Friday, October 26, 2018

Persephone: Goddess of the Liminal Realms

"Persephone" 2016

Persephone's Feast Day

When all the names are gone,
fallen like fraying leaves before the coming of frost;
when there is nothing left for memory to feed upon
November incubates an unborn rhythm,
a silent heartbeat.

Perhaps all the wastes of love and time
ferment their healing, underground, here
in these Nigrado depths,
becoming at last Albedo,
the medicine.

Now, there is no valor 
in this rooting among decomposing fragments
of so many lives.

I offer now bread, red fruit, red wine:  to life.
To the voiceless, the lost, the  hungry, and the fallen,
to every transparent lover wandering
these grey Bardos in their solitude.

Come to the table all.
Here is a rich conversation
harvested from the last living garden
a dappled pear, an apple, a pomegranate.
a butterfly in its chrysalis, winged, moist,

the slow rebirth of color
deep in the depths of this dream.

The great Wheel will turn again.
The wheat has new life in it yet.
The blessing will still be given.

Halloween, Samhain, is a liminal time  of year, when the "veils between the worlds" are thin.  Persephone is a "liminal Goddess", a myth that comes to mind at that threshold time just before winter.  

Before she was Persephone, she was Kore,  the young daughter of  Demeter, and in the Greek myth, while gathering flowers she was seized by Hades, god of the Underworld, and taken into the realm of death, the below world of Hades.  Demeter, in her rage and grief, causes the world to die - no plants bear fruit, no bees pollinate, no flowers bloom.  At last an agreement is made in which Persephone can be returned to her mother........but because the youthful Goddess has eaten 6 pomogranate seeds, she must return to the underworld for part of the year to be the wife of Hades.  Kore thus  becomes Persephone, the dual and integral Goddess of both life and of death.

This myth partakes of a very ancient and fundamental  mythos  based upon the cycles of nature, in  which there is a generative  underground realm where the souls of people and animals and vegetation  go after death, returning in the spring to new life. Our most early and ancient ancestors observed that the natural world dies down, seemingly into the Earth,  in the fall ("falls") and then arises from the body of the Earth  ("springs") in the spring.  Hence, all things must return to the great womb/tomb of the Earth Mother, incubated in some mysterious "below realm" to be reborn at the next turning of the year.  It has been suggested that this concept goes as far back as the time of cave paintings, the caves themselves representing the womb of the Great Mother. 

The tale of Persephone is probably derived from the earlier Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna, wherein the Great  Goddess  Inanna descends into the underworld realm to encounter her Dark Sister, Ereshigal, who like Hades, or the Noric Hella, presides as Queen of Death.  In this myth, which preceeded the patriarchal Greeks, and it is the husband of Inanna, Dumuzi, rather than the goddess herself, who must travel for part of the year into the Underworld realm to become the husband of Ereshigal as well as the husband of  Inanna.

  "Persephone did what Inanna did. Persephone's myth is about moving into a new state of being.  All the soul riches, the knowledge, the art, everything was running down the drain into Hades and it stayed there.  It stopped circulating.  This was the myth of the descent of Inanna as well; everything went down to Ereshkigal, the keeper of the Underworld, and got stuck there in the universal unconscious.  Ereshkigal, the mind of the underworld, was on strike - she refused to process.   We can look at both of these stories, the stories of Persephone and Inanna, and see that these two Goddesses are pathfinders.  Pathfinders to the unconscious, to the other worlds.  Persephone, Kore who becomes Persephone, creates something new that was not thought of before her journey.  And that's a very important myth for our time.  And it's also why the Eleusinian Mystery, which was about Persephone and Demeter, was the defining experience of mature spirituality in the Mediterranean basin for 2,500 years."

    ......Elizabeth Fuller, The Independent Eye

 I felt like sharing again an excerpt from a book that has been  important to me in my own discovery of the  Goddess, the 1989 THE GODDESS WITHIN, by Jennifer Barker (formerly Woolger) and Roger Woolger.  And there is a personal story about that book I would like to share because it demonstrates the way, when we "follow our bliss", we can find a synchronistic pathway of "touchstones" that lead the way.  

