Guest Post: Report from Spiritual Politics Conference in Germany
by Max Dashu
The Spiritual Politics conference at Hambacher Castle, Neustadt, Germany on May 28-30, 2010, was put on by a group called Alma Mater. Here are some highlights from the conference:
Jean Kahui, a Maori goddess sculptor, talked about Taumata Atua, guardian of the sea and all its life. She showed her stone image: face tilted, round body, clawlike hands. Kahui talked about the tradition that Sea Woman and Earth Woman were at odds, both being lovers with Heaven Father. That's why sea strikes against earth. But she recasts them as lovers with each other. Another stone on Mount Taranaki held a prominent place in front of a marae (stone platform temple). She's an ancestor who brought the mountain to the people. Don't miss her gallery with fire-brandishing ceramic goddesses .
In her presentation, "The Living Goddess, My Departure into a New Time," theologian Krista Koepp-Blodeu spoke about leaving the church and the need to show our power. She had gone through the whole Christian education program to the doctoral level, and chucked it, like a latter-day Mary Daly. "I'm not willing to cooperate with patriarchy any longer by being invisible," she said.
Kurt Derungs spoke of a Swiss Alpen faery Matrisa who produces both rain and milk on a certain mountain. His study of Goddess in landscape led to a book on the folk goddess and apocryphal saint Verena (Der Kult der heiligen Verena, Solothurn: AT Verlag, 2007). It has wonderful pictures of the goddess showing her symbolism of pitcher and comb, and an amazing graphic mirroring a baroque German engraving of Isis shown with sistrum and pitcher, in exactly the same position. Also some photos of neolithic Swiss breastpots.Derungs talked about mountains named after Verena in Zurich and other places, including one named Verena's garden. There are erotic folksongs about her, one in which she has a half-snake body. (In the book he quotes older songs tying her to Tannhauser, that name her mountain as Vrenasberg instead of the literary Venusberg.) He also mentions a chapel on a hill with a pregnant Maria who has a window into her big belly. They hold a procession 15 km up the hill with a 10m tall red candle.He also talked about the Drei Schwestern (Three Sisters, a common Germanic group of folk goddesses-turned-saints) which is also a name for three mountains in Switzerland. He mentioned the Saligen in South Tyrol -- I have seen these faeries mentioned in witch trials and folklore -- and a strong belief in the souls of trees and mountains.
Annette Rath-Beckmann gave a talk on "The Holle-Cult on Hohen-Meissner," where there is a cave and a wooden statue of the goddess. She comes out of the the water and dries her hair in the spring wind, singing in vowels. She also has a red fire aspect. This speaker talked about an ancient prophecy of the Goddess returning "when silver birds fly and roofs touch the sky." I couldn't tell from the translation whether the inscription was in a museum in Bucharest or in France.
Filmmaker Uscha Madeisky, who has made movies on the Khasi in northeast India and other matriarchal societies, spoke on "The Sacred Couple: Sister and Brother." She pointed to the centrality of the brother-sister bond in these egalitarian cultures, in contrast to the husband-wife pair in patriarchies. She said that one of the worst symptoms of "patriarchosis" (what a great term) is the separation of male and female siblings. "You cannot put the man in the same place as the Mother." He always remains the mother's son, until his sister becomes a mother; then he becomes an uncle. Madeisky spoke about Samoa where a sister blesses her brother by giving him a specially woven cloth, to be a representative of the mother. In Palau, the brother-sister bond is even stronger than parent-child (because parenting is spread out across the kindred). In Makilam's scholarship on her Kabyle culture, where the key bond is "son and daughter of one mother," and they call each other "mother's child."
