It's moving toward the dark time of the year, and I pulled out this article from 2015 to look at again. I've been considering what kind of opportunities for self and cultural growth "going into the Dark" might mean. One rather poetic thought was considering the "dark matter" that is believed to be the backdrop of the universe, the "Dark Mother/Matter". So it could be said that "endarkenment" is a form of going home. This was a talk I gave at the Claremont School of Theology for the Pagan Studies Conference, and I still like it......
The Dark Goddess in Art and Myth
Presented at the Pagan Studies Conference,
Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California 2015
Because of the limited time for this presentation, I would like to concentrate primarily on two "Dark Goddesses" that occupy a profound place in the developmental mythos of Western culture, both in the past and as an underlying template within the present as well. They are Hecate, the Greek Goddess of the underground and of the Crossroads, and Lilith, the Biblical first wife of Adam.
“Hecate” by William Blake
Here is Hecate, the Crone or Old Age aspect of the ancient Triple Goddess in her underworld, with the other aspects of the Triple Goddess behind her, holding, perhaps, the book of fate, painted by the English visionary William Blake. To me, this painting also suggests the prehistoric painted caves of the Paleolithic “underworld”, which archeologist Marija Gimbutas and her colleagues believed represented the underworld womb of the primal Great Mother. Although I am sure it was not his intention, still, the animals Blake includes in his underworld could be imagined as including those vibrant prehistoric creatures those ancient artists and hunters painted, deep within the earth. It is very possible that they did so to symbolically and ritualistically incubate, within the “womb/tomb” of the cave, new re-birth in the spring.
This idea may be related to the fact that, although there are many magnificent paintings of animals and birds in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet in France, the earliest known painted (as opposed to sculpted) representation of a human being is the truncated vulva form found deep within the caves at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc in France. It has been determined that this is among the earliest of the paintings in the site, and the bull form was apparently painted above the original painting at a later date. The paintings at Chauvet are from 28 to 32 thousand years old, and these magnificent recently discovered caves were the subject of an award winning documentary in 2011, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", by Werner Herzog.
Perhaps the first, and last, Dark Goddess is thus Gaia, Anima Mundi, the Great Mother Earth. Eco-feminist and art historian Gloria Orenstein, in speaking of a theology of Endarkenment, commented that it is:
“bonding with the Earth and the invisible to reestablish our experience of interconnectedness with all things, phenomenal and spiritual, that make up the totality of our life in our cosmos. Eco-feminist arts do not maintain that analytical, rational knowledge is superior to other forms of knowing. They honor Gaia’s Earth intelligence and the stored memories of her plants, rocks, soil, and creatures."
The dark is the place of creative becoming and unbecoming, the "dark matter" (Dark Mater) from which beginnings form and to which endings go, the serpentine, cyclical, circular intelligence of nature. Could the “dark matter” physicists theorize is the ultimate backdrop to the creative potential of the universe, be thus symbolized as the “cosmic womb” of the Great Mother, incubating and birthing galaxies, particles, stars and planets?
The dark, which is symbolized by caves, a hidden underground realm, and night, is the realm of the primordial Dark Goddesses that occur throughout human mythologies. Before the advent of patriarchal monotheism in Western culture there were many dark goddesses, often also associated with the Moon, weaving, fate, oracular powers, and of course death and rebirth. And snakes - everywhere one encounters the sacred, spiraling symbol of the serpent, which represents a seasonal cosmology that dies and is reborn - because the snake continually sheds its skin. Among such Goddesses are found Hella, Nordic underworld Goddess, the Norns or fates, Persephone, Nyx, Spider Woman when she leads each age through the birth Kiva, Dewi Sri, Rangda, and the Inuit Sedna, to name just a few.
In earthly terms, they are the composters of souls. "Compost" is another, organic word for the "Transmutation" that goes on within the depths of the soil of our planet, wherein the "gold" of renewed fertile life is distilled from rotting garbage.
Composting is the alchemy of life.
Who is the Dark Goddess as a psychological entity? In Fire of the Goddess by Katalin Koda, she writes that:
"The feminine qualities of darkness, moistness, birth, and blood symbolize the dark mother and our inner Initiate……When we face our shadow, we are initiated into our deepest powers. We may be afraid of these parts; these howling, undernourished, repressed, and rage-filled aspects of ourselves that demand to be heard, but which we cannot bear to face."