In 2003 I spent a month at Byrdcliffe artists colony in Woodstock, New York.  I was working on some masks  about Persephone, and moved by the book, wanted to contact Jennifer Barker to thank her, and ask if she might possibly give me an interview.  Although I found references in the internet  to her living in Vermont and occasionally offering workshops specifically on women and the Persephone archetype, I could not find any way to contact her.

At Byrdcliffe during my residency they had a masked ball, and I happened to strike up a conversation with an artist who lived in the area.  We agreed to meet for lunch to continue the conversation the following week.  Over coffee I told her about my fascination with the Woolgers book,  how it looked like the Woolgers were originally from the area, but I was unsuccessful in locating the woman who wrote so profoundly about Persephone.  My lunch companion said "Oh, you mean Jennifer?  She and Roger got divorced and she moved to Vermont.  I can give you her number if you like."

It seems they were friends, and just like that I had a contact, and a personal introduction!   When something like this happens, it is not only encouragement to continue the Vision Quest, but it is also about being given a key to your own inner life work.   I did end up calling Jennifer Barker and making arrangements to go to Vermont for an interview, but as it turned out I had to return before I could make the trip.  I still very much regret that lost opportunity.

"Persephone" 2003


In the true life of the spirit there is both light and dark, joy and woe, and the unconscious has both a higher and a lower aspect.  To fulfill her greater destiny, Persephone cannot have one without embracing the other.  Her deepest challenge is to unite the dark and the light sides of the Goddess in herself.

At the heart of the great myth lies Hades, who is none other than Death personified.  When Persephone the maiden marries Hades, it is tantamount to saying that the maiden in her dies.  It is a figurative death, required by the greater wisdom of the psyche, a sacrifice that is also, as we have seen, an initiation.  Willingly or unwillingly, the Persephone woman has been called to renounce her innocent maidenly self and spend a large portion of her life going in and out of the underworld.  Most often she will do this in the role of a helper or guide to others.  Because she has been there herself, looked at the most terrible sides of human suffering, and survived, she is now a beacon.
It is no coincidence that all the accounts we have of the abduction of Persephone pass over in silence what happens to her immediately after Hades drags her into the darkness.  It is indeed a "mystery", a word that means "something that cannot be spoken"", from the Greek myein, which means "to keep silent".  Yet we know that death and loss were central to the mystical transformation that every initiate into the way of Persephone had to undergo. 

The return to the Mother, to Demeter is no longer the return of a maiden, but of a mature goddess, who now knows sexuality, death, and separation.  The return is a reminder that the two goddesses are in fact one, that together they represent the wholeness of being of the Great Mother, who can endlessly be separated from herself, endlessly die, and endlessly be reborn, as woman, as earth, as cosmos.

This is an awe-inspiring aspect of the primordial figure of the Great Mother that we have mostly lost today:  namely,  that she contains within her all opposites.  She is both youth and age, both maiden and mother, both warrior and tender of the hearth, and most significantly, both life and death.

Greek culture has been justly celebrated for its quality of brilliance and light, its establishment of the supremacy of reason, logic, and philosophy, it's lucid vision of the outer, physical world.  If there is a god who epitomizes this consciousness, it is Apollo, sublime god of light, reason and harmony.  Yet so much emphasis upon the light could not exist without a dark shadow being cast.  So, among the gods, as with the goddesses, there are splits and polarities.  The darker brother of Apollo is thus Dionysus, lord of ecstasy, madness, divine drunkenness, and sacrificial death, the very antithesis of Apollonian clarity.  Likewise, Zeus, imperiously sitting high upon his heavenly Olympian throne, must have a dark brother to oversee the lower depths - the mysterious and barely mentioned Hades. 

Once we realize this, we can begin to see that Persephone and her mother, Demeter, represent the two major opposite aspects of the primordial Great Mother that the Greek psyche was struggling to maintain.  Their myth represents, among other things, an attempt to see the whole momentous relationship of the higher and the lower, the light and the dark worlds, as part of a dynamic relationship, a cycle of life and death in which all beings participate.

