All posts by Veleda

The Women’s Dance I: Southern Asia

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…
—Max Dashu

Zerovschan, Tajikistan, Central Asia
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.
Tepe Sialk, Iran, 5th millennium bce

Neolithic Iran is extremely rich in ceramic paintings of women’s circle dances, running around the circumference of what were probably ceremonial vessels.

From Ray (Rhages) Iran, 4000s

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.

Iran, site unknown
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.
Diyala region, eastern Iraq, 4300-3100 bce

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.

Samarra, Iraq, circa 5000 bce
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.
Harappa, Indus River, Pakistan
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.
Kulli, Pakistan, before 3000 bce
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.

Female Powers and Places in Indian North America

Max Dashu

I encountered the book I’m about to discuss here while searching for more information on the Winnemem Wintu medicine women. I had learned of religious and land rights struggles that this north California people was going through (more on this below) and a web search turned up an excellent discussion in Peter Nabokov’s Where the Lightning Strikes: the Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, Peter Nabokov, 2006.

This isn’t exactly a book review, but I want to share some excellent information that the book provides about sacred place and story in North American Indian culture / religion. I’ll jump off from some of the information about American Indian women’s culture, female spirits and sacred sites, and medicine women, and supplement them with additional information from other sources.

Mandan and Hidatsa heritages
The Mandan were already living along the Missouri river by 700 ce, farming corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. Archaeologists have found their black pottery, garden tools, and remains of earthen lodges clustered around plazas. Natcompasahah, “heart of the world,” is their name for the place where the Heart river joins the Missouri. This great river had a male bank and a female bank. “The women weeded and hybridized crops, sang to their gardens, raised children, molded pottery, wove burden baskets and participated in the female-only religious societies.” Men had their own religious groups, hunted and fished.

Hidatsa earthen roundhouse, North Dakota

The Hidatsa came along later and became neighbors, learning to build earthen lodges like the Mandan. (A wooden post from one of these houses has been dated to 875 ce.) The oral histories recount how they learned to farm corn from the Mandan, and loved it. “We thought our fields sacred,” said Waheenee-wea, Buffalo Bird Woman. No one dreamed of trying to take another’s field, lest some misfortune befall them. “We cared for our corn in those days as we would care for a child; for we Indian people loved our gardens, just as a mother loves her children; and we thought that our growing corn liked to hear us sing, just as children like to hear their mother sing to them.”

Wonderful! I looked up Buffalo Bird Woman and found that some of her oral history is available online. It contains a true wealth of information on Hidatsa women’s farming wisdom, from clearing and planting to harvesting, cooking, and storing food. Her descriptions show how much work was involved in preparing and tilling the fields, parching, shelling or stringing corn, slicing and smoking squash, in digging and lining the storage pits, and in preparing green corn cakes and other delicacies. The women built underground food caches for corn and squash that they had dried, just as they built fences and platforms for resting from labor and for guarding the growing corn.

Tilling with bone hoe

…there was a garden and in the middle of the garden was a tree. There was a platform under the tree made of trunks and slabs; and there those two girls sat to watch the garden and sing watch-garden songs. They did this to make the garden grow, just as people sing to a baby to make it be quiet and feel good. In old times we sang to a garden for a like reason, to make the garden feel good and grow. This custom was one used in every garden. Sometimes one or two women sang… The singing was begun in the spring and continued until the corn was ripe…This resting stage we used to rest on after working in the garden; and to sing here the songs that we sang at this season of the year, and which I have called watch-garden songs.

Some of these songs were directed at the boys who happened by, hunting, and were teasing songs. The girls also teased each other, especially their ikupa’ or best friends. I highly recommend reading this account of Hidatsa women’s work, especially if you are interested in raising your own food and in ways of storing it naturally. It provides fascinating and useful knowledge from an expert farmer, born in 1839, and a Plains women’s history known to very few people today. (In this online text, Buffalo Bird Woman’s name is given as Maxi’diwiac, not Waheeneewea as above.) Its photos show Hidatsa women working with horn rakes, slicing squash with bone knives for drying, and their garden plots and planting patterns.

Another source highlights women as builders and lodge owners:

When a lodge became crowded, one of the daughters would build her own lodge and move there with husband and children. The lodge was the property of the women who lived in it. They also owned the household furniture, the tipi, the corn scaffolds, cache pits, dogs, and gardening equipment. [“The History and Culture of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish”]

They owned these things because they made them, including the buildings.

Here’s another account that fleshes out the story of Grandmother Who Never Dies and describes the Corn ceremonies that women elders held to honor her:

The Mandans and Minnitarees [Hidatsa] of North America used to hold a festival in spring which they called the corn-medicine festival of the women. They thought that a certain Old Woman who Never Dies made the crops to grow, and that, living somewhere in the south, she sent the migratory waterfowl in spring as her tokens and representatives. Each sort of bird represented a special kind of crop cultivated by the Indians: the wild goose stood for the maize, the wild swan for the gourds, and the wild duck for the beans. So when the feathered messengers of the Old Woman began to arrive in spring the Indians celebrated the corn-medicine festival of the women. Scaffolds were set up, on which the people hung dried meat and other things by way of offerings to the Old Woman; and on a certain day the old women of the tribe, as representatives of the Old Woman who Never Dies, assembled at the scaffolds each bearing in her hand an ear of maize fastened to a stick. They first planted these sticks in the ground, then danced round the scaffolds, and finally took up the sticks again in their arms. Meanwhile old men beat drums and shook rattles as a musical accompaniment to the performance of the old women.

Further, young women came and put dried flesh into the mouths of the old women, for which they received in return a grain of the consecrated maize to eat. Three or four grains of the holy corn were also placed in the dishes of the young women, to be afterwards carefully mixed with the seed-corn, which they were supposed to fertilise. The dried flesh hung on the scaffold belonged to the old women, because they represented the Old Woman who Never Dies. A similar corn-medicine festival was held in autumn for the purpose of attracting the herds of buffaloes and securing a supply of meat. At that time every woman carried in her arms an uprooted plant of maize.

They gave the name of the Old Woman who Never Dies both to the maize and to those birds which they regarded as symbols of the fruits of the earth, and they prayed to them in autumn saying, “Mother, have pity on us! send us not the bitter cold too soon, lest we have not meat enough! let not all the game depart, that we may have something for the winter!” In autumn, when the birds were flying south, the Indians thought that they were going home to the Old Woman and taking to her the offerings that had been hung up on the scaffolds, especially the dried meat, which she ate. Here then we have the spirit or divinity of the corn conceived as an Old Woman and represented in bodily form by old women, who in their capacity of representatives receive some at least of the offerings which are intended for her. [Frazer, Golden Bough: The Corn Mother in Many Lands, Vol VII, 1922 p 204]

Grandmother Who Never Dies had her own fields farmed by mice and moles, and protected by deer and blackbirds, as Nabokov explains: “She taught the Hidatsa how to ‘open’ their gardens when the migrating swans, geese and ducks swept up the Texas-to-Canada flyway, accompanied by the corn spirits, and how to ‘close’ them at harvest time when the flocks flew back south.” She lived in an earth lodge near the present-day Four Bears Bridge in North Dakota, and next to it was a sacred rock that her grandson threw down from the heavens.

The Hidatsa carried this holy stone with them when white built the Garrison dam in 1956 and flooded their ancestral lands. They kept on revering and bringing offerings to it. But somehow it fell into the hands of the North Dakota Historical Society. When Nabokov went to Bismarck to see it, the curators were embarrassed to admit that they could not find it. The Hidatsa also remember a sacred “baby” place in Bismarck, where women left offerings to bring children.

Drying corn on platform

White intrusion brought deadly smallpox that nearly wiped out the Mandan. “Before they came, we lived at the center and thought with our hearts.” The Hidatsa fared little better in the epidemic. However, some of them migrated to Montana and became the Crow Nation. They returned to hunting but never forgot their Missouri river origins. They returned periodically to trade and to visit the lodge of Old Woman Who Never Dies. They also continued to grow one crop, a rare form of tobacco that is used for sacrament only. According to Nabokov, “Only in Tobacco Society ceremonies did women share with men the rights to sacred medicine bundles and participate as equals.” Then he tells an amazing story. An old woman got seeds of this tobacco from a medicine bundle acquired by a white collector. She planted them and was able to revive the strain of ancestral tobacco.

Paha Sapa and Washu Niya

The Lakota had a phrase obleyaya dosho, “the wideness of the world.” In the center of it all is Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, with their dark cover of evergreen trees. They are wamakaognaka e’cantge, “the heart of everything that is.” A sandstone ridge sets Paha Sapa off from the surrounding prairie. Lakota lore identifies a valley between the ridge and the Hills as the Race Track, where the winged and four-legged animals held a contest in primeval times. An opening in this enclosure was called Pte Tali Yapa, Buffalo Gap, and was the gateway to the Black Hills, through which people and animals approached them.

Paha Sapa, the Black Hills

Other sites include Old Woman’s Hill, Bears Lodge Medicine Pipe Mountain, Sun Dance River. And Washu Niya, Breathing Place, which gave off vapors in winter. It was the portal of emergence from the world below, through which humans and buffalo both ascended. Here the book brings forward a theme developed by Patricia Albers, a scholar of Black Hills history, and Linea Sundstrom, a rock art scholar who was born in the area and made its archaeology her life’s work. (More about her work in the preceding post on this blog.)

The two women “simultaneously were struck by the important connection in Lakota consciousness ‘between winter, bison, and breath’.” Albers found that Lakota philosophy saw caves as “birthing chambers or wombs of the earth,” and that buffalo existed in the underworld as tiny beings before coming up through the sacred Breathing Cave. They themselves symbolized the breath of life, and the feminine principle.

Nabokov revisits the history of the 1868 treaty with its recognition of Lakota rights to South Dakota, including the Black Hills, and recounts how only five years later, Congress prepared to abrogate it by sending then-Lieutenant Colonel Custer to reconnoiter those very lands. He documents, too, the racist pronouncements of manifest destiny, predicting that “the hives of industry will take the place of dirty wigwams” and Christian churches displace “places of heathen mythology.” And follows up with the shameful story of Congress repeatedly offering to buy the Black Hills, interspersed with threats, meanwhile opening them up to white homesteaders, whose descendants hold huge chunks of the land even today.

A core point of Where the Lightning Strikes is the importance of oral histories and the strong interweaving  of cultural tradition with local place, sacred places each with their names, stories, meanings, essences. Nabokov details how the U.S. government systematically discounted all this when Indians filed suit in court to retain rights over sacred lands like the Black Hills which were integral to their spiritual practice.

Bear Lodge Butte

In Wyoming, Bear Lodge Butte is sacred to the Kiowa, who remember it as the place from which they migrated south, and to the Cheyenne and Lakota. All these peoples share a story of seven sisters who were playing with her brother when he turned into a huge bear and attacked them. Running for their lives, they climbed on a stump or rock, which ascended into the sky. Trying to reach them, the bear ripped deep fissures in the rock with his claws. The sisters went into the sky and became the Pleiades, or the Big Dipper as the Kiowa have it. This story has much in common with other world traditions of the Pleiades as Seven Sisters, from Australia to Japan to Greece. In southern California, they were sisters who married a group of brothers. Their husbands did not bring home meat they hunted, all but one of them. So the women rose to the sky, followed by the one man who was a good provider. [A.L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, 1925/1976: 624]

Euro-settlers renamed this great rock pillar as “Devil’s Tower,” and know it today primarily through the sci-fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nabokov describes rock-climbers’ refusal to honor Indian calls to stay off the mountain for one month a year, so that ceremonies could go forward without inference. Even more moving is his account of the battle over Bear Butte, Indians versus the state and a crassly exploitative tourist industry. South Dakota banned gathering of sage, sweat lodges, and demanded purchase of permits to fast and pray. The Religious Freedom Act suit that followed was turned down by one court after another, including the Supreme Court. [More here.]

The Great Mounds

The peoples of the Mississippi and Ohio basins built mound temples, which are found from Georgia to Oklahoma, and from Louisiana to Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Emerald Mound of the Natchez, built around 1300, was “the third largest religious structure in North America.” Two smaller mounds faced each other at opposite ends of its high platform. Neighbors of the Natchez saw them as “a race of wizards and conjurors.”

The sacred mound of the Choctaw is Nanih Waiya, which they consider their Great Mother. This is where the People arrived after a migration from the northwest, led by the shaman Chahta who every night placed his staff in the ground. When they arrived at this place, the staff rooted itself deep in the ground as a omen that here the Choctaw would settle and build their mound and homes. (This story resonates with Quechua stories of foundational ancestors who also founded settlements where a staff—thrown in these accounts—sank itself in the earth.) A town with walls, moats, plazas and mound temples grew up around Nanih Waiya, surrounded by farms. Another story tells of a different Nanih Waiya, this time a womb-cave out of which the Choctaw emerged after the formation of the landscape. From the hilltop above this cave-mound, they first saw the sun.

Nanih Waiya, Mother Mound of the Choctaw

The first mound was “the center of the Choctaw universe,” what they called “our good old mother mound.” Nabokov describes how the forced relocation of the Trail of Tears took most of the Choctaw from their lands. Those who managed to remain were pushed out by white settlers who logged out their forests. Many of the people ended up working as laborers and sharecroppers for cotton farmers. A tiny nucleus of Choctaw survivors remains in the area around Nanih Waiya.

Pawnee Sacred Places, Philosophies, Ceremonies

Another infuriating story of displacement involves the Pawnee, the farmers and star-worshippers who once lived in Nebraska and Kansas. White invaders repeatedly booted them out of their lands and broke their treaties (even though they had acted as allies in the war on the Lakotas). The Pawnee were Caddoan-speakers from the southeast, who built domed earth lodges entered through long hallways. Pawnee women farmed and men hunted. (Nabokov’s description implies an all-male priesthood, which seems borne out by recorded accounts of the Hako ceremonies.) Each village had its medicine bundle with an origin story.

Villages were laid out in relation to constellations. “Ideally, farthest north lay the village in charge of the North Star Bundle, the female star ‘which doesn’t move,’ whose gardens always had green corn and larders of fresh buffalo meat.” The Evening Star would be the village to the west, with her helper the Moon, and the god Tirawa; and the Morning Star village would be the village of the East and his helper the Sun. Nabokov observes that each direction had “its own tree, animal, weather condition and color,” which were reflected in the four great lodge pillars. The back of every lodge was the designated place for the Evening Star and home altar, “the place for the wonderful things.”

One of the Pawnee sacred places was Pahaku, “Mound on the Water”: a cave in the bluffs along the Platte river. It was said to be an Animal Lodge where the kingfisher appealed to the other animals to resurrect a murdered boy. The Lakota and Omaha revered this place under similar names, and it was a place of pilgrimage, as it is even today.

Pawnee sacred chants of the Hako (calumet pipe) were narrated and explained by Pawnee elder Tahiriissawichi, with the help of a literate Pawnee, James Murie, and recorded by Alice Fletcher in the 1930s. James 11 Murie (You can read the full text online.) These beautiful and profound litanies repeatedly call on Mother Corn as h Atira, “mother giving forth life,” imploring her to lead the people. As Tahiriissawichi explained, “power was given her to lead the spirits of all things in the air and to command the birds and the animals connected with the Hako. Endowed with power from Tira wahut above and from h Uraru (Mother Earth) below, Mother Corn leads and we must follow her, our spirits must follow her spirit.”

The ear of corn is a part of h Uraru, Mother Earth, the mother of all things, so we call the ear of corn Mother Corn; and because she supports our life through food, we speak of her as h Atira, “mother giving forth life.”

The songs belong to a series of complex ceremonies enacted by Pawnee priests. Songs calling Mother Earth to awaken at dawn are very reminiscent of the Kemetic songs of awakening to Auset or other Neteru, or the Ashtakam sung to deities at dawn in the temples of India:

Mother Earth is the first to be called to awake, that she may receive the breath of the new day.  Mother Earth hears the call; she moves, she awakes, she arises, she feels the breath of the new-born Dawn. The leaves and the grass stir; all things move with the breath of the new day; everywhere lifeis renewed. This is very mysterious; we are speaking of something very sacred, although it happens every day.

The Hako ceremony often refers to the brown eagle Kawas as a messenger:

The eagle soars in the skies and can communicate with the powers that are above; so the eagle represents these powers. As we stand facing the east the white-eagle feathered stem, on the right, toward the south, represents brightness, the light, the day, the sun, and it is the male. It is for defense and is carried on the side farthest from the people. The brown-eagle feathered stem, Kawas, is to the left, toward the north; it represents darkness, the night, the moon, and is the female. Kawas is carried nearest the people. Kawas has the right to make the nest and to seek help from Tira wa for the Children.

In Medicine Woman Country

Karuk Julian Lang asked his grandmother “Who did the old Indians say was God?”
She answered, “Why, the Earth! Ever’thin. The rocks, the leaves, the mountains.”

Winnemem Wintun means the Middle Water people. They live along the McCloud river north of Mount Shasta, or as they knew it, Bulyum Puyuik: the Great Mountain. This northern part of California is a country notable for its medicine women, from the Wintun to the Karok and Yurok and Hupa to their west. One of the Wintu medicine women was Kate Luckie. You may have read her words before, as they are often quoted without identifying their source. The Mohawk journal Akwesasne Notes published them on one of their beautiful posters in the 1970s.

In 1925 Kate Luckie prophesied to the anthropologist Cora DuBois that “this world will stay as long as Indians live”:

When the Indians all die, then God will let the water come down from the north. Everyone will drown. That is because the white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots, we make little holes. When we build houses, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don’t chop down the trees. We use only dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull up the trees, kill everything. The tree says, ‘Don’t. I am sore. Don’t hurt me.’ But they chop it down and cut it up. The spirit of the land hates them. The Indians never hurt anything, but the white people destroy all. They blast rocks and scatter them on the earth. The rock says, ‘Don’t! You are hurting me.’ But the white people pay no attention. When the Indians use rocks, they take little round ones for their cooking. The white people dig deep tunnels. They make roads. They dig as much as they wish. They don’t care how much the ground cries out. How can the spirit of the Earth like the white man? That is why God upset the world—because it is sore all over. Everywhere the white man has touched it, it is sore. It looks sick. So it gets even by killing him when he blasts. But eventually the water will come.

Nabokov describes a line of Wintun medicine women descended from a man who managed to escape a treacherous feast where whites invited Indian guests in order to massacre them. (Such killings were the rule, not the exception, in the Anglo invasion of California.) The survivor’s daughter is here identified only as “Judy, a noted medicine woman.” Her own daughter, Jennie Curl, was a healer who prophesied that the world would be destroyed by floods in evil times so that the Earth could be reborn. And her daughter was Florence Jones, who was born in 1908 in the aftermath of settler genocide, when less than 400 Wintu survived. By that time California Indian people had suffered massacres, decimating European diseases, enslavement, land seizure and displacement.

Florence Jones, Winnemem Wintu holy woman

Yet the Wintu kept their religion, and Florence was chosen to go to Dekkas Rock and other sacred springs and mountains where Wintun doctors learned their arts. She practiced her medicine for many decades. In the 1980s she emerged into wider view as the defender of Bulyum Puyuik against developers who wanted to cut ski runs and lifts into Mount Shasta. They were also pushing to build three resorts in one of the most sacred areas of the mountain. This was Panther Meadows, where Florence herself had been taken to learn the medicine ways in her youth. She fought the Forest Service in 1988, warning them of disaster if Bulyum Puyuik was desecrated in this way. And she prevailed.

A similar battle was going on at the same time in Karok/Yurok country to the west of the Winnemem. The government wanted to cut a new road through the mountain sanctuary that included holy places like Doctor Rock, where the Karok eem (female shamans) went to fast, pray, and be initiated, and Chimney Rock. I remember the struggle against the Gasket-Orleans road, or GO-road well. The Indians lost the court cases in which they challenged this intrusion, which would have brought logging through, but they won the spiritual battle, because the road was never built.

Following in the footsteps of Florence Jones is the current Winnemem medicine woman, Caleen Sisk-Franco, her student. She explains that the Panther Meadows spring is called Sauwel Mem. “Sauwel means a place that has sacredness about it, like it’s the beginning of something, or it’s the life form of something. And mem is water. So, this is the life-giving water and it runs all the way through our land…It all comes from this life-giving force. When you recognize that, it’s kind of like your mother. That’s your life-giver that brought you into this world. Without this spring, nothing else would be.”

Now the Winnemem Wintun are fighting new battles, including a proposal to flood their remaining sacred sites by raising the Shasta Dam level. [Info here. ]After white yahoos disrespectfully intruded on their Womanhood Ceremony, they have been trying to get the McCloud river closed off to recreational boaters for the one week a year when the ceremony is celebrated. This place is called Kokospom or Puberty Rock, where the Winnemem have held ceremonies for thousands of years:

The Baɬas Chonas represents the coming of age for our teenage girls who symbolically transition into womanhood by swimming across the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake on the last day. During the 2006 Baɬas Chonas, the Forest Service refused to close the small stretch of the McCloud we needed for the ceremony, instead only applying a “voluntary closure.” Several boaters, some of whom were drunk, didn’t heed the closure …and interfered with the ceremony. One group parked their houseboat a stone’s throw from the cedar bark hut where Marine stayed during the ceremony, while another group of boaters drunkenly yelled obscenities and told us “It’s our river too, dude”. One woman on the boat flashed her breasts at us.

This video shows the offensive incident. A goodhearted ranger tried to stop the intruders, but couldn’t reach their powerboat in his kayak. This is why boats must be interdicted for this and all future ceremonies.

Caleen Sisk-Franco, who is a chief as well as medicine woman, tells the history of the Winnemem Wintu, or Middle River people. “We didn’t travel to any other country to find freedom. We had it here.” She describes how while Indian men were off fighting in WWII and the women were working in war industry, the government flooded their treaty lands to create a recreational lake, depriving these Middle River People of their homelands. Now the US govt refuses to close off their ceremonial grounds for their Baɬas Chonas, only allowing a “voluntary” closure. This means that disrespectful whites are free to horn in, drinking, hooting, staring, and riding their noisy jet skis past while the sing is going on.

This is not just past history, it is today. You can sign a petition to support the rights of the Winnemem Wintu to hold their Balas Chonas ceremony without insults, noise, and drunken intrusions from white boaters. Please sign and share the link far and wide. What is at stake here? These gorgeous photos show the Balas Chonas, the womanhood ceremonies of the Winnemem Wintu of McCloud River.

On Cultural Appropriation

In Where the Lightning Strikes, Nabokov rightly criticizes another kind of intrusion on Indian sacred sites, by New Agers who cavort around in Panther Meadows, or attempt “half-baked imitation” of Native symbols and ceremonies. But here and elsewhere in the book, he singles out women in particular. “Some advocates for ‘deep’ wildnerness experiences that integrate women into land-based mysticism or restore grasslands and old forests have sought the gravity of ritual obligation and the mystery of symbolic manipulation.” He then says that “a few have enlisted American Indian examples for this task.”

I’ve seen this. Midwives who name their invented ceremonies as Blessing Way, whites who use Zuni or Haida symbols to make drums or “shields,” the notorious Lynn Andrews phenomenon. I believe cultural appropriation by descendants of colonizers is wrong, and have written articles to educate whites about why it is wrong, how it adds insult to injury, and have spoken out on it numerous times. But it is not just women, or feminists, who do this appropriation; it is Euro-settlers in general. We need to educate ourselves, and each other, about these patterns. But taking an arrogant tone of superiority is not the way to do it. That “land-based mysticism” that Nabokov decries is at root what Florence Jones advocated:

Go back to Nature– the most important thing for a human being is to go back to Nature. The Nature takes care of your mind and heart and soul. [“Florence Jones”: don’t miss the wonderful short video about her at this link]

In a narrative that is heavily focused on the masculine (which I’ll expand on in a moment) this negative zeroing in on women’s spiritual search rubbed me the wrong way. Nabokov conflates all attempts to reclaim ceremony in Nature with those involving appropriation of Indian traditions. He implies that all women’s reclamation of ceremonies in wilderness places are illegitimate, or at a minimum, pitiful: “A certain timidity accompanies these knockoffs, an uncertainty about how deeply their designers truly want the symbols to work, or the degree to which they believe they truly possess the power to turn back the clock.”

That hesitance has real historical causes, given where women stand in Euro-American cultural history. It’s patriarchal religion, authoritarian and anti-body, anti-sexual doctrines, weigh heavily on women, who are still not perceived as having any cultural authority of their own in this dominance based culture. Most women have not had the privilege of driving to sacred sites around North America as this white male author has, and as exceptional as he seems to believe he is, his entitlement shows through. As he hikes up to an Indian sacred site, a rural white woman calls out to him that the Indians “don’t want none up in ‘ere.” He writes condescendingly that maybe “they” are finally learning. But he keeps going up to the sanctuary, because clearly her warning does not apply to him.

The book is written in overwhelmingly masculine-default language, using “man” or “a man” as the generic human: “At every critical turn in a man’s life,” etc., etc. [57] At one point the author refers to exchanges of “non-material goods: symbols, ritual communications, or wives.” [40] Needless to say, women are not goods, least of all in Native North America.

Vulva Stone Sanctuaries of the Kumeyaay

The feminist-negative attitude is repeated in the chapter “Beyond the Goddess,” in which Nabokov rebukes non-Indian women’s excitement to find that sacred places full of rock vulvas exist east of San Diego. These are sacred grounds of the Kumeyaay people, used for womanhood initiation and other ceremonies. He sees them as being “sought after as a resource on female-dominated religions”—a phrase that is objectionable in itself, and unwarranted. According to him, these women are claiming that the vulva stones originated in “a fertility goddess… during Europe’s late Paleolithic period.” He is completely unaware that spiritual feminists are critical of the very concept of “fertility goddess,” reductionist and limiting as it is—and still the term of choice among archaeologists and many anthropologists. That these tiresome accusations of “goddess monotheism” are a dime a dozen doesn’t make his misrepresentation any less unfair.

Nabokov sarcastically dismisses feminist critiques of priesthoods that bar women, and of male scholars who ignore the patriarchy in European civilization and who project it out onto other societies. He completely misses the fact that the Kumeyaay vulva stones have counterparts in nearly every world region. Certainly theirs are larger, more striking and numerous than most others. It’s not necessary to claim that all the vulva stones have the same cultural meaning, or ceremonial use. Even just in California, to say nothing of the Sahara or Australia or Hawaii, some vulva stones figure in rainmaking ceremony, others in conception rituals, like the Pomo “Baby Rocks.”

This author has failed to recognize that the cultural movement of women’s spiritual renewal is one of searching, exploring, learning in an attempt to recover what has been lost. It is not, as he claims, pegged to some monolithic interpretation of a single, European-based goddess. He says, “But these sites never quite fit the theory.” For him there is only one “theory,” a cariacatured stereotype. So with the vulva stones, he  attempts to disprove a monotheism that is not being claimed: “For one thing, there were just too many of them—a scattering of local female entities across hundreds of miles rather than a single female substitute for a male High God.” [249] He doesn’t even try to substantiate this “single female substitute” claim.

He then goes on to point out, triumphantly, that all of these sacred sites were associated with male shamans in Kumeyaay tradition. In other words, they have nothing to do with sacred female power. I very much doubt that all the Kumeyaay sacred stories of place are, as this writer implies, masculine, and I know for a fact that some of their kuseyaay (shamans, healers) were women. The tribal website refers to them in relation to the important Bird, Wildcat, Salt,” and Funeral song cycles:

Each of these would be sung and led by a specialist Kuseyaay (one of a council of male and female priests, doctors and scientists to the Kwaaypaay, leader), and danced by those in the clan who embraced their meaning. The Kuseyaay underwent special ceremonies to prepare for their work. [“Customs and Traditions”]

These Kumeyaay medicine women are still around. Jane Dumas “is revered for her vast knowledge of plants, herbs and ancient remedies. Most of her knowledge was passed down by her mother, Isabel Thing, a great cha’ak kuseyaay or medicine woman in southern California.” [“Jane Dumas, Respected Native American Elder”]

Nabokov minimizes the importance of female initiation ceremonies, taking pains to state that they are not a manifestation of “this female dominance” since boys have ceremonies too. He’s misunderstanding something fundamental here; feminists do not assert “female dominance” as he claims. Protesting male dominance, and female erasure, is an entirely different matter. It was veneration of the feminine principle, something lacking in recent European culture, that struck a chord, not “fodder for a goddess ideology imported from old Europe.”

