Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Restoring the Balance - Myth, Magic, Ritual

Recently I was asked to submit an article about what I feel is the most significant ritual/theatre event I've ever done with the "Masks of the Goddess" collection. "Restoring the Balance" was performed in Tucson in 2004. I felt like publishing the revised article, with the photos, in my blog. I'd love comments, if there is anyone interested in the subject matter. And as always, I'm very grateful to the amazing beings who collaborated to make it happen.

Restoring the Balance
A Ritual Theatre Celebration of the Great Mother

O Great Mother Goddess,

we call on you now.
Rise up from your roots. Hear us, our voices of pathos.
See our dancing feet, how we beat out your rhythms.
With our hearts, we drum you back.
We are staggering toward you.
Will you run one hundred steps to us?
Will you spread your mantle of peace?

This is the sack of our offerings:
We give up our greed to feed the needy.
Here is our lust to restore compassion.
We release our hatred to stop the killing.
We forego our vengeance to discover balance.
We scorn our fears, to rebirth love.

We tread softly to bring back forests.

And Mother Answers:

No more no more no
I have sent you shining planets
to help you remember.
Mars and Venus beg you to reconcile.
From the depths of space, Sedna appears,
a planetary avatar to stop you in your tracks.
Time is ended, truth be told.
Release, forgive, restore.
Remember Me in all of My forms.
I will bring light to your shadows
and make you whole,
if you will call on Me.

Erica Swadley (2004)

Sedna, Ocean Mother of the Inuit

"Myth comes alive as it enters the cauldron of evolution,
itself drawing energy from the storytellers who shape it "

Elizabeth Fuller (2001)

In 2004, a few weeks before our first performance of Restoring the Balance, we learned that a new planet, in the cold depths of space beyond Pluto, was discovered by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) researchers. The little planet was named Sedna – who was also the primary character in our production. For our cast, this striking synchronicity affirmed that we were, somehow, part of a larger telling.

We wondered, why Sedna? What meaning does the story of Sedna, Ocean Mother to the Inuit people of the North American arctic, have for us today?

My own mythic journey to Sedna began in January of 2004, when I had an exhibit of my masks at the Muse Community Arts Center in Tucson, Arizona. There I met Grey Eagle (Kenneth M. Jackson), a N ative American ceremonial storyteller living in Patagonia, Arizona. Grey Eagle told, and collected, stories from indigenous peoples around the world, in particular those of his native Northwest. I felt honored when he offered me a version of Sedna, which he received from Inuit activists when he lived in Alaska.

I believe there are stories that want to be told. They are spun into our collective dreams on threads of synchronicity, woven into our imaginations because they are necessary to a particular time and place. In a 2002 interview, Elizabeth Fuller, actress and playwright, commented about this mysterious process, drawn from her career of 40 years:

When you create within a sacred paradigm you find a strange thing . You are communicating with sources that you know are within you, but have a greater reflection somewhere else. You touch something timeless, as potent in you as anywhere else . You can experience it with great personal power, but eventually you realize that it's not just you. This is about the immanence and multiplicity of deity, the many faces of the Goddesses and the Gods (2002).

Inspired by Grey Eagle’s gift , I organized a group to create a performance for the Global Art Project, an international arts network f ounded by Katherine Josten . Our event was also to be a non-denominational ritual with the theme of restoring reciprocity to humanity’s relationship with our Great Mother Earth. Central to Restoring the Balance was the story of Sedna , a myth as significant for our time as it has been for the Inuit people. Ironically, the Inuit are among the first human populations to be displaced by global warming. For the Inuit the problem is urgent. They live in precarious balance with one of the harshest environments on earth. Climate change is a direct threat to their way of life. As the western Arctic coastline recedes, they are losing their villages, while pollution and over-fishing has also contributed to the loss of their livelihood.

The Great Mother has a multiplicity of faces; but, ultimately, she is our universal Mother Earth. She represents the processes of nature which includes our own embodied, interdependent, and cyclical existence. As the story of Sedna illustrates, to betray the feminine is to betray the source of life, with dire consequences for all.

