Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hands of the Spider Woman

I was hiking in the Superstitions, looking for petroglyphs I’d heard were to be found in the back country, in the folds and recesses of the mountain. It was a strenuous climb for me, and they weren’t easy to find, obscured by the terrain, and often well off the trail. It took a while to decide where to look.

The particular site I was seeking had been a special place to prehistoric Anasazi people, who had left layers of pictographs scattered throughout the entire area. I was thinking, as I searched for the traces and touchstones of these people, about what I knew of native mythology, and wondering what these artists from so long ago might have been communicating with their mysterious imagery. There was so much I wanted to learn about the traditions, histories, and stories of native Americans in the Southwest - among them the Hopi and the Pueblo peoples. And of course the Navajo, whose rugs and pottery fascinated me. In Arizona, where I live, a great deal of art, aesthetics, and architecture is inspired by indigenous cultures, but very few people actually take the time to learn very much about these diverse and ancient peoples. I was among them.

I was thinking about the mysterious figure of Spider Woman, also called “Thought Woman” by the Hopi. Spiderwoman is poised at the very center of the Web of life in many native American creation stories. Arriving from underground realms, she creates the world, and then passes the creative process on, forever offering her wisdom, and the sacred craft of weaving, to her grandchildren.

I’m not entirely sure I like to call Spiderwoman (who over the years has become my guide and muse and inspiration) a “metaphor”, or an “archetype”. Although I was thinking along those lines while I huffed up the mountain. The most profound meaning of Spiderwoman’s Web is as the universal symbol of planetary and spiritual ecology. Spiderwoman speaks in the wind, reminds us of who we are beneath the surface with her synchronicities and threads.

The web that Thought Woman sings or names into existence represents, to me , what quantum physicists call “Entanglement Theory” - the probability that everything, down to the most intangible dancing particles and waves - is “entangled“, is woven together, is one. All conscious in some fundamental essence, within a universe of unimaginable creativity.

Masaru Emoto, the scientist who has devoted his career to studying the ways water is affected by the psychic environment, has shown that our thoughts may actually have the power to influence the way water crystallizes with his process of high speed photography. “Water”, he writes, “exposed to the words “thank you” form beautiful crystals when frozen. But water exposed to abuse often results in broken or deformed crystals.”1

And as she named them, they appeared.
She is sitting and thinking about this story now
And that’s why I'm telling it to you.1

What’s a word, if not a thought that has been crystallized? Spiderwoman was “on my mind“ as I walked. Or, perhaps, Spider Woman judged me ripe enough to turn her attention my way.

The famous lost Dutchman took his secret gold to his grave, but the Superstitions hide other kinds of secrets. Eventually, out of breath and already sunburned, I found what I was looking for. Near a welcome and rare spring, with layers of petroglyphs on adjacent rocks. Combined with natural beauty and a sense of potent geomantic energy, it was a place that seemed infused with numinous power. And scattered throughout like a motif or underlying texture there were hands, painted or incised on the rocks.
(the weft)
Hands among hunters and big horned mountain sheep, near metate holes that once ground blue corn or mesquite, protecting solarized shamans in their ecstasy, touched odd shapes and circles, or seemed to hold snakes and spirals that wound and curled like water or wind from fingertips. Shadow hands scratched into the rocks, weaving the stories as they were being told. There was a presence in those ubiquitous hands that absorbed my imagination. As if, for that quiet, illuminated moment, I saw them become fully fleshed, emerging from beneath the transparent, dreaming surface of the canyon. Numinous.
(the warp)
It occurred to me I was looking at Spider Woman’s many hands, appearing on the canvas of another time. From the wise storytellers of the desert, to the great webs of planetary ecology, quantum physics, and even the internet - Grandmother Spiderwoman was reaching out to teach her grandchildren how to weave .
Beauty is above me
Beauty is below me
Beauty is beside me
Beauty is before me

Navajo Blessing Way Chant

The origin of the word “religion” comes from a word that meant “to link back“ (religios), which bears (again) the metaphor of weaving. In Eastern traditions, each verse of a tantra (meaning a spiritual practice) is called a sutra, which means “a thread”. So perhaps the real meaning of a religious experience concerns “linking back”, re-membering a greater tapestry of being beyond the narrow viewpoint of individualism.

At that thought, being an artist and mythologist, I had to pull out my sketchbook and attempt to turn my revelation into something I could take back with me, something I might be able to share. An icon that could be enshrined as a symbol of planetary ecology. I imagined a shrine that would frame an elegant Web of concentric circles of relationship and co-creation.

It occurred to me then that a spider web represented the quintessential symbol of interconnectedness - but perhaps a loom was an even better iconic image for Spider Woman/Thought Woman.

A loom: an engine of interwoven and interdependent fibers, coming together in continually creative patterns of relationship. A loom meant the active art of weaving. The pattern was always changing. There was a vertical and a horizontal, a warp and weft, light and dark, yin and yang - the dynamic exchange of polarities to create something new. The weaver’s thoughts and hands manifesting, undoing, creating, unraveling. My imagination took off.

Navajo story tellers say that Spiderwoman is best heard in the lonely wind, and that with practice, you can hear her whispering in your ear. As I drew a lovely spider web, and then a complex woven pattern …………..something like that happened. It sounded like a kind-hearted chuckle.

So I went a step farther with my logic. Even the Web (or Loom) of Life is still a pretty abstract idea. I think our task, as artists and mythmakers, may be to move increasingly away from abstractions, because abstractions move us increasingly away from being truly within the world. We need to find practical ways to experientially know that we are embedded and embodied within the immanent sanctity of our Earth. Myths that speak, in our hour of evolutionary crisis, not about how to manage, use, abstract or renounce the world - but how to join it.

Hands. Spiderwoman’s hands. Collaboratively weaving. My hands. Your hands. Our hands.

And that’s what I drew in my sketchbook, and then I had to leave, because I was afraid I might not make it back to the trailhead before it got dark. But I realized something important as I managed my way down the trail and into a magnificent Arizona sunset.

I had been given a Blessing. And blessings, like all things that have to do with Spiderwoman, are circular. You don't get to keep them.

Sooner or later, you have to pass them on.

1 The Navajo also symbolize her with a cross, representing wholeness within the 4 directions.
2 Carol Patterson-Rudolph, “On the Trail of Spiderwoman”, Ancient City Press, 1997


Lisa said...

Spiderwoman appeared in my dream last night, although she was separated--a woman and a spider. A friend suggested I Google spiderwoman and see what came up, and I found your wonderful blog. Your entry provided exactly the information I needed in just the right terminology. Thank you for taking your hike and for writing about your journey to the world at large. Who knew your thread was connected in this small way to mine? Blessings.

giselle said...

I recently returned from living in Arizona for 6 months. The first three days of my stay were spent hiking in the Superstitions and sleeping under the desert sky. It was a dramatically different landscape than the one at home in western North Carolina and I could feel its powerful ancient energy. I returned home to work on my thesis-a design for a school in Prescott I had become familiar with. My inspiration is Spider Woman and her weaving, as I hope to create a space for students which serves as a reconnection with the environment around them. Thank you for your story...it brought me back to my own magical time in the Superstitions and has inspired my work.....peace...