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Traveling Across the Universe with the Beatles: The Subtleties of Psyche’s Love Affairs
by Dori S. Koehler
Music is one of our most powerful communicators. It can be exhilarating and exhausting. It touches and transforms the soul in unique ways. Great music is ageless, and this truth has been proven once again through Across the Universe, a film directed by visionary filmmaker Julie Taymor. This film is a delight for the senses. It is a film filled with exquisite images, exploring the love affair between music and the soul. It is a romance and a musical made up entirely of songs written by The Beatles. It is set in the late nineteen sixties, and the scenes span from the shipyards of Liverpool to the famous “Greenwich Village” of Manhattan.
The music of The Beatles is imbued with incalculable amounts of beauty and pathos. Beatles music encapsulates the listener into a state of bliss, which never disembodies itself, or downplays the pain of life in a world torn apart by war and suffering. The Beatles embraced transformation, self-realization, libido and love. Their songs resonate with the listener, no matter what the generation, as The Beatles themselves swayed to an archetypal beat. During our class time together, I have noticed that it is difficult make clear distinctions between archetypal patterns in film, because of the kaleidoscopic nature of film images. The same thing can be said of music. The emotions which we experience because of music are often elusive and ephemeral. However, when one has been touched by music, it is an experience that is never forgotten. In Pagan Grace, Ginette Paris says, “We don’t know how music produces its effect on us, and the same is true of the spoken word. Even the most scholarly text fails to explain the fascination with music. To understand its effect we have to hear music: no explanation will grow into notes and melody….Communication is an art…” (64) The same may be said of images in a film. As with all great films, it would be impossible to exhaust the archetypal symbolism of Across The Universe, so I will focus mainly on three characters: Jude, Lucy and Max. These characters are a trinity of sorts, and their stories overlap in such a way which makes it obvious that a balance must be created between the three of them.
In the first scene titled, Girl, Jude is sitting alone on a beach singing with a melancholy air. He sings, “Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay.” This beach is the kind of place described in the first Homeric Hymn to Dionysos when the poet writes that, “he appeared by the sand of an empty sea.” (11) The poet continues to remind us of Dionysos that, “His dark hair was beautiful; it blew all around him…” (11) At the moment, this is Jude. His dark hair blows all around his collar. He is handsome and brooding. He is life force, and the depth of emotion he feels is clearly conveyed in his eyes. However, these images seem more of an invocation to the presence of Dionysos in the film rather than the character’s identification with the archetype. Jude does not identify with Dionysos’ energy; he merely represents a call to him to be present and shower his transforming power. As the Homeric poet reminds us of Dionysos, “Without you, the way to compose a sweet song is forgotten.” (16)
The scene then cuts from Jude’s face to the sea. The waves, which are grey and lifeless, show us images of protest, war and fear. Helter Skelter is sung by a character that the viewer does not see, but whom we will later understand carries Aphrodite energy. Lucy’s image, the young woman about whom Jude sings, is present in the waves. She looks terrified. Waves are the vehicle Aphrodite used to first step onto land. Within these first few images it is already made clear that Dionysos and Aphrodite will be present in this film. However, because of the use of these images in such a grey and melancholic way, it is also clear that the film will explore both negative and positive aspects of the archetypes. We know already that our world will be blown topsy turvy. The scene fades, and the Helter Skelter fades with it.
Hold Me Tight opens with an image of a crystal ball, shining and lovely. The shimmering lights emanate from the ball over a dance floor like diamonds. The streamers draping from the ball are golden (Aphrodite’s color), as are the balloons, which flank the band playing a love song in the middle of the room. The girls are all pretty and well groomed; with tea length dresses in a shade of cream. The men are equally stunning, in their tuxedos in a similar color to the women’s dresses. At the center of the group is a couple who are dressed like everyone else, but it is obvious that they are the main characters of the scene. The young woman, who we later learn is Lucy, dances with her young man, Daniel. She represents Aphrodite’s civilizing effect. Her gorgeous coppery blonde hair flows through a well-coiffed hair design. She is the charm of a formal, well cultivated garden. He is an image of Adonis; golden, young and untried. She sings innocently to him; dancing and smiling in the joy of her first experience of Aphrodite. They represent what Paris writes about in Pagan Meditations, when she writes, “Wherever Aphrodite is honored; there is room for laughter and games, for sweetness and peace.” (33)
The identification with the positive Aphrodite aspect is only half of the scene, however. The scene flashes over to a dance in Liverpool, where we see Jude dancing with his girlfriend, Molly. In contrast to the “bubble gum pop” version of the song we see the Americans enjoying, the young people in Liverpool are dancing in a much more industrial space. It is almost an underworld experience, but it doesn’t feel like the realm of Hades. It is industrial, and brick, which clearly evokes the master of crafts, Hephaistos. It is the realm Aphrodite rejects and this is clear in the dance scene when although Molly dances with Jude, singing the same song that Lucy sings to Daniel, yet somehow, she cannot quite keep his attention. The band’s music is edgier, with more of a rock feeling to it. Aphrodite may be married to Hephaistos, but he certainly does not stir her. Molly is desperate to keep Jude’s attention, as she knows that he does not belong in Hephaistos’s realm. She asks him, “Who will take me out next week? You’ll be halfway around the world.” He answers with a glib statement, making it clear that she has already lost him. Paris reminds us that, “Anyone who catches a glimpse of Aphrodite soon learns that she holds no promise of eternal love. Love gives itself as eternal and departs; that is part of Aphrodite’s myth.” (65) Jude is beginning to move into the archetypal mode of Hermes, patron god of travelers and fibbers. He will leave because he cannot be happy in Hephaistos’ realms, and he feels the pull of Hermes.
The next scene of the film is titled, All My Lovin’. In this scene, Jude’s identification with Hermes becomes complete. As he kisses Molly beneath a bridge, he sings to her, “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you/ tomorrow I’ll miss you/ remember I’ll always be true” Molly knows that this is a lie. She knows that once he leaves, she has lost him forever. The reference to closing one’s eyes makes the viewer understand that invisibility is a theme here. The scene continues with Jude singing to Molly, leaning out toward sea. At this point in the film, Jude consistently wears black. His black hat is a physical tribute to his Hermes nature because as Elmer G. Suhr writes in Before Olympos, Hermes will often,”…wear the cap of darkness like that of Hades to render him invisible to others.” (60) Jude “jumps ship” when he comes to America. The action further shows his mercurial nature, as he is rendered literally invisible to the United States government.
In With a Little Help from My Friends, Jude makes his way to Princeton University. He is on a quest to find his father (whom he has previously never met). While searching for him there, he meets Max. The search for his father becomes moot the moment he meets Max. It is Max that Jude is intended to meet, not his father. Jude is still in the energetic realm of Hermes but he is searching. His encounter with Hermes was necessary in order to give him the motivation for the trip. However, there is something about Jude, a wounding that one can see in his eyes at times, which makes it clear that there is another archetype moving within him. He needs to experience more than sassy mercurial energy to develop his character. And that needed catalyst is Max.
It is clear from the beginning of their relationship that Max embodies Dionysian energy. His failure to attend classes makes it clear to Jude that he has “pissed off all the professors at Princeton” (Apollo’s realm). His shaggy blonde hair evokes androgyny which contributes to his connection with the archetype; and university life is not where he belongs. His role is to be the bringer of Dionysian libido. He provides Jude with “nice ivy league hospitality” (alcohol, smokes and companionship). Yet, for all his irresponsible ways, he also is generous and good-natured. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Dionysos is called the “giver of good things.” (181) Max brings Jude into his “nursery,” which is cabinet full of beer, smokes and junk food, and initiates him into his realm of sex-kitten women and freedom. This is exactly what Jude’s Hermes needs after escaping a life in Hephaistos’ realm. As Paris notes, “To know Dionysos, one must open up to emotion, to the senses, to the tragic or cosmic aspects of life. Dionysos is an opening, a happening, not an organizing.” (Pagan Grace, 23) The two bond immediately, and Max offers to bring Jude home for Thanksgiving dinner (a great image of a joyful Dionysian feast). On their way home, Max fetches his sister, Lucy. We have already seen that Lucy has an attraction to the energy of Aphrodite. The bond between her (Aphrodisiacal energy) and Max (Dionysian energy) is explicit. Lucy is elated when she sees Max, and jumps into his arms.
At this point, it is clear that Lucy is not Aphrodite, and when Max introduces Lucy to Jude, his interest seems piqued, but not enflamed. Lucy is friendly, but not overly interested either. Jude still identifies with Hermes, and through her relationship with Aphrodite an attraction buds, but her heart still belongs to that image of Adonis. When they arrive at Max and Lucy’s family home, Jude discovers that their familial environment does not honor Dionysos. Their father identifies with Zeus and Apollo. He is an attorney, and wishes Max to “get serious for once.” They are obsessed with getting Max to “do something with his life.” However, they wish that for his something to be a decision of their own choosing. In response to Max when he asks, “Why is the issue always what will you do, and not who you are…”, their uncle Teddy answers, “Because, Maxwell, what you do defines who you are.” Max responds by telling him that, “Who you are defines what you do.” They turn to Jude, and in typical Hermes fashion, he turns the conversation on its head when he retorts that, “Surely it isn’t what you do, it is the way that you do it.” Hermes, the god of communication is making his stand, attempting to bring some connection between the Zeus/Apollo atmosphere of the family home, and Max’s Dionysian freedom. Of Hermes, Suhr reminds us that, “…he hovers beneath the shadow of the gods and usually refuses to engage with them in open combat, as Herakles with Apollo—that he seems to have no anchor in the Olympian cosmos, no particular area or element of his own—puts him more or less in a class by himself.” (56,) There is a clash between conflicting archetypes in this scene, and there will be no communication between the two. It is obvious that Max does not belong either at school, or at his parental home.
In I Just Saw a Face, Max begins to come into the realization that in order to be himself, to let the freedom of his Dionysian energy flow, he must leave home. Before he leaves, he makes one more attempt to forge a connection between Jude and Lucy. While Max has been clashing with his parents, Jude and Lucy have been sitting outside talking to each other, and a new relationship is born. Jude shows his Hermes nature by teasing Lucy about her perfect teeth and by telling her that he has heard of braces; they use them in Liverpool to hold their pants up. All throughout this scene, Hermes is present in the twinkling of Jude’s eyes.
At this point, Jude begins to actually see Lucy, and she Jude. Through a communication of their eyes, it is clear that there is a flow of libido between them. When Max tells them that they need to get this sailor on leave (Jude), “a beer, a brawl and a brothel,” they are awakened from their moment reverie with one another and Max drags the two of them to a bowling alley (an attempt at Dionysian night life). Jude watches Max and Lucy interact lovingly, and through this interchange, he begins to develop a loving fascination with Lucy. Another archetype stirs in him. He does not leave Hermes behind, but he is fascinated by the energy that he shares with Lucy. He is pricked by the arrow of Eros and he sings, “I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget the time or place when we just met/she’s just the girl for me and I want all the world to see we’ve met/Had it been another day/I might have looked the other way/ and I’ve have never been aware/but as it is I’ll dream of her tonight/Fallin’ yes I am fallin’ and she keeps calling me back again.” Having spent his moment of release, Max tells Jude that he wants to “drop out” to Manhattan (“great music, great dope, orgies…it’ll be a gas!) Grudgingly, Max drags Jude away, reminding him that she’s got a boyfriend, and Jude says that it is ok, because he too has a girlfriend.
The scene ends as Max and Jude head to New York. They attend an interview for an apartment in Greenwich Village. The apartment is a walkup, and a shot down at the two actors from the top of the stairs suggests that this apartment is the realm of some kind of deity. As the owner of the apartment answers the door, the viewer sees Aphrodite. Her name is Sadie (after the Beatles song Sexy Sadie), and she is fierce. She is gorgeous, with long flowing hair and a voluptuous figure, dressed in a flowing robe of rose and cream, and her voice purrs like a contented cat. Her apartment is full of sensual textures and colors. She tells Jude and Max that she is a singer, and she needs tenants who will not disturb her beauty sleep before two in the afternoon. Max and Jude are struck still by her presence, and say they will take the apartment. They know they are in the presence of Aphrodite, and are beyond aroused by both Sadie herself, as well as what living in her realm will mean for them. This is the safe, generative aspect of the Aphrodite archetype, the aspect of her that delivers a place that allows them to be themselves, to create, to feel the fellow of psychic energy which exists between them.
In Come Together, we discover that Jude is an artist, and his time in Aphrodite’s realm, the peaceful days of creation between himself and the Hermes/Dionysian energies he shares with Max, are productive. This sensitive, artistic aspect of Jude finds his first image expression in a spiral drawing he creates. The spiral is a symbol of Eros, which shows that Jude has opened that side of himself that lives in the emotional realm to a rush of feeling from the god of love. During his time with Sadie, he becomes her child, receiving from her the ability to feel deeply.
In If I Fell, we see a reappearance of Lucy. It turns out that Daniel truly is an Adonis. He has been lost in Vietnam, the sacrifice of a young male life force to Ares. She has stepped out of the archetype of Aphrodite all together. Through her grief, we see her for who she has been all along; Psyche. Much of Psyche’s pain exists in her identification with Aphrodite. Psyche is so beautiful that she is often mistaken for Aphrodite, but to identify her as such is dangerous for Psyche. She is mortal, and therefore she must be tested. To aid her in grief, Lucy goes to New York to visit Max for the summer before college. Jude sees her and the Eros aspect of his psyche continues to be activated. He recognizes Lucy as Psyche, and finds himself completely drawn to her. He spends time with Lucy, listening to her talk about her grief, and fear for Max (who has now been drafted himself). Jude no longer wears black. He no longer wishes to be invisible, at least not to Lucy.
Jude attempts to cheer Lucy by drawing a portrait of her on a wall. He asks her to look up at him so he can get her eyes right, and at that moment the love-wounding of the two of them becomes obvious and permanent. It is as Apuleius put it in The Golden Ass, “…Psyche through her own act fell in love with love.” (88) Jude already had a moment (in the bowling alley) when he felt a prick of his own arrow, but now the two of them have been pierced utterly and eternally. The viewer can literally see it in their eyes. It makes sense that this would happen while the two are living in the realm of Aphrodite and under the watchful eye of Dionysos. However, for Eros and Psyche, this is only the beginning of the myth, because the turmoil of the second half of the film places them in transition periods until they become open to the Eros and Psyche energy they are destined to share.
Max, on the other hand, cannot share in the exuberant joy that is felt by Jude and Lucy, as he is still required to make an appearance at an army induction center. He is terrified and angry, because he knows that he will be sent to Vietnam, and as the fanciful embodiment of Dionysos, it is obvious that he does not belong there. As he sings through the scene titled, I Want You/She’s so Heavy, a different kind of Dionysos energy begins to be developed in Max. Heavy is the best description. At the army induction center Max is back in the realm of Zeus and Apollo. There is a reference to Dionysos’ dismemberment as he is literally taken apart by the military machine in their attempt to turn him into a soldier. He tries to use his Dionysian wiles to get himself out of the army, but these aspects of Zeus and Apollo have no sense of humor, and Dionysos has no power over them. They tell him that they want him, just as long as he doesn’t have flat feet he’s going to Vietnam.
The reality of this situation threatens to destroy Max, Lucy and Jude. With the joyful expression of Dionysian energy being removed from their lives, all three of the young characters of the film begin to lose focus and purpose. They become vulnerable to the darker and more destructive aspects of the archetypes. When Max leaves for Vietnam, Lucy becomes lost. Her life force goes with Max. She becomes obsessed with Max’s safety. She loses her interest in Jude’s art, and by extension, their love will suffer. Both Lucy and Jude struggle to honor Max, but due to the differences in their personalities, they both do so in different ways. Lucy seeks to fulfill the labors of Psyche, believing that that will bring him home, and by contrast, Jude tries to honor Max by living. He attempts to keep libido flowing, but without Max’s presence, it is not likely. In her desire to find a way to bring Max home, Lucy joins a radical antiwar group, which is being lead by a man who is totally possessed by the negative aspect of the archetype which Paris calls Dionysos the Liberator.
In Revolution, Jude senses that Lucy’s obsession with justice and with revolution is about to destroy them. He tries to get Lucy to quit the group. However, she continues to walk deeper into the group, searching for Max’s energy which she sees mirrored through the leader of the group. She is unaware that this darker aspect of the archetype has such a destructive power. Lucy attempts to draw her brother’s energy near her, and like Psyche, ignores Eros’ pleas. Jude and Lucy begin to split apart. Jude begins to wear black again, but this time, the color feels like mourning, not invisibility. Jude feels wounded by his jealousy over the withdrawal of energy to him. He is like Eros with his burned shoulder, and he cruelly pulls away, attacking her efforts, as he knows that is what will drive her away the fastest. They have lost the positive libido energy that is the gift of both Dionysos and Aphrodite. As Paris writes, “Lack of Aphrodite brings frigidity in all interpersonal relationships.” (Pagan Meditations, 32)
In attempt to find Dionysos and restore Aphrodite to her relationship with Jude, Lucy destroys it. She follows a tyrant who typifies the type of ruler Paris considers as she writes, “Dionysos is just a paradoxical with regard to political values, for he is sometimes a liberator is sometimes a tyrant. He appears wherever revolution and revolt break out, but revolution is itself the height of contradiction between love and hate, celebration and massacre, destructive orgy and the elevation of noble ideals.” (Pagan Grace, 25) The antiwar rallies depicted in this film are the height of destructive Dionysian orgies. The war protesters begin to lose any sense of what they are actually protesting. The rallies are a buffet of fighting, tear gas, screaming and destruction. In the scene titled Helter Skelter, all of this activity comes to a head when Lucy, who in her search for the missing energy from her brother, has participated in one of these rallies.
Jude reaches the rally just in time to see her being arrested. He tries to get to her and save her, but the feelings between them are too wounded at the moment, and they cannot reach each other. Jude is arrested, and eventually deported (he has lost his invisibility hat). Jude returns to his mother’s house. She still remains in the realm of Hephaistos. Although she is not an Aphrodite figure, she nonetheless provides a place for Jude’s Eros to rest and recuperate. As Apuleius writes, “…as Psyche was scouring the earth, bent on her search for Cupid, he lay groaning with the pain of the burn in his mother’s chamber.” (97) The realm of Hephaistos is still not where Jude belongs, and though the surroundings seem familiar, it is not home. Home is back in America, in Aphrodite’s realm with Psyche. Aphrodite has rejected Hephaistos, and does not reside in Liverpool with the people there.
After Jude is deported, Max comes home from Vietnam, alive but extremely wounded psychologically. Psyche wanders the earth, looking for her Eros and so does Dionysos. She is in the underworld with Max who needs to feel the soothing balm of mercurial love that he can only receive from his friend Jude. Jude thinks of Lucy and Max while sitting in a bar reflecting on the events of the past few years. In Hey Jude, Max sings to Jude, and his voice calls Jude home. Jude feels Max’s voice as though he is there next to him. A split screen occurs and in that the viewer sees that Jude hears Max. He feels that Max and Lucy need him. He is drawn back to her by the sweet song of Dionysos, his life force. Max sings, “Remember to let her into your heart/then you can start/to make it better.” He literally summons Jude home. Eros must return to Psyche, and that has been made possible through the flow of Dionysian energy. As Apuleius tells us, “Cupid’s wound had now healed and, his strength returned, he could no longer bear to be parted for so long from Psyche.” (104) When Jude returns, he is no longer invisible. He returns legally. He has come back for Lucy. Max meets him at the customs gate, yelling his name and the two embrace as though they had never separated. They revitalize each other. Simply being in each other’s presence is enough to facilitate rebirth.
In Don’t Let Me Down and All You Need is Love, Max and Jude attend a performance of Sadie’s band on a rooftop in the village. The concert is a reference to the famous final concert of The Beatles which occurred on a rooftop, but it is also clear that we are in the realm of the immortals once again. All the gods are together on the rooftop, and the people who stand below hear Aphrodite’s song. The joy of life is restored, and Aphrodite has returned to her realm. We are on Mount Olympos with the gods. Even though balance is restored in Olympos and by extension to humanity, Eros is still missing Psyche. He hopes that she will meet him, but he also senses that as a mortal, she will not be able to enter.
