Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Telling the World in a Time of Drought" - Reflections on Art, Myth and Ritual

“What might we see, how might we act, if we saw with a webbed vision? The world seen through a web of relationships…as delicate as spider’s silk, yet strong enough to hang a bridge on.”
 Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web

Recently I travelled cross country, joining conversations that always seemed to end with a question.  Since many of my friends are artists (I include writers, performers, ritualists, dancers, storytellers, and a number of shamans in the category as well) the question seemed to come down to "what do we do now?"  How do we, in a time that seems bent on eliminating education, free speech, environmental preservation, social ethics, and possibly even any kind of consensual truth…..as practitioners of the arts, increasingly marginalized by society, how do we find meaningful identity? 

My own response is that I believe it's vital for artists to remember that we are myth makers.  Throughout history artists of all kinds have possessed the imaginal tools to invent and re-invent the myths that were the cultural underpinnings for their time.  

Phil Cousineau, author of  Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives (2001) cautioned that if we don't become aware of both our personal and our cultural myths which "act like gravitational forces on us" we risk becoming overpowered, overshadowed, and controlled by them.  Myths are in many ways the templates of how we compose our societal and personal values, as well as how people organize their religions.  As Cousineau commented further, "the stories we tell of ourselves determine who we become, who we are, and what we believe."  

The human mind has a unique ability to abstract.  A stone is not always a stone - sometimes it becomes a symbol of something, a manifestation of a deity, or it can also become intentionally invisible, even when it stubs our toes.  An interpretation of "God" is something that whole nations have lived or died for.  And depending on the aesthetics of a particular culture, foot binding, skull extension, or bouffant hairdos can be experienced as erotic beauty.  If the worlds we know are, indeed, experienced through the lens of the stories we tell about them, then how are those stories serving or not serving the crucial time we live in?

A renunciate myth of the Earth as "not real" or a "place of sin and suffering" does not serve the environmental crisis facing a global humanity.   Stories that make women lesser beings do not release the creative brain power of half the human race.  A cultural mythos that celebrates violence and competition do not contribute to nurturance and sustainability.   Stories of "rugged individualism" may not be as useful in a time when science, sociology, ecology, theology, and even physics are demonstrating that all things are interdependent. 

I remember years ago participating in a week long intensive with the Earth Spirit Community of New England.  The event took place in October, in celebration of the closing of the year, the "going into the dark" time.  The closing ritual occurred at twilight.  Bearing candles, different groups wove through the woods toward a distant lodge from which the sound of heartbeat drums issued.  Slowly the lodge filled, illuminated with candles.  As we sat on the floor, lights gradually went out, we were blindfolded and the drums abruptly stopped. 

We felt bodies rush by us as hands turned us.  The sounds of wind, and half understood voices, someone calling, someone crying, or a bit of music came from all directions.  As we lost any sense of direction or time we became uncomfortable, frightened and disoriented.  I felt as if I was in a vast chamber, the very halls of Hades, listening to echoing voices of the lost.  And when it felt like the formless dark would never stop:  silence.  And the quiet sound of the heartbeat drum returned, re-connecting us to the heart of the Earth.

As blindfolds were removed I found myself in a room warmly illuminated with candles.  On a central platform sat a woman enthroned in brilliant white, illuminated with candles and flowers.  At her feet were baskets of bread.  Slowly we rose, took bread and fruit, and left the "Temple".  And as we left, on each side of the entrance, stood a figure in a black cape.  Each had a mirror over his or her face – mirror masks, reflecting our own faces.  

Now that was a ritual telling of the myth!  We had entered mythic space, we had participated together in the Great Round of death and return to the light - and none of us would ever forget it.

I am suggesting that artists, troubled as my friends and I have been, step away for a while from the complex questions of identity so beloved by the art world, cast aside as well the dismissal, even hostility of the current anti-intellectual environment.  Instead, let us view ourselves  as engaged in a sacred profession.   We are pollinators of the imagination,  holding  threads in  a great weaving of myth, threads that extend into a time  yet to come, and far back into a barely glimpsed past.  If "the Universe is made of stories, not atoms" as the poet  Muriel Rukeyser famously said, the only real question for us now is "what kinds of stories are we weaving"?     

"The new myth coming into being through the triple influence of quantum physics, depth psychology and ecology suggests that we are participants in a great cosmic web of life, each one of us indissolubly connected with all others through that invisible field. It is the most insidious of illusions to think that we can achieve a position of dominance in relation to nature, life or each other. In our essence, we are one."

Anne Baring 


Keller, Catherine;  From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism and Self,
       Beacon Press  (1988)

Baring, Anne;  "A New Vision of Reality" from her website

Cousineau, Phil; Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in
        Modern Times,  Conori Press (2001)

The Earthspirit Community, Twilight Covening (1993),   

Rukeyser, Muriel;  The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser,  McGraw (1978)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Zoe's Camino de Santiago

All photos are copyright Zoe d'Ay (2014)

Camino de SantiagoMy friend Zoe d'Ay, who lives in Glastonbury, England, in 2014 walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain at the age of 68......something I have so often dreamed of myself!  She brought the Camino alive with her photos, and it was my delight to make a Blog for her and share vicariously her stories of "The Way" along with her beautiful photos of her Pilgrimage.  I wanted to  re-visit the Blog,  and walk with her again. The posts go backward, with the beginning of her journey at the beginning of the Blog. 





The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino, pointing the way all along the long pilgrimage route.   After Compostella, many pilgrims, as Zoe did,  continue on to Finisterre, "Lands End", where they truly finish their pilgrimage before the vastness of the Atlantic ocean.   As David Whyte wrote: "Because now, you would find a different way to tread, and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,  no matter how........."


The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now
but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water,
going where shadows go,

no way to make sense of a world that wouldn't let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags;
to sort this and to leave that;

to promise what you needed to promise all along
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water's edge,

not because you had given up

but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all,
part of you could still walk on,

no matter how, over the waves.” 

― David Whyte


All photos are COPYRIGHT Zoe D'ay