Kalevala translations used here are from John Martin Crawford, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, 1888 Rune XV. Online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm
Isis the Healer, the Mistress of Magic, in whose mouth is the Breath of Life,
whose words destroy disease and awake the dead. 
Shamans are known for their power to heal. They may lay on hands, extract negative energies from a diseased person’s body or infuse it with life essences, chant power songs and curative charms, or make journeys in the spirit to find and recover the soul of traumatized people, thus restoring them to health. Much of the written commentary about “shamanism” focuses primarily on males, so much so that they give the impression that women’s participation is negligible. In stark contrast to this picture are the many world traditions that cast medicine women as the greatest healers, so powerful that they are capable even of bringing the dead back to life. We’ll look at this theme in Egypt, Mali, Greece, Finland, Manchuria, Korea, and Tibet.
One of the 10,000 names of Auset (Isis) is Weret Hekau, meaning the Great Enchantress, or “strong of magic.” One way that she heals is by words of power. This is how she restored the scorpion-bitten son of a lady in the Delta marshes. Auset is often depicted shaking the sistrum, the sacred rattle of Kemetic temple women, which itself has strong shamanic associations. (Some modern healers in Kenya, Namibia, and elsewhere in Africa, use gourd rattles in their curing ceremonies.) And Auset also possesses the shamanic power of shapeshifting into a falcon-form. She spreads out her protective wings, and beats them powerfully, to arouse vital spirit.
To revive the slain and dismembered Ausar (Osiris), she changed into the form of a kite (a falcon-like bird with a flat, owl-like face) and hovered over his body. She “made a shade with her plumage / Created breath with her wings.”  Temple reliefs at Abydos and Denderah show Auset flying and beating her wings all around Ausar. Serpents of regeneration rise in the underworld beneath his bier. The deep-eyed Hekat, frog goddess of generation, birth and resurrection, watches over this transfiguration in the Denderah relief. 
Although Auset is indisputably a deity, she is also described as a First Woman, with an array of foundational acts to her credit. She is not only a model of queenship, but a powerful sorceress who is “mighty of tongue.” Her shapeshifting and power to restore the dead to life recur in numerous stories about powerful shamans. A very close parallel exists near the bend of the Niger River in Mali, where the great tungutu Pa Sini Jobu shapeshifts into bird form and uses her wings to impart life to a dead body.
Pa Sini Jobu
The Soroko people of Mali remembered Pa Sini Jobu as the greatest of all tungutu, their name for a shaman. She lived a very long time ago. “Pa Sini Jobu is regarded as the ancestress of a Soroko-Bosso tribe which dwells below Jenne ; she attained to extreme old age, and was a mistress of the most marvellous powers. Now, when she arrived at the time when women generally get husbands, she sent all her suitors away. She had no desire towards marriage.”  Pa Sini Jobu’s abundant vital power is signaled by her very long hair and her preternaturally long life.
One day a man killed the sacred ram of the king, whose fortunes were bound up in the animal. The king sent out a desperate call to all the tungutu to come and revive him. “Then all sorts and conditions of men from the uttermost ends of the earth flocked together ; all who were Tungutu… some who could stay under water for three days. There were others who could stay buried in the earth for three days. There were people who could change themselves into fire. Each one tried his powers of wizardry. But the sheep was still dead; he gradually rotted and could not be made living and whole again.”
Then Pa Sini Jobu herself invited a tungutu named Yena to take up the task. He said he could do it if she was able to recover the ram’s liver and other body parts that the hyenas had devoured. Through her second sight, Pa Sini Jobu described the place where the jackals were holed up. She summoned them, and they came to her running. She commanded the jackals to retch up the organs. But the male tungutu was unable to do anything with these dead and chewed body parts. He said, “Thou hast brought back the parts that were missing by thy skill and use of powers, so that I cannot marvel at thee enough and I recognize thy superiority to me without more ado, but I am unable to restore the sheep to life.”
The King sent once more to Pa Sini Jobu, asking her if she knew of any way to revive the now rotting and stinking carcass of his ram. She agreed to help: “I will see to this matter myself. The sheep shall live.” She set about her task through a classic shamanic ceremony of ecstatic dance:
Thereupon the King caused all the Kie (musicians) to come together to beat their calabashes. The Kie sat around the square. Pa Sini Jobu took her seat on the ground in the midst of them. Because she was a Tungutu, she had such long hair that it reached far, far down her back, and she could sit on her own hair instead of a stool or a mat. This hair was the gift of her powers.
The Kie began to beat time. The Kie played music. They played and sang faster and faster still. Pa Sini Jobu began to get into a frenzy. Her power was awakened. The Kie played and sang and beat time with ever-increasing quickness. The power of Pa Sini Jobu grew stronger. Pa Sini Jobu screamed ! The Kie beat time.
Pa Sini Jobu rose up. She floated aloft. She floated up to the clouds. She changed her arms while up in the clouds into wings, like the great birds have, and then sank slowly down over the ram. Pa Sini Jobu rested over the ram for the space of six days. During this time she covered the ram with her outstretched wings. On the seventh day she got up. The ram was alive!
She had revivified the animal with her wings, as Isis did for Osiris.
After this exploit, Pa Sini Jobu left her country and traveled. She came to a country ruled by a woman, Queen Na Manj. The queen joyfully welcomed her with a stately procession at the gates of her city. All the townspeople came to greet Pa Sini Jobu, to bring her presents and do honour to her. Na Manj greeted the tungutu warmly, saying: “I have heard of thy great gifts. Do me the pleasure to stay awhile with me so that I may show how greatly I honour thee.” Pa Sini Jobu said: “Thou art very gracious. For a while I will stay with thee.” And she entered the city.
After a few days, Na Manj asked the Tungutu for her advice. She replied, “All that has happened is known unto me. Ask me, therefore, and I will answer thee gladly.” Na Manj said that she needed her help in fighting off a neighboring king whose warriors were disturbing her country. Pa Sini Jobu agreed.
The king lived on an island in the Niger, and the river djinns tried to dissuade her, saying: “Thou art a strange Tungutu, great and mighty — in other places — but here thy powers avail not. Let it be, Pa Sini Jobu.” But Pa Sini Jobu only said, “We’ll see about that.” She went ahead with her ceremony, and the djinn swallowed up the queen and her entire army, leaving only the Tungutu. “Then the djinn took her under the water and instructed her about ‘all the illnesses and all misfortunes and all life on the earth,’ and how each could be remedied. These were teachings about ceremonially seating spirits in sacred pots filled with sacred and charged substances.
This keeping of spirit pots was widespread in West Africa, and the Yoruba and others disseminated it across the African Diaspora.  The spirits taking the tungutu “under the water” also compares to the San signification of “underwater” as the Spirit Realm of Ancestors, a timeless dimension where animals spoke to humans and where shamans accessed their powers. 
Another tradition of Mali briefly touches on this theme of a woman healer who has power even over death. The Nine Sorceresses of Mande appear in the epic Sunjatta Keita. The Ninth Sorceress is Kulutugubaga, who is able to restore broken arms, heal flesh wounds, and bring the dead back to life.  The poet says that all but one of these women fell dead at the coming of Sunjatta — and yet mentions them later, as if they were timeless and deathless.
Medea of Colchis also was said to have revived a dead ram, but by putting it into a cauldron with potent herbs and incantations. All accounts emphasize Medea’s powers of herbs and enchantment, and repeatedly describe her as restoring life and youth. In Nostoi, she rejuvenated Jason’s father Aeson in a cauldron. Aeschylus has Medea revive the Nurses of Dionysos and their husbands with an herbal potion.
But Euripides casts Medea’s restorative cauldron in a negative light. He makes her ram-rejuvenation into a ploy to convince the daughters of king Peleas to dismember and boil him, in order to make him immortal. Euripides also cast Medea as the murderer of her own children, against older Greek sources who named the Corinthians.  Thus Medea was demoted from a goddess, granddaughter of Helios, and the high priestess of Colchis (in the Caucasus), to a witch demonized for fighting back against powerful men.
1. Margaret A. Murray, Ancient Egyptian Legends. (Mineola NY: Courier Dover, 2000) 47. For the words of power of Isis, see also Nora E. Scott, “The Metternich Stela,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, online: http://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3258024.pdf.bannered.pdf
2. Lichtheim, Miriam, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom. (University of California Press, Ltd., Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1976) 83. Her hovering over Ausar/Osiris is made clearer in this translation: “She overshadowed him with her feathers, she made wind with her wings, and she uttered cries… She raised up the prostrate form of him whose heart was still…” E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead: the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, (New York: Dover, 1967 ) liii
3. Max Dashu, Woman Shaman: the Ancients (dvd). Oakland, California: Suppressed Histories Archives, 2013 (forthcoming)
4. Frobenius, Leo. The voice of Africa : being an account of the travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the years 1910-1912. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1913 Online: http://www.archive.org/stream/voiceofafricabei02frobuoft/voiceofafricabei02frobuoft_djvu.txt. The entire account and all quotes are drawn from this source.
5. Aina Olomo, The Core of Fire: A Path to Spiritual Activism. (Brooklyn NY: Athelia Henrietta Press, 2002) 53
6. J.D. Lewis-Williams, “The Thin Red Line: Southern San Notions and Rock Paintings of Supernatural Potency.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 36 No. 153 (Jun 1981) 11
7. Frobenius, online. See also Dashu, “The Nine Sorceresses of Mande,” 2012, online: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/9sorceress.html ]
8. Sarah Iles Johnston, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) 34. Pausanias (III, 27) also mentions these positive traditions of Medea. See also Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Colchian Medea and her circumpontic sisters.” ReVision. San Francisco, June 22, 2002
Next: Ilmatar in the Kalevala
Woman Shaman: the Ancients dvd is now available at
You can view the two trailers via that link. Double dvd, because there was so much content! with soundtrack by traditional and contemporary musicians from many cultural traditions.
