She is returning to the people as a symbol of powerful feminine energy.
I went to a wonderful talk last night by Caroline Wise about Elen of the Ways at Steiner House in London. She has researched this figure in history and mythology for over 20 years. I have been painting her for nearly as long. I was especially interested in the way that Caroline refused to call her a goddess, noting that this word has all too often been overused. Elen doesn’t generally appear as a goddess in the literature though she is clearly sacred and has many connections eg with Helen of Troy and St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emporer Constantine. She seems to be more a force of nature than a transpersonal being.
Caroline noted that she seems to be especially associated with the regenerative power of nature, as in the ever living cross of St Helena. This was replaced in Christianity by the cross as a symbol of death. She can be seen as the Green Lady, just as important as the more familiar Green Man. In one slide she showed the two of them Green woman and Green man equal and interconnected with double helixes swirling between them. In another image she becomes the horned goddess as an image to balance the horned god. This may go back to the ancient honouring of the female reindeer who have antlers, and whose tracks across the land Elen also symbolises. She seems to be a connecting energy or light both across landscapes and between dimensions. In my painting I gave Ellen bull’s horns which bring in a ‘masculine’ element. These were sacred in what have been losely called ancient goddess cultures in the Neolithic and Early Bronze age religions of Europe and Asia. But as a force rather than a deity she speaks to me much more powerfully for today’s world. I see her more like the ancient Chinese Tao…the way of opposites, that mystery which we cannot speak of. The word ‘goddess’ has sometimes been diminished by its overuse and can lack the numinous associations of the word god.
People today don’t always want to worship a superior being, but there can be a longing to honour and attune to a hidden, mysterious life force. Ellen is one name that can be given to this. In my painting she is pregnant with hope for the future right in the middle of the city of London. Behind her the bankers buildings rise into a stormy sky. And beside her there is the sacred river Thames winding snake-like to transform the land back to sustainable use. It is a kind of prayer to Ellen in these times of deep transition.
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The word GOD is not one I associate with the Leftish New Statesman. But last week a friend passed her copy onto me. And there to my surprise and even shock there was this word on the cover in enormous letters…GOD. The subtitle was ‘What atheists can learn from believers’. Now I have no problems with my many friends who use the word ‘god’ in their own ways, often to describe the spiritual dimension in their lives rather than a judgemental old man sitting in the sky. There were 5 contributions from atheists and believers. But I wondered why this conversation is still couched in the old dualisms…. Belief or non belief. At least it did move away from the usual opposition of SECULAR/ATHEIST/ LEFT versus RELIGIOUS/ BELIEVER/RIGHT. There was the usual idea that ‘culture’ can take the place of religion…..art galleries, even psychotherapy!! Though Alain de Botton claimed that we therapists are not well branded and ‘have a depressing outward appearance. Priests had better clothes and infinitely better architecture.’ It will make me think more about my outfit when I next see a client.
Truth also seemed to be a problem. Just because something cannot yet be explained by science doesn’t make it not true in some sense of the word. There seems to be such a terror in many left wing people, of believing that there might be other dimensions, energies we don’t understand scientifically or even anything that isn’t RATIONAL. To call it all myth and emphsise our need for meaning still doesn’t acknowledge that there might be a whole spiritual world all around us that is real. It may be partly created and sustained by our imaginations but I believe that it exists. Patriarchal societies interact with the other dimensions to make patriarchal gods often in conflict with other ones. What kind of gods and goddesses or other forms could we co-create for a more egalitarian world?
99% of human beings over thousands of years have believed in and connected with a spiritual world outside as well as inside us. Anthropologists and Archeologists generally agree on this fact even if they don’t believe in it themselves. Is it not somewhat arrogant to dismiss all of it as inferior compared to our ‘enlightened’ belief systems of endless growth for example ? There is a strong desire in modern society to see spiritual artifacts and images purely as art. Even in the wonderful Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum the spiritual/shamanic/other dimentional aspects are underplayed. I went to an evening seminar called the’ Shock of the Old’ in which those dimensions were barely even mentioned. Indeed my favourite artist Greyson Perry actually said that he never uses the word ‘spiritual’. I still love him though.