She wanders the streets of earth below as though dead. She attempts to join the Gods, but she is denied access. She sees Jude’s artwork (the blood red strawberry he has created for Sadie’s album label) and goes away wounded and full of memory. Somehow Jude knows that this last labor is too much for her to bear. She will not be able to enter heaven without his help. Although the police have broken up the concert by this point, he hides on the rooftop. Jude makes his way to the microphone, and he sings to her. His voice brings her back to life. The joy she feels is in her eyes, and she is drawn back to him with the rest of the Olympians there to witness the reunion. The police recognize Aphrodite’s power, and allow the concert to continue. Because Lucy is denied access to heaven, she must reach him by reaching the next rooftop over. Jude, who has almost given up hope, sees her with her hair blowing in the wind, and a tear flowing down her face. The film ends with Eros seeing Psyche and sighing, knowing that in the next moment he will witness her transformation into an immortal; to the goddess soul through the power of his own immortality and his song, “All You Need is Love.”
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. London: Penguin Books, 2004
Boer, Charles, trans. The Homeric Hymns. Kingston, Rhode Island: Asphodel Press, 2006
Hesiod. Theogony. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1964
Paris, Ginette. Pagan Grace: Dionysos, Hermes and Goddess Memory in Daily Life. Putnam, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 2003
— Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia. Putnam, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1986.
Sophia’s Azorean Festa: Drinking Her Fire, Feasting on Her Grace
By, Dori S. Koehler
“The incandescent theology of Sophia is to bring fire to all souls. She assumes the form that each person can best understand. She comes as the Holy Spirit to Christians, as the Pillar of Fire to Jews, as the Goddess to Goddess Worshipers; her form does not matter (Caitlin Matthews, Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God, 349)”.
The image of Sophia, the goddess Wisdom, that which burns creativity, love and justice into humanity through the divine is to be found globally. This image carries an archetypal significance for both the personal and the communal as, psychologically speaking, Sophia is the divine spark in the individual psyche, but She is also the inspiration (God’s breath) that prods humanity on to the greater good for the sake of each other. She is the elements altogether; divinity in the wind, fire, water and the earth, which morphs in reaction to the other three elements. She bridges earth and heaven. In the preface to her book, Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God, Caitlin Matthews writes that, “She is concerned with the survival and maturation of all creation (xxxi)”. Wisdom is not simply the knowledge necessary to make beneficial decisions. Wisdom herself is a gnosis, a mystical revelation, a worldview and a way of being human. Sophia serves to bring community into balance. Like all archetypal energies, she reveals her face to each individual and community utilizing his or her own language, symbols and images. Within the context of the Christian tradition, Holy Wisdom generally reveals Herself through the image of the Holy Spirit an image that while predominantly feminine in the tradition, inhabits both genders, because She represents wholeness and discernment. In the tradition of the Azorean islands in particular, the images related to Holy Spirit’s Wisdom has developed into a beautiful and complex combination of image and ritual, which over the centuries has been devoted to the Holy Spirit through the veneration of Saint Elizabeth (Isabel) of Portugal (1271-1336).
The Azores are an archipelago of nine islands, owned by Portugal but located 900 miles at sea from their mother country. They are considered by geologists to be the tallest underwater mountains on the earth, and are known for their seismic activity and volcanic volatility. As the land is not conducive to agriculture, Azoreans have had to face the sea for their livelihoods. The location of the islands has made them great trade ports, and during the period of the Portuguese empire people and goods from all over the world flocked to these picturesque islands. However, they are still located over one thousand miles from the Catholic Church’s center in Rome, and this isolation by sea, as well as anxieties related to living with the islands’ geological uncertainties, has led to the development of a spiritual culture, which is both deeply devout and unique. In his article collected in a brilliant volume titled The Holy Ghost Festas (published by the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of California), called, “The Azorean –Portuguese Migrations to California,” August Mark Vaz writes about the festivals dedicated to the Holy Spirit, the Christian manifestation of the goddess Wisdom. He writes that this festival is, “A noncanonial feast and devotion, the Holy Ghost Festival served three essential needs: the need of community to come together and have a festa (celebration), the pious act of charity in feeding the poor and needy (boda dos pobres), and the religious act of devotion to the Holy Spirit, as symbolized by the crown and the dove (18)”. Although this festival was eventually banned by the church, and was banished from Western Europe for its nearly heretical emphasis on Holy Spirit (which, I contend, through its devotion to Saint Isabel is dedicated to the feminine divine in the concept of Wisdom), it has survived and flourished in the Azores, a place where the people and religious customs are as stubborn as the unforgiving storms of the Atlantic Ocean.
The rituals that surround this festival serve to feed the soul as well as the community. These celebrations are the result of centuries of mediation on God’s Holy Wisdom, as well as a Portuguese synthesis of cultures, particularly the pagan goddess cults native to Europe, near eastern religious cults (particularly Egyptian and Jewish mysticism), Greek philosophy, African Spiritualism, and the Catholicism to which it is bound. While an examination of the philosophical history of the image of Sophia is not the aim of the essay, it is important to honor that tradition with a short introduction to the philosophical thought on this subject, which has had such an intense impact on the development of the Catholic Church in general, and the Azorean tradition in particular.
This western image of the divine feminine wisdom has a root in the Jewish notion of Chokmah, or the breath of G-d, which in Judaism, is the force, which precipitates creativity. This force eventually has traditionally been associated with the feminine, and Matthews notes that in the Hebraic sense of Sophia, “Her activity reflects and transforms the idea of God: she is therefore the thrustblock of creation, but not the creator (97).” She is often called the Great Goddess, the primal feminine whose energy the creator builds upon. She is an aspect of the divine, an image of unity in diversity, and as Matthews continues, “She stands for the primal harmony between creation and creator, an intermediary character between heaven and earth (40)”. Judaism’s beautiful imagining of Wisdom in this way has a profound impact on the development of Christian theology, both because of Christianity’s largely Jewish heritage as well as its contact with Greek philosophy. In his book, Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation, Thomas Schipflinger writes that in the ancient Greek world, “…she became the artful and intelligent helper of the Demiourgus (37)”. Sophia was imagined as the creative glimmer. Greek philosophy carried this image forward, as it was consistent with their own cultural mythos, which recognized goddesses as the bearers of wisdom (Athena, Artemis and the Muses to name a few).
As a vital image in their philosophy (the word itself meaning love(r) of wisdom), the Greeks imagined Sophia as the bride of the Logos. For them, Logos, the Word, is the image of what is vitally rational. Logos is the ordering principle of the universe. However, the Word must mate with Wisdom if it is to be complete. It is She who fulfils the Word, and She breathes divine essence into the Word. Schipflinger tells us that, “The mystery of Sophia—Wisdom is that She is the Bride of the Son of God (47)”. In Greek and early Christian imagery, Sophia becomes this image of the bride, but she also carries the archetypal images that directly relate to other feminine roles. She becomes the lover, mother, muse, and, as breath, She is the one who supports all life. Sophia as bride (virgin), mother, breath and fire are therefore images, which are part of the philosophical and religious heritage of the church. As Christianity develops, it maintains aspects of past religious philosophies, and whether consciously or unconsciously, adds those aspects to its newly forming dogma. Schipflinger writes that, “The church fathers had inherited a philosophical and religious milieu that was conducive to identifying the Logos with Sophia. Yet this point of view was not unanimous, for some understood her as the Holy Spirit,…(55)”. The image of the Holy Spirit merges together masculine spirit and feminine soul. Although the orthodox understanding of the trinity has suggested that Holy Spirit’s qualities are characteristic of the masculine, such as the continual upward search (the dove and the fire do both fly heavenward), many Christians have still clung to the idea that the Paraclete promised by Christ also encompasses the feminine. The fact that image of the dove, which traditionally represents Sophia was chosen as the Christian image of the Holy Spirit is evidence of the power of the connection of the two gender characteristics. Schipflinger writes that, “If Sophia is the most perfect image of the Holy Spirit, perhaps we can draw conclusions about Sophia’s characteristics based on those of the Holy Spirit. She participates in all the qualities and powers of the Holy Spirit, to the extent that this is possible for a creature (148)”. When these two images meet, they combine, as they carry energy that is so similar in its essential nature that they mirror each other.
However, in order for Her image to be complete, Sophia herself must accompany the Spirit, and not replace it. Schipflinger continues, “…it is just through the juxtaposition of Sophia and the Spirit symbol that the vision intends to show Sophia’s dignity, power and splendor in an original, subtle and genial manner, and above all that She is the most perfect icon of the Holy Spirit (150)”. The Logos is the definition of what is often called Spirit. Logos is the drive; the salvific force. Logos is the fire that burns quick and high. However, Sophia is the kindling. She is the smoldering coal that begins the fire and causes it to continue to burn. She is the essence of the creative force comes to the Logos from a source which carries a feminine energy, and when the two unite the Holy Spirit pours forth. This understanding of Wisdom is echoed in the Eastern sense of Sophia as well. Eastern Orthodox priest and scholar, Sergei Bulgakov has written a beautifully provocative work titled, Sophia: The Wisdom of God. In it he outlines his understanding of the theology of Sophia. He writes, “God is love—not love in the sense of a quality or a property peculiar to God, but as the very substance and vigor of life (34)”. Though it must be noted that the Eastern and Western churches have had their differences in relation to Trinitarian hierarchical dogmas, the essence of this statement holds true for both the East and the West. This is the Spirit that guides and burns in the soul of Saint Isabel.
The Holy Ghost Festa is a communal experience of mysticism, which, Richard McBrien, in his book Catholicism, defines as, “…the graced transformation of consciousness that follows upon a direct or immediate experience of the presence of God leading to deeper union with God (1052)”. The Catholic mystical tradition comes down to the layperson through the example of our saints. The saints are holy people who have been living examples to the faithful over the millennia. In his book, Lives of the Saints, Richard McBrien writes that, “The saints confirm us in the hope that holiness is an achievable goal; they manifest holiness in the concrete texture of ordinary human existence. They live in history, are shaped by it, and in turn, often shape it as well (8-9)”. To walk in the footsteps of the saints is to enter into their own mystical union with God, and through emulation of their good works, we remake their lessons in our world. There is a link between mystical and social experience, which is not often conveyed. Mystical revelation can come, not just from isolation and prayer, but also from social action and the work of healing the world. The Jewish mystics suggest that it is this healing of the world (tikkun olum), and that is the true hallmark of the coming age of messiah. If Sophia (or the Holy Spirit) truly is the imaginal “World Soul” than Her presence in the world must be evidence most clearly through this behavior that seeks to heal what is broken. This is why Catholics cling to saint days. The stories of the saints suggest hope in the human world through social action. Saints are purely human. Their stories suggest that what we do matters. McBrien suggests that this is part of the nature of sainthood when he continues, “The saint is hopeful rather than despairing, loving rather than mean-spirited, courageous rather than weak, and has a passion for justice (12)”. All of these are true of St. Isabel, who gave her life, through her veneration of Sophia, to healing what was wounded in her country, both in body and in soul.
Matthews tells us that, “In the early prefigurings of Sophia, two qualities epitomize the goddess of the land: she rules by love and justice (23)”. This personification of Justice as a goddess is a motif that is found in many cultures. The balancing characteristics of the feminine are necessary if justice is to flourish. That this image of Sophia came to us as a queen is not coincidental. She fulfils the archetypal role of mother and saint. In her book, The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine, Christine Downing writes that, “In Christianity, though the goddess was officially suppressed, her irrepressibility is evidenced in the devotion directed to female saints and the Virgin Mother…(16)”. Although attempts to deny the feminine in divine prevailed in many ways, the Goddess’ energy can never be denied. Saint Isabel is a Holy ruler, and as a woman she embodies the divine feminine. She represents the Goddess. She inhabits universal energy, but she is also a woman who lived in a certain political time and climate.
In her book, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Caroline Walker Bynum writes that, by the 13th century, “Women were not only followers, manipulated and circumscribed in their religious ideals by powerful clerics, they were also leaders and reformers (15)”. This is certainly the case this the remarkable saint. Saint Elizabeth (Isabel) of Portugal was the born in Aragon, Spain in the year 1271. She was a woman of her time, born royal to be married to another royal for the purpose of political gain. She was not predisposed to have a particularly commanding historical voice, but in her submission to God as a lover of Wisdom, her example is set before us. She married Portuguese King Dom Dinis (1261-1325), and spent her life as mother, widow and benefactor to the people of her realm. According the McBrien, she was often faced with injustice in her marriage, as she had to face, “the king’s many dalliances and his fathering of various illegitimate children. Though this marriage was not a happy one, she diverted her energies to prayer and the care of the sick, orphans, the poor, pilgrims and prostitutes (270)”. She was canonized on May 15th, 1625, and her feast day is celebrated on July fourth.
However, her devotion to the Holy Spirit, the incarnation of Sophia in her, is celebrated annually through the (albeit slightly heretical) festival known, the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo. The mythic narrative of her life, which tells of the Holy Ghost Festival, dates back to 1292, and tradition, tells us that the first Portuguese settlers in the15th and 16th centuries brought it to the Azores. By 1292, she was already famous throughout her realm for her devotion to the poor, and her love of the Holy Spirit. Again, tradition tells us that the Portuguese love of Wisdom dates back at least to the early medieval period. In his article, “Historical Origins of the Holy Ghost Celebrations in Europe, Portugal, and the Azores,” which was collected in The Holy Ghost Festas, Heraldo da Silva writes that, “In Portugal, popular piety to the Holy Spirit and creation of some brotherhoods predate the times of Saint Isabel, and apparently go back to the time of the country’s independence in the twelfth century (1140) (34)”. Saint Isabel’s devotion to learning and practicing Wisdom led her to give away much of her royal finery, to the dismay of her husband and son. One popular story says that she set out to see all her finery and jewels to feel the poor people of the realm. Her husband discovered her with bread in the hems of her dress and asked her what she carried. She replied that she had been outside picking flowers from the rosebushes around their palace, and when he demanded to see what she carried, the bread turned miraculously into roses. For the Azorean Portuguese, Saint Isabel becomes a potent symbol of the feminine divine, though she does not eclipse the Blessed Virgin; she certainly inhabits as vital a place in the Azorean psyche. For Azoreans, Saint Isabel is a goddess. She becomes a cultural icon of justice, the vital importance of charity and Wisdom. She bears within her the archetypal significance of her roles as lover, mother and queen.
One particular narrative aspect of Saint Isabel’s life and the resulting miracle is the focus of the annual festa. The Azorean people venerate her life it for its example and for its beautiful mythic quality. The story tells that a famine seized Portugal in the year 1292. As queen, Saint Isabel was overcome by her desire to feed and care for the poor, so she again went to sell all the finery she owned to feed her people. Her husband and her son soon discovered this plan, and assuming her insanity, they tried, and sentenced her to be stripped of her title as queen, wife and mother. The story then tells that while she was imprisoned, she never gave up faith in her family and hope of being released. She remained faithful to her devotions, fasting and praying the rosary every day of her imprisonment. She was held in a dungeon for seven weeks. This number is particularly fascinating because Jungian numerology designated the number three to refer to transition and four to refer to wholeness and completion. Seven weeks suggests a period of transition nearly completed, and eight week suggests the completion of the transition.
After this period of imprisonment, the eight weeks between Easter and Pentecost Sunday, the royal men reconsidered and released her. In order to show the people that she was absolved, the queen was reinstated and crowned in church. This took place during mass, which gave holy sanction to the forgiveness of the queen, and it is believed that both the royals and the people of the realm genuinely accepted this ritual. A feast commenced, and the royal family decreed that everyone receive unlimited food on that day, in honor of the queen’s example. St. Isabel herself descended from her position as queen, and wearing an apron herself, she served her poverty stricken subjects. According to tradition, the Holy Spirit was present during this feast day, and the nobles who were present were so moved by the example of their queen that they began to ask permission to recreate the crown for remembrance rituals in their own lands. They used the crown of Saint Isabel herself as the inspiration for their representations.
The crown only had one difference from that of the queen’s. The nobles placed the image of a dove on the top of her crown, and on the scepter, to symbolize devotion to the Holy Spirit. The celebration has been recreated every year on Pentecost Sunday since 1292, with a mass, local celebration and a meal being given freely to all. For nearly two hundred and fifty years it was celebrated as a Portuguese day of charity, and when it was banned, only the Azoreans kept the tradition. At one point, Saint Isabel of Portugal’s example was celebrated throughout much of Europe, and this annual ritual in remembrance of the queen’s example and the Holy Spirit made its way across Western Europe, and then to the Azores. Despite the Catholic Church’s attempts to ban it during the counter reformation of the renaissance, the ritual remembrance of Saint Isabel has flowered within the Azores, and has become so beloved by the people, that since the 18th century, it has even made it way to America, and continues to be the focal point of the religious year to Azoreans all over the world even today. Every Azorean community has a crown, which represents the royal crown of Saint Isabel and each year on Easter Sunday the crown is handed out to a local family to be passed around for seven weeks of solemnity and prayer of the rosary in the home. It is particularly significant that it is the rosary that is prayed. The prayers, though dedicated to the Holy Spirit, are vocalized to the Blessed Virgin, another feminine symbol also often connected to the Holy Spirit. On the eighth week, a reenactment of the feast of Saint Isabel ensues.
In American versions of this tradition, a young woman is chosen to represent the queen. The young woman is clothed entirely in white, and represents Holy Wisdom herself, the queen of heaven. The queen also chooses a young woman to represent Saint Isabel, dressing her as the saint is traditionally depicted. The ritual reenactment continues as the community shares a meal, a traditional meat dish called sopas. In the Azores, bulls, the animal traditionally sacrificed to the goddess in fertility cults as her consort is the meat used for the dish. The money needed for the meal is raised by church organizations, and no one is turned away for failure to pay. Everyone is fed, physically and spiritually, as all needs are met on that day in honor of Saint Isabel. The feasting continues on through the evening, and there is dancing. As people in diaspora, this tradition has been especially important to American Azoreans, who were attempting to navigate a new life in a foreign country with a foreign culture and language.
Some may ask why the feast is so vital to this celebration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Bynum has done splendid work in the subject. The festival grows out of medieval consciousness, which is based in large part on the human relationship with food. In particular, as Bynum tells us that feast days related to female saints are almost always related to either feasting or fasting. She writes that, “Food is important to women religiously because it is important socially (189)”. Medieval women, who of course include royal women, were responsible for the dietary needs of their household, and therefore the image of feasting becomes a metaphor for spiritual feast as well. Saint Isabel’s desire to feed the people of her realm was a metaphor for her desire to see her people filled with the Wisdom of God. Bynum tells us that, “Medieval people often saw gluttony as the major form of lust, fasting, as the most painful renunciation, and eating as the most basic and literal way of encountering God (2)”. By fasting in prison, St. Isabel devotes her body to the union between it and Wisdom. She prepares herself for Holy Wisdom’s decent on all of her being. She prays to be filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which Alan Watts writes about in his book, Myth and Ritual in Christianity. He writes about what it means to be filled with the gifts of Pentecost: “The first three gifts of the Holy Spirit are traditionally said to be Wisdom, Understanding, and Counsel, and in general the reception of the Holy Spirit is connected with the actual realization, the inward experiencing of all that the myth signifies in an external and figurative way (186).” By relating the spiritual journey with food, the example of Saint Isabel reaches us on our most primal level of survival. We need the nourishment of holy Wisdom to survive, and the examples of the Saints always show us the way.