I haven’t posted in a while because of being hard at work on the dvd, Woman Shaman: the Ancients. But i wanted folks to know that i have suspended the Comments function because of the massive deluge of spam. Once the dvd is out, i’ll attend to setting up registration and blocking spam words, but in the meantime, this is the best solution.
Another mystery solved. Thanks to the British Library’s online database of Old English manuscripts, i’ve finally discovered what biblical passage was illustrated by one of the most intriguing Pagan-themed medieval drawings. It appears in the Harley Psalter, thought to have been created at Canterbury circa 1020-40, as a copy of the 9th century Utrecht Psalter. Here’s the picture (click to enlarge):
I wasn’t sure what biblical passage this illustrated, though i could see the word Psalmus, and now can make out the Roman numerals for 108. But the picture clearly reflected medieval Christian themes from Europe, and what has intrigued me since the early 1980s is its evocation of the clergy’s campaign against folk goddesses. This repression of female deities in popular religion is attested by numerous episcopal decrees and priestly confessional manuals, including the Corrector Burchardi, the Canon Episcopi, and earlier writings by Regino of Prum and Raterius of Verona.
What’s going on in this picture? In the lower panel, naked Pagans pray to a Goddess who is dancing on a stone. Beside her is a Tree of Life, which has a snake, garland, streaming libation vessel, and cornucopia. It could be argued that the Snake and Tree are inspired by Genesis, except that they are also common themes in Germanic religion, for example in the Matronae stones of the Rhineland (2nd-3rd century CE), and indeed around the world. So they predate the christianization of western Europe. The cornucopia originates with the Roman goddesses, particularly Terra Ops, Ceres, and Fortuna, whose bounty it symbolizes. (It spread far and wide during the empire, not only to Britain, Gaul and Germany, but also to Egypt, added to the attributes of Isis, and into southwest Asia, also in association with goddesses.) Garlands were also widely used in animist ceremonies throughout Europe. As late as 1431, Jeanne d’Arc was accused of hanging garlands on the Fairy Tree for le beau Mai, the old pagan holyday of May Day. The inquisitors and theologians still saw this as a damnable Pagan act.
The goddess is bare-breasted, but her cape or mantle hangs from the tree. Some medieval images of witches (for example, a stone panel at Lyons cathedral, and a German church mural in Schleswig, near Denmark) show witches as naked women clad only in capes. They are riding on animals, or on a broomstick. It is this very theme of shamanic theme of women’s flight on the backs of animals that the clergy targeted for repression. They reinterpreted the Women Who Go by Night with the Goddess, in diabolist terms. The Goddess was “really” the devil. Advanced early on by church fathers, this doctrine persisted in Frankish texts about the worship of “Diana” (the interpretatio romana often obscured the names of local ethnic goddesses) or of “the witch Holda” (the German goddess Holle).
The central theme in this Harley Psalter picture is supercession. The christian god-the-son is depicted above the goddess, as if replacing her. Not only is he placed above her spatially, but like her, he rests on a stone, and he too has the cornucopia streaming blessings. These are not Christian themes! but they were too deeply entrenched in the culture to be done away with. So they were appropriated as a step in the process of supplanting Goddess reverence. Between the rival deities, a barebreasted woman tries to approach Jesus, but an angel drags her away by her hair. I think this is significant since she is one of very few females in the Harley Psalter illustrations. You’ll note that all the other figures in the picture, even the Pagan worshippers and the angels, are male.
At lower left, soldiers are looting from a chest and kicking a man who is begging for mercy. Two of the Goddess worshippers are looking nervously over their shoulders at the soldiers, worried that they will be next. To me, this picture represents state attacks on pagans. Confiscation of their goods was one of the primary punishments, along with flogging and enslavement, for those who adhered to older ethnic religions in the early middle ages. (It was primarily secular rulers who carried out these penalties, although priestly influence is clear, and bishops had powers both as secular and ecclesiastical lords.) The image comes from the portion of the Harley Psalter which was directly copied from the Utrecht Psalter. That would date the scene to the 9th century, when such punishments were still widely inflicted on Pagans.
The picture appears as an illustration to Psalm 108. At first, reading the psalm, with its standard exaltation of the Hebrew god, you might wonder: What does this picture have to do with that? The answer appears toward the end of the psalm, where the biblical god claims various territories in the land of Israel. Singled out for humiliation are Pagan lands in modern Jordan, traditional enemies of the Hebrews: “Moab is my washbasin, on Edom I toss my sandal… Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?” In the mind of the monks who illuminated this manuscript, the common thread seems to be the conquest and suppression of Pagans.
The biblical psalm doesn’t say a word about goddesses, but the Harley Psalter (or its Carolingian model, the Utrecht) understands this supercession as being specifically the displacement of Goddess veneration by the Christian god. In another picture, he is exalted over Mother Earth who is shown submissively gazing up at him, surrounded by her sons (no daughters). She still has the cornucopia, from which watery essence is flowing toward a tree — and the bare-breasted Mother is wearing a cape or mantle.
Eorthan Modor was just impossible for them to get rid of. She pops up even in the margins of Christian scriptures, on the ivory covers of prayer books, in murals of monasteries. In fact, she will outlive all human constructs — and that goes double for the concoctions of patriarchal theologians.
Edit May 2016:
The more I consider the symbolism of this goddess in the Harley Psalter (and the Utrecht Psalter on which it was modeled), the more likely it seems to me that she was intended to represent Herodias. The painting is contemporary with the earliest references to the Witches’ Goddess, in the Libri Duo of Regino of Prum and the Praeloquia of Raterius of Verona. The dancing woman ties in with the developing priestly myth of Herodias based on biblical accounts of the dance of Salome (the daughter of Herodias). This story came into wider circulation through the Heliand, a vernacular retelling of the Christian Bible in Germanic epic style that was commissioned by Frankish emperor Louis the Pious in an effort to convert the Old Saxons.
The renaming of a Germanic folk goddess as Herodias, the sexualized villain of the Christian Bible, is discussed in my book Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 2016. The story has little to do with the historical reality of Herodias or her daughter Salome (who was also named Herodias), except that in her own time she was demonized for defying the sexual double standard.
Coming from a dynastic family did not mean that Herodias had an easy life. She was orphaned by her grandfather Herod “the great” [hate those titles] who executed her father and his brother in 7 bce. Then he arranged her marriage to Herod II, a move dictated by dynastic politics. Herodias suffered in this marriage, so she made the bold move (unthinkable in her social context) of divorcing her husband. This act of self defense earned her public denunications from John the Baptist and then from the historian Josephus.
Josephus wrote, “Herodias took it upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced her husband while he was alive, and was [then] married to Herod Antipas.” [Antiquities of the Jews, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2848] The Gospels of Matthew and Luke say that her remarriage caused John the Baptist to publicly denounce her. Herodias’ second husband Herod Antipas had John arrested and executed. The Christian Bible recounts a fable that Herodias got her daughter Salome to dance for the king and demand John’s head in return. Modern scholars doubt that, and in fact Josephus says Herod Antipas executed him, fearing that he was stoking sedition.
But the gospel writers make her the villain, drawing on current Roman stories in which a prostitute makes the killing of a man her price. These unfair characterizations have lasted the better part of two millennia, as witness countless orientalizing paintings of the story.
The Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”) is the most important Ethiopian scripture. It describes the descent of Amharic kings from queen Makeda of Ethiopia and king Solomon of Judaea. (Sheba or Saba’ encompasses Yemen in southeast Arabia but also Ethiopia, where the Amharic people speak a closely related Semitic language.) (See map) The story, compiled from various sources between about 400 to 1200, explains the origin of Ethiopia’s Solomonic line, including a claim that the Ark of the Covenant was spirited from Solomon’s temple to Ethiopia.
Hearing of Solomon’s wisdom from a traveling merchant, Makeda journeys to Jerusalem. After a colloquy with the king, Makeda declares, “From this moment I will not worship the sun, but will worship the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel.” The Sabaeans were famed in both Hebrew and Arabic texts for venerating the sun, moon and stars. The time frame of Solomon’s reign is historically consistent with a powerful state in Saba’. So the Ethiopian queen converts to Judaism.
The next twist, in this text, is that before Makeda departs, Solomon tricks her into sleeping with him. She had asked him to swear that he will not force her into sex. He agrees, on condition that she wouldn’t take anything from his house by force. He feeds her a lot of spicy food, and in the night when she reaches for water in her thirst, he appears and says she has broken her promise, having taken water, the most valuable of all things. (What happened to the famous tradition of hospitality here? and how is this not coercion?) So, says the Kebra Nagast, Makeda assents to sex with Solomon. As she departs, he gives her a ring for their future son. Then Solomon dreams that the sun leaves Israel.
Makeda bears a son, Menelik. When he comes of age, he goes to Jerusalem for his father’s blessing, and is recognized by the ring. Solomon wants Menelik succeed him as king, but he insists on returning to Ethiopia. So Solomon puts together a noble company to go back with him. Angry at being forced to leave their home and families, these young men secretly take the Ark out of the Temple and away to Africa. Menelik is not implicated in this deceit, but he finds out along the way. He is divinely transported back to Ethiopia through the skies, thwarting Solomon’s attempt to recover the Ark. (Here the ancient theme of Solomon’s straying into idol worship under the influence of his many foreign wives takes a new turn; it now becomes his attempt to console himself for the loss of the Ark.) Menelik’s return is celebrated with great pomp at Axum, and Makeda gives up her throne to him. (Natch!) Ethiopia becomes “the second Zion.”