Of course the word ‘spiritual’ has been massively distorted and over used. But I define it as an actual invisible world all around us which we are too limited at present to see, hear or get our heads round. Some gifted people are better than others at tuning in to it and not all of those people work within a religious institution. Probably most of us can develop our intuition etc. much more than we do. Attunement and honouring is what many of us do today rather than worshipping and obeying. In ‘Deep Equality'(O-books 2008) I wrote ‘Obey no authority other than your deepest intuition’. Knowing what is the deepest and what is just fear etc. takes a lot of self understanding. This might be an unconscious plea for therapy…. my badly branded profession. But there are other ways too.
In that book I also explore ideas for a spirituality based on the left values of equality. I see the equalising rhythms of nature from the smallest scale to the human one and on to the cosmos itself as the goddessing process. It could be seen as my idea of god. It can take many forms of expression from Engel’s Dialectics of Nature, The Tao, the Flow personified by the goddess Rhea and the serpent or snake …..a primal form of energy as it becomes matter. I feel that it is time that the left stopped trying to fit in with the either/or of Atheism and Religion and explored new and ancient ways of connecting with the equalising/balancing spirit in matter. Let’s at least be wise and pluralistic about the many forms of spirituality not only those of the Patriarchal faiths.
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Ancient goddess of Syria
Watching with horror day after day as the equalising Arab Spring turns into a whole range of unforseen results, I think a lot about religion v. spirituality and religion v. secularism. Occupation of public space in a peaceful way can be seen as a kind of spiritual act in itself, especially when dedicated to ending inequality. In the early days of Egypt’s Tahir Sq. the Muslims protected the Christians when they prayed and vice versa. There was a strong intention to accept people of all religions and none. But the Muslim Brotherhood was better organised, as are most hierarchical institutions. They took over.
The Occupy movement holds the same inclusive intentions and has had a massive impact on raising the general issue of inequality with it’s slogan of 99% v 1%. But does it’s inherent spirituality have enough strength to combat the religion of capitalism, endless growth, the God of the market and the institutions that uphold them? It seemed deeply significant that Occupy London ended up outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2011. I was there when it happened.
The Cathedral is believed to have been built over a Roman temple to Diana/Artemis goddess of the wild. It was probably a sacred area for millenia before that. I went down there with friends and a statue of Artemis, to evoke her transformative energies at the first protest. Some activists were a little bemused at our ‘prayers’ and water sprinkling, others delighted in us. The intended site of the camp was actually round the corner in front of the Stock Exchange. They had just begun to move towards it. But at that moment the police stopped everyone, literally on the steps of the Cathedral, and blocked their way forward. From then on the camp was not only about ‘another world is possible’ but also making a statement to the church and all it has come to represent. In fact the conflicts within the church establishment over whether to evict the camp or not was one of the important side effects of the action. There were banners outside saying things like WHAT WOULD JESUS DO.
But what of the spirituality within the camp. There was a meditation tent and mass meditations on the steps that made powerful photos for the media. There was also an enormous amount of love and care, healing and listening. Many people living on the ‘borderlands ‘ came to stay there. Like the canaries kept in the mines to sense the poisonous gas before it killed humans, these people are especially sensitive to the insanity of society. They didn’t really need professionals though we would hover around supportively. One Sunday morning I gave a talk in the University tent about the impact of external and internal hierarchies on mental health and how an equalising paradigm as practised in the camp is itself healing. But I always remember a young man saying almost despairingly, ‘but it’s those with the hierarchies that have the power to win.’ And these are often groups on the right and/or religious groups. We may need more than equalising values and statistics…a radical spirituality
My vision for a radical spirituality would be based on the ‘think global, act local’ . All religions have a mystical element that is not about rules and hierarchies. All lands are both sacred in themselves and many also have ancient stories and images that go back long before patriarchal religions took hold. We took Artemis to Occupy not to impose yet another religion onto anyone but to honour that particular piece of land in relation to the global need for more equality and balance.