It is through the impact of these beliefs and rituals in the world that one learns how to connect with the numinous. Azorean tradition is particularly important to me because it is my cultural heritage. When I was thirteen years old, I had the experience of a mystical union with Saint Isabel when I was chosen to represent her in the annual festa. When the priest blessed the crown and brought it down upon my head, I felt, physically, that I united with Holy Wisdom in the moment. I understood the experience of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, receiving the Spirit as tongues of fire on their head. I have studied and been fascinated with this tradition ever since, and I have come to believe that in the context of my Azorean tradition, Saint Isabel is truly an incarnation of Sophia. She is, as Matthews tells us, “The divine spirit within each of us is the receptacle and transmitter of wisdom…Sophia will lodge with any who receive her with a good heart (248-249)”. The stories and rituals of Saint Isabel touch the part of the soul that recognizes that God longs for justice. The veneration of Saint Isabel is a psychological reminder in the Azorean psyche to work for peace, love and justice for all people. Following her example is a wonderful way to usher in tikkun olum, the healing of the Anima Mundi.
The recognition and appreciation of Sophia’s vital symbolic presence throughout the history of Christianity becomes the reason for keeping the tradition. We often forget that we are made to love and to be in right relationship with each other. Sophia reminds us that She is continually remaking our cosmos. In her book, Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality, Carol Christ writes that, “The Goddess is always attempting to persuade us to love intelligently, concretely and inclusively (106)”. The divine always finds a way to break those messages through to people who are so possessed by the concerns of their lives, pettiness and selfishness that they forget to share their blessings. This is why poets, artists and prophets continue to resurface. We require their message. In her book, Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman, Helen Luke writes that, “We are inspired, and carried a long way by the ‘seers’ who have gone before, by the great poetry, art and music, and by the creative spirit of all whose lives have touched our own… (170)”. A reunion with these symbols takes us on a journey deeper into our souls, through which we may learn to know ourselves better, and to love each other more. This is the true message of Christianity, not this shallow fundamentalism which has gripped our churches and been neglected by our nation. Luke continues, “The more we are cut off from the symbolic life, through which alone we may approach and reconcile the opposites, the greater the danger of our projection of this reality onto totalitarianism of one kind or another (171)”. In our current moment, we have allowed our myths to wallow in poverty for far too long. We must no longer be satisfied with these shallow waters.
We must return balance to our mythic symbols in order to return balance to psyche. Interest in the feminine divine has returned to our consciousness at moment for a profound reason. Schipflinger says it beautifully: “Today we stand at the end of a patriarchal age and at the dawn of a new age and recognition of the feminine and maternal identity of the Holy Spirit may represent a significant step forward (392)”. The movement toward the inclusion of goddess spirituality is a step toward developing wholeness in our consciousness. It is a step toward the reclamation of all of our mythic symbols. This reclamation is beaconing us to a feast that our spiritualities deeply need. We need to be fed by a depth of meaning that will fill us, engulf enflame and us. The archetypal energies they represent will not be ignored, nor should we ignore ourselves, or risk starvation, not only of the body, but also of the spirit.
Bulgakov, Sergei. Sophia: The Wisdom of God. NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1993.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, Ca: UCP, 1987.
Christ, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. NY: Routledge, 1997.
Downing, Christine. Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. NY: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2000.
da Silva, Heraldo, PhD. “Historical Origins of the Holy Ghost Celebration in Europe, Portugal, and the Azores.” The Holy Ghost Festas: A Historic Perspective of the Portuguese in California. Ed. António P. Goulart. San Jose, Ca: Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of California, 2002.
Luke, Helen M. Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman and Other Essays. NY: Parabola Books, 1993.
Matthews, Caitlin. Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom Bride of God. Wheaton, Il: Quest Books, 2001.
McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
—Lives of the Saints. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Schipflinger, Thomas. Sophia-Maria: A Holistic Vision of Creation. York Beach, Me: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1998.
Vaz, August Mark. “The Azorean-Portuguese Migrations to California.” The Holy Ghost Festas: A Historic Perspective of the Portuguese in California. Ed. António P. Goulart. San Jose, Ca: Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of California, 2002.
Watts, Alan W. Myth and Ritual in Christianity. Boston: Beacon Press. 1968.
The Azorean Holy Spirit Festa: Understanding Liminality and Communitas through a Crown
By, Dori S. Koehler
In my search for a paper topic regarding our work on ritual, I turned to my own heritage. My father’s family is and immigrant family from the Azores. Our family immigrated to the Unites States in the early nineteen teens. However, within our family, we have not lost the connection to our heritage in the three generations since this immigration. I grew up in a small farming community in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. When I grew up there, one of the main demographics of the local culture of was Azorean Portuguese. In large part, the social life of the community lived on cultural events sponsored by the Portuguese.
For as long as I can recall, my father was active in the Portuguese community. The Portuguese Lodge, or DES (which stands for Divino Espírito Santo) holds many events during the year, but none are as important to our cultural and spiritual heritage than the Holy Spirit celebration, which is held (at least in Los Baños, where I was born) every year eight weeks after Easter. I feel privileged to be brought up in a family that appreciates these cultural treasures. My mother did not always understand or agree with every aspect of these rituals but, as her Dutch heritage is indispensible to her own identity, she supported our need to embrace it. I even got to spend a year representing our community as queen of the Holy Spirit celebration. A chronicle and explanation of these celebrations will be the focus of the first section of this essay. As I began to consider the different aspects of the Portuguese Festa (also called Holy Spirit celebrations), I came to understand that several aspects of what Victor Turner calls liminality and communitas are clearly present in the way that the Azoreans express this devotion to the Holy Spirit. The second part of this essay focuses on Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas, as it asserts possiblities as to why these celebrations are important, both culturally and psychologically.
Azorean Experience and the Holy Spirit Festa
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, immigrants from the Azores came to America to seek new opportunities. The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands, nine hundred miles off the coast of Portugal. Although they are so far out at sea, they are owned by Portugal, and they were uninhabited before being utilized as a penal colony by the Portuguese. Life in the Azores was difficult because the islands lack many of the natural resources that human beings need to survive. The island culture was (and still is, in many ways) dependant on the sea for survival. This challenging way of life made the Azorean Portuguese especially adept at being able to survive the American immigrant experience, which is often fraught with frustration and alienation.
The immigrants brought the traditions that they treasured with them. The Azorean American culture flourished in California. Many people from the Azores found California to be a hospitable place to raise dairy animals, farm and fish. They wrote to the Azores to send for family, and they made their homes all over the state of California. In the early part of the first decade of the 21st century, there were over one million Californians of Azorean immigrant descents. This stands in stark contrast to the population of the islands themselves, which boast approximately two hundred and fifty thousand residents on all nine islands. Whenever these immigrants settled, they built lodges, and established their cultural celebrations, the most in important of these being the celebration that venerates Queen Saint Isabel and devotion to the Holy Spirit.
Queen Saint Isabel was the born in Aragon, Spain in the year 1271. She married Portuguese King Dom Dinis. The people of her realm knew her for her devotion to the poor, and her veneration of the Holy Spirit. One popular story says that she set out to see all her finery and jewels to feel the poor people of the realm. Her husband discovered her with bread in the hems of her dress and asked her what she carried in front of herself. She told him that she had been outside picking flowers from the rosebushes around their palace. When he demanded to see what she carried, the bread turned miraculously into roses.
One of the miracles of Queen Saint Isabel’s life is the focus of the annual festa. There is mythic quality to Queen Saint Isabel’s life story as it is remembered among the Azorean people. According to the story, a famine seized Portugal in the year 1292. Queen Saint Isabel was overcome by her desire to feed and care for the poor, so she again went to sell all the finery she owned to feed her people. Her husband and her son discovered this plan, and they quickly decided that she was insane. They tried, and sentenced her to be stripped of her title as queen, wife and mother. The story tells that while she was imprisoned, she never gave up faith in her family and hope of being released. She remained faithful to her devotions, praying the rosary every day of her imprisonment. After a period, usually believed to be the time between Easter and Pentecost Sundays, the royal men reconsidered and released her. In order to show the people that she was forgiven, the queen was reinstated and crowned in church. This took place during mass, which gave holy sanction to the forgiveness of the queen. The royal family also decreed that everyone receive free food on that day, in honor of the queen’s example.
The story continues on that the Portuguese nobles were so moved by the example of their queen that they began to request permission to recreate the crown for remembrance rituals in their own lands. They used the crown of Queen Saint Isabel herself as the inspiration for their representations. The crown only had one difference from that of the queen’s. The nobles placed the image of a dove on the top of her crown, and on the scepter, to symbolize her devotion to the Holy Spirit. The celebration of recreated every year on Pentecost Sunday, with a mass, local celebration and a meal being given freely to all. It became a Portuguese day of charity.
This annual ritual in remembrance of the queen’s example and the Holy Spirit made its way across Western Europe, and then to the Azores. The Catholic Church eventually banned the celebration of such rites. Many bishops believed that this kind of devotion to the Holy Spirit confuses the concept of the trinity in the hearts and minds of the faithful. In his book, The Holy Ghost Festas, Tony Goulart quotes the most recent publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It says, “…We worship one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son’s is another, the Holy Spirit’s and Holy Spirit is one, their glories equal, their majesty coeternal (qtd. in Goulart: 30).” However, all efforts to ban this celebration in the Azores failed, and the immigrants brought the experience to the United States with them.
It is important to note that the Holy Ghost celebration in California has a vastly different expression from the one in the Azores. The addition of a girl who is chosen as queen of the Festa is entirely an American creation. In California, the queen herself surrounds much of the ceremony of the Holy Ghost celebration. The following description of ritual is one that I participated in annually. It is the particular ritual experience of my own hometown. The heart of the Festa begins on Easter Sunday when a sort of reenactment of Queen Saint Isabel’s incarceration begins. During each of the eight weeks between the weekend of Easter and the weekend of the Festa, a different local family is responsible to host a nightly gathering for people to come pray the rosary.
Each community has their own recreation of Queen St. Isabel’s crown. They are generally made of a kind of silver tone metal, and are often decorated with colorful stones. Some are quite old and ornate, and can even be made of hammered sterling silver. A community gathering commences, with the prayer of the rosary first. The family of the previous year’s queen is responsible for this first week. The family chooses a place of honor in the house for the crown to be set. An altar is created for the crown to sit. They are usually decorated with white satin, and flowers of purple, red, blue and/or white. Purple evokes royalty, red the Pentecostal fire, blue the color Mary as Our Lady of Fatima (another Portuguese saint) and white as the dove or symbol of purity. Although these are the traditional colors, it is now common for queens to choose many different colors. The queen often has her altar decorated with the colors she has chosen for the cape she will wear (or has worn) during her year reign. After the rosary, a member of the household carries the scepter to each person. Each person lays a kiss on the dove that sits on the top of the scepter. This is a symbol of love and devotion to the Holy Spirit. After everyone has made their symbolic tribute, the women serve tea, coffee, cake and different foods that are traditional to the time of year.
The crown makes it way from house to house within the community, with each of the year’s chosen families. Each week the ritual is the same: prayer, devotion and food. On the eighth week, the crown goes to the family of the new queen, who is yet to be crowned. On this week, the ritual continues. However, the rosary prayer only continues in their home until Friday night. On Saturday afternoon, the crown is brought to a special chapel at the Portuguese Lodge. These chapels are called Impérios. On Saturday evening, a procession occurs from the local Catholic Church, which includes the previous year’s queen, the new queen, the members of the Portuguese organization, a band, and the icons of Queen Saint Isabel, and Our Lady of Fatima. The statues are placed in the chapel next to the crown. Then, the community gathers to pray the rosary. The previous year’s queen is not dressed in her cape and gown, but she wears her crown. The new queen does not wear a crown, but she dresses in a fine gown.
After the rosary, there is a dance in the lodge. The previous year’s queen is invited to go to the dance and celebrate. However, the new queen must stay in the chapel and wait to be announced. When the time comes for her to be announced, she is brought to the dance floor. The previous queen’s court is announced first. The previous queen and her court (which includes two sidemaids or symbolic ladies in waiting who are chosen by the queen) enter, dressed in the finery from the previous year. Then the new queen and her court enter. Young men, who are chosen by the girls, escort them all. Their parents are also announced, and they come in as well. The new queen and sidemaids wear gowns, but not the white ones they will wear when they are crowned, and they also do not wear capes or crowns. At this point, they are just lovely young women, not queens.
The next morning, the community gathers outside the Portuguese lodge. This includes those whom other towns and cities have sent to represent them (their queens or lodge members), and it also includes bands, flag bearers, and anyone else who has come to participate in the procession. The people are grouped together by town. The previous year’s queen’s court marches first, followed by her family and a junior queen that the she chose. The junior queen is generally between seven and ten years old and has a court, which is similar to the senior in number. The previous year’s junior and senior queens are responsible to carry the recreations of Queen Saint Isabel’s crown. The members of the Portuguese lodge from each town march behind the previous year’s queen. Each town has their own flag, and many even bring statues as well. Young people are often paid a few dollars to carry the flag for them, and many youths look forward to this experience. The procession is interspersed with bands playing Portuguese hymns and marches by the Portuguese-American musician John Phillip Sousa.
The procession continues to the local Catholic Church. In the church, mass is celebrated. When the time comes to crown the new queen, the previous year’s queens bring the crowns to the altar. The new queens present the previous queens with floral bouquets that they have been carrying. Even though all the queens and sidemaids wear their own tiaras at this point, this moment is deeply imbued with religious symbolic meaning regarding the coronation. The junior court is crowned first, followed by the senior court. The queen kneels at the altar with her sidemaids. The priest blesses them. The scepter and plate that accompany the crown are given to the sidemaids to carry. Then, the priest has each girl kiss the dove on the top of the crown and it is placed on each girl’s head for a moment. The queen wears this crown on top of her tiara and may remain crowned until she is outside the church, and some girls even wear the crown during the return procession to the lodge.
During the return procession, the newly crowned queen marches first, with her court and family. The previous year’s queen then marches last, behind all the representatives of the other towns. When the whole procession reaches the lodge, the queen and her court walk up to the steps of the lodge and doves are released. Then the Portuguese and American national anthems are sung. After this occurs, all the people present are invited to a free meal. It is a traditional dish of meat, bread and cabbage called sopas. There is an auction in the afternoon and a bazaar with locally made handicrafts sold and given away. The evening ends with a dance similar to the one on Saturday, with the queens being announced again. The festivities on Sunday end the previous queen’s obligation, and beginning the newly crowned queen’s responsibility to represent her community by attending festas in neighboring towns and cities every weekend (with a winter break of a couple of months) until the next year.
Victor Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas
In his seminal work, The Ritual Process, Victor Turner examines the social drama that motivates our human cultural experience. In his chapter titled, “Liminality and Communitas,” he develops some ideas at are very useful for us in our analysis of the Holy Spirit festa. He speaks of liminal moments. These are the “betwixt and between” moments as well as those who are chosen to be liminal persons. He suggests that the liminal really represents moments or persons who, in the process of ritual, are removed from the experience of the community. They are in transition. He borrows the idea of liminality from Arnold van Gennep when he writes:
Van Gennup has shown that all rites of passage or “transitions” are marked by three phases: separation, margin (or limen, signifying “threshold in Latin), and aggregation. The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a “state), or from both. During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (the passenger) are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributed of the past or coming state (94).
These liminal people and liminal moments are held out of time. They are in transition, but they are not consciously thinking of that transition. Turner continues on this point when he suggests:
The attributed of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classification that normally located states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigns and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial (95).
It is the sense of ambiguity that actually creates the liminal space. All the rites to prepare for the ritual space are fulfilled when those in the process of the ritual experience the ambiguity.
Turner touches on the two major aspects of liminality. The first is the threshold. This is the aspect of liminality, which is connected to the ritual itself. The threshold is necessary. For the ritual to work, it is imperative for one to step out of the daily mundane aspects of life. This is what Mircea Eliade referred to as sacred and profane spaces. In order for humans to create that distinction, we need the liminal. We need to make the action of stepping away and making something sacred. The second aspect of liminality (ambiguity) is connected not to the action of the ritual itself. It is the result. The ambiguity of the liminal creates the kind of atmosphere that is necessary for communitas to flourish. Turner suggests that this kind of opaque atmosphere creates structure and chaos at the same time. He writes:
What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purpose is the blend they offer of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. We are presented, in such rites with a ‘moment in and out of time,’ and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties (96).
It is precisely in these moments and with these liminal personae out of which communitas develops. Turner saw communitas as a bond that developed spontaneously within a group of people when they allowed themselves to be affected and imbued with the liminal. He writes, “It is a rather a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society. Liminality implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed, and he who is high must experience what it is like to be low” (97). His idea is that in order for us to create these fleeing moments of egalitarian communitas, the structure of society has to be reversed, at least for a time. He suggests:
…for all individuals and groups social life is a type of dialectical process that involves successive experience of high and low, communitas and structure, homogeneity and differentiation, equality and inequality. The passage from lower to higher status is through a limbo of statuslessness. In such a process, the opposites, as it were, constitute one another and are mutually indispensable (97).
The liminal is itself the earth, but it also creates the earth in which communitas grows. It not only creates the environment which communitas needs, it is the environment communitas needs.
The Festa in relation to Turner
What does any of this have to do with the Californian expression of the Holy Spirit Festa? I contend that there is much within the way that the ritual is performed that lends credence to Victor Turner’s ideas. First, the liminal is everywhere to be found within the ritual and within the belief structure in it. The “Holy Queen” is herself a kind of liminal entity. She is a woman in medieval Portugal. A woman’s place in society was quite different in that time and culture. In her criticism of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, Caroline Walker Bynum wrote, “ ‘Woman’ was clearly outside medieval European notions of social structure” (76). She refers to the medieval European notion of woman as something set apart of the world of men. She continues to suggest that, “The woman is thus, to the man, a retreat from the world” (76). Though it is true that the Festas in the Azores did not have the aspect of a young woman as queen, they still offered devotion to Queen Saint Isabel. She is the central liminal figure of the festa. She is a symbol of the ambiguity necessary in order to change the society and allow for communitas to bubble up.
It is especially interesting to note that in California, our queens usually choose another girl to represent Queen Saint Isabel. One would assume that the queen herself represents the saint and there is an aspect of her that does. However, I contend there is something at work with this choice itself, which suggests liminality. The girl chosen to represent the saint becomes a physical manifestation of the precious and venerable saint. This allows the queen to mean something else. The queen is a representative of the community. She actually represents the Queen Saint Isabel’s great ideals. She represents these ideals being born anew every year at Festa time.
The queen herself represents the ritual process of each year. She represents the journey from the liminal to communitas. This can be clearly seen through the example of the ritual itself. The liminal space is created on Easter Sunday when the crown (which is itself a symbol of the liminal, as not owned by any one person and is passed from house to house) is brought out for the time of prayer and mediations. It is generally accepted that the queen should participate in as much of this time as possible. It is a liminal time for the community. The previous year’s queen is still queen, after the first week, she has seven weeks of none of her duties. This whole time symbolizes the time that Queen Saint Isabel was imprisoned. It represents the community imprisoned. The community is preparing to walk through the threshold into communitas, and they will take the hand of a young queen in order to make complete this crossing over.
Examples of the liminal in the experience of the queen can further be seen in so many of the rites themselves. The queen wears no crown until it comes time to crown her. She is kept hidden in a room until she is announced. In many of the rituals, the new queen marches in the procession with an arch or a rectangle, which is decorated and carried by six children (three on each side). She is set apart. She also carried the crown. This is important when one considers the crown as the other of the two main liminal symbols. The queen carries the community’s symbol of the liminal and she is the symbol of the liminal. As stated previously, the queen will be the one who shows the way to communitas, and she will be the way to communitas. The queen is responsible to house the crown during her reign. The community to care for and protect it until it goes through its liminal process again the next year entrusts her.