If it were left to the male gods alone, there would be no such cycle, for masculine consciousness, lacking the inner mysteries of the body, of the menstrual cycle, of pregnancy and birth, has no cyclical awareness built into it.  Which is another way of saying that masculine consciousness knows nothing of the mystery of the life force. 

Masculine, Apollonian consciousness always tends toward mutually exclusive polarities:  something is either this or that, it is either day or night, but not both.  This is the whole basis of Aristotle's logic, one of the supreme achievements of Greek culture - at least according to the official patriarchal view of Western history.

Feminine or matriarchal consciousness, symbolized by the moon, lacks the extremes of mutually exclusive polarities - dark versus light, good versus evil - those dualities Western culture, especially Christianity, has grown so fond of.  Instead there is the model of the far subtler light of the moon in her infinite variations of light, shade, and darkness, forever changing, forever renewing herself…………The awesome side of Persephone as queen of death eventually became more frightening the more it was suppressed.  And it is, of course, in its suppressed form that it returns to torment the imagination of medieval Christianity in its paranoid fear of witches.

The mature Persephone who has returned from her journey lives somehow beyond the ordinary world, but she remains nevertheless intimately familiar with it.......In her completed form she unites the beginning and the end of the life cycle, birth and death in herself;  so, as an old woman she still retains her youthfulness, and as a young initiate she cheerfully carries the wisdom of years.”


“When a woman is over identified with Persephone she will invariably be attracted to situations in which she or others get hurt.  She may have accidents or strange illnesses that render her dependant upon welfare.  She may find herself unavoidably taking care of ailing or dying parents.  She may attract to her charming but ultimately brutal and intimidating men she cannot escape from.  None of these events are her doing.  They appear out of the blue; relentless, crushing, unexplained.  When we look at these stories more closely, we find one common pattern:  she is powerless and usually passive.  These things happen to her.  Yet she seems, on examination, strangely drawn to them, as if they were indeed her fate.  We are led to suspect that the Persephone woman has a secret attachment to a deeply human and intractable theme:  the wretchedness of the innocent victim!

Only Hades can claim the victim.  Only a genuine encounter that brings the death of all ego, all attachment to innocence, can put to rest the misplaced pride of the victim once and for all.  This is Persephone's challenge, her moment of truth.” 


“In her darkness and dividedness, the young Persephone woman yearns for the spirit to rescue her and deliver her from her inner confusion.  So when she learns of metaphysics and occult practices, she will frequently seek solace in the higher authorities of spirit guides, ascended masters, astrology, karma, and so forth.  This is part of the motivation that lead her to become a healer or channeler herself.  However, there is often a huge element of compensation in the way of the spirit, of channeled guides and masters, since it is all upward, into the light.  Unless she fully honors her dual nature, one that mediates between both the light and the darkness, between the living and the dead, she can become unaccountably arrested in her development.

Her true savior is not Zeus, but paradoxically, his dark brother Hades.  The wisdom of this extraordinary myth is that the source of Persephone's transformation comes from beneath, from the lower depths of soul, not from the higher reaches of spirit.  The spirit in its Olympian form cannot initiate Persephone.”

To be fully effective as a healer, Persephone must first, like all healers, heal herself.  But for Persephone this is not so easy.  Ironically her very capacity for empathy and psychic understanding is her greatest obstacle to the process.  Unless she finds outside help......all she will do is attract to her mirrors of her own unresolved victimization.

Why?  Because she does not know how to remain detached and separate from those whose suffering she feels so acutely; she lacks ego boundaries.  In her openness to the unconscious in herself and others, she is constantly fusing with the personalities and sufferings of those who are drawn to her.  Without the objectivity of a strong ego, she gets hopelessly bogged down in he morass of her patients' sufferings.


Understanding the meaning of Persephone's descent and her connection to the spirit realm is especially urgent today.  Thousands of women (and men) are currently discovering mediumistic talent or so-called channeling.  In addition to this, no one could fail to notice the minor epidemic of enthusiasm for metaphysics. Cold it be, as the late Joseph Campbell, the unparalleled authority on myth and religion observed, that the emergence of Persephone consciousness that we are currently seeing is actually part of a "twilight of the gods"?  In one of his last essays, written shortly before his death, Campbell raised the possibility that the old gods are dying and new ones are breaking forth from the collective unconscious to take their place as humanity approaches a whole new era.