The Story of Sedna

"We are living in the Body. Not on the Body, but in the Body.
And what we do to the Earth, we are doing to ourselves."
Rachel Rosenthal (1989)

Sedna lived with her widowed father by the cold northwestern sea . Many young men offered her marriage, but f earful for her father’s welfare, she refused all offers. O ne day, a handsome and charming man visited her . He promised Sedna a better life if she would marry him. B est of all, he promised to send provisions to her father as well .

But Sedna’s new husband deceived her. H e was really Raven , disguised as a man . Instead of a better life, he took her to a desolate island where she lived, cold, hungry, and impoverished, until at last Sedna’s father came seeking her. Finding they had been deceived, he was furious . Taking his daughter into his kayak, he paddled for the mainland. Raven, learning of their escape, caused a great storm . Huge waves rolled toward the kayak. Sedna’s father, over come with terror and hoping to save his own life, cast his daughter from the boat. Sedna clung to the side of the boat, begging her father to save her, and in desperation, he cut off his daughter’s fingers and hands with his knife.

Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean, and as she fell, her severed fingers became the fishes, the seals, and the whales. To this day, Sedna lives in a house of bones, at the bottom of the cold sea , attended by all of her undersea children .

As Grey Eagle (2004) wrote:

Sedna is cold and naked. She is covered with a tangle of hair that she can't comb because she has no hands. And it’s also said that all the broken taboos, and sins of the people who live in the above world fall into Sedna’s underwater realm, collecting on Sedna's body. When the accumulation is too great, Sedna sobs in pain. Then the sea creatures leave the shore, and gather to comfort her. (p.1)

When the “above world” no longer remembers Sedna’s sacrifice, the Inuit believe they have fallen from grace, and must suffer dire consequences. When the balance is broken, when the people have forgotten how to live in grateful reciprocity with the Ocean Mother and Her creatures, the sea ceases providing for those who depend upon Her resources . Ultima tely, as Sedna suffers , so must they.

Erica Swadley as "Sedna's Shaman"

Grey Eagle continued:

Then people know it's time to gather, time to publicly confess their broken taboos. The men, remembering the name of Sedna’s father, do a long dance of contrition. Slowly dancing, they sing a song of remorse for the sins done by man to women, to earth, and to her children. And at last, their shaman purifies herself to take the dangerous journey to the underwater world where Sedna lives. She gathers fine sand with which she lovingly cleanses the filth from Sedna’s body, and she combs her hair. And she offers Sedna the prayers of love and respect she has brought with her . (p.2)

To atone is to “rejoin”, to establish once again good relationship with a larger community of being. Such rites of “at-one-ment” and purification, to the Inuit, are periodically necessary in order to reconcile the above world with the below world. Grey Eagle (2004) concluded:

When Sedna is at last comforted, She sends a prayer to Creator, asking Creator to forgive the people for the ways they have become out of balance. Her sobbing is no longer heard in the waves; the sea animals end their vigil and offer themselves again as food. And the Inuit are inspired to return Sedna’s gift by making better life stories. (p.3)

Myths are “life stories“, archetypal templates upon which religions and civilizations are built, and individual lives are imbued with meaning. How can we also create “better life stories” for today? L ife stories that speak of interdependence instead of inter-conflict? L ife stories that prepare us for a sustainable future? Not unlike the Inuit, we are also dancing the future into existence by the stories we tell. O ur stories, and our evolving cultural mythos, crystallize the ways we perceive, experience, and, ultimately live within the living body of the world.