I just finished a painting of the ancient sea goddess of love and protection, Atagatis, as a kind of prayer for Syria. In around 500BC her temple was just north of Aleppo. But the idea of the sea as mother, as healing, as sacred is common across many cultures.
I came across two very contrasting articles on equality this week. In the Guardian on 26th.Jan it was reported that the UK Equalities and Human rights Commision was downsizing. The budget would be reduced from 70m. to around 17m. This is hardly suprising given the present political climate in the UK. But it is also a stark reminder to us all that under Capitalism equality issues are essentially seen as a block to business, a tiresome curb on profit, simply a nuisance to be endured. For all the rhetoric of the democrats in the US and left leaning politicians everywhere, economic growth is still the all important goal and the god of the market is still very much in charge.
Meanwhile over in the Mexican jungle the Zapatistas are putting equality at the very centre of their latest statement. Titled THEM and US in the 6th Declaration of the Lacamden Jungle, it it is profoundly thoughtful about equality and the need to destroy ALL hierarchical structures of above and below. This includes anything ‘that makes it possible that someone can be ABOVE at the expense of someone BELOW.’ Then they look at different groups of oppressed people from a more sophisticated understanding of these basic structures.
We all have particular inequalities we struggle against. As a woman, one of mine has of course been gender inequality, and we still have have a very long way to go. My first book was ‘Feminist Counselling in Action. ‘But the Zapatistas write that ‘A woman ABOVE is very different from a woman BELOW.’ I certainly didn’t struggle for 30 years to get women onto boards in the City of London. Equalising is a complex and many layered process. But the basic value is around the immorality of extreme inequality of any kind. The Occupy movement has played a big part in raising awareness of the links between economic and other inequalities with it’s slogan of 99% that appeals to a wide range of people. The Zapatista statement was on line on the IOPS web site, representaing another umbrella activist organisation moving in the direction of making links between disparate groups. Many are tired of the old left sectarian divisions.
But I also wonder whether equality or rather the process of equalising be more than just a shared value but go deeper to being a ‘spiritual’ force in nature that we honour??? This would connect with the massive issue of climate change. Mother Earth has got horribly out of balance. Equalising and balancing are similar processes. Indigenous people all over the world have carried out rituals and ceremonies to rebalance the natural forces in their environments. And now we have science as well showing us ever more clearly where those imbalnces are. But the facts alone may not be enough for us to really chnge at the level needed. A spirituality with equalising at its heart may be needed too.
I was talking to a friend last night about the way so many of us are on journeys or paths that are in some way moving towards greater equality. Liberals and progressive have always hoped for this. Yet more and more of us are disillusioned by world events. As the Arab spring turns to Islamist takeovers in the Middle East, initial hope turns easily to despair.
I used to believe that the return of the goddess in her many forms to lands all over the planet where she was once worshipped or honoured would eventually counteract all the patriarchal religions. Right now that feels like an extremely distant fantasy. While still working with goddess energies, I have become more interested in the practice of an equalising path. But while the practices I teach are simple, the application of ideas around equality in its many forms is impossibly complex.
We had a group meeting on the night when the Cof E Synod voted againsts women bishops. For us equality of women is so obvious as to to be barely worth arguing about in 2012. Yet most religions still don’t get it, except in the sense of being equal in the eyes of God. The same night Israel and Gaza were still at war. Clearly the enormous inequality economically etc between the 2 places is obvious to most people. Yet there are also inequalities within them both that are important too. I would not support an Islamist party like Hamas in which women are not seen as equal. Which is the prominant inequality at any one time? And what about the others?My dream is of a paradigm shift in which everything is seen through this lense.