If this is so, from a Jungian standpoint this would mean that the very structures and energies of the deep unconscious, which symbolically we perceive as "gods" and "goddesses" are undergoing a profound shift.  So, the type of persona who is most sensitive to such shifts, the seer or mediumistic type we are calling the “Persephone woman“, is going to be right at the center of this momentous eruption of new psychic and spiritual powers…..But to live for much of one's waking life "among the dead" can put enormous psychic strain upon any woman (or man) with a mediumistic temperament, especially when her experiences are misunderstood or feared, as is frequently the case.  More than any of the other goddess types, the Persephone woman can experience deep alienation, sometimes bordering on breakdown, if her true nature and vocation are not recognized. 

For the fact is that the underworld is essentially a place of spirits.  Which means that it is, alas, singularly lacking in warmth, substance, or what most of us would call reality.  How the Persephone or mediumistic woman relates to this realm, with its threats of dissociation, madness, and despair, therefore poses a unique challenge to our psychological understanding."

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Rebecca Solnit and the Power of Naming

"The universe isn't made of atoms, it's made of stories"

Muriel Rukeyser

We're incubating the future with the stories we tell.   So what are the stories, the mythos, that we individually and collectively create our societies with?   How much power does "story" really have?

I'm taking the liberty (once more)  of copying from the wonderful journal "Brain Pickings" by  Maria Popova.  Her perceptive review of a recent book by Rebecca Solnit.  I'm a great fan of both       and Rebecca Solnit.   Beyond the power of naming is also the important task of mythmaking for our time, and artists and writers are the storytellers who speak to that task, whether they realize it or not.  

Rebecca Solnit on Rewriting the World’s Broken Stories and the Paradigm-Shifting Power of Calling Things by Their True Names

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,”bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might“I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”
A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Solnit writes in the preface:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne of the folktale archetypes, according to the Arne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.
When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.
That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngTo name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.
More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThere are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.
What, then, can we do as namers and storytellers, as part of the truth-telling brigade that stands as warden of reality? Solnit offers:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngPrecision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record. It’s also a kind of self-respect… The search for meaning is in how you live your life but also in how you describe it and what else is around you.
The precision and respect of our words add up to the precision and respect of our stories — something Virginia Woolf implicitly recognized when she asserted that “words belong to each other” in the only surviving recording of her voice. When James Baldwin insisted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” he did so with an eye to storytelling as worldbuilding. Solnit addresses this — the remaking of stories as a remodeling of the world — in another piece in the book, exploring the responsibility of those tasked with telling the world’s truths: the writers, journalists, and storytellers whose words shape our understanding of reality. She writes:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngStories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
In a testament to the crucial importance — and difficulty — of breaking out of our presentism bias and taking a telescopic perspective of the past, she adds:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThere are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.” However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.
Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them. Break the story. Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.
In a sense, what Solnit is advocating for is the opposite of revisionist history — the opposite of the convenient erasure of wrongdoings and betrayals over which the lulling stories of the status quo are written. I think of it as revisionist future — the act of courage and creativity required for changing the terrain of reality by imagining alternative landscapes and new pathways of possibility. “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed in her poignant reflection on how imaginative storytelling expands the scope of the possible“We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom.”
Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers
But the most powerful and transformative imagination, Solnit reminds us, is the informed imagination:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.
Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

She considers the only antidote to these age-old stories:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngJournalists are the story-breakers whose work often changes the belief systems that then drive legislative and institutional change. It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it’s done with passion and independence and guts.
Building on her previous history-informed insistence that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” she highlights our warped weighing of which stories matter. Exactly half a century after Hannah Arendt — another of our civilization’s great political minds — considered the power of outsiderdom and asserted that “we humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human,” Solnit writes:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe tend to treat people on the fringe as ideologues and those in the center as neutral, as though the decision not to own a car is political and the decision to own one is not, as though to support a war is neutral and to oppose it is not. There is no apolitical, no sidelines, no neutral ground; we’re all engaged.
I think of the mainstream media as having not so much a rightwing or leftwing bias but a status quo bias, a tendency to believe people in authority, to trust institutions and corporations and the rich and powerful and pretty much any self-satisfied white man in a suit; to let people who have been proven to tell lies tell more lies that get reported without questioning; to move forward on cultural assumptions that are readily disproven; and to devalue nearly all outsiders, whether they’re discredited or mocked or just ignored.