Through this expression of liminality, the door opens to communitas. As was stated previously, the whole ritual is a rebirth of the saint’s beautiful ideals. These ideals also show the concept of liminality and communitas. The festa is a time for charity. I have often heard it said that for one day a year, everyone eats. Furthermore, it is a time for a completely egalitarian experience. During the time of immigration, many of these Azorean immigrants felt alienated from a society who spoke a different language, had a different religion and just saw things so much differently. The festa gives a chance to the Azorean people to have a moment of communitas in which everyone eats the same food, sits together, and plays together. In the Portuguese lodge, the tables are all at the same height. The queen sits with everyone else, and is served on the same plates. This is part of the story about Queen Saint Isabel as well. She is said to have served the first festa meal herself. Even though she is a royal, she follows Christ’s teaching to have the first be last and the last be first. She does not accept special service or special china. This is what Victor Turner called “institutionalized liminality.” He wrote, “Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure, in inferiority” (128). The culture of the Central Californian Portuguese has created a way (through venerating our past and our heritage) to allow this to be reborn each year. It is recognition that essentially, we all have the same needs, wants and desires.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Woman’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality.” Readings in Ritual Studies. Ed. Ronald L. Grimes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996
Goulart, António. The Holy Ghost Festas. San Jose, Ca: Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of California, 2002
Link, Sue Fagalde. Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. Berkely: Heyday Books, 1998
Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas.” The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1969
The Light which makes Clarity Possible: Feminine Wisdom in Purgatorio
By Dori S. Koehler
In her provocatively delicious work, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Helen Luke suggests that, “There are no dreams in Hell; there are no dreams in Heaven, for both realms are outside time” (52). Purgatory, as the most human and temporal realm of the three in the Comedy, is a realm of change, growth and painful development. In the cosmos of the Comedy, only Purgatory is eternity in time. This is a rich idea, and it has captivated my imagination. Purgatory is a place where consciousness develops, and as such often leaves its inhabitants feeling blinded by confusion. The image of blindness is everywhere in the Comedy. However, the dance between blindness and holy vision begins in Purgatory. In Hell, there is nothing but blind regret and denial, and in heaven, eternal bliss.
Jeffrey Schnapp published an article titled, “Introduction to Purgatorio” in the Cambridge Companion to Dante. He writes, “Unlike Paradise or Hell but in the image of our world, souls in Purgatory are on the move. They are not bound for eternity to the terrace, pouch or celestial seat in which they appear, but rather, are ‘strangers in a strange land,’ pilgrims on a temporal and spatial journey in which, paradoxically the course of time is reversed, sin erased, the divine image restored” (94). A journey through Purgatory allows for choice, and it allows for growth. The souls in Purgatory have hope which, unlike the souls in Hell, allows them to break their own blind denial and accept their penance. While these souls are ultimately saved, and therefore cannot choose to damn themselves, they can choose to allow this time of transformation to penetrate and meditate on what it is that blinds them.
Dante develops the themes of blindness and vision delicately as he incorporates feminine characters of inspiration, wisdom and compassion. The feminine energies in Purgatory are presented as differing aspects of his Beatrice who is, for Dante, an omni-beatific image. These women, particularly the ones I will choose to focus on (the Muses, Santa Lucia and the Blessed Virgin) embody facets of what Dante understands to be wisdom (enlightenment), and that wisdom displays itself through the images of light and human vision To Dante, an experience of God is inextricably linked to an experience of the kind of love he wishes to share with Beatrice. Dante longs to unite with the Divine directly, but because of his ignorance, he must first be purged. He needs to be stripped of his willful nature. In his book, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, Christian Moevs reminds us that, “To see God is to see the power to see that is God: it is to see as God” (173). This stripping away allows for righteous loving, and the kind of world view, which comes with healthy vision, is itself an encounter with the Divine.
The light which emanates through the women Dante encounters is his experience of God, and it is this light that makes holy vision possible for him. His confrontation with virtue is the action of soul’s encounter with the unconscious as the soul moves toward consciousness. The soul must face the unknown in its quest for salvation. Luke reminds us that, “We cannot climb the mountain at all without the cooperation of the unconscious” (53). Dante needs the images he encounters along his journey to salvation, and the feminine images of holy vision and right virtue are his true guides. It is the unconscious which Dante meets through the feminine characters which appear on his journey through Purgatory, and although he already recognizes his need for a transformative experience with an inspired vision from the beginning of his journey, his move through Hell still shows him to be a blind soul, grasping for more consciousness.
When Dante emerges from Hell, the first thing he sees are the stars. This is the first light that Dante has seen since trudging through the pit of perdition. He begins to move toward a mountain, which he originally hoped to conquer quite quickly. In this early stage of his transition from damnation to salvation, he delivers an invocation to the Muses. He writes, “o holy Muses,/ may this poem rise again from Hell’s dead realm;/and may Calliope rise somewhat here,/ accompanying my singing…” (Purg. 1:7-9). Calliope’s name combines two Greek words: Kallos (beauty) and ops (voice). She is the Muse of epic poetry, and she is considered to be the leader of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess memory. Her voice is the most mellifluous of the group, and it is she who tells the mythic and defining stories. She entertains, and she has the power to guide the pilgrim gently. Calliope’s beautiful voice is there as a first contact with her sisters, to guide the pilgrim through the creative process; telling amusing anecdotes, and making it all a part of the epic poem of human history which she composes.
To begin the Proem with an invocation to the Muses is tantalizing. Although Dante’s choice to invoke the Muses is a literary device, common to the epics of the classical period which Dante emulates, the image of the Muses is functional in its development of Dante’s vision as he moves toward salvation. The root of the word inspiration (in-spire), which refers to an experience with Muses, literally means “to breathe in.” Furthermore, it is interesting to notice that this word develops from the same root as the word spirit. This indicates that the poet recognizes that there is something about the process of becoming inspired which is as involuntary (albeit vital) as breathing, as well as transcendent in nature, creating a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. This encounter with Calliope begins to soften Dante’s soul, making it possible for him to turn and see. Dante has languished in denial about his attitudes (and by attitudes I am referring to attitude as position) for half of his life. He has encountered and accepted the call for a conversion. This conversion has begun with a trip through Hell where Dante is confronted with the realities of the sins of blindness. The soul in Hell has no chance to develop consciousness. It is fixed to one point, and therefore does not have the luxury of movement. This chance at conversion is what the pilgrim Dante is given through his move toward the purgation of a selfish world view, and it allows him the chance to see the stars, that is, to get perspective of a celestial realms outside the pilgrim’s own suffering. Dante writes that seeing the stars, “brought back my joy of seeing just as soon/as I had left behind the air of death/that had afflicted both my sight and breast” (Purg 1: 16-18). When he calls to the Muses, he makes a personal plea for a complete reversal of attitude, which is tantamount to a new way to see.
At this point, Dante begins to understand that his salvation will require this complete reversal of his vision. In his article titled, “The Theology of the Comedy,” which is published in the Cambridge Companion to Dante, A.N. Williams writes that, “The highest freedom consists in whole-heartedly loving rightly, not in thrashing about in agonies of indecision about whether or not to do the good” (211). Dante discovers that the road to salvation constitutes loving rightly. Without this process of conversion, the path to salvation makes no sense; it is not even open to the pilgrim, and although he is unaware of it, as far as his journey is concerned, this process has already begun. When he climbs down Satan’s legs, he has already begun his ascent toward paradise, a movement toward righteous and holy vision. In his book, Dante: the Poetics of Conversion, John Freccero reminds us that, “By turning upside down at the center of the universe, the pilgrim and his guide right the topsy-turvy world of negative transcendence from which they began” (182). This long and arduous climb has begun for the pilgrim, and as Luke reminds us, in this process, the faithful person must choose the hard work. She writes, “We fail, however, and lose heart, because we so quickly forget that this change is impossible without a total willingness to ‘pay the uttermost farthing’—if necessary over a long period of time” (50). By calling for inspiration, a breathing in or renewal, Dante reaches out for help, and this recognition, which for the first time shows that his position is changing, is his first step toward salvation. He has been inspired. As far as his journey is concerned, his process has already begun. His invocation of the Muses, which occurs at the beginning of this most human part of his journey, displays his desire to be filled with the new way of knowing which he encounters.
As the pilgrim continues to move through the outlying areas of Purgatory, toward ascending the mountain, Dante continues to connect his call for inspiration with the image of vision, or Santa Lucia. The saint herself makes a first appearance in Purg. 1. through a clever use of rhetoric. As a poet, Dante’s brilliance is displayed by his choice to take these poetic images, and weave them together as a way to make their differing aspects illuminate each other. The poet makes reference to vision when he uses words (seeing, vision or eyes) directly related to vision nine times in the course of Purg. 1. This rhetorical move locks his feminine symbols together. Clearly holy vision is to be his mighty theme, and to Dante, all these characters are differing aspects of his purgation and the beatific encounter. These characters are wisdom from the Divine and aspects of the same feminine principle of holy vision. They intersect, and share similar space because they serve the same function in the text. The feminine inspires the poet and enlightens the pilgrim.
As her name declares, Santa Lucia is holy light itself. Her story is Italian in origin, coming from Syracuse in the fourth century of the Common Era. The young saint was martyred by her betrothed for her desire to remain unmarried and consecrated to God. One legend tells that Lucy’s eyes, her greatest physical beauty, were plucked out as part of the torture she was forced to endure. For this reason, Santa Lucia is portrayed as a maiden, with the cup bearing her eyes placed in her right hand, and she is the saint in the Christian tradition who represents discernment. She represents all aspects of vision: spiritual, imaginal, psychological and physical. Lucia is not an image of the kind of holy light that blinds. She represents the kind of light which warms, illuminates, penetrates and helps the pilgrim discern what is around them. Luke reminds us that, “Santa Lucia has a special significance for Dante. It was through her that the Virgin Mary sent a message to Beatrice bidding her to go to Dante’s help in the dark wood. She must have been a much loved image to him. He calls her, ‘Lucy, foe to every cruelty’”(70). For Dante, Santa Lucia is more than a saint to emulate. She is a Catholic personification of Sophia, feminine wisdom of the Divine. She is also an image of a concept, a literary device, which is malleable and elegant enough to make her appearance in many different cantos.
The first literary reference in Purgatorio to Santa Lucia herself comes to the reader in Purg. 9. As exhaustion takes over his body, Dante is reminded that he is still human. The pilgrim falls asleep, and he dreams that he is carried by an eagle (an image of justice and renewal) He writes, “Then it seemed to me that, wheeling/slightly and terrible as lightening, it/swooped, snatching me up to the fire’s orbit./And there it seemed that he and I were burning:/and this imagined conflagration scorched/ me so—I was compelled to break my sleep.” (Purg. 9:28-33) This burning warmth experienced by the pilgrim is a call to purgation of the soul. When faced with the enormity of the task before him, the pilgrim is overcome with exhaustion. In his dream, he encounters powerful images which he is not ready to encounter in his waking life. The pilgrim has only begun to understand that his process of purgation will be trial by fire. This fire, which he encounters in his dream, will not consume him, but will purify him. As Luke writes, “The fire of Purgatory is not a condemnation of desire; Dante knows that there is no redemption through cold repression. On the contrary it symbolizes the free acceptance of the terrible burning of the desire itself endured with full realization of its redemptive meaning; so, passing through the fire, the soul finds love” (54). Dante is shocked out of his sleep by an image of fire which represents divine consciousness, and he cannot accept it at this point. In his dreams he has had an unmitigated experience of the unconscious. But when he wakes, he discovers that it has been Santa Lucia in all her tenderness that has actually escorted him from this encounter with the unconscious, to the gates of Purgatory proper, and she gently prepares him for the work that is to come.
The pilgrim finds himself at the gate, and he wonders how it is that he has come to make it so far without an actual climb. Virgil, the guide ironically damned to Hell because of his own blindness, tells him the story. “You have already come to Purgatory:/see there the rampart wall enclosing it;/see where the wall is breached, the point of entry./Before, at dawn that ushers in the day,/when soul was sleeping in your body, on/the flowers that adorn the ground below,/a lacy came; she said: ‘I am Lucia;/let me take hold of him who is asleep,/that I may help to speed him on his way” (Purg. 9:49-57). Since the pilgrim cannot, as yet, do the work of coming to face the complexities within his soul, grace comes in the form of Santa Lucia.
She is discernment for the pilgrim, and Virgil continues to tell Dante of this influx of grace. “… ‘she took you, and once the day/was bright, she climbed—I following behind./And here she set you down, but first her lovely/eyes showed that open entryway to me; / then she and sleep together took their leave’” (Purg: 9: 59-63). Santa Lucia moves in, gracefully turns Dante toward the way he must go, and then disappears as quietly as she has appeared. Her eyes see for Dante what he cannot see for himself, and she breaks in with the wisdom he needs to move forward. As a proxy, she helps him realize the next part of his journey. Schnapp reminds us of this when he writes, “To reach and ascend Mount Purgatory requires human effort and superhuman support” (93). The pilgrim cannot ascend to the mountain alone. Although the experience of purgation is a personal one, one which he will inevitably have to face personally, the journey will nonetheless require a guide. Dante has, until this point, been guided by an image of a heroic past; a man of fame. At this point, the pilgrim realizes that he must look inward, to the wisdom that will allow him to see his way through to the mountain. He must cleanse himself of will, and accept the feminine gift of discernment.
Although Dante recognizes this shifting paradigm within him, he is terrified as he encounters the angel who guards the gate of Purgatory. When he understands that this angel is the keeper of a threshold, he becomes conscious of his sinful, willful nature, and he is afraid. The pilgrim lacks the one virtue that will remove his fear, love. Though he may garner the help of feminine insight, the journey must be personal in nature. He writes, “I saw him seated on the upper step/ his face so radiant, I could not bear it;/and in his hand he held a naked sword,/which so reflected rays toward us that I,/time and again, tried to sustain that sight” (Purg: 9:80-84). Though he has learned to look inward, Dante has not yet allowed himself to truly see the way to salvation, and he cannot yet bear the sight. The angel sees this misdirection in him and marks him with a “P” which represents the purgation he must face for each of the seven mortal sins. “I threw myself devoutly at his holy/feet, asking him to open out of mercy; /but first I beat three times upon my breast./Upon my forehead, he traced seven P’s/with his sword’s point and said: ‘When you have entered within, take care to wash away these wounds’” (Purg. 9:109-114). Then the angel makes it clear to him that the choice to enter Purgatory represents a fundamental change in vision, from which the pilgrim cannot return. “Then he pushed back the panels of the holy/gate, saying: ‘Enter, but I warn you—he/who would look back, returns—again—outside’” (Purg. 9:130-134). A fearful or an uncommitted soul will not experience salvation. The pilgrim learns that his journey is irrevocable. Once he is cured of blindness, he may never again return to a state of unenlightened denial.
As Dante moves into Purgatory proper, he begins to ascend the levels. At the second terrace, the realm of the envious, he encounters souls with their eyes sewn shut, calling for the examples of the saints; especially the Blessed Virgin. These souls desperately need to see compassion. During their lives, they lived only for what they could possess. The theme of blindness morphs to include spirits in disconnection. Each of the deadly sins brings with it disconnection from God, the other and oneself, and Dante must experience the purging of those sins. He writes that, “…when we heard the spirits as they flew toward us,/thought they could not be seen—spirits pronouncing/courteous invitations to a love’s table./ The first voice that flew by called out loud: ‘Vinum non babent,’ and behind us that same voice reiterated its example” (Purg. 13: 25-30). The Latin quote in this means, “they have no wine,” and it refers to the Blessed Virgin’s entreaty to Jesus when they were at the wedding feast in Cana. Mary is an example for these souls, and her example teaches them the way to compassion. Her lesson is to love means to think of another’s needs before one’s own. These souls have reached for what looked delightful with their human eyes, and they must be purged of this misapplication of vision. Dante writes, “…through their eyes, sewn so atrociously,/those spirits forced the tears that bathed their cheeks” (Purg. 13: 83-84). In their blindness, these souls see their need for grace. They learn reciprocity, compassion and right vision. With this rhetorical move, Dante reminds the reader that the virtues of Calliope, Santa Lucia and the Blessed Virgin are the keys to salvation. He must receive the spirit, be willing to see and love rightly with compassion. Luke reminds us that:
The intercession, the selfless offer of love and compassion from another, is the prayer which can save us from neurotic and pointless suffering and awaken us to the pain of the mountain; it can even hasten our release from this pain also, when we have grown into full acceptance of it and are able in our turn to offer such a love to another (62).
It is our compassion which leads us to salvation, but that compassion requires a special gift of grace and that gift is holy vision. One may ask why they should take this journey with Dante. If this inward facing is bound to be terrifying, as well as painful, why bother? On the surface, it may seem obvious that salvation, the personal experience with an overwhelming unification with the Divine is worth any kind of pain and suffering. However, there is corner of every human soul that craves oblivion. We crave the depths of the pit, the chance to be anonymous and the lack of accountability. It is often uncomfortable to see and be seen. However, the part of our soul that craves oblivion always loses their ability to satisfy, and eventually the human soul craves contact. No matter how deeply mired we are in the lower circles of Hell, we crave a connection to other. As uncomfortable as it may be to be seen in our condition, we become dissatisfied with our lack of accountability. We recognize our loneliness, and long for an experience of the gracious feminine attributes of the Divine. We crave the numinous. In his article titled, “The Canon of Poetry and the Wisdom of Poetry,” Albert Cook reminds us that there is an artistic truth which makes the reader continues to follow along with the pilgrim. He writes, “There is a wisdom in the best poetry that makes it universal, rather than just subjective, though such wisdom derives from the engagement of subjectivity” (317). This is the attribute that makes the trip worth it, because the boons Dante gains for the reader are universal. There is a cathartic experience and a development of holy vision for the reader who stays on the journey with Dante. Ultimately, his poem becomes abridge which allows for that development. In his book, Dante’s Interpretive Journey, William Franke tells us that, “It is not the textual artifact that counts most in the end. This human work gives itself out to be merely a means of facilitating a more direct encounter with the divine Word” (20). The work itself is more than a sum of its parts. It is this transformative affect which the work can have on the reader that truly defines the poem and completes the experience of the reader. To have the experience of the work is to be enlightened by holy fire, and to be become open to holy vision.
Alghieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Everyman’s Library, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Cook, Albert. “The Canon of Poetry and the Wisdom of Poetry.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 49.4 (Fall 1991): 317-329.
Franke, William. Dante’s Interpretive Journey. Chicago: UCP, 1996.
Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Cambridge, Massachuecetts: Harvard UP, 1986.
Luke, Helen M. Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy. NY: Parabola Books, 1993.
Moevs, Christian. The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy. NY: Oxford UP, 2005.
Schnapp, Jeffrey T. “Introduction to Purgatorio.” The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Ed. Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge: CUP, 2007.
Williams, A.N. “The Theology of the Comedy.” The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Ed. Rachel Jacoff, Cambridge: CUP, 2007.
I Am Jack’s Descent to the Underworld: Dream and Labyrinth Images in Fight Club
By Dori S. Koehler
“We’re the middle children of history, men. We have no purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual one, our great depression is our lives.” –Tyler Durden
The images and metaphors related to the myth of the descent to the underworld continue to resurface in art, literature, and forms of popular culture. These images are experiencing a renewal in American popular cinema. It is a responsive phenomenon, similar to Ovid’s responses to Virgil’s themes, which were, though sometimes misunderstood, a conscious and intentional reworking of the material that had come before it. Each generation wrestles with the ideas of those who have bequeathed to them an intellectual heritage, and in 1999, director David Fincher added his voice to this tradition when he created a film version of Chuck Palahniuk’s legendary 1996 novel, Fight Club. At the risk of breaking the first two rules of fight club, which both read, “you do NOT talk about fight club,” I contend that this film deserves consideration as one of the most explicit underworld journeys in contemporary film. Fight Club, as actor Edward Norton (who plays the character Jack) points out, is intentionally surreal and metamorphic. Norton also makes it clear that this work is a conscious engagement with underworld journey films from the pervious generation He refers particularly to the engagement of underworld material relating to the malaise of youth when he invokes the 1967 classic The Graduate, and calls Marla Singer, the female lead in Fight Club, “Elaine Robinson on crack” (Interview, 1999). The film has virtually eclipsed the novel in its power and presence in popular culture, and since the images in the film are much more explicitly powerful, I will focus on that version.
