Long, long ago -- back when it was legal -- I tried peyote, munching the little gray-green cacti with handfuls of raisins to counter the fiercely bitter taste. In time, when I shut my eyes, vivid fantasies resulted. One of the first was an African village with huts, then a field of high pale-yellow grass and, in the foreground, where there was only stubble, two couples making love. My attention focused on one of the women, bent over and sitting astride her lover, as she slowly sat upright and leaned back a little, as if in supreme joy. She was a mature black woman with rich, glossy chocolate brown skin, shiny black hair, white teeth, and very red lips, naked to the waist with full, firm breasts. All this in Technicolor, the heightened colors of all my peyote fantasies.
So there she was, right at the start of my peyote adventures: Earth Mom, Mother Africa, Big Mama. She has always haunted me, sneaking into my poetry and fiction, where I have celebrated her as Muck Lady, Madonna, Our Lady of Worms, Hecate of the Crossways, Deep Throat, Greasy Eve, Oomph Girl, Aphrodite, and First of the Red Hot Mamas. Which, you'll have to admit, covers a lot of ground. Where I got most of these terms I'm not even sure; they just popped up when needed and relate to goddesses of many cultures.
Is this just a literary fiction? No, for I have experienced her every summer in parks in and around New York. For me, spring is an adolescent male, violent and aggressive, who bursts upon the scene to blast the status quo, but summer is always a woman: in fact, the Woman. I think of her as sprawling, messy, vast, and enticing, summoning me to her cavities and depths. Plunging into them, I possess her with all my senses. I plunder her berries, trample her grasses, stroke her smooth or grooved, downy-haired or prickly stems, chew her acid or pepper-hot leaves, breathe in her lemony and garlic and hot mint aromas and the smell of earth, revel in the rasp of her late-summer cicadas high in the trees, and so know intimately -- at the cost of rashes and scratches and insect bites -- the dark, tangled viscera of being.
Note: That Big Mama is of the earth, earthy, is clearer in Latin, where mater (mother) is close to materia (matter). (Forgive this bit of pedantry. To feed my ego, I have to make it known that I once studied Latin in school.)
But who's possessing whom? (Please note my use of the objective case: whom. It's wonderful to know this stuff.) By late summer her weeds overtop me. Towering above me are sweet clover, mugwort, bull thistle, wild lettuce, and the infernal giant ragweed I'm allergic to, all of them so tall and dense that I feel threatened: if autumn doesn't come soon, with winter close behind, we'll be smothered in the groin of summer, strangled by this thick, sweaty excess of growth. Summer is always excess; she wants to eat me, swallow me, suck me into the black hole of her muck. Summer, this surfeit of growth, this hungry vagina, is death.
|Sweet clover. Could this stuff overwhelm you? If it grows to nine or ten feet, yes.|
I don't claim originality here; I'm simply putting my personal stamp on our experience of the Mother Goddess, known to all cultures and celebrated by them throughout time. And now, a disclaimer: I'm not an art critic or art historian, nor an anthropologist or historian of religions. These are simply personal ramblings, my take on a subject that has been studied exhaustively by scholars.
One of my unpublished stories is the monolog of an Irish immigrant in nineteenth-century New York, a woman with a modest ability to heal that she got from her mother, a great healer in Ireland who got it in turn from her mother, who got it from her mother, and so on back to Eve or, better still, back to when God was a woman. When God was a woman: the notion has always intrigued me. In this story the Wise Ones -- women healers -- know that their healing powers come from a Mother Goddess with many faces whom they revere silently, never mentioning her to the men. The woman's mother in Ireland is suspect in the eyes of both M.D.'s and priests, but often, though not always, she effects remarkable healings among the common people, who believe. In this story the Mother Goddess is secret but all-powerful, benign, a source of healing. Those who believe are healed; skeptics and doubters are not.
|Snake goddess from the palace at Knossos, Crete. |
Note on the "Wise Ones": In French, a femme sage ("wise woman") is a midwife. But throughout the ages midwives were often healers as well, with special knowledge, herbal and otherwise, that might indeed give them a name like the Wise Ones. And when I googled "Wise Ones" recently, I was amazed at the websites of New Agey cults and sects that use this term. In the eyes of male authorities, however, midwives and female healers have often been labeled witches and suffered accordingly.
Of course this is only fiction. Or is it? The earliest known prehistoric art works are crude bits of sculpture representing a mother goddess or earth goddess with outsized breasts. Presumably these were the work of early agricultural societies depending mostly on the crops they grew, and therefore eager to revere and placate the higher power presiding over those crops. But why not a male deity as well? Perhaps because the man's role in procreation was not yet clear to them, whereas the woman's role was. So in those early days the guys were left out.
|Rubens liked her fleshy. Here,|
he throws in her boyfriend Mars
and a Cupid.
|Botticelli's Birth of Venus. She is born of the sea under circumstances too gross for ears polite.|
Yes, Venus, so sensual, so available, can easily slip into the Whore. The prophets of the Old Testament inveighed against the vegetation gods that the Hebrews were constantly tempted to worship, prominent among them the Phoenician goddess Astarte; Yahweh saw this Big Mama as a threat and a foe. The early Christian Church viewed Woman as the temptress Eve, who caused Adam's fall. Priests and monks, once they took the vow of chastity, of course identified Woman with Eve and feared that they too, being tempted, might fall. (And plenty of them did; the early Church was by no means wholly chaste.)
| Johann Carl Loth (1632-1698), Eve Tempting Adam. No |
apple in sight. So what was she offering him? Whatever
it was, the poor sap didn't have a chance.