Kaarina Kailo, in "We Women and the Bear-Goddess" spoke of "ecomythologies" and the very widespread story of the Woman Who Married the Bear. She referred to the Greek myth of Callisto, as well as stories from the Armenians, Irish, Danish, Bosnian, Khanti (west Siberia), Ainu, Modoc (California) and Haida. (She mentions Helga Reischl's study on this.) The woman is abducted, bears 1 or 2 sons, and then her father and brothers kill one or more bears. Later a bear is resurrected. She commented on a prevalent abduction/rape theme, the killing of bears, and atonement rituals that follow. Her book has 50 pictures of women and bears. She relates the *fer- / *ver- root as a source for the word bear, both the animal and also the act of bearing children (bairns in Scottish). It also relates to words such as fertile, ferocious (from ferrum, iron) and beran, exalted. She also draws in berg and burgher.Kailo showed fabulous images of the Permian bronzes from the 7th to 8th CE: woman as tree, as a three-layered universe, with animals at her side, ancestors above, bear at feet. Sometimes she gives birth to animals. Some figures are actually bear-women, with claws, fierce face. She said that shamans are both/and, not either/or: male and female, human and animal. And that the bear is connected with snakes, bees, regeneration, and even the ale-goddess.She takes the old Finnish goddess Louhi as a bear goddess, but says she's later described as "the harlot of the North". Her demonization in the Kalevala continues in present-day stories of the "witch of the North," who causes pollution and terrible machines. Remember Luonatar, usually described as Daughter of Nature? Turns out that Luonto means creation, and in fact she acts as a creator, in conjunction with the duck, its eggs, and the waters. Other Finnish goddesses, Hongatar, Mielikki, Louhi, Kave (who i seem to remember is a sauna-crone), Helka, all combine rebirth, caves, ancestors, and realm of the dead. Becoming like Bear is to enter the safety of a womb-like cave, to attune to the Eternal Mothers, and receive nourishment from the placenta of the Great Void. This contrasts with the Freudian myth of a primal horde where totemic killing must be atoned for by elaborate rituals, with all-male rites at the center.
Gudrun Nositschka spoke on "Drei Heilege Frauen: the threefold Matronae as Symbol of the Cyclic." A matronae stone was found under a collapsed church altar in the Eiffel region of the upper Rhone valley: a demonstration of how the old religion was swallowed and literally covered over by the new. At another site, men plowing found a stone, then uncovered 36 stones set in a circle. The archaeologists spontaneously called them The Mothers. They expected a male god in the center, but instead found 3 x 3 matrons. The stones were full of symbols, arranged in a summer solstice configuration. The pattern of the matronae stones is two older women, one young with long hair in middle, depicting a geneology of women. Where Nositschka comes from, the Matronae are called the Jött (Göttin or goddess in the local dialect). They all wear lunar crescents. She thinks they represent sun, moon, earth. Tree of Life and other scenes on side of the three women; two little pears, two pomegranates, the former interpreted as symbol of uterus, and the pine cone, as everlasting life. Koln Rheinische Museum has many matronae stones, and so does a museum at Bonn.
Sirilya-Dorothee von Gagern spoke on "The Legacy of a Woman from the Mesolithic: Ancestor Caves in the Ile-de-France." These caves south of Paris have petroglyphs going back about 8,000 years. She calls it a faery landscape with birches and dragon-shaped stones, with more than 2000 caves used from mesolithic to Celtic times. Their engraved lines, grids, circles, and vulvas were preserved because they were hidden, covered by thorny bushes. Mari König spent her life researching these caves, 1899-1998. There are also woman-shaped hollows on floors (and, as I saw it, one ancestor face exactly parallel to that of the female statute-menhir used as the conference logo, the Dame de St-Sernin: the same dot-eyes, nose-line, and multiple necklaces.)
We also heard from herbalist and healer Gertrude Ernst-Wernecke, who seemed to me a living avatar of Frau Holle, kind and soulful. Her extemporaneous talk, "Plant Grandmothers, Echoes of the Goddess" was vibrant and dynamic. She talked about the virtues of Nettle and Juniper Berry, which she recommended taking one berry a day, but not more, to vitalize the body.