Working with the shadow means we are mining that internal psychic darkness for the evolutionary jewels that reside in the caves, and there are mythological stories that symbolize that quest and passage to wholeness. Among the “shadow Goddesses” that have been re-discovered, Ereshkigal, the Dark Twin sister of the Sumerian Great Goddess Inanna is one of the most ancient recorded myths about the eternal transmutation of life. It is also a potent tale of the journey into the unconscious to seek healing and wholeness.
The beautiful and powerful Queen Inanna must descend into the dark underworld realm of Ereshkigal, to encounter and heal the rift with the sorrowing and angry Queen of the Underworld. In order to do so she must give up at each of 7 gates as she descends one of her powers, arriving at last naked and utterly divested of all her symbols of rank and authority - her tokens of life. Like the story of Persephone, the Descent of Inanna may also be seen as about the integration of dark and light aspects of self that are necessary to achieve mature wholeness and empowerment, just as in the life of the earth all things die and them return. As playwright Elizabeth Fuller commented in a 2002 interview about her 2001 play “The Descent of Inanna”:
"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 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, which could be said of our collective predicament today. We can look at the stories of Persephone and Inanna and see that they are pathfinders. Pathfinders to the unconscious. That's a very important myth for our time."
Hecate is often shown with two torches that guide the maiden Kore out of Hades, to become the creative force of spring, the mature Persephone.
One torch is the past, the other the future. In that liminal place at the crossroads of time stands Hecate, the Goddess of the Crossroads, guide through the underworld. She is often identified with the moon as well, particularly the dark moon.
One of my favorite contemporary images of Hecate is by Lydia Ruhle, whose Goddess Banners travelled to conferences throughout the world. Notice the ever ubiquitous snake, found throughout the artwork in this presentation. While the snake is usually shown in the hand of Demeter, here Lydia has placed the snakes at the foot of Hecate, which to me represent the serpentine energies of nature, the Earth, the cycles of life/death/life. Hecate's Wheel also represents this continual cycling and reforming of life, the three aspects of the Goddess represented by the spokes of the wheel.
Contemporary artist Hrana Janto's Hecate stands at the crossroads with Cerebus, the three headed dog, holding the snake entwined staff and with a halo that represents the dark of the moon. Below is also shown a symbol called “Hecate’s Wheel”, which is associated with the Goddess, and the three aspects or Trinity represented by Hecate/Demeter/Persephone.
In 2002 an actress and ritualist named Damira Norris chose to invoke Hecate as a performance in a ritual theatre event that utilized the Masks of the Goddess collection. For her, working with the archetype of Hecate served as a guide through a very difficult transitional passage in her life.
As she described it,
"I remember lighting a candle each day to symbolize my commitment to my journey through the despair I felt at menopause. That's Hecate to me. She will not help you to avoid a thing, but She will bear a light for you on the path, which is really the path to mature empowerment and integration. I believe at certain passages in our lives our souls cry out "I want to get rid of this, I want to move on". And it's not easy."
Lilith is a Dark Goddess who has fascinated many artists. Her journey from the night time aspect of the Sumerian Inanna, from the owl-footed midwife who helps women to birth at night, into the feared succubus and demon of Jewish and Christian lore is a mythological journey that reflects the degradation of the sacred feminine, as well as the de-sacralization of sexuality in patriarchal monotheism. In medieval art she is often shown as a woman with the body of a snake, as she is also interpreted by the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. It is interesting to also note that by this time the life-affirming, healing symbol of the snake, so deeply associated with the ancient Goddesses, has become a symbol of evil.
According to various Biblical texts, Lilith was the first wife of Adam, made from the same clay. Because she would not submit to Adam she was banished from Eden, and God created another, presumably more compliant wife for the first man. But apparently Lilith occasionally managed to sneak back, and is often shown as the snake that offers the fatal fruit to naïve Eve.
But if so, what did Lilith really offer? Knowledge, the means to achieve self-hood within an understanding of the eternal, serpentine, cycles of life - the serpent of the ancient Great Mother. Alas for both Lilith and Eve, who in attempting self-hood became the penultimate Biblical scapegoats.
"Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people." ........ Carol P. Christ
Of her similar derived painting "Lilith and Eve", artist Linda Garland said:
"In the desert Lilith became the consort of Samael and other fallen
angels. Fury with Adam and grief for her slaughtered children led Lilith to plot revenge."
Well yes. Banished to the wilderness of the seething unconscious, children destroyed, scapegoated for the downfall of man, the very symbol of violent sexual repression epitomized by such collective hysteria as the Inquisition …….no wonder Lilith is also portrayed as a screech owl.
She is individually and collectively mighty pissed off.
Lilith is often portrayed as a succubus who comes in the night as a "wet dream", and many talismans were created to protect men from her seductions. Her offspring also continued to plague Adam's descendants as succubi or vampires. Some speculate that Lilith is the origin of the Vampire myth. In symbolic terms, Lilith may represent the female sexual energy that is subverted, repressed, and diabolized in "sky god" patriarchy. Within the constraints of Judeo/Christian/Islamic ethics, too often sexual expression itself has become sublimated or perverse instead of being regarded as sustaining or generative. Viewed in this light, Lilith is also the collective shadow rage of both women and the denied “feminine” aspects of men as well.
It was my privilege to interview a Bay Area artist and musician, David Jeffers, who worked with Lilith as a healer and artistic inspiration. I was very moved by his observations. "The pain of Lilith" he said,
"is so much about the divinity of human pain. People often only identify with Lilith's rage, the woman who was cast out because She would not accept inequality. For me She is not that simple. If you can't go beyond Lilith's first door, which is rage, you're going to be stuck; you aren't going to penetrate the emotional mysteries beyond. Lilith is the most intelligent archetypal power to aid in understanding the mechanism that underlies our unconscious motivations, she is about the ability to connect the subconscious to the conscious mind, so that information can become usable in your life and on your path. Lilith is the bridge. People who are linear in their thinking suddenly find their world shattered when Eros shoots arrows at them. Or when they have an experience that is inexplicable or traumatic, something that cannot fit into the model they've organized their lives around. There are references in the Cabala to what is called "breaking the shell". The mind set of "what you believe" is the shell, and Lilith is about breaking the shell. You have to fall apart to be put back together; because that's the only way you can be reconstructed. You cannot veneer the teachings of Lilith on top of "who you think you are". (2002)
In Lilith imagery we see the snake again, and again, and again, the ancient remnants of the once powerful Great Goddess. Here is a famous Lilith by the English artist John Collier. And here another by Franz Von Stuck, which he titled "Evil" that clearly derives from Lilith mythos. But was the snake always, like the seductive sexual potency of Lilith, evil? In the old kingdom of Egypt the word for snake or cobra was the same symbol as that for Goddess - the snake that represents the endless natural and psychic cycle of life/death/rebirth. It moves, like the sinuous energies of nature, in a spiral. The snake is also used in Eastern traditions to represent the generative force of the Kundalini moving through the chakra system.
But the enlightenment of Apollonian logic and tribal warrior sky gods (such as Yahweh is not serpentine. It is vertical, illuminated, bright and orderly, and the only way of the Sky god is up.
Here we have Faust and Lilith by the 17th century artist Richard Westall. The ubiquitous snake is barely visible in the foreground, and Faust cavorts with an innocent enough looking Lilith while a riotous party is seen going on in the background, one that could surely bring nothing but sheer damnation.
Here we have several contemporary Liliths interpreted by Roberto Ferri and Alexander Vilichinsky. They are there with a whole lot of snakes, which could also be viewed as a whole lot of Kundalini rising. The symbol remains potent, even if its original meaning is long lost.
But she waits to rise again.
In Opie Snow's Lilith series, Lilith is a primal, almost purely elemental force, which perhaps, viewed from the perspective of a woman artist, is neither desirable or wicked, but hurt, or possessed of enormous vitality, or both.
Here is Kiki Smith's Lilith - almost spider like, she observes from the wall, her eyes regarding the viewer with the clarity of a creature banished to the shadows, the hidden places, a creature of pain, pathos, fear and loneliness.