But with time the Church's hostility softened, for Big Mama is too basic, too necessary, to be dismissed as a temptress and sinner. The common people revered Mary as the Virgin, the warm and compassionate Goddess who would intercede for them on the Day of Judgment. She was the Mother, the Pure One, untainted by sin. God was remote and awesome, and the Son could be severe in his judgments, but the Virgin was approachable: she knows, she feels, she understands. (But as Henry Adams mentions in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, she has little interest in bankers, which is well worth pondering today.) So powerful was her cult, the male-dominated Church came to embrace the time-honored rule If you can't lick 'em, join 'em, and therefore welcomed her and encouraged her worship. The Romanesque churches of Europe honor this or that saint, but the great Gothic cathedrals, coming later, are invariably dedicated to the Virgin. Once again, the Goddess triumphed, and this time in her most benign persona.
A new twist comes in the New Testament's visionary Book of Revelations, chapters 17 and 18, which describe a woman arrayed in purple and scarlet sitting astride a seven-headed scarlet-colored beast, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, and holding a golden cup "full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication." Written on the woman's forehead are the words "Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the Earth." The meaning of this Whore of Babylon has been interpreted variously, but the standard interpretation sees her as representing the pagan Roman Empire when it was persecuting Christians. Here, obviously, the Mother assumes a mask of harlotry and evil.
|A colored woodcut from Luther's translation of Revelations 17. |
Luther identified the Whore of Babylon with the Catholic Church.
Obviously, the interpretation varied according to the interpreter.
Do we have Goddesses today? Of course, albeit secular ones, all over the place. Movie goddesses and theater goddesses and TV goddesses, but you'll notice that I deny them the upper case. Most often these are of glamour gals of no great accomplishment, hardly worthy to be ranked with the time-honored Earth Goddesses and Big Mamas of yore. But there are some remarkable exceptions:
|Sophie Tucker, the "Last of the Red |
Hot Mamas," in furs. She famously
observed, "I've been rich and I've been
poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better."
|Bessie Smith, "Empress of the Blues."|
Carl Van Vechten
|The incomparable Mae West. "It's not |
the men in your life that counts, but the
life in your men."
The gay contingent have always worshiped Woman, even though (or because?) they don't sleep with her. But not just any woman; they flock to older women of great accomplishment, usually in the performing arts. (They have little interest in the Maiden, whom the Hero of legend wins by performing acts of great courage.) I have never been a part of this scene, not having the stuff of a courtier, but many of my friends have participated. These goddesses are too familiar to name. Nothing new here; Sarah Bernhardt drew to her salon in Paris a circle of gay writers, forgotten today but well known in their time. What motivates these worshipers? Recognition of true talent? The need of yet another mother? Identification? A little of all these? I've consulted several friends, but they have no explanation beyond the obvious recognition of talent. In the case of one performer, it probably involves identification with her vulnerability. But the others always seemed marvelously on top of things. So what explains it? I'm open to suggestions.
|A bronze castration clamp,|
used in the cult of Cybele.
|The Archigallus, or head priest of the Galli, |
sacrificing to Cybele. But the offering isn't
what you think. As a Roman citizen, he
himself was barred from emasculation.
Note on "mincing": This is obviously a code word for "gay" and "femme," but I have yet to see anyone, gay or otherwise, walk with a "mincing" step. Am I missing something or is this fiction pure and simple?
So we have come at last to the dark side of the Goddess. Kali is the Hindu goddess of time and change, often presented as dark and violent and associated with death and destruction, though she is also worshiped as a benevolent mother goddess. She is described as having four arms and being black in color (black symbolizing the infinite), her hair sometimes disheveled, her eyes red with rage, her tongue protruding from her mouth. In the middle of her forehead is a third eye that represents wisdom. Her two right hands make gestures of fearlessness and blessing, but her two left hands hold a sword and a severed human head. Often she is shown naked, or wearing a skirt made of human arms and a garland of human heads. Not someone you would care to encounter, or even imagine, on a dark night, though that is exactly when she is worshiped in Bengal. The Thugs, professional assassins who once roamed the highways of India, killing travelers and stealing their valuables, belonged to a cult that worshiped her and asked for her blessing before setting out on a murderous expedition. A rather complex lady, as you can see, having many aspects, some of them quite contradictory and some of them just plain nasty.
|The Kali idol at Dakshineshwar. |
Rivaling Kali in the dark and sinister is Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon and stars, and to the god of the sun and war. She was also known as a goddess of the earth, a goddess of fire and fertility, and of life, death, and rebirth. "Coatlicue" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, means "the one with the skirt of serpents," and she was represented as a woman wearing a skirt of writhing serpents and a necklace of human hands, hearts, and skulls, her face formed by two serpents meeting head to head. She was the devouring mother, the insatiable monster containing both womb and grave, the force consuming everything that lives. I have seen this famous statue of her in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, and believe me, it's a sight you won't easily forget.