Solnit turns to the largest-scale cultural assumption, erected by our civilization’s most unforgiving institutional, corporate, and political power structures — the selfsame assumption Carson had begun to dismantle half a century earlier — from which arises our largest-scale truth-telling responsibility:
2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngFor journalists and for human beings generally, the elephant in the room has been there for a long time. It’s not even the elephant: the elephant in the room is the room itself, the biosphere in which all life currently known to exist in the universe is enclosed, and on which it all depends, the biosphere now devastated by climate change, with far more change to come. The scale is not like anything human beings have faced and journalists have reported on, except perhaps the threat of all-out nuclear war — and that was something that might happen, not something that is happening. Climate change is here, and it is changing everything. It is bigger than anything else, because it is everything, for the imaginable future.
Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.
So please, break the story.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Butterflies in my Garden........

Quite the gathering of butterflies in my garden!  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

James Swan on the Presence of Place


“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

― Wendell Berry

I've been thinking about what my life long passions are of late, and what course I  might set for myself as an artist now.  I find that what I keep coming back to is that deep sense of the living Earth, the sense of presence I have always felt when in nature, or in the garden.  The Great Conversation.   In November I'm going to England, near Avebury, to attend a Conference called "Dreaming the Land:  Working with the Consciousness of Nature" .  I want to walk among the Stones of Avebury, re-visit the White Spring and Red Springs of Glastonbury, renew my aquaintance.  And talk with as many people as I can about what the living Earth means to them.  I hope to bring that inspiration home, and speak, as an artist, about it.  Gathering voices to help me understand how the Earth speaks to us, and how people have spoken to the Earth in the past.  

I think about a conversation I had once in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, N.Y,, with an artist named Caroline Beasley Baker.   She spoke about the Dreaming Earth:

"I once had a wonderful dream. I dreamed I was riding across the Australian desert at night. I was on a bus, and everyone was asleep. I looked out, across the dark, and saw, rising up out of the desert floor, these incredibly beautiful murals, in huge caverns lit by firelight. I knew they had been made by some consciousness predating humanity, that they had been here for millennia. They had never been seen in the world before, and were now rising up to the surface of the Earth.  Those paintings were more glorious than anything I've ever seen in my life! At the end of the dream, a voice said to me, "Caroline, that's the Earth dreaming".  The Aborigines believe that everything rises from the Earth, everything rests in the Earth and emerges when its time. That's what my dream was about: the Earth dreaming and awakening."1.

I felt like sharing here an article here by James Swan, who has written extensively about the  intelligence of the land, and has been a continual inspiration to me over the years.   Dr. Swan has published numerous books about the Spirit of Place.   His book "The Power of Place" draws on  26 presentations drawn from the five year Spirit of Place symposium  held in the US and Japan between 1988 and 1993.  I wish the symposium was still happening, because I believe it is vitally important that we learn again how to have communion with the Earth again.  How to regain our experience of being a part of the Conversation.    

The Spirit of Place Symposiums: 
 Seeking The Modern Relevance of Ancient Wisdom

By James A. Swan, Ph.D
"Modern man will never find peace until he comes
into harmony with the place where he lives." 

Carl Jung (Pantheon, 1964)


The ancient Greeks spoke of the "genus loci," or spirit of a place. They sited a shrine to honor the Earth Goddess Gaia at Delphi in Greece because the unique personality or spirit of that place was divined to be especially suited to Gaia residing there. Understanding the forces that drew the early Greeks to reach that decision may well be a concept that is at the very root of developing sustainable human societies on earth and creating tourism programs that maximize the unique values of each destination.