James Lovelock and his primary collaborator, Lynn Margulis (1999), proposed that the Earth behaves as a vast super organism . Lovelock first published the Gaia Hypothesis in 1979, and within a short time, Gaia moved from the margins of scientific research to the current mainstream. The Gaia Theory demonstrates that the Earth consists of countless systems that are interlocking and self-regulating – in essence, a complex, evolving organism. Gaia theory, and contemporary ecology, affirms the ancient wisdom of Inuit storytellers. The myth of Sedna communicates the importance of good relationship and the understanding of intimate reciprocity within a creative, intelligent, and responsive environment – to which we are ultimately accountable

The Masks of the Goddess Project (1999-2008)

I've always been fascinated with masks as sacred tools - as “vessels” for the archetypal powers to express through the universal human mediums of art, theatre, dance and ritual. "Theatre" comes from the same Greek word as "theology,” as in theos or god . “Invoke” derives from the same Sanskrit root as “yoga” and “yoke” which mean to “join with”. In earlier times masks were created to contact the divine through ritual and ceremonial performances. To use a sacred mask was to in-voke, or to “join with the Gods”.

In 1999, after studying mask arts in Bali, I created 25 mixed media, multi-cultural masks. Each mask portrayed a Goddess, from different cultural and ethnic traditions, yet with a unifying theme . The masks were made for the “Invocation of the Goddess” at the 20th Annual Spiral Dance , held at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. In the years the project was active, additional masks were added to the collection.

I made life casts from the faces of actual women, of different races and different ages. Then, the masks were sculpted from leather and mixed media . A young African woman became the model for “Oshun”, River Goddess of West Africa. A friend in her 70’s became the model for Hecate, Greek Goddess of the Underworld. T he cast of an Asian artist transformed into “Amaterasu”, Sun Goddess of Japan, and so on. My process included researching mythologies that represent the many sacred faces of the Divine Feminine throughout the world.

At the 20th Annual Spiral Dance, it was my great pleasure to first see the masks “brought to life” by a procession of 25 costumed women, all invoking the presence of the Goddess for those gathered.

In 2000, I returned to Bali, where I studied mask making with Ida Bagus Anom and Nyoman Adar. With Anom and Nyoman. I also collaborated on 7 new masks, this time carved in wood, which were added to the Masks of the Goddess collection. Before I left Bali the masks were exhibited at Buka Creati Gallery, in Ubud.

Returning to the U.S., and further inspired by Balinese mask traditions, I wanted to continue to offer my collection as contemporary temple masks , making them available to all those who wished to use them to celebrate the Divine Feminine. I, and colleagues who are ritualists, choreographers, producers and priestesses, used the masks for ritual, theatre, and dance for over 7 years, as the collection was sent to groups that requested its use. As the masks were “danced”, they filled with energy and collective story.

Mana Youngbear as "Tara"

For many years, I have studied Goddess traditions. The Goddess has a thousand faces - maiden, mother, wise crone, teacher, warrior, healer, destroyer, lover, nurturer of new life or the flame of creativity. She is found throughout world religions with names like red Kali, Quan Yin the compassionate, Sedna the ocean mother, and Mary, Madonna to the Savior. To me, most of all, she is Gaia, Mother Earth, the feminine “World Soul” or Anima Mundi. I believe that re-discovering these universal stories is very important f or the affirmation they offer to women seeking identity within a masculine identified theology that lacks a feminine name for God. Collectively, the “return of the Goddess” within contemporary religion and mythos is, I believe, important for the healing of our worldwide estrangement from the feminine, with its profound implications.

It’s been my privilege to see the collection used in many diverse communities, including the New College of San Francisco , the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, the Chapel of the Sacred Mirrors in New York, Buka Creati Gallery in Bali, the Willits Community Center, the Matrilineage Symposium at the University of Syracuse, the Masks of Transformation Conference at the University of Southern Illinois; the Kripalu Institute in Massachusetts, and, as this article describes, in exhibit and performance at the Muse Community Arts Center in Tucson. In 2008 the collection was sold in a benefit auction, with part of the proceeds benefiting the Independent Eye Theatre of Sebastopol, California, for their 2008 production of “The Descent of the Goddess Inanna”.

Restoring the Balance and the Divine Feminine

Initially, the Masks of the Goddess were presented to the cast of Restoring the Balance as tools for invocation of the Divine Feminine. As contemporary temple masks, the masks were charged with these intentions: enabling performers to access the Goddess within themselves, calling forth the power of Goddess archetypes as we developed our ritual performance; and, finally, the masks assisted with invoking the blessings of the Goddess for all gathered at the performance ritual .

