Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Fragile Voice of Sappho

She was short and rather unattractive. She was tall, and her beauty was transcendent. Even these descriptions of her appearance, which were themselves written long after her death, conflict completely with each other. But one aspect of her life was generally agreed upon: in a society which tended to view women as second-class citizens, she was widely regarded as the greatest poet of her age. What survives of her poetry is as fragmented as the few facts which we know of her life. It is as if we were to try and assess the genius of Shakespeare through only a few surviving lines from Hamlet or The Tempest. But even if those few lines of Shakespeare were all that existed, we still would know that we were in the presence of a voice of true greatness, and so it is with Sappho of Lesbos.

Sappho lived her life twenty five centuries ago on the large island of Lesbos in Ancient Greece, composing poems which were intended both to be sung in performance for special occasions such as weddings and other celebrations, and as personal expressions of her thoughts and emotions. Today we take the idea of poetry as self-expression for granted, but such was Sappho’s originality that this idea was thought to have begun with her. Before Sappho, poetry was confined to the formal reciting of epic ideals and traditional stories. What I find so touching about her work, and what speaks to me, is the sense of passion for life which she clearly retained even into her later years. True art needs such passion to express itself – and to communicate itself to, and so to touch, others.

Most of Sappho’s poetry was almost certainly lost when Crusaders sacked Constantinople in the 13th-century and destroyed its libraries and cultural treasures. Fragments from other locations have been discovered in such places as ancient refuse pits, inscribed on shards of pottery, and even among the padding used for the wrappings of mummies. What we have managed to rescue from the jaws of time is but a fraction of what once existed, which from contemporary accounts we know to have been a substantial body of work. We are fortunate that other writers who admired her work also quoted from her in their own writings, for it is these which have provided another source of her poetry for us.

Sappho’s is a voice which has endured against all the vagaries of history. I also think of the Gnostic Gospels, buried in a jar in the Egyptian sands, and lying undiscovered for sixteen long centuries – or the charred and blackened manuscript which is our only known copy of the epic of Beowulf, which was so very nearly destroyed by fire. It is as if some voices are simply not meant to be silenced, in spite of all apparent efforts to erase them from history, either wilfully or by the misadventures of time.

Voices are so fragile, and reflect the very fragility of life itself. But their very survival also paradoxically reflects the tenacity of life: the tenacity to endure, to reach beyond the time in which these voices speak, so that they may be heard by others in a future unimaginable to them. Delicate and exquisite, passionate and refined, Sappho’s words remain like rare flowers pressed between the pages of the book of centuries. My slim edition of her poems, which contains all of the few known surviving fragments of her work, seems to speak of a fragile hope, and of that hope’s will to endure against all the odds. 

Artistic rendering of Sappho by William Adolphe Bouguereau

SAPPHO: Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments.
Translated and with an introduction by Aaron Poochigian, and with a preface by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Penguin Classics. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Song of the Sirens

The poet Homer is of course famous for his two epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. The first recounts the events of the Trojan War, and the second tells of the ten year-long voyage home from that war of its hero, the brave Odysseus (Ulysses). But Homer was no simple teller of tales, however stirring to our imagination these tales can be. Beneath the surface of these stories we can discover deeper truths which have resonated over the span of millennia, and which we even can find reflected in the first two books of the Old Testament.

On this deeper level, The Iliad – and Genesis – relates the spirit’s awakening awareness of its primal condition, and its expulsion from that condition into a world of turmoil. The Odyssey – and Exodus – tells of the spirit’s ‘long journey home’, its seeking for a promised land (which really is its former state) after its sojourn on earth. These connections need not surprise us, when we remember that the mythical figure of Homer – and the equally mythical figure of Moses – had their connections to the ancient mystery schools: Homer, naturally enough, to those of Ancient Greece, and Moses to those of Ancient Egypt.

