Tuesday, June 12, 2007
ABOUT BALANCE - The Twin's Quest
Here I am, in beautiful Michigan, at the apartment the Aldon Dow Creativity Center gave me. Much to say about the journey, much to say about being here and the amazing artistic resources of this place, but I feel I cannot really begin this piece, whatever it’s going to be, without telling something about the stories of Spiderwoman, the traditional stories. Even as She spins her way into many new ones, including the one that I’m going to be telling.
I’ve been reading about Spiderwoman among the Navajo traditions. (They call themselves Din`e - meaning, simply, “The People”). The Navajo for those who may not know live mostly in northern Arizona and Utah, but are themselves “newcomers” to the Southwest, having come as migratory peoples into these lands from Canada some 900 years ago. I’ve heard at least one person say their ancestors may have originally come across from Mongolia, and that they share some cultural or even language similarities. I don’t know enough about this to comment at all, although I do note that the Navajo, and the Tibetans, both create ceremonial sand paintings as Blessings - invocations and prayers.
I do not presume to say that I have any great depth of understanding about the sacred traditions of the Navajo. Or any other Native American peoples, although I have participated in ceremonies with different teachers. I offer my gratitude for what little I have available to me, the threads cast my way, the people I have met, the layers of universal meaning and insight these myths, their Sacred Stories, offer all of us.
Enactments, ritual Tellings of the sacred stories, and the fourfold chants of the Navajo, are, like the Hindu Temple dance/dramas of the Balinese or the ancient "Mystery plays" of Greece and Rome, the foundations through which participants traverse certain ceremonies. Another way of putting it might be to say that they are “Ways” to travel, pathways designed to bring one back into harmony and balance. The restoration of Balance is the essence of many indigenous spiritual traditions - being “earth based“, they are about relationships - to each other, to the elements, to an extended family of beings with which one must co-inhabit and which are mutually dependent.
When the Inuit, for example, see that they are out of harmony with the world, they notice that the ocean creatures that provide life to them withdraw, and the environment is suffering. They know then (as my mentor, Grey Eagle, described it to me) it’s time to restore spiritual, tribal, and personal balance with Sedna, the Ocean Mother, through certain prescribed long rites and ceremonies. These are cycles of ritual at-one-ment, and include a profound recognition of the necessity of reciprocity with nature.
The Balinese also have traditions of Balance, in fact, the interplay of so called “opposites”, the yin and yang, was what immediately impressed itself on me as the very essence of the Balinese worldview and spiritual system. The curbs of the streets themselves (“the borders of the way”) are decorated with the ubiquitous black and white checkers, found on alter clothes, and also worn by the Balinese when they go to the Temple. Like the yin/yang symbol, black and white, alternating, moving in and out of each other, black and white, light and dark, good and evil, negative and positive coexisting and forming a whole.
To me, the naming of the Holy People, the twins in the Navajo (Dine`) creation story, also represent this idea of balance. When they finally achieve their true identity (and hence, the identity of the Dine` people) they are a balance to each other, active and reflective, yin and yang, and fully empowered, two that are also One.
At the beginning, the Hero twins learn to walk a path of beauty, the Pollen Path, defeating the various forces that destroy and devour harmony - with the aid of Na'ashje'ii asdzaqq, the Grandmother Spider Woman.
How The Twins Found Their Names (1)
In the very beginning, the world was full of terrifying, hungry monsters that devoured people and all things good, a place of chaos. Yet, in spite of the danger, Changing Woman came forth from the safety of her shelter one day, drawn out by the beauty of the sun.
The sun's rays shone golden on the shifting light of a sweet pool of water, and Changing Woman so loved the Sun's dance, and the beautiful rhythms of the waters, that she opened herself to them joyously.
And not long after this, Changing Woman gave birth to two twin boys. As they grew, the twins became very close - like the sun and the moon they complemented each other. One grew strong and tall, and became a great hunter and bowman, and could run as fast as any deer. The other also grew strong and tall, but he was a great dreamer, and could read stories in the depths of the deep waters. At last the boys asked their mother to tell them who their father was. But she could not truly say, and they were shamed to not know the name of their father. They were determined to find out. Their mother urged them not to go, pointing out that fearsome beings surrounded them. She begged them to remain at home. But the twins defiantly left on their quest to find their father.