Like trees, the human spirit needs roots, and a primary root of the psyche is in the land. Psychiatrist Carl Jung was an explorer of those deeper regions of the mind, the unconscious, where symbols and primal energies originate. Jung declared there were two types of unconscious: personal, which is unique to each person, and collective, which is shared by all humans, and seems to have loose boundaries with other objects and creatures (Dell, 1968). In our sleep, the unconscious comes to the forefront, and Jung observed that people tended to have dreams of a similar archetypal nature when sleeping at certain places. Jung called such place perception "psychic localization," and asserted that it was an important part of human nature.

East Indian scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy agreed with Jung about the unique association between place and consciousness and noted that myths were frequently linked to certain places. He coined the phrase "land-nam," a term derived from the Icelandic tradition of claiming ownership of a place through weaving together a mythic metaphor of plants, animals and geography of a place into a unique mythic story (Luzac, 1935).

The spirit of place plays a strong role in traditional societies, where it is commonly held that each place has a personality and some places are associated with spiritual sentiments. Ancient wisdom deserves respect and preservation, but what additional value may such concepts as the spirit of place have for modern society?

The Spirit of Place Symposiums

From 1988 to 1993 my wife Roberta and I produced a five-year series of annual symposiums -- The Spirit of Place: The Modern Relevance of An Ancient Concept -- seeking to help restore the wisdom of the past about the significance of place and explore its meaning to modern times.

Each symposium was begun with an open call for papers, inviting people from all disciplines and cultural heritage backgrounds to share in a common quest for understanding the subtle power of place. Nearly 300 speakers participated in the programs, four of which were held in the United States -- University of California at Davis, Grace Cathedral, Mesa Verde National Park, and at the San Rafael, CA, Marin Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright -- and one was held in Sendai, Japan. Speakers represented disciplines as diverse as aerospace engineering, biophysics, psychology, architecture, biology, law, history, anthropology, music, dance and art. Members of 20 different American Indian tribes participated with speeches, music singing and dancing, along with others from Eskimo, African, Polynesian, and Oriental ethnic backgrounds. The rule that was used to organize such a diverse group was that they had to participate as peers, equal experts in whatever their profession. 

Thus panels blending a salmon fisherman with a physicist and an aerospace engineer with priest and a farmer became a common search for truth where many new alliances were forged. At each program, we concluded with a performance inspired by special places. Artists who performed included flutists Paul Horn and R. Carlos Nakai, dancer-choreographer Anna Halpern, keyboard artist Steven Halpern, Japanese recording artist Jun Hirose, and the rock-fusion band Earth Spirit.

Lessons of The Spirit of Place

In producing these programs our principle goal was to explore the modern validity of this ancient concept. We did not to try to start a spirit of place movement. Rather, we hope that what has taken place will set the stage for others to conduct programs that will advance our understanding of the power of places everywhere.  In these five programs, listening to nearly 300 speakers, formally and informally, we heard common themes emerge. The following are some of these shared areas of agreement:

1)Among indigenous cultures all around the world, the belief in the existence of special places of power and spirit seems universal. It is commonly believed that some places have spiritual powers, and these places are normally seen as cornerstones of traditional cultural belief systems. Modern society has often not paid much attention to sacred places, which is a source of great concern to traditional cultures. Another concern is that modern cultures tend to see places as only having value to the past or to other cultures, rather than to society in general.

2) At each of the five Spirit of Place symposiums researchers and designers from many disciplines agreed that gaining a sense of place is a very important part of their work, yet there is very little research on this topic or professional organizations seriously investigating the topic. Modern people are often aware of the unique spirit of a place, but do not have a vocabulary to express their feelings, except through art.

3) A characteristic style of art seems to arise from a geographic region; it is a voice that speaks to us through indigenous art of the spirit of that place. Drawings, paintings, carving, sculpture, stories, songs, poetry and dances, are all fed by the spirit of a place. The artist's mind is not so encumbered by the constraints of intellectual reasoning and so it becomes a more clear channel for the unconscious to expressed. He or she gives voice and form to the spirit of the land.