The Kebra Nagast includes a magnificent passage where Makeda speaks of her search for Wisdom:
I have drunk of her, but have not tottered; I have tottered through her, but have not fallen; I have fallen because of her but have not been destroyed. Through her I have dived down into the great sea and have seized in the place of her depths a pearl whereby I am rich. I went down like the great iron anchor whereby men anchor ships for the night on the high seas, and I received a lamp which lighteth me, and I came up by the ropes of the boat of understanding. I went to sleep in the depths of the sea, and not being overwhelmed with the water I dreamed a dream. And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun; I laid hold upon it, and I will never let it go. I went in through the doors of the treasury of wisdom and I drew for myself the waters of understanding. I went into the blaze of the flame of the sun, and it lighted me with the splendour thereof, and I made of it a shield for myself, and I saved myself by confidence therein, and not myself only but all those who travel in the footprints of wisdom, and not myself only but all the men of my country, the kingdom of Ethiopia, and not those only but those who travel in their ways, the nations that are round about. [http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/kn/kn097.htm ]
And then the Kebra Nagast returns to its central preoccupation, which is not Makeda herself, nor the wisdom of ancient Ethiopia of which she is the sole representative to be attested in written history. Instead, Makeda lays out the Solomonic line claim for the Ethiopian royal dynasty, a patrilineage going back to the Hebrew king. The book does credit her with building her capital Debra Makeda on a mountaintop. Other Ethiopian books give more details about Makeda’s parentage. The Ethiopian Book of Aksum describes her foundation of a new capital city at Azeba. Himyarite histories from Yemen also allude to this queen.
At least one Ethiopian manuscript shows Makeda in connection with a labyrinth. One line in the Kebra Nagast, where Makeda speaks of “a star in my womb,” was undoubtedly intended as a reference to her future son and dynastic founder Menelik. But it can be read another way, as her womb in its own light: “And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun…”
The Biblical Account
The oldest account of the Queen of Sheba comes from the Bible, in the book of Kings. It does not give her a name. “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, tons of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind.” [10:1-2] He answered every question she asked, and the biblical scribe describes her as being “overwhelmed” by his wisdom, and by the wealth and splendor of his palace and kingdom.
The Queen praised Solomon and heaped him with precious gifts: “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” [10:10] The account says nothing about sex or a son, but goes on to describe tribute paid to Solomon, and the glories of Ophir in Arabia — or Ethiopia. In this account, the Queen is a peer, not a subordinated or inferior figure.
The Quranic Account
In Arabia, the Queen of Sheba is named Bilqis. Among the ruins of Mar’ib is a Sabaean temple platform with eight pillars, sometimes called the Temple of Awwan. Yemenite tradition calls it Mahram Bilqis, her “sanctuary.” The Qur’an also contains an account about the Queen of Sheba. Again, it does not name her. Even though it treats her being Pagan as despicable, she is described as great in glory. The hoopoe bird tells Suleiman (Solomon) about Saba’:
Indeed, I found a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [his] way, so they are not guided, so they do not prostrate to Allah… [Sura 27:24-25]
This passage reflects a memory of ancient Sabean queendoms with a strong dimension of spiritual leadership.
Suleiman sends a threatening message to Bilqis, “Be not haughty with me but come to me in submission.” Bilqis talks to her counselors, who say that they will go by her decision. She declares, “Indeed kings – when they enter a city, they ruin it and render the honor of its people humbled.” [27:35] This critique of warlordism is quite an extraordinary political statement for any ancient writing! and even more striking in being attributed to a woman ruler. The queen decides to send a gift, choosing the avenue of diplomacy, and to await Suleiman’s reply. He tells the emissaries that what Allah has given him is better than what they have, insults them for “rejoic[ing] in your gift,” and sends them back with a threat: “Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased.” This is the declaration of a power-mad bully, not a man suffused in spiritual wisdom.
Before she set out to meet Suleiman, the Queen of Sheba locked and secured her throne. But the king sent a spirit to bring the throne to him, and disguised it, and tested her to see if she would recognize it. She did. Then Suleiman boasted of the primacy of his knowledge over hers. “And we were given knowledge before her, and we have been Muslims [meaning in submission to Allah, since this is all supposed to have happened fifteen centuries before Muhammad’s time]. And that which she was worshipping other than Allah had averted her. Indeed, she was from a disbelieving people.” [27:42-43]
The Quranic account continues with a story symbolizing the ignorance of the pagan Queen: “She was told, ‘Enter the palace.’ But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins [to wade through]. He said, “Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.” She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to Allah, Lord of the worlds.” [Sura 27, from http://quran.com/27 (Much more detail here and here.) This passage shows the queen as exposing her body, considered as shameful for a woman, out of a misapprehension of the wonders in Suleiman’s kingdom. But like the sibyls of Christian tradition, she also symbolizes a prestigious figure of the old pagan order, now made to yield to new supercessionist religions and their exclusively masculine prophets.
Sura 27 portrays a powerful Pagan woman in a shaming and subordinating light, but nevertheless comes the closest that the Islamic scripture gets to a female prophet in her own right. In the Quranic account, she is shown coming not to seek wisdom but to avert a disastrous invasion of her country. In historical reality, as archaeologists have been discovering, Solomonic Israel was utterly incapable of mounting such an invasion, least of all against far-away Yemen or Ethiopia. Little trace remains of the fabled palaces described by the Hebrew scribes; many archaeologists now think they are likely to have been humbler affairs, as there was never a Hebrew empire like that in the inflated biblical account.
Some medieval Arabic historians have Bilqis arriving at the throne not by inheritance, but by marrying a tyrannical king in order to unseat him. She kills him on her wedding night, addresses the people, and takes the throne by acclamation. Her role is heroic, although the writers seem unable to imagine that such a queen could have ascended to the throne in her own right. However, “the earliest inscriptions of the rulers of Dʿmt in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea mention queens of very high status, possibly equal to their kings.” [Rodolfo Fattovich, “The ‘Pre-Aksumite’ State in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea Reconsidered” in Paul Lunde and Alexandra Porter ed., Trade and Travel in the Red Sea Region, in D. Kennet & St J. Simpson ed., Society for Arabian Studies Monographs No. 2. BAR International Series 1269. Archaeopress, Oxford: 2004, p. 73]
Because the Queen of Sheba appears in the Qur’an, Muslims spread her story around the world. It became heavily mythologized along the way. Some writers claimed that the Queen was reluctant to uncover her feet because they were deformed, which is why Solomon tricked her into revealing them. But most versions say that Bilqis had the feet of a donkey. This motif belongs to a larger body of faery stories about magical women with the feet of deer (usually), or other hoofed animals, including camels. The glaisteagan of Scotland, huldres of Denmark, and ‘Aisha Qandisha and her company in Morocco, are just a few of them. In the Muslim context, as in the Christian, these stories impute a demonic nature to the spirit-woman (except where an old folk nature spirit motif remains strong).
Such stories were already in circulation in early medieval Islam, with famous theologians like Hasan Al Basri characterizing Bilqis “in a particularly pejorative way as an ‘iljatu meaning ‘she-ass’ or ‘miscreant,’ an expression frequently used to insult non-believers.” (He also insulted her appearance and declared women unfit to rule.) These ideas were common coin, with some going so far as to assert that Bilqis was a jinn, or the “mother of jinni.” [“Bilqis, Queen of Sheba. A democratic queen.” Author unknown. ] Even today, rumors circulate that the Queen of Sheba was really a jinn. (Google Bilqis, you’ll see.)
Christian Representations of Sheba
European authors and artists extend these subordinating narratives that show Solomon as not only the political superior of the Queen of Sheba, but also her spiritual senior and initiator. But now they add a racial distortion, whitening her; whether she came from Ethiopia or Yemen, the Queen of Sheba would have been a dark-skinned woman. This whitening can also be seen in Persian manuscripts.
I haven’t done an exhaustive study of these representations, but a net search shows that they fall into two primary categories. The first shows the Queen of Sheba approaching Solomon from below, sometimes kneeling before him, or else ascending toward the king who is seated on a dais many steps above her.
Another theme appears in some of the art, however, one of parity and partnership, the true wisdom legacy of the Queen of Sheba. One of these is shown in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise:
We’re now at a moment where women of African descent are re-envisioning who the Queen of Sheba may have really been, beyond the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptural traditions, within her original cultural context. What was the reality of ancient Ethiopian women? the oldest testimony I know of is the ancient megalithic statues of southern Ethiopia, in Sidamo and Soddo, all in the form of ancestral Mothers.
Notre Dame de la Vie is a Celtic Goddess in a sculptural style that strongly resembles two other goddesses who appear to date to the same antiquity. Their faces have similar features; so do their hoods or headdresses. One of these sculptures is from Guernsey island in the English Channel and the other is from Caerwent in southern Wales.
La Grand-Mère du Chimquière belongs to a larger group of female statue-menhirs from the late neolithic. Her name means Grandmother of the Cemetery. She currently stands at the entrance of the churchyard at St-Martin de Bellouse. (Funny, both she and Notre Dame de la Vie are linked to the same saint, the earliest christianizer in Gaul (d. 370 ce.)