In Mark Rothko's "Rites of Lilith", I have always felt he spoke of the the desolation of that harsh and hidden landscape within the collective unconscious Lilith has been banned to.
But there is hope today for Lilith, who is increasingly refusing to be hidden, punished, and scapegoated in many sectors of society. She is rising again, full-bodied and well-lit within the spirits of women and the collective evolving psyche of humanity. Here, for example, is a painting by Mariam Zakarian called "The Lilith Effect". The artist has an entirely positive view of Lilith…..the rising Earth Serpent and the Goddess seem to be generative indeed, a virtual cornucopia.
And of course, the Lilith Faire.
Blake, William, The Night of Enitharmon's Joy, 1795
Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization, 1989, Thames & Hudson, NY
Vulva cave painting, Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, France:
The painting occurs in the deepest of the Chauvet Cave chambers, and is identified as “the Venus and the Sorcerer”. It seems that archeologists simply cannot view this female image, or the ubiquitous “Venus” statues of the same period, as being other than a kind of “caveman erotic art”. As a “Venus” image, the painting is presumed to be in sexual association with a bison head that was painted above the vulva form at a later date, and “must” therefore represent a male “sorceror”. But viewed from another perspective, this image may have nothing to do with representing a “venus” or love goddess in service to a magical male with the head of a bison. Rather, it may represent the source of rebirth, the body of the prime Deity. And the bison, like the other animals, may represent the children of the “Great Mother’s Source” awaiting re-birth.
Herzog, Werner: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Documentary, 2010
Orenstein, Gloria, Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism ,
Sierra Club Books, 1990
Koda. Katalin, Fire of the Goddess: Nine Paths to Ignite the Sacred Feminine,
Llewellyn Press, 2011
Fuller, Elizabeth, Interview with Elizabeth Fuller with Lauren Raine, the Independent Eye Theatre, 2002
Ruhle, Lydia, “Hecate Banner”, 2015
Janto, Hrana, “Hecate” 1996 (http://www.hranajanto.com)
Norris, Damira, “Interview with Damira Norris by Lauren Raine”, 2002
Raine, Lauren, “The Masks of the Goddess” collection, 1999 to 2019 (www.masksofthegoddess.com)
Giachino, Augusto, “The Third Sister”, Film, 2014, http://www.augustogiachino.com/the-third-sister
“A contemporary interpretation of the mythical Hecate, the three-bodied goddess that governs human fate, using modern dance choreographed expressly for film. This short is centered on the evocative power of ancient archetypes, their continued relevance in examining our modern lives, and the role they play in addressing human desires and fears.”
Michelangelo, di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, “The Temptation of Adam and Eve”,
Sistene Chapel, 1508 - 1512
Christ, Carol P.,
Garland, Linda, "Lilith and Eve", http://www.lindagarland.co.uk/
Jeffers, David, “Interview with David Jeffers by Lauren Raine”, 2002
Collier, John, “Lilith”, 1892
Von Stuck, Franz, "Evil", 1905
Westall, Richard, “Faust and Lilith”, 1831
Ferri, Roberto, “Lilith”, 2009, https://silindro.tumblr.com/tagged/Roberto-Ferri
Vilchinsky, Alexander, “Lilith”, 2010
Fryer , Paul, “Lilith”, 2008,https://www.wadewaxworks.com/Lilith-Paul-Fryer-2008 , https://paulfryer.net
Snow, Opie, “Lilith”, https://opiesnow.com/portfolio/
Smith, Kiki, “Lilith”, 1994, https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/teen-blog/2014/lilith
Rothko, Mark, "Rites of Lilith", 1945, https://www.mark-rothko.org/rites-of-lilith.jsp
Zakarian, Mariam, "The Lilith Effect", 2010, https://www.mariamzakarian.com/
Lilith Fair: “Lilith Fair was a concert tour and travelling music festival, founded by Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan, Nettwerk Music Group's Dan Fraser and Terry McBride, and New York talent agent Marty Diamond. It took place during the summers of 1997 to 1999, and was revived in the summer of 2010. It consisted solely of female solo artists and female-led bands. In its initial three years, Lilith Fair raised over $10M for charity.”