At our first meeting, I put the masks in a circle, asking members to choose a mask that spoke to them. Then, with drumming and guided meditation, we shared a shamanic journey. Afterwards, by discussing our visions, we determined which members of the group felt strongly called to “dance with a Goddess” . Another way of looking at this process was to discover which masks “wanted to be activated”.

Kathy Huhtaluhta as "Corn Mother"

In traditional cultures, tribes not only petition the Gods to speak, but sometimes the Gods themselves express a desire to be present in various oracular ways . In contemporary Santeria practice, for example, dancers volunteer to be possessed by deities as a form of community blessing . Masks, dance, and ritual are viewed as co-creative, a means for the invisible world to briefly enter our own.

Lastly, our invitation included the hope that these cross-cultural “faces of the Mother” would emphasize the global significance of our event, and the universal need to heal the degradation of the feminine . After rehearsals, the dancers took the masks home to keep on their personal altars as spirit vessels.

Katherine Josten, who chose to dance the role of Sedna, is the founder of the Global Art Project, a network creating partnerships between individual artists and groups around the world . As we prepared our performance, Katherine (2004) observed in her journal that:

The work of our group is not to re-enact the ancient goddess myths, but to take those myths to their next level of evolutionary unfolding. Artists are the myth makers. It is time for us to create the next chapter, to join the energies of Goddess and God. Time for a reconciliation of that which is within and without. The integration of male and female must occur in order to bring balance to the earth and human consciousness. A dialogue needs to occur so the pain of both may be brought to light and transmuted.

Restoring balance to the divided human spirit is what the work of the Goddess is truly about now . The Great Mother was banished from our world by a mythos that gradually took away divinity from women, and women are intimately identified with our cyclical, embodied existence within nature. How can there ever be peace when our collective psyche is divided against itself? The Goddess must return to our world on many levels if we are to evolve to an integral way of understanding the world.

Goddess Altar at the Muse Community Arts, created by participants

Katherine/Sedna was joined by Erica Swadley, shamanic practitioner and therapist, as “Sedna’s Shaman” . Quynn Elizabeth, founder of the Institute for Shamanic Arts as well as Earth Tribe TV in Tucson, danced Kali . White Tara, of Tibet, and Amaterasu Omikami, from Japan, were performed by dancer Mana Youngbear . Artist Valerie James, founder of the Los Madres Project in the desert south of Tucson, invoked the Virgin of Guadalupe . The Cherokee Corn Mother, Selu, was performed by Kathi Huatahluhta and Spider Woman was performed by Wiccan priestess and dancer Morgana Canady .

Valarie James as "The Virgin of Guadaloupe"

The first performance was staged at Nations Hall, in Tucson, Arizona, on April 9th, 2004. A community altar, built by the cast as a collaborative installation, became part of the ritual . The stage and audience formed a circle, as theatre in the round. We were fortunate to be joined by Will Clipman, Jeff Greinke, Alan and Audry Smith, as well as Saami chanter Kathi Huhtaluhta, who together composed music for each segment . Our storytellers were Paul Fisher and Sammi Alijagic . We opened with Erica Swadley reading her poem, “Invocation to the Great Mother.” The “Mask of Sedna” was next. Dance, music, and storytelling accompanied the performance of each mask. We closed with Morgana Canady’s performance of Spider Woman . Casting “threads” out into the audience, she gradually wove a cobweb with our audience. F or that brief moment, over 300 people were joined by holding the web .

I might add that Spider Woman (also called Thought Woman by Pueblo peoples) is particularly important to me . It’s said that Spider Woman spun the world into being with the stories she imagined, a creative power she passed on to all of her descendants . To this day, the Navajo honor Grandmother Spider Woman by rubbing a bit of spider web into the palms of infant girls so they will become beautiful weavers .