At one time a stone with two hollows for offerings lay before her, but has since been removed. Nevertheless, the people kept up the custom of garlanding her and placing offerings. “Even in the nineteenth century it was ‘lucky to place a little offering of fruit or flowers, or to spill a few drops of wine at the foot of the statue—‘c’etait une Pierre sante…” (It was a holy stone.) [Kendrick, 17] These offerings continue today, as many pictures online demonstrate.
At one time the statue stood near the Church porch, facing East but, probably because too much veneration was paid to her by parishioners, a zealous churchwarden ordered her destruction. It was broken in two but such was the outcry that the statue was repaired and placed in its current position. A metal spike now holds her together but the crack is clearly visible. [http://www.stmartinschurchguernsey.org/historyofthechurch.htm ]
This deliberate breakage (visible in the photo above) was committed in 1860, around the time of the assaults on Notre Dame de la Vie. This period saw another wave of concerted destruction of ancient goddesses of, in Kendrick’s words, “long traditional sanctity.” The site quoted above provides another crucial piece of information: “The church stands on the site of a Neolithic tomb shrine below which two springs emerge.” So this too is a fountain sanctuary.
Another statue-menhir on Guernsey stands on a hill near the center of the island, at Castel. In the 6th century a church was built on her site, and she was buried in the area below its altar. So we see both supercesssion (the new religion hiding and placing her beneath) and incorporation (the would-be converts of that time knew that she was still there). In the late 1800s she was rediscovered and again placed outside. The Castel statue-menhir is in the classic form of the megalithic era: a lightly tapered stone pillar with breasts and necklace. She also wears a headband. Many French statue-menhirs have faces, but this one does not.
La Grand-mère probably looked similar, originally. But her head and shoulders were recarved by Celtic hands, probably during the La Tène period. They added a face, cut out her neck and sharply defined her shoulders, and engraved a necklace or collar. None of these correspond to any style of the megalithic period. (Thevenot compares her to another breasted statue menhir enclosed in a wall at Lichessol, near Saint-Agrève in the Ardèche region, whose head seems to emerge from a round hood as well. But, no photos are available of her, so far.)
Another important, and comparable, Celtic statue is the Goddess of Caerwent. She was venerated by
the Silures, a Celtic tribe of south Wales. Before the Roman conquest, they placed her in a deep ritual deposit pit, eleven feet underground, on the grounds of a sanctuary that later became the Roman temple at Venta Silurum. (The Roman name for Caerwent was Venta Silurum, “marketplace of the Silures.”)
The sandstone statue presents a solemn seated woman holding a branch in one hand and a sphere or fruit in the other. Her flat mask-like face has its lips parted in a slight smile. Her somewhat triangular head is longer than the minimal legs. (These proportions are common in older Celtic sculpture in Britain and Gaul, for example a female statue from Bourges.) The Goddess is naked except for a hood or cape set back on her head. Her hands meet where her legs part, and at certain angles those spindly legs look like a vulva-portal, with a deep hollow between them. I’ve always thought of her as a proto-sheila. The worn surface of the sandstone shows that she’s ancient, how old we have no way of knowing for sure.
Now let’s compare the faces of the three goddesses or, in the case of la Grand-mère, ancestors. All represent an ancient Celtic style of stone carving that predates the Roman conquest. All have flat faces with large oval eyes and long noses and wear some kind of hood. Originally I was thinking that only Notre Dame de la Vie was associated with a spring sanctuary, but now find that so was La Grand-mère du Chimquière: “The church stands on the site of a Neolithic tomb shrine below which two springs emerge.” [from the offical website of St. Martin’s Church: http://www.stmartinschurchguernsey.org/historyofthechurch.htm] And re-reading Anne Ross’s magisterial study Pagan Celtic Britain, I find that she thinks the Caerwent Goddess in Wales may have been connected to a healing shrine of the waters. [Ross, 247, 269] Be that as it may!
These photos show the close-set oval eyes with strong upper ridge, the long nose, and nearly identical mouths on the Guernsey re-carve of the statue menhir and on the Goddess of Life fountain goddess in Savoy. The hoods or headdress are also comparable. No frontal angle photo is available as of this writing for Notre Dame de la Vie, who bears many scars from mutilations inflicted in the mid-19th century.
Here the angle of the photos is more comparable. The face of the Caerwent goddess is more triangular but both have the same flatness, close-set oval eyes, and headdress. What I’m trying to do here is to show artistic patterns in ancient Celtic sculpture from an early cultural layer that predates the Roman empire and has gotten very little attention. Here’s another view of the Grand-mère du Chimquière:
Saving the babies: fountain goddesses and respite baptism
Another amazing aspect of the ancient sanctuary of Notre Dame de la Vie was as a compassionate place of refuge from harmful religious dogma. It became a sanctuaire de répit, or “respite sanctuary.”
Respite from what? –from the church doctrine of eternal damnation of those who died without being baptized. Notre Dame de la Vie was said to miraculously revive stillborn babies, or newborns who died before a priest could baptize them. People were bringing their dead infants for her intervention from at least the 1600s, as we know from records of hearings in 1664 and 1669.  Notre Dame de la Vie thus joined to a larger body — mostly local forms of the Virgin Mary — of female divinities who embodied compassion, mercy, and grace.
Church doctrine forbade the baptism of dead children, and held that they would go to hell. Toward the end of the middle ages, the idea of limbo was invented to soften the harshness of a dogma that caused so much suffering. Mothers already grieving their infant’s death could not stand the thought that it was doomed to be forever damned. Limbo meant the “edge” of hell, and the idea was that the babies would remain there, outside the torments of the damned, along with other good souls unsaved by baptism. But limbo has never enjoyed the status of church teaching. In any case, never being baptized meant the baby would never enjoy the beatitude of heaven, but would spend eternity as an outsider. Limbo or no limbo, the clergy would not allow stillborns to be baptized or buried in consecrated ground.
The common people refused to accept these cruel ideas. They sought divine intervention from another source, from Notre Dame de la Vie, or from the Blessed Virgin at other chapels that developed a reputation as respite sanctuaries. Parents would carry the dead child in all haste to the nearest shrine, lay it at the altar of the Virgin, light candles and ardently pray for its revival while a priest performed a rite.
All this depended on the participation of priests, because they had a total monopoly on baptism. Sometimes the vigil for revival would go on for days. Any sign of movement, breath, change of color, or even passing gas or fluid—all of which are common biological occurrences after death—was taken as a miraculous resusciation or “recovery.” The priest would quickly baptize the child, and in virtually all cases, the child would die “again.” It would either be buried in a special cemetery at the respite sanctuary, or be taken home for burial in the village.
The “respite” baptisms gave peace of mind to parents, and allowed children to be buried in consecrated ground. At St-Martin de Belleville, the record from 1664 says that an uncle brought a dead infant to Notre Dame de la Vie. The curé testified that the baby was seen to open its mouth and move its tongue around, and that its closed fist opened, extending its fingers. This allowed the vicar to baptize the baby, which lived several more hours. Then it was buried in a plot used for foreigners. [197-8] This indicates that the clergy involved still regarded the case as somewhat iffy. The priest performing the baptism would pronounce words to the effect of, “If you are alive, I baptise you.” The hierarchy were much more dubious about such cases, and put pressure from above to quash this practice.
The earliest evidence of respite baptisms comes from the late 13th century. Church condemnations of these grassroots miracles appear to begin in 1452 with the synod of Langres. Others followed, with denunciations by bishops at Sens (1524), Lyon (1577), Besançon (1592 et 1656), and Toul (1658). But the hierarchy was obliged to repeat its prohibitions over and over as the respite ceremonies spread. They were fighting a cultural movement fueled by love and compassion, that defied their directives.
People were flocking to respite sanctuaries from Belgium all the way down through eastern France and over into western Germany, Switzerland, Austria and north Italy. Most of these shrines of compassion were chapels of the Virgin Mary. Hundreds of cases are on record just for the 1500s and 1600s, just for the most popular chapels for these baptisms, such as Faverney, Avioth, and others in eastern France. By 1729 pope Benedict XIV was forced to rule on the issue, in response to a huge upsurge of respite ceremonies in Bavaria and Schwabia. He condemned the rites and backed up the Inquisition’s position that the “signs of life,” unless they were cries or moans, were not enough to allow baptism, no matter how many witnesses.
Emile Thevenot points to two Burgundian respite sanctuaries that “sprang up in places where there were traces of a defiant custom around a spring cult presided over by a mother goddess.” [197-8]
And that is exactly what had happened at St-Martin de Belleville. As we’ve seen, this sanctuary openly retained the original Goddess who predates even the Roman conquest and was centered around a healing fountain. The refuge its Lady offered to dead newborns connects to widespread folk traditions of pagan goddesses who were seen as welcoming and protecting unbaptized babies rejected by the Church. People linked these “pagan babies” — in Sicily they were actually called paganeddu, in Germany heiden, “heathens” — to the old goddesses, like Zlata Baba in Slovenia, or to faery women, like the Danish huldra. [Dashu, 2007. Read more about folk traditions of the “pagan babies”]
In the German Orla-gau, Perchta keeps little ones who died before baptism. She is ferried across the river with them, recalling Greek and Scandinavian myths of crossing the underworld river of death. Perchta is called queen of the heimchen (“crickets,” an affectionate term for the dead babies). One story says that she once lived in the fertile Saale valley. She fructified the land by plowing it underground, while her heimchen watered the fields. “At last the people fell out with her, and she determined to quit the country.”