One of the best-known episodes from Homer’s Odyssey is the hero’s encounter with the sirens. Ships whose course brought them close to the sirens’ island suffered a terrible fate, for the singing of the sirens in their meadow was so alluring that those sailors who heard it immediately fell under such a spell that they lost their wits, jumping overboard in their frenzied efforts to reach the sirens, and wanting to hear only their song, which made them forget their intended destination, and even their own identity.

But cunning Odysseus, whose scheming wits had carried him through other hazardous encounters, employed a plan suggested to him by the sorceress Circe in his previous adventure. As his ship neared the sirens, he had his men stop their ears with bees' wax. Then he instructed them to bind him securely to the ship’s mast, with orders that under no circumstances were they to loosen his bonds. The ruse worked. His crew, hearing nothing, rowed safely on as the sirens' singing filled the air around them. Odysseus, under the spell of the sirens’ song, implored his crew to release him even as he struggled to break free. But the ropes held, and Odysseus became the only voyager to hear the song of the sirens and live to tell of its magic.

Almost three thousand years later, this story still has its hold upon our imagination, perhaps because we recognise, and so can relate to, the hazard of the sirens’ singing. The world – and our own lives – has its sirens. They might not take the form of beautiful and seductive women, but they weave a powerful spell all the same. We all have our sirens to resist, whether they come in the form of desirable material possessions, or as stories which (perhaps against our better judgement) we choose to believe are true, or as dreams which we chase after, or even as the distractions of social networking.

Our deeper selves know instinctively that if we are to remember our true destination, our true identity, then these are things which have to be navigated past.  Because the sirens are still singing, and their song can sound like the most alluring sound we have heard, or like a short tweet! 

Painting by Herbert James Draper

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Tresses of the Magdalene

The painting in the manuscript is quite small, and shows a woman dressed in blue in the act of cutting off her long hair. The identity of the woman is not in doubt, for in the text above her we can read her name: Marie Magdalene. What perhaps makes this modest manuscript miniature so touching is that we do not see the Magdalene’s face: it is wholly hidden behind the curtain of her golden hair. What Mary Magdalene looked like is however we imagine her appearance to be, for history has left no record – not even a written description – of her physical appearance. In the painting she remains as anonymous as in history, although the gesture of the scissors about to close around her golden locks is telling enough, and we know that were there to come a next moment, then in that moment those tresses would fall to the floor.

Why should the simple act of cutting off one’s hair feel so charged with drama? Hair would seem to have mysterious properties, for we remember that mighty Samson was conquered by the simple act of having his hair forcibly cut off. In Samson’s case, it was an act of treachery by Delilah. The woman betrays the man, and the man is robbed of his power. But this is not the case with Mary Magdalene. The act is here clearly a voluntary one: she is cutting off her own hair. It feels like – and is – an act of penitence. A true gesture of penitence brings with it the blessing of redemption, and so far we are on familiar orthodox ground. Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman, is redeemed by her deeply-felt penitence. But for whom does the Magdalene really cut her hair?

If such a gesture moves us to the extent which it does, then it would seem to point to something beyond a mere penitent shedding of locks. A woman’s tresses – or perhaps more specifically: a woman’s tresses that are on view – have traditionally been associated with wantonness. More than one culture which has its basis in religious tradition has insisted that a woman must keep her hair concealed from view, because to reveal her hair is construed as a come-hither signal. But by whom? Such cultures are without exception male-dominated: cultures in which men have made the rules to which women must adhere. And keeping to such rules is dictated by the consequences of a loss of a woman’s good reputation. It is a simple rule through threat, and ostracism can be a powerful weapon.

Traditionally, Mary Magdalene’s loosely-worn hair is a sign of her fallen nature. But if the sacrifice of Jesus redeemed all, then if it is truly so that we are all one, then so must the sacrifice of the Magdalene’s. The blades of the scissors close, and the long tresses fall to the floor with a telling finality. Perceiving that her own reputation will be tarnished by orthodox thinking throughout the centuries, the Magdalene, the closest and most trusted of all the followers of Jesus, cuts off her hair for the wrongs done to, the prejudices towards, the transgressions against, the inequalities endured by, all women.

