Traditions? Ashes or flames?

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Tradition is the handing down of the flame, not the worship of the ashes.”
Gustav Mahler, Austrian composer and conductor, 1860-1911

I found a version of this quote in Annette Høst’s article “The Legacy of Seidr: History, Experiences and the Path Ahead,” in the latest issue of A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism (Vol. 6, Issue 1, Spring 2013), the membership publication of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners.

This is a spring-cleaning time, whisking out a lot of accumulated excess stuff, especially that stuff that – even if it blazed bright in the past – is now no more energetic than a pile of ash.  Physical cleaning is great and cathartic, but the inner cleansing is vital, too, which means out with the beliefs and ideas that no longer serve me.  Honoring  the past and its lessons doesn’t mean getting stuck there.

So… Bravo for the past service of some items and ideas, but it’s time for dead ashes to be swept away, the better for fresh flames to burn clearly.  And Beltane approaches, a good time for inviting fresh fire energy.

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Mahler etching by Emil Orlik, c. 1903.  This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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The Magical Reappearing Women

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Wow, thought young-teenager-me, a woman artist!  The only ones I’d ever heard of were Georgia O’Keeffe and Grandma Moses.  The name I had found was “Joan Miró.”

Oops. I quickly realized that Joan is a variation on Juan.  I felt like crying.

This was during the early 1960s, before the rediscovery of so many female artists  during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, a resurrection largely driven by the women’s movement.  Like an archeological dig into history, there were all these amazing women artists hidden just out of sight, apparently ignored during their own lives and then further forgotten by time.  That reclamation is often called herstory.

But guess what?  Many of those artists were known, even respected and successful, in their own time.  Here’s a tiny list of a few:

I’ve seen popular books on art history from the late 1800s that mention many of these artists.  Most weren’t been buried very deeply at all until the mid-1900s.

So what the heck happened?

H. W. Janson happened, known to generations of college and university art students as the Janson who wrote History of Art, which first appeared in 1962 and remained the standard art history text for decades.

The number of women artists Janson included?  Zero.

This wasn’t an accident.  Like Jane Austen’s Mister Darcy describing the rarity of “really accomplished” women, Janson said: “I have not been able to find a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one-volume history of art.”  A revised Janson edition in 1986 finally included some women artists: By then, the wealth of research made it impossible to entirely exclude them.  (You can find some references listed at the bottom of Wikipedia’s “Women artists” page, and see more images reaching much farther back in time at Suppressed Histories Archives.)

Art, and the absence and eventual re-emergence of women artists, is part of my background and studies, and more viscerally, part of my coming-of-age DNA.  I’ve never forgotten this particular gender issue – the lie – but it no longer keeps me awake at night.

Fast forward, from art to shamanism, and Mircea Eliade.  He was the author of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (France 1951; in English 1964) an extremely influential popular text on shamanism.  Having slogged through Techniques of Ecstasy myself a couple of times, I’d noticed the near-absence of women.  I assumed ignorance or worse.  It was worse…

Enter Barbara Tedlock’s excellent book, The Shaman in the Woman’s Body.  While Tedlock’s focus is on the many powerful women working in shamanism in the world, today and throughout history, she does mention their relative scarcity in recent texts on historical shamanism.  In fact, there’s so little mention of women in Eliade and most post-Eliade texts that I’ve had discussions with people – they’ve tended to be male people – who feel they can state for a fact that most shamans are male.

Yet, according to Tedlock, “[Mircea Eliade] never met a living shaman and thus had to depend on published sources.” That’s our expert?  Bad enough, but far worse: Contrary to his own source material, Eliade “went out of his way to deny shamanic status to women.”  The women that Eliade did mention were generally misidentified as “sorceresses,” or “possessed” or as being engaged in evil or just plain ineffectual practices. 1

And that wasn’t true. From Tedlock again:

One of the authors [Eliade] cited was Jan Jacob Marie de Groot. But de Groot, perhaps the most authoritative source on ancient Chinese religion at the time, had actually noted that women shamans predominated in early Chinese shamanism and that they were considered great healers… [Eliade’s] erasure of women from important religious roles was not even remarked upon for forty years. 2

Sure enough, working off Eliade and subsequent writers who use him as a primary source, many people come away with the erroneous impression that women practitioners are rare in shamanism.  And that isn’t true.  But Eliade’s prejudices have become a perpetuated lie.