In the group we invoked some of the various goddesses of the Middle East such as Ashoreth, Al-Lat and Lillith and chanted their names asking for healing and wisdom in the whole area. We did a path working going back to the time of an ancient figurine found on the Golen Heights from the Achulian age 200,000 yrs ago, using imagined ceremonies from then. The tiny stone figure was both male and female, natural and human made, found at a camp site of nmadic people. It felt in our hands to be a powerful and beautiful symbol of equality… an equality we all long for, and rage for, and still have hope for.
In his history of the world tv series Andrew Marr last week described the 20th. Century as THE AGE OF EXTREMES. Is it ridiculously optimistic to think that the 21st Century could be THE AGE OF EQUALIZING? There does seem to be a surge of concern about inequality from China to the US. Economic inequalities are the most blatent and obscene. But there are many other kinds including the unconcious hierarchies that affect our everyday lives despite our best intentions. We look up to or down on people without knowing we are doing it. Hierarchies are like the very air we breathe or water we swim in. They are just there.
I recently told a therapist friend that I felt that she had looked down on me because I had a different approach to the work. Being a good leftie she was shocked, but had the grace to look honestly into herself and admit it was true. How rare is that! It actually deepened our friendship. But we don’t want go around making people feel guilty or defensive. Equalising needs to be a positive alternative not in the rigid dogmatic way of the old communist parties. But instead it can be a joyful, relaxing path of being in the flow. The flow equalises opposites in the dance of life while hierarchies divide and rule. We can honour the equalising forces in nature as others might honour God. Physicists assume symetry at the smallest levels of matter. Mathematicians have the equals sign for their equations.
The beauty of this path is that while helping oneself feel more free and fulfilled we are also attuning more deeply to what equalising is needed externally in society and in the planet.
To join the Tuesday group in London or for more info check out http://www.serpentinstitute.com
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I’ve spent my life fascinated with opposites. Perhaps this is because I was born early on Jan.1st facing the old year and the new at the same time, like Janus. Opposites are so basic to our thinking and yet often seem to change into each other as described in Taoism or Enanteodromia (the Greek way of opposites). For me it’s about how they are arranged. …one above the other as in hierarchies which is problematic, or dancing horizontally which feels better.
Today the concept of non-dualism is very fashionable in many spiritual circles and is often bandied around without much thought. It is used in a whole variety of different ways, from the oneness of spirit to the post modern concern with the limitations of dualistic/binary thinking eg. re: gender- Judith Butler etc. Some even argue that we need to go ‘beyond’ right and left politics as if there is no important difference between them! Others want to get away from anything being ‘anti’ anything else. From the peace movement to the academies non dualism has ruled. Meanwhile the political left has declined dramatically. Could one even argue that it was the post modern philosophers of the 20th Century that killed it off??
While I can see rationally that these are 2 different kinds of categories. Non dualism is largely about spiritual experience and a perception of interconnectedness. While politics is about manifestations in everyday life. But personally I still struggle with the contradictions of believing passionately in leftist ideals of equality etc. and being non dualist. Can I hold the apparent opposites of taking sides and connecting to a non-dual reality at the same time? One way of thinking would put the non-dual as ABOVE the opposites. But isn’t that rather hierarchical? Perhaps being ‘in the flow between them’ or ‘both and neither’ would be a better way of putting it. Can protesting on the streets also be an honouring of the non-dual, great spirit or even the flow? Many of us have used spiritual techniques such as meditation and ritual as part of our activism. But are there deeper questions too?
Is there even a ‘natural'(dangerous word) link between leftist politics and the non-dual? The right certainly believe in a ‘natural’ link between their politics and their hierarchical God, of whatever religion. For the left I wonder if there is an equalizing ‘force’ or ‘hidden order’ in the universe??? After all mathematicians use EQUAtions which rely on equalising at their heart, to understand the world better.