So Perchta departed. Late on the eve of her holyday, the ferryman at Altar was confronted by a tall, stately lady surrounded by crying children. She demanded to be ferried to the other side of the river, and got into the barge. The heimchen loaded in a plough and tools, lamenting that they had to leave that lovely land. Perchta made the ferryman cross again to get the rest of the children. The whole time she was mending the plough. She gave the leftover chips as her fare. The ferryman only took three; by morning they had turned to gold. [Grimm, 932, 276]
Of course, these pagan loyalties, however stubbornly persistent, gave way to the Catholicized Goddess over time. But popular Marian devotion looked very different than the theologian’s concept of the Virign as intercessor. She acted much more like an alternative savior who repudiated the notion that infants who died in the womb or soon after birth were doomed, or at least outcasts. She embodied the compassion of the ancient Goddess whose successor she was.
An ancient stone goddess watched over a sacred spring at Saint-Martin de Belleville, on the French side of the Alps. Her veneration in Savoy goes back before the beginning of the written record. An influx of Celtic culture swept into this high valley of Doron de Belleville around the 400 bce, and it is full of early sites of the La Tène era.
The Goddess statue was probably carved in the early centuries bce. She stands just over five feet tall, with a body that widens into a skirt at the base. Her eyes are large and close-set, with a “grave and meditative expression.” She holds a large cylindrical vessel over whose surface spill flat carved drops of water:
“These globules appear in strong relief, under each of her hands, three on one side, four on the other, and form a liquid flowing out of the reservoir, first obliquely, then vertically.” The sculpture symbolically conveys “the birth of a spring, over which the feminine deity presides.” [Thevenot, 194] The fountain poured into into a stone cist. Thousands of people came there to drink its waters, perform ablutions, and ask for healing and other blessings.
Over a long process of Christianization—one that was never completed—successive chapels were built at the spring sanctuary of this Goddess. In countless places around Europe, pagan sanctuaries were christianized by building churches on the spot, and bringing in a statue of Mary or another saint. But what happened here was exceptional. For nearly two millennia, an ancient Celtic goddess remained in her spring sanctuary, disguised under the Christian nomenclature of the Virgin Mary. She was given the thinly-christianized title Notre-Dame-de-la-Vie, “Our Lady of Life.”
The clergy moved the Goddess from her original position, probably among the rocks of the spring, and had her built into the foundation wall of the most recent of the chapels. Otherwise unchanged, the Goddess of Life continued to receive the devotions of Savoyards at her mountain spring. As Emile Thevenot says, “the church did not even ‘substitute’ the Marian cult for the mother-goddess, personification of the spring of Life. It was enough to discreetly juxtapose it, and the old statue continued to receive its due of tribute, even as the rite of ablutions was kept going.”
Veneration of the Goddess and her waters continued into modern times, when she was esteemed as a source of tremendous healing power. Records show that extremely rich offerings were being made at this shrine in the 1600s and 1700s (and doubtless many more humble ones). In the same time period, dozens of murals were painted in the chapel depicting stories of miraculous cures by the Lady.
The Goddess originally had full breasts. In the mid-1800s, a pious fanatic hacked them off—without doubt considering them too pagan, indecent, too full of naked female power. He left tool marks in the stone. Someone, probably the same person, also tried to drive a cross into her head, splitting the stone through the entire face of the icon. (This topping with crosses was often done to megalithic monuments and other known recipients of pagan reverence.) Someone drilled a hole into her neck, and passed a pipe through it to divert some of the spring water through the opening. This did not work out well, because the photo above shows the ugly raw pipe bypassing the Goddess altogether. These damaging interventions made it necessary to patch the statue, with white cement visible in the picture above.
An eyewitness account from the 1930s describes one of the annual pilgrimages of to Notre-Dame-de-la-Vie. Savoyards came from villages near and far, often on foot, with their offerings and prayers. (One online account said that in the past surrounding villages pretty much emptied out to attend her annual festival in late summer. The chapel was furnished with special trunks for offerings of rye and wheat; people put cheeses and other dairy products near, and even on, the altar. Live animals were tied up for later sale, with proceeds going to the chapel.
The witness saw women approaching a rough statue embedded in the wall that supported the chapel courtyard. The fountain poured into an old rectangular stone receptacle, the “tank of ablutions.” The women had brought clean linen to dip into the water and sponged their faces, eyes and breasts with it. Everyone regarded the water as “saving and fertilizing.”
The Goddess of Life had survived christianization, medieval bishops, the Catholic Reformation, and even those 19th century mutilations — but not modernity. In 1960, church authorities removed the ancient statue from her place at the spring. They put her in a covered gallery, leaning against the west wall of the chapel. (Thevenot comments that this was “a real relegation.”) The Goddess no longer stood in the open air, and there was no longer room for people to gather around her. The receptacles for depositing offerings remained in place, but the pilgrimages fell off after the goddess was enclosed by the church. 
This move by the priests succeeded, at long last, in driving popular veneration in a more conventional, doctrinal direction. It refocused attention to the chapel, adorned with standardized Catholic art. It made Notre Dame de la Vie disappear from view, literally. The only pictures I’ve ever been able to find of her are in Thevenot’s book, written over 40 years ago.
Thevenot tells of another water goddess in the mountains of Savoy who survived under a Christianized veneer. The chapel of Notre Dame des Vernettes was built around another “miraculous and healing” spring to which people made pilgrimages. “We are assured that, even in our times, the ablutions, condemned by the hierarchy, continue to be practiced in an open or clandestine manner.”  So the struggle to suppress ancient cultural practices continues.
Lots of other pagan survivals exist in these mountains. La Pierre Chevettay (the “Owl Stone”) in the little hamlet of Villarenger hamlet is a huge block balanced on a small square. On its surface are six or seven cupules connected by grooved lines. People said this sacred stone preserved the village from floods and fires. It underwent the same de-paganizing indignities as Notre Dame de la Vie which, however, may have saved it from being destroyed entirely: “Numerous crosses were engraved on it to christianize this magic stone.” 
Going further afield, Madonnas in other parts of France were often located near springs and wells. The Black Virgins of Rocamadour, Vassivieres, Cusset, Clermont and Chartres all stood near wells or
fountains. In Clermont, the tiny, very old black statue of Notre Dame du Port stood at a subterranean altar next to a sacred well. The Lady of la Font Sainte (“holy spring”) was carried in procession to and from her summer and winter shrines.
A legend from around 1400 describes how similar processions with the image of Notre Dame de Vassivières originated in a struggle between the peasants and clergy. The highland altar of the Black Madonna of Vassivières stands near an ancient spring venerated since Celtic times. Ecclesiastics removed her statue down the mountain to a church in the town of Besse. “Here the priests could keep an eye on her, rather than leave her in the hands of the laity in her outdoor shrine in the cow herding hamlet.” [“Vassivière”] But she soon vanished from the church. An old woman bringing her cow to the town market told people that the Lady had reappeared over the sacred fountain in the heights.
A tug-of-war followed: the priests kept taking the goddess to the church in Besse but the peasants always managed to smuggle her back to Vassivières. Finally the clergy struck a compromise with the rural people that allowed her to stay the summer in her highland sanctuary, but to spend winters at the Besse church, in captivity like Persephone. [from Frances Marion Gostling, Auvergne and Its People, 1935] The church set a new condition for allowing the Lady to return to her mountain: a priest had to be present to supervise what people did. A report from 1321 refers to the practice of many “profane and inappropriate” things of Vassivières. “They say strange things were practiced here. We don’t know what.” [“Vassivière”]
While putting together a new visual talk on Ancient Central Europe (a very disregarded corner of history) one of the themes that emerged was lunar crescents. Clay sculptures known as Mondhörner, “moon-horns” have been found in Switzerland, dating to about 1500-900 bce, from what i’ve been able to determine so far.
Some are pure crescents, like the above, others are stands with two or three legs.
This example shows how like an animal’s horns some of them appear.
Others are more clearly crescents, or even appear shiplike:
They are often marked with symbols, line patterns, indentations and swirls.
They’ve been compared to “Cretan horns of consecration.” Some have speculated that they were firedogs (hearth supports for logs) but this utilitarian explanation does not account for the careful decoration, nor for the appearance of the clay crescents in other contexts. Here is a clearly related pot-lid from France in the same time period:
Some of these crescents are marked with chevrons and other symbols, as in the examples above, and below:
The Moonhorn at left, above, especially calls our attention because of its resemblance to another group of ancient crescents, this time in northwestern Europe. The lunulae of Ireland and Britain are incised with very similar patterns: fine zigzag borders, vertically marked-off fields filled with chevrons, and empty spaces. The one below is from an unidentified site in Ireland.
Here’s another, below, from Blessington, County Wicklow; the overexposure of the photo makes it hard to see, but it too has the chevron patterns along the “horns.” This Blessington lunula is dated to 2200 bce. (I’ve seen dates closer to 1500 for others.) They may have been produced over many centuries. Were they ritual regalia or aristocratic bling?
Some of them were found by peat-diggers in the Irish bogs.
Here’s a beautiful example from Wales. The patterns etched into the gold are so fine they are hard to see, but still the zigs and chevrons.
But what do these earlier lunulae, clearly meant to be worn, have to do with the clay Moonhorns of the continent? I don’t know, except for the evocation of the lunar crescent. But the symbolism has an even broader reach, going much further back in time on the western edge of Europe, in Portugal. Here it dates to the late neolithic, around or after 3200 bce.