Today, July 22nd, is traditionally Mary Magdalene’s day.

The manuscript miniature is from the 15th-century Livre de la Passion. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

No Lack of Love

Dear Ones, 

If you have ever been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, cunning, insurgent, unruly, rebellious...take heart. There is yet time...practice. Andele! And again. 

To begin with, take on meaning wherever you can, as though it is the air you must breathe in order to not only survive, but to thrive. Find work and events that leave you feeling well used, rather than just aggravated and angry. If on the road you encounter a sign that reads "Keep Out", understand the true nature of wisdom, consider carefully and most of the time, do not "keep out". Remember, there is almost nothing that cannot be helped or improved by love, warmth, mercy and a small but wild gleam in one's eye. 

Caveats? Beware of people with smiles that light up quickly, but drop away like black eels as soon as you turn away. Beware of grinning people carrying daggers who say they are not daggers but rather gladioli that just happen to be painted to look like daggers. Avoid those who maintain minds so narrow that they can see through a keyhole with both eyes. 

To remain strong choose able fellow travelers. Bypass whiners, blamers and complainers. Whiners trail long slimy weeds behind for everyone to trip over; blamers waste everyones time by pointing to the same problems over and over, without ever truly putting their own cajones or ovarios on the line. Complainers drain and delay everyone with petty predictabilities. Their ice cream is always too cold and their soup is always too hot. 

Elude, as well, people who nip away at your time, your resources, just a little here and there. "Surely you don't mind...." they wheedle. Mind. 

Practice mercy. Don't be ashamed to be a person of faith, whichever faith that might be. If you follow Christ, act like Christ, if you follow Buddha, echo Buddha. Whether you love Theotokos, or the Goddess, or The Prophet or study the great Rebbes--all the great ones are characterized by kindness and kinship with all, rather than by bickering, keel-hauling and killing. When you hear a politician or "reformer" disparaging the poor, the uneducated, the sick, the lonely, the tormented, the helpless--change sides. 

Rekindle forgotten beatitudes: Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Practice Descansos y flores blancos: planting the dark ground with white flowers wherever atrocities or death have taken place. Be mindful that in la lucha, matters of deep change, God is often put on trial by detractors. Step forward as lead counsel for the defense. 

Vigor and humor are the keys to longevity, helping one to rise up again and again. Do not forget to appall your critics often: Tell them "I have worse news for you yet; there's more of my work yet to come; much, much more." In disheartening moments, remember that you can weep and be fierce at the same time. Let the tiny lights of your tears be lights on the path for others. Resist much. You will be asked to accept the conventional wisdom: "First you crawl, then you walk." Confound them all! Get up off your knees. Fly first. Soar second. 

So it may be for you, so may it be for me, so may it be for all of us. 

No lack of love,
Clarissa Pinkola Estes
On behalf of "The Grandmother of the World"

Photo: 'Masks' by Molly Kate Taylor

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Buddha

I wander the path
azure blooms brush my robe,
grateful for a blessing.
They are more blessed than I
though innocent
of their own beneficence.
It is my robe
which is blessed by their contact.

Above my head
yellow petals pour from the azure sky,
forms unfold in radiant gold
to light my way, so bright
they cast an amber shadow at my feet.

All around me
grasses sway respectfully,
lean and bow,
the very trees bend in obeisance...

I wish they'd stop!
Enough of this deference,
this homage extended
by all creation!
The Buddha is not for worshipping!
Were that so, then I, being a part
of that creation, must worship myself.

Sometimes, like now,
I would just like to wander,
nothing more,
enjoy things in their natural state
as others do, as others see them.
No, the Buddha is not for worshipping,
The Buddha is merely
for being.

Painting by Odilon Redon

Thursday, July 11, 2013

In the Eyes of an Owl

I remember as a very young child being intrigued by the stuffed owl on the desk in my father's study. That owl always seemed to be looking at me, no matter where I was in the room. He followed me with his eyes the way the moon appears to from the window of a moving train.