In his book, The Hero’s Journey in Literature: Parables of Poesis, Evans Lansing Smith writes that the images connected to the myth of the descent to the underworld are “…the visual vocabulary of various passageways to the underworld (doorways, windows, stairways, corridors, mirrors, etc…)” (409). These images connected to the myth of the descent to the underworld are constantly present in Fight Club. The film utilizes the space of urban America in mesmerizing and perplexing ways. It is filmed in Los Angeles, a city that is essentially a compilation of skyscrapers characterized by their nondescript and fabricated appearance. This choice underscores the filmmaker’s sense of this story as archetypal. The urban environment in Fight Club is any and every city in America, an urban environment that is literally a labyrinth of doorways, windows, stairways and corridors. The city itself becomes a labyrinth as, through the experience of watching Fight Club, the viewer is toppled into a disorienting world of dream and psychosis. Jack’s journey to self realization is a labyrinth whose center is difficult to reach, and whose imaginal power is as difficult to hold as any shape shifter from a science fiction film. Fight Club sends an explicit message about the importance of this downward spiral in discovering the nature of our psychological reality.
The film version of Fight Club follows Palahniuk’s critiques of the whitewashing and consumerism of society, and the characters’ need to go into the deepest realm of the underworld in order to break through those societal norms. Fight Club is, in its essence, a satirical statement about the state of the contemporary American male psyche. It presses one to critique the values of society, especially as it relates to expectations of masculinity. It follows a hero’s journey to the underworld in which the main character plays the role of the antihero. The men in Fight Club cannot be heroes in the traditional sense of the word because they do not know who they are, or what being a hero means. Furthermore, they are unaware of the fact that they are even on a journey. This film looks at the reality of a generation of men who lack both fathers and rites of passage, and therefore a sense of what it means to be a man. It states in image the tragedy of a generation brought up in homes where, for the most part, their fathers have rejected active roles of childrearing. It looks at questions regarding civilization, male-female relationships, aggression drive and survival, both psychological and physical. These concepts are crucial to Fight Club, and the film itself may be understood as a dream through which images from the unconscious break through. The film laments that which has been lost, and recognizes the necessity for something primal, archetypal and self revelatory.
Fight Club develops this theme of the emasculating nature of contemporary society by utilizing images of the descent to the underworld. The plot centers on a young, nominatively anonymous narrator who is often referred to as Jack, although in the film he is also called Rupert, Cornelius, Travis and eventually Tyler. Jack is a character whose life story reads as typical of the men of this contemporary generation. He is a thirty-something, liberally educated single man. He is a white collar worker, and is a slave to what he calls, “the IKEA nesting instinct.” He is a cubicle drone, working in a nondescript skyscraper, an image of corporate America, with no sense of who he is or what he needs. He is, in essence, dead. When we encounter Jack for the first time, he is so numb that he is unable to feel, or even sleep and dream. His inability to sleep gives the viewer a sense that Jack has a complete lack of interaction with the imaginal.
Jack’s insomnia initiates his journey into the underworld of psyche. He refers to daily existence without sleep as desensitized. As he puts it, “Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” Jack is disoriented, unaware of the more deeply-seated factors which cause his lack of sleep. When Jack sees a doctor for help with this insomnia, his doctor treats him flippantly, telling him that if he wants to see real pain he should attend a support group for men with testicular cancer. He attends this group, and through his direct interaction with human suffering and death, he is finally able to sleep, which is his induction directly into the realm of psyche. Jack becomes addicted to these support groups, because of the emotional outlet they provide, but the experience is shallow, particularly because the experience is not his own. He is a faker, a tourist. However real this experience is for the people who directly face the illnesses the support groups target, for Jack it is a false induction into the realm of the underworld, and although it initially helps Jack move into his dreams, he eventually encounters a women named Marla Singer, also attending the support groups under false pretense, and this pretense forces Jack out of his false underworld experience.
As Jack participates in a guided meditation, he encounters an underworld image which clearly indicates his present psychological state. His leader directs him into his meditation cave. His cave is an icy cavern, obviously in a location deep underground. It is a frozen labyrinth, with various doorways and halls. It conjures the image of Dante’s frozen circle in the center of his Inferno. In the center of this circular meditation cave is Jack’s power animal: a penguin. The penguin is an apt symbol for Jack as it is a bird (symbol of the soul) that cannot fly. The penguin turns to Jack, giggles, tells him to “slide” and then slides away. This image of the frozen cave makes it clear that he is paralyzed. Marla reflects his lies back to him, and though she is an immediate arousal for him, he is also frozen by her. His encounter with the underworld will not, at this moment, directly benefit from his encounter with Marla as an anima figure.
Jack does not even recognize the primal urges he feels because his ego complex is stuck in a benumbed state. As a man with no sense of what masculinity looks like, he cannot approach the feminine with anything other than anger and frustration. However, even at this point, Marla begins to function as Ariadne to Jack’s Theseus, as she herself is the thread that leads and inspires him to engage with the labyrinth of his dream life. In his book, The Greek Myths, Robert Graves gives us Plutarch’s story of Theseus and the Minotaur. He writes, “Now before Daedalus left Crete, he had given Ariadne a magic ball of thread, and instructed her how to enter and leave the Labyrinth. She must open the entrance door and tie the loose end of the thread to the lintel; the ball would then roll along, diminishing as it went and making, with devious turns and twists, for the innermost recess where the Minotaur was lodged. (339)
Jack’s neatly constructed farce of a life, which has been disturbed by a woman he calls, “the scratch on the inside of your mouth which would heal if you would just stop tonguing it,” is inverted completely when he meets Tyler Durden; a soap salesman who personifies and lives the philosophic ideals of the nihilist thinkers. Omar Lizardo clarifies Jack’s immediate attraction to Tyler when in his article, “Fight Club, or the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism,” he writes that, “…the radical nihilism of extreme nineteenth century Nietzschean Romanticism is married to a neoaescetic ideology of self abnegation and renunciation.” (238) He literally is Nietzsche’s übermensch. Tyler is pure, unrestrained hedonism. He is, as he declares, a man who is “free in all the ways that you are not,” and he inspires Jack to “reject the basic assumptions of civilization; especially the importance of material possessions.” Tyler is a physical manifestation of the underworld itself. He is Hades himself.
In his book, The Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman writes, “The intervention of Hades turns the world upside down. The point of view of life ceases.” (48) When he encounters Tyler, Jack is already his underground labyrinth, his psychological cave. He has been called there by Marla. However, it is the introduction of Tyler, an alternate image of himself, which moves him through on the journey, and Jack happily connects intimately with Tyler, who as an image of the self is what James Hillman writes about in his collection of works titled, A Blue Fire. He writes that, “When an image is realized—fully imagined as a living being other than myself—then it becomes a psychopompos, a guide with a soul having its own inherent limitation and necessity.” (56) Tyler is Jack’s guide and initiator into action in the underworld.
The most explicit labyrinth image occurs at Lou’s Tavern. This is a bar where Tyler and Jack meet for drinks after Jack comes home from a business trip to discover that his condo has mysteriously exploded. As they are preparing to take their leave of each other, Tyler and Jack stand face to face in front of the double doors of the tavern. Tyler tells Jack that he knows he needs to place to stay and he should just come out and ask him. Jack asks him, and Tyler agrees. It is as if this consummates their relationship. Tyler literally uses the word foreplay, which is an explicit reference to the kind of intimacy that their relationship will demand. The first fight occurs in front of those doors. As they stand in front of the double doors that mark an entrance into the underworld, Tyler tells Jack to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler says, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I don’t want to die without any scars.” Jack and Tyler enter the tavern through a doorway, and saunter through the narrow hallways to a door in the floor (similar to a storm shelter), which leads to a stairway descending to the basement into the actual underworld where the fight club convenes. Tyler rules this underworld, as Hades rules the shades of the dead.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Tyler is a hallucination. He is a product of Jack’s insomnia and the splitting of his personality, which occurs because he cannot live under the strain of a life desensitized to emotion. He discovers that he has been having blackouts, in essence falling asleep, and living as Tyler Durden. He is a way for Jack to live in what he dreams in his daily life, and Jack loses his ability to decipher which ideas are his own and which are Tyler’s. He asks himself, “Am I his bad dream or is he mine?” His personal nightmare resonates with young men he encounters across the country, and they accompany him on his underworld journey. In Jack’s underworld, these men find an interaction with what is primal and archetypal. They receive, through what Tyler allows, the psychic sleep they all need. When Jack says, “In Tyler we trusted,” he refers to the sleep that allows them the ability to encounter Hades. Hillman reminds us that, “…what fulfills our deepest wish is Hades, in whose dreams is the intelligence of archetypal ideas; and we must sleep in order to seek these ideas.” (121)
Jack has created Tyler out of a need to shake himself loose of the civilized trap that he has been living in his whole adult life. His individuation process begins with his realization that, “First you have to give up. First you have to know, not fear that someday you are going to die. It is only after you’ve lost everything that you can begin to know anything.” Tyler pokes at Jack, literally burning himself into his flesh until Jack realizes that he IS Tyler. His journey teaches him how to have his own voice, separate from what society tells him is acceptable, and we begin to discover that Tyler is Jack’s desire for self-annihilation. As we participate in the conversation of this film, we cannot fail to recognize that, as James Hillman writes in his book, Pan and the Nightmare, “Paradoxically, the most natural drives are non-natural, and the most instinctually concrete of our experiences is imaginal.” (30) His anarchistic sensibilities lead Jack destructively close to an unnatural need to self-destruct. Jack begins to recognize that without direct interaction with the primal, we will self-destruct.
The primal is present in our daily experience much more than may be consciously understood or accepted. In Fight Club, the need for outlet drags the characters further into destructive behavior that, by the end of the film, seems impossible to stop. The characters realize the intimate connection between psychological work and death. They also understand that the images of death and the labyrinth are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. Fight Club draws a crucial relationship between psyche and dreams. In dreams, the soul enters directly into the realm of the underworld, and Jack continually questions whether or not he is dreaming Jack’s journey back from the underworld is initiated when one of the members of their group is killed during a “homework assignment.” This shocks Jack enough to awaken him from his dream state. Now that he is finally able to feel, he rushes to find Marla, whom he has been torturing by trifling with, similar to the way Theseus uses and then discards Ariadne. He becomes concerned for her safety, the first selfless instinct he has in the film, and he suddenly senses that she does reach him on an emotional level.
In Jack’s sudden awakened state, he realizes that he does not want destruction. However, to end the rampant destruction, he must kill his Minotaur. Jack confronts Tyler, and as he says, “my eyes are open” he shoots Tyler/himself. In his seminal discussion of the hero’s journey, The Hero with a Thousand faces, Joseph Campbell asks the question, “Can the ego put itself to death?” (109) With the death of Tyler, David Fincher tells us that the answer is yes, and that sometimes this destruction is necessary for one to move toward self-understanding. Through Jack’s destruction of Tyler, he is able to interact with other people as sentient beings, and not illusions of his own mind. As Hillman writes, “To be happy, we must live into a future without illusion…” (Hillman, 73)
The hope which a viewer can garner from this film is that living without illusion may allow Jack to both integrate his personality and to have a healthy relationship with his experience of anima. In her article, “Hurt So Good: Fight Club, Masculine Violence and the Crisis of Capitalism”, Lynn M. Ta writes that, “Fight Club is a story of an individual who must torture himself into manhood.” (267) This journey of self-discovery into the underworld leads to a better understanding of the nature of maturity. We are reminded us that maturity means responsibility, facing the self-annihilating aspects of oneself and sending that part to the land of the dead. Ultimately, as Norton tells us, “…a culture that doesn’t examine its violence is a culture in denial, which is much more dangerous.” (qtd in Ta) (265) Approaching maturity means understanding the dangers of nihilism, which can seem sexy to the young and frustrated.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1998.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. NY: Penguin Books, 1955.
Hillman, James. A Blue Fire. NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989.
—Pan and the Nightmare. Putnam, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1972.
—The Dream and the Underworld. NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1979.
Lizardo, Omar. “Fight Club or the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism.” Journal for Cultural Research. 11.3, July 2007: 221-243.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club: A Novel. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.
Smith, Evans Lansing. The Hero Journey In Literature: Parables of Poesis. NY: UP of America, 1997.
Ta, Lynn M. “Hurt So Good: Fight Club, Masculine Violence, and the Crisis of Caplitalism.” Journal of American Culture 29.3, September 2006: 265-277.
The Return of Fionn and The Fianna: Irish Republican Politics and Myth
B y Dori S. Koehler
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song”-William Butler Yeats (To Ireland in the Coming Times, 50).
The power of story to direct, define and defend a people is nothing short of astounding. Ireland’s relationship with myth has sustained her people through some of its darkest days of trouble. Simply put, Ireland as a society has always held onto a relationship with the ancient that seems unique in Western Europe. In his book, Mythic Ireland, Michael Dames writes, “In Ireland, the oldest is not necessarily the faintest or most distant…” (11). The Irish have a tendency to synthesize, rather than do away with, the things they have previously encountered. This may include philosophical ideas, and is most notably obvious in regards to their spirituality and relation to the mythic. Rather than destroy that which becomes cumbersome or unpopular, they recycle, or re-mulch much of that material back into the psyche, where it may remain dormant for a time, and reemerge later. They recognize the value of what can be learned from the past. Dames continues, “…but in Ireland the myths of previous ages are inclined to hang on and on, til eventually (with or without permission) they become embedded in the consciousness of subsequent eras” (9). He suggests that one reason for this ability to synthesize may have its root in the fact that the Romans never established their presence there. Without a Roman presence, Irish society and Christianity continued to develop throughout the early centuries of the Common Era without the influence of the Greek emphasis on logos rather than mythos.
The affects of this development yield a society and culture which places ultimate value on myth rather than rationalism. This is clearly seen in Ireland today, simply regarding the names of the landscape. Myth is so deeply engrained in the Irish way of thought that the land literally is the story. The question that has been left in my mind is: in what way has this propensity toward myth shaped the politics of the Irish Republican movements? How have the Irish used their myth to create their own republic, and what do their choices tell us about the movement of the Irish psyche? It seems pretty clear that Irish myth is present in their Republican politics. It is sometimes beneath the surface, but it is always there. The myths of the Finnian Cycle are of particular interest to modern politics in Ireland. The importance of storytelling is a crucial aspect of politics, as there is always something within political movement that clearly tells us what myth we are living. The invocation of mythic figures belies the fantasy of the people possessing political power, and I suspect that the psychological state of Ireland can be gauged by considering their choice to invoke Fionn and the Fianna.
The history of Irish enmity toward the British is long. In his book, Rebel Hearts: Journey Within the IRA’s Soul, Kevin Toolis reminds us that the troubles in Ireland are “…the longest war the world has ever known” (6). The Irish have struggled against the cruelty of the English Crown for approximately nine hundred years. The British first invaded Ireland in the 12th century of the Common Era, and made their conquest complete when they split the country geographically in the year 1607. In his book, The Mind of a Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to AL-Qaeda, Jerrold Post writes about Irish conditions under the English government. He writes that the English government developed penal laws, and that these laws, “…left the Irish with no right to vote or hold office, no right to purchase or lease land, no right to educate a child in any way at home or abroad, no rights to engage in commerce. Priests were banned and hunted with bloodhounds” (40).
From the earliest years of their contact, English policies bore witness to the fact that the Crown had no use for the people of Ireland. Even as England claimed Ireland as their own, they bore no love for her people, and often treated them as though they did not exist, raping the land as they went. They cut down ancient groves of trees, strip mined mountains, refused to allow the Irish to speak or teach their language, and forced religious practices on them. Even as early as the Elizabethan period, history shows that the Irish were regarded as animals, generally because they consistently rebelled in a quest to govern themselves. The British consistently write about the Irish as being uncivilized and brutal, and yet one may easily imagine that much of the Irish animosity toward the English may have developed due to the oppressive rule of the English government. In his book, The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Fein Party 1916-1923, Michael Laffan writes that, “In most respects the ‘wild Irishman’ was no more than a British caricature, and a large majority of the population sought moderate aims by political means” (6).
The poor treatment of the Irish by the English came to it tumultuous peak in 1845 with the blight that developed on the potato crop. The Irish depended heavily on this crop, as most of their natural resources were being exported to other parts of England and the British Empire. This potato famine, which lasted until 1849, decimated the Irish population, which numbered around four million people before the blight. In his classic book, The IRA, Tim Coogan writes that, “Between 1841 and 1851 the population (in Ireland) fell by two million people; approximately one million died, and the other million emigrated” (6). This loss of half the population is the defining event of modern Irish history, and has left an indelible stamp on the cultural psyche. At this point in the 19th century, the Irish began to realize that, although they may continue to live with the sense of victimization that they so surely embodied, they may be better served to allow the tragedy to create in them, even more strongly, a sense of urgency for whom and what they are.
As with many other colonized and oppresses peoples, the Irish feel the importance of memory on a deeply personal level. In the context of the 19th century, this experience created a psychological hunger within them for the reclamation of Irish heritage and sovereignty. However, this is not to say that the Irish neglected or did not desire their sovereignty previous to the famine. The goddess sovereignty always had a place in Irish story. However, beginning in the 19th century, the urgency of their need to address their own sovereignty came to the forefront of psyche, and that expression found its voice through politics. Laffan writes that, “By the early twentieth century most Irish people were prepared to exploit the opportunities provided by their citizenship in the United Kingdom” (3). By this time, the Irish came to understand that there were two modes of action that were necessary in order to force the English to understand that they could and should govern themselves: military action and diplomacy. While the Irish had employed the use of attempted military action for centuries, they had never before attempted to organize, form a true republican army and argue their case for freedom in a way that the English could not deny.
They recognized the need for and the invention of a tradition, a phenomenon already happening in the artistic world through the work of Irish artists such as Yeats, who, though he may not have agreed with Republican politics in his early years, valued Irish myth, and began reworking the ancient stories of CuChulainn, Finn and the Sidhe. The movement toward republicanism had already begun in the Irish psyche, and there was an obvious need for a coherent mythos with an archetypal pull strong enough to rouse the Irish people. In their book, The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawn and Terrence Ranger give a concise definition of what it is to invent a tradition. They write that, “Invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past” (1). The earliest Irish Republicans recognized this. They knew inherently that these myths were a perfect vehicle for transmitting a sense of historical coherence. Maureen Murdock, in an essay titled, “Telling our Stories: Making Meaning from Myth and Metaphor,” tells us, “Myth owes its persistence to its power to express or symbolize typical human emotions that have been experiences throughout successive generations” (Depth Psychology: Meditations in the Field, 130).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Republicans formed grass roots organizations such as the Fenians, Irish Republican Brothers, Sinn Féin (we ourselves), Fianna Fáil and the Young Irelanders, and embraced their Irish story. Their intention was to prove that, as Irish people, they bear a culture that is not only vibrant and alive, but also worth saving, and if necessary worth dying for. In his book, Fighting for Ireland: The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement, M.L.R. Smith characterizes these early intentions of this movement. He writes that, “The Young Irelanders were significant in this respect as they believed that cultural rejuvenation was a prerequisite to substantiate any claim for independence…Through the promotion of Irish culture and history the movement sought to build a distinctive and integrated national identity” (9). This late 19th and early 20th century cultural revival (often known as the Gaelic Revival or Renaissance) was a brilliant use of the well of cultural stories that Ireland has at its core. Most important to the development of their cause would be to remind their children what it means to be Irish, and to do that, the leaders of the republican groups knew that they had to get their children speaking and reading Irish. Laffan tells us that, “Nationalism rescued the Irish language revival from what many people dismissed as mere scholarly antiquarianism…” (10).