There are real conversations to be had about how we talk about the Sacred, about Spirit. But what is here dismissed as “ideology” and “fertility goddess” skips over the testimony of Paula Gunn Allen, who objected to the offensive reductionism of this academic jargon. Speaking of it being applied to the Laguna creatrix Thought Woman, she wrote, “to assign to this great being the position of ‘fertility goddess’ is exceedingly demeanin; it trivializes the tribes and it trivializes the power of woman.” [Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, 1986: 14]

I do know this much: American Indian people are far more likely to understand what the witch hunts in Europe meant. I have heard and read them pointing to this as a persecution of medicine people, of the Old Ways. Indian seers have prophesied the return of female sovereignty. Many Indian people, men as well as women, are beginning to talk about the Old Ways as matriarchal. There’s a synthesis, a cross-pollination, going on, and its crux is to understand the interlocking systems of oppressions. The poetry of John Trudell expresses it well:

… the  Goddess gave the chalice Dominator made the blade God slew the serpent and the woman’s bed was made tethers of chains tethers of jewels economic bondage runs by those rules the laws of justice are business decisions gender and class cut with surgical precision religious definitions and the politics of Man Church and State together hand in hand there’s a shadow over Sisterland Mother Earth as Goddess is Woman meets the God of Men violent prayers rationalizing madness partnership comes to an end … there’s a shadow over Sisterland… [Shadow Over Sisterland, by John Trudell and Bad Dog]

Having rebuked the feminists, Nabokov then puts things back in what he considers their proper place, describing initiation rites of boys first, at length, and girls as an afterthought. But this is his projection. There’s much more to these traditions, so much more to be known.

There are striking stories about female spirits to be found in southern California. Some are very much spirits of place, in keeping with this book’s theme. The Mohave tell how Actionless All-Powerful Old Woman traveled the landscape in primordial times, eventually turning into a rock. Look at the creation story of the Payomkowishum (“People of the West”), dubbed Luiseños by the Spanish. They speak of a primordial pair, brother and sister, who went through successive states of transformation. They were first Kyuvish, “vacant,” and Atahvish, “empty.” Then Omai, “not alive,” and Yamai, “not in existence,” then Milky Way and Boring, Lowering; and finally Tukomit, Night Sky, and Tamayowut, Earth.

She lay with her feet to the north; he sat by her right side; and she spoke: ‘I am stretched, I am extended. I shake, I resound. I am diminished, I am earthquake. I revolve, I roll. I disappear.’ Then he answered, ‘I am night, I am inverted. I cover. I rise, I ascend. I devour, I drain. I seize, I send away. I cut, I sever.’ These attributes were not yet, but they would be.

As her brother held her and questioned her, Tamayowut named each part of her body, and they were united. She gave birth to a long litany of beings and cultural things, some of the first of which were the grasses with which the female initiatory pits were lined, and bleeding and first periods; all the first people, animals, mountains and rocks and trees, water monsters, rattlesnakes and toloache mortars. [Kroeber, 677-8] The woman speaking first is a theme that occurs in Japanese and Guaraní origin stories, where it is rebuked as improper—but not in this one. Things connected with menarche and womanhood initiations assume a prominent place in this Payomkowishum creation story.

Many people are familiar with the Nazca Lines, but don’t know that they have counterparts in southeastern California: the Yuman geoglyphs along the lower Colorado river. Yuman people created them sometime around 900 to 1200 CE. There are over 150 of these earth engravings, some more 300 feet long. There were more, but dams and power lines have oblitered some of them.

Nabokov gives an excellent account of the mission system, with its “reductions” of Indians into captivity and servitude, its exclusion of Indians from the definition of gente de razon (people of reason). Eventually the Kumeyaay, Tongva, Cupeño and other peoples were driven off their lands. Although Nabokov has just argued for exclusively male shamans, his own sources show that women were shamans too.

The Franciscan missionary Felipe Arroyo wrote of the people around the San Juan Bautista Mission, 1714: “When an Indian dies his soul would remain in their sacred places which the sorceress had for the purpose of asking pardon from the devil.” That being his own monkish interpretation, of course. In Native terms, the woman shaman carried out ceremonies so that the spirit of the deceased would go on to the Western Lands. [264]

Sacred Women in North American Rock Art

Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of rock art, trying to uncover ancient history in Africa, Australia, and North America. One of the richest finds so far has been in southern New Mexico, which has a tremendous amount of petroglyphs and rock paintings. This has also opened up the Mogollon cultures (named after a mountain range, named after a conquistador –never a good choice for First Nations cultural histories). Most people know this culture as the Mimbres, famous for its superbly painted ceramics, but there are also the Jornada and other less famous, but no less impressive, traditions. Nearly everyone is more familiar with the northern Pueblos, which share many cultural elements and symbols.

Petroglyph at Three Rivers, southern New Mexico

For example, this engraved rock at Three Rivers, attributed to the Jornada culture, shows a staff-like being crowned with the Tablita headdress of the Corn Maidens, and flanked by parrots like certain kachinas, such as female beings portrayed in the kiva murals at Awatovi (Pottery Mound), circa 1450 CE. (See below) The being at Three Rivers also appears to be grasping serpents in each hand.

Lightning-Bowl Woman with Parrots, Awatovi, NE Arizona

The kiva mural at right is from Awatovi, south of the Hopi mesa villages in northern Arizona. It shows a female being with lightning emanating from the bowl she carries on her head. (The theme of thunder coming from bowls rolling in the heavens recurs from South America to China.) She is surrounded with insects indicating the presence of rain. Likewise, a modern painting of Palahiko Mana, “Water Drinking Woman” (below) shows her wearing the Tablita headdress with stepped Earth signs and corn ears. Water Drinking Woman seems to be a name for the corn itself, one of many forms of the Corn Maidens.

Palahiko Mana, Water Drinking Maiden, Hopi, 1899

Going back to the Jornada culture in the south, compare the petroglyph below, from near Tularosa, New Mexico. She holds a growing plant, perhaps even corn, in her hand. (I say she because all of the images with the Tablita headdress, both in Arizona and New Mexico, are female.)

Tularosa, southern New Mexico (“Jornada”)

On the Texas Side

Before leaving the Southwest, I want to toss in an intriguing Great Serpent mural from the far western corner of Texas, just south of the New Mexico border. (See picture below, a painted reproduction.) It comes from a rock art gallery known as Hueco Tanks. Several historical layers are visible, with the horse-riders added more recently by Apache artists. The older layer shows a white-spotted being flying up toward the Serpent. No clear gender markers, which is typical for much of Texas rock art, but looks female to me.

Hueco Tanks, westernmost Texas

Double Woman and her Dreamers

Recently I’ve been reading Kelley Hays-Gilpin’s Ambiguous Images: Gender and Rock Art (2004). I sought out this book because I was having trouble (not wanting to make unwarranted assumptions) identifying gender in the rock art of Utah and other regions of western America. It seemed as if the short-kilted figures were male (some had penises, but many others had no clear gender markers) and the long-robed ones were female. But were they? Was there any American Indian testimony on this? (As it turns out, some of these paintings and petroglyphs of the Desert Archaic style are 5000 years old or more, so it is  hard to know what the people of that time intended.) Anyway, Hays-Gilpin does a great job of critiquing long-held assumptions that all rock art was made by men, and that it represented males unless breasts were clearly shown. She lays out how a great many of the figures (not just in North America, but in Australia, Siberia and elsewhere) are objectively ungendered. I’m not going to review the whole book, but only touch on a section relating to Lakota rock art: Dreaming of Double Woman on the Northern Plains.

Double Woman, Rosebud Reservation, 1890

I’ve read about Double Woman before in accounts about Lakota women with medicine powers. She is an important spirit who comes to girls or women in visions or dreams, bringing them the gift of artistic power, and sometimes healing power too. Double Woman Dreamers created many sacred objects, quilled, beaded, painted, tooled leather. It was Double Woman who invented quillwork (a primary art form before trade beads came in). She is also associated with with Deer-Women who symbolize women’s free sexual expression, and female nonconformity to patriarchal sexual double standards.

As Hays-Gilpin explains, such women “could forego marriage and childbearing, and support themselves by doing fine quillwork, leather work, and other crafts. They might live alone or set up a household with another Double Woman dreamer. [Or simply another woman.]” Double Women dreamers also could and did marry men and live out the “good” woman archetype associated with bison. (For more on this subject, including the sexual double standard, see Deer Women and Elk Men: The Lakota Narratives of Ella Deloria. By Julian Rice. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.)

The book draws on some very important scholarship by Linea Sundstrom “whose extensive analysis of northern Plains rock art and ethnography shows that some rock art was produced by women who had particular kinds of visions.” Hays-Gilpin summarizes,

Several sources written between the 1830s and 1880s suggest traditions that Double Woman made rock art. Several texts record stories of female spirits that dwell in boulders and make rock art; of sounds like hammering and women’s laughter; and sparks of light in the night, where petroglyphs could be seen the next morning. Oral traditions at several particular sites, including Pipestone, Minnesota, and Ludlow Cave, South Dakota, include references to ‘two women’ who create and periodically renew rock art. [94]

So, Sundstrom writes, “In practical terms, this suggests that Double Woman dreamers made some rock art.” Because little distinction was made between the spirits and those who worked with their powers, “This means that rock art said to be made by female spirits (like Double Woman) may have been made by women influenced by such spirits.” [Sundstrom, 2002a, 106] She proposes that sites with images of “bison and deer tracks, human vulvas, handprints, footprints, and abraded grooves” could reflect the work of such dreamers. Why abraded grooves? This interests me because rock art literature nearly universally attributes them to males sharpening weapons or straightening arrows. But Sundstrom points out that women sharpened their awls and other bone tools in this way. The awl would have been a female tool par excellence, and before metal came in, would have had to be sharpened often. Sundstrom writes,

The grooves used for making and renewing bone awls were symbols of, and prayers for, success in womanly endeavors from craftwork to childbearing… Since Double Woman, the ultimate artist, was said to dwell in the rock, it is likely that some of her essence was thought to be transferred to the tool itself and, thus, to the items the woman made for her family’s use. The prolonged rhythmic grinding motion may have promoted a trance state in which the person making the tool (and the rock art) might be more receptive to a vision. [Sundstrom, 2002a, 109]

Brilliant. And this is borne out by actual sacred sites, as well as a 1930s photo of abraded grooves in the Black Hills that Sundstrom uncovered — which had a note on the back confirming that Lakota women sharpened their tools there. It seems as if they might have done so while simultaneously creating the animal tracks on some of these sites, whcih themselves were sacred places. Hays-Gilpin describes Sundstrom’s conclusion: “the vulva-track-groove art style coincides with known vision quest sites, caves containing many offerings including awls, and it one case, a bas-relief of a buffalo cow with her newborn calf.” (Shown in the photo of Ludlow Cave, above)

All Sundstrom quotes from Hay-Gilpin. (More information about Double Woman here.)
Max Dashu

Thanks donors to Woman Shaman: the Ancients

THANKS to all the donors who have helped to fund production of Woman Shaman: the Ancients. Here they are, except for the 17 anonymous donors — along with some images planned for inclusion in my forthcoming movie. Here’s the preliminary trailer for Woman Shaman

Queen Mother's Altar of the Hand, Ikegobo, Benin, Nigeria.

Laura Janesdaughter
Jeanne Raines
Lydia Ruyle
Nonnie of Spirit Matters
Atava Swiecicki-Garcia
Victoria Schroeder
Rosemary Zappulla
Dianne Jenett
Sulango Ann Southcombe
Karen Beesley
Laura Murra
Nancy Nolen
Kylie McAteer
Kathy Warner
John Dash
Ariel Dougherty
Laura Nicoletto
Kate Wolf
Judith Hoilett
Rick Machado and familly
Helene Kippert
Mary Sunshine
Jean M Gonering
Kiere Michelle
Jere Martin
Diana Halfmann
Elizabeth Winship
Bekah Finch Turner

Moche Drummer, Peru

Rebecca Clark
Elinor Thompson
Ursula Madeisky
Carol Parker Stein
Annette Wagner
NAkisha Henry
Jennifer Sanoja
Catherine Crouch
Susanne Alyce
Annie Ocean
Georgina Whitfield
Tamis Renteria
Marcia Basichis
Louie Laskowski
Sibyl Star
Karen Fleischer
Charlotte Taft
Yolanda Martinez
Jill Davey
Gypsy Powers
Shawna Carol
Kathi Karr Province
amejo amyot
Barbara Ardinger
Ellen Reagan

Chen Jinggu, shaman of south China, circa 700 CE

Lisa Huftel
Shirley Sukhanil
Margaret Riordan
Lilitu Babalon
Therese A Coupez
Miriam Yardley
kathryn gordon
Hulda Leifsdottir
Doris A Diamond
Gail Faith Edwards
Elizabeth Kaufman

Tara Schaak
Eileen Pardini
Tricia Oki
Caron Cadle
Lee Melchior
Dominica Lord-Wood
Jamie Lantz
Susan Gallegos
ALisa Starkweather
bonita cohn
karine lesne

Riding the dragon, Thracian, Letnitsa, Bulgaria

Pamela DeRossitte
Alex B
Kim Rivers
Kay Keys
Pat Murphy Johnson
Janette Roberts
Josefina Padilla-Martinez
Lilith Rogers
Joy Borum
Lissa Callirhoe
georgeann johnson
Lily L. Diamond
kathy Miriam
Rachel O’Leary
Ann Harrison

My deep appreciation to all.

Max Dashu

Minkisi of the Women’s Grove Sanctuaries

Not a book review, since I haven’t read the whole book, but here is some interesting information about women’s ritual and Divine Mothers in lower Congo from: Phyllis Martin, Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times. Indiana University Press, 2009.

Martin has turned up some important testimony about women’s traditional medicine and ceremony in western Congo. Nganga (plural banganga) is a very widespread name in Bantu languages, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean to the Cape, for a medicine person (of whatever sex), diviner, “spirit medium,” shaman. To induce conception and protect her through pregnancy and birth, a woman consulted a nganga skilled in these matters.

Nkisi with divinatory mirror, Congo

The nganga worked with minkisi (singular nkisi), ancestral beings whose power had been ritually embedded in a carved image. These ritualists were known as nganga nkisi. Some of them were guardians of minkisi in sacred groves. [24] German accounts around 1860-80 describe female nganga in shrines who dealt with female reproductive health and problems. Pechuël-Loesche tells of a Loango shrine for women and girls only, with armed protection guarding its perimeters: “Within it, the fetish* used by women from Lubu resided, healed and prophesied.” [See note below on “fetish” and cultural distortions.]

The statue showed a woman holding her breasts in her hands, in a style repeated in “innumerable small reproductions” used by women. “Mkissi [Nkisi] Mpemba was a gynecologist whose consulting days were associated with the waxing moon. In the second half of the month, at the time of the waning moon, it [sic] rested and gathered new strength.” The shrine was closed during the dark of the moon. [29-30]

Mpemba’s power was exceedingly great. Its fame reached to all territories. It had a large throng of women and girls who supposedly came to it even from the forest country [the Mayombe region] and even further in the interior…. Mpembe’s robe played the main role in the gynecological treatment in the fetish hut [sic], and besides that, a plank led down a slope through a hatch… Whatever else happened inside the fetish remains a mystery. For only girls and women who wanted a good husband, who wanted to be free of sufferings, who yearned for the joys of motherhood, who wished happily to survive their moment of giving birth, were allowed inside. [in Martin, 28]

Martin then lays out a shift that happened in the colonial era, when men began to see this shrine as a threat and destroyed it. There are several accounts of how this happened. One says that men from Loangili “had attacked the shrine and stolen, burned, or carried off nkisi Mpemba, or dropped it into a deep crevice during a moonless night. [Or, according to another local source]… “the men of Lubu are said to have committed the bad deed because the profitable activity and the increased power of the village women had become alarming to them.” This happened before 1870. Women were forced to abandon their ruined sanctuary but were rumored to continue holding ceremonies in secret.

Another women’s shrine, Mbinda of Buluango, rose to prominence with the destruction of Nkisi Mpembe sanctuary. The nkisi lived in a palm grove. Women who came for treatment abstained from men, hair care, tobacco, liquor and water. Mbinda too came under attack, the nkisi captured and thrown into the ocean. But her devotees rescued and reconsecrated her. Women flocked to these shrines in the Mayombe area and deep inland. [29]

The BaKongo are well known for the pfemba, their wooden sculptures of a seated mother with a child. Over 600

Pfemba of black ivory, Kongo

pfemba are known. They show the Mothers as icons of beauty and fruitfulness, tattooed, adorned with jewelry, and crowned with high coiffures or “prestige caps worn by authority figures in Kongo society.” They were anointed with red tukula paste, signifying “transformation and movement between different worlds, as in initiation and childbirth.” Some are inlaid with mirrors. Although it is common to see stereotypical descriptions about “fertility figures,” Mary Nooter Roberts writes that the pfemba “are one of the rare instances in African art where the female image is created specifically to assist with fertility.” [in Martin, 25]

Martin describes the wide popularity of small mother-child icons after the fall of the women’s shrines. Pfemba figures appear on tombs, doorposts and staffs of chiefs, household shrines, and musical instruments. “The French anthropologist Albert Doutreloux confirmed the high respect in which women were held, the genealogical knowledge that they guarded, the magical powers for which some were feared, and the kind of pressures they could exert in village discussions, including leadership roles when men were absent.” They spoke in public assemblies and had influence in lemba associations. However, the devastation of the slave trade, colonialism, and the rise of a merchant class undermined these traditions. [29-30]

This decline of female authority, and of old indigenous cultural patterns. is reflected in the loss of power of the Makunda. She was a leading royal official who was most often the sister or wife of the Maloango:

In the seventeenth century, she had great power, seeing to the interests of women, advising the ruler, and sometimes taking over the interests of the ruling clan during an interregnum. Her main function, however, was ‘to represent all mothers, who were the propagators of the tribe, who bore all the burden and worriment of procreation.’ Anyone could go to her court and ask for her justice, but she was particularly sought out by women and girls who had complaints against men. By the late nineteenth century, this power was gone…

Only a trace of it remained, as Pechuël-Loesche wrote, “practiced on a small scale by princesses with land, as far as their power is recognized at all.” Martin points out that women still had economic power through farming and Pfembe finial on Yombe sceptre, Congotrade, but their hard work did not bring wealth. She refers to matrilineality among the Yombe, but this too was now being leveraged for the political advancement of men.  “Women were also centrally involved in the most powerful therapeutic association in lower Congo.” This was the lemba association. As Martin describes it, lemba was driven by traders, chiefs, and powerful men, (who were much concerned to suppress any witchcraft directed towards their wealth), but gradually lemba specialists moved more to pregnancy and childbirth. (I have to wonder if this was not the original focus suborned by the political developments referred to earlier.) [30,23]

*A note on “fetish”: this word has an objectionable history and connotation. I include  the quote using it because it offers other valuable information. On nkisi, Martin refers to a comment that “no corresponding institution exists in European culture.” So the Portuguese word feitiçao (“sorcery” or “sorcery object”) was applied instead to these central African sacraments, carrying along with it all the cultural assumptions of European diabolism and witch persecutions. When you read about nails being driven into a “fetish” (the anglicized form), most often they are talking about a nkisi.

The minkisi came into play in slavery times, as a way to fight back against slaveholders (who feared them) in Brazil, Haiti, and Congo itself. [Some examples are given by one of Martin’s cited sources, Wyatt MacGaffey, Kongo political culture: the conceptual challenge of the particular. Indiana University Press, 2000. But much more documentation on this has been done by Africana scholars.]

Max Dashu

Lion-Throned Goddesses of West Asia

The Goddess on a Lion Throne is abundantly attested in the archaeology of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Canaan/Israel. First we’ll look at some Phoenician scarabs showing lion thrones, often winged. Then, actual stone thrones from ancient Lebanon, Canaanite ivories with the winged sphinxes, and an alabaster effigy of ‘Ashtart enthroned with winged lionesses. This leads to commentary on some strong biblical parallels. And we’ll look at some late hellenized forms of the Anatolian Lion-Throned Goddess.


Phoenician scarab

Goddess offers benediction to a supplicant, under a winged sun and the planet Venus.
Many of these Phoenician scarabs show a brazier for offering incense.

Scarab from Syracuse, Sicily

The many Phoenician finds in Sicily exhibit strong Egyptian influence. The Goddess wears the crown of Upper Egypt, with a very snaky uraeus, and holds a lotus sceptre, an attribute of Kemetic goddesses.

Drawing of Phoenician scarabGoddess wearing the Kemetic crown of the Two Lands of Egypt
on a breasted-sphinx throne with was-sceptre and burning brazier.

Scarab from Sidon, Lebanon

Scarab from Sidon, Lebanon, with winged sun and the star of ‘Ashtart
(the planet Venus). The Goddess wears a headdress of Persian type.


Throne of 'Ashtart, Eshmun Temple, Sidon

Throne of ‘Ashtart, in her Phoenician chapel inside the Eshmun temple,
Sidon, Lebanon.

The lion thrones in the scarabs depict actual thrones in Goddess temples. Besides this one, examples are known at ‘Ain Dara, near Aleppo, Syria; Dura Europos, on the Euphrates, Syria; and Khirbet et-Tannur, Jordan. Besides these, Inanna, Ishtar, and Kybele are depicted on lion thrones; while Isthtar, QDSU/Qadashah, ‘Ashtart, Asherah (in Tree form), Anahita, and the Hurrian goddess Hebat are among the goddesses shown standing on lions. (This is in no way an exhaustive list.)

Ashtart Throne, Khirbet et-Tayibeh, Tyre, 2nd century bce

Astarte Throne with Kemetic Sphinxes, Palmate Sign, and Two Betyls representing the Goddess and Her Consort. Betyls (from beth-el, house of the god) are sacred stones of a type found at Hazor nearly a millennium before. Countless earlier examples are found in the Levant and Arabia, and the Bible describes the raising of these matzeboth.

Phoenician throne with betyl, 4th to 1st bce

Phoenician throne with betyl and Tree of Life motif, Lebanon
This one has many similarities to the throne above, including the male sphinxes and
the Tree sign. See more examples of this association in the ivories below.

Throne from Beth Shean flanked by winged beings

A stone throne from Beth Shean in the West Bank, undated,
but much older than the foregoing examples.


Goddess thrones with lions or sphinxes have direct parallels in Canaanite ivories:

Ivory from Megiddo

The winged sphinxes also appear in ivory furniture ornaments of Canaanite and early Hebrew palaces. She appears to hold a Double Feather crown of Egypt. Note her multiple lioness breasts.

Samarian ivory from the time of Jezebel

This winged female sphinx may come from Ahab’s Palace of the Ivories; if so, this is where Jezebel lived. The princess of Tyre was renowned for bringing with her to Israel (she married Ahab) 400 priests of Baal and Asherah. Were there priestesses in this group? Hebrew, like Romance languages, uses the masculine default, and so the male plural obscures the presence of women in any group that includes a single male.

Egyptianate ivory from Samaria, circa 900 bce

This beautiful ivory shows the strong Egyptian gravitational field upon Canaan.
Egypt ruled the country for centuries, and artifacts from Canaanite temples are drenched
with Kemetic symbols and style. Horus sits upon a lotus, flanked by masculine winged beings
whose prototypes are Auset and Nebthet (Isis and Nepthys), long shown as winged protectors
in Kemetic art. Several Nimrud ivories, and earlier ones of Hazael of Damascus, show winged women.

Winged women, Nimrud ivories, circa 700 bce

The same motif on an ivory from Nimrud, Iraq, crafted by a Canaanite artist in Assyria. In the center would have been a sacred lotus-palm (like those on the Phoenician thrones above), of which only a bud and some volutes are now visible. (The pig-snout-like roundel at center would have held pegs that attached a palmate sign to the carving.)

Phoenician platter, circa 700 bce

The winged beings here flank the Tree of Life, a Goddess form. This is not speculation
(see next image, and recall the exampless from the thrones of ‘Ashtart above).

Further south, early Israelite iconography shows the goddess Asherah as this palmate Tree,
flanked by ibexes, and standing on a lion, just like Ishtar and Ashtart and Hebat.

Asherah as Tree, pithos from Kuntillet 'Ajrud

The pithos from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud with the celebrated inscription
of “Yah of Teman and his Asherah.”

This discovery in the Sinai, along with another Asherah inscription at Khirbet el-Qom, finally broke through the long doctrinal insistence on Hebrew monotheism in the early kingdom period. The image combined with the inscription naming this goddess is quite powerful. Some scholars contend that the Asheratw of the inscription, and the asheroth/asherim of the Bible, allude only to a ritual pillar, not to the goddess. But since the pillar is named for the goddess and various prophets inveighed against both, this minimalist interpretation has little to recommend it, except to uphold the dogma that the Hebrews had nothing to do with any Goddess. And this claim conflicts with the testimony of Kings and Chronicles.

The archaeological record, too, shows overlap of Goddess/Tree flanked by rampant ibexes or goats. And more: the Lachish Ewer, found in a Canaanite temple circa 1500 bce, places a vulva in this central position. A goblet from the same sanctuary ties it all together even more dramatically with a menorah between the horned animals, and clinches the Goddess connection with an inscription that labels the goblet  “an offering poured out to Elat.” As Joanna Stuckey points out, “the word for goddess, Elat, is positioned right over one of the stylized trees.” [See link above for more.] Descriptions of menorahs in the Bible leave no room for doubt that they represent the sacred Tree.


Now let’s look at this from another angle that relates directly to the Lion-Throned Goddess. We’ve seen goddesses depicted on the lion- or sphinx-flanked thrones; also represented by betyls on those thrones, and some empty thrones where the divine Presence is not depicted iconically. This last became the primary direction developed in monotheism, with its insistence on no direct representations of deity, now being understood in near-exclusively masculine terms. (There are a few references in the Hebrew Bible to godly motherhood.) Still, monotheism developed against a cultural background of preponderant Goddess iconography, and retained the archaic lion- or sphinx-throne. There are also some images of kings seated on such thrones: a stone relief of Ahiram and an incised ivory of an unnamed Canaanite ruler at Megiddo. But no gods on lion-thrones, only on thrones flanked by bulls, as discussed in previous posts.)

The Torah, however, continues to present the lion-throne as a divine seat, flanked by the cherubim. It describes them as winged guardians of the Holy of Holies in the desert Tabernacle of the ancient Hebrews:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.  And you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. [Exodus 25:18-21 (RSV)]

YHWH spoke from the space between these cherubim on the ark cover. This “mercy seat” was one and a half cubits wide (2.25 feet), the size of a throne seat. An additional ten cherubim figured on the Tabernacle’s curtains, and another on its inner Veil, making a total of twelve. [70]

Raphael Patai called attention to the feminine associations of the divine Presence in the Tabernacle in The Hebrew Goddess. It was described as a cloud hovering and filling the tent, “which at night glowed like fire.” He tells us that “the desert Sanctuary was called Tabernacle (Hebrew, mishkan:  literally, ‘dwelling place’), because of the divine cloud that abode (shakhan) over it and in it.” [Patai, 73-4] These words come from the same root as Shekhinah, a word that became current as a name for the indwelling divine Essence in the Exile period. Along with Khochmah in Genesis and Proverbs, Shekhinah became a primary way of understanding the female aspect of divinity in Judaism.

In the Temple of Solomon, two gigantic cherubim stood over the ark. They were carved from olive wood and plated with gold, and were fifteen feet high, with a combined wing-span of thirty feet.  The walls were covered with graven cherubim, palm trees and open flowers in gold. (I Kings 6:23-35). Before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Philo described  the two Cherubim, who represent the hemispheres of heaven, with their wings “inclining to the mercy seat.” [Patai 76]

Cherubim was the plural of kerūv in Hebrew:ּרוּב, ּרוּבִים, which was latinized as cherubim. It had a special dual form kərūvāyim (a common form in Semitic, but as we’ve seen, these beings typically appeared in pairs). Hebrew keruv has cognates in other Semitic languages: Assyrian karabu, Akkadian kuribu, and Babylonian karabu. The Assyrian name means “great, mighty,” but the Akkadian and Babylonian forms mean “propitious, blessed”. They saw these beings as guardians of the Sacred. In Genesis, cherubim stood with revolving swords of flame at the East of Eden, “to keep the way of the tree of life.” [Gen. 3:24] So when I look at the ‘Ashtart of Galera, I see her, the female Divine in all her Glory, between the same winged guardians:

Lady of Galera, Tutugí, Granada, southern Spain

The ‘Ashtart of Galera, Granada, was placed in a Spanish burial circa 450 bce
but produced by Syrian or Lebanese artists near 200 years earlier. She is an alabaster vessel
designed for libation rituals; the liquid poured in through her head flowed out from her breasts
into the basin she holds. Some speculate that wax was placed in her nipples,
and the image heated, causing the liquid to suddenly pour forth.

Kybele, Hellenistic era, Ashdod

A hellenistic Kybele from Ashdod, with her drum and
a mural crown borrowed from the Syrian goddess Tyche.

Mater Deum, "Mother of the Gods"

Kybele on a Roman coin, title Mater Deum, “Mother of the Gods.
She sits on the lion throne with sceptre and mural crown.

There are many more examples of this far-reaching pattern: the goddess shown between lions on the clay altar from Taanach; the lions of the famous Ishtar Gate in Babylon, and the many cylinder seals showing her standing or sitting on lions; the coins showing  Atargatis of Hierapolis, Syria, and Juno Caelestis of Tunisia, riding on lions’ backs. I’m told that coins from Salamis, Cyprus, show Aphrodite standing on a lion or seated on a lion throne, in the 4th century bce.

Older than all of these are the lion-headed goddesses of Africa, most famously Sekhmet, in her  profusion of monumental black basalt statues, and later the lion-faced goddess of Carthage, Tunisia. Older still is the Goddess of the Leopard Throne at Catal Höyük, circa 6000 bce. See my earlier photo essay on Cultural Continuites (with forms from Anatolia, Greece, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Rome, Spain, and Afghanistan) and my preceding articles on Goddess Temples in Western Asia, on this blog.