Crossing a valley, they saw smoke rising out of the ground. When they drew near, they saw a ladder going down into an entranceway in the ground, a ladder with four broad rungs. And not so very far below, or perhaps very, very far below, (who could clearly tell in the shifting light of the smoke?) sat a old woman before a loom, weaving before a warm fire. She was Na'ashje'ii asdzaqq, the Spider Woman.
Where did She come from, old Grandmother Spider? Who could know, since She was here before anyone else. Perhaps she was the beginning place, the center at the center of the web, deep in her home in the earth.
“Welcome”, she said, “Come on down and join me for a meal. Who are you, and where do you come from?”
The twins were cautious, and stepped down only one rung. They found they could not answer the questions old Spiderwoman asked them. Finally they said, “We really don’t know who we are, and we know only a very little bit about where we come from.” And with that, they stepped down a second rung into the house below the ground.
“But you must know where you are going?” Spiderwoman asked. “How can you go anywhere, if you don’t know where you are going?”
“We don’t really know that either”, they said. “We’re slooking for our father, even through we don’t know his name.” And with that, they stepped down a third rung into the house of Spiderwoman, who smiled at them with great warmth.
“We come from the house of our mother, Changing Woman, who has to live in so much fear, because there are so many devouring monsters that destroy our people. And we’re seeking our father, although we don’t know the way to go.” And finally, the boys stepped down a fourth rung, and onto the floor of Spiderwoman’s house.
"Come on in", said the old woman, rising from her loom. “Warm yourselves before the fire, and have something to eat. I'll help you. For one thing, I’ll tell you who your father is, and where you can find him. And I’ll help you to get there, and teach you how to speak to him once you get there.”
The young twin brothers came forward, and joined Grandmother Spiderwoman around her fire. And she gave them food, and they noticed then that there were many, many seats around her fire. How was it they hadn’t noticed that before? “You father” she told them, “is really the Sun, Johonaa'ei. He lives in the sky, and the way to his house is dangerous. Many monstrous beings face you on your journey, and they will block your way if they can. In fact, there are four great dangers you'll meet on the way, and no ordinary person could possibly survive them. And who knows how your father will receive you, if you do arrive at his house at last? He may test you as well."
"But I’ll help you.” said Spider Woman, and she then instructed the twins, telling them the sacred chants they would need as they faced each dangerous situation, teaching them to stand strong and with clarity and courage. And she gave them a holy talisman, a being that was a hoop with potent feathers upon it, and told them how to care for it, and how to use it. Because unless they treated it correctly and with reverence, it would not work.
At last, leaving the home of Spiderwoman deep in the ground, the twins went on their quest, and arrived after many trials at the home of their father. They faced four great dangers, stones that would crush them, reeds that would cut them to pieces, terrible sands that would have burned and buried them, and cactuses that would have pierced them. But with the knowledge that Spiderwoman gave them, they came through each encounter unhurt.
At the home of the Sun, they encountered also four (3) guardians. And here, thanks to the Spiderwoman, they knew the correct chants and prayers, and could name each guardian, and were allowed to pass.
Their father then gave them their true names - calling the eldest Monster Slayer, and the younger brother Born for the Water. To each he gave a powerful flint shield, and to each a special weapon. Monster Slayer returned after their long journey with his brother, to kill the enemies that plagued his mother, and all of the people. And Born for the Water became their memory keeper, recording all of these events and knowledge for future generations and keeping the necessary trophies deep within his mind.
And all the people honored forever the gifts of the Spider woman.
petroglyph photograph by Bill Pennington
1 with thanks to:
Washington Matthews, NAVAJO LEGENDS - University of Utah Press, 1994, and
Carol Patterson-Rudolph, ON THE TRAIL OF SPIDER WOMAN, “Spiderwoman of the Dine`, Ancient City Press, Santa Fe, NM, 1997
2 Carol Patterson-Rudolph, “Spiderwoman of the Dine`, ibid.
3 Four seems to be the significant number to the Navajo, just as Three and its multiples is so important among the Celts and elsewhere (triple Goddess, Trinity, etc.) To them, four repeated means that one is now entering a sacred, or ritual space, time, or intention. Four times repeated establishes RHYTHEM necessary to chant and prayer, and many levels of meaning, symbolic instead of literal meaning.
Four is also the number of the four directions, East, South, West and North. Hence, a number identified with wholeness.