Since 2004, because the myth of Spider Woman speaks so profoundly about ecology, inter-dependence, and quantum co-creation, I have personally continued to spin webs, facilitate “prayer ties” with groups, and teach classes on making altars with personal icons. This is an ongoing community art project called “Spider Woman’s Hands ”. In 2007, I brought my Spider Woman Project to Michigan as a fellow at the Alden Dow Creativity Center and, in 2009 I’ll bring the project to the Henry Luce Center for the Arts at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

After our performance at the Muse Community Arts Center, the cast met there for a last time . The biodegradable burlap cords from “Spider Woman’s Web” were distributed among the members. We scattered cords throughout the desert, symbolically extending our web and its blessing beyond our small community to a greater world . In addition, as part of the Global Art Project, photographs, letters, and a video about Restoring the Balance were sent to the AFEG-NEH-MABANG Traditional Dance Company, in Limbe, Republic of Cameroon.

Afterward: The Surprising

Authentic ritual is what anthropologist Victor Turner (1975)described as “communitas”: a collaboration between participants and a larger, invisible, extended community . If it has potency, ritual, like art, can include participants in a conversation whose mythological roots go far back into the past, and forward into the imaginal future. To enter fully into ritual space is to shift consciousness in order to undertake a mythic pilgrimage . Masks can aid the traveler by performing the function of “threshold tools” or “limens” .

In Turner’s (1971) article, “Pilgrimages as Social Processes ”, he wrote that a “limen” or a “liminal state” is a doorway that enables actors and ritualists (as “pilgrims”) to enter into a sacred space or pilgrimage center . In this magic circle or sacred arena, there is a fertile realm where deities, ancestors, and power animals may be encountered. Therein, transformations of spirit or personality are possible .

I remember a conversation with artist Ann Weller, who I met in 2001. She took on the role of the “Dark Goddess” as her n orthern California community designed a ritual to symbolically transform the violence of the past century at the millennium . Ann (2001) said:
I felt ridden by the Dark Goddess when I undertook my role. But the work was ultimately impersonal . I was a brief vessel for an immense archetypal intelligence manifesting within the drama we created . And yet, embodying the Dark Goddess did bring personal change . You can't work with sacred theatre and not be changed in some way . I found myself confronting daily those aspects of myself that were just not useful . I was being re-constructed, whether I was aware of it or not, to better serve Her in the world . Which meant better serving myself . That's how I look at it . The little overlay of how I imagined myself, which had never been very effective, was now utterly obvious to me . My authentic power began to manifest.
Traditionally, it was believed that w ithin the charged, liminal arena of ritual drama or sacred space , the Goddesses and Gods could enter the human dimension, thus blessing, communing, or prophesying with those present . That may be one of the reasons important rites throughout history, such as the Eleusinian mysteries of Greece and Rome, were called “mysteries” .

Perhaps we were given such a blessing at our auspicious event, in the form of photographs taken by Tucson photographer Ann Beam . When Ann documented our event, she was amazed to see that a number of the photos she later developed had anomalies. These strange “spirit photos” are, for me, another layer to our collaboration, a pentimento .

As Spider W oman (Morgana Canady) prepared to "spin", fibers appeared before her weaving hands that were not visibly part of the later “web weaving” choreography. When the web was eventually extended into the audience with actual cords, the dancer, like a filament at the center of the “web ”, was almost invisible in a mass of light . A photo of Erica Swadley, in her role as Sedna’s shaman (she was not masked for her performance), showed two separate faces superimposed on each other. After examining this photo, the photographer (Ann Beam) commented that one of the faces looked like Erica, but another appeared to be Asian.

(This was a photo of the end of the performance. The cast is dancing in a circle, and a white form appeared in the photo, between cast and audience. Ann Beam called this striking photo "the Visitor" (2004).)(I put the photo into negative, and with a close-up, with this result.)