Max Dashu

Goddess Temples in Western Asia II

Continuing my photo essay and review of Kristina Michelle Wimber’s article
“Four Greco-Roman Temples of Fertility Goddesses: An Analysis of Architectural Tradition,” 2007.

Wimber compares the temples of Atargatis at Hierapolis and Dura Europos, Syria, with another on the Aegean island Delos, a Jordanian goddess temple at Khirbet et-Tannur, and the Derketo temple at Ashkelon. She remarks

Atargatis in her pillar aspect with ears of wheat. Syrian coin.

on the highly syncretic nature of this goddess, who blends old Iraqi themes with Syro-Palestinian and Hittite influences. [34] I would add that pillar goddess iconography from western Anatolia  became especially influential. Atargatis is often shown in this form, closely resembling the statues of Upis/Artemis Ephesia, Hera of Samos, and others, on coins and in sculpture.

The best testimony about the Atargatis temple at Hierapolis comes from De Dea Syria, written by the Romano-Syrian Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century ce. He says that Stratonice, wife of one of the Seleucid kings, had the temple built around 300 bce. (Legend claimed that the architect performed a self-castration to protect himself from accusations that might arise from showing his royal patroness around the construction site.) The great temple of Hierapolis stood on a hill surrounded by walls and was entered through a colossal stone portal with two tall columns beside it. [39-41] In front was a sacred lake with consecrated fish.

Atargatis of Hierapolis on her lion

In the usual Hellenistic fashion, Lucian interpreted the goddess through the lens of Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. The fact is that Atargatis did not really fit any Greek template. She was thoroughly Asiatic. (Wimber remarks, “In De Dea Syria Lucian can not even decide which deity Atargatis represents…”) [114] The divine image of Atargatis showed her seated on a lion throne next to her consort Hadad on a throne of bulls. Lucian wrote:

The sanctuary faces the sunrise…Within, the temple is not all of a piece, but contains another chamber. It too has a low staircase: it has no doors and is entirely open to the onlooker…In it are enthroned the cult statues, Hera [Atargatis] and the god, Zeus, who they call by a different name [Baal-Hadad]. Both are golden, both seated, though Hera is borne on lions, the other sits on bulls. [78]

Hebat on her lion, Tell Halaf (Bit Hiluli) Syria

This pairing is repeated at the sanctuaries of Dura Europos on the upper Euphrates and at Khirbet et-Tannur in Jordan. It relates to older temple iconography at ‘Ain Dara, which features the same goddess/lion and god/bull thrones, and at Tell Halaf, where Hebat stands on a lion and two gods on bulls.

Hierapolis (the “holy city”) was originally known as Manbug, from the Semitic root nb’ meaning “to come out”. The name is interpreted as a pouring forth of water from the rock. Devotees came to pour libations down a crevice in the rock under the temple, said to be the place where the Great Flood was swallowed up. This hilltop rock chasm points to a much older sanctuary that must have pre-existed long before the  Seleucid temple was built. [39, 43] Its water ceremonies continued, with processions carrying the image of Atargatis to her sacred lake to be immersed, while others brought ocean water to the temple. [57]

The temple of Derketo at Ashkelon also had such a lake. The Greek physician Ctesias wrote down a story of how she turned into a fish after she leapt into the sacred pool. Lucian related that people here revered Atargatis as half woman, half fish, which is why they would never eat fish. He also refers to rites in which  the statues of Atargatis and Hadad were carried to the lake to see the sacred fish. The name Derketo is a contraction of Atargatis. Little remains of her once-great temple now, of the organized demolitions under the Christianized emperors of late antiquity. (The coastal Palestinians resisted these temple destructions with determination, as Ramsey MacMullen documents, and even afterward refused to walk on the roads built with their stones.) But not all of the destruction happened then. Wimber turned up a traveler’s account  of seeing a sculpture of a naked woman surrounded by fishtailed figures in the ruins of Ashkelon as late as 1697. [104]

Veneration of Atargatis spread throughout the Syrian diaspora, to the island of Delos, where Syrian merchants built a temple to the goddess in the 2nd century bce. It was laid out in the West Asian style, and had ties to the priesthood of Hierapolis. Other Syrians arrived on Delos, a major depot of the slave trade, as Roman captives to be sold. Large numbers of these enslaved Syrians were shipped off to the Roman plantations on Sicily. There they raised two powerful insurrections in the name of Dea Syria, led by prophets of Atargatis.

Atargatis with Hadad from Dura Europos, Syr

Coins from Hierapolis show Atargatis with lions.  A relief from her temple at Dura Europos on the upper Euphrates shows her on a lion throne, with her consort Hadad beside her on a bull throne.  Wimber comments, “This arrangement strongly parallels the cult statue at Hierapolis as described by Lucian—as does the lions flanking the throne at Delos.” [48] She goes on to draw other parallels:

One of the most important elements of Lucian’s account which the relief of Hadad and Atargatis found at Dura Europos corroborates is the standard with circles on it surmounted by a dove placed between the deities. It is called the semeion by Lucian and interpreted to be a symbol of the Babylonian queen Semiramis (c. 800 BC) who supposedly founded the temple in another of Lucian’s foundation myths. An interesting aspect of the cult revealed by the Dura relief is that Atargatis was apparently more important that Hadad because she is depicted as larger than Hadad and he appears pushed to the side and behind her. This belief is underscored by the inscriptions at Delos which mention Atargatis more often than her consort. [49]

Wimber also refers to “the relative importance of Asherah over Baal” in earlier Canaanite settings. However, I question her statement that “By the time of Lucian’s writings, Atargatis had lost many of the attributes of Ishtar including her blatantly aggressive sexuality and warlike character.” [38] We can not assume that these goddesses were identical, even though their names have a shared etymology. The first element in Atargatis is ‘Atar, an Aramaic form of the Semitic name for the planet Venus. (The second element has been identified as ‘Ate or ‘Atah, but its

Stone deity in temple. Coin from Emesa, Syria

meaning remains unclear.) The name first turns up in the Annals of Ashurbanipal as Atar-Samain (Venus of the Heavens).

The linguistic constellation does reflect the co-gendered nature of Mesopotamian Ishtar, in the sense that some forms are female, such as Ashtart and Atargatis, while others are masculine: Yemenite ‘Athtar, Moabite ‘Ashtar, and Ethiopian ‘Astar. Even Ishtar is grammatically masculine in Akkadian, with the feminine form Ishtartu used in special contexts. In several places, these related deities were represented by betyls or standing stones. Ashtart-Aphrodite was revered at Paphos in the form of somewhat triangular pillars, for which precedents are found on the mainland, from Hazor to Arabia.

Nabataea: ancient Jordan and north Arabia
The old Nabataean tradition was veneration of betyl stone and niches cut into the rock. [50] This corresponds with two major Semitic traditions, the Hebrews of Jacob’s time, who raised matzeboth, and the Arabians up to the time of Muhammad, whose goddesses resided in standing stones. Their Phoenician cousins practiced this too; a marble pillar at Kition, Cyprus, was inscribed as a massebah to Astarte’s consort Eshmun. [90] Wimber says the Nabataeans spoke Aramaic (or at least their inscriptions were in that language, but that does not prove much, since Aramaic was the chancery language across west Asia in the last millennium bce).

Goddess with fish headdress, Khirbet et-Tannur, Jordan

The Nabataeans at Petra added Hellenistic sculptural icons, but in their own completely unique style, to the older aniconic stones. Al-Uzza, the goddess who represented the planet Venus and so corresponded to Ishtar /Ashtart /Inanna, appeared both as betyl and sculpture. Like Allat and Dushares, she was syncretized with the dominant Greco-Roman deities and sometimes called by their names. The influence of Atargatis is seen in the form of her sacred fish, which crown al-Uzza in a temple relief at nearby Khirbet et-Tannur. [50-1] Sea goddesses with fish are depicted in several Jordanian mosaics, with Greek inscriptions naming Tethys or Thalassa.

Although it can be difficult to find much about the goddesses of Petra—scholarly writings often concentrate on the god Dushares—Wimber fleshes out the picture considerably:

Al-Uzza was most likely the consort of Dushares while Allat was his mother, and perhaps the mother of all the gods. In certain cases Al-Uzza seems to have outstripped the importance of Dushares to the Nabataeans as she is often depicted as the larger of two betyls. Atargatis was not a

native Nabataean goddess and one inscription under an eye idol in the Wadi es-Siyyagh near Petra reveals that she was numbered among the foreign deities worshipped by the Nabataeans. … Nabataean religion remains a mystery and even the most notable scholars in the field cannot decide who exactly was worshipped where and what the attributes belong to which deities. [52]

While the original names are uncertain, Wimber concludes that the Nabataeans at Petra venerated al-Uzza, Allat, and Aphrodite in the Temple of the Winged Lions and, paired with a male consort, at Qasr al-Bint Pharaon (an Arab name that means “castle of Pharaoh’s daughter”). [75-6] I agree that the original deity names would have been Arabian, not Aramaean. Wimber compares the betyl-goddesses of Petra to the stone pillars of the old Hijazi goddesses, and cites Ibn al-Kalbi’s account of chopping down three trees in the sanctuary of Al-Uzza, and beheading the goddess on the orders of Muhammad. [92]

Khirbet et- Tannur
The temple of Al-Uzza here was built in the 2nd century bce, high on the hill Jebel Tannur and far from any city. [53] The temple faced east. It began as a sculptured altar, which kept growing larger, eventually reaching a height of over 10 feet. Old offerings were incorporated inside its new stone facings. The (Syrian fate goddess) Tyche, Hadad and Helios were carved in relief above the Corinthian and horned Nabataean columns, which were combined with Egyptian cornices. The inner shrine was entered through a portal surmounted by an semicircular stone panel of the goddess. She is crowned with a tall polos headdress with an eagle, yet her hair is unbound, flowing freely around her face. Flowers, fruits, and greenery course around her and adorn her neck, chest, and even spill onto her forehead.

The Goddess of Khirbet et-Tannum, Jordan

The Goddess statue of the inner sanctum was later demolished with prejudice; only one foot, a lion and a bit of her throne survived. The destroyers apparently considered her consort less threatening, since they spared his statue. This special hostility seems to have been  prompted by misogyny, since here as elsewhere, the goddess was the more prominent figurine of the pair, as the author comments: “Al-Uzza’s prominence at Khirbet et-Tannur is demonstrated by her many manifestations and demonstrates her preeminence over her consort Hadad.” [54-6]

Here is a good summary of Wimber’s thesis:

The key element which ties all the temples at Delos, Dura Europos, Khirbet et- Tannur, and most likely Hierapolis, is their use of the open-court Mesopotamian plan. The Mesopotamian plan, as used in temples of Near Eastern fertility goddesses, has at least a 3,000 year history from Eanna in Uruk, c. 3,300 BC, to the temple of Eshmun at Sidon, c. 400 BC. The choice of this type of plan by fertility goddess worshippers in the Greco-Roman period is significant. The Mesopotamian temple plans stand as testimonies to the power of tradition in the Near East and as grounds to reinterpret past scholarly research which ignores the great amount of tradition which remains in the temples alone, let alone the cults as a whole. [63-4]

The far-reaching influence of these temples extended as far as Afghanistan, where it is reflected in two temples at Ai Khanoum, circa 300 bce. Wimber also remarks on the remodelings that the Mesopotamian temples underwent across three millennia, and the impressive staying power of the ceremonies that they housed: “The continuing power the cults practiced in Uruk even into Hellenistic times is evidenced by the rebuilding of many of the temples and the continuation of cult functions in Uruk.” [65-6]

The majestic ruins of Baalbek. When the Roman emperor ordered the temples closed, the Lebanese raised a rebellion to defend their ancient religion.

Kristina Michelle Wimber observes that the great temples at Baalbek, Lebanon, look Greco-Roman, but points out that the deities “were basically Near Eastern Deities with added Roman names such as Jupiter-Baal, Venus-Astarte and Bacchus-Dionysus.” The tower in the Baal sanctuary, too, was purely Asiatic. [62-63] Wimber adds, “It has also been proposed that the Aeolic and Ionic columns derived from the volutes of the gate-post symbol of Inanna and thus the feminine nature usually associated with the Ionic column comes from this symbolism.” [81] So we come around again to the pre-imperial earth-sanctuaries of the Sumerian goddess.

I remember feeling disappointed, long ago, seeing the Greco-Roman appearance of Asian temples from this period, but the history shows that this influence is in fact a backwash. Over time I realized that the Greeks had derived much of their temple architecture from Asiatic styles, particularly the Canaanite voluted column which inspired Aeolic and then the Ionic column (itself named for a coastal region of Asia Minor).

The Canaanite style in turn owed much to the Kemetic lotus-pillars of ancient Egypt. The Doric column, as well, did not originate in Greece, but first appears in a funerary temple at Sakkara in the 3rd millennium bce, nearly two thousand years before the first columned temples of “Greek” type—which appeared on Samos, off the coast of Asia Minor, not in Hellas. The Corinthian column originated in a city so famous for its Phoenician and Asiatic influences that Greek

Volute column of Canaanite style, circa 700 bce

classicists regard it as ground zero for “orientalizing” (that word again), meaning that they copied from those cultures. If we look back to those Canaanite societies, they themselves had earlier become deeply impressed with Kemetic influences, to the degree that statues of Baalat and other old Lebanese goddesses look like Isis. Hieroglyphics are found on seals, the omnipresent sphinxes themselves are modeled after Kemetic prototypes, the faces are stylistically Egyptian, and Hathor appears again and again as Ashtart.

Max Dashu

This is a quick whisk through a huge subject, or rather several subjects, but all I have time for right now. I’ve stayed with the outlines laid out in Wimber’s article, without going into large and important related areas: the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and their spread of these cultural memes across the Mediterranean; the massive Anatolian heritages that predate and surround the Hurrian and Hittite and Ionian cultures; the rich literature of invocations to Inanna and Ishtar, starting with the priestess Enheduanna, the first author whose name is recorded; the story of the priestesses themselves, and how male priests gradually pushed them out of leadership positons and even the priesthood itself over a long span of time; and the related issue of the temples under empire, and utilization of religion to legitimize and shore up rulers. African influence on the Canaanites (whose languages, remember, belong to the Afro-Asiatic family) and for that matter, the Greeks,  is another important area that I will  go into more in future.

Sources cited:

Kristina Michelle Wimber, “Four Greco-Roman Temples of Fertility Goddesses: An Analysis of Architectural Tradition.” Thesis at Brigham Young University, 2007

Joanna Stuckey. “Shaushka and ‘Ain Dara: A Goddess and Her Temple”

Gary Beckman, “Ishtar of Nineveh Reconsidered.” University of Michigan
(Thanks to Yona Yavana for this source.)

Goddess Temples in Western Asia I

Photo Essay and Review of Kristina Michelle Wimber’s article “Four Greco-Roman Temples of Fertility Goddesses: An Analysis of Architectural Tradition,” 2007 Thesis BYU. (See notes for full info and other sources cited)

Max Dashu

“They give the shout, ‘O Ishtar, be merciful!’ and in the melée praise the Mistress.” –Assyrian poem

It is often difficult to make out the Goddess veneration of an ancient society, buried as it is under generalizations and authors who seem to concentrate on every other subject but this. What were the commonalities, the trajectories and convergences between neighboring countries over the long swath of time from the end of the neolithic through the bronze and iron ages? And how did they differ? Kristina Michelle Wimber offers a valuable view of goddesses of

Temple of Ishtar at Agade, Iraq, 3000 years ago (from Wimber's appendix)

ancient southwest Asia through the lens of their temples (and through some rarely-seen photographs that she has gathered: see the appendix!). Her study exemplifies how a concentrated study, in this case of architectural and sculptural contexts, can shed light on the complex interrelationships between these goddesses, their temples and ceremonies, and their priestesses, priests, and devotees. She presents a window into macro-cultural patterns over millennia.

I’ll just get this out of the way at the outset: some of the language is problematic. The author continually repeats the now-reinstated canonical terminology of  “fertility goddess,” that ubiquitous flattening phrase that functions to dismiss and circumscribe female deities. Still more stereotypical is her reference to “an Oriental cult of a fertility goddess.” This word “oriental” has long been discredited as Eurocentric (east of where?). Yet it persists in spite of Said’s critique of  “Orientalism,” and the demolition of the assumptions behind Marx’s “oriental mode of production.” More recently, feminist scholars have challenged the dismissiveness and negative connotations of “cult,” which is most often used in references to “goddess cult,” “pagan cults,” and the hoary formula “Oriental cult.” It is never used for majority religions, as it would be considered patently offensive to write about “the Jesus cult” or the “cult of the Mass.” There is just no getting around the bias of this terminology.

But I liked this thesis, which questions the assumption that West Asian temples had been completely Hellenized. Wimber is on the right track in saying that these goddess religions “were complicated mixtures of influences which cannot be categorized as completely Hellenistic or completely Semitic.” (To say nothing of the Hurrians, Anatolians, and Sumerians.) “Most importantly, the enduring Oriental nature of these goddesses demonstrates the strong history and power of the Near East despite the relentless tide of Hellenism brought by the Greeks and Romans.” [4-5] In spite of the terminology, this is an important statement to make, and she fleshes it out beautifully.

Offerings to Inanna, with ringposts. Uruk, 3000 bce.

Wimber starts with Eanna, the temple of Inanna (not Ishtar, as written, at least not until the Akkadians overwhelmed the Sumerians). It was very ancient, originating at the venerable date of 3300 bce. She builds a systemic case, temple by temple, to show that the Sumerian-Akkadian-Babylonian sanctuaries became  models for temples over the entire region. She summarizes: “the most common elements include open-air courtyards, non-symmetrical plans, bent-axes, an inner sanctuary or holy of holies, altars, ‘high places’ or podia [temple platforms], some kind of water feature, and gateways with towers or obelisks.” [33]

Wimber interprets the “ring-post” of Inanna as a pillar, possibly an early form of the pillar goddess. (Not so sure about that.) It was a bundle of reeds, which the early Sumerians used to construct houses—and temples. They coiled the tips of the bundles around into a spiral pattern. This became the glyph for Inanna’s name and symbolized her temple, as depicted in many reliefs and ritual objects. [9, 88] The reed-bundle style of earth-architecture has been preserved by the “Marsh Arabs” in southern Iraq (but

Spiralled reeds of Inanna

without the spiral coils which seem to have been deemed too fraught with non-monotheistic significance, and so the ends are chopped off instead). Their beautiful reed houses represent a heritage going back at least 35 centuries.

Later temples were built of brick, with soaring high walls. These temples are laid out asymmetrically, with chambers not aligned but in “a bent axis” that obscures the line of sight to the inner sanctum. They have multiple chambers and side courts with open air altars where libations and incense were offered. These altars sometimes were constructed as houses for the deity. The main altar was high and accessed by steps (already shown on ancient vases from Eanna, and which continued to be built into Hellenistic times. Steps also led to the roof where sacrifices were offered, as at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon. [8-9, 18] This Iraqi temple prototype spread and influenced temples in Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan and even beyond.

These temples typically had an apsu (water tank) in the courtyard, like the Inanna temple in Nippur. Or they had a lake (Hierapolis) or spring (‘Ain Dara) or, at minimum, a water basin. [18] Wimber draws illuminating parallels of these to the water basin in the courtyard of Solomon’s temple, explaining, “The term apsu stems from the ancient Mesopotamian belief in an underground freshwater ocean which fed the rivers and lakes. The word for the basin in Hebrew was yam, meaning ocean.” [27] (Interesting tidbit!)

Many indications point to ritual banquets, which are depicted in temple art, such as the Sumerian votive plaques from Inanna’s temple at Nippur, around 2750-2600 bce. [11] Remains of food offerings “attest to large communal food rituals.” Benches along three walls of the side chambers have also been proposed as feasting places, at temples of Atargatis at Dura Europos and on Delos; at Baalbek and Palmyra, and at the Jordanian temples Khirbet et-Tannur and Qasr al-Bint. [21, 48, 103]

Shaushka and the many Ishtars
In later periods, under succeeding dynasties and epochs, the temples of Ishtar were rebuilt again and again, retaining the traits of the earlier shrines, at Agade, at Nineveh, and in new countries that adopted her worship. [17, x] In these places Ishtar sometimes ceded pride of place to the local goddess, as she absorbed traits of Shaushka among the Hurrians and Hittites, or was paired with a new consort, as with the weather-god Hadad in Syria. The

Ishtar seal, with her lion, star, wings, and the me

Ishtar temples took on place-specific characters. She of Babylon is the most famous because of the Ishtar Gate, but there are others: Ishtar of Shamukha, the very martial Ishtar of Arbela, an Ishtar of the Battlefield, and probably the most celebrated, Ishtar of Nineveh. [Beckman, 4-7]

“She of Nineveh” was often called by the Hurrian title Shaushka, the “Great One.” She was the head of the Hurrian pantheon, as shown by letters to Amenhotop III from the king of Mitanni, which invoke her opposite the Kemetic sun god. She also turns up as the primary deity at the Syrian city of Alalakh. This is a significant fact about Shaushka and Ishtar: it’s not just that these societies had goddesses, but that a Goddess was their  primary deity. Shaushka, “the dweller in Nineveh,” remained the city’s great goddess for over 15 centuries. The first known mention of Nineveh is in an inscription about offering a lamb to Sausha of Nineveh. She retained her unique Hurrian character to the end, even as she assimilated titles of the Sumerian goddess (“Ninlil, dweller in Nineveh”) and the Akkadian Ishtar. The prologue to Hammurapi’s law code calls him “the king who made the norms of Inanna glorious in Nineveh, in the temple Emeshmesh.” [Beckman, 2-7]

Shaushka entered the Hittite pantheon with as a goddess powerful in incantations and magic. She is called “the woman of that which is repeatedly spoken,” mistress of chant. An intriguing fragment gives a taste of these incantations: “The hot stones came forth from Nineveh and Mount…” The babilili rituals of Ishtar Pirinkir also involved incantations in Akkadian. One 15th century text refers to queen Taduhepa invoked Ishtar of Nineveh in a ceremony. [Beckman 1, 5-6, note 56]

Winged Ishtar

There were also Syrian Ishtars of Mari and Ebla, and at least 25 different Hittite Ishtars identified by towns and mountains, especially in the southern, Hurrian country. Other texts refer to “all the Ishtars of the land of Hurri,” with Ishtar of Nineveh in first place The multiplicity here is not accidental; since separate offerings were made “to large numbers of such Ishtars.” Ishtar never made it to the top of the Hittite pantheon, but was assimilated to lesser goddesses such as Tashimetti, called “Ishtar the Queen,” and Takhakshaziyati, known as the “Ishtar of Arising,” or in an alternative translation, “Ishtar of Freeing.” [Beckman, 3-4]

Also in Hittite country, Shaushka / Ishtar of Shamukha seems to be identical with DINGIRGE, “Deity of the Night.” Her golden image had its back studded with discs of carnelian, lapis, and other precious stones, “like beads,” including the “life-symbol and morning star.” Beckman remarks that “the ornamented rear suface seems to represent the night sky.” [7, note 80]

Ishtar Temple at Ebla
The Syrian temples of Ebla, like its art and writing, followed the southern Mesopotamian pattern. The temple known as P2 was dedicated to Ishtar: “Figurines of lions found near the temple firmly show that the temple was dedicated to Ishtar, as do jars depicting doves and nude women, two symbols of Ishtar. Cylinder seals found nearby show the image of a priestess standing next to a standard representing Ishtar and Hadad. The presence of a priestess on this seal indicates that at Ebla the Mesopotamian tradition of having priestesses in Ishtar’s cult continued.” [21]

Other intriguing finds at this Ishtar temple are the underworld offerings of “statues of snakes and nude female figurines found in ritual pits or cisterns under the courtyard.” [21] These offerings into the depths of Earth were also made to Ishtar of Nineveh: “She had chthonic associations, was on occasion approached through a ritual pit, and is once found in the company of the Sun Goddess of the Earth and the primeval deities. She is beseeched to cure disease, including plague, and asked to lift curses.” [Beckman, 6]

At another Syrian temple at Alalakh, an inscription warns that if anyone tries to attack the city that Ishtar will “impress feminine parts into his male parts.” This was a threat, not an offer! Other texts, such as the Great Hymn to

Cogendered aspects of Ishtar, shown by her split dress

the Queen of Nippur, state that Ishtar “turns men into women and women into men.” [22] The goddess herself had androgynous traits (including a bearded aspect associated with Venus as the male morning star, while her evening star aspect was female). She had transgender priests (male-to-female) who underwent castration. Nothing is mentioned about female-to-male trans folk participating. As usual, crossing the gender border from the female side is nearly invisible historically, and very possibly less socially accepted, or at a minimum, not institutionalized. Both Wimber and Stuckey highlight the  cross-dressing, gender-switching, sex-altering powers of Ishtar. (Ritual self-castration was also, famously, found in the rites of Kybele, Ma of Commana, and Atargatis.) Stuckey brings out the less sensational, but central fact that Ishtar was also a healer, a plague-fighter, and a remover of curses. [Stuckey, online]

‘Ain Dara, Syria
Around 2000 bce the Hurrians become visible in what are now the Kurdish lands, bridging Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. This people spoke a language related to Urartian (in what later became Armenia) which may have been

Puduhepa, Hurrian priestess and Hittite queen

related to northeast Caucasian languages. The Hurrians came under Hittite rule, but as sometimes happens, they hugely influenced the religion of their overlords. One woman in particular, the priestess Puduhepa, is known to have succeeded in importing Hurrian deities into Hittite culture. She married the king and has been shown to have exerted considerable political and diplomatic power in her own right.

Around 1300 bce Hurrians built the temple of ‘Ain Dara, which flourished for seven centuries. It stood atop a hill near a spring, near Aleppo in northwestern Syria. This has been called an Ishtar temple, but Joanna Stuckey makes a good case that its goddess is Shaushka, “originally a goddess of the Hurrians.” Her name means the “Great One.” (See her excellent article.

A stone relief found near the temple entrance shows the goddess in a diaphanous gown with clearly marked pubic triangle, and one leg bared in the Hittite style. (These marching Hittite legs exerted a farflung influence, particularly in Gorgon iconography).

Shaushka of 'Ain Dara Temple

The goddess is dual-natured; one side represents her as life-giver, her other side carries weapons or a quiver. (But this is uncertain; they also resemble wings, also an attribute of Shaushka, as well as the snakelike me [powers] that spring out of the shoulders of Inanna and Ishtar.) Images of a mountain god appear to represent the consort of the goddess. At the entrance of the temple the colossal footprints of the goddess, over four times human size, are carved into the stone block pavement:

The most unique depiction of deity found at Ain Dara are giant footprints on the stones entering the temple. Two feet are shown at the entrance, then a left foot followed by a right foot, thus depicting the deity striding forward into the sanctuary. [23]

The ‘Ain Dara temple shows strong Canaanite connections, including the Hathor-styled sphinx heads. As Joanna Stuckey points out, Ishtar, or rather Ashtart as she was known in Canaan / Phoenicia, “was also connected to sphinxes.” Wimber thinks all this lion iconography originates from Inanna / Ishtar. The lions and sphinxes at ‘Ain Dara certainly fit the profile of Ishtar, but they are associated with a Great Goddess throughout southwest Asia, from Asherah and Ashtart in Canaan to Anahita in Iran, and from Kybele in Anatolia to Atargatis in Syria and the goddess, probably Al-Uzza, in Jordanian temples.

Female Sphinx at 'Ain Dara Temple, Syria

I think we are looking at something far older that predates any named goddesses known from inscriptions. We can look back to the lion-woman sculpture from the borderlands of Iraq and Iran, 4th millennium bce. Even more

Goddess of Leopard Throne, Çatal Höyük, Asia Minor

ancient is the leopard-throned goddess at Çatal Höyük. She cannot be discounted as a precedent in this historical chain, especially when we look at those thrones flanked by lions or sphinxes. Many scholars will say, You can’t prove that there was continuity. But Wimber’s thesis is one more demonstration among many of the tremendous conservational power of religious culture. Iconography, building styles, customs endure across millennia, in spite of conquests, the rise and fall of empires, language changes, and new cultural influences.

Yet Wimber thinks that Kybele somehow got her lions from the Greeks. She writes, “Cybele is never shown with lions until the Greeks began influencing her cult and perhaps the Greeks equated her with lions because they saw that as typical of Oriental goddesses.” [115] I can’t agree, given the Anatolian precedents of Kybele, and her connections to Kubaba and Ma and Hebat. Wimber is on firmer ground in resisting attempts to interpret the lions of Atargatis as a late derivation from Kybele.

Ashtart at Sidon
A 4th century bce chapel to Ashtart was built into an older temple of the god Eshmun. Here Iraqi influence is visible in the stepped platform of the temple. Inside the shrine stood the throne of the goddess sculptured with sphinxes. Around the throne was a pool of water, fed by “multiple water channels and basins connected to a spring which were probably used for water rites and ablutions.” The author links these to “water pouring rituals associated with Astarte,” and refers to urns standing in the shrine, one of which is depicted in a bronze from Sidon in the form of another sphinx-flanked throne. [31-32] She places this sanctuary in historical context:

The chapel of Astarte in Sidon is one of the last religious structures related to the worship of the long line of female fertility goddesses that was built before Hellenistic culture began to heavily influence the Near East.