Republicanism brought the Irish language back to Irish storytelling. The movement was populated not by the most educated and aristocratic of the Irish, but rather people who wanted to remember what it meant to be Irish, and that meant a revivifying of their own myth. These Republicans were willing to happily give their lives for what they saw as the privilege of being part of an Irish Republic. Coogan tells us that in a letter written to his mother on the morning of his execution, IRA martyr Liam Mellows wrote, “It is a sore trial for you, but that great courageous soul of yours will rejoice for I die for the truth—life is only for a little while, and we shall return here after…The republic lives, our deaths make that a certainty…I believe those who die for Ireland have no need for prayer” (33). The IRA martyrs knew that they had their story, and that they could never be robbed of that.
For me, the clearest example of the connection between Irish politics and myth can be traced through the Fianna Fáil in Ireland. This party is currently the largest political party in Ireland, with over eighty thousand members, and has its roots in the early times of the republic, having been established in 1926. Its direct connection with Irish mythology is clear, deriving its name from Fionn MacCumhaill and the Fianna. The name itself is a statement of Irish nationalism. The character of Fionn is an interesting choice for this new era of firm diplomacy in Ireland. It is not an image of CuChulainn, going into battle warp without a rational mind. Fionn is a kind of Odysseus, who knows he must navigate his call through the political climate in order to bring the Irish people the peace and prosperity they want and deserve.
In his book, Beyond the Mist: What Irish Mythology can Teach us about Ourselves, Peter O’Connor addresses the stories of the Fianna. The Fianna are a band of Irish warriors during a mythic era whose “…adventures included visits to the otherworld, hunting, fighting as elite militia on behalf of their king, extracting justice for people, collecting fines and writing poetry about the beauty of nature to which they remained very close” (19). In his youth, Fionn is a raucous, sexy warrior, though not his images are not of rough war, like those of CuChulainn. Marie Heaney tells us in Over Nine Waves, A Book of Irish Legends that, “While Finn was their captain, he allowed only the noblest, the bravest, the swiftest, the strongest, the most honorable of men to join the Fianna” (167). To invoke Fionn and the Fianna is to recall a kind of golden age of Ireland. The men who were of the Fianna were the best that Ireland had to offer. Together they constitute an image of a warrior poet; an image that has been held in fiercely high regard by the Irish people themselves. Heaney writes that to join the Fianna:
…there were three conditions. First, a man was allowed to join the Fianna if his family accepted that there would be no compensation if he were wounded or killed. They had to promise that they would not avenge his death; if honour and justice required this, his comrades-in-arms would do it. In return the family would suffer no reprisals for any injury or death that a man of the Fianna might inflict on others. The second condition was that he must have studied the art of poetry so diligently that he could compose and appreciate poetry and be familiar with the old texts. And the third was that he should have perfect mastery of his weapons (167).
The question still remains as to what this image means to the Irish. Though the image of Fionn and the Fianna is an obvious link to a golden age, one that Ireland would like to revisit, what does the choice of this particular name say about the movement of psyche is Irish politics? O’Connor reminds us that, “Fionn MacCumhaill could be seen as providing, amongst other things, a paradigm for negative capability. It is negative capability that allows us to tolerate not-knowing long enough to actually know” (206). The republicans who developed this party recognized that for god-sized tasks, they needed god-sized powers.
A depth psychological examination of this image of Fionn leads me to imagine that this image is a new way of engaging the myth the Irish have lived for the last nine hundred years. This approach allows for a perspective that is helpful in relating to both politics and myth. In their paper, “Depth Psychology and Colonialism: Individuation, Seeing Through, and Liberation,” Helene Shulman Lorenz and Mary Watkins write that, “…depth psychology gives us a methodology with which we can creatively and imaginatively rework current assumptions, biases or limitations in our ways of seeing the world” (Psychology at the Threshold, 280). Taking control of their own sovereignty has required that the Irish begin to own their own story.
This is the truth embedded in all storytelling. We need stories in order to orient ourselves, and in someway to pay homage to the archetypal power of the story we are living. Murdock reminds us that, “Memory helps us make meaning of our past so that we can live in the present. Myth helps us accept our past and find our future” (137). Accepting the past in order to find the future has not always been an easy road for the Irish. An examination of Irish politics certainly does not lead one to ignore the shadow of this use of myth. The use of myth is always a minefield to navigate. In their search for freedom, the Irish have often been blind to the dangers of their identification with myth. Though they have worked hard to integrate their shadow, they have also played with the lives of thousands due to the choices they have often made to remain unconscious of the darker aspects of their mythos. In order to take control of their story, the Irish have been forced to take a look at who they are within the myth. They have learned how to manipulate the myth in ways that have proven productive in recent years. Particularly during the last ten years, with the boom in their economy and the peace process in an ever-encouraging state, they have seen the work of the early republicans come full circle as they have harnessed the power of their stories. The emerald land that was once troubled, starved and oppressed has re-channeled their myth and has seen the return of Fionn and the Fianna’s golden age.
Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
Heaney, Marie. Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.
Hobsbawn, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: UP, 1983.
Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Fein Party 1916-1923. Cambridge: UP, 1999.
Lorenz, Helene Shulman, Ph.D. and Mary Watkins, Ph. D. “Depth Psychology and Colonialism: Individuation, Seeing Through, and Liberation.” Psychology at the Threshold. Carpinteria, Ca: Pacifica Graduate Institute Publications, 2000
Murdock, Maureen. “Telling Our Stories: Making Meaning from Myth and Memoir.” Depth Psychology: Meditations in the Field. Carpinteria, Ca: Daimon, 2004
O’Connor, Peter. Beyond the Mist: What Irish Mythology Can Teach us About Ourselves. London: Orion, 2000
Post, Jerrold M. The Mind of a Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism From the IRA to AL-Qaeda. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
Smith, M.L.R. Fighting for Ireland: The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Toolis, Kevin. Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York. Simon and Schuster, 1983.
In Techno-Eden: Fantasies of Death and Rebirth in The Fountain
By, Dori S. Koehler
The image of the tree of life that springs from the navel of the world is a powerful image that has captured human imagination from time immemorial. As living creatures, our knowledge and experience of death leads us to fear it, and in our fear we imagine that, if we search hard enough, we will discover a way to destroy it. We continually tell ourselves that we are learning and doing better, and in doing so, gaining ground on death. Our drive to discover the answers to our questions and to fill ourselves what whatever will keep our hunger at bay is a defining aspect of mythology. As humans living in the 21st century, we live in a time when myth itself is being reshaped by technology. Particularly since the Enlightenment, science and technology have fulfilled, for many, the function of religion. In his book titled TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, Erik Davis tells us that:
We are beset with a thirst for meaning and connection that centuries of skeptical philosophy, hardheaded materialism and an increasingly nihilist culture have yet to douse, and this thirst conjures up the whole tattered carnival of contemporary religion; oily New Age gurus and Pentecostal crusaders, existential Buddhists and liberation theologians, psychedelic pagan ravers and grizzled deep ecologists (10-11).
We seek answers to our philosophical and physical questions. We want to know that there is something beyond us that can save us, but we also want to exact some kind of control over our environment. What is fascinating within this set of desires is that, as human beings, we continue to sense that these answers will arise from within ourselves. We believe that, whatever the problem is, we can fix it by inventing another prosthetic limb or wireless device.
The voices driving this technological age tell us that we have, or are soon to have, the answers. An investment of trust in the technology of the 21st century seems to mark a return to (as Davis suspects, and I agree) a more Gnostic expansion of the mind. He writes that, “…this cognitive ecstasy is not characterized as something that happens to the aspirant through God’s infinite grace, but as a fear that the aspirant produces through his own mystical, magical and intellectual labor—in a word, self-divinization”. Though he is speaking of Gnosticism in particular, this same philosophical result happens to many a scientist or technonaut. We fantasize that there is an ever-exponentially developing capacity to create which will eventually conquer even death. There are those in the technological world who, as Davis reminds us, are “…planning for the day when technology will form the ultimate escape hatch, and machines will free us forever from the clutches of the earth, the body and death itself” (141). The fantasies of science are beneficial in many ways, but they are also squeezing the humanity out of our experiences and that reality is dangerous.
In his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil writes that there is a time when, “Biotechnology will extend biology and correct its obvious flaws” (323). His sense is that technology will shortly reach a point when death will become unnecessary. He considers this the best possible outcome because it will help people live longer, better lives. People will be able to preserve their gifts and be present for a time they never before considered possible. Kurzweil writes that, “Historically, the only means for humans to outlive a limited biological life span has been to pass on values, beliefs and knowledge to future generations. We are now approaching a paradigm shift in the means we will have available to preserve the patterns underlying our existence” (323).
Popular culture has long sensed these fantasies, and as we have discussed, warning dreams often come to us in film. In his film, The Fountain, writer and director Darren Aronofsky considers these issues of life and death, love and loss through the quest for the fountain of youth, which he presents as the mythical tree of life. Trees are a universal symbol in human mythology. They are both cyclical and eternal. They shed their leaves, give us fruit, and live far beyond our individual reach. In his book, The Re-Enchantment of Every Day Life, Thomas Moore considers this when he writes, “The tree teaches us so vividly to see eternity in our immediate environment that it is impossible to imagine art and religion without it”. (23) Aronofsky uses the tree of life as a meditative vehicle to probe the deeper philosophical questions of life, death and love. This film addresses three questions: is love dependent on physical being? what in the nature of love is eternal? and does death bring love to an end? The film’s resounding answer is NO! The message of this film clearly imparts to the viewer a sense of immortal life and love. But it also charges us to release and trust the cycles or rebirth.
This film draws the viewer through history as it follows the lives of three characters, each five hundred years apart, evoked as the same man named Thomas: a Spanish conquistador, a modern day scientist and surgeon, and a futuristic techno-Buddhist astronaut, all attempting to save their beloved from death. Thomas becomes a symbol of the ego’s drive to become conscious. He is a Promethean image who literally tells another character that death is simply a disease like any other, and that there is a cure. This is the cultural fantasy that drives our ever-developing technology forward. This film’s image of the techno-buddhist-scientist-conquistator is, to me, a perfect image of the movement of psyche regarding technology in our time.
This whole argument clearly relates to a film that dispels the fantasy of immortality. The Fountain considers the importance of death and rebirth through an ancient Mayan myth. As the film moves forward, it is the image of the tree that seems to be the salvation for the characters. This tree transcends and becomes history. It is time imagined in a nonlinear fashion, in which chronology becomes irrelevant. The nonlinear nature of this narrative is accomplished through the use of the same actors throughout. The main characters in all three time periods are played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, and the choice to have the same two people play the characters as they travel through history leads the viewer to wonder if they really are the same people. Though there are undeniable similarities between the scientist and the astronaut, in particular a tattoo on his ring finger that ritualized the pain of his wife’s death, the narrative never makes itself clear: is this an instance of reincarnation, or are the astronaut character and the scientist actually the same person, who has lived into the distant future? Either way, it is clear that time is supposed to disappear within The Fountain.
The mythic space of the film is just as Glen Slater writes in his article, “Cyborgian Drift: Resistance is Not Futile.” He writes that, “The boundaries of space and time break down in the depths of the psyche. It is not only the past but also the future that exists in the unconscious” (182). In our experience of The Fountain, we are ushered into Edenic time. Moore writes that, “Eden is always with us, unless and until we narrow our vision, forgetting myth and disregarding aesthetic, and the trees of Eden are also always with us, full of mystery and implication” (22). These mythic moments are the catalyst for the meditative process of the characters. All the characters in the film are essentially living the same story; however, the crux of the film lies in the narrative that is being played out in the present time, between Tommy (the scientist) and his beloved wife, Izzi.
Tommy is working to find a cure for Izzi. She is terminal with a brain tumor, and Tommy is desperate and convinced that if he can cure her tumor, they can be together forever. This film moves in cycles of death and rebirth in relation to the questions it considers. What are we to make of Izzi’s imminent death? Although Tommy cannot join her, Izzi begins to accept that she is part of a natural cycle of death and life, and that her death does not end or destroy her life, or her love. For her, this revelation begins to develop as she writes her book, which uses Mayan folklore. Izzi understands that, as Robert Romanyshyn writes in Technology as Symptom and Dream, “To displace the body which is a part of the earth by a body which is apart from it, to displace flesh by function, to wage a war with the body of life, is however, to symbolize in our departure from earth a dream of escaping death” (28). She is part of life, and therefore, she is also part of death. She accepts her death, and passes gracefully, but the journey is not over because Tommy cannot join her in death, nor can he join her acceptance of death.
This is also where the character of the conquistador and Queen Isabella intersect across time. Izzi writes the story of Queen Isabella, who has been denounced as a heretic for searching for the tree of life, and she sends her conquistador to search the jungles of Central America. The queen imagines herself as the new Eve and her conquistador as the new Adam. She charges him with an edict to deliver Spain from the bondage of death and ignorance. He is sent to “new Spain” to discover the tree and when he finally does discover it, he sacrifices his life to an act of new creation. The images in this film work the same complexes and fantasies that present in our mad dash toward the technological extension of life expectancy. However, technology cannot control the rhythms of the earth we belong to, and to believe that it can is a fearsome trap.
This film also explores concepts of human agency. It attempts to address the issue of human limitation, as it relates to science and technology. The message of the film seems to be that consciousness has limits. We are always bound to the moment in history that we are living, and we are reminded that gain and loss are intimately connected. Becoming conscious always requires some kind of accompanying loss. The film begins to affirm that life is in the present. After Izzi’s death, Tommy realizes that in his attempt to save his wife, he has lost his time with her. When he realizes that she is gone and he has sacrificed his chance to hold her, he truly grieves. His grief shatters any sense of chronological time. Concepts of past and future are constructions that humans create to explain what they experience. However, that time does not actually exist. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram writes, “When I allow the past and the future to dissolve, imaginatively, into the immediacy of the present moment, then the ‘present’ itself expands an enveloping field of presence” (203). To be present with the world requires us to truly participate in the cycles of the earth. It requires as Abram writes, “To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to feel oneself touched by the tree” (68).
As long as we continue to attempt to cheat death, we deny life. This film suggests that, as Abram writes, “…the source of stress lies in relation between the human community and the natural landscape” (21). Our fear of changing and developing is psycho-pathologized through our obsession with conquering death. This obsession has its obvious connection to our relationship with the earth. The image of the tree in The Fountain clearly symbolizes the earth and our relationship to it. As our minds move toward abstract concepts, we disconnect from the body. This disconnection with the body disassociates us with the true, sensual, lived experience. Abram tells us that, “The sensorial landscape, in other words, not only opens onto that distant future waiting beyond the horizon but also onto a new future, onto an immanent field of possibilities waiting behind each tree, behind each stone, behind each leaf from whence a spider may at any moment come crawling into our awareness” (213). Life requires death. Our choices dictate how these deaths will occur. It is becoming clear, as Aronofsky suggests that the human refusal to embrace death is causing the death of our mythic tree of life. Our obsession with and fear of death denies our ability to live.
The tree is a symbol of eternity. The conquistador attempts to use the tree as material. He penetrates the tree and sucks out its milk, making the tree a symbol of the earth as mother. His relationship to nature is destructive. In his paper, “On the Death of Nature,” Marco Heleno Barreto writes that “When nature, though being regarded as mere ‘raw material’ is subjected to such an empirically irrational and self-contradictory exploitation, effective acknowledgement of the keep truth hidden in the domination drive is missed in the bargain” (259). At the moment in the film when the tree is life is discovered, the conquistador stabs the tree and drinks its milk. When the conquistador violates the tree in this fashion, he issues in a violent act of creation. He becomes the tree. He becomes the first father of Mayan myth, and the tree of life grows out of his body. This stands in contrast to the relationship of the present-day Tommy, who realizes that the tree’s bark has the power to heal, and the astronaut, who gently asks permission of the tree before he takes the small amounts of bark that keep him alive as he continues on his quest to save the tree, and therefore destroy death.
A question that I struggle with perpetually is whether or not a time ever existed when man knew better than to believe in the saving power of his own technology. Davis reminds us that our modern sense of the power of knowledge has its roots in Greek philosophical thought. He writes that, “…it was the Greeks who first embraced the amazing belief that we could really know things” (17). His sense is that before the Greek sensibility took hold, man recognized that there is mystery to the universe, and that this sense of mystery is being returned to us via the awe we are gaining from the development of our technology. He writes, “Today’s techgnostics find themselves, consciously or not, surrounded by a complex set of ideas and images: transcendence through technology, a thirst for the ecstasy of information, a drive to engineer and perfect the incorporeal spark of the self” (122). The characters in the fountain each learn through their experiences that their healing will lie within the earth, and not in their technologies.
These technological issues speak to much more than the simple question of whether or not the development of a cyborg will turn us into soulless machines. They speak to our relationship with the earth itself and our place within it. It is impossible to consider ourselves as human beings without taking our place in the natural cycles of death and rebirth. To believe that humanity has the capacity to do away with these earthly cycles is to step dangerously close to a fantasy that has an overreaching shadow. As citizens of a planet that is rapidly ailing due in large part to our own neglect, we must take a moment to stop our search for answers. We need to ground ourselves in our experiences of nature and remember. In The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung Meredith Sabini reminds us that Jung writes, “Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us move and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth” (45). Humans have a right and responsibility, as earthlings, to interact with nature in a way that is healing for both the earth and us. The relationship between the humans and the tree of life go through varying degrees of symbiosis and destructiveness in The Fountain. The astronaut tells the tree that it has propelled him through history. The tree has been the vehicle that has allowed him to develop the wisdom he desperately needs. In The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry writes that, “The earth will solve its problems, and possibly our own, if we will let the earth function in its own ways. We need only listen to what the earth is telling us” (35).
We have reached a point in our evolution when the possibly radical extension of human life has caused a debate in the world of ethics as we consider what does or does not constitute an authentic human life experience. To me, these questions seem to be less vital than the related questions: why do we feel the need to prolong life? what do we really fear? why do we feel that we need to cheat death? In his book, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, Kevin Kelly writes that, “The argument that natural selection can be extended to explain everything in life is a logical argument. But human imagination and human experience know that what is logical is not always so” (367). Humans are organic creatures, like any other that live on our planet, as well as in our universe. We are mortal and corruptible. However, there is something within us that senses and reaches for immortality, and that part of us cannot accept that, as mortals, we are subject to the physical law that we have observed and named entropy. There is a part of us that returns to the tree of life, which is also the tree of death and rebirth, and we learn this when we stop forcing our Promethean minds on the earth.
In the end of the film, Tommy, the everyman, is finally freed from his attachment to the physical. The astronaut accepts the prospect of death. He no longer fears the changes of his experience. He reaches Xibalba, which is the nebula where the Mayans placed their underworld, goes into the lotus position and moves through space in a way that is reminiscent of passing through the Bardos in the Tibetan book of the dead. He becomes the first father described in Mayan myth as his death becomes an act of creation. At the moment before his death, he has a vision of Izzi. He tells her that he doesn’t know how to die. She tells him that he does, and he will. Tommy becomes an image of the soul’s process of individuation as he accepts that to truly become conscious, one must be willing to die. To relate to the self, one must face oblivion. Izzi dies, his tree dies, and Tommy realizes that death truly is the road to awe. In this way, we realize that death is the first step in any process of learning.
In order to move forward, one’s current mode of living must dissolve. In his book Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth of Science, William Irwin Thompson writes that, “The spirit will at last be freed from the split between mind and matter. Mind will no longer be a subject figured against the ground of matter in the visual syntax of linear perspective; and as the ground dissolves it will take ‘nature’ along with it” (90.) When the astronaut reaches Xibalba, he is absorbed into the star. It is an image of the Buddhist anatman or “no self.” He reaches a state of oblivion, and somehow this state is transferred to the present time. Tommy is freed from death as he accepts that Izzi is reborn. He lets go of her when he plucks a seed pod from a tree and buries it next to her headstone in the snow. His obsession to know, to grow, to become more conscious is quelled, and he recognizes that death is a part of that growth. In the pain of what he perceives as the loss of his wife, he denies the cycle. Sometimes things belong in the underworld, because in that space they can germinate and be reborn.