Gudrun Frank-Wissmann presented her film-in-progress with commentary, "The Kunama of Eritrea: the Ancestors Speak." She has stunning footage of women's trance rituals near the Ethiopian border. Souls go to a mythical country, Arka. The Andina (trance-priestesses) dance for dead at burial in communal graves, using the same song as for the grain harvest. They belong to a matrilineal priestess lineage. In their society, lands are communal, and so if a husband leaves there are no severe consequences. Nevertheless, women are tempted to marry patriarchal men from the wealthier highlands.She said that the ritual has remained unchanged for 2000 years: ancestors call women called by making them faint at graves. They dance with sword and spear (considered symbols of power) to greet ancestors, to the east and and to the west. (The weapons are considered symbols of power, defensive only, and are related to the Meroitic queens of Sudan.) During initiation, the woman falls to the ground, and her hair must touch the spear to connect with the ancestral spirits. The Andina take a different name, Lugus, when in ecstasy. They put on a beautiful, hornlike crown of fat, over an unnamed sacred substance, and wear it during the weeks of the annual rite.The women evidence entranced speech and gestures, often asking for chewing tobacco, and perform other acts of the spirits. Andina should not be open to all spirits. They call names of the ancestors; a woman touching her hair means she's getting in contact with them. Forbidden to use water the next morning, the young Andina clean with sesame and chew it. Several weeks of ritual, walking over the land, many miles in special shoes used only for this occasion. Women not always comfortable as they anticipate what ancestor will come. Walking through villages they're given coffee, tea, sesame. Greeting an older Andina, they kiss her, and also grab her vulva. At end of the ritual period, the women dance for hours. They sacrifice a chicken, whose blood they drink, then roast and eat with sesame and honey, no other spices. After this finale, the Andina spirits return to their world. A reversed ritual of entranced women takes place over the sword and spear. They symbolically die and are carried back to the village by men, and are said to be able to jump over the huts in their potentized state. One spirit of a very old Andina initially refused to leave a young woman's body. The initiates stay together on a mat for one night in this return passage. They awaken in a deep trance, with no memory of the past weeks. Their skin is cut with little stones and herbs and ashes rubbed in, to make a sign for Andinas to recognize each other. The ritual is repeated every year when the sun and moon appear together on the horizon.
One of the best presentations of the conference was a visual talk on "The Ur-Symbol Labyrinth: Mother Earth and Her Child in Her Womb" by Li Shalima Abbasi. I missed much of the content since the translator wasn't at hand, but the animated visuals really grabbed me. She outlined the growth of a labyrinth by showing a mother and daughter walking the pattern. She demonstrated the reduplication of patterns within a labyrinth, calling these Mother-Daughter, and referenced the Hopi naming of the classic cross-based labyrinth as Tapuat, Mother-Child. Most amazing of all, she went over the construction of Greek key patterns and then taking a conical section of them, expanded this out in opposite directions so that they curved around and formed a labyrinth. I can't really describe the impact of this, you would have to see it to believe it.
All of these talks were available for sale on CDs at the conference, and it looks as if they are available at this site: A full list of presentations (I don't have notes on all) is here. Also, pictures here and here.
In addition there were musicians, performers, rituals, and outside on the hillside, drummers and dancers were doing their thing. The opening ritual was great (that's the first picture linked above, looking toward the plains from the Palatine hills, where the castle stood). I was also impressed by the German artists' work in the art and books tents, especially the deeply dyed wool sculptures which ranged from little molded paleolithic goddesses to egg-shaped pillows with labyrinths and other symbols.
The Bolivian ambassador to Germany attended, and gave a short speech about protecting Mother Earth, holding up a handful of coca leaves. I also spoke with Azad Süsem, a man i had seen carrying around a baby during the conference. He told me about his Kurdish village of Dersim, where the Sun dances from village to village, and two sayings: "You love life; life is love" and "If you don't respect life, you don't respect anything." He said that about 300 years ago, Black Fatma (Kara-Fatma) defended her village, apparently by leading in battle: "I give life to save my village, and bring death to save the land." Also, "All the villagers are my children." I happened to mention to him the Old Woman of Herat, and he said that the Kurds knew her story. Not only that, they sing it as healing charm while rubbing the patient's body.
From Medusa: Max Dashu is founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives , now also on the web. Among the many treasures you will find there is her new Women's Power DVD. Also check out her posters, events listings (which we try to keep up with in our Events Coils), and articles. She will giving an online course, "Woman Shaman," beginning July 7. Registration is ongoing.