The stone circles of south-central Portugal include statue-menhirs (monoliths carved with human attributes) that are wearing lunulae on their chests. At right, one of the rough reliefs on a statue-menhir at Almendres. Two other stone circles in the same region, at Mogos and Vale Maria dos Meios, have similar statues with crescent breastplates. (The necklaces at the latter site are more deeply U-shaped than crescent, and curl up at the ends.) Some of the menhirs are breasted, others not, and often they show belts or other faint ornaments. Some of the monoliths hold crooks, or rather, because no arms are shown, these are placed against their chests. Schist crooks of the type shown have been found in Portuguese dolmens, some of them very finely incised with triangles, chevrons, and zigzags. They also appear on pottery pieces.
But it gets better. Actual examples exist of the lunulae worn by the ancient neolithic people who raised these stone circles. Excavations in the area around Lisbon have turned up limestone lunulas incised with lines similar to those on the (much younger) Moonhorns in Switzerland.
Here are drawings (no photos located yet) of the neolithic limestone lunulae of the Lisbon peninsular. This symbolism persists, or rather recurs.
In a much later period — long after the neolithic, long after the bronze age lunulae of Ireland and Britain (Scotland has at least one too), and even after the clay Moonhorns of Switzerland, metal lunulas show up in Portugal.
Here are several from the southern Alentejo region (no date given, possibly in the Celt-Iberian, or more appropriately, the Lusitanian era):
And here’s another (probably later) lunula in silver, with various symbols, animals, knotwork, and possibly breasts or eyes, and serpent torc finials. What is the story behind this lunula? This whole post is about questions, not conclusions. But the recurrence of this theme is fascinating.
I had no plans to attend Z Budapest’s ritual on Sunday night. I thought about going to Rabbit’s ceremony, but what I really wanted, after a week of hard work, was to kick back in the hotel room and watch Downton Abbey. (A somewhat guilty pleasure, my class loyalties and politics being what they are.) Alas, the Fates ordained otherwise.
When I heard about the protest (as it was first told to me) / silent meditation that Thorn had called for outside of Z’s ritual, I realized that I would have to be present to hold space. I was acutely conscious of the larger context of the sit-in: the ongoing campaign to ban all Dianic lineages whose rites were for women born and raised, and the vitriolic outpouring that happened to Yeshe Rabbit last year. I was concerned that things could go that way, again, and affect a lot of women—for starters, anyone who wanted to attend Z’s ritual, and ultimately a much larger community of Dianics.
The issue paramount in my mind, and forgotten amidst all the righteous rhetoric, was the sovereignty of women, our right to set our own boundaries and to decide who are our peers and allies. (Yes, of course trans women too.) Women, that most divided of all groups, make different choices based on who we trust as allies. How can forcing boundaries of self-determination earn that trust? especially when breaking down women’s boundaries is and remains a historically enforced imperative. I was aware that honorably taking responsibility would make me a target; that many people would make unwarranted assumptions, in the gossip and aspersions that run wild out on the wire. But I would have to leave them to it.
The rights to self-determination and to resist coercion do not necessarily entail challenging someone else’s gender identification or the existence of multiple genders. (I am not going to address this very big subject, on which opinions differ even among queer theorists, here.) My own posts have moved about who is and can be an ally. My core criterion is caring deeply about women’s liberation. I will not stand for silencing or coercion of women, and I’ve seen a lot of that in these recent backlash decades. I am looking to broaden my alliances, but will not back down on these principles.
Passing by the restaurant at the Con, I saw Z and Glenn talking, and immediately knew why. So I horned in on the conversation. I told Z I would come to hold sacred space at the door to the ritual. I know that Thorn intended to create sacred space herself and was doing what she thought was right, by her lights. I respect her even when I don’t agree with her. We have common mystic ground. We haven’t had a chance to dialog about these issues, though I came to hear what she had to say at the Gender and Paganism conference last fall.
I had a sinking feeling just thinking about the radioactive zone of pre-judgment, assumptions, polarization, and frenzied name-calling that surrounds this issue. However, that couldn’t be helped. There were things that had to be faced, and said, and lived out. I heard that the controversy would be discussed at the Pagans and the Media panel, and attended it. Some very good things were said, others that I disagreed with or that were, frankly, irrelevant. There was a certain amount of circling around the issue, with one exception: Z was called out by name, in a way I have never seen done to anyone in all the years I have been coming to Pantheacon, in her absence. I could not remember or imagine a male elder coming close to being verbally targeted in this way, for anything. It’s not that an elder can never be wrong, but this breached the pan-tradition protocol of respecting face for elders. It would be far, far surpassed by what transpired later online.
Several years ago, when I heard an archdruid at the Con ridicule “matriarchalist fantasies” as having no historical basis whatsoever, even as he asserted the total non-sexism of his own tradition, no one said a peep. Some people laughed knowingly at the gibe. Sexist generalizations, no prob! I knew, too, how unlikely it was that anyone would challenge the fellow sitting two rows in front of me during the Media panel. He sported a leather jacket emblazoned with a woman tightly gagged and bound, and running along the border of chains, the inscription, “Bound to Please.” Though I find this symbolism of male dominance deeply offensive, I didn’t say anything to him. Nor was I going to bother people who went to bondage-themed parties or rituals glorifying “sacred prostitution,” or which banned women on their bloods, or honored gods linked to male dominance mythologies.
Pantheacon is a libertarian space, and so has places and scenes where I am a complete outsider (something I have a lot of practice at). At times I feel completely alienated, like the year our booth was next to the corset shop, which was mobbed by women forking over hundreds each for this constrictive garment. (The vendor moaned with relief when she took hers off at day’s end). Many people have this experience of alienation, for a whole variety of reasons, and not just at this conference. However, I feel that the people who run the Con (and thank you to the many volunteers) do a marvelous job holding the space for everyone, the whole disparate lot of us. Herding cats! The theme Unity in Diversity was an attempt to address the dissension and polarization.
During the question period of the panel, I spoke about what it means to deride female sovereignty in the context of the intense anti-feminist backlash we are living through now. Margot Adler had mentioned the shrinkage of feminist spaces, bookstores and Women’s Studies. I talked about how that had affected my work, as women’s history got thrown overboard in the stampede to Gender Studies. It’s not because women’s oppression has been solved! I said that this debate has got to get unstuck off the “essentialism” refrain. As long as the issue keeps getting cast only as biological determinism (and I see people in both camps insisting on this discourse in different ways) other real concerns are not being addressed, even effectively denied or misrepresented. We need to have a deeper conversation about the complexities, the differences and the commonalities, between cis, trans, and those who don’t fit this new gender binary. In the current climate such a dialogue, multilogue actually, seems impossible. May the time come soon when we can do so without it turning into a destructive beatdown.
It is hurtful to call people “transies,” but what about “bigot”? This word has been hurled in a steady stream since the 80s, and is in full cry in the current dispute. It is itself used in bigoted ways, especially against lesbian feminists, radical feminists and butch lesbians, who are routinely denounced. Doctrinal certainty cuts more than one way. Last year, Rabbit came to my booth in distress. She didn’t say what had actually gone down, and neither did Amethyst, who came by equally upset for opposite reasons. Only later did I hear about the confrontation at Rabbit’s ritual. I read through the ugliness on the blogs, and was horrified to see what they said about her, the curtain of contempt that descended. Someone even felt entitled to make death threats. This year, people on both sides say they feel that they are unwelcome at the Con, unsafe attending a ritual, or unsafe because they are not allowed to attend that same ritual. Ironically, people who sat in outside the Dianic ritual chose to do so rather than to attend a trans-inclusive Dianic event in the very same timeslot, a much better-attended event.
Coercion and derision is not the way to change someone’s mind, and projecting mistaken assumptions from what one person says or does to entire groups is guaranteed to harden lines. I was well aware that sticking my neck out on this issue would, for many, conflate me completely with what others said or did, regardless of what where I actually stood. It would not matter a whit to them that my events are open to everybody. A lot of things would not matter in the heat of this destructive, vicious argument.
Last weekend, it looked increasingly likely to me that historic lineages of Dianics could get drummed out of Pantheacon, and all in the name of love and justice. (I felt reassured on this score after hearing from the founding elder, Glenn Turner.) Many of the Amazon priestesses were not at the Con this year, such as Ruth Barrett, Ma ShiAat Oloya, Leilani Birely, Falcon River, Anniitra Ravenmoon, Letecia Layson, Wendy Griffin. I can’t speak for them or where they might stand. My concern was to uphold their right to space at the Pantheacon.
So Nava and I decided to weard the door at Z’s ritual: to be there in sacred space, while chanting the Names of Goddess. Perhaps our devotion would touch that of Thorn and others who were meditating. We knew that Glenn would be there too, and were thankful for her holding the space. I knew that Thorn didn’t intend harm with her silent meditation, even if she had made her intention to pressure clear. Still the polarization was daunting. The coercive aspects of the ongoing Urania / Pluto square were on my mind.
We came early to settle in next to the door, me on the floor. I wrapped my Raven mantle around my hips in case it got chilly. Then I began to chant the Sri Lalita Sahasranama. This is one of the Thousand Names of Devi litanies from India, invoking the divine qualities that are within all of us. Nava was meditating and praying too, and Glenn sat beside her, and a while later, Bobbie sat down. Thalassa was there, though I didn’t see her at the time. Elders of various vintages were in the house.
My eyes were closed most of the time, so I missed seeing much of what was going on. I could tell that people were lining up to enter the ritual to my right—door still closed—and facing them were the silent protesters. (Although Thorn didn’t use this word, many did and still do.) I found out afterward that many of these women felt like they were walking a gauntlet as they came down the hall. This feeling only intensified when some of the protesters took pictures of them. (There is no other word for that but intimidation.) I caught a whiff of disagreement between staff and Bobbie, when they told her not to film what was going on. Some attendees later said no one had stopped protesters from taking pictures of them.