As we have discussed in class, technology itself is not the problem. The problem is our attitude toward it, and our fantasy that technology equals consciousness and that consciousness equals the quelling of the dark. This film reminds us that we need not fear the dark. The dark has its purpose, and even though it is frightening, as Queen Isabella tells us, every shadow is threatened by morning light. In order to experience life, we must diffuse fear, reconnect with our earth and see where that takes us. After all, Xibalba is not merely the underworld; it is also the place where the souls of the dead go to be reborn. Why do we want to preserve our current patterns of existence which obsessively try to extend life when, as Aronofsky tells us, death is the road to awe?
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Barreto, Marco Heleno. “On the Death of Nature.” Spring 75: Psyche and Nature, Part 1. New Orleans: Spring Journal, 2006.
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.
Davis, Erik. TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York: Harmony Books, 2004.
Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Books, 1994.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Moore, Thomas. The Re-Enchantment of Every Day Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Romanyshyn, Robert. Technology as Symptom and Dream. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Slater, Glen. “Cyborgian Drift: Resistance is not Futile.” Spring 75: Psyche and Nature, Part 1. New Orleans: Spring Journal, 2006.
Sabini, Meredith, ed. The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1975.
Thompson, William Irwin. Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Receiving the Holy Fire of Baptism: The Legacy of Voudou and Pentecostalism
By, Dori S. Koehler
African studies can be especially daunting to scholars who come from a European lineage. Facing the cruelties that are within us is something noone particularly desires to do. Many of us attempt to whitewash history and soothe ourselves thinking that it has nothing to do with us. Slavery was outlawed approximately one hundred and fifty years ago, and the slave trade almost sixty years earlier than that. However, to ignore and under appreciate the shaping effects of African cultures on all facets of life in America is a continuation of the kind of racism that gave birth to slavery in the first place. Even through the most brutal, dehumanizing of circumstances, the slaves have had their voice. They have shaped our society in many and varied ways. Not to value that voice does even more disservice to a race of people who are so instrumental in shaping who we are as Americans, and who, in spite of being robbed of the basic human rights of freedom, respect, identity and home have flourished in ways that continue to amaze.
American Christianity in particular, has been shaped by this uniquely Afro-American voice. The effects of culture clash are often subtle, but they are always definite and complete. They may be dizzying, and may leave one wondering where one culture’s expression begins, and another one ends. In the Editor’s Foreword of Maya Deren’s book on Haitian Voudou titled, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Joseph Campbell suggests that, “All mythology, whether of the folk or the literati, preserves the iconography of a spiritual adventure that men have been accomplishing repeatedly for millennia and which, whenever it occurs, reveals such constant features that the innumerable mythologies of the world resemble each other as dialects of a single language” (xi). If this truly is the case, then maybe one need not worry so entirely about which expression belongs to whom and when. Maybe it is our destiny to live out parallel, similar (albeit not identical) dramas. However, it still remains clear to me, that in order to have a healthy understanding of where the Christian church stands as a body, it is vitally important to examine and appreciate the roots of practices and rituals.
It is clear that Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal movements (many of whom stand insistent of a Caucasian history) owe much of their spiritual expression to the voices of African American slave lineage. I contend that in many ways, these churches have become who and what they are, because the slaves not only brought their knowledge of spirit with them, but also because they continued to practice that knowledge as pragmatic ways of interacting with the divine. These churches bear the imprint of African religions, and continue to be shaped by them. In his article titled, “Globalization and the African Immigrant Religious Communities,” Jacob K. Olupona reminds us that, “Traditions do not disappear, but the relations and the balance between them shifts in the context of globalization” (85). This may seem obvious. Traditions, old or new, are always incorporated into the current cultural milieu. How, in what ways and why American Protestantism has been shaped by African spirituality are the questions I am about to approach.
In order to suggest possible answers to the question of African influence on American Protestantism, it is necessary to consider the kinds of spirituality that journeyed to America from Africa. The slaves that passed through the middle passage to the colonies of what is now the United States came mainly from the western part of the African continent. Most did not adopt Christianity in the early years of the trade and the plantations. It is a mistake to conceive of the slaves of this early period as Christians. Evangelization among slave owners was extremely rare. The general attitude of a slave master was that their price remained the same, sinner or saint. Many did not believe that Africans had souls, and therefore, saw no reason to evangelize. In addition to this belief, many slave owners feared the kind of equalizing effect that Christianity would have between slaves and masters. To teach a slave that Christ died to save their immortal souls for heaven, would be to teach them a dignity for their own autonomy. Furthermore, the Christianity of the apostle Paul teaches an essential equality between all humanity, whether slave or free. Many feared that this kind of teaching would eventually break down the system, which they worked so hard to keep in delicate balance. In a collection of essays titled, The African Diaspora, Colin Palmer offers an essay titled, “Rethinking American Slavery.” He reminds us that:
In many instances, contemporary scholars often Christians themselves, have viewed the religious behavior of African slaves through Christian lenses, an approach that distorts more than it reveals…We should also not confuse the role of Christianity in contemporary black America with that which it played at an earlier time, nor should we minimize the meaning and implications of religious conversion for the African born (93).
For a slave of this period to adopt Christianity would mean a true and irrevocable fissure from their homeland. It would mean complete assimilation, and in the early and middle parts of the eighteenth century, this was something that most slaves were, for obvious reasons, unable and unwilling to do.
Since it becomes clear that the early slaves were not Christians, one must consider the African roots of spirituality. What did they believe? What did they practice? Although the actual folk practices of the people were vastly varied, it seems clear that they all retained the similar roots of the practices of Voudou. By using the word Voudou, I do not intend to refer, necessarily, to the kind of Voudou known in regards to Haitian spiritual practices, or New Orleans Voudou, as this practice has wrapped Catholicism around African spirituality. It is Voudou more in terms of a blanket understanding of the word, which Joan Dayan, in her article titled, “Voudou or the Voice of the Gods,” tells us is, “…a word used by the Fon tribe of Southern Dahomey to mean ‘spirit,’ ‘god’ or ‘image’…” (13). Insofar as we endeavor to understand the meaning of Christian practices that have grown out of the African sense of Voudou, the most important tenant of Voudou is the notion of the devotee’s relationship with Spirit. Maya Deren suggests what an experience of an African relationship with Spirit may be. She writes that, “Whether called intelligence, consciousness, spirit or soul, it is the invisible action within man which motivated and molds his visible acts and expressions” (25). There is a relationship between man and Spirit, more than simply a divinity that must be venerated. African spirituality deals with the immediacy of one’s daily life. It works to bring humanity in line with the gods (loa). It is not simply a mystical, disembodied experience. It grounds its devotee in the realities of daily earthly life. Deren clarifies this point when she continues:
In Voudoun the cosmic drama of man consists not of a dualism, a conflict of the irreconcilable down/pull of flesh and the up/pull of spirit; it is, rather, an almost organic dynamic, a process by which all that which characterizes divinity—intelligence, power, energy, authority, wisdom—evolves out of the flesh itself. Instead of being eternally separated, the substance and the spirit of a man are eternally and mutually committed: the flesh to the divinity within it and the divinity to the flesh of its origin” (27).
The flesh, itself being continually engaged in a reciprocal relationship with the gods is an aspect of Voudou that may be seen to stand opposed to Christianity. Although Christianity does carry within it the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ, it also maintains a belief in the concept of original sin. This means that because of the first sin of man and woman, we are all born in essence, corrupt. To have a belief such as this as a basic tenant of a religion presupposes a necessity for transcendence. Corrupt flesh requires an experience of the divine which is somehow separate from the body. This is not the case in African spirituality.
In diaspora, Africans needed to find a way to resacralize their physical experience. Gods that had once been attributed to rivers, trees, mountains and temples could no longer be worshipped in their sacred places of origin. In the course of their pre-Christian diasporic spirituality, they found a way around this dilemma; a solution which existed within their spiritual expressions from the beginning. This solution was an emphasis on spirit possession. The Spirit, the loa itself actually enters the bodies of the devotees. The devotee may not be able to worship among their sacred landscape in Africa, but they can remain connected to the loa through a physical, visceral experience. Dayan suggests this as she writes:
When the gods left Africa, they taught their people how to live the epic of displacement. No longer simply identifiable in terms of parentage or place, they would come into the heads of their people and there urge a return to a thought of origin, a place as urgent as it was irretrievable” (16).
This was true of Haiti, and it was certainly true of the slaves living in other colonies as well. Retaining this African based spirituality was absolutely vital to the slave’s survival (psychic and physical) as spiritual individuals. As Joseph Harris writes in his article, “The Dynamics of the Global African Diaspora,”
…African-born slaves who became Christians incorporated Christian theology into their existing belief systems, reinterpreting it and transforming it in the process. This new complex of beliefs—an emerging Afro-Christianity—met some of their spiritual needs, but it did not generally replace core African beliefs, nor did it always suffice. In fact, Africans continued to express a profound faith in the efficacy of their charms, rituals and religious principles even as they sought the comforting ministrations of a Christian clergyman (96).
Even those slaves who eventually chose to Christianize, retained much of their African spirituality.
The acknowledgement of the fusion of African beliefs with Christian ones, especially the reality of one’s physical possession by a divinity, are the single most important clues to understanding African influence on American Protestantism. Many of the practices associated with African religions have made their way into the fabric of twentieth century Protestantism, especially the churches that are focused on what they refer to as the “gifts of the spirit.” In his book titled, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, Albert Raboteau writes that, “African religious influence on Afro-American societies has manifested itself not only in the cult of the gods but also in ancestor worship, magical practices and ritual-performance style” (30). At first glance it seems obvious that much of the experience driven “full gospel” churches owe the roots of their worship styles to these aspects of slave religion, but how did this come to be? How did hand clapping, ecstasies, works of the spirit, ritual performance, dancing, drumming, spirit trance and possession become such an integral part of Christianity, a religion whose basis, at least in the sense of the European founders of the American colonies, lay deeply entrenched in the belief that experiences of the body are incompatible with works of the spirit? An answer may be found, at least in part, in the development of Christianity among slaves during the great revivalist periods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Although it is true that initially most slaves resisted conversion to Christianity, large numbers of the slaves did slowly begin to convert. During the revivalist periods, which occurred first in the early eighteenth century, and then again toward the latter part of the eighteenth century, and on into the nineteenth century, known as The Great Awakenings, preachers traveled all around the plantations, spreading the gospel. During the Second Great Awakening, of the mid-nineteenth century, the Methodist and Baptist movements gained many black converts, slaves and free. The most important aspect of this, for American Protestant movements, was the inclusion, for the first time, of African American preachers. The revival spread so completely, that the movements did not have enough preachers to church those living out among the plantations. As the Methodist movement required no other training than a willing and converted heart, they began to involve African Americans. This inclusion was vital to the development of Afro-American Christianity. Raboteau writes,
The importance of these early black preachers in the conversion of slaves to Christianity has not been sufficiently appreciated. Emerging in the latter half of the eighteenth and the early decades of the nineteenth centuries, they acted as crucial mediators between Christian belief and the experiential world of slaves. In effect they were helping to shape the development of a bicultural synthesis, and Afro-American culture, by nurturing the birth of Christian communities among blacks, slave and free (137).
The inclusion of African Americans as preachers in effect validated the contributions of African American spirituality to Christianity. If at this point, (particularly after emancipation) the African American population has turned largely to Christianity, what has happened to their practices of Voudou traditions?
The Spirit traditions of African spirituality have been and continue to be maligned as demonic by Christians. Many attempts have been made to eradicate Voudou, as well as all African spiritual practices in America. Although almost all of what can be called classical African Spirituality has been destroyed, Rod Davies suggests that something of Voudou has survived. In his book titled, American Voudou, Journey into a Hidden World he writes that,
…the crushing of voudou in America proved so pervasive that almost all that remains in any indigenous form is hoodoo. In fact, I could not see Voudou directly at all. I was observing it as though watching a solar eclipse through a pin hole in a piece of cardboard, catching nothing more than its reversed shadow on the ground. Even with persistent scrutiny, the best I could make out of the originating shape was Voudou’s distinct, but ghost-like outline in music, dance, poetry, folk medicine…And the church. That was where American Voudou had hidden—in plain sight (135).
The legacy of Voudou has been hiding in plain sight, within the churches of the Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. The Christian movements did spread among the African Americans, but the people still retained much of the integrity of their earlier spirituality. They have brought a new embodiment (what I like to call in-body-ment) to Christianity. Never before had Protestant Christian worship been led to the beat of African drums, or had the spirit entered Christians with such a depth of fervor and possession. The slaves of the revivalist times brought a new vitality to Christianity. They brought a new spiritual understanding, forging a bridge between Christian Protestantism and Voudou beliefs. They contributed to a newfound fervor between Christians, black and white. This is what Raboteau reminds us of when he writes that, “While the North American slaves danced under the impulse of the spirit of a ‘new’ God, they danced in ways their fathers in Africa would have recognized” (72).
However, it is still important to make the distinction between Christianity and African spiritualities. African American Christianity is not Voudou veiled. Too many have made this assertion, and to do so does disservice to both traditions. It is not that Afro-Christians went looking for a way to hide their spiritual expressions within the religion of a powerful majority. There have been some who resisted conversion entirely and remained faithful to the religions of their ancestors and some who have rejected the gods and practices of their heritage completely. In America today, there continues to be a renewal and rebirth of African based religions, as well as Afro-American devotion to Christianity. It is important, when considering the shaping affects of religions on one another to keep in mind the essential differences between them. There are distinctions, even in their similarities. The Christian concept of gifts of the spirit, are not quite the same as being mounted by the loa. I agree with Raboteau, who suggests that,
The African gods with their myriad characteristics, personalities and myth do not ‘mount’ their enthusiasts amid the dances, songs and drum rhythms of worship in the United States. Instead it is the Holy Spirit who fills the converted sinner with a happiness and power that drives him to shout, sing and sometimes dance” (64).
So, why does African spirituality appeal to so many in America? An answer, in some part, lies within a reaction to the Enlightenment period and a philosophy that focused an a separation between mind/soul/spirit and body. These philosophies brought with them a devotion to rationalism, which often finds itself antagonistic to spirituality. Joseph Campbell wrote that, “It is because Christians today recognize, painfully, the limitations of our western traditions and are seeking earnestly some enlarged base for the formulation of a unified and unifying, yet adequately differentiated, understanding of humanity, that, suddenly—as though promising a revelation—mythology and folklore have acquired a new interest”(Divine Horsemen, xii). This rise in consciousness was already well on its way by the Victorian period.
By the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Americans, as well as Europeans, began to stray away from the scientific explanations of the Rationalists and Empiricists of the Enlightenment period. People began to hunger for an experience, rather than a lesson of disembodied spirituality. In his book, Reinventing American Protestantism, David Miller writes that, “The assumption…is that all human beings, in all times and places, need to order their lives according to some scheme of ultimate meanings” (27). Interest in the occult was heightened, and Americans were fascinated with the philosophies known as Spiritism. The rise of Spiritism coincided with the Second Great Awakening, and the spread of Christianity among the slaves, as well as the newly emancipated.
Spiritism describes a group of practices, which endeavored to help the practitioner of gain insight by contact with the spirit world. This kind of spirit centered practice was likely to be quite attractive to African Americans. We know that it took root in the Creole culture, developing as another spiritual practice in the Caribbean known as Espiritismo. In their book titled Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction to Voudou, Santeria, Obeah and Espiritismo, Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravasini-Gerbert write tell us that,
While African-based religions were undergoing a consolidation throughout the region, the Spiritualist and Spiritist practices of North America and Europe were making their way across the sea to the Caribbean. The enthusiasm for Spiritist philosophical, religious and healing notions can be understood as a response to several important factors in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Caribbean societies, among them in the social upheaval created by the quest for democracy and the diaspora of Caribbean peoples to the United States” (171).
People were ready to hear and feel spirit. Out of this time came the rise of a new Christian movement known as the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. Like the Methodist and Baptist movements of the Great Awakenings, they were focused on personal conversion. But, they also had a great emphasis in the gifts (charisms) of the Holy Spirit. They emphasized the importance of Mark 13:11 which, according to Stevan Davies, in his book Jesus the Healer reads, “It will not be you who speaks but the Holy Spirit” (29). When a person receives baptism from the Holy Spirit, they receive a special anointing from God, a brand new sense of purpose. They become empowered, as Stevan Davies writes, “In theory, what is said by the spirit is drawn from what is known by the spirit and not from what is known by the possessed individual. Accordingly, the idea of Spirit speech entails the idea of Spirit knowledge and it follows that the spirit is not simply a source of verbal formulation but a source of information” (30).
In large part because of these revivals bringing Christianity and other philosophies of Spiritism to African Americans, it becomes clear that the birth of Afro-American Christianity, and its subsequent growth occurred during much of the nineteenth century. However, the question still remains as to where we see the legacy of African spirituality at play within the Christianity of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Much work has been done in regards to Catholicism’s relationship to Voudou, but what fascinates me even more is how this legacy is being passed down through the churches whose emphasis is on baptism by fire, or the gifts of the spirit. Of these churches, often known as “charismatic” churches, none are more prominent than those belonging to the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostals are characterized by a belief in a second coming of the Holy Spirit, a second Pentecost. According to John Belcher, in his article “Healing and Psychotherapy,” “The Pentecostal movement is made up by a very diverse group of individuals who frequently refer to themselves as belonging to ‘full-gospel’ churches” (64). He goes on to note that, “Unlike mainline Protestant or Catholic denominations, the Pentecostal movement invites the Spirit to lead the service” (69). Did the slave experience play a part in the development of these Christian movements?
Pentecostalism does in fact have its roots in the slave communities of the south. In 1906, a revival broke out in an abandoned Methodist church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California. The preacher associated with this revival was named William Joseph Seymour. He was born shortly after the end of the Civil War, in Centerville Louisiana. Both of his parents were emancipated slaves. He spent time in Texas, working within as Christian movement known as the Holiness movement, a movement that emphasizes purity of heart, before moving to Los Angeles. While preaching his doctrinal beliefs associated with the Holiness movement which included glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and other evidences of baptism in the Spirit, a revival broke out in his church. In his article, “The Origins of Pentecostalism,” Allan Anderson notes, “That this was a predominately Black church and leadership, rooted in the African American culture of the nineteenth century is especially significant” (180). William Seymour was affected by his heritage of African spirituality. It was in his church, and during his revivals, that people began to speak of the spirit “raining down” and of a new Pentecost. The signs of baptism of the spirit and worship practices in Seymour’s revival building on Azusa Street would include many experiences that would have been well known to those earlier plantation communities and then later to the revival tents of the Great Awakening: spirit trance/possession in the form of glossolalia, healing, prophesy, and exorcism and worshipping bodily in the form of dancing, drumming, lifting hands, and ecstatic behavior.
Anderson reminds us that, “Many of the early manifestations of Pentecostalism were a reflection of the African religious culture from which the slaves had been forcefully abducted” (142). It is important to note that Anderson uses the word reflection. The Pentecostal movement should be in no way seen as a kind Christianized Voudou. It is a reflection of the heritage of the African Americans who so definitely guided and shaped it. An especially interesting aspect of these early Pentecostal churches is how unaffected they were by class and racial struggles. People of all races and all financial classes came together to worship at Azusa Street, and many of these people moved out into missions all over the world. Sadly, however, this utopian world of Azusa Street soon gave way to the realities of daily struggles of the twentieth century, and the churches of the Pentecostal movement became segregated shortly after the Azusa Street revival ended in 1909.
So what’s the point? I began by asking questions about the impact of African spirituality and its affect on Christianity. In the end, the lesson may be that as the Africans teach us; there needs to be a balance between body and spirit. Miller suggests that, “Perhaps we have lost something in our dualistic Western approach to reality. Who is to say that we have advanced by transferring all feelings and emotions to the mind” (146)?
Addressing the problem of the dualism of post reformation western Christianity is perhaps the most interesting and important way in which African spirituality has shaped Christianity in the twenty-first century. Pentecostalism’s heritage of Voudou, Methodist and Baptist spirituality was what brought Christianity out of the rafters, back into the body, and back into daily importance with Christianity. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, what people are really after is an experience, not a meaning. How can one truly know God unless one has an experience of God? And, what deeper experience is there than to feel God deep in the soul? The meaning is important, but too often people find that meaning cannot be completed without an experience. This is what those who practice Voudou and live Pentecostalism have in common, and it is what they find invaluable.