The ‘Ain Dara temple has been proposed as a prototype for the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, whose structure (as described in the Hebrew Bible) closely mirrored it. The biblical account credits the Phoenician Hiram as architect, so this should not be too surprising. This comparison leads us to one of the most interesting themes in Wimber’s paper:

Lady of Tutugi/Galera, Spain. She was carved in Phoenicia or Syria, and exemplifies the sphinx throne of their goddesses. Libations were poured through her head and flowed out into the basin.

the empty thrones which, as she shows, are related to the goddess temples of Ashtart and Atargatis.

The temple of Solomon had no deity statue; only “an empty mercy seat with flanking cherubim represented the presence of God in the temple.” [28] Wimber compares this to the empty lion throne in the Ashtart chapel at Sidon, Phoenicia; the “empty throne dedicated to the sun located just inside the temple” of Atargatis at Hierapolis”; the “empty throne flanked by lions which sat just across from the theater in the terrace of the sanctuary” at Delos; and possibly also “the motabs referred to in Nabataean inscriptions as thrones of the deities” in Jordan. [42-4, 75-6, 111]

Some confusion creeps in when Wimber writes, “It is evident that Asherah was a descendent of the Babylonian Ishtar as seen in the account in Ezekiel in which the Israelite women were in the temple weeping for Tammuz, the Babylonian lover of Ishtar whom she rescues from the underworld.” [29] This passage does not name Asherah, and the real analogue would be Ashtart (rendered as Ashtoreth in the Bible). It is all too common to see Asherah conflated with Ashtart/Astarte, but this is an error. These were distinct names whose apparent similarity in transliterated Roman  letters is deceptive. Different characters are used for that first letter in Western Semitic, and the names have different roots. And why would the book of I Kings list the two goddesses as separate if they

Ashtart with Hathor head and snakes, standing on her lion

were the same entity?

Asherah is a mother goddess, as we see from her Ugaritic form, Athirat, who is titled  qaniyatu elima, “progenitrix of the gods.” Ashtart has distinct qualities, not least her identification with Venus as the morning and evening star, her maiden and erotic qualities. I say this recognizing that the names we have from inscriptions are often titles, such as QDSU (“holy”), which may be shared for different goddesses, or belong to a single deity. But we have separate parallel streams in Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Akkadian inscriptions: Asherah, Athirat, Asheratu for the one; and Ashtoreth /Ashtart, Athtart, Ishtar, each with their own associations and contexts. There is plenty of reason to see these two as different goddesses with different traits.

Similarly, Wimber writes, “This cult demonstrates the continuity of some element of Ishtar’s worship in to the worship of Asherah. In Jeremiah 44:19 her followers burned incense, poured out libations, and made cakes for her. These cakes were made in the form of a nude goddess with exaggerated breasts and pubic region.” [31] That is possible, even likely, but it is a surmise. Another possibility is cakes shaped like vulvas—or both, or other shapes, such as the palms, lilies, and lions associated with the goddess.

Read Part II of Goddess Temples in Western Asia

Sources cited:

Kristina Michelle Wimber, “Four Greco-Roman Temples of Fertility Goddesses: An Analysis of Architectural Tradition.” Thesis at Brigham Young University, 2007

Joanna Stuckey. “Shaushka and ‘Ain Dara: A Goddess and Her Temple”

Gary Beckman, “Ishtar of Nineveh Reconsidered.” University of Michigan
(Thanks to Yona Yavana for this source.)

(All page citations come from Wimber unless otherwise identified.)

Suppressed Histories: what’s that?

Spiral pot, Ban Chiang culture, ancient Thailand

The richness and complexity of women’s history: the artist-philosophers who created magnificent scriptures of signs in neolithic ceramics, the python-oracles of southeast African rain shrines, the female clan heads of the Mosuo in Yunnan. Legends tell of women who invented agriculture, who founded peoples, cities, or religions. Rebel priestesses like Muhumusa in Uganda or Veleda in the Batavian uprising against Rome or the Tongva shaman Toypurina where Los Angeles now stands. Nonconformist poets like Walada bint-al-Mustakfi in Spain or Akka Mahadevi in south India: women who defied the rules of patriarchy and empire, courageous clan mothers, women who dared to love women, feminist and labor organizers, indigenous sovereignty activists, freethinkers and mystics.

Women's ceremony with serpents, eastern Iran, ca 2400 bce

We’re seeking out strategic knowledge, what Gloria Anzaldúa called conocimiento, “a little serpent for counter-knowledge.” History can empower — finally, after centuries and millenia of patriarchal and colonial manipulation to prop up power structures and burnish dynastic pedigrees. It contains what the powers-that-be never intended us to discover. “Subjugated knowledges,” in the words of Maori thinker Linda Smith. We are decoding the written record, pulling aside its systematic bias to see what patterns reveal themselves.

None of this means taking a romanticized or oversimplified view. We’ve been told for so long, countless times, that women are inferior, that men have always dominated, that whites are superior, that Africans are lesser, “underdeveloped,” lacking in “real” history; that aboriginal religions are invalid, their sciences insignificant, and their historical orature irrelevant. A shift in thinking is right and necessary, and in recent decades scholars have been running to catch up to the realities, the obscured achievements, and the chronologies that go back much further than the old “experts” thought. Now coming into wider view are the strengths of all those interlocking groups and categories, their achievements and beauties, in spite of the ways they’ve been oppressed and kept down.

Makiritare Lodge, upper Orinoco River, Venezuela

Reweave the connections: map the pre-conquest American Indian countries (yes, countries, think about that) and the vast tracts of Asia that are left out of history texts. The gender-egalitarian matrilineages of the Vietnam highlands and Cambodian lowlands, with their longhouses and female courtship customs. The African chronologies, religons, and archaeology; the syllabaries of Ethiopia and Meroë, Vai and Malinke; the architecture of the Sahel and Old Zimbabwe; the impressive female megaliths of Ethiopia which are missing from virtually all books on African history, archaeology, or art.

Monumental woman, Gora Shino, Soddo region of south Ethiopia

Take into account the sea links across the Indian Ocean, and across the Pacific, bringing Asian chickens to Chile in the 1300s. (See “Radiocarbon and DNA Evidence for Pre-Colombian Introduction of Polynesian Chickens to Chile,” 2007.) Bring forward connections that only archaeological specialists know about, like those between Ecuador and western Mexico. Know that the Chumash plank canoes have Pacific Island prototypes, and are called by a name derived from Polynesian languages. (“Diffusionism Reconsidered: Linguistic and Archaelogical Evidence for Prehistoric Polynesian Contact with Southern California,” 2005.)

DNA researchers of human origins and migrations are now talking about “cryptic population histories.” One of the oldest is the first African diaspora, over 50,000 years ago, whose short-statured Black descendants are scattered from Oman to southern Thailand to the Philippines, and across various Indonesian and Melanesian islands. Linguistic keys point to ancient kindreds between Florida and Veracruz, between North and South American peoples. So much we are only beginning to learn—and what will the aboriginal histories add to all this? They are so rich in female founders, in truly democratic polities and spiritual philosophies.

One of the stone Adena Tablets, ancient Ohio

So we reconfigure to an international perspective, toward chronologies not generated by empire-builders, but revealed in a dawning awareness of Brazilian earthworks and canals, East African and Pilipino land-terracing; megalithic statues of Sumatra and Sulawesi, France and Portugal, Ethiopia and Colombia; Mississippian mound temples, trade networks, and inscribed tablets, Moroccan stone circles, and those really ancient connections between the Saharan river peoples and the Khartoum neolithic. The breathtaking ceramics, so many millenia ago, of Moravia (Czech Republic), of the Amur river valley in Manchuria, of medieval Arkansas and Tennessee, New Mexico and Arizona.

Isis terracotta from Fayyum, Ptolemaic Egypt

This kind of history takes into account the great religious movement of Isis veneration, that spread from Egypt to Sudan and across the Mediterranean to Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Tunisia, Sardinia, Spain; to Britain, Germany, Hungary, and from Syria and Iraq unto Kazakhstan. This transnational religion overcame Roman state persecution, was a major competitor of early Christianity, and made its last stand on the sands of Nubia, when the Beja fought Byzantine armies sent to crush all other religions than the one decreed by latter-day Roman emperors.

What happened in Europe? patriarchy, yes, empire and feudalism. But also the internal colonization of its ethnic cultures, destroying aboriginal ways, suppression of the priestess, shaman, diviner, of the drum, sweatlodge, sacramental dance. The totalitarian union of church and state, begun under the late Roman empire, expanded across the continent over centuries. Judicial torture was adopted from Roman law, and used to inculcate diabolist ideology (“Diana is the devil,” and all other non-Christian deities got the same treatment). This spilled out far-reaching effects on cultural attitudes toward women, sexuality, peoples of color, and non-christians, from Jews and Romany to Indigenous peoples in the path of European empire. Even after centuries of witch hunts, some local, marginalized cultures managed to preserve some of the ancient traditions. The long-reviled and devalued female powers are now being recovered and restored.

If we can name something, it becomes possible. The medieval Spanish spoke of convivencia: the ability of different cultures to live together. They succeeded rather well, for a time, producing a blend of Iberian and Moorish and Visigothic culture, of Catholic, Muslim and Jew, with a old Pagan admixture. Then the Reconquista polarized all these identities, and the Spanish Inquisition arose with along with the racist code of limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”). They propelled expulsions of Jews and Moors, forced hundreds of thousands to convert, and persecuted their descendants with fire and iron, locking down the peninsula and its colonies for centuries.

We need to understand patterns of social control. Totalitarian doctrines brook no questioning, no challenges, driven by what

Witch's Chair, a heated-iron torture used in German witch trials

Diana Eck calls “imperial certainty.” We can also name this “patriarchal absolutism,” with women only as a backdrop, invisible sustainers with duties but few rights, in ranked societies that put property before people, and enforce domination with violence, open and covert. Humans caught in these systems must step carefully, negotiating under pressure for even small shifts in constrained circumstances.

Time to stop looking past the crushing confinement of females in so many societies: “For after obedience, poverty, and pure chastity, you have holy enclosure to hold on to, enclosure in which you can live for forty years either more or less, and in which you will die. You are, therefore, already now in your sepulchre of stone, that is, your vowed enclosure.” –Testament of Saint Colette (addresssed to early modern Italian nuns) Or the Afghan Shi’a jurists’ pronouncement in 2009 that women had two rights: to obey their husbands and to pray, but not in the mosques. The repression of women as women would fill books: too many instances to list now, but you can read more here.

To talk about patriarchies means confronting a powerful social taboo charged with tremendous amounts of fear, anger and denial. These systems of domination are based on violence and pervasive coercion which are, literally, unspeakable. In my lifetime I’ve watched women rise to courageously name the injustices, and also witnessed a falling away in times of backlash, divisions, diversions and dissimulations. It’s crucial for us to undo the cultural spells that decree who women must be. They have seduced so many into settling for the false, subordinated identities peddled by the consumerist mass media spectacles. The real spectrum of female humanity is far greater, full of valor, creativity,  inventiveness, daring, and generosity.

Silencing is fully active for the dire realities of genocide, colonization, and destruction of culture. Not just in a willfully-forgotten history that

Sarah James, defender of Gwich'in caribou lands from oil companies

talks about “vanishing” peoples, but in the ongoing Now of land seizure, logged forests, dams, poisoned watersheds, toxic mines and oil-drilling; of indigenous refugees forced into urban slums, where they join other peoples trapped in the racial caste system that is the legacy of enslavement, conquest, and empire. Many of them make long journeys in a desperate struggle to survive, and become peons-without-papers laboring in the industrial farms that feed the empire. The  corporate maw chews up workers to feed the voracious mass-market of manufactured desire, and  tosses them away when their bodies are broken, or in order to relocate to countries where labor is even cheaper, places with regimented factories whose workers are housed in barracks. And the women working for bare-survival wages in these places raped, sexually harassed, stalked as they make their way home, and sometimes murdered, like the maquiladora workers in the femicide capital of the borderlands, Juárez. In the US territory of Saipan,  companies tied to anti-abortion extremists back in the USA even force women workers to have abortions. (It’s true: search for “forced mandatory abortions” on this page.)

We need to understand that overturning these structures of domination is an act of love. That they go to the very heart of the disorder, which now endangers human survival and the world itself. The Big-Man hierarchy of force, exploitation and accumulation has allowed the worst to take charge (or to force the hand of those who know better). Look where it’s gotten us.

Time to move away from maladaptive fixations and refocus on what is good, what will help. Divide and conquer has stopped people from understanding how the systems of domination intertwine. Playing off one liberation against others has created conflict, what Rachel Bagby called “ism schisms,” and has prevented solutions. There are other options, other ways to live. That’s not “utopianism,” it’s the historical reality.

Max Dashu

A non-definition of “shaman”

Max Dashú

It’s difficult to define “shaman,” because it is culturally variable in so many ways, but we need a basic general description. I see “shaman” as belonging to a continuum of many names and roles: medicine woman, oracle, prophetess, diviner, dreamer; priestess, raindancer, communicant with ancestors, deities, Nature spirits; trance-dancer, shapeshifter, spirit-rider, cosmonaut. Countless descriptions show ancient priestesses engaging ecstatic incantation, sacred dance, and entranced states. Thus the Cappadocian priestesses of an Anatolian goddess fire-walked across burning coals without being burned. Thus the temple dancers of ancient Egypt with their sistra and hand-drums, the

Syrian priestess with drum

devadasis of India, the Canaanite qadeshot, the Peruvian priestesses who are depicted dancing and drumming. The rain shrine priestesses of Malawi with their python spirits and sacred pools were shamans by any definition of the term.

This shamanic background is why “priestess” calls up ecstatic associations that authoritarian religions regard as illicit and even demonic, and why so many of these religions excluded women from priesthood. Some went so far as to bar women from the altar, from temples or their inner sanctuaries, or from other shrines. The patriarchal lens has also twisted interpretation of sacramental dance and entranced spirit mediums, claiming that they exhibit the “natural,” allegedly “passive” province of women (and queers, and colonized peoples, and other Others). Most notoriously, these doctrines have recast European witches in the mold of magical evildoers—although as late as the 1400s the British were referring to a prophetic woman as The Witch of Eye (an English town).

Spinning witch with magic wands, Scandinavia, from Olaus Magnus, The Northern Peoples, 1555

Shamanism is a subject pervaded by political ramifications, because it represents direct spiritual power, energy that can not be controlled by man-made hierarchies or ranked social systems. It represents contact with Chaos in its original sense of the primordial Vastness, as well as its quite recent scientific sense of quantum physics and meteorology. Shamans connect with the core of being, the whole of beingness, the Source of wisdom and transformative power. This represents a threat to oppressive social orders which set certain classes of people (men, whites, dominant classes, settlers, heterosexuals) over Others. Shamanic cosmologies and ceremonies are also considered a threat, because they emphasize relatedness and delve into the ineffable, timeless, vast cycles of creation and destruction.

Pawnee Ghost Dance robe

No hegemony can withstand that primal power, and so there is a long history of repression. It accounts for the U.S. outlawing and persecuting American Indian religions and why, having militarily defeated the Plains Indians, it was so threatened by the Ghost Dance. Why Chinese mandarins destroyed shrines of the Wu; why European men, with all their laws oppressing women, still feared the witches; and why they feared African Santería, Lucumí, Vodou and Candomblé, and banned the drum in the U.S. slave states. All these categories of shamanic culture, sacramental dance, altered states of consciousness, continue to be feared, demonized — and attacked.

Turkic kam near Tomsk, Altai region

I describe a shaman as someone who receives a calling to commune with spirit / deities / ancestors, who enters ecstatic, unified consciousness. This may come spontaneously or at will by drumming, rattling, chanting, dancing or rhythmic breathing and movements; by singing power songs revealed in visions, dreams or other portal experiences; by fasting, going into wilderness or to other sacred places, calling, crying, and singing; and sometimes, by consuming sacred mushrooms or other sacred plants, such as the daturas and other (often poisonous) herbs.

The shaman often undergoes an initiatory illness, a near-death experience, an attack by a tiger or bear, or other traumatic event that becomes a gateway to transformation. These events act as a trigger for transformation, as the shaman breaks through and overcomes.  Often this experience is described as being consumed or dismembered or boiled, after which she is reconstituted and reconfigured as a shaman, sometimes with a new bone, crystal or other powerful object inserted into her body. Or she experiences a spontaneous breakthrough in which vision and power flood through her, a direct selection by Spirit (which usually cannot be refused).

Mazatec curandera María Sabina, Oaxaca

During her initiatory process, the shaman learns to access profound and exalted states of consciousness. Her spirits, deities, orishas, and very commonly, a shaman-ancestor, teach her through dreams, lucid visions, omens and energetically-charged experiences. She also frequently learns from other shamans in the community, being formally or informally trained by them, sometimes for years. This spiritual and ceremonial education often follows a recognized series of spirit sickness, signs or dreams. There is often a formal initiation, or the shaman may simply begin to gain recognition from the community based on her practice.

Counter to the modern market-driven shaman-fad, the shaman is chosen by the spirits, not self-selected. Initiation cannot be purchased, and boasting is a sure sign of pretense. Instead of self-indulgence and ego-boosting, the medicine woman puts in intensive effort, sacrifice, hardship, and suffering. This is true of any gender. I’ll never forget a video where Credo Mutwa explained to a rather conceited white guy that Zulu people do not seek out this path voluntarily, because they know how difficult it is, and that it involves sacrifice. This principle is alien to marketplace shamanism. Service to the community is part of the picture, though solitariness is paradoxically common too.

The classic Siberian shaman “rides” her drum or staff (often called a “horse”) into deep consciousness. She ascends the World Pillar or Tree which connects all the planes of the upper, middle, and lower worlds, and is able to travel through all the worlds. This idea of the shamanic pillar as a road of spirits is widespread, from the Peach Tree of Immortality in the mountain garden of Xi Wangmu in China to the central pillar of the Haitian vodou sanctuary, along which the loas descend and ascend. Countless other examples exist. These journeys are also described as flight, sometimes on the back of animal helpers, or as riding a spirit boat.

The shaman often paints the drumhead with images of her spirit helpers, her personal visions and power symbols. These drum paintings can be cosmic maps with the directions, the realms of humans and spirits, the various planes (often three) figured upon them. Like all sacred objects, these drums are consecrated, and in some places their spirits are fed with offerings.

Ecstatic dance, zar religion, Ethiopia

In other traditions, the spirit-journey-inducing instrument can be the rattle,  shekere/calabash, clapping sticks, stamping tubes, or sounding the voice alone. This is accompanied by rhythmic movement, trembling, shaking the limbs, rubbing, whirling; rhythmic chanting or breath-huffing with sustained concentration. All this involves vibration, breath, dance. Shamans also carry out a diverse spectrum of ritual acts: washing, anointing with sacred substances (red ochre, white clay, pollen, turmeric, essential oils or fats), touching and brushing and sweeping with stones, eggs, herb bundles, burning of leaves, resins or other incense, or consuming stimulating substances (such as ginger in Indonesia and the Southern Pacific) or entheogenic plants.

Invoking woman, rock mural in Baja California

It all boils down to praying with the body, through the body, in order to deepen and unify consciousness. In medical terms we could say that sacred dance, chanting, and drumming  activates all parts of the brain, entrains with the heartbeat, oxygenates the blood, and affects hormonal secretions. But all this describes only the physiological aspect of what is happening on multiple levels.

What shamanism does, in my view, is align body and soul, mind and spirit, into a state of full awakened consciousness. The shaman is healed by coming into awareness of old traumas, of stuck and trapped energies, and learning to release them. She washes them away, often literally by immersion in living water (this is the Hebrew wisdom of the mikveh, before patriarchal laws of uncleanness entered in). A modern Japanese prophetess who underwent a sudden revelation spent the next fifteen days pouring cold water over her head. (This repeated immersion in often-cold water has older precedents in Japan.) Modern industrial thinking regards these as acts of madness, but for someone undergoing a kundalini surge, they are an eminently sane response, and a liberatory process of clearing and awakening.

Hatsuhana Prays Under a Waterfall (1842) depicting a woman who attained miraculous healing power.

The elements enter in, not only symbolically as body/soul/mind/spirit, but actually, as earth, water, air and fire (plus ether, in some cosmologies). The elements have transformative powers, in the hot steam of the sweat bath, the cool paste of sandalwood on the skin, fanning with feathers or leaf-bunches, or by extended gazing into fire (or clouds, rivers, wind in the trees). Entering into this wisdom-awareness, what the Haudenosaunee call the One Good Mind, leads to understanding the language of birds, of animals and plants, the essence of stones. It is Nature-based wisdom.

The great Pomo Dreamer Essie Parrish

This is just a really the broadest of summaries. There’s so much more: consecration, spiritual philosophies, the spirit-names and arcane languages, sacred tools and regalia, flight, animal doubles or allies. Watch this film Pomo Shaman (it streams online* from the link) which gives far more understanding than any description. It’s about the Kashaya Pomo Dreamer Essie Parrish, who was also known by the title Yomta (“Song”), recognizing her as a wisdom-bearer. In this 1953 recording, she tells us about her medicine in her own words, and shows us its pure, sacred essence.

Copyright 2010 Max Dashu

*Mac users: you need Windows Media Player to run this. Search for Flip4Mac for your OS and download, that should enable you to see Pomo Shaman. It’s worth the trouble, one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

Now fundraising for a new movie, Woman Shaman: The Ancients. Learn more, see the trailer and contribute here:

Nahua shamanic traditions III

More excerpts from Brinton’s 1989 Nagualism (see previous posts), with my comments in italics…

Fr Nicolas de Leon on the deep reverence for Fire:

“If any of their old superstitions has remained more deeply rooted than another in the hearts of these Indians, both men and women, it is this about fire and its worship, and about making new fire and preserving it for a year in secret places. We should be on the watch for this, and when in their confessions they speak of what the Fire said and how the Fire wept, expressions which we are apt to pass by as unintelligible, we must lay our hands on them [physical punishment!] for reprehension. We should also be on the watch for their baptism by Fire, a ceremony called the yiahuiltoca, shortly after the birth of a child when they bestow on it the surnames; nor must the lying-in women and their assistants be permitted to speak of Fire as the father and mother of all things and the author of nature; because it is a common saying with them that Fire is present at the birth and death of every creature.” [43]

This curious ceremony derived its name from the yiahuitli, a plant not unlike the absinthe, the powdered leaves of which, according to Father Sahagun, the natives were accustomed to throw into the flames as an offering to the fire. Long after the conquest, and probably to this day, the same custom prevails in Mexico, the fumes and odor of the burning leaves being considered very salubrious and purifying to the air of the sick room. [43. Absinthe is in the Artemesia family, which includes Mugwort/Ai and Desert Sage, all used as purificatory, cleansing, protective, and blessing agents, especially by smudging, around the world.]

yiahuiltoca: throwing of the yiauhtli, throwing upon. It was done on 4th day after childbirth, and fire was kept burning in house all that time, but never carried out, for the sake of the child. [44]

Jacinto de la Serna also describes this ceremony, to which he gives the name tlecuixtliliztli, “which means that they pass the infant over the fire;” and elsewhere he adds : ” The worship of fire is the greatest stumbling-block to these wretched idolaters.” [44]

The Confessional Manual of Bartholomé de Alva follows a pattern of churchmen interrogating European pagans that began in the 5th century as a way to root out Pagan observances and beliefs, continued to be used to stamp out the old religions in later centuries, and was exported to the Americas and other European colonies to suppress indigenous religions:

“Dost thou possess at this very time little idols of green stone, or frogs made of it (in chalehiuh coconeme, clialehiuh tamazeltin)

“Dost thou put them out in the sun to be warmed? Dost thou keep them wrapped in cotton coverings, with great respect and veneration?

“Dost thou believe, and hold for very truth, that these green stones give thee food and drink, even as thy ancestors believed, who died in their idolatry ? Dost thou believe that they give thee success and prosperity and good things, and all that thou hast or wishest? Because we know very well that many of you so believe at this very time.” * [46-47, from Alva, Confessionario en Lengua Mexicana, fol. 9]

Chalchiutlicue, Goddess of the Waters

The Aztec ceremony of “calling back the tonal” was a rite of soul-retrieval and healing. This beautiful invocation recorded by Jacinto de la Serna places the healing in the hands of Chalchiutlicue, “precious-stone-skirted” Goddess of the Waters:

“Ho there ! Come to my aid, mother mine of the skirt of precious stones. What keeps thee away, gray ghost, white ghost?” Is the obstacle white, or is it yellow? See, I place here the yellow enchantment and the white enchantment.’ [tobacco and water]

“I, the Master of the Masters of enchantments, have come, I, who formed thee and gave thee life. Thou, mother mine of the starry skirt, thou, goddess of the stars, who givest life, why hast thou turned against this one?

“Adverse spirit and darkened star, I shall sink thee in the breadth and depth of the waters. I, master of spells, speak to thee. Ho there ! Mother mine, whose skirt is made of gems, come, seek with me the shining spirit who dwells in the house of light,’ that we may know what god or mighty power thus destroys and crushes to earth this unfortunate one. Green and black spirit of sickness, leave him and seek thy prey elsewhere.

“Green and yellow ghost, who art wandering, as if lost, over mountains and plains, I seek thee, I desire thee ; return to him whom thou hast abandoned. Thou, the nine times beaten, the nine times smitten, see that thou fail me not. Come hither, mother mine, whose robe is of precious gems ; one water, two waters ; one rabbit, two rabbits ; one deer, two deers ; one alligator, two alligators.’

“Lo ! I myself am here ; I am most furious; I make the loudest noise of all; I respect no one; even sticks and stones tremble before me. What god or mighty power dare face me, me, a child of gods and goddesses?”

“I have come to seek and call back the tonal of this sick one, wherever it is, whithersoever it has wandered, be it nine times wandered, even unto the nine junctures and the nine unions. Wherever it is, I summon it to return, I order it to return, and to heal and clean this heart and this head.” [52-3]

[Brinton’s] Explanations.

1. The appeal is to Water, regarded as the universal Mother. The “skirt of precious stones ” refers to the green of the precious green stones, a color sacred to water.

2. The question is addressed to the tonal.

3. The yellow enchantment is tobacco ; the white, a cup of water.

4. That is, assigned the form of the nagual belonging to the sick man.

5. This appeal is directed to the Milky Way.

6. The threat is addressed to the tonal, to Irighten it into returning.

7. The ” shining spirit ” is the Fire-god.

8. The yellow tobacco, prepared ceremonially in the manner indicated.

9. These are names of days in the native calendar which are invoked.

10. The priest speaks in the person of his god.

11. Referring to the Nahuatl belief that there are nine upper and nine under worlds. [53. This  belief is also found among the Mongols and many other peoples]

Symbolic Expressions of the Nagualists [also taken by Brinton from de la Serna]:

Blood. -“The red woman with snakes on her gown” (referring to the veins).

Copal Gum.- “The white woman” (from the whitish color of the fresh gum).

Cords (for carrying burdens).- “The snake that does woman’s work” (because women sit still to knit, and the cord works while itself is carried).

Drunkenness. – “My resting time, ” or “when I am getting my breath.”

The Earth.- ‘”The mirror that smokes” (because of the mists that rise from it); “the rabbit with its mouth upward” (the rabbit, in opposition to the one they see in the moon; with its mouth upward, because of the mists which rise from it lilie the breath exhaled from the mouth); “the flower which contains everything” (as all fruit proceeds from flowers, so does all vegetable life proceed from the earth, which is therefore spoken of as a flower) ; “the flower which bites the mouths” (a flower, for the reason given; it eats the mouths, because all things necessarily return to it, and are swallowed by it).

Fingers. – “The five fates,” or “the five works,” or “the five fields” (because by the use of his fingers man works out his own destiny. Hence also the worship of the Hand among the Nahuas as the god Maitl, and among the Mayas as the god Kab, both which words mean “hand “)

Fire. – “Our Father of the Four Reeds” (because the ceremony of making the new fire was held on the day Four Reeds, 4 Acall) ; “the shining rose ;” ” the yellow flyer ;” ” the red-haired one ;” “the yellow spirit.”

A Knife of Copper. – “The yellow Chichimec” (because the Chichimecs were alleged to tear out the bowels of their enemies).

The Maguey Plant. – “My sister, the eight in a row” (because it was planted in this manner).

Mayahuel, goddess of the Maguey plant

A Head. – “That which is divided in two, and yet has neither beginning, middle nor end” (because it always lies in two directions from a person, and yet all roads lead into others and thus never end).

Sickness. – “The red woman;” “the breath of the flume;” “our mother the comet” (all referring to the lever) ; “the Chichimec ” (because it aims to destroy life, like these savage warriors) ; ” the spider ” (because ot its venomous nature).

Smoke. – “The old wife” (i. e., of the fire).