My father died when I was eight, and the owl also mysteriously disappeared to unknown realms where I evidently could not follow. Perhaps influenced by this experience, owls have long been one of my favourite animals, especially the barn owl. They have even featured as characters in one of my books – but that, as they say, is another story!

Have you ever looked into the eyes of an owl? Most birds look with one beady eye at a time. With an eye on both sides of the head, they have a wide view on the world – handy for both those who prey as well as for those who in their turn are preyed upon. Not so the owl. As with a human's vision, both his eyes are in the front of his head. He almost looks at you in the same way as we would do, and perhaps for this reason seems closer to us than the chatty parrot, who seems able to 'talk', but who is really only mimicking sounds.

The owl has an observing glance, observing and inscrutable. No other bird looks at you in quite this way. Is this the reason why this bird of the Greek goddess Pallas Athena has acquired a reputation for wisdom?  It is true enough that the eagle, for instance, has a fierce look, but that look is different from the owl's inscrutability. The eagle looks out at the world. But we do not have the idea that he is ‘aware’ of his own gazing. His is the remote, dispassionate stare of a calculating hunter.

In contrast to the calculating and passionless eagle, the owl seems to wish to involve us in an unfathomable, unspoken conversation, almost as if it is seeking a dialogue. Recently I looked again into those eyes, this time those of a barn owl that was perched on the heavily-gloved hand of a staff member at our local petting zoo. What did this particular owl have to say to me? What message did it wish to convey through those night-dark eyes?

Perhaps (or so I fancied) the owl’s inscrutable gaze was a reminder to me to remain focused, not to allow myself to become distracted by the events happening to right or left. If the owl does this, then he goes hungry – and so do I. Not for my next meal, but for missing the simplicity of the moment, for not acknowledging and accepting what is directly in front of me on my path, whatever that happens to be. If I look away, then I so easily can become drawn into the emotions of others – emotions which are not my own, even if they are directed at me.

Dear, wise owl! Now I realise what golden word you uttered to me in your silence, what I see reflected in your dark eyes. It is equanimity.

Friday, July 5, 2013

An Alchemical Wedding

They are portrayed standing opposite each other with their hands touching: a crowned king and a queen. He is the gold of the sun, she is the silver of the moon. Blessed by a descending dove from starry heaven, they solemnly cross flowering emblems: sceptres of their royal status. As with the two dots or seeds contained within the familiar yin-yang symbol, each emblem is the colour of its opposite: the king holds a silver emblem, the queen a red. Red king, white queen: they are a familiar couple in ancient books of alchemy, symbolising the intermingling of red sulphur with white mercury.

But there is more to these regal two than a mixing of metals, and their symbolism is more ancient and more layered than the 17th-century books in which they can be found. They speak of an ancient truth: the truth of the essential partnership between the soul and the spirit, and the interdependence of the two. Just how powerfully this union speaks to us can be glimpsed in tales of the love between Tristan and Isolde, or between Tamino’s pure love for Pamina in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. We even can read about this couple in the Book of Genesis, albeit in a safely disguised form. Eve (the spirit) in her wisdom prompts Adam (the soul) to fall into Time, and so experience all the joys and pain of an earthly existence, and ultimately to face his own mortality, and a return to the realm of pure spirit.

The soul must know these things in order for its existence to become enriched, both by its earthly experiences and by the ultimate realisation that these experiences are only a transient state between the realms where its true nature is revealed. The soul needs the wisdom and guidance of the spirit to help it navigate its way through these realms, but the spirit also needs the soul. It is the soul’s questing, its daring and thirst for experience and new adventure, that makes it the perfect partner for the guiding light of the spirit.

If we are very fortunate, our own relationships in our life can reflect this Alchemical Wedding. We feel it when we feel that we have found our ‘other selves’ in our partners – and we have the experience, not of our partners being exactly like us, but of being different from us, but with those differences complementing our own. And perhaps the more perfectly this happens, the more it approaches the archetype of the Red King and the White Queen. The dove descends to bless us, and smiles upon that rare marvel: a match which, literally, is made in heaven!