Anderson, Allan. “The Origins of Pentecostalism and its Global Spread in the Early Twentieth Century.” Transformation 22.3 (July 2005): 175-185
— “Writing the Pentecostal History of Africa, Asia and Latin America.” Journal of Beliefs and Values 25.2 (August 2004): 139-151
Belcher, John R. “Healing and Psychotherapy: The Pentecostal Tradition.” Pastoral Psychology 50.2 (November 2001): 63-75
Davies, Stevan L. Jesus the Healer. London: SCM P LTD, 1995
Davis, Rod. American Voudou: Journey Into a Hidden World. Denton, TX: U of North Texas P, 1998
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, NY: McPherson and Company. 1951
Hollenweger, Walter J. “An Introduction to Pentecostalisms.” Journal of Beliefs and Values 25.2 (August 2004): 125-137
Jalloh, Alusine, and Stephen E. Maizlish, eds. The African Diaspora. Arlington, TX: Texas A&M UP. 1996
Miller, Donald, E. Reinventing American Protestantism. London: U of California P. 1997
Olmos, Margarite Fernandez Olmos, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert, eds. Creole Religions of The Caribbean. New York: New York UP. 2003
—Sacred Possessions: Voudou, Santeria, Obead, and the Carribbean. New Brunswich, New Jersey: Rutgers UP. 2000
Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford UP. 2004
Reid, Jennifer I. M., ed. Religion and Global Culture: New Terrain in the Study of Religion and the Work of Charles H. Long. Oxford: Lexington Books. 2003
The King and Queens of Purim: Union of Ego and Anima
By Dori S. Koehler
To my mind, Queen Esther is the most elegant and enigmatic woman in all of biblical literature. Her story is the basis for a festival which is, arguably, more integral to the Jewish ritual year than even the most commonly known Jewish holidays of Pesach or Chanukah. It is the festival is known as Purim, and in our contemporary era it is celebrated through feasting, storytelling, playacting, costuming and with imbibing large amounts of alcohol. The consumption of alcohol, which may seem strange to adherents of the other traditions that have developed through the Abrahamic line, is the central distinguishing factor of the festival of Purim. The Book of Esther itself tells us that at king Ahasueres’ court there was a party that lasted 180 days. Jews are commanded to drink until they cannot discern the difference between the blessings of Mordecai and the curses of Haman, and some Jewish mystics even suggest that Purim will be the only holiday that will continue even into the age that is to come (which is often called the Messianic Age).
The reenactment of the story of Esther intentionally creates are carnival atmosphere. In contemporary Judaism, it is associated with irony and absurdity. The characters in Purim plays are intentionally campy, and are meant to inspire the audience to recognize the value of the inappropriate. It is a shift into a liminal space, and these festival rites create such an abandonment of inhibitions that a new world is able to come into view. In her essay, “The World Remade: The Book of Esther,” Celina Spiegel writes, “The story playfully, yet willfully takes the familiar world and turns it on its head, exposing its underside for all to see (193).” Conventions must be shaken loose from their normal places in order for one to see with a new perspective. Purim allows a ritual space for the overturning of these conventions. Bawdy images and language permeate the atmosphere that surrounds a festival that memorializes a woman who is chosen as queen (and thus saves her people) because she has fabulous sex with the king. The story is often stripped of its explicit sexual implications when it is related to children, but there can be no mistaking that Esther is made queen in a cloud of lust, and not through the kind of chaste ideals that govern the ideals of the era of courtly love.
It is not the presence of the spirit of carnival in Jewish ritual life, which captures my imagination as I meditate on Esther’s story, but rather a questioning of her presence itself as an image of carnival. Why does a sexually charged story about a Persian king and his harem, particularly one with no mention of G-D, have such a place of importance in Jewish spiritual life? Her story is part of the Tanakh. Why does she matter? What communal psychological function do the Persian queens serve? I suspect that Esther’s festival serves as a ritual expression of the Jewish relationship with anima. It seems to derive from a profound understanding of the ability of ritual enact things into being, as well as to give expression to what one currently encounters. Using the Jungian term loosely, I define anima as the feminine aspects of psyche, and often those aspects of psyche are shadow, or unconscious aspects, that require exploration, ritualization and honor.
It seems clear that all beings have, consciously or unconsciously, a relationship to the feminine aspects of psyche. Because Jung himself associated anima with man and animus with woman, those of us who consider these issues from within a Jungian depth psychological methodology often forget that women have as much of a genuine need to develop their relationship to the feminine within themselves as do men, and vice versa. In her book, Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern, renowned feminist thinker Esther Harding reminds us that, “The unconscious can only mirror the actual facts and therefore cannot lie (13).” The complexes of the psyche, which may carry feminine qualities, must be attended to personally, and these personal complexes form group complexes, which in turn are ritualized. In Jungian terms, that which is commonly latent in the psyche of and entire community is known as the collective unconscious of the community. Communal ritual does much to lead people toward greater personal consciousness, and Jewish ritual life contains within in it, an especially potent power. In terms of collective psychology, the Jewish psyche, carrying the luggage of a people in diaspora on its shoulder, has a unique appreciation for the imaginal as a tangible aspect of psychological life.
Geoffrey Dennis considers this in an article which has been published in the Spring 2009 offering of Parabola Magazine titled, “Finding the Center, Entering the Land: The Labyrinths of Jewish Imagination.” He suggests that, “…the imaginings of the heart occupy a unique place in Judaism, for imagination is a key to coping with the great enigma of exile, which occupies the center of the Jewish experience (21).” To put it another way, imagination helps one cope with the reality of displacement. Dennis also suggests that for a people displaced from homeland, the ability to live in imaginal time and space is vital to a connection with home. For the Jewish psyche, there is a particularly potent investment in the metaphorical life of the mind, and a powerfully emotional reason to connect, on an authentic level, with that imaginal world.
From the exilic period until the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, Jews had no other choice but to create an imaginal space whose landscape, because it became so existent and rich in psychic reality, compensates for their having no homeland in the physical world to attend to their ritual and law. Because their imagination has been their homeland for thousands of years, the nation of Israel lives in the stories and ritual of the people. These stories and festivals create the Jewish homeland anew each time they are enacted. This psychological shift away from land and into the mind has been a necessary part of the survival of a people who have been, until recently, separated from the land of which their epic stories were born. The power of story to place a community into a space of invention is itself the power of myth, and it is what makes mythology especially important to a people in diaspora. It is home in a pocketbook. It is this mythic power that the Book of Esther carries inborn and natural like Esther’s sexual beauty itself. In some sense, the observance of Purim, although it tells the story of a people who are in voluntary exile, returns the people to their home, and to the goddess worship that they have willingly abandoned. It is commonly believed that goddess religion has no place in Judaism’s Yahwist tradition. However, as bearer of such mythic power, Esther’s story can be understood to function in a similar way as goddess religions function in many other traditions.
In her book, The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine, Christine Downing reminds us that, contrary to the findings of traditional scholarship, worship of the divine feminine is a vital aspect of Jewish heritage. She writes:
…goddess religion answers to a perennial human need is suggested by how strongly it persists even in cultures where it is officially excluded. Most of us tend for forget, for instance, how much the day-to-day religion of the ancient Hebrews differed from the faith promulgated by the prophets and thus fail to recognize the importance that goddesses had in the life of Israel during the whole period from the arrival of the Hebrews in Canaan until the destruction of the first temple (13).
In Jewish tradition, metaphorically speaking, the father is considered to be the one who provides for the practical earthly comforts of the family while the mother is somehow seen as somehow transcendent of the messy earthy life. The goddess is therefore present, and her worship must find a channel. Purim infuses ritual life with the vitality of goddess religion by examining sexual politics; particularly the relationship between husband and wife, and doing so requires a flip in consciousness. The experience of carnival overturning social norms suggests that in order to really know himself, a man must take seriously the women that surround him. It suggests that ego and anima must unite for the sake of psychic balance.
In her book, Kaleidoscope: The Ways of Woman and other Essays, Helen M. Luke suggests that at the moment a marriage occurs, the other represents an image to each new spouse. To a husband his new wife, “carries for him in that moment, consciously or unconsciously, the image of all womanhood—of that which nourishes and gives birth, not only to physical children but to all the values of true relatedness and to the tender understanding of the heart (166).” A man’s image of his wife and a woman’s sense of what it means to be a wife reflect their relationship to anima, and these complex interactions are the heart of what is psychologically vital in the practice of Purim as well as what makes it necessary to work these concepts through satire. We need the foolish in order to be knocked off balance enough to learn and sometimes to see things that although discernible, are not always obvious. Spiegel writes about the shift in power that occurs between the reigns of Vashti and Esther. She suggests that, “The sexual politics and intrigues so common to satire here suggest Ahasuerus’ foolish impotence. But where Vashti fails in her role as queen, Esther reveals herself to have a shrewder understanding of the stirring of men (195).” The sexual interactions of this story are a series of successes and failures, and they demonstrate the painful climb toward a better experience of wholeness. They give frank, human examples of the experience of encountering the opposite sex, and they attempt, by example, to suggest strategies and pitfalls.
As the Book of Esther opens, the scene presents a spectacle of debauchery. The men have been celebrating for sex months, “And the rule for the drinking was, ‘No restrictions’ (1:8).” While the men make public spectacle, the queen’s court also celebrates in their private chambers. It is in this state of intoxication that the king has his first encounter with the feminine. King Ahasuerus’ desire is to impress and placate his courtiers. The banquet is described in glorious terms, relating every detail of shade and opulence. A king who is described as, “merry,” commands his Queen to come before him in all her splendor and beauty. This is understood to be shameful, and some translators suggest that she was even commanded to enter the king’s banquet naked, perhaps wearing only her royal jewels. Whatever the terms of the request, Queen Vashti refuses to come before the king. In this rebuttal, she is a symbol of the feminine aspect of psyche refusing to be shamed by the undeveloped ego complex. She will not disgrace herself by appearing in front of impaired men, and discarding her beauty before those who do not have the audacity to esteem it. She is the feminine coming into the consciousness of the ego complex, and as she is summoned without the proper deference, and she will not tolerate it.
When Vashti refuses to come before the king, he becomes irate. The narrative tells us that, “his fury burned within him (1:12).” However, though he is consumed and motivated by rage, he too undeveloped to decide what to do with her himself. Instead of standing for his law, the king consults “…the sages learned in procedure (1:13).” This king is pliable, perhaps not ineffectual but easily manipulated. He is a symbol of the ego that chooses to give away his power of self-exploration. By allowing others to decide for him, he remains numb and ignores the looming confrontation. We are told that the king himself does not even make the decree. It is the king’s advisor Memucan who makes the announcement of Vashti’s fate. The king’s advisors make the decree; they speak for him to the people.
The decision of the advisors is self-interested, because they fear that the queen’s example will affect their own households. They state that, “the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come (1:17).” The king then approves the plan suggested by his officials that Queen Vashti be banished, and another should take her place, and he signs it into law. This decision sets an interesting precedent in place. The king shows himself to be both easily manipulated, and swayed by poor counsel. A healthy balance of emotion and rationality does not lead him. He is spoken for, and therefore he requires little, if any, accountability. Furthermore, the choices made by his advisors seem to be unreasonable. Banishment seems far too harsh as Queen Vashti seems fairly within her rights to refuse to be humiliated and disrespected by a crowd of drunken men who would be more suited to the company of concubines than to the queen. In the king’s impaired state (which is a metaphor for his psychic and political impotence), he has rejected the one person in all of his court that has the ability to truly come together with him and inform him.
By choosing to refuse the king’s request, she honors the culture of shame (modesty) which she has been brought up into, and demands the respect due to her role as queen and wife. However, she also defies her husband, therefore simultaneously flaunting her lack of modesty and her lack of submission to her husband. This decision is unquestionably reasonable in light of the king’s total lack of introspection. At this point, the king listens to his advisors (an extension of his own ignorance), as he fears the power of the feminine which stirs within his own soul, and therefore must project himself as being in control of his own environment, even if forces (of which he is unaware) manipulate him. When the king again becomes sober, he desires union with a woman. These urges stir his heart (or, more realistically, his pants). The narrative says that his anger subsided, and that he thought of Vashti, perhaps hoping that he would somehow find a way to reinstate her as queen. However, the advisors once again remind him of the fact that, in his realm, once a law has been agreed to and sealed by the king, it cannot be changed or broken; not even by the king himself. He has banished her, and she will no longer be available to challenge him with the forcefulness of her will. This ego, it has become clear, cannot stand to be challenged directly so it much be approached, at least in the beginning stages of its progress, by sweet indirection.
Thus enters a Jewish girl known both by her Hebrew name, Hadassah, and her Persian one, Esther. The name Hadassah means, “myrtle tree.” According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols by Ellen Frankel, myrtle trees, “…represent immortality, and sprigs of myrtle were often buried with the dead to aid the soul in her journey. In ancient times, its scent was inhaled during the passing of the Sabbath (Saturday night) and two bouquets of myrtle were used to welcome the Sabbath. In the sukkah ceremony, boughs of myrtle were used to invoke the spirits of the ancestors (116).”
In context of Judaism, Hadassah represents tradition and continuity. As myrtle branches are were used during the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot), she represents the souls’ pilgrimage, and recognition of what the soul will need while be guided to its development. This is the pliability, the feather-touch aspect of Esther’s character. This part of her is wise and observant of the past.
As it has been common for Jews living in diasporic circumstances to have both a Hebrew name used for communal ritual purposes, and an assimilated name for safety in the community, it is not at all uncommon that Hadassah also carried the Persian name, Esther. It is unknown whether the root of the name Esther comes from the same root as the name of the Goddess Ishtar (which is a provocative idea as she is a fertility goddess, revered for her sexual prowess) or if the name derives from the Persian word for star, setareh (again, fascinating because an astral reference would certainly connote both celestial wisdom and beauty). Either way, her Persian name is also intended to induce understanding of Esther as a woman of immense sexual power as well as her association with the wisdom required to be able to wield that kind of power.
Esther knows, perhaps by learning of Vashti’s fate, but also perhaps by intuition, that she must win the king admiration by a subtler kind of seduction. Shrewd as she is sexy, “she did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women, advised yet Esther won the admiration of all who saw her (2:15).” It is clear that she carries within her person every sexual attribute necessary to attract and move the king, and she proves herself bearer of the kind of wisdom required to be a favorite to King Ahasuerus. She observes what the king desires, and she does what she can to make herself the object of that desire. She does not attempt to challenge him, but she, at least in the early part of their relationship, enters his soul subtly. In her book, Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Lillian R. Klein reminds us of the precarious nature of Esther’s situation when she writes that, “On her part, Esther’s participation is passive, as befits a modest woman and a Jew in a foreign culture. (101).”
She is a modest, young woman who defers to her guardian Mordecai. “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it (2:10).” The narrative even goes so far as to say explicitly that she obeyed Mordecai in everything, as she did when she was under his protection as a guardian. This deference is not due to a lack of self-possession or comprehension, but to an ability to accept the guidance of Mordecai as a true advisor. She is the ultimate symbol of woman’s intuition, and it is this kind of intuition that will captivate the ego and convince him that he is in charge even when he is actually in her power. As she captivates him, she is made queen. “The King loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins. So he set a royal diadem on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti (2:17).”
Placed in this position to command the passion and admiration of the king, it is Esther that Mordecai visits when he discovers Haman’s plot to exterminate him and all of the Jewish people. At first, Esther balks at the idea of approaching the king, wisely remembering Vashti, and Mordecai reminds Esther that, “…if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish and who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (4:14).” Within Esther, Mordecai’s admonition summons what Timothy Laniak, in his book, Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther, refers to as the warrior queen. He writes, “Esther, like virtually all biblical heroines, finds her place in scripture not as one who has effectively changed—or even challenged—the social order. Rather she has contributed, through bravery and intelligence, to the divine purpose for Israel (165). Metaphorically, she is superwoman. She is proven to be simultaneously brilliant, clever, faithful, courageous compassionate, unassailable, nurturing, beautiful and sexy. It is obvious at this point in the story why she is a quintessential image of the anima for the Jewish people. She replies with a mandate to Mordecai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf, do not eat or dink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the King, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am perish, I shall perish (4:16).”
Esther knows that she must not approach the king in a state of fear or anger. Instead of disgracing herself by begging and weeping in the king’s hall, she recognizes that the proud must be led along gently. She recognizes that the king does not truly know his best advisors. With that insight as a guide, she prepares to arouse the king with her sexual wiles. Esther taps into the raw power of feminine sensuality, utilizing the nurturing, affecting and exciting energies that belong to both the womb and the tomb in order to move her king. The king is immediately touched by the presence of Esther, and stretches out his golden phallic symbol, eager for her touch. The narrative tells us that, “As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in court, she won his favor (5:2).”
While there is economy and precision in the Hebrew translation, the Greek adds an interesting perspective to the story. It notes that as Esther enters the court, it is the king’s affection for Esther, not his lust that guides his treatment of her. In this translation, terror overtakes Esther, and she swoons. As he approaches her, “God changed the spirit of the King to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself (15:8).” This suggests that Esther’s approach allows the king, for the first time, to bring the feminine into his ego consciousness. Ego consciousness is limiting, because it is a monocle through which one sees a single point of view. His affection for Esther brings him closer to maturing, and instead of begging for the life of her people in his public court, Esther asks the king to join her at a banquet prepared in he and Haman’s honor, utilizing soft persuasion instead of direct distress. After giving two banquets, during which one can only imagine that she demonstrated many different aspects of her value, she finally answers the king’s question. He asks again what she desires, and promises to fulfill her wish, even to half his kingdom. Queen Esther replies:
‘If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bond men and bondwomen, I would have kept silent, for the adversary is not worthy of the King’s trouble’ (7:2-4).”
The story leaves the Jewish people in a moment of preeminence. Through Esther they become powerful and wealthy. Their affluence is gained through the sexuality of a woman, and both of those realities make for a world remade upside down. In turning the world upside down, this story manages to draw closer to turning it right. Esther is an image of the potency of femininity as it relates to the process of developing ego consciousness. She is not only sweet, innocent and pliable, but neither is particularly callus, manipulative and capricious. In her approach to the king, as well as his response to her, her story honors the fruitful union between the masculine and feminine. Spiegel suggests that:
“It is not merely Esther’s beauty, however, but her sexuality to which the Jews owe their salvation—and this distinction is what is so startling and powerful about the story even to modern readers. Inborn and natural, Esther’s sexuality is presented as the embodiment of Jewish virtues. In this sense, the story is truly utopian, for its world remade—through Esther’s intervention—hearkens back to an unselfconscious, unfallen female sexuality (202).”
Esther’s world is one where the women of the court are so formidable that, whether or not they are eventually victorious, the men have no choice but to contend with them. However, in contending with these women, the men do not disappear from the story. On the contrary, they remain in control. The king continues to rule Esther, and Mordecai’s power balance is restored as Haman is deposed. The practical lesson of Purim is that sexual balance is vital to human interaction. The genders need each other, and in the process of encountering the anima, consciousness is developed.
The Jewish Study Bible. Ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. NY: Oxford UP, 2004.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. NY: Oxford UP, 1994
Dennis, Geoffrey W. “Finding the Center, Entering the Land: The Labyrinths of Jewish Imagination.” Parabola: Tradition, Myth, and the Search for Meaning. Spring, 2009: 20-27.
Downing, Christine. The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. NY: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2000.
Frankel, Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, 1996.
Harding, M. Esther. Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1971.
Klein, Lillian R. From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics In the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Laniak, Timothy S. Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998.
Luke, Helen M. Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman and Other Essays. NY: Parabola Books, 1992.
Spiegel, Celina. “The World Remade: The Book of Esther.” Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible. Ed. Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel. NY: Ballantine Books, 1994.