The Sun. – “Our holy and pockified Uncle” (referring to the myth of Nanahuatl, who was syphilitic, and leaping into the flames of a fire rose as the sun).

Tobacco. – “The nine (or seven) times beaten” (because for sacred purposes it was rubbed up this number of times) ; ” the enchanted gray one” (from its color and use in conjuring).

Water. – “The Green Woman” (from the greenness which follows moisture) ; “our Mother, whose robe is of precious stones” (from the green or vegetable life resembling the turquoise, emerald, jade, etc.). [53-4]

This text is a precious record of Nahua sacred language, and shows the rich language of symbol as it was employed in invocation, incantation, and ceremonial.

Max Dashu

Source: Daniel G. Brinton, Nagualism. A Study Of Native American Folk-Lore And History.
Philadelphia: Maccalla & Company, 1894

The full text can be downloaded here:

Central American shamans and philosophies II

Continuing with excerpts from Brinton’s 1989 Nagualism (see previous post) with my comments in italics

As is nearly always the case, the shamans are described in negative and demonized terms. Even so, the outlines of the description below correspond to shamanic healing methods.

The learned historian, Orozco y Berra, speaks of the powers attributed at the present day to the nahual in Mexico among the lower classes, in these words :

‘The nahual is generally an old Indian with red eyes, who knows how to turn himsell into a dog, woolly, black and ugly. The female witch can convert herself into a ball of fire ; she has the power of flight… [I omit the usual negative characterizations]  There still exist among them the medicinemen, [not all men] who treat the sick by means of strange contortions, call upon the spirits, pronounce magical incantations, blow upon the part where the pain is, and draw forth from the patient thorns, worms, or pieces of stone.” [Brinton, 11]

Next Brinton provides a valuable description of the spiritual philosophy embedded in the language of the Nahua (Aztecs and related peoples):

They called it the tonalli of a person, a word translated to mean that which is peculiar to him, which makes his individuality, his self. The radical from which it is derived is tona, to warm, or to be warm, from which are also derived tonatiuh, the sun. Tonalli, which in composition loses its last syllable, is likewise the word for heat, summer, soul, spirit and day, and also for the share or portion which belongs to one. Thus, to-tonal is spirit or soul in general; no-tonal, my spirit ; no-tonal in ipan no-tlacat, ” the sign under which I was born,” i.e., the astrological day-sign. From this came the verb tonalpoa, to count or estimate the signs, that is, to cast the horoscope of a person ; and tonalpouhque, the diviners whose business it was to practice this art. [11]

The classic shamanic concept of soul-loss and recovery through ceremonies and spiritual journey was important in Nahua healing practice:

So long as [the tonalli] remained with a person he enjoyed health and prosperity; but it could depart, go astray, become lost; and then sickness and misfortune arrived. This is signified in the Nahuatl language by the verbs tonalcaualtia, to check, stop or suspend the tonal, hence, to shock or frighten one; and tonalitlacoa, to hurt or injure the tonal, hence, to cast a spell on one, to bewitch him. This explains the real purpose of the conjuring and incantations which were carried on by the native doctor when visiting the sick. It was to recall the tonal, to force or persuade it to return; and, therefore, the ceremony bore the name ”the restitution of the tonal,” and was more than any other deeply imbued with the superstitions [sic] of Nagualism. The chief officiant was called the tetonaltiani, ” he who concerns himself with the tonal.” [12; the Aztec term is not however gendered in the way implied by the translation.]

In 1702 Francisco Nuñez de la Vega, Bishop of Chiapas and Soconusco, published a book describing how the Maya people were holding on to their ancient sacred traditions:

“The Indians of New Spain retain all the errors of their time of heathenism preserved in certain writings in their own languages, explaining by abbreviated characters and by figures painted in a secret cypher the places, provinces and names of their early rulers, the animals, stars and elements which they worshiped, the ceremonies and sacrifices which they observed, and the years, months and days by which they predicted the fortunes of children at birth, and assign them that which they call the Naguals. These writings are known as Repertories or Calendars, and they are also used to discover articles lost or stolen, and to effect cures of diseases. Some have a wheel painted in them, like that of Pythagoras, described by the Venerable Bede ; others portray a lake surrounded by the Naguals in the form of various animals… [17]

The bishop makes several references to his religious persecution of the Maya in Chiapas. In 1692 he sent out this order to apply inquisitorial methods of repression to Maya who followed their old religion:

“And because in the provinces of our diocese those Indians who are Nagualists adore their nagual, and look upon them as gods, and by their aid believe that they can foretell the future, discover hidden treasures, and fill their dishonest desires: we, therefore, prescribe and command that in every town an ecclesiastical prison shall be constructed at the expense of the church, and that it be provided with fetters and stocks (con grillos y cepos), and we confer authority on every priest and curate of a parish to imprison in these gaols whoever is guilty of disrespect toward our Holy Faith, and we enjoin them to treat with especial severity those who teach the doctrines of Nagualism (y con rigor mayor a los dogmatizantes Nagualistas).” 18

Same bishop, 9th Pastoral Letter: May 24, 1698 from Ciudad Real:

“There are certain bad Christians of both sexes who do not hesitate to follow the school of the Devil, and to occupy themselves with evil [sic] arts, divinations, sorceries, conjuring, enchantments, fortune-telling, and other means to forecast the future.”

Here the bishop projects the diabolist idea of diabolic pact from the European witch hunts onto aboriginal Central Americans. The language he uses (“vain,” “diabolical,” etc.) originated in the penitential books used to stamp out Pagan tradition since the early middle ages:

These Nagualists practice their arts by means of Repertories and superstitious Calendars, where are represented under their proper names all the Naguals of stars, elements, birds, fishes, brute beasts and dumb animals ; with a vain note of days and months, so that they can announce which corresponds to the day of birth of the infant. This is preceded by some diabolical ceremonies, after which they designate the field or other spot, where, after seven years shall have elapsed, the Nagual will appear to ratify the bargain. As the time approaches, they instruct the child to deny God and His Blessed Mother, and warn him to have no fear, and not to make the sign of the cross. He is told to embrace his Nagual tenderly, which, by some diabolical art, presents itself in an affectionate manner even though be a ferocious beast, like a lion or a tiger. [18-19]

… Worse even than these are those who wander about as physicians or healers ; who are none such, but magicians, enchanters, and sorcerers, who, while pretending to cure, kill whom they will. They apply their medicines by blowing on the patient, and by the use of infernal words….

He refers, still in diabolist terms, to shamanic initiations carried out in woods, glens, caves or fields:

In some provinces the disciple is laid on an ant-hill, and the Master standing above him calls forth a snake, colored with black, white and red, which is known as ‘the ant-mother‘ (in Tzental zmezquiz). This comes accompanied by the ants and other small snakes of the same kind, which enter at the joints of the fingers, beginning with the left hand, and coming out at the joints of the right hand, and also by the ears and the nose ; while the great snake enters the body with a leap and emerges at its posterior vent. Afterwards the disciple meets a dragon vomiting fire, which swallows him entire and ejects him posteriorly! Then the Master declares he may be admitted, and asks him to select the herbs with which he will conjure; the disciple names them, the Master gathers them and delivers them to him, and then teaches him the sacred words. [19-20. [Master in Spanish could as well be translated “teacher.”]

Curandera applying herbs for healing

These words and ceremonies are substantially the same in all the provinces. The healer enters the house of the invalid, asks about the sickness, lays his hand on the suffering part, and then leaves, promising to return on the day following. At the next visit he brings with him some herbs which he chews or mashes with a little water and applies to the part. Then he repeats the Pater Noster, the Ave, the Credo and the Salve, and blows upon the seat of disease, afterwards pronouncing the magical words taught him by his master. He continues blowing in this manner, inhaling and exhaling, repeating under his breath these magical expressions… [20]

As in other countries, the Maya revered the ancestral shamans, and the colonial Church persecuted this as well:

“In other parts they reverence the bones of the earlier Nagualists, preserving them in caves, where they adorn them with flowers and burn copal before them. We have discovered some of these and burned them…” [21]

And again, he mentions that the deceased aj’kij (daykeeper shamans/astrologers) are revered as “holy souls” [51]

The bishop says there are still some who “transform themselves into tigers, lions, bulls, flashes of light and globes of fire.” The churchmen interpreted Maya accounts of shamans’ relations with their spirits in terms of their own diabolist ideas of incubus / succubus: “one woman who remained in the forest a week with the demon in the form of her Nagual, acting toward him as does an infatuated woman toward her lover.”

As was said of European witches, “they die when the Nagual is killed,” or if it’s wounded they bear a mark in the same place. The old belief is deeply rooted: “there is scarcely a town in these provinces in which it has not been introduced. It is a superstitious idolatry, full of monstrous incests, sodomies and detestable bestialities.” [21] This source, like many others, highlights the linkage between persecution of European witches and that of American Indian shamans. Often foreign terms came to be applied to Indian shamans. This one is especially interesting because it originated from Arabic, was absorbed into Spanish and then transported to Central America:

The word zahori, of Arabic origin, is thus explained in the Spanish and English dictionary of Delpino (London, 1768) : “So they call in Spain an impostor who pretends to see into the bowels of the earth, through stone walls, or into a man’s body.” Dr Stoll says the Guatemala Indians speak of their diviners, the Ah Kih, as zahorin. Guatemala, s. 229 [note, 26. Ah Kih now written aj’qij]

These Zahoris, as they are generally called in the Spanish of Central America, possessed many other mysterious arts besides that of such metamorphoses and of forecasting the future. They could make themselves invisible, and walk unseen among their enemies ; they could in a moment transport themselves to distant places, and, as quickly returning, report what they had witnessed ; they could create before the eyes of the spectator a river, a tree, a house, or an animal, where none such existed; they could cut open their own stomach, or lop a limb from another person, and immediately heal the wound or restore the severed member to its place ; they could pierce themselves with knives and not bleed, or handle venomous serpents and not be bitten ; they could cause mysterious sounds in the air, and fascinate animals and persons by their steady gaze ; they could call visible and invisible spirits, and the spirits would come. [26]

A good summation of powers described for shamans around the world!

Brinton draws on Jacinto de la Serna’s account of how the Indians resisted by incorporating their own sacred things into altar pieces:

Sometimes they adroitly concealed in the pyx, alongside the holy wafer, some little idol of their own, so that they really followed their own superstitions while seemingly adoring the Host. They assigned a purely pagan sense to the sacred formula, “Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” understanding it to be “Fire, Earth and Air,” or the like. [28, citing Manual de Ministros, pp 20-1, 42, 162]

Below are two conflicting accounts. In one, an old woman shaman chants and makes ceremony on a mountaintop to prevent the Spanish from invading Guatemala. The other implies that the old woman and her dog were sacrificed for the same reason. The author thinks the first version is better documented:

When Captain Pedro de Alvarado, in the year 1524, was marching upon Quetzaltanango, in Guatemala, just such a fearful old witch took her stand at the summit of the pass, with her familiar in the shape of a dog, and “by spells and nagualistic incantations” undertook to prevent his approach. [35. A footnote explains: “Trataron de valerse del arte de los encantos y naguales” are the words of the author, Fuentes y Guzman, in his Recordacion Florida, Tom. i, p. 50. In the account of Bernal Diaz, it reads as if this witch and her dog had both been sacrificed; but Fuentes is clear in his statement, and had other documents at hand. [35]

Another story, also from Guatemala, is loaded with castration anxiety and, even though the Maya did practice human sacrifice in ancient times, its truthfulness is dubious: “After the ancients sacrificed some man, cutting him into pieces, if he was one of those taken in war, they say that they kept the genital member and testicles of the victim, and gave them to an old woman they held as a prophet, in order for her to eat them, and asked her to pray her idol to give them more captives.” [my translation of]

” . . . . Despues de sacrificar los antiguos algun hombre, despedaçandolo, si era de los que avian cogido en guerra, dicen que guardaban el [34] miembro genital y los testiculos del tal sacrificado, y se los daban a una vieja que tenian por profeta, para que los comiese, y le pedian rogasse a su idolo les diesse mas captivos.” [35, from Fr. Tomas Goto, Diccionario de la Lengua Cakchiquel, MS., 8. v. Sacrificar; in the Library of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia]

My visual presentation Rebel Shamans: Women Confront Empire talks about the young Tzental priestess Maria Candelaria. In 1712 she led a major Maya rebellion against Spanish rule, after the bishop sent soldiers to destroy a shrine she had created.

But when her followers were scattered and killed, when the victorious whites had again in their hands all the power and resources of the country, not their most diligent search, nor the temptation of any reward, enabled them to capture Maria Candelaria, the heroine of the bloody drama. With a few trusty followers she escaped to the forest, and was never again heard of. More unfortunate were her friends and lieutenants, the priestesses of Guistiupan and Yajalon, who had valiantly seconded Maria in her patriotic endeavors. Seized by the Spaniards, they met the fate which we can easily imagine, though the historian has mercifully thrown a veil on its details. [36]

Of just such a youthful prophetess did Mr. E. G. Squier hear during his travels in Central America, a “sukia woman,” as she was called by the coast Indians, one who lived alone mid the ruins of an old Maya temple, a sorceress of twenty years, loved and feared, holding death and life in her hands. [36]

to be continued…

Max Dashu

Coamizagual and Central American shamans

I’m going to share some information from an old book which is a rich source on Mexican and Central American shamans and their cosmologies: Daniel G. Brinton, Nagualism. A Study Of Native American Folk-Lore And History. Philadelphia: Maccalla & Company, 1894. The language, while Victorian and somewhat romanticized in places, is less racist and sexist than many writers of that time (in spite of the standard male-default language). And he is critical of the colonial repression  of Indigenous religions. Better yet, he cites original sources! My comments are in italics, everything else is quotes from Brinton and his primary sources. I’ve bolded some sections for emphasis.

First, on shapeshifting and spirit guardians, an account with similarities to the Lakota custom of going to a sacred place and crying for a vision:

The earliest description I find of its particular rites is that which the historian Herrera gives, as they prevailed in 1530, in the province of Cerquin, in the mountainous parts of Honduras. It is as follows :

“The Devil was accustomed to deceive these natives by appearing to them in the form of a lion, tiger, coyote, lizard, snake, bird, or other animal. To these appearances they apply the name Naguals, which is as much as to say, guardians or companions ; and when such an animal dies, so does the Indian to whom it was assigned. The way such an alliance was formed was thus : The Indian repaired to some very retired spot and there appealed to the streams, rocks and trees around him, and weeping, implored for himself the favors they had conferred on his ancestors. He then sacrificed a dog or a fowl, and drew blood from his tongue, or his ears, or other parts of his body, and turned to sleep. Either in his dreams or half awake, he would see some one of those animals or birds above mentioned, who would say to him, ‘On such a day go hunting and the first animal or bird you see will be my form, and I shall remain your companion and Nagual for all time.’ Thus their friendship became so close that when one died so did the other ; and without such a Nagual the natives believe no one can become rich or powerful.” [4-5]

This region of Cerquin, which the author describes as Maya country in the mountains east of Copan (one of the ancient temple cities) has a tradition which rises above the usual masculinizing language.

Such, in Honduras, was Coamizagual, queen of Cerquin, versed in all occult science, who died not, but at the close of her earthly career rose to heaven in the form of a beautiful bird, amid the roll of thunder and the flash of lightning. [34. A footnote says, ‘The story is given in Herrera, Hist, de las Indias, Dec. iv, Lib. viii, cap. 4. The name Coamizagual is translated in the account as ” Flying Tigress.” I cannot assign it this sense in any dialect.’]

What  a great name! This bears further investigation. A few page later, more details are provided about Coamizagual. Here she is unnamed here but recognizable from the first account:

“They say further that [Votan] once dwelt in Huehuetan, a town in the province of Soconusco. Near there, at the place called Tlazoaloyan, he constructed, hy blowing with his breath, a dark house, and put tapirs in the river, and in the house a great treasure, and left all in charge of a noble lady, assisted by guardians (tlapiane) to preserve. This treasure

Lenca Maya pot from Ulua region

consisted of earthenware vases with covers of the same material; a stone, on which were inscribed the fluures of the ancient native heroes as found in the calendar; chalchiuites, which are green stones ; and other superstitious objects. “All of these were taken from the cave, and publicly burned in the plaza of Huehuetan on the occasion of our first diocesan visit there in 1691, having been delivered to us by the lady in charge and the guardians. All the Indians have great respect for this Votan, and in some places they call him ‘the Heart of the Towns.’ “* [39, from Constituciones Diocesanas, pp. 10]

The above account gives a glimpse of the systematic destruction of the Maya’s sacred treasures, corresponding to the confiscation and burning of their codices, an incalculable loss.

A remarkable feature in this mysterious society was the exalted position it assigned to Women. Not only were they admitted to the most esoteric degrees, but in repeated instances they occupied the very highest posts in the organization. According to the traditions of the Tzentals and Pipils of Chiapas, when their national hero, Votan, constructed by the breath of his mouth his darkened shrine at Tlazoaloyan, in Soconusco, he deposited in it the sacred books and holy relics, and constituted a college of venerable sages to be its guardians; but placed them all in subjection to a high priestess, whose powers were absolute. [33, citing Nunez de la Vega, Constituciones Diocesanas, p. 10, and Brasseur de Bourbourg, Histoire des Nat. Civ. de Mexique, Tom. i, p. 74.]

The veracious Pascual de Andagoya asserts from his own knowledge that some of these female adepts had attained the rare and peculiar power of being in two places at once, as much as a league and a half apart … [33, quoted from Herrera, Historia de las Indias Occidentales, Dec. ii, Lib. iii, cap. 5] and the repeated references to them in the Spanish writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries confirm the dread in which they were held and the extensive influence they were known to control. In the sacraments of Nagualism, Woman was the primate and hierophant.

Judging from the archaeological record, that is an overstatement, although women were certainly active as shamans and curanderas. Female oracles were important among the Maya as late as the 19th century.

This was a lineal inheritance from pre-Columbian times. In many native American legends, as in others from the old world, some powerful enchantress is remembered as the founder of the State, mistress of men through the potency of her magic powers. [33]

Such, among the Aztecs, was the sorceress who built the city of Mallinalco, on the road from Mexico to Michoacan, famous even after the conquest for the skill of its magicians, who claimed descent from her. [34, citing Acosta, Hist. Nat. y Moral de las Indias, Lib. vii, cap. 5]

Quilaztli: shaman, chieftain, goddess

According to an author intimately familiar with the Mexican nagualists, the art they claimed to possess of transforming themselves into the lower animals was taught their predecessors by a woman, a native Circe, a mighty enchantress, whose usual name was Quilaztli (the etymology of which is unknown), but who bore also four others, representing her four metamorphoses, Cohuacihuatl [Cihuacoatl] the Serpent Woman; Quauhcihuatl, the Eagle Woman; Yaocihuatl, the Warrior Woman; and Tzitzimecihuatl, the Specter Woman. [34]

This piece is most interesting because he provides the Aztec name which Zelia Nuttal translated as Underworld Woman, here rendered as Spectre Woman. More on Quilaztli. A footnote gives further sources and details:

Jacinto de la Serna, Manual de Ministros, p. 138. Sahagun identifies Quilaztli with Tonantzin, the common mother of mankind and goddess of child-birth (Historia de Nueva España, Lib. i, cap. 6, Lib. vi, cap. 27). Further particulars of her are related by Torquemada, Monarquía Indiana, Lib. 11, cap- 2. The tzitzime were mysterious elemental powers, who, the Nahuas believed, were destined finally to destroy the present world (Sahagun, I c., Lib. vi, cap. 8). The word means “flying haired” (Serna).

The Tzitzimime were much more that this, as a quick-and-dirty check on Wikipedia shows:

In Aztec mythology, a tzitzimitl (plural tzitzimimeh) is a deity associated with stars. They were depicted as skeletal female figures wearing skirts often with skull and crossbone designs. In Postconquest descriptions they are often described as “demons” or “devils” – but this does not necessarily reflect their function in the prehispanic belief system of the Aztecs.

The Tzitzimimeh were female deities … associated with the Cihuateteo and other female deities such as Tlaltecuhtli, Coatlicue, Citlalinicue and Cihuacoatl and they were worshipped by midwives and parturient women. The leader of the tzitzimime was the Goddess Itzpapalotl who was the ruler of Tamoanchan – the paradise where the Tzitzimimeh resided.

Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimime

The Tzitzimimeh were also associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the sun, this caused the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and devour human beings. The Tzitzimimeh were also feared during other ominous periods of the Aztec world, such as during the five unlucky days called Nemontemi which marked an unstable period of the aztec year count, and during the New Fire ceremony marking the beginning of a new calendar round – both were periods associated with the fear of change.

The Tzitzimimeh had a double role in Aztec religion: they were protectresses of the feminine and progenitresses of mankind. But they were also powerful and dangerous, especially in periods of cosmic instability. [From: ]

Returning to Brinton:

We read in the chronicles of ancient Mexico that when Nezahualpilli, the king, oppressed the tribes of the coast, the tierra caliente, they sent against him, not their warriors, but their witches. These cast upon him their fatal spells, so that when he walked forth from his palace, blood burst from his mouth, and he fell prone and dead. [34, from Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana, Lib. ii, cap. 62]

Hard to tell if this is authentic Indian tradition or Spanish interpolation. But check this:

What the old historian, Father Joseph de Acosta, tells us about the clairvoyants and telepaths of the aborigines might well stand for a description of their modern representatives:

“Some of these sorcerers take any shape they choose, and fly through the air with wonderful rapidity and for long distances. They will tell what is taking place in remote localities long before the news could possibly arrive. The Spaniards have known them to report mutinies, battles, revolts and deaths, occurring two hundred or three hundred leagues distant, on the very day they took place, or the day after. To practice this art the sorcerers, usually old women, shut themselves in a house, and intoxicate themselves to the degree of losing their reason. The next day they are ready to reply to questions.” [9-10]

–Acosta, De la Historia Moral de Indias, Lib. cap. 26

Emphasis added! Unfortunately, Brinton does not say whether this is Mexico or some other country.

Max Dashu

The full text of Nagualism can be downloaded here:

To be continued…

A Gallery of Toxific and Pornified “Goddesses”

I can’t stand it. For some time I’ve been thinking that something needs to be said about the the toxic femininity scripts   creeping into “Goddess” imagery, mass-media contamination, and all in the name of women’s empowerment. These posed, stilted, playmate-like “goddesses”, sticking their breasts out and pouting like lipstick models are all over the net. You’ve seen them – on Youtube, on Facebook, in comix and videogames. Oh, let’s not forget video games and virtual world avatars. They’re proliferating like mad. This is not empowerment; it is monoculture, limiting, plastic, soul-less, and lacking in the relaxed boldness of real power.

See what you think.

"The Return" (of worshipping the blonde? creepy)

And it’s not just the “goddesses.” They do the same to the “shamanesses,” “witches,” and even “Amazons.” Check it out.

I first noticed a strong trend on Pagan YouTube videos toward soft-porn imagery of witches, but it goes well beyond that.
Several months ago, I did a web search for images of “woman shaman,” “medicine woman,” etc., and this is some of what turned up. What’s sad is that people think they are reaching for a more powerful image of women, while conforming to the same old tired, limited ideas. Nearly all are glamour girls of the same body size and (often impossible) proportions. Virtually none represent old or middle-aged women, few are muscular, none are fat or even husky. Their stance and expressions are predictably uniform and modeled on porn archetypes.

If you’ve already looked at the first two pages, I’ve reorganized them and added several more pages as of April 25:

A Gallery of Phony “witches”

A Gallery of Fake “Amazons”

The Toxic Feminine Template: Video Games and Virtual World Avatars

Enough! what women need is the Real Thing.

Max Dashu

Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes

I’ve always been captivated by Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes, and recently came across a book Bernadette Speaks (2000) by a French cleric who was involved in Vatican proceedings for her beatification. It’s dry as dust considering the inspirational power of her story, and annoying for the way he excuses the vicious treatment Bernadette received from the Mother Superior in the convent. Her words are chopped up by the interminable interrogations she was put through by clerics high and low.

But! it has two nuggets of interest. He says that Bernadette was “heiress” in her family. This custom is reminiscent of matrilineal Basque traditions, still a strong influence in this Bigorre country of the northern Pyrenean foothills. As late as the 6th century CE, this region was part of Aquitania, which still spoke a Basque-related language, not Gaulish or Roman. One of the tribes there, the Ausci, have a name quite close to the Basque name for themselves, Euskadi. Centuries later, the region was known as Gascogne or Gascony or Vasconia, a name directly related to Basque. But returning to the local family “heiress”:

This title was given the eldest daughter in any family of the matriarchal culture, still surviving in that part of France. The heiress held first place in the family and exerted an authority of the first order in family matters, even after the marriage of her brothers and sisters. [Laurentin, 13]

Bernadette of Lourdes

Bernadette was named after her aunt Bernarde, who was not only her godmother, but the previous heiress of her maternal line and a force in the Soubirous household. Her influence made itself felt after male authorities forbade Bernadette to return to the grotto of Massabielle during the period of her visions. The girl’s mother was afraid (understandably, they were some of the poorest people in a very class-conscious town). It was her aunt who said, “If I were in Bernadette’s place, I’d go.” And that was all Bernadette needed to take off for her beloved grotto. [66]

As church officials browbeat the visionary, accused her of lying, and demanded that sshe find out the name of the apparition, she agreed to ask. The answer she received was a phrase that Bernadette did not know or understand, even though the Lady spoke in her native patois: “Que soy era Immaculada Councepsiou.” I am the Immaculate Conception. Not I received or had it: I am that, the pure Origin.

This declaration cuts through layers of patriarchal Catholic theology to the Divine Mother as originator, in which fatherhood is not a consideration. The idea that Mary was conceived without sin had just surfaced in Catholic theology. I don’t believe that sex is sin, but this was a step toward elevating her to the level of deity in all but name, something long since been accomplished in the Marian devotion of the common people.

Bernadette knew nothing of theologians’ distinctions and parsings. She knew something much greater: what she saw and heard, an epiphany so intense that it immediately created excitement in her town, even though she was a pauper. She herself never claimed that she had seen the Virgin Mary. Bernadette simply called her Aquerò, That one, or era Demezella, the Lady. She stood up to the repeated questionings with spirit and aplomb, very much like that shown by Jeanne d’Arc centuries before.

The Grotto of Massabielle, the "Old Rock"

Bernadette was bombarded by demands for the pettiest details about the Lady’s dress and appearance. While remaining polite, she repudiated the sculptures of the Lady commissioned for the chapel, wilting willowy figures of the usual type. “No, that’s not it.” In private she spoke of them more scornfully.

Bernadette flatly refused to reveal the secrets that had been entrusted to her alone, no matter what protestations of priestly authority were thrown at her. It wasn’t just the clergy that afflicted her. Wealthy people came and demanded to see her to question her. Women tried to cut off pieces of her hair, or her skirt. Her life was overturned by becoming, against all her inclinations, a celebrity.