As the US elections are more and more clearly between the right and the left (the centre left to be exact) these kinds of issues might be debated more. Can there be a left wing spirituality? Some would say that it is a contradiction in terms, but as William Blake wrote ‘Without contraries no progression’. However perhaps today we need these particular apparent opposites to dance together more than ever. With recessions come nationalisms, the rise of right wing ideologies, fundamentalisms of all religions and even groups using pagan energies/symbols for right wing purposes. How do we conteract this from a spiritual as well as rational perspective????
One of many ways is linking with like minded people. I have just started a new group in London to explore and practice left wing spirituality/deep equality. For more info see. http://www.serpentinstitute.com Join us if you can, or comment by clicking on the title above.
As an anti-capitalist, un- sporty, un-nationalistic Londoner is there anything I can find positive about the Olympics? Am I crazy to experience this looming event like an army of corporate logos invading sacred land? Are they primarily here to erect yet more shiny temples to honour eternal competition and endless profit? Sport seems to have become the religion of our times. But is its God actually the Market, and its players and athletes mainly merely his faithful priests?
Then I remembered my friend Harita Meenee’s book written for the Greek Olympics in 2004, exploring its spiritual roots. Some scholars believe that the games were originally brought from Crete to Olympia around3,000 yrs ago as aspects of religious fertility rites. The male winner of the foot races may have been chosen for the sacred marriage with the priestess. She may have been there to represent the goddess whose shrines on the Olympic site evolved and were fought over for many centuries. They included Gaia, Hera and Rhea, mother of the Gods whose ruined temples remain today.
The Eleans who took over Olympia around 748BC also honoured the god Dionysus, he of ecstasy, wine and transformation. In Euripedes ‘The Bacchae’ ,people go mad if they do not honour this god once in a while. The wildness and transgressiveness of these energies contrast dramatically with the the ordered, corporate control of todays games.
London too had her goddesses and gods before the Romans built their amphitheatres here. Elen who is associated with roads and paths, light and bliss was one of the most important. Can we reconnect with these earlier earth energies during this time and remember what it all once meant? We could imagine processing meditatively along Elen’s ways around London, and ending with a sacred marriage between her/us and whoever we chose to represent our partner. In this way we can transform the corporate madness of it all into something personal and ecstatic.
Harita’s book is called ‘The Women’s Olympia and the Great Goddess’ Published by Eleusis Press in 2004.
How come the right often do so much better at ‘spiritual’ inspiration? In France they have Joan of Arc, in Greece ‘The Golden Dawn.’ Isn’t it time that the left developed a spirituality of its own.
Many progressives are often passionately atheist or on the liberal wings of essentially patriarchal religions. The distinction between organised hierarchical religions and spiritualities has often been overlooked. Religion as the ‘opium of the people’ has been the battle cry of the left, while the quieter belief of Engles in ‘dialectics as the spirit in matter’ was forgotten. Engels wrote much of the ‘Dialectics of Nature’ after Marx’s death in 1883 to link natural science with revolutionary ideas. The science is mostly outdated now, but the spirit of his endevour could be used to develop a left wing spirituality. What might this look like?
An alternative left wing spirituality could be based on honouring the concept of equalising as a verb not only as a static ideal. Equality is not sameness. It can be seen as our social and political equivilant of the balancing processes in nature. Everywhere, on every level, in every dimension opposites are striving to balance and equalise. This results in endless flowing rhythms dancing through life, from the oscillating strings of sub atomic matter to the breathing of the cosmos.
It can seem as though we are in the stone age as far as equalising our societies, locally and globally. How different it would be if there was a widespread, passionate belief in equalising as a guiding force on all levels of life. Perhaps it is already evolving in the hidden corners of the collective unconscious, on the streets, during protests and online. This new spirituality is far from the Methodist chapels of the old British Labour Party or the religious based initiatives of progressive Rabbis and Priests, though they all have their value. It is essentially about tuning in to the equalising rhythms of nature and finding a common spirituality without leaders. It can take many forms or none. It can honour local land and/or ancestors or relate to mother earth as a universal. But without some strengthening of a left spirituality the nationalistic right wingers could become increasingly powerful over the next decades.