Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Daughter of the Air

Is it possible for a daughter to come before her mother? It is, but to find such an example we need to visit the world of myth. Today, 28th of February, Finland celebrates the day of its national epic, the Kalevala. As with Homer’s epic stories, the verses of the Kalevala originally would have been sung to an audience by a bard. Such performances not only kept these stories alive; they also helped to give their listeners a strong sense of their national identity, of being aware of who they were as a people. 

Sitting listening to their bards of long ago, the Finns would have heard the story of Ilmatar, the Daughter of the Air. No one knew who her parents were, or even if she had any. She was simply there, living alone in an airy palace of eight thousand rooms. Beyond the palace there was nothing to see except drifting mists and the shimmering curtain of the Northern Lights. But the Daughter of the Air felt that somewhere beyond her echoing palace there must be more. She was sure that if only she could just reach out of one of the windows far enough, she at last would be able to catch a glimpse of what might lie far below.

One day, determined at last to satisfy her curiosity, she stretched herself as far as she dared from her window. Too far. Suddenly she was falling, falling. It seemed as if she would fall forever. She fell so far that when she turned to look above her, the airy palace which was all that she had known already had been lost to view beyond the Northern Lights. She fell even farther, until at last she felt a watery stirring beneath her. Suddenly a great wave seemed to rear itself up to meet her, and in the next moment she plunged into a vast ocean. 

Half-submerged in the ocean, buffeted by the huge waves, she drifted for long centuries, feeling at last the mysterious stirrings of life within her. No longer the Daughter of the Air, she had now become the Mother of the Waters, who eventually would form the land so that all creatures would have a place to flourish, both in the seas and on dry land. In time she would give birth, and her son would be the great Finnish hero Vainamöinen, whose father was the wild wind and the waves, and who himself would play his own part in further creating the world and singing new life into existence.

The daughter comes before the mother – because the daughter becomes the mother. It is the story of our generations. A young girl grows to womanhood and has children of her own. What makes this story from the Kalevala ‘mythic’ is that the daughter apparently had no mother to begin her life. She simply was. Perhaps there is a sense in which this, however mythic it might seem, could also be true.

We carry ourselves forward in time, through the passing years. In his poem ‘The Rainbow’, William Wordsworth famously declared that ‘the child is father of the man’, meaning that we as children, in our upbringing, and in the values which are instilled into us, bring these values into our own adult lives. The child is also the mother of the woman, and it is this awareness which needs to guide us in the care and upbringing of our own children. We as mothers might not always give birth to mighty heroes such as Vainamöinen, but we as parents - and as children – always have the chance to be heroes in some way if that is what is needed of us.

Painting Ilmatar by Joseph Alanen

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tiamat’s Tears

“In the beginning…” These opening words of the Old Testament have a ringing familiarity, perhaps even to those who might seldom visit a church. But the human imagination allows for many ‘beginnings’, and each culture and belief creates its own beginning appropriate to itself. So…

In the beginning there was only Tiamat. Tiamat, the mother of all which will be, out of whose celestial womb all life will flow, fills all of space. She is the primordial salt ocean, and the rising and falling of her fertile waves are but the outward signs of the momentous acts of creation which are even now taking place beneath her surface, in the dark depths of the cosmos. At first it is as if there is only a vast nothing, a void without form. Then gradually, gradually, small flashes appear. At first they are only scattered sparks, shining briefly at random. Then come more and more, until the darkness is pierced by countless stars.

But Tiamat knows that more is needed: something to complement her own salt body. From her void emerges her husband Apsu. Her husband is also of water, but his waters are sweet. His waters are freshwater. It is this mingling of saltwater and freshwater which produces the potential for all the other gods to emerge. But in the eons to come a great sacrifice will be needed if the world itself – our world – is to be created.

The gods, who are Tiamat’s own creation, rise up and rebel against Apsu. Apsu is slain, and Tiamat, in her attempts to win justice for her lost husband, is herself torn in two. Out of this rending, this great separation, dry land at last emerges. Tiamat’s defeat and sacrifice have made it possible for life on earth to begin – and so for us to exist.

This particular ‘beginning’ myth of Tiamat is from Mesopotamia. In it we recognize many key elements of such stories: the creating Great Mother, the ‘alchemical wedding’ of opposing but complementary forces, the resulting struggle, and the need for sacrifice to drive things forward if further creative goals are to be achieved. Sacrifice is of course also at the heart of the Christian story, and it is the idea of sacrifice in such stories which also contains within it the promise of redemption. And what is redemption but an act of sacrifice with a further purpose? Tiamat’s sacrifice was needed to create the separation of land and sea, and so allow life on land to flourish.

But is there perhaps a further meaning that we can draw from the myth of Tiamat? Why was Tiamat specifically the salt ocean? Men wage war, and women weep. Strife and struggle are mingled with the salt tears of those who are left to mourn, and those who are left are the wives and the mothers who remain to grieve. Our mother is the earth, whose freshwater rivers that are the remains of Apsu always flow to be reunited with his beloved ocean. And our mother is also that ocean, containing the salt tears of Tiamat who, as mothers do, knows both the pains of sacrifice and the sweetness of redemption.   

Painting by David Bergen

Sunday, February 8, 2015

INVOCATION: Hildegard von Bingen ~ Anonymous 4

In June of 2013 I posted my Invocation, which I wrote both as a prayer and a blessing for all women who are oppressed, in whatever form that oppression might take. Since then the Invocation also has been accepted for and now appears on the World Prayers website. Now my husband David has realised the Invocation as a video, featuring his painting of our dear daughter-in-law Anneke. The video is set to the haunting music of the 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, as sung in plainchant by the quartet of women’s voices Anonymous 4. In creating his video, David’s wish and intention has been the same as my own: to allow the Invocation to be released further into the world so that its words may do the work for which I intended them.  

Invocation on Sophia’s Mirror: Invocation

Invocation on the World Prayers website: World Prayers