The best-known account of her story is The Song of Bernadette. It was written by Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew who was fleeing the Nazis a second time, and was given refuge in Lourdes. He heard her story from many people, and promised to write a book about it. Although fictionalized, it seems truer to the spirit of the people than the over-measured dogmatic descriptions of Laurentin. He captured the feeling that drew crowds to the grotto where Bernadette gazed, smiled, bowed, prayed her rosary; where she was transfigured with tears streaming down her face in ecstasies that electrified the assembled throngs of people:

Bernadette in Fall of 1863

Bernadette was … the perfect photographic negative of the invisible, which thereby was brought for the onlookers to the boundary of the visible. … all gazed breathlessly from the niche to the rock to the mediatrix and from the mediatrix from the niche. Their expectancy was satisfied. For the unexpected had become a presence. [102]

In her ecstasy, Bernadette was swept into a state of deep absorption, unconscious of what went on around her. Dr. Douzous, originally a skeptic, was deeply impressed by witnessing her communion while holding a large candle. Her hands slipped down over the flame and remained there for a quarter of an hour, the flame playing on them, and yet when he examined them afterward, there was no trace of burning, not even redness. “There’s nothing.” As Abbé Joanas recounted, “These words were passed rapidly back to the furthest part of the crowd and caused a wave of excitement approaching delirium.” [Life, 172]

Werzel imagines the interchange between her and the local curé after she told him the Lady’s name: “… if the Most Blessed Virgin were to speak, all she could say of herself would be: I am the fruit of the immaculate conception. She could not say: I am the immaculate conception. Birth and conception are an event. But a person is not an event. No one could say of himself: I am the birth of my mother. Eh?” [Werzel 1943: 209]

Yet something much like this is written in the Egyptian Gnostic scripture, Thunder, Perfect Mind: “I am the mother of my father.” And again: “I am the silence that is incomprehensible / and the idea whose remembrance is frequent. I am the voice whose sound is manifold / and the word whose appearance is multiple. / I am the utterance of my name.” [Nag Hammadi Texts]

The Raptures of Bernadette [I haven’t located the book that all quotes below are taken from, but will post when found]

On her second visit, Bernadette was again accompanied by a (larger) bunch of girls. One later remarked, “There were about twenty of us, all poor.” [50] Again the Soubirous girl went into rapture: “Her face was lit up.” She was smiling and unresponsive. Afraid she was on the verge of death, they ran to the mill for help. The miller’s wife got her son to go carry her away. He testified that he found on her on her knees, eyes wide open and gazing at the niche in the rock, with her hands together holding the rosary:

Tears were streaming from both her eyes. She was smiling and her face was lovely, lovelier than anything I’ve ever seen. It made me feel both happy and sad, and all day long my heart was moved at the thought of it. I remained for a time motionless, watching her. The girls were watching her like me; my mother and aunt were also spell-bound. [51]

Finally they roused themselves and tried to pull her away. “She struggled to stay. Her eyes remained fixed upwards. Not a murmur.” He lifted her and the whole group pulled and pushed her up the path. “She was trying hard to go down again, without however saying a word. It took a great effort to drag her along; strong as I am, it would have been heavy work, had I been alone.” Bernadette was still smiling with tears of joy running down her face, until they reached the mill and she came back to normal. [53]

From then on more and more people congregated to see the visionary encounter her Lady. Bernadette streaked ahead of the others and ran down to the river bank. Josèphe Baringue recounted,

As soon as the Apparition appeared, her smile became lovely and her countenance changed. She gave a greeting with her hand and head. It was a delight to see her. It was as if she had done nothing else all her life but learn how to bow. [63]

Her aunt Bernarde said, “To see her face like that brought tears to your eyes.” [63]

Again she was accompanied by a group of women. Madame Lannes said that she looked up, smiling: “then she became thoughtful and seemed to be listening with great devotion and reverence. I was very close to her, and several times I heard a long breath come through her lips; it was scarcely perceptible, as though she had uttered a very low and prolonged yes.” Her mother was amazed at the sight:  “I can no longer recognize my child!” Even skeptics like Rosine Cazenave were deeply impressed. Romaine Mengelatte exclaimed, “If only you had seen her eyes! It was enough to bring you to your knees.” [66]

In a later encounter, when the crowds had grown, Jean-Baptiste joined them “to scoff and jeer.” What he witnessed changed his mind, as he later wrote:

Bernadette knelt down, pulled out her rosary from her pocket, and made a profound reverence. … While slipping the first few beads through her fingers, she raised her eyes to the rock in a searching gaze that betrayed her impatient longings. Suddenly, as though a flash of lightning had struck her, she gave a start of amazement, and seemed to be born into another life. Her eyes lighted up and sparkled; seraphic smiles played on her lips; an indefinable grace spread over her whole being.

Everyone sank to their knees, raptly gazing at the young visionary.

When the Lady was speaking, she thrilled with happiness; on the other hand when she herself was speaking and making her petitions, she would bow down to the ground and be moved to tears. …Usually the ecstatic ended her prayers with a profound reverence to the hidden Lady. I have moved much in society, perhaps too much, and I have encountered models of elegance and distinction; but never have I seen anyone make a bow with such grace and refinement as did Bernadette.

The same went for the slow. majestic movements with which she made the sign of the cross. After an hour, she kissed the ground. “Her face lit up with a last splendor; then gradually… but almost imperceptibly, the rapture faded and finally disappeared.” She continued praying a while longer, now looking like an ordinary peasant girl. [96-7]

On a later occasion, the crowd had reached over 400 people. The local paper Lavedan had deplored the goings-on at Massabielle but admitted, “Everything takes place quietly; we would even say, in a spirit of profound recollection. This child is for the multitude today the interpreter, if not perhaps the image, of a higher power.” The Lourdes Sergeant who had been stationed there reported to his superiors that before Bernadette had finished the first decade of her rosary, she “strained forward with a gentle movement of her whole body, as though she had caught sight of an object which enraptured her.” Without lowering her gaze, she began to bow and smile.

Someone accidentally disturbed the briar at the Lady’s feet, temporarily interrupting the vision. Moaning softly Bernadette moved around, searching within the grotto.

Bernadette’s face had clouded over, like the earth when the sun is hidden; then suddenly she recovered her radiance, and was heard to utter a faint ‘Ah’ as though she were saying, ‘Ah, what joy! There she is!’ While watching all this, I was saying to myself: ‘This little one is not inventing this.’ After a while, Bernadette stood up and turned toward the crowd. In a gasping voice she repeated, ‘Penance… penance… penance!’ [103]

On her next encounter, “The Lady said to me: ‘Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it.” Bernadette started for the

Golden saxifrage

river, but was pointed back to the grotto where there was a wet patch. She dug into the ground, and water came, but still muddy. On her fourth try she was able to get enough to drink. When she turned around, there was consternation at the sight of mud on her face. People began crying that she was mad. Oblivious to everything but her vision, Bernadette crawled on her knees to another spot and, pulling from a clump of saxifrage, put it into her mouth and chewed it. The people were jeering. She made her “magnificent sign of the cross,” and fled with her family and supporters. [107]

After that, over the next days, the water began to flow, and people began to gather it to give to sick and diseased people. In spite of the negative reaction, Bernadette’s next visit was nevertheless attended by most of the town’s population. This was perhaps her longest ecstasy. Abbe Pène observed that Lourdes seem emptied of its inhabitants and unnaturally quiet. 140 The clergy were in an uproar and held meetings with town officials. A report from the doctors said she was not faking, but “admit hallucination and ecstasy resulting from a cerebral lesion.” The bishop instructed local clergy to “use every means in their power to prevent the girl from going to the grotto and thus spare us the drastic measures which the civil Authority intends taking…” [170]

The next time, having been pressured to get Aquerò to give her name, Bernadette asked her three times, and received her celebrated answer. It caused a sensation among the priesthood, who continued to interrogate her closely and repeatedly over the years that followed. Few of them attended the gatherings at Massabielle, feeling that they should not encourage what might be a fraud. Once they accepted her visions, they continually fixated on details that did not matter. They had missed one of the greatest gifts of Bernadette’s mystery: to witness a human transfigured by a profound spiritual encounter. This sight inspired and amazed all who came to the land sanctuary where her raptures took place.

Copyleft Max Dashu 2011


René Laurentin, Bernadette Speaks: A Life of Bernadette Soubirous in her Own Words. Boston: Pauline, 2000

Franz Werzel, The Song of Bernadette, translated by Ludwig Lewisohn, New York: Viking, 1943

Wu: female shamans in ancient China

Excerpted from article © 2011 Max Dashú    Download pdf of full article

‘We rise to heaven and brush away the comets,’ said a shamaness in her song.

The strong pattern of female shamans in eastern Asia has been erased from the history that most people know. Yet women predominated in shamanism of ancient China, Japan, and Korea, and have persisted into modern times in eastern Siberia, Korea, Manchuria, Okinawa, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Here I’ll survey female shamans in China’s earliest written records, its ancient art and ritual culture, classical literature, historical records, legends, and temple practices.

Old sources show the Wu performing invocation, divination, dream interpretation, healing, exorcism, driving off evil spirits, and

Women dancing, Zhou dynasty black-clay figurines

performing ecstatic rain dances. Dramatic descriptions recount the powers of the wu in their ecstasies: “they could become invisible, they slashed themselves with knives and swords, cut their tongues, swallowed swords, and spat fire, were carried off on a cloud that shone as if with lighning. The female wu danced whirling dances, spoke the language of spirits, and around them objects rose it the air and knocked together.” [Eliade, 454, citing DeGroot, The Religious System of China, VI, 1212]

The character for wu depicts shamans dancing around a pillar, or the long sleeves of a shaman’s robe swirling as she dances. Some archaic Da Chuan forms show hands making an offering which is received from above. Possibly the oldest glyph from which the wu character arose represents a quadant of the directions (sifang), and was also influenced by a glyph meaning “dance,” showing a person with outstretched arms in long sleeves. Dallas McCurley interprets it as representing a whirling dance that transported shamans to altered states of consciousness. [McCurley,

Shang dynasty oracle bone signs: hands make offerings being received from above; two figures dance around a central pillar, or a shaman’s arms in a long-sleeved dance robe. The two characters at the right read wu / mo “shaman”; the first is archaic and, at far right, the classic character wu.

Ancient oracle bone inscriptions use wu most frequently in relation to spirit sacrifices and for calls to “bring the wu.” One Shang oracle bone was inscribed, “divination, the wu proclaims…” Another mentions a group of nine wu who did a ritual dance before sacrifices. [Boileau, 350, 355-6] Other inscriptions refer to the female shamans Yang, Fang, and Fan performing rain-making ceremonies. The political prominence of these early wu is underlined by Edward Schafer, who points to “traditions of Shang ‘ministers’ called ‘the shaman(ess) so-and-so’.” [Schafer 1951: 132, 162]

The oldest Chinese dictionary, Shuowen Jiezi, equates wu with zhu, a ritual invocator, and with ling, “spiritual, divine.” It underlines the female signification of wu: “wu is a zhu (invoker or priest), a woman who is able to render [herself] invisible, and with dance to invoke gods to come down. The character symbolizes the appearance of a person dancing with two sleeves.” [Erickson, 52. Another translation of this passage runs, “An Invoker. A woman who can serve the invisible, and by posturing bring down the spirits. Depicts a person with two sleeves posturing.” (Schafer 1951: 152-3)]

The Shouwen also refers to “an inspired shaman serving the spirits with jade.” Another word with the sound wu (but written with a different character) means “to dance.” The relationship of these two words has been much discussed, since dance looms large in descriptions of the wu. The shamanic character wu also appears in many compound words, combined with other radicals signifying “woman,” old woman,” “male,” “spirit” and “immortal.” The wu radical also acts as meaning-signifier in the characters for xi, “male shaman,” for “yarrow” (whose stalks were and are used in divination with the I Jing), and in the most archaic form of the character yi, “doctor” (and here the “shaman” radical was later replaced by that of “wine,” indicating a shift away from ritual to medicaments).

The title Wu also figures in legendary place-names. “Snake Wu mountain” appears in the ancient Shanhai Jing as the home of the shamanic goddess Xi Wangmu. This book also says that wu live on Mount Divinepower, “where the hundred drugs are to be found.” Another passage describes them as possessing the herb of immortality. [Birrell 2000:174, 141] Real place-names survive too: the celebrated Mount Wu, dwelling of the Divine Woman, and the famous Wu Gorge of the Yangtze.   …

Many scholars see Chinese shamanism as underlying what developed into Taoism. [Schipper, 6] The Taoist word for ecstasy, kuei-ju, “coming in of a spirit,” was derived from shamanic possession: “For it was said of a sorceress in trance and speaking in the name of a shen: ‘this body is that of the sorceress, but the spirit is that of the god.” (The word shen is ungendered in Chinese.) The wu prepared herself to receive divinity by purifying herself with perfumed water, putting on ceremonial robes, and making offerings. Then, “with a flower in her hand, she mimed her journey by a dance accompanied by music and songs, to the sound of drums and flutes, until she fell exhausted. This was the moment of the presence of the god[/dess] who answered through her mouth.” [H. Maspero, in Eliade, 453]

One of the oldest, comprehensive descriptions of the wu appears in the 3rd century BCE Guoyü:

Anciently, men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded, and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below, and their insight to illumine what is distant and profound. Therefore the spirits would descend upon them. The possessors of such powers were, if men, called xi (shamans), and, if women, wu (shamanesses). It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters. As a consequence, the spheres of the divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessings on the people, and accepted from them their offerings. There were no natural calamities. [Bodde, 390-1]

Later, says this old classic, the divine and profane became intermixed, causing misfortune, so that the communication between Heaven and Earth had to be cut.

Lacquer painting of Wu, late Zhou period

The above translation of the Guoyü neatly reverses the primary gendering of wu as female, using English words that imply that the word “shaman” is masculine and only secondarily applies to women (“shamaness,” “shamanka.”) But in Chinese, the more ancient character wu is incorporated as a signifier into the word xi, demonstrating that the explicitly masculine term is derived from the feminine, and not vice versa. However, not long after the Guoyü was written, we find the authors of the Zhouli regendering the concept, as “male wu” and “female wu.” Later writers often used the binom nan-wu, “male wu,” because wu by itself still implied female identity, or the collective wu-xi. Other sources continued to reflect a female gendering of wu: “the old songs and rituals found in the Li Sao and the Spring and Autumn Annals … contain descriptions of male shamans impersonating women.” [Laughlin and Wong, 1999 p. 152] Another old source, the I Jing, says of hexagram 58, “Dui is marshy-fertile, a youngest daughter, a shaman.” [Schafer 1951: 155]

The rest of this article is a pdf with many images, which you can download here. It includes sections on:

  • the women who taught Shun how to fly
  • the Shang diviner-priestess Fu Hao
  • cong: Earth jades connected with the queens
  • tigress-shamans and shapeshifting
  • cosmic sleeve-dancers
  • women’s ceremony in late Zhou bronzes
  • Confucian repression and exclusion of female shamans
  • Wu as rainmakers and ritual sun-exposures
  • female shamans in Chinese literature
  • the Goddess of Wu Mountain
  • Aboriginal tiger-women
  • Chen Jinggu, the deified shaman of 8th c. Fuzhou
  • More deified shamans and spiritually realized women

Sociopolitical aspects of the Andinnas

The Kunama have withstood repeated invasions and raids from more powerful, more patriarchal neighbors. Outsiders often call them by the depreciating name Barià, meaning slaves. For three centuries the Kunama were forced to pay tribute to the Funj empire of Sudan, who also took many of them captive and enslaved them. This traumatic history colors their language: where we might say to someone, “Are you crazy?” the Kunama expression is, “Has a Funj taken you?”

Dore emphasizes that Kunama land is “a territory historically exposed to risk,” and that the Andinnas give expression to collective trauma in their ritual theater, “transforming the memory of violence undergone.” They enact Otherness and themes of border-crossing, in a way similar to the zar religion. They smoke and use male behavior, gestures, voices. They reproduce the gestures, moods, positions or bodies of foreign spirits, of the dominators. They act out raids and counter-raids, with acts modeled on European and Ethiopian armies, such as drills and presenting arms. Some of their songs are battle songs. [60-63]

They recall terrible attacks by outsiders: “O countrymen, the country has broken out in battle, flee; if you don’t want to, wait until they come to throw you out and go anyway. Are your feet bound? Why don’t you want to escape?” [64]

“Why you have lost the enemies? Why you have not held your lance tightly? Why you have not held your lance tightly to kill the one who eats berbere [Ethiopians or Eritreans]? Why you have lost the enemies?” [65]

“Why we do not burn? Why we do not put to fire Adua and Makalle? Why we do not burn Sawa?” [65]

Dore says this is “to control and also emotionally express the violence undergone, and the fear.” [65] That is indubitable, but there may be another dimension he does not consider: the activation of protective spirits around Kunama lands. Even the processional route the Andinnas traverse seems to have a protective magical dimension. There is also the aspect of women acting out warrior and specifically masculine behavior: “I’m on the trail of the Beni Amer [Muslim invaders of Kunama country]. I don’t hide what my mother and father say. I am like a strong man, I am perverse and don’t do what I’m told.” [63]

Another layer of politics is from recent colonial rule and European religion. The earliest accounts of Andinnas (of Kunama culture generally) come from Swedish and Italian missionaries, and are deeply stained with their prejudices against indigenous religion and culture as pagan superstition. A Swedish letter from Kulluku village refers to the mother of a young convert as a “witch doctor.” Dore points out that the woman may well have been an Andinna.

The Italian-Kunama dictionary compiled by Catholic missionaries renders Andinna as a “spirit-woman, witch.” She has ties to Sadalla, a being who is glossed as Lucifer, chief of the demons, even though for the Kunama, Sadalla does positive actions and healing. He is the spirit who comes to give warnings to the Andinnas who fall immediately in a weeklong  trance. During that time they speak in tongues and are in constant touch with Sadalla who drinks aifa with them. [56-57]

While some clergy took the more pragmatic attitude that “we don’t want to know about it,” the main thrust of the foreign missionaries was to do away with the shamanic culture of the Andinnas. Here is a story “Sadalla” told by a Christian convert, which demonizes this important spirit of the Andinnas and describes the women themselves not as healers, but as devil-possessed evildoers:

The demon and the andinnas are relatives. He lives in the deserted countryside. Then he goes into the houses. The andinnas and the spirits sit together; he has an iron stick. Then, if if his subjects behave badly, he strikes her on the neck with the iron stick. If in the country there is a sick person, he goes there. He breathes a spirit into the sick person and they get worse. He then takes to the cemetery the shadow of the sick person. The spirits carry him away and the sick person dies. He goes from country to country in search of meat, in search of honey, in search of aifa. He breathes his spirit into a healthy person who becomes agitated. This is the story of Satan. [81]

Dore says the public performances of the Andinnas “allow insight on assymetric social relations and symbols, such as between Kunama and external forces, between men and women, human beings and spirits, the living and the dead, and to socialize the relationship between the possessed and the spirit or the spirits. [59] He remarks that even though men turn to the Andinnas in times of need, they “hold them at a distance” socially, and are afraid of them.

Dore concentrates on the political and “theatrical” aspects, but has less to say about the spiritual. What he calls “therapeutic theater” could also be described as shamanic acts of power. This is especially true of the Andinna’s walking of a ritual course across the Kunama landscape. Their brandishing of weapons and chants appears to be protective magic that brings in power from ancestors and the land. They seem to be  warding off danger from their Kunama people, who have suffered such a long history of invasion and danger from without.

Sexual politics of a mother-right culture under seige

Kunama women do not stay in the house; they move freely across the land in daily life. Especially young women cover a lot of terrain in bringing home water. For this reason, as well as the strong mother-right customs of their culture, they have the reputation of being “free” among neighboring peoples. These outsiders, both the Muslim Sudanese and Christian and Muslim Ethiopians, believe that Kunama women hold headship over their men. [68, note 65] This belief is fortified by the lack of sanctions against Kunama women taking lovers, something that the patriarchal neighbors disapprove and severely punish in women.

Traditionally, Kunama women are free to take lovers as they choose, as a different source explains: “As soon as she reaches puberty, a Kunama girl is given a hut of her own where she can entertain her male friends. She is totally free to choose her own boy-friend, a lover or her future husband. It is very seldom that the Kunama parents would practise pre-arranged marriages for their children.” When an unmarried woman takes a lover and becomes pregnant, her parents ask her who the father is. They ask him if he is willing to marry her. If he refuses, she goes through the ‘Mashkabara’ ceremony. The young man provides a cow to be sacrificed, and the young woman’s extended family comes to mark her passage from girlhood:

“Through that ceremony, externally consisting in the changing of her hair styling, the girl is brought into the state of womanhood. The underlining meaning of this ceremony is that, to be a mother a girl has to become a  ‘woman,’ no matter whether that takes place through marriage or just simply performing the ‘Mashkabara’.” [Source: “Kunama Customs – Traditions – Pregnancy” at CUSTOMS – TRADITIONS – PREGNANCY Part 1 RKPHA 1999-2000.html ] This excellent article continues with a description of the intense solicitude and communal support that the Kunama provide to all pregnant women, in food, labor, emotional, and in every way possible.

The traditional values of the Kunama are communal and strongly egalitarian in many ways. It is a culture of sharing, free of class stratification or of one group lording it over another. Society is organized around the mother-kin, and we have already seen the importance of the Andinna priestesses. However, Kunama women are subjected to female genital excision and even infibulation. These may have been adopted from their patriarchal neighbors, who have invaded and raided and oppressed them for centuries.  However it came to be, excision is now deeply embedded in the culture. A third of Kunama women suffer the most severe form, known as infibulation. In this extremely painful ordeal, the clitoris and entire vulva are amputated and the external labia are sewn together into a wall of flesh. Heterosexual intercourse can take place only by cutting the woman open. The Kunama have a name, koda, for the special relation between two women who passed through infibulation together, their legs tied apart to each other. [Endnote 2, p 84]

In the documentary Sharifa’s Three Wishes (2000) the wishes of the deceased grandmother Sharifa all pertain to Kunama traditions. One her wishes is that a clitoridectomy should be performed on her youngest granddaughter, Geneth. “Agid, the mother of the child, tries to refuse. She would like to protect her daughter from this ordeal. Agid argues that in the city many families don’t perform this ritual anymore. The old powerful women warn that an uncircumcised women will be ostracized from the tribal society, won’t be able to inherit and will not be buried in the family grave. The primary threat is the ghost of the ancestors, which can be terrible and can bring tragedy over the entire family.” [Sharifa’s Three Wishes]

As the grandmother’s name indicates, some Kunama have converted to Islam, and others to Christianity. The aboriginal culture is buffeted by outside forces, as it has been for centuries. In mixed marriages (aboriginal-faith to Christian or Muslim) contradictions arise. Dore tells how one Muslim husband took the approach as the earlier missionaries: “I don’t want to know about it.” He avoided his wife when she entered trance and ordered not to even speak to him then. Yet the chants of the Andinnas reflect strong Islamic influence, with phrases like Mekka-Madina and Salam appearing often. A Catholic priest told one girl who had been an Andinna’s student, “If you are an Andinna, you can’t be a Christian!” She responded, “Yes I know, now I’m a Muslim because I invoke Meccamedina!” [Dore, 67]

The transwoman oracle

European sources always refer to the Kunama supreme Deity, Annà, as “God,” but in one place Dore indicates that the people saw Annà as co-gendered. He describes the case of a shepherd who took male lovers, declared a female identity, and became a sensation practicing divination, healing, and counter-sorcery a century ago. An Italian court case of 1903 says:

“a man dressed in women’s clothes, and wearing necklaces, went out in the country doing dances as if possessed by a spirit.” People gathered around him: “while still dancing, he told how Annà [god] had spoke to him in a dream, and had also changed his sex. This condition was for him, a man, necessary to be recognized and enjoy the rights of Ascilminà, which are always reserved to women. The people then divided into two camps, most of them shouting at the imposter, other upholding the possible truth of his assertions. [He]… assumed the female name Alima and contracted with great pomp, and to the amazement of many and the mocking laughter of others, the first marriage with one of his shepherds.” [74]

“But a crowd of people drove off the new couple with sticks, and they had to move to another area. They settled in a remote locale, where people came first out of curiosity and then to consult him. People were of the opinion that Alima was hermaphroditic and thus like God, as they imagined Divinity to be, as the unique origin of the Kunama line.” [74, emphasis added]

Alima’s name grew, s/he got followers and a court, and a village grew up around hir. S/he was called Annà and hir village Anne Suca (God’s country). Every night s/he spoke with various dead people, relatives showing hir with abundant gifts, and more consultations followed. When the rains failed at Sogodas, a council was called, and an old man warned the assembly that they needed to discover the traitors who were hiding like snakes in the country, who were using sorcery to stop the rain. People felt there was no time to lose; the fields were baking, the witch must be found immediately if any of the crops were to be saved. They proposed to consult “Annà.” [74]

So a group of elders went to hir with gifts and offerings. They told hir who they suspected; all were immigrants from other regions. Alima went into trance, named three of the unfortunates who had been suggested, and made recommendations on how they should pay for their sorcery. When hir pronouncements were brought back to the assembly, a howl of hate rose against the condemned. In vain, the three men protested their innocence and implored friends and relatives to protect them. A hundred hands attacked and threw them to the ground. They were killed on the spot. Alima later implicated another five men who were killed after being tortured. [75]

Dore speaks of the cross-dressing and assuming of feminine identity as “a necessary act because he invades a territory belonging to the andinna or ascirminè women.” [75] This implies that prophecy was a female realm –incarnating spirits certainly was  — but in fact male diviners also existed. The suli fada male diviners cast lots and oversaw ordeals of accused sorcerers. [84, n. 5] The witch-finding of  Alima  fits the masculine paradigm more closely than the feminine. There is no indication of this solitary oracular figure ever having been identified with the Andinnas, whose practice is thoroughly communal. No one becomes an Andinna without being initiated and taught, even though that happens after they are selected by the spirits.

Their ritual practices bear some resemblances to the zar religion, another female trance religion that originated in Ethiopia and  spread to Sudan, Egypt, Arabia and beyond. Both groups while entranced smoke, brandish weapons, and manifest primarily masculine spirits, and often powerful foreigners as well. There is something going on with ceremonially working the Other, as Dore’s subtitle indicates: “Women and possession as historical archive and experience of Otherness among the Kunama of Eritrea.”

Dore on the Andinnas

More from Gianni Dore, “Chi non ha una parente Andinna?”. Donne e possessione come archivio storico ed esperienza dell’alterità tra i Kunama d’Eritrea.” Online: 3/04. GIANNI DORE.pdf [Excerpts in quotes; some of my commentary is in italics.]

The title of this article comes from the exclamation, “Who does not have an Andinna relative?” It perfectly expresses the fact that the institution of Andinna is common and widespread among the Kunama. This name can be used in a broad sense for any woman who becomes entranced, and more specifically for the women (andinna shadia) who are chosen by the ancestral spirits and are recognized as called and formally initiated. Only women become entranced and enter the sisterhood of Andinnas. [50]

Andinna in majesty with sword and horned feathered headdress

Dore tells us that the term Andinna “may be related to andà, great one, elder, ancestor… perhaps alluding to their function of mediating with the world of spirits (inà is a suffix that indicates a quality of of something).” [50 note 11] Every year, the Andinnas fall in trance in the dry months of December and January, after the sorghum harvests. For three or four days up to a fortnight, they roam across the land, across dry, often difficult paths, visiting and being ritually welcomed into villages, where they heal and perform divinations or channel the spirits of ancstors. They “cure with herbs, are able to drive away evil spirits and protect from misfortune.” [67]

To begin with, the Andinne undo their hair and are anointed with butter. They cover the front of their head and sometimes two forelocks with a white, hornlike crown of sheep fat. [And, according to Frank-Wissman, the fat is mixed with other sacred substances, possibly herbs.] They hang long black feathers from their heads and hold poles, the senior Andinnas carryiing staffs with bells on top for calling the spirits. [52]

“They gather within a dagasà enclosure, usually four or five of them with their apprentices, a small, ad hoc feminine confraternity; they drink aifa, the local sorghum beer, they eat valuable foods like sesame and honey, burn incense, hold a sword. They enter trance to the accompaniment of music, singing in call and response. They also express themselves with masculine voices and bearing in public performances, and may threaten or pursue anyone who comes close…”

The Andinna are said not to remember what they say or do during these trances. The words they speak are a mixture of Kunama with Arabic and Tigrinya (a majority language in Eritrea), with glossalia (non-words) and infusions of Islamic words and place-names such as Mecca and Medina. [54, 59] As an example, here is an invocation by the Andinna Ka_i_a Annè of Dagìlo:

O-di-de-do ele-le-le the spirits come, raised/ the spirits come, O mother, O mother! A single spirit comes from Mekkamedina! (…) Like a brigand o-di-de-do-oi-da-do prays in the evening, prays in the evening, I Kagigia I begin to pray/ the spirit comes only from me oi dabò.” [66]

The women carry swords, lances, sticks, shields, feathers, and sheep fat, for ceremonial use; plants and roots for curing, and sacrificial   animals. “Even the entranced movements in their strangeness and irregularity (such as scrambling up on the roof of a hut or into the trees) are codified… Spectators sometimes participate by stepping up to support the women when they fall to their knees or into someone’s arms in deep trance.” [69]

Andinnas with wands.

“The traumatic experiences of the andinna women make them agasè, intermediaries between the living and dead. Immersed in the pain of the living, they are called to resolve the sufferings of life; with their traveling as shadows, hella, between the earth, lagà, of the living and that of the dead, they reassure on the fact that the dead don’t have suspended accounts, but respond to the anxietes of the living on the fate of those whose death is not certain.”

At the end of the sacred period, the Andinnas go through ceremonies that return them to normality. Their relatives prepare sorghum beer and invite guests; the women often gather together in a single hut, even if there are various spirits, and they make sàmeda, the festival with the closing dance as the period of trance ends. [72] (Several descriptions of these ceremonies follow below.)

The andinnas return and are greeted by their relatives, who ask “How was your journey? Are you well?” And then: “Have you seen our relatives? They answer that they have met this one and that one. Various kinds of rites are performed. Some announce and prepare the ceremonies for the dead on behalf of the relatives. Others, the sasalilé, perform divinations, receiving questioners from behind a cloth, speaking in the voice of a dead relative who asks for sacrifices. Pollera describes them being wrapped in a futa on the ground, and hidden there, speaking in tongues. [72]

This hiding of the entranced seer behind a veil or cloth appears in many places, including Indonesia, Philippines, Uganda, the beaded veils of the izangoma in South Africa and the machi in Chile.

At the end of their sacred journey across the land while immersed in ancestral consciousness, the Andinnas return to their village for the closing ceremonies. One Italian observer described how the women danced four times, then returned in procession, with the head Andinna coming last. They were joined by two ex-andinnas who repeatedly cried out, “sullum, sadellà lilina ibba” (“goodbye, Father Sadallà, I leave you…”).

