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)


Valerianna said...

Great post, Lauren!

Vernita said...

Lauren, you say it so well & it is so important! I recommend another book on the magic of Art and the power of Artists: "The Gift": Imagination & the Erotic Life of Property" by Lewis Hyde
miss you!

Vernita said...

Lauren, you say it so well & it is so important! I recommend another book on the magic of Art and the power of Artists: "The Gift": Imagination & the Erotic Life of Property" by Lewis Hyde
miss you!

cyberinsekt said...

I was trying to convince someone dear to me to relax her fear of spiders. Thinking that Rilke may have some elegantly phrased words of wisdom about spiders, I googled "spider Rilke" and stumbled across your website. How lucky I am - your posts are fantastic!

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Beautiful and insightful post, as always. My writers friends are also aware of the need now to help define this new, emerging paradigm.