Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ritual, Myth, Theatre

Today is my birthday, and I am thinking of a conversation I had recently about journalist Bill Moyers called "invisible hands". I am not a psychic, channel, or medium, but I used to be a ritualist and choreographer, and witnessed many "magical" ways in which I became convinced that we are never alone, are, in fact, within an integral universe, profoundly connected. So, because it's my birthday, I'm going to re-print this article about my last ritual pleases me to do so, to honor that time, those people, and our "invisible means of support". Perhaps most importantly, I want to share again the poem written by Erica Swadley. May I find a way to serve again. May this coming year let the way be open.

Restoring the Balance

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 more!
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 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. 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 masks at the Muse Community Arts Center in Tucson, Arizona. There I met Grey Eagle (Kenneth M. Jackson), a Native American storyteller living in Patagonia, Arizona. Grey Eagle collected stories from indigenous peoples around the world. I felt honored when he offered me a version of Sedna, which he told me 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, needful to a particular time and place. In a 2002 interview with actress Elizabeth Fuller, she commented about this mystery, her words 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)
I organized a group to create a performance for the Global Art Project, an international arts network founded 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. Ironically, the Inuit are among the first human populations to be displaced by global warming; their experience of climate change is immediate and urgent, living as many Inuit do in a precarious balance with one of the harshest environments on earth. As the western Arctic coastline recedes, they are losing their villages. Pollution and over-fishing have 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 embodied, interdependent, 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

Sedna lived with her widowed father by the cold northwestern sea . Many young men offered her marriage, but fearful for her father’s welfare, she refused all offers. One day a handsome man visited her . He promised Sedna a better life if she would marry him. Best of all, he promised to send provisions to her father as well . But Sedna’s new husband was really a Raven disguised as a man . He took her to a desolate island where she lived, cold and impoverished, until at last Sedna’s father came seeking her. Finding they had been deceived, he took his daughter into his kayak and paddled for the mainland. Raven, learning of their escape, caused a great storm; huge waves rolled toward the kayak. Sedna’s father, 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."
When the “above world” no longer remembers Sedna’s sacrifice, the Inuit believe they have fallen from grace, and must suffer. When the balance is broken, when the people have forgotten how to live in grateful reciprocity with the Ocean Mother and Her creatures, the ocean will cease providing for those who depend upon Her resources . Ultimately, 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 . "
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? Life stories that speak of interdependence instead of inter-conflict? Life stories that prepare us for a sustainable future? Our stories, and our evolving cultural mythos, crystallize the ways we perceive, experience, and, live within the living body of the world. 

 James Lovelock and his primary collaborator, Lynn Margulis proposed that the Earth behaves as a vast super organism . Lovelock first published the Gaia Hypothesis in 1979. 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 affirms the ancient wisdom of Inuit storytellers of good relationship within a responsive environment – to which we are ultimately accountable

The Masks of the Goddess Project (1999-2019) 

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 mixed media, multi-cultural masks for the Spiral Dance in San Francisco. I made life casts from the faces of actual women, of different races and different ages, and masks were sculpted from mixed media . Inspired by Balinese and other indigenous mask traditions, I decided to offer my collection as contemporary "temple masks", making them available to those who wished to use them to celebrate the Divine Feminine. The collection was sent to groups that requested its use - filling with energy and collective story.

Mana Youngbear as "Tara"

At our first meeting I put the masks in a circle, asking members to choose one. We shared a shamanic journey, and discussed our imagery afterwards to determine who felt called to work with a particular mask and why. Another way of expressing it might be to discover which masks “wanted to be activated”.

Kathy Huhtaluhta as "Corn Mother"

Our group's hope was that these cross-cultural “faces of the Divine Mother” would emphasize the global significance of our event, the universal need for healing. Katherine Josten, who chose 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. 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.
I was moved by what she wrote: restoring balance to the divided human spirit is what the work is truly about. How can there be peace when our collective psyche is divided against itself?

Altar at the Muse Community Arts, created by participants

Valarie James as "The Virgin of Guadaloupe"

The performance was 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, a theatre in the round. We opened with Erica Swadley's poem, “Invocation to the Great Mother”, and closed with Morgana Canady’s performance of Spider Woman . Casting “threads” into the audience, she wove, and for that moment, to my great delight, 300 people were joined by weaving the Web together.

Afterwards, biodegradable burlap cords from “Spider Woman’s Web” were distributed among cast members, and scattered throughout the desert, symbolically extending our web and its blessing to a greater world . In addition, as part of the Global Art Project, photographs, letters, and a video 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 .
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 there is a fertile realm where deities, ancestors, and power animals may be encountered, and transformations are possible . Perhaps we were given such a special blessing at our auspicious event, in the form of photographs taken by Tucson photographer Ann Beam . When Ann returned the photos we were amazed to see anomalies in many of them. These strange “spirit photos” are, for me, another layer to that event, a pentimento .

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, superimposed between cast and audience. We called this one "the Visitor".Here's the image in negative.

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. Nor can I prove that the photos are authentic – although I know they are . I feel the appearance of the spirit photographs are a final blessing, a reminder perhaps that we are never really alone.
"We have heard this sacred story together", Grey Eagle wrote, "And now we can close with: That’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is".
Beam, A., (2004), All photographs 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”, &
 Smith, A. & Smith, A. (2004). Rainbow Didge Music ( 
 Youngbear, M., Willits Young Actors Theatre, at


Valerianna said...

Dear Lauren - such a potent first image - well ALL the images, visual and written. Thank you! I am only dipping quickly in this post today, I want to come spend more time with it. I must be off for a small road trip... and look forward to returning to this... and RETURNING and RE-MEMBERING in the stories you tell here. Thank you. Awed by that coincidence of Sedna. How amazing this life is if we listen, pay attention and put ourselves out there.

Thanks for much inspiration to carry with me on the road, and the seed of anticipation to devour the whole fruit of your offering when I have more time!
(long comment to say I'll be back... !) Oh, and most importantly - Happy Birthday!!

Lauren Raine said...

Thanks to you for the good wishes! Be sure to say hello to Jewell, who encouraged me to do that work, all those years ago............

Valerianna said...

Ahhhh, YES! Just through a slow and savored reading of this post. Wonderful, and amazing. Those photographs are really something. And, I am so completely resonate with what is written. As a storyteller, I am often asked if memorize many stories... though I have read and taken in many world myths, the most potent form of storytelling for me is to listen to the land and to allow mythic stories to develop in ritual space from my intimate conversations with the land. So many storytellers collect stories, and this is wonderful, we need this, but we also need storytellers who tell the new stories that come through right from the Earth in the moment.

OK, I know I;m preaching to the choir.... but thanks, I will surely be bookmarking this post and asking my Myth & Symbol students to read it. Thanks!
And, yes, I will surely say hello to Jewell for you... I see her in a couple weeks.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Great post. And happy birthday! What a wonderful tribute to you, for your birthday. Hope it was joyful and fun!

Gail said...

For my birthday, I created a ritual and ritual candle honoring my Higher Soul/Self. It has brought me much comfort, clarity and union with Divine energies. If you were here I would make you one. If you haven't done a ritual such as this you might like to try it. This post was magical. I would love to actively share some of your experiences. Reading about them is almost as good. Thank you!