The women moved across the clearing, performing protective ritual theater and offerings: “they turn, with weapons lowered, execute right and left turns like soldiers, cross arms, remove their diadems of fat, scatter aifa-beer and milk to the four directions, leap toward the east, hissing, and then compose  themselves. Finally they closed with a sacrifical meal of chicken and injera.” [Dore, 62-3, citing Cittadini’s description]

In Oganna, the procession ends up in the lower part of the village, where the Andinna dance on the final day. They act out raids with lances, chasing away spirits. A 1966 description recounts that three andinnas sang to the sound of the stringed abankalà, always played by men (while only women play the kubulà drum). [69-70] The Andinnas made four turns around the neñeda clearing with their lances, shouting, “Ussumullai, alanga, gasc, negusc, makkamedina, eliti, bitame!” They kissed the drawn sword, then the lance. Each one sacrificed a hen and drank its blood. In the afternoon they acted out a cattle-raid. They started singing outside the village and reentered, shouting over and over “Sanni morò, sanni morò abbagarà naneto. Sanni morò.” Then they ate the sacrificed meat, washed themselves and, crying, went over to a space in front of the huts. [70]

Assembly of the Andinnas

Although the Kunama are matrilineal, the profession of Andinna is not handed down by descent, only  by spirit calling. They have a saying, “Andinnas don’t have heredity.” They may have children, but not as married women (kokidiginà) whose unions are contracted between two families. They join another social category, the kokàta, who are women free to pursue love affairs as they choose. [67]

When an Andinna accepts a student, she teaches her how to control her spirits, and ultimately decides when the novice andinna is ready to begin her practice. “The teachers of possession and their students consist of a temporary confraternity in the dry months of December and January, leading a life apart, moving from village to village and carrying out divinations and curing activities.” [68] They can bring through many kinds, of families or villages or deities, often on request: “… the andinnas can be invited by relatives of another village and there make festivity and fall in trance.” [71-72]

“The girls are initiated and put through a long training which includes control of the body and voice. When the relatives, after having failed to find other means of resolving the crises, finally decide to take the girl to become apprenticed to an Andinna…” she is given a structured way of dealing with her state. The author calls possession “a system of action and knowledge that they absorb through a controlled process, which gives order to ‘disorder’, that coordinates everyday time with extraordinary time…. The students accompany and do services for the andinnas as they rove the spaces between this village and that…”

“The Andinnas are ankoradina, which means they are skilled with herbs and roots, carry out curing activities.” Some are sadinà (“those with sada”) which means both healing medicine and poison. The sadinà also uses ceremonial and sacrifice in her treatments. She goes several times around a sick person with a female goat, if it is a woman; with a billy goat, if a man. She offers an invocation to Annà [the co-gendered Supreme Deity of the Kunama] “that what I give you with joy will bring good effects.” She collects the goat’s blood in a receptacle and mixes the medicine into it, then bathes her patient with it, and gives a little of its meat in a broth mixed with the medicine. They split the cooked meat, and the rest of the medicine the patient mixes with milk or beer every two or four days. [Dore, 57-8, citing Ilarino Marichelli]

Other magical titles include usìne and awawe (sorcerers), and the awame, travelling healers who take out “dirt” and do massage, cure with roots and herbs. The Kunama conceive of illness as able to hide or insert itself into the body. A skilled healer can expel it through massage, especially abdominal massage, a process referred to as ula-kieke or nieke. [58, 71] Lugga, an andinna of Oganna, described how “we take out sand, stones, bones” from the body of sick people. [73]

Diviners deal with spirits of dead relatives and help people in personal and family crises. The sesalilà are seers whose consultations are done at dusk, speaking from behind a curtain. The categories of awame, sesalile and andìnna are female professions, and often overlap. [58] Sometimes a diviner will tell where the medicine is to be gathered. [73] Dore mentions a traveler’s account of a female diviner (wäyzäro) Essai in `Addi Sasalù, along the customary route of the Andinnas. [54, citing Sapelli’s Memories of Africa]

So many aspects of Andinna spirit-selection, altered states, prophecy, and healing fit the patterns of shamans and medicine people all over the world. They travel between the worlds of the living and dead. Like shamans in many traditions, they say they do not remember what they say or do during their ecstasies. Even the strong involvement of ancestral spirits fits patterns in South Africa, Congo, Siberia, Mongolia, Chile, and other parts of the globe. The fact that the Andinnas are all women may be attributed to the matrilineal/matrilocal culture of the Kunama. My next post will look at these sociopolitical aspects of Kunama culture and history.

Kunama testimony about the Andinnas

I’m going to present and comment on excerpts from an Italian article: “Chi non ha una parente Andinna?” by Gianni Dore, 3/04. GIANNI DORE.pdf

This direct Kunama testimony about the Andinnas was recorded and transcribed decades ago by colonial and church officials. Dore presents it in the Kunama with Italian translation. The orginal titles are retained. My comments are in italics.

The Andinnas

The andinnas, these don’t have heirs. Their profession is this: At the time of the ancestors the andinnas worked. These died. There’s a time of the year in which the andinnas are taken by the spirits, it is said. Once the spirits arrived, the andinnas run to scramble up on the house. She says thus, “O countrymen, the land has broken into combat, flee; if you don’t want to, wait until they come to throw you out and go away, are your feet tied? Why don’t you want to escape?” These words said, she plunged from the roof of the house to earth and fainted. Then her companions sprang up, turned her into an andinna, and she became their head. She then got up and transformed her companions into possessed women; she and her companions became andinnas. [76-77]

Then a man went to the house of the possessed women. They did like this: when a sick person comes from them, they say they are extracting the ill from that person. Some of them pull out stick from him. Others say they extract pebbles. Having done this, they take recompense in sorghum, sesame, millet, tobacco, honey and meat. For seriously ill people, some of them kill a white she-goat and collect a little of the blood in a receptacle. Then they take the ill out of the sick person and pour a little water and cover him; with the goatskin they cover the sick person’s head, with that skin they wrap up his body so that the spirits and the ailment go out of the sick person.

Because of this they call them andinnas, but they do not have heirs. [77, Note 2, contrasts this with the many Kunama offices inherited by matrilineal law. 78, note 5, explains that the sick person rides two or three times the animal to be sacrificed. Poorer folk use eggs instead.]

Extracting illness energies out of the sick is a classic practice by medicine people all over the world. So is the use of sacrificial blood, herbs, or eggs, to cleanse and infuse energy. Other African accounts repeat the theme of shamans climbing up onto roofs, or sometimes into trees, when in ecstasy, for example among the shaman-diviners of the BaYaka in Congo.

Entranced Andinnas roaming the Kunama country


Now here is the story of the andinnas. The possessed women in the summertime [do] thus according to their custom: they don’t eat honey, nor do they eat fresh sesame; thus they remain until the fire festival is celebrated in this time. They take themselves to the countryside, they collect roots of curative plants and then go to the river; arriving at the river, they scoop a dent in the water and put the curative root in the water which streams around it; they undress and bathe. Then returning home, they mix sesame and honey with water brought from the river and put the medicine in it; all the andinnas consume it. Then the rest of the medicine they put upon the door lintel and also put it under and in the clay oven and in the fireplace. That’s how they do it according to their custom. [78]

This beautiful ritual uses plants and the power of living water to heal.

Andinnas goddita [the closing ritual]

Then the next day the women go to bring water and in midday the possessed women do the closing dance. Once the aifa is filtered, they take it to the clearing, then they sound the cithar of the andinnas and the women begin to dance. The women clap their hands and dance, then at the center of the clearing they counterpose their lances. One at a time the possessed women throw themselves on the lances, each one throws herself on the lance, all the andinnas do thus. Then a woman takes the sorghum beer in a clay receptacle, and stands in the middle of the clearing. Then the andinnas, dipping their fingers in the aifa, spray it here and there; then one at a time they all run away and the men hold them up so they don’t fall. All the andinnas do this. [79-80]

Then all the andinnas are brought home, they rush to take the chicken meat from each others’ container and eat it. The andinnas are bathed, then they take off the fat from their hair, and send the spirits back to their countries. From this moment they come back to normal. Once back in their normal state, they begin crying and saying, Where is my son, where is my husband, where are my relatives? Then when they stop crying, they are given millà greens to eat. Then they offer aifa to those present.

Then their companions come to find the andinnas back to normal and greet them saying, Have you returned well from your journey? Are you well, they say. Have you seen our relatives? and they answer, saying We met in this or that place of the dead this one and also that one. So to the youth who is not married they say that he is married there and has come with his wife and they found each other. And offering tobacco to the spirits they also take tobacco. Now I have written the story of the possessed. Tell me another. [80]

The above describes the closing ritual after the Andinna-s have spent weeks in trance, going in procession from village to village,  carrying out healings, oracular speech, and feasting on special food.

In the appendix, Dore includes a colonial letter referring to orders to question the women affected by the “devil”. This language is typical of colonial European demonization of the indigenous religion, and reflects a systemic campaign to eradicate it. The writer describes how three women sang in honor of the Elephants, Giraffes, and Buffalos and saluted the brigands, repeated two more times these salaams. He recounts the usual multiglossal chants of the andinnas.

One morning they played their cithar and playfully set about drinking from a pumpkin gourd given by the countryfolk and another gourd of honey mixed with sesame and another gourd of meal, of uaca, and of water; they killed a white hen putting the flesh in a clay cup, then with the water of the last gourd the three women wash their hands making the water pour in the gourd with the meat and with their hands washed, they rub their feet, mouths, and navels.

Then they give the meat to children and begin to disport themselves with the cithar, two of the women spread a mat on the ground and lay down covering themselves with a futa, and from under there saluted the people who were around, while the third woman threw herself on them shouting Ualladi Salama, uommi salama onani soan salama, then begins to speak a language which is neither Arabic or Baza or Tigré, and then is healed. [85-86]

Andinnas of the Kunama

At the Spiritual Politics Conference in Germany in May 2010, one of the highlights was a film about the Andinna, an all-female community of trance healers and seers among the Kunama. This matrilineal, matrilocal people lives in  the borderlands of Ertitrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Below is information from my scribbled notes from the film (necessarily incomplete since I understand little German):

Gudrun Frank-Wissmann presented her film-in-progress with commentary, “The Kunama of Eritrea: the Ancestors Speak.” She showed stunning footage of trance rituals of a group of women called Andinas. The Andina (trance-priestesses) dance for the dead at burial in communal graves, to the same song that is sung for the grain harvest. This priestess lineage connects with the Kunama ancestors, whose souls come from the spirit-country Arka. In their society, lands are communal, and so if a husband leaves there are no severe consequences. Nevertheless, women are tempted to marry patriarchal men from the wealthier highlands.

Frank-Wissman said that the ritual has remained unchanged for 2000 years. The ancestors call women by making them faint at graves. They dance with sword and spear to greet ancestors, to the east and and to the west. (The weapons are considered symbols of power, defensive only, and – the filmmaker says, are related to the Meroitic queens of Sudan.) During initiation, the woman falls to the ground, and her hair must touch the spear to connect with the ancestral spirits. The Andina should not be open to all spirits. They call names of the ancestors; a woman touching her hair is a sign that she’s connecting with them. The women not always comfortable as they anticipate what ancestor will come.

The Andina take a different name, Lugus, when in ecstasy. They put on a beautiful, hornlike crown of fat, over an unnamed sacred substance, and wear it during the weeks of the annual rite. The women display entranced speech and gestures, often asking for chewing tobacco, and perform other acts of the spirits. They are forbidden to use water the morning after their initiation; the young Andina clean with sesame and chew it. During several weeks of ritual, they walking over the land, many miles in special iron shoes used only for this occasion. Walking through villages they’re given coffee, tea, sesame. When greeting an older Andina, they kiss her  and grab her vulva.

At end of the ritual period, the women dance for hours. They sacrifice a chicken, whose blood they drink, then they roast it and eat with sesame and honey, no other spices. After this finale, the Andina spirits return to their world. A reversed ritual of entranced women takes place over the sword and spear. They symbolically die and are carried back to the village by men, and are said to be able to jump over the huts in their potentized state. One spirit of a very old Andina initially refused to leave a young woman’s body. The initiates stay together on a mat for one night in this  return passage.

They awaken in a deep trance, with no memory of the past weeks. Their skin is  cut with little stones and herbs and ashes rubbed in, to make a sign so that Andinas can recognize each other. The ritual is repeated every year when the sun and moon appear together on the horizon.

Coming right up, I’ll post more information about the Andinnas from the Italian scholar Gianni Dore.

Anishinaabe Medicine Women in Michigan

One of the obstacles in researching women is the old language of masculine default, that enshrouds women in a supposedly universal  “man” or “men.” The phallacy of this becomes apparent anytime it’s necessary to differentiate between male and female: “One important  difference between man and other primates is that he menstruates instead of going into heat.”

This male-default usage, which has regrettably made a comeback with the anti-feminist backlash, really gets in the way of finding the truth in historical research. It obscures what is really going on. When your source speaks only of “medicine men,” it is impossible to tell whether a given culture only recognized males, or overwhelmingly males, or whether this is the outsider’s bias, as is typically the case.

So last week I was trying to verify if the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) medicine name wabeno, always translated as “men of dawn,” was ever applied to women, or really was exclusively male. I did not manage to get an answer to this question, but while searching ran across this story. A white guy was attending a meeting of an Ottawa medicine society in Michigan over a century ago had a run-in with an Ojibwa medicine woman:

“as Mr Cass is said to have observed an old Ojibwa medicine woman, who had come up at each dance to actively participate in the exercises, he asked someone near by why this old woman took such an active part, as she appeared rather uninteresting and had nothing to say, and apparently nothing to do except shake her snake-skin medicine bag.

“The woman heard the remark and became offended, because she was known among her own people as a very powerful mitä’kwe. In an instant she threw the dry snake-skin bag toward the offender, when the skin became a live serpent which rushed at Mr Cass and ran him out of the crowd. The snake then returned to the medicine woman, who picked it up, when it appeared again as a dry skin bag.”

Source: Walter James Hoffman 1896: 105, in Encyclopedia of Native American Healing (WW Norton, 1996 p xxxvii)

Anishinaabe woman, 19th century

W.P. Strickland refers to a medicine woman known as the “Prophetess of Che-moi-che-goi-me-gou” or “Blue-robed Cloud Woman.” Her fasting vision quest at menarche led to a vision that conferred spiritual gifts on her. On the night of the sixth day, a voice called her to walk toward it on a narrow shining path. She saw the moon on her right and the setting sun on her left. Her account has been  rendered in stiffly Victorian language, mangled even, but still beautiful:

“I beheld on my right the face of Kau-ge-gag-be-qua, or the everlasting woman, who told me her name, and said to me, ‘I give you my name, and you may give it to another. I also give you that which I have, life everlasting. I give you long life on the earth, and skill in saving life in others. Go, you are called on high.’

“I went on, and saw a man standing with a large, circular body, and rays from his head, like horns. He said, ‘Fear not, my name is Monedo Wininees, or the Little man Spirit. I give this name to your first son. It is my life. Go to the place you are called to visit.’ I followed the path till I could see that it led up to an opening in the sky, when I heard a voice, and standing still, saw the figure of a man standing near the path, whose head was surrounded with a brilliant halo, and his breast was covered with squares. He said to me: ‘Look at me, my name is O-shau-wau-e-geeghick, or the Bright Blue Sky. I am the veil that covers the opening into the sky. Stand and listen to me. Do not be afraid. I am going to endow you with gifts of life, and put you in array that you may withstand and endure.’

“Immediately I saw myself encircled with bright points which rested against me like needles, but gave me no pain, and they fell at my feet. This was repeated several times, and at each time they fell to the ground. He said, ‘wait and do not fear, till I have said and done all I am about to do.’ I then felt different instruments, first like awls, and then like nails stuck into my flesh, but neither did they give me pain, but, like the needles, fell at my feet as often as they appeared. He then said, ‘that is good,’ meaning my trial by these points. ‘You will see length of days. Advance a little further,’ said he. I did so, and stood at the commencement of the opening. ‘You have arrived,’ said he, ‘at the limit you cannot pass. I give you my name, you can give it to another. Now, return! Look around you. There is a conveyance for you. Do not be afraid to get on its back, and when you get to your lodge, you must take that which sustains the human body.’ I turned, and saw a kind of fish swimming in the air, and getting upon it as directed, was carried back with celerity, my hair floating behind me in the air. And as soon as I got back, my vision ceased.

“After the seventh day of my fast, while I was lying in my lodge, I saw a dark, round object descending from the sky like a round stone, and enter my lodge. As it came near, I saw that it had small feet and hands like a human body. It spoke to me and said, ‘I give you the gift of seeing into futurity, that you may use it for the benefit of yourself and the Indians-your relations and tribes-people.’ It then departed, but as it went away, it assumed wings, and looked to me like the red-headed woodpecker.

“The first time I exercised the prophetical art, was at the strong and repeated solicitations of my friends. It was in the winter season, and they were then encamped west of the Wisacoda, or Brule River, of Lake Superior, and between it and the plains west. There were, beside my mother’s family and relatives, a considerable number of families. They had been some time at the place, and were near starving, as they could find no game. One evening the chief of the party came into my mother’s lodge. I had lain down, and was supposed to be asleep, and he requested of my mother that she would allow me to try my skill to relieve them. My mother spoke to me, and after some conversation, she gave her consent.

Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) woman with ceremonial staff

“I told them to build the Jee-suk-aun, or prophet’s lodge strong, and gave particular directions for it. I directed that it should consist of ten posts or saplings, each of a different kind of wood, which I named. When it was finished, and tightly wound with skins, the entire population of the encampment assembled around it, and I went in, taking only a small drum. I immediately knelt down, and holding my head near the ground, in a position as near as may be prostrate, began beating my drum, and reciting my songs or incantations. The lodge commenced shaking violently, by supernatural means. I knew this by the compressed current of air above, and the noise of motion. This being regarded by me, and by all without, as a proof of the presence of the spirits I consulted, I ceased beating and singing, and lay still, waiting for questions in the position I at first assumed.

“The first question put to me was in relation to the game, and where it was to be found. The response was given by the orbicular spirit, who had appeared to me. He said, ‘How short-sighted you are! If you will go in a west direction, you will find game in abundance.’ Next day the camp was broken up, and they all moved westward, the hunters, as usual, going far ahead. They had not proceeded far beyond the bounds of their former hunting circle, when they came upon tracks of moose, and that day they killed a female and two young moose, nearly full-grown. They pitched their encampment anew, and had abundance of animal food in this new position.”

These shaking-tent ceremonies were held over much of North America. The written sources I had seen until now all implied that only men performed them, but this account by Blue-robed Cloud Woman proves that women carried out these sacraments as well.

Similarly, I had never seen any reference to women carrying out the yuwipi ceremony (the medicine person is tied up and wrapped in a quilt, the bonds being loosed in short order). Not, at least, until I read Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers-Medicine Women of the Plains Indians. (Mark St Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier,New York: Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1995) which is extremely rich. I highly recommend it.


W. P. Strickland Old Mackinaw: The Fortress of the Lakes and its Surroundings. Philadelphia: James Challen & Son, 1860

Mama Huaco, the first Coya of Peru

The ancestors of the Quechua, eight siblings, emerged from the Pacaritambo cave and wandered the land of Perú. One of their chiefs was Mama Huaco, “a woman exceedingly strong and skillful.” She took two golden staffs and hurled them toward the north to divine where the ayllu-s (clans) should settle. One fell in Colcabamba, but the hard ground did not allow it to sink in. The second staff easily plunged into the ground at Guayanaypata, in the center of Cuzco, “Navel” of the world. Meeting resistance from the local people, the Inca ayllu-s were not able to settle there right away, but found their way back after further travels.

As Guamán Poma de Ayala told it, Mama Huaco was the mother of Manco Capac. Others make her his sister and wife, or co-wife with Mama Ocllo. The overlap may indicate an ancient tradition of brother-sister pair being superceded by a patrilineal husband-wife pair. Maria Rostworowski notes that in what appears to be the oldest version, no father figure or conjugal pair exists, only the blood bond of mother-child and of siblings. This is the ancient pattern of mother-right societies.

Modern pictures and media accounts foreground the masculine leaders at the expense of the women.

Another, militarized version of the colonization of Cuzco shows Mama Huaco in a fiercer light. In this story she is married to Manco Capac, and she did not throw golden wands. Instead she shot stones from a sling, wounded one of the indigenous Guallas, then cut open his chest and inflated his lungs with a strong breath. (I’m just reporting what the account says.) The Guallas fled in terror, and the Inca clan took control of the land. This story probably dates to the Inca empire period. Another story shows a more peaceful settlement, with the son of Mama Huaco and Manco Capac marrying Mama Coca, daughter of a local chieftain of Zañu.

Mama Huaco represents the female warrior chieftains of ancient Perú. Cabello de Valboa described her as a brave captain who led armies. The Aymara connected the word huaco to  free women who are undaunted by cold, work or difficulty. Mama Huaco is one woman among the four named captains of the ayllu-s (clans) in Quecha oral histories. One group under Manco Capac settled in Hurin (lower) Cuzco, while the followers of the elder brother Auca (who turned into a stone huaca) settled in its uplands, Hanan Cuzco.

Another female war chief was Chañan Curi Coca, who led the ayllu-s of Choco-Cachona. She too had shamanic powers, employing the pururauca, magical stones that at the height of battle changed into fighters and won the victory for the Incas.

Mama Huaco had other, peaceable powers: “she sowed the first corn that there was.” The field where this happened was held to be a sacred place. [Silverblatt, 40, 59] Other stories say that she taught women the art of weaving. Guamán Poma described Mama Huaco as a beautiful dark woman, who was the first of the Coyas. This writer was descended from Quechua nobles—his grandmother was the tenth Coya Mama Ocllo—and conquistadores. He looks through a dual lens, incorporating European diabolist perspectives, but otherwise reaffirmed the Quecha traditions. He wrote, “They say she was a great sorceress” who spoke to spirits (“devils,” in the demonizing Spanish parlance) and she communed with the stones of the earth.

Mama Huaco, first of the Coyas

This lady made stones and boulders speak—huacas [sacred stones or places], idols. From this woman sprang Inca kings. They say that her father was not known nor was the father of her son, Manco Capac Inca, but rather she was the daughter of the sun and moon, and she married her eldest son… She governed more than her husband Manco Capac; the whole city of Cuzco obeyed and respected her throughout her life because with the power of devils [sic] she worked miracles never seen by man… She was very beautiful, knowledgeable and did much good for the poor people of the city of Cuzco and the kingdom. For this reason the government of her husband grew rather well…. [Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, The first new chronicle and good government: on the history of the world and the Incas up to 1615, #121, ed. Roland Hamilton, Google eBooks, p 123]

The Coya was the ceremonial head of Quechua women and oversaw the Moon Temple and its mamacona priestesses. The sacraments of Mama Quilla, Mother Moon, were entirely in women’s hands (as were sacraments of all the goddesses) and governed the fruits of the soil, of animals and humans. The Coyas also had governmental powers. They ruled when the Inca left the capital, and had the decisive vote if the Inca’s council could not reach agreement. Coyas arranged marriages of nobles, and had their own estates. Their names were remembered, and gold and silver statues of them were placed in temples, as awestruck Spanish accounts relate.

Garcilaso de la Vega, another early Inca-Spanish mestizo historian, cast Mama Ocllo as the sister-wife of Manco Capac. They emerged out of lake Titicaca to search for a chosen valley, and in this version it is Manco Capac whose magic staff sinks into the earth. A sacred well inside one of the Inca palaces of Cuzco was named for her.

Mama Ocllo, 17th century Peruvian painting

Mama Ocllo is often described on the Net as a “fertility goddess,” but she was another ancestral founder who represents the Coyas, powerful Moon priestesses and female counterparts of the Incas. Many post-conquest paintings indicate her lunar connection by showing her holding a mirror reflecting the face of the sun.) Some sources conflate the names of these two ancestral Quecha women, referring to Mama Huaco Ocllo.

Sources: María Rostworowski, “La Leyenda de los Hermanos Ayar,” in La Historia de Tahuantinsuyu

English version here:

Irene Silverblatt, Moon, Sun and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru, Princeton U Press, 1987

Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft

This is a review of Ben Whitmore’s Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft. A Critique of Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Auckland: Aotearoa / New Zealand, 2010

I am glad someone took on the task of providing a detailed critique of Hutton’s book. Ben Whitmore, a Pagan priest in New Zealand, does not hail from the school of Wicca-is-a-direct-transmission-of-ancient-Pagan-tradition. He is clear “that today’s witchcraft is largely a reinvention” and favors  examining the foundational myths of modern neopaganism with a critical eye. At the same time, he feels a spiritual kinship with past traditions and holds out the possibility of recovering their authentic roots: “I feel it is high time that Wicca and Paganism be permitted to have not just myths, but a history as well.” Hear, hear.

Hutton, although himself a Pagan, has systematically attacked the idea of pagan survivals in medieval Europe, and not just in this book. He hews to an orthodox focus on literary sources as the font of culture, with a corresponding disregard for the testimony of folk tradition and its conservational power. We hear from Diane Purkiss about how the English school of witchcraft history had “hardened into an orthodoxy”since the 1970s. Whitmore points out that they ignore the rich documentation of folk paganism by continental historians (a disregard, paired with sputterings about “rigor,” that I have been protesting for years).

Hutton’s earlier book is described as taking a “withering” approach  toward neopagans while rhapsodizing about christianity. Such attitudes are unsurprising in most academic circles, but Hutton’s dismissals have been taken up by some Pagans as well. Whitmore recounts “one rather sad conversation I had with a bright young High Priest and High Priestess who were abandoning the Craft because Triumph had convinced them they were living a lie.”[2-3]

Whitmore makes an effort to be evenhanded. He praises Hutton’s chapters on Wicca as “balanced and comprehensive.” He corrects an error about the succession in Alexandrian Wicca. [3] It’s been years since I read Triumph of the Moon, so I don’t remember if the feminist branches of Wicca were included. In any case, modern paganism is not the main thrust of Trials of the Moon; it is about making the case for a historical connection between pagan ethnic religion, including goddess reverence, and later witches and witch traditions.

Whitmore counters Hutton’s exaggerated claim of “a tidal wave of accumulating research which [in the 1990s] swept away … any possibility of doubt regarding the lack of correlation between paganism and early modern witchcraft.”He lays out the misrepresentations and revisionism in Triumph of the Moon by reviewing the historical literature that Hutton cites, and systematically showing that his sources do not say what he claims they do. In some cases they say the complete opposite. The quotes that Whitmore provides shows that they affirm rather than deny the persistence of pre-Christian spiritual traditions, including shamanic ones. The exception is Muchembled, but even he acknowledged the demonization of folk beliefs and observances in constructing the myth of the Witches’ Sabbath. [6-8]

So the book tests Hutton’s evidence and provides some much-needed historiography. It also offers  helpful summaries of ideas by various authors. P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, for example, talks about the incompleteness of European conversion into the middle ages, and tracks the imposition of elite ideas about diabolical pact and witches’ sects onto folk culture. (Hmm: a footnote alludes to the famous case of two German villages where only two women were left alive. Maxwell-Stuart, however, appears to have erased the specific targeting of women, rendering it as only two “residents”spared by the hunts. [9 fn 27]) Still, I’d like to read his discussion of the number of accused witches who actually were cunning folk, healers, diviners, or people who had dealings with the faeries. [10]

“Who were the witches, where did they come from?”

Next, Whitmore turns to the classic academic definition of “witch,” whose convergence with diabolist premises has been much-overlooked. (This conflation must be grappled with if we are ever to get at the truth about folk belief.) Whitmore looks at the influential comparisons that anthropologists made with African, specifically Shona, witch-beliefs. He challenges the anthropological definition of “witch” as based on “an in-dwelling and intangible quality of evil,” as opposed to acts of sorcery. He shows that even in the Shona case, witchcraft is in fact not held to be only due to bad essence or to dreams, but also said to be based on actions. [13] As the work of Isabel Mukonyora shows,  Shona witchcraft accusations target primarily women and enforce patriarchal norms. [“Women of the African Diaspora Within,” 2006]

A big problem with the anthropological definition of “witch,” now widely diffused in academic writing about European witchcraft, is that it reinforces the terms of theological diabolism. The Christian demonologists insisted that witches were incapable of doing good because their powers came from “the devil.” So when MacFarlane says he aims to show “how witchcraft functioned,” he is talking only about the accusations of magical evildoing and resulting persecutions, not about the larger body of folk tradition with its witch goddesses, sacred places, festivals, and so on. [7] This is true of many other writers.

Not only has “witchcraft”become equated with harmful sorcery, but many academicians have adopted gender-biased terminology as the standard. They connect “witch” (culturally read as female) with magical harm while assigning value to “magician” or “sorcerer”or “wizard” (read as male) as a ritualist, even a shaman. The term that resonates as male is neutral or positive. This gendering is even more explicit in French writings, with sorcière (female) for evil-doer and (male-default) sorcier . (So I learned in a net debate with a woman who defended this terminology as neutral.)

Whitmore notes that many pagan-flavored shamanic or visionary actors identified themselves as Christian, with examples from Italy, Sicily, Livonia, Scotland. (This was doubtless authentic in most  cases, but we have to ask, What would happen if a person did not claim Christianity?) Whatever religious allegiance magical folk claimed, Whitmore points out that the pagan or shamanic associations of their spiritual or healing practice nevertheless led to their identification as “witches.”[16] The elite definition (set by bishops, theologians, rulers, lawyers and judges) made the categories of “Christian” and “witch” mutually exclusive. Because of this, sincere prayers and protestations of Christian faith counted for nothing in the torture chamber.