4)The experience of place is multi-faceted and influenced by culture, personal uniqueness and modality of awareness. There may be many more sensory processes by which we perceive the earth and nature than modern science and psychology are willing to admit. Ancient traditions such as Chinese Feng Shui assert that we have at least 100 senses to perceive place. The needs of modern society for ecologically conscious design suggests that in the training of designers we should seek to cultivate the inner designer as well as training professional skills.

5) Each place has a unique quality which in turn influences what can best be done there.
The built environment can serve as an amplifier of the powers of a place, or it can negate the influence of locality, yielding what Frank Lloyd Wright called "cash and carry architecture." Architecture and design that honors the spirit of place and gives it meaning and form expresses beauty and nourishes health and creativity. Architecture is ultimately a ritual in structural materials.

6)The act of making a pilgrimage to special places is among the oldest acts of human respect for nature and spirit, and one of the least understood and appreciated by modern society, despite the facts that we undertake pilgrimages by the millions each year. Psychology needs to better understand the value of pilgrimage to human life as it may be one of the most important ways that we can discover our meaning, find health, and be inspired, as well as build reverence for nature.

7)The lack of feeling connected to a place, especially a place where one lives and works, can be an important source of mental and physical stress. People need to feel peaceful where they are, and maintain a psychic connection with a place of natural beauty if they do not reside in one. Actor James Earl Jones, who gained his awareness of the power of place by growing up on a dirt farm in northern Michigan has observed: "I have always thought it quite wonderful and necessary to keep connected to nature, to a place in the country landscape where one can rest and muse and listen" (Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1993).

8) Geomancy is the spiritual parent of modern design. Many ancient geomancies understand the importance of the relationship between place and personal experience and take elaborate measures to insure people are harmonized with the spirit of a place. When principles of design from Feng Shui and other geomancies are applied to modern buildings and communities, positive results occur. We need to set aside our limiting beliefs and appreciate the power of such approaches in the same fashion that western science has acknowledged the healing values of acupuncture, even though modern science cannot prove the existence of the life force chi and other geomantic concepts.

9)Modern science is beginning to measure the subtle properties of place. We now know that air ions, electrical and electromagnetic fields do influence health and well-being. More research needs to be devoted to the study of subtle environmental fields. Documenting the existence and value of these fields, may well lead to a whole new art and science of design with modern science and ancient wisdom working together.

10) In a Spirit of Place keynote, psychologist Robert Sommer observed that people can become "a voice" for the spirit of that region as much as for a human community or a relationship. John Muir, for example, seemed to embody the spirit of Yosemite Valley. The Lakota holy man Black Elk was a voice for the Black Hills of South Dakota. Rachel Carson was inspired by Cape Cod to write about "the sense of wonder" in nature as well as the dangers of pesticides to ecological balance. Becoming a voice for the land creates a "psychic anchor" that seems to be important to mental health.

11) The spirit of place concept is less understood by modern society, and one result is that conflicts about the value of place can and do arise between traditional and modern cultures.It is easy to flame the fires of conflict in such situations, creating enemies to raise funds to wage wars that should never have to exist. This kind of self-righteous scapegoating is as exploitive as developers who wish to commercialize sacred places for the sake of pure profit. The more difficult task is to build bridges of respect and cooperation between traditional and modern cultures, but it is the only path that can lead us to greater harmony and understanding.

12) We need new laws and land-use categories that facilitate honoring the power of place, including recognition of sacred places. Creating the public policies that yield such laws will require cross-cultural communication, cooperation and understanding unprecedented in modern society.


The consensus among participants in the Spirit of Place Symposiums is that we must rediscover the wisdom about the power of place and turn it into practical concepts that will guide modern people to live in harmony with the earth, as well as show respect for ancient traditions. Learning to plan and design with respect for the unique spirit of each place is a touchstone of responsible eco-tourism that respects traditional cultures and provides important benefits to modern culture as well.


This paper is drawn from Dialogues With The Living Earth  by James and Roberta Swan (1996)


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