I kept chanting the invocations: Compassionate Devi. Blessed Wisdom. Supreme Power. Origin. Thousand Petaled Lotus Pouring Forth a Stream of Divine Essence, Foreknower in Perfection, Remover of Obstacles, Dispeller of Fear, Dweller in the Heart. Mother of Ten Million Universes, Shining Embodiment. Wish-fulfilling Vine, Remover of Bondage from the Bound. Immeasurable. Bliss of Truth. Mother. Liberator. Peacefulness.
At one point I felt more people arriving. Rabbit had brought people from her ritual to hold space between the two groups. They sang We All Come From the Goddess, and we sang it along with them. They alternated it with another beautiful chant of Thorn’s. Women inside were also singing We All Come From the Goddess. Z came out and spoke. She apologized for hurting anyone, and she upheld her right to perform her rites. I couldn’t see any response, except when Rabbit admonished Z for forthrightly addressing “your side.” She told her, “There are no sides,” which sounded cosmic and everything, but unconvincing under the circumstances. We weren’t in Rumi’s field yet, where there is no judgment, no rebuke. People came to “take a stand” and there was no mistaking the opposition.
I can’t remember what Z said, but here is her written statement: “I know you are here for me. I come out to say something to all of you. I am sorry if I have hurt anyone’s feelings. I apologize. I stand for your right of sacred space for the trans community. I stand with my life’s work for the women to have the right to their sacred space equally. I have supported PantheaCon goals for unity and diversity for the 18 years this conference has existed and an opportunity to have everyone to express themselves in a safe place. Peace.” This apology, as difficult as it was for a proud Hungarian priestess to make, has barely been acknowledged in the blogosphere rants, or it has been rejected, for the most part, because she did not back down on the parameters of her rituals.
The silent meditators continued on. Z went back in and the ritual began. I resumed chanting the Sahasranama of Devi. After some time, the silent people wrapped up their meditation and dispersed. I continued chanting for a while longer. Then Glenn, Nava, Bobbie and I talked, a good, long conversation. I felt relieved, for the moment, but less so when the ritual participants came out and talked about having to pass through hostile terrain. I later found out that some even thought that we by the door were there to protest too, adding to their feeling of isolation and outcast. On the other side of the hall, I heard later, certain protesters had said angry words to Rabbit and Devin, assuming that they were on the “wrong” side.
It was truly the cusp of a stellium in Pisces, with a new moon (and therefore sun, plus Mercury and Chiron) joining Neptune, fresh after its entry into its own oceanic sign. Confusion, illusion, and smoking mirrors; also the fragrance of devotion and love, the potential for inspirational vision, and perhaps, in time, the dissolution of acrimony into ho’oponopono. We are all being ground on the anvil of Urania squaring Kali, with many more passes to go. The larger perspective on this tempest will make itself felt in time.
We came home exhausted, after loading and packing up the booth, then unloading after the drive. We had sold little more than half of what we did last year, and were wrung out. Then I saw the firestorm of denunciations on the blogosphere, once again. The comments section on The Wild Hunt was inhabited by torrents of rage and outrage. Bigot, bigot, and bigot to the tenth power. Accusations of man-hating were repeated, in various iterations. Curses uttered, even. My womb was hurting, no lie.
One blogger purported to give a dispassionate account of what went down at the protest. Sitting by the door, he wrote, were “three cis-gender crones,” one of whom was rocking and “muttering.” Ah, the muttering of crones, that phrase really takes me back. I recognize the meme of an old woman singing Goddess invocations, interpreted as muttering some incomprehensible spell, questionable and perhaps diabolic. So now I was seen as a muttering cis-gender crone. But I had plenty of new identities to choose from, if I cared to, in the online vilification stream.
Bigots, manhaters, transphobes, and bigots again, were being cast into outer darkness. The rightful recipients of love and understanding and solidarity and sympathy were clearly marked out. The Others who must be expelled were radical feminists, and if Pantheacon continued to harbor them, it must be boycotted. One man outright called Z “evil.” Women piled on too. Stones were flying in the cyber village square, in the name of tolerance and acceptance. Every time I look again I am heartsick.
A few brave souls waded in to defend against the pan-defamation. (Thank you.) On another blog, a woman begged for forgiveness for really, really needing to attend that ritual, because of the sexual violence and abuse she had suffered: “Instead of taking part in a ritual which I needed I’m sitting in a hotel room writing this letter. I didn’t attend the Sacred Body ritual hosted by Z Budapest because I couldn’t face the protest. A protest sparked by pain. I know pain. I was sexually abused in my marriage for 17 years. Then I was abused for 5 more years by different men. I hated my womanhood and my body. Rituals like the one offered by Zsuzsanna have helped me begin to heal and I need them. I’m not a bigot. I don’t hate you. Please, sisters, hear my words.” Some people relented a bit, but others were sternly implacable. One man tried to invalidate her concerns by a comparison to racism. (Dood! it’s not for you to pass judgment on any woman, least of all one who has suffered beyond your understanding.) http://pncminnesota.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/letter-to-the-editor-ciswomen-only-ritual-at-pantheacon/
Some people have chosen to forget, if they ever recognized it, the long history of bludgeoning women into submission, of public humiliation and denunciation, ritually repeated. This is not the dialog that needs to happen; it is no dialog at all. Thankfully, I am seeing a breeze of reasonableness come through on some blogs, like that of Gus diZerega, who I just met at the Con. He spoke about the importance of harmony among participants for a ritual to work, and said of Z’s ritual:
“She and those who attended did not make a statement about how the larger community should conduct their rituals let alone setting their ritual up as a proper guide for all, or for all women. Quite explicitly otherwise. In the context of Pantheacon this was a ritual for people wanting to attend a ritual with particular parameters. Those desires were legitimate and indeed are present in almost every Pagan society. (I say “almost” because perhaps somewhere there is an exception, but I doubt it.)” Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/apagansblog/2012/02/pantheacon-2012-politics-and-the-controversy-over-womens-rituals.html#ixzz1nTnSL37I
Something strange: the comments link on Rabbit’s blog post about this controversy comes up blank, and so does Devin Hunter’s entire blog post. I have heard that other posts describe the experience of women who attended the ritual, but am just now finding links to them. Some I can’t post because they are restricted to the person’s Facebook friends. This one comes from the HecateDemeter blog (Undermining the Patriarchy Every Chance I Get. And I Get a Lot of Chances.) It’s called, I Contain Multitudes:
“What I want is a Paganism full of diversity. I want to honor and respect those who draw a circle that includes me and those who draw a circle that says, ‘We need to be inside here for a time. That means that we need you to stand outside. Can you please stand here and guard our door?’ We need rituals that are drawn as tightly as needed to guard the sanctity of those who have been othered and excluded. Of those who need to other and exclude themselves in order to preserve their own sacred and diverse identities. Of those who simply want to draw a circle and stand inside it without being attacked.” http://hecatedemeter.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/i-contain-multitudes/
A circle dance painted in ochre, near Escalante, Utah. Not making any gender claims for this one, but it had to be included! You can see vandals have gouged, and possibly shot, at the ancient art. Such attacks are unfortunately all too common in the U.S., stemming from a long-standing hostility to Indigenous people and their culture.
“Dance of the Mandan Women,” 1833, shows a winter ceremony of the female White Buffalo Cow Society. This women’s ritual group danced to call the buffalo in wintertime, wearing white buffalo skin crowns adorned with magpie and owl feathers and eagle down. In summer, it was the Goose Society who danced for the crops, in women’s planting and harvesting rites. More info here. Mandan women were great farmers of the upper Missouri River Valley. Their matrilineal families lived in large round earthen lodges. Their agronomy and ceremonies influenced those of the Hidatsa (and Crow offshoots who moved to Montana) and the Siksika peoples (Blackfeet, Kainai, Piegan) who borrowed their motokiks or matoki ceremony from the Mandan women. A photo of the Mandan women’s Buffalo headdress is here.
Another picture of the Matoki ceremony, probably Siksika/ Blackfeet Confederacy, who lived further west from the Mandan in Alberta and Montana.
I don’t have digital scans of the Southwestern shows, so apologies for the poor quality of this unidentified net grab. “Basket Dance” is a Euro name for this widespread Pueblo women’s dance, but that’s the best i can do without knowing where this painting comes from. (Once i figure it out, I’ll post an update.) The Hopi call it Lalakonti or Lakon, and do it sometime around harvest.
Here’s a Basket Dance painted by the late, great artist Pablita Velarde of Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. She had far-reaching influence in the Indian arts world, and her daughter, Helen Hardin, became a famous artist in her own right, and so did her grand-daughter, Margarete Bagshaw.
Kiowa women consecrate their seed corn (represented by the ear of corn at left, next to the fire). Southern Plains. Painting by Cherokee artist Jimslee Burton, 20th century.
More than a celebration, the Circle Dance gives spiritual and healing power, and many communities have reached for it in times of trauma. So it was with the Ghost Dance that spread from western North America across the Plains following the European conquest. The decimated People reached for vision, inspiration, and connection with the Ancestors in the midst of trauma, occupation, and the starvation that resulted from the settler state confining them to reservations.
This is an artist’s rendition of Lakota Ghost Dancers right before the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. European settlers were afraid of its power, and the US government sent armies to suppress it. They used Gatling guns, the first machine guns, to mow down the Indian warriors. Whites’ hostility to what they called “the Messiah Craze” led directly to the death of Sitting Bull. Because so many men died fighting for their people and country, the number of women dancing in these circles was large.