In a photograph of Quynn Elizabeth, whose dance was devoted to the Hindu Goddess Kali , an inexplicable, goat-like form dramatically appeared behind her, and the suggestion of a goat appeared in other photographs of her dance as well . To Quynn, Morgana, and Erica, whose performances were devotional as well as theatrical, the photographs were affirming, a kind of “greeting card” from spirit guides.

I have since learned that in the traditional worship of Kali in India, goats were often sacrificed. Some viewers of these photographs have suggested that a “spirit goat” materialized in the photograph as a symbol of our offering . We did not have a goat to offer the Goddess when we invoked Her, so perhaps one was “ethereally” provided for us.

When I looked at the “goat” photo the first time, I personally recalled the ancient Hebrew ritual of the s capegoat. When deemed necessary, this ritual was p erformed for the well-being of the tribe. A litany of all the sins, troubles, and sorrows of the time was recited, then “laid” upon the back of a goat . The goat, a beast of great merit, was then released into the desert to symbolically bear these burdens away. A cleansing had occurred and a new cycle could begin . Not unlike the rituals of the Inuit, the act of naming the sins and broken taboos helped the tribe to return to psychic and emotional balance, and to a more harmonious relationship with the Sacred.

In the modern world, we have generally lost meaningful ritual, and, as such, we rarely have significant ways to collectively regain “at-one-ment .” We have no long ritual cycle of prayers and dances and confessions. W e have few tribal shamans to help us bear our “better life stories“ to Sedna in the World Below . We scapegoat each other. We scapegoat women. We scapegoat the living Earth without awareness. There is no “symbolic goat” to carry our “sins” into the chaotic wilderness of the collective unconscious; to carry our negativity into the desert so we can begin again in a new way.

I have no explanation for Anne’s photographs except what they mean to me as producer and co-creator of the event . Nor can I prove that the photos are authentic – although I know they are . In the aftermath of our own Restoring the Balance I feel the appearance of the spirit photographs are a final blessing.

"We have heard this sacred story together", Grey Eagle (2004) wrote, "And now we can close with: That’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is".

(A participant's shoulder is in foreground. Behind what resembles a hand
appears, apparently "weaving" with Morgana Canaday in her perforance.)


Beam, A., (2004), All p hotographs are reproduced with permission of the artist.

Fuller, E. (2001) Interview with Lauren Raine.

Grey Eagle, a/k/a Jackson, K.M. (2004). The story of Sedna. Unpublished manuscript.

Josten, K. (2004). Unpublished journal.

Lovelock, James ( 2006), GAIA - A NEW LOOK AT LIFE ON EARTH, Oxford University Press.

Margulis, Lynn, (1999). SYMBIOTIC PLANET: A NEW LOOK AT EVOLUTION, New York: Basic Books.

Rosenthal, R. (1989). Interview with Lauren Raine.

Swadley, E. (2004) . “Invocation of the Great Mother.” Unpublished poem.

Turner, V.W. (1975). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society . New York: Cornell University Press.

Weller, A. (2001). Interview with Lauren Raine.

Additional Resources

Ala Mankon Cultural and Development Association (A.M.A.C.U.D.A. Traditional Dance Group, AFEG-NEH-MABANG Dance), Limbe, Republic of Cameroon.

Clipman, W., at

Fuller, E., The Independent Eye Theatre, at .

Grey Eagle, 1995 Gordan Ekvall Tracy Memorial Award for Ethnic Performers, at

Greinke, J., at

Huhtaluhta, K., Sami Records, at

James, V., Las Madres Project, at

Josten, K., The Global Art Project, Tucson, AZ, at

Quynn, E., The Institute for the Shamanic Arts at WomenKraft Bldg., Tucson, Arizona,

Quynn, E., Earth Tribe TV, at

Raine, L., “The Masks of the Goddess Project” & “Spider Woman’s Hands”,, & (blog)

Smith, A. & Smith, A. (2004). Rainbow Didge Music (

Youngbear, M., Willits Young Actors Theatre, at


Unknown said...

thanks for writing and posting this beautiful article and photographs! amazing story...

NolaV said...

Asi Sea!

It was a rebirth.