The “myth” of a Great Goddess

“Large sections of [Hutton’s] book — entire chapters, even — are one-sided, misleading, or plain wrong…. for a surprising number of his claims he provides no evidence at all, such as his alarming assertion that there was never an Earth Mother goddess in Mesopotamia, Anatolia or Greece.” [3]

Hutton declares that a Great Goddess was purely a 19th century invention, with the sole exception of Apuleius, a priest of Isis. Whitmore offers up Greco-Roman and Egyptian titles that prove otherwise, and enumerates Irish and Gaulish triple goddesses as well as triune Fates and birth faeries across Europe. He make the point that Graves’ age-differentiated template of maiden-mother-crone does not fit the actual pattern of goddess triads, in Greece or the Celtic world. [17-19] (On this subject, watch for Dawn Work-Makinne’s forthcoming book on the collective goddesses of ancient Europe.)

Hutton insists that virgin and mother goddesses are no more than projections of the Virgin Mary, but Whitmore shows (as have others) that the reverse is the case. In Triumph Hutton repeats his assertion  (also advanced in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles) that Earth Mother was not a real deity, only a philosophical construct. Whitmore counters with her salutation in Old English prayers like the Æcerbot incantation (which begins Erce Erce Erce Eorthan Modor). Although christianizing phrases have been added to it, this plowing and planting incantation shows that the old veneration of Earth persisted in agricultural ceremonies. [20-22]

The footnotes of this book are not to be passed over; they are often as interesting as the main text. One offers important information about a different version of the Æcerbot from Corvei that runs, “Eostar, Eostar, eorthan modor.” The name Eostar leads back to a complex of old Germanic and Indo-European names for “east” “dawn” “egg”(as in “oestrous” cycle) and, famously, the goddess Eostre and the holiday Easter. [23]

There’s a discussion of the mysterious evocation Erce and its potential connections to other goddesses. In his book Ecstasies, Carlo Ginzburg brings in Herodiana, the underworld goddess Haerecura, and a a scratched graffito of a woman riding on a goose, inscribed fera comhera, which he translates as “Wild with Hera.” Even closer are the Herke / Harke witch-goddess names that Grimm discussed. Any of these names may have been reflected in clerics’ choice of the otherwise rather obscure biblical queen Herodias as queen of the witches. Whitmore refers to Julio Caro Baroja’s discussion of the earliest mentions of Herodias (one dating to 872) as a form of Diana who leads a company of women who fly on shamanic steeds through the heavens. He also notes that “Jacob Grimm devotes a large section of Chapter 13 of his Teutonic Mythology to Herodias, and connects her very plausibly with pagan deities (Grimm 1998).”

I’m more dubious about the beautiful prayer to Earth in the 12th century English herbal that Whitmore advances as a persistence of paganism. [23] I’m inclined to agree with medievalists who link it to Greco-Roman stylistic models. There’s no denying its pagan sensibility, and a strong background paganism may well have influenced its educated author, but it would be pushing to call it an English folk prayer.

Then it’s on to the horned god. Hutton’s case that he is based on a fusion of Pan with Jesus “doesn’t stack up.” [25] Nor is Attis the only instance of a resurrected god before Jesus,  since there are also Osiris, Dumuzi, Tammuz, Baal, Adonis, Dionysos and even Khnum. And the water to wine theme originated with Dionysos, long before christianity. Some of this ground has been covered by Arthur Evans (not Sir A.E., but the living gay historian) in God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysos. (We could add another proto-christian model from the old Greek myth of humans coming from the ashes of Titans mixed with the remains of Dionysos. This story arguably represented a Pagan Greek concept of original sin.)

Whitmore points out that Hutton unduly narrows the field of evidence: “By assuming that the origins of Horned God are in popular literature Hutton imposes a selection bias, and ensures that that is all he will find.”[29] This selective focus also applies to the picture Hutton paints of the classical world. Part of the problem is that his interpretation foregrounds elite culture, from Homeric and Olympian viewpoints, to Roman, to literate Christian sources. Along the way, I like that Whitmore provides some overdue rehabilitation of the much-maligned Frazer (irrespective of his dying-god thesis).

Cunning Folk

Trials next discusses how widespread “cunning folk” and their techniques were. Whitmore marshalls British sources, from the early modern Reginald Scot to current witchcraft scholars Alan MacFarlane and Keith Thomas, to show that this British term was interchangeable with “witch.” He looks at the vulnerability of cunning folk to charges of harmful sorcery. (This suspicion sometimes applied to shamans on other continents, outside the European context of church diabolism and witch persecutions.) Whitmore cites Emma Wilby’s work on the blurry line between cunning folk and witches in Britain, and that of Eva Pocs for Hungary. He outlines avenues for a more detailed investigation that takes into account the diabolization of folk customs. [31-33]

The chapter on Leland and his book Aradia refers to the discovery of the 18th century German source for the fabled figure of 9,000,000 witches burned. (Whitmore credits Robert Poole [2003] who in turn credits Wolfgang Behringer.) This identification clears Matilda Joslyn Gage from accusations made, by Hutton and others, that she had made this number up. [35] She didn’t, and this  information, still little-known outside of specialist literature, bears repeating. But the figure is wrong, and many people are still quoting it as fact.

For quite a while there, anyone who took Aradia seriously risked ridicule. Whitmore ably defends Leland from being cast, as he puts it, “as a crank, a dilettante, a polemical anti-Catholic and a likely forger.”[36] He is in good company. In a recent annotated edition of Aradia,  several Pagan scholars have countered a century of dismissal of Leland, with detailed commentary and a new translation of the Italian passages. (Mario Pazzaglini, ed. Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, A New Translation. Sadly, this book is out of print, but key ideas are summarized here.) I’ve always felt that Leland could not have invented the Italian passages, since his English translations mangle them rather badly, rendering them into a stilted literary style that is much inferior to Maddalena’s oral verses. Yet he was a revolutionary scholar who saw the immense value of folk orature, whether it was Tuscan, Roma or American Indian, as the testimony of oppressed or submerged cultures.

Hutton’s repudiation of Leland’s use of “witch” is problematic. His insistence on abolishing the word “witch” from all but negative and diabolist usages has a definite political valence, as I’ve discussed. Whitmore also deals with Hutton’s mischaracterization of—and apparent unfamiliarity with—Ginzburg’s work on Herodiana. He draws connections to other Italian witch-goddesses such as Richella, and the Romanian Irodeasa or Arada, the Mistress of the Fairies, with her mythic parallels to the Aradia legend. [37-39] (For more examples, see my article on the Tregenda). Whitmore also offers an enticing glance at some important recent scholarship that expands the evidence for an actual veneration of Aradia:

“Recently, Sabina Magliocco has discovered a divinity of similar name in Sardinia, a country with close ties to Italy since the twelfth century. Here Araja or Arada was patroness of the janas or fairies, and (under the name Erode) leader of the procession of the dead around All Hallows. She has survived as Sa Rejusta (s’Araja justa, ‘the just Arada’) or ‘mama Erodas’, a bogey linked with witchcraft beliefs, who snatches children if food is not left out for her, or who enters homes through the keyhole to check that unmarried girls have been studious with their housework and spinning. This almost precisely parallels the Germanic figure Frau Holda.” [39] (And dozens of other ethnic goddesses; see my article on The Old Goddess)

Whitmore looks into the early Wiccans,  with their interweave between Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and the New Forest Coven, and their mixed Pagan and Christian affiliations. He addresses the enigma of Dorothy Clutterbuck, an early associate of Gerald Gardner whose very existence was once questioned, until her diaries came to light. Hutton cast her as a pious old woman with no pagan connections. Whitmore shows otherwise, quoting from her writings which show her reverence for Nature and  describe  faery worlds and beings (often shining female figures, sometimes referred to with a capitalized She). These extracts are compelling, and again, so are the footnotes. Whitmore also describes the occult connections of other women in Clutterbuck’s circle. [49-53]

Goddesses, magic and the complexity of “conversion”

For centuries, orthodox historians have insisted that once rulers decreed conversion, the people quickly followed and abandoned the old ways. Whitmore wants to break with the “assumption of mutual exclusivity”: the idea that people could not adopt some christian ways and still remain in many ways pagan. (Let’s not forget that this exclusionary idea was first promoted by the church hierarchy, even as they also carried out a sometime, selective policy of assimilation in order to bring pagans into the fold.) But Pagan ways did endure, and the influence of these much older cultural patterns, such as the processions with images, made itself felt in Christian custom. The footnotes refer (sparsely) to archaeological excavations that have uncovered evidence of this continuity. [57-58]

There’s a good discussion on Hutton’s insistence that pagan traditions were medieval inventions, or even later. When this will not fly, he dismisses them as insignificant customs without religious meaning. [61] Hutton reprises his claim from Pagan Religions that the Norns are just a copycat transposition of the Moirae into a Northern context. [65] He ignores a vast body of threefold fate goddesses in the ethnic folk cultures of Europe. Whitmore identifies many of these, to which he adds the triune Matres and Matronae. Hutton’s arguments are a retread of the interpretatio romana, reworking it into an interpretatio literaria. Because only Greco-Roman culture is documented in written form at an early period, all other shared cultural themes in other European societies must be derived from it. Folk myth cannot be dated, therefore it is irrelevant.

Whitmore shows in detail how Hutton gets the chronological order of texts about Cerridwen exactly backward. [66 fn 252, 67] He also challenges his suggestion that Odin’s hanging from the tree was copied from the Christian crucifixion story: “In fact, present-day scholars are largely united in considering Odin’s hanging from the tree to be an ancient theme tied to shamanistic journeying and initiation. If anything, when Christian and pagan iconography are mingled, as in the tenth-century Jelling stone, the unfamiliar newcomer Jesus seems to adopt imagery from Odin, rather than the other way round.”[66]

Hutton proposes a clear separation of magic and religion, while Whitmore offers many examples of the interweave of magic and religion, with backup from the eminent classical historian Ramsey MacMullen. He also discusses Don Frew’s challenge to Hutton on this subject. [45] He points to the persistence of pagan chants such as the Merseberg Charm and the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, and the magical elements of christian rites. [62] There’s lots more to be said about how this subject has been framed in terms of female “magic” and male “religion” (as Carol Myer and Meir bar-Ilan discuss for the Hebrew context).

Another interesting source Whitmore cites is Emma Wilby’s study of how pagan deities and nature spirits were recast as saints in Britain. [67] Pamela Berger covered similar ground in The Goddess Obscured, and we can go all the way back to Jacob Grimm, and to Lina Eckenstein’s 1896 study of the goddesses underlying saints in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The Renaissance revivalists are key figures for Hutton’s literary-driven view of paganism, particularly the Florentines. Whitmore says, “Actually, this group were about as pagan as you could get without being killed for it, and were under constant suspicion of heresy.”[63] (Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his Egyptian hermeticism.) Whitmore also touches on the survival of Hellenic and Sabean (not Sabine) paganism in the west Asian outpost of Harran, and reincarnation beliefs of the Greeks, Gnostics, the Druids and later Celtic cultures, the Norse, and Renaissance hermeticists.

Revel and Ritual

This chapter is full of great information about folk masquerades, animal masks, cross-dressing, house-visiting, and semi-pagan characters like Old Tosspot, all mixed up with saints and Christian themes. We read of how the old woman Baubo carried a baby in a winnowing fan in Thracian ceremonies, Dionysian rites continuing into the middle ages, plough-pageants, and hobby horse processions. [69-71] Such celebrations are described in the earliest medieval bishops’ scoldings and penitential books; they continued to be prohibited, but persisted in ethnic pockets up to our time.

One of the most interesting sections is about pagan survivals in the Channel Islands. People paraded around with horse-skulls and hides, or went in vouarouverie (werewolfery). This did not signify uncontrollably attacking people, but rather involved chaotic revelry, howling, feasting, and mudfights. These events came up in the little-known witch-trials of Guernsey (1563-1634). There’s a great quote about the Souling plays of Cheshire, which centered around the Wild Horse and a ritual battle. One participant explained:

“[T]here’s a lot of people can’t understand it, ’cause it’s really our religion. We believe in souling; we believe in ghosts, ’cause we’re supposed to be ghosts. Sometimes it’s not many of us are real attenders at church; because I think our belief is more sentimental, private. And we all turn out on All Hallows Eve, we just come, and go.” [75]

That is a marvellous quote. Whitmore adds, “The rites were held at times associated with fairies and the dead: the twelve days of Yule, Whitsunday, the four seasonal Ember Weeks,  All Hallows; or, more generally, at night. In some cases the performers functioned as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds and were bound by strict ritual laws. They took the shape of animals, some even leaving their bodies to fly through the air; they fought and feasted. They were at times presided over by a goddess or lady, at times by the Devil.” [76] This is territory covered in detail by Carlo Ginzburg, Wolfgang Behringer, Eva Pocs, and many other scholars of regional folk traditions.

Whitmore shows that these ritual processions, flights, feasts, and battles are also celebrated by the calusari in Romania. Centuries ago they were carried out by the benandanti of Friuli in northeastern Italy. The name means “good-goers,” but in the 16th century, mounting witch hunts shattered the cohesion of this shamanic community. Under pressure from the Inquisition, male benandanti began to denounce female benandante as witches, as Carlo Ginzburg has shown. Women started going to the stake, and eventually it was the men’s turn as their erstwhile allies turned on them. The calusari differ in being a distincly all-male society, though their Moldavian counterparts caluczenii paraded in female dress. Whitmore compares these groups to the Morris Dancers of Britain, a name derived from “Moorish,” and their moresco analogues in Spain and Portugal. [14 fn, 40, 72]

Trials of the Moon winds up with sage commentary from João de Pina-Cabral on the long-surviving power of culture, which he has documented for Portugal, against constant church repression. [76] Whitmore summarizes other critiques of Hutton, including my own protest of the errors and sweeping but false claims in Pagan Religions, and its author’s ad feminam response; as well as Asphodel Long, Don Frew (at some length), Jani Farrell-Roberts, and J.D Hill. He also calls Hutton on his mockery and dismissal of alternative perspectives, not based on the evidence they offer, but because of who they are: “a growing tendency among the more caustic of his followers to ridicule ‘alternative’ researchers, applying labels such as ‘Murrayite’, ‘Feminist’, ‘non-academic’ and ‘polemicist’…”

Whitmore concludes by restating his aim: “to re-open lines of inquiry that I believe should never have been closed.” The author makes it clear that he is not proposing a firm outline of Pagan history, but he has made a contribution by naming some of the issues and themes that such a history must include and address.


Update (Feb. 8): The “12th century English herbal” is apparently 11th century, and the prayer in question, Praecatio Terrae, occurs in several medieval manuscripts, the earliest dating to the 6th century and the latest 13th century. Latin text and English translation are at*.html (This translation renders Dis as “Pluto,” who would in any case not be an English deity). For a full discussion of the linguistic and historic variants of this prayer, see this article:

Mekatilili, prophetess of the 1913 Giriama revolt

Amazing: i found yet another medicine woman who led a revolt against colonial rule, Mekatilili of the Giriama in coastal Kenya. She “was noted as a charismatic speaker who commanded respect.” She convoked the Giriama to take oaths and offer sacrifices to restore their sovereignty.

Mekatilili wa Menza was born in the 1840s,  the only daughter in a poor family of five children. One of her brothers was snatched away by Arab slavers and never seen again. She married but was later widowed, which along with her age gave her more freedom to move as a woman leader. She started by leading a public baraza at Chakama to protest English recruitment of African porters for WWI; they responded by firing on the crowd.

The medicine woman's revolutionary baraza, painted by Zarina Patel

Mekatilili succeeded in blocking British attempts to hire African laborers on the cheap and to collect taxes from all Kenyans in order to force them to work for their companies and into the foreign money economy. “The success of her campaign was in part because she called women together and drew on the tradition of Mepoho, a female prophet who predicted that the land would deteriorate, youth would not respect their elders, and the Giriama would no longer bear healthy children.”

Six months after this baraza, the British arrested Mekatilili, but she wasn’t through. She escaped from the prison camp in western Kenya and walked a thousand kilometers  to return home. “It was unbelievable that she could have walked such a distance through the forest infested with dangerous wild animals,” says Mwarandu. She returned to action, and was arrested again, this time to be sent north to the Somalia border area. Again, a second time, she escaped.

“She likened herself to a mother of chicks in defence of the villagers.” Mekatilili opposed forced labour in British-owned rubber and sisal plantations, the colonial hut tax (forcing every family to give money to the British), land seizure evictions from the fertile Sabaki River Valley and restricted consumption of palm wine (mnazi). “She is a heroine of her and our time also. She advocated freedom and basic human rights for all,” said Mr John Mitsanze.

Modern Memorial to Metakilili of Kenya

Five years after the revolt, the British had failed to gain control of the country, and were compelled to accomodate a Giriama government. Mekatilili returned to head up a women’s council (something that had not existed in the immediately pre-colonial period). She died around 1925 at the age of about 70.

“Mekatilili’s brave resistance against British rule,” by Patrick Beja, Oct. 10, 2010
Kathleen Sheldon, Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa

Welcome to Veleda

I’m finally making it into the blogosphere, still on that learning curve and tweaking the site. After using the Suppressed Histories Facebook page for over a year, I thought it was past time to move to a more open netwide searchable format which allows more flexibility in post length and graphics display (cuz the images are so important). I’ll still be posting on the FB page (check it out, there are tons of links and images) especially short notices of research finds and images, but more in-depth pieces will appear here on Veleda.

I’ll also announce new content here from my global women’s history site, and my webinar/online course site , that also hosts Veleda. Info on my recently published articles, reviews, Gallery pages, new art prints and posters, streaming radio interviews, video clips, and online course Woman Shaman (also forthcoming dvd) can be found on the

Shamanic Goddess from Marlik

end-of-year newsletter here:

So please spread the word about Veleda, and return for the resources and commentary that will appear here.

Max Dashu

Veleda, the prophetic female voice

This blog is named after a word for prophetic women in some of my ancestral traditions (Celtic and Dutch). Veleda is best known as a revolutionary Bructerian priestess who prophesied and presided over a tribal European insurrection against Roman rule in the years 69-70 CE. (See below) Although Roman writers such as Tacitus reported Veleda as her personal name, it was really a title. The word has unquestioned etymological and cultural links to Gaulish, Irish, and Welsh words for seers, poets, bards, and witches.

Veleda is cognate with the Old Irish title velet or fili, “bard, poet,” the Welsh gweled, “seer,” and the Gaulish uidlua, “sorceress.” Uidlua appears in the longest known Gaulish inscription, a brictom (magical spell) written on a lead sheet found at Larzac. This entire constellation of words comes from an Old Celtic root *wid meaning “to know, see,” which in turn comes from Indo-European *weid-. [Lambert; Dennis King, Celtic Well, 11/30/98; 12/1/98] The same root gives a variety of other Indo-European words having to do with wisdom and seership, including the Russian words vyed’ma, “witch,” and vyedat’, “to see, to know,” as well as the ancient Sanskrit Vedas.

But we have to go back to Uidliua, which appears in a really interesting context. A rare Gaulish inscription on a lead plaque found in an ancient tomb at Larzac, France, refers to a sisterhood of enchantresses who are called Uidliua. The Gaulish text is still imperfectly understood, but linguist Yves Lambert summarizes it as an appeal to the goddess Adsagsona against a group of women who got a witch, Severa Tertionicna, to influence judges in a trial that the supplicant was involved in, asking the goddess to turn back the spell they cast. [Lambert, 172] The first line is interesting: “Send the charm of these women against the names below: this [is] a witch charm bewitching witches,” or in an alternate translation, “of a bewitching witch.” In Gaulish, it reads brictom uidluias uidlu[as] tigontias so.

Lambert derives uidliua, witch, from Old Celtic *uidlmâ [with macron on the a], and ulltimately from the Indo-European root *wid-, “to see, to know.” Within the Celtic realm, Lambert compares this “seeress” name to that of the legendary Irish prophetess Fedelm [167] and he’s not the only one to make this connection. In the spell, the name Uidliua appears in the phrase bnannom bricto, “women’s spell.” This word for “spell” or “charm” appears in another Gaulish inscription as brixtia anderon, “magic of the underworld.” Both forms of this word appear to be related to the name of a goddess of oaths, Bricia or Brixia, known from other inscriptions at Luxeuil. [Lambert, 154, derives these spell-names from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhregh, “to declare solemnly.”]

Another intriguing aspect of the charm appears in the next lines: “O Adsagsona, look twice at Severa Tertionicna, their witch of thread and their witch of writing.” The last nine words are really only two in the original text: lidssatim liciatim. [165] Lambert convincingly explains liciatim as derived from Latin licium, “yarn,” and much less firmly, lidssatim from littera, “writing.” He gives an example from Ovid of a spell executed by using both: writing on lead and tying enchanted yarn around it. The Gaulish charmed lead sheets copy a Greco-Roman tradition of cursing tablets, and they use Latin script. Before romanization, the Gauls had no written tradition.

The liciatim element—the yarn-witch—resonates with a broader, older Celtic (and pan-European) context: the magical valence of spinning and weaving. The Irish seeress Fedelm, after all, holds a weaver’s beam as she prophesies, and this is but one instance of Irish magic with this women’s tool. Pagan European custom is full of countless other instances of magical spinning and weaving. Not only that, but thread-boxes are found among amulets, animal teeth, crystal balls, and other magical gear in early medieval women’s burials, and bishops were constantly inveighing against women’s incantations, omen-reading, and other ritual customs “in their webs.”

Finally, there is the list of a dozen women whose bewitchment is sought in the lead sheet of Larzac, the ones responsible for casting the original spell for which this is the counter-spell: “Let the women named below, spellbound, be for him reduced to powerlessness.” Most of these women are listed as “mother of” or “daughter of” another woman. Lambert finds this use of the matronymic puzzling, since Gaulish society generally named both males and females patrilineally. [168-9]

Michel Lejeune has proposed that we are looking at a sisterhood of witches, a magical society in which “mothers” and “daughters” are not biological but cultic. There are plenty of worldwide examples of senior priestesses and initiators being addressed as “mothers.” Lambert objects, “Why would there be three sorceresses who called themselves ‘mothers’ of another sorceress?” [169] But this would be even more improbable in the case of biological motherhood! I think Lejeune is right, and this is a magical women’s sodality. The only other possibility I see is that we are looking at a pocket of matrilineage (perhaps similar to the custom in Jeanne d’Arc’s village of daughters taking their mother’s surname) in which mothers’ sisters were also addressed as mothers (classificatory kinship, in anthropological parlance).

Roman sources report “female druids” (druidae) in encounters with their colonial armies. Flavius Vopiscus relayed a story about Diocletian’s encounter with one of these women who prophesied his rise to become emperor. Other stories about emperors and druidae were recorded in the 4th century Scriptores Historiae Augustae (

Old Irish literature also speaks of these female seers. [Joyce, ch V] The fáith or ban-fáith was a prophetic woman “expert in super-natural wisdom.” [Chadwick/Dillon, 153] She was also called ban-filid, ban-filé (words that have the same root as uidliua, with the addition of the Irish word “woman”), ban-drui or ban-draoi, “druid-woman.” [Book of Leinster, in Spence, 60-1; Goodrich, 348] The epics say that the ban-drui Bodmall raised Finn MacCumhal “in the wilderness,” while another—named Milucrah, “Hag of the Waters”—used lakewater to change him into an old man. [Spence, 61]

Greek and Roman writers referred to prophetic women among the Celts and Germaniae. Julius Caesar was struck by Gaulish women’s power to determine military strategy: “it was for the matrons to decide when troops should attack and when withdraw.” Caesar also noted that “German custom required that their matrons must declare on the basis of lots and divinations whether or not it was advantageous to give battle…” [Gallic War, I: 50] Tacitus corroborated that German women acted as seers:

They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers. In Vespasian’s days we saw Veleda, long regarded as a divinity. They venerated Aurinia, and many other women…. [Germania, 8]


A pagan priestess led one of the greatest tribal European revolts against Rome. The Batavian Insurrection was a rising of tribes at the mouth of the Rhine. The Romans called them Germaniae, but historians think that they were primarily Celtic. Their popular discontent with imperial rule reached the breaking point in the year 70 CE. Tacitus wrote that the Batavians identified “the women of the Germaniae” as the driving force behind the revolt.

Veleda, a priestess of the Bructerii acted as the tribal oracle in “a lofty tower.” This unmarried woman possessed political and diplomatic authority, and guided battle strategy in conjunction with the chieftain Civilis. “As arbiters between us we will have Civilis and Veleda; under their sanction the treaty will be ratified.” [Tacitus, Historia, 4.65] They mounted the insurrection under the auspices of the tribal religion, whose animal emblems the rebels carried as battle standards. [Historia, 4.22] At a feast “at one of the sacred groves”, Civilis urged the people to resist the oppressions of the Romans, who treated the tribes as slaves and forced them into military service. The Batavians shouted their agreement, and the decision to resist was taken by acclamation. Tacitus tells us that they consecrated it “with barbarous rites and the national forms of oath.” [Historia, 4.14-17]

The Batavians prepared to battle the Roman legions, sending envoys to other tribes, urging them to join the rising: “It is by the blood of the provinces that the provinces are conquered.” All the tribes had reasons to wish for Rome’s overthrow, and some responded quickly. The Frisii and Canninefates attacked a Roman military encampment. The Tungrians soon joined them. Desertions of provincials from the Roman army enabled the insurgent tribes to destroy and capture an entire fleet of imperial ships. Tacitus wrote, “They became very famous throughout Germany as the champions of liberty.”[Historia, 4:17] More tribes came out openly against the empire, moved by Civilis’ reproach that “they falsely gave to a wretched slavery the name of peace…”

A great battle against two Roman legions followed. Women and children backed up the Gallo-German host. Tribesmen of the Ubii and Treveri deserted the Roman ranks and fled, forcing the weakened legions into retreat. Batavians and Canninefates in distant outposts of the Roman army heard of the uprising and  headed home to join the rebellion. Three thousand legionaries set upon them, aided by some Belgian cohorts. The rebels crushed the Roman force and went on to meet up with the army of Civilis.

Excitement spread with word of the rising’s success. Now the Bructerii and other tribes joined the revolt, and Gaul rebelled against taxes and conscription. The rebel army beseiged the principal Roman encampment, carrying “the images of wild beasts, brought out of the woods and sacred groves, under the various forms which each tribe is used to follow in battle.” This shamanic battle magic was practiced over much of northern Europe. The Aestii wore boar masks in honor of the Mother of the Gods, wrote Tacitus, and the protection of the Goddess was their armor. [Germania, 45]

A group of Germani defeated the Romans along the Rhine, and Civilis crushed their Ubii allies. “Meanwhile all Germania was raising the power of Civilis by vast additions of strength…” [Tacitus, 612] The tribes prevailed in other battles, aided by provincial auxiliaries to the legions who deserted en masse. The legions were in disorder; generals could not control their men, who killed some commanders over a disputed emperorship. After a long siege, the starving Roman camp was forced to surrender, and even had to swear allegiance to “the empire of Gaul.”  The Romans marched away in bedraggled retreat. People flocked to the roadsides to watch the unfamiliar spectacle of the conquerors in defeat.

Munius Lupercus, legate of one of the legions, was sent along with other gifts to Veleda, a maiden of the tribe of the Bructerii, who possessed extensive dominion, for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germani and the destruction of the legions. [Historia, 4.60]

The Batavian troops resettled at Augusta Treverorum (later Trèves/Trier). Orders were sent to Colonia Agrippina (Cologne/Köln) to kill the Romans and open up the city, destroying its fortifications. The inhabitants replied that they would open the city but they had intermarried with Romans. They appealed to Veleda and Civilis to set the terms of a treaty, and they concluded an alliance with Colonia. Meanwhile, with new tribes still joining the revolt, the insurgents controlled the country.

More legions were sent up to quell the revolt, and Rome still had allies among the Sequani, Remi and other tribes in Gaul. Then the legions retook Trèves. The army of Civilis almost defeated them, but the Romans rallied and destroyed the rebel camp. The city of Colonia invited the Romans to return and slaughtered many Germani there by getting them drunk, locking them in houses and burning them up. Battles continued: some went to the Romans, some to the tribes. One Celtic offensive almost succeeded in capturing the Roman general, who was lucky enough to be away spending the night with a woman. The Batavians towed his flagship up the river Lupia “as a present to Veleda.” [Historia 5.22]

But in the end the Romans reconquered and plundered Batavia. Only when their allies fell away and succumbed to Roman rule did the Batavians give up their resistance. They said, “The servitude of the whole world cannot be averted by a single nation.”

Legionaries take Germanic people captive, to be sold into slavery

Civilis surrendered and was taken in chains to Rome. The Historia breaks off without word of the fate of the Veleda. She may have been captured and installed at a temple in Ardea, or more likely, executed in Rome, as Statius reported. [Fraser, WQ, 72; Grimm, 356]

A German folk tale remembers Veleda as a goddess or as a “weird-elf” who protected the forests, roaming the land on the lookout for harm done to nature. [Grimm 1318; Goodrich, 350] Veleda also survives among the Dutch as a woman’s name.