Similar spiritual liberation movements arose in many parts of North and South America during the European conquests, The Guaraní gathered for ceremonies calling on Ñandecy, “Our Mother,” for deliverance, and envisioning the destruction of the invaders taking over Paraguay. Centuries before, people in some parts of Europe dealt with the trauma of mass deaths from bubonic plague and feudal wars by trance-dancing in groups, especially around the traditional summer solstice holyday.
The Round Dance continued after the US government suppressed the Ghost Dance and forced Indian religion underground. One of the masterpieces of ledger art from the early reservation period after the US Army seized treaty lands on the Great Plains, this drawing was created by Black Hawk of the Sans Arc Lakota in the late 1800s. He shows young women and men apparently doing a Round Dance, the women identifiable by their belts and trade cloth, the men in tunics and striped leggings. These dances continue today at pow-wows across North America.
All the school and media emphasis on European history barely grazes huge areas, such as women in rock art. Spain has some stunning examples of women dancing in groups, such as this rock shelter mural at the site Moriscas III.
They dance with their arms raised in a forest setting. Helechel region of Badajoz, Extremadura, western Spain. (Here again i’ve colorized a B&W drawing and added a rock background.) Dating is difficult, anywhere between the Mesolithic and the Bronze Age.
Here again the drawings are very rough, but clearly show women dancing with raised arms, who appear to be wearing feathers or fronds on their head.
Not sure if this is from Knossos or some other temple/palace. The brownish areas are the original surviving painting; all the rest is a reconstruction. The theme of female dancers is repeated in ceramic art and in the legends of Ariadne, priestess of the Labyrinth in Knossos.
In the ancient Aegean many clay and stone assemblages of women dancing rounds have been found, this one from Palaikastro, Crete. The woman in the center is dancing with a serpent, a shamanic theme frequently found in Cretan and Mycenaean art. This sculpture is centuries later than the classic Cretan art, created after the Greek conquest of the island, yet shows the persistence of old cultural patterns.
Barebreasted women dancing naked with leaf skirts is not what most people envision when they think of Europe, still less what we have been taught about Greece. This bowl dates from the Archaic/Geometric period, circa 750 bce. See more painted ceramics at http://www.suppressedhistories.net/Gallery/greek/geometric.html and the following page, linked at bottom.
This Archic / Geomoetric style shows Libyan influences at times, most dramatically in this magnificent round dance of women and men. I’ve been calling attention to this Libyan connection for some time, beyond the much-discussed Phoenician influence on Late Archaic Greece (known as the “Orientalizing” period). The painted figures here resemble the Garamantes style of Libyan rock art in the 1st millennium BCE.
Here’s another of women dancing, this time naked, with snakes rising between them. (These snake squiggles are a frequent pattern in Geometric Greek amphora painting.)
Women’s dance in southern Italy — Magna Graecia as they say, Greek-speaking and cultured, — at some as yet-to-be-disclosed location. Matrons (as signaled by the veils) in a beautifully dynamic flow, with an interwoven arm-grasp of a kind still used by dancers in Greece and the Balkans.
A circle of women with ceremonial staffs (possibly the same as their digging sticks) at Genaadeberg, Orange Free State, east-central South Africa. I really wish this was a photo; the drawing only hints at the original.
The central panel could be a scene of women heading out to gather food, but dancers are shown at left and lower left, and these scenes seem to be related. Euro-settlers have vandalized these historic paintings with graffiti, as in North America.
Other ancient San paintings show women raising their digging sticks in invocation or ceremony, one example of how daily life was integrated with spiritual custom.
A procession of women with upturned bows. Possibly a hunting dance. Many societies used bows as musical and divinatory instruments as well. No site given.
San painting of women dancing in the Cape region of South Africa. What a difference a color photo makes with this rich red-ochre art. Traditionally it has been San women who gathered and ritual anointed or sprinkled people with red ochre. One important occasion for this ritual act was at the end of womanhood initiation ceremonies, when the new women blessed others in the community. The Apache have a parallel custom. Dating is notoriously difficult with these ochre paintings. Some are many thousands of years old and others are centuries old.
Women’s procession, with wands / staffs, in rock mural at Chikupa, Zimbabwe. (This was a black and white line drawing; i’ve added rock texture as a background.) Archaeologists think these paintings are at least 2000 years old, made by Khoisan peoples well before the Bantu immigrations to southern Africa.
Another low-quality drawing (but I’ll take what I can get) of a procession, this time with several men, from the Brandberg in Namibia (southwestern Africa). Full of fine rock art, it takes its name Burning Mountain from the brilliant orange ochre rock formations.
One more from Zimbabwe, three women walking or dancing in a detail of a much larger mural at Springfontein.
The Sahara has many very ancient rock murals of women dancing or walking in ritual procession. This one is from the Tassili-n-Ajjer region of southern Algeria, dating from about 6000-4000 bce. (That’s no error; these are really old.) The women are “painted up” in yellow ochre, in patterns seen in many other murals, including the Horned Goddess of Aouanrhet, and like her they wear ritual ties around their arms and lower legs.
A group of women clap, sing, and dance, with an older woman seated at right as if presiding. This mural from the Tassili-n-Ajjer region of southern Algeria is many thousands of years bce, so old that it has acquired a thick, glossy desert patina from wind driving micro-bits of silica into the rock face over ages.
Saharan rock painting of a line of women with a frame drum — that is how I interpret the disc in the hand of the woman at far left — at Menal, Ennedi hills, northeastern Chad. Circa 2000 BCE?
Women in long white skirts dance hand in hand in mural at Baradergolo I, Ennedi, Chad.
Another, broader view of the Baradergolo I mural, in a modern painted reproduction. Women dancers, amidst other family scenes with cattle. This is dated to the Late Bovidian period (before desertification put a stop to cattle herding) circa 3000-2000 bce.
A modern painted reconstruction of an ancient mural at Fada 5 site in the Ennedi region of Chad. Also dated to late Bovidian, circa 4000 to 5000 years ago.
Women also are painted dancing hand in hand in northern Algeria, here on a pot at Tiddis. This motif was widespread in Saharan ceramic art, which influenced the Phoenicians who settled in Tunisia, and who in turn spread it to Etruria and Spain.
The Gebelein dagger shows a common theme in predynastic Kemetic art: women dancing hand in hand, one holding what appears to be a ritual fan. This scene is also found, with exactly the same elements, on a painted ceramic in the form of an animal, with a ship on the reverse side. These dancers also appear on many other painted vessels of the 4th millennium, often with the same fan.
For more on this, see my photo essay on the Suppressed Histories Archives site.
So busy, i haven’t posted for months, but here’s a recent photo essay from the Suppressed Histories Archives Facebook page. To avoid confusion: descriptions and commentary appear under each image. Enjoy…
Women’s circle dance in bronze age rock art from Zerovschan, Tajikistan, with numinous quadrant in center. They appear to be wearing skirts, but the dot between the legs is a very common female sign, or the dot in vulva which may also figure here.
Neolithic Iran is extremely rich in ceramic paintings of women’s circle dances, running around the circumference of what were probably ceremonial vessels.
Here is one of the finest Iranian paintings, showing women wearing tall headdresses, communal female potency in sacred movement, their rhythm pulsing through the brush. Ray (Rey, Rhae, Rhagae, Rhages) is near Tehran.
This is really tiny, grabbed off the web with no info at all, but also from neolithic Iran, and it speaks. The zag patterns around the are also found in Turkmenistan and Iraq in the same late neolithic timeframe.
In Syria, too: left, Halaf; right, Sabi Abyad. More tall headdresses! Both of these sites were important cultural centers in 6000-5000 bce, with their own characteristic styles of ceramic female icons. The Halafian style spread widely in the mid-6th millennium, peacefully, by diffusion from village to village, not centralized trade. Women making their own images, in clearly recognizable styles that still varied from region to region. The importance of this international neolithic pattern has not been widely recognized, yet; but someday i’ll find color photos of this cultural testimony.
Conflicting information on this one, either from Tell Agrab or Tell Hassuna, both in Iraq river valleys. Three women (vulture-headed?) with animals and growing things. They are holding discs which may be drums, the other hands would then be drumming with sticks. Vulture-headed female figurines are common in Egypt in the same time frame.
A classic from Samarra, Iraq, circa 5000 bce. This neolithic town created a long line of splendid painted ceramics and female figurines (which start back in the pre-pottery era, so old is the tradition there). Here women stand in the quadrants, their hair whirling in the Four Winds, circled by a ring of scorpions. Scorpion Goddess is common in ancient Iraq and Iran as well as Egypt — Serqet, the companion of Auset (Isis) — and also known in Central America.
The women dancing with streaming hair, this time from Harappa, Pakistan. Also neolithic. As in Iraq and Iran, women in the Indus foothill villages painted many pots showing their ceremonial dances. But here, and also in Iran, the ibex and mountain goat are common themes. A Goddess connected with these animals is still revered by the Kalasha who keep alive very ancient forms of culture of this region.
The Women’s Dance from Kulli, Pakistan. This image was so commonly repeated that it became highly abstracted into a few strokes over time. Artists emphasized the flowing hair and dynamic movement of the Round Dance, still performed by women in the Punjab and among Adivasi (Aboriginal) women in India. These ancient ceramic paintings, fragmentary as they are, speak of a deep history of neolithic village women that has been obscured and overlaid by so many layers that few ever know that it exists.