Kali and Coatlicue, life and death inseparable in each of them, the goddess turned monster, wise but ruthless, a terrifying force to be placated, to be worshiped. Ignore her at your peril.
India and pre-Columbian Mexico? Again, you may ask, what's the connection with New York? Except for the Virgin in Catholic churches, the cult of the Mother Goddess isn't exactly widespread in the city. Admittedly it's a bit of a stretch, but representations of Big Mama are here all over the place. In the Met, for instance:
| Random Variables|
And at the Museum of Modern Art:
You will never get clear of her, nor should you.
Women too worship the Goddess. How could they not when, being one with them, she bestows fertility and imparts secrets of healing? But most societies are male-dominated, and that does much to shape her image and role. What, then, is this all about? It's about how men regard women. Ever since male-dominated societies replaced that much earlier society of the time when God was a woman, men have admired, glorified, and revered Woman, possessed her, been baffled by her, loathed her, dreaded her. What they cannot do is ignore her. She is the mysterious Other, a vital force, the source of human life. So it has been and always will be, as long as there are humans on this earth. Today's feminism simply adds spice to the drama.
As for the Goddess's contradictions, consider the Coptic manuscript of a Gnostic poem from the 2nd or 3rd century CE, discovered with other Gnostic texts in a sealed earthenware jar in Upper Egypt in 1945. Probably these texts were a library hidden by Christian monks from a nearby monastery, when such works were banned as heretical. The poem is a long monolog by a female divinity addressing her worshipers or potential converts; an excerpt follows.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the barren one and many are her sons....
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me....
But I, I am compassionate and I am cruel
Be on your guard!
There speaks Kali/Madonna/Cybele/the Whore of Babylon/Aphrodite/Eve. Forbidden knowledge. No wonder the monks had to hide her in a sealed jar buried deep.
Note on Union Square: On the morning of May 1 I happened to find myself in Union Square again, chiefly to visit the greenmarket, which I reported on in an earlier post (#17, July 2012). The first thing I saw: police barricades along the curb -- a reminder that this was indeed May 1 and demonstrations were anticipated. The second thing: a pianist sitting at an upright piano and pounding away on the keys. The third thing: an anarchist stand with loads of free pamphlets; I helped myself to three: "Anarchist Basics," "Profiles of Provocateurs," and Noam Chomsky's "Notes on Anarchism." The fourth thing: a black woman in a turbanlike headdress and bright red jacket, sitting cross-legged on a purple cloth, evidently selling fabrics and small packets, perhaps of exotic scents; she was straight out of The Arabian Nights or a Hindu legend. Then, finally, I got to the greenmarket and its stands selling honey, hard cider, wheatgrass, horseradish jelly and fig jam, apples, potted herbs, and acres of flowers. Also on hand were the Garden of Spices poultry farm, and Roaming Acres Farm with pure Berkshire pork and ostrich jerky (no nitrates). Later, as I was leaving the market, a seven-man band came marching, blasting away a kind of music that wasn't quite ragtime and wasn't quite jazz: a rousing finale to my visit. And quite a visit it was, though what I saw was only the appetizer anticipating the feast to follow, the afternoon May Day demonstrations. Where but in New York?
Banknote: JPMorgan Caught in Swirl of Regulatory Woes: such was a boldface caption on page 1 of the New York Times of Friday, May 3. Which strikes me as a rather cheap shot by both the Times and the federal government. Talk about hitting a man when he's down! The authorities are just piling one charge on top of another, as if to lay low once and for all a noble institution that dates back to the age of old J.P. himself, that most august of bankers and a real American. Jamie Dimon, the CEO, says he's sorry. Isn't that enough? Has the government no compassion? Shame on it and on the Times. When I go to my branch of that fine institution, I'm greeted with the most cordial hellos. The Easter Bunny and the balloons are gone, but there is candy everywhere; when I made my modest deposit, the teller thrust a chocolate goodie at me with the warmest smile. Clearly, this is not an evil institution. The government should leave it alone -- it and all the other fine banks that strive so tirelessly to serve us all. Libertarians, unite! If our meddling government must investigate someone, let it investigate Occupy Wall Street and the May Day demonstrators, or street food vendors, or sidewalk artists, or other suspect individuals. But leave our banks alone! In the words of Alexander Pope, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." Why can't our government be a little bit divine?
Next week: Is America Becoming a Fascist State? (WBAI-inspired, with arguments for and against). Then, in whatever order: The Saga of Jim Fisk (in several posts), Farewells (coffins, kiss-offs, a mother's rage), and the Magnificence and Insolence of Trees. And maybe: Who is a hero?
(c) 2013 Clifford Browder