Tedlock’s terrific book – another reclamation – mentions Eliade and “the disappearing act” as just one facet of her rich research.  Her focus is on the amazing work that shamanic women have always done and continue to do.

Janson’s and Eliade’s: Have either of these particular old lies impacted your own work?  While I love setting my own course, I’ve found that I like knowing that someone has gone before and “broken a trail,” made a path that I can perhaps follow, or at least know that someone else made an attempt.  Although art and shamanism both are so inherently idealistic and alive and lit with passion, art can also be isolating, and so can shamanism.  Obscuring a trail is a low-minded, sneaky deed.  Done like this, it cuts away chances for inspiration and continuity and community.

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I’m thinking of all this today because of Pamela Colman Smith, arguably one of the most influential artists in the world.  And relatively unknown.  She’s the artist behind the 1909 “Rider-Waite” tarot deck.  Her work was shown in New York by Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery 291, years before he crossed paths with Georgia O’Keeffe.

Tarot people know Pamela Colman Smith, but she is still nearly unknown outside the realm of tarot.  The tarot images she created have inspired dozens – probably hundreds – of other decks, and every day around the world, thousands of people look at her art, or derivations of it, as they have their tarot cards read. Influential and unknown.

For every trail we forge going forward, chances are there are multiple  paths tracing back to earlier roots that can help inspire the way.

We’ve got to keep brushing away all the damn dust.

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1 Tedlock, Barbara, Ph.D.  The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine.  New York: Bantam Books, 2005, pages 63-64.

2 Tedlock, pg. 64.

Milky Way at 4:30 AM

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Mountain hot springs.  Soaked.  Ate a late dinner and went to bed, sleeping erratically.  Some hours later, a voice:

“Hey, it’s 4:30.”

“Great.  Let’s do this.”

We bundle into robes and step outside and…

There it is: The Milky Way, arching out low over the eastern horizon from Scorpio in the south to Cassiopeia in the north.  A dense river of stars.  And all around it, in every direction, all the other kajillion stars in the whole galaxy (well, that’s how it felt) plus a pale yellowish Saturn.

Scorpio rears up tall, HUGE, its nasty stinging tail dangling low to the horizon, its  Antares-heart glowing red.  Just to the scorpion’s left is the Sagittarius “teapot” asterism, also huge.

Back in my art history classes, we saw every artwork the size of a slide screen – and then later got of the shock of realizing how petite most Paul Klee paintings really are, and how massive and over-powering the Sistine Chapel ceiling really is.

We see constellations in books and in software programs, constrained in size.  In reality, they’re vast.

The sheer size of this mountain night sky is overwhelming, breath-taking, awe-filled, exciting.  How can I go back to sleep after this?

But I do, seeing something like an after-image of this Milky Way arch across the room’s pitch-black ceiling before I drop of to sleep.

This is my church.

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Image of Scorpio, the Milky Way and the Teapot from the Starry Night astronomy program.

 

Mars and Venus on a hot Solar date

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Venus and the Sun conjuncted a few days ago.  Now, as Venus edges out a bit to the east of Sol, she meets Mars, who’s moving into one of his rare-ish solar conjunctions.

For now – April 6 and 7, 2013 – Venus and Mars are conjunct just east of the Sun, as loosely depicted above by Titian, c. 1530*.  The amorously conjoined planets are too close to the Sun to be visible to the naked (and unprotected eye): less than 1 degree from each other, and less than 3 degrees from the Sun.

Sun-Mars conjunctions are kind of a big deal, since the Sun gets together with Mars less often than any of the other planets, even big slow-moving Saturn or Jupiter.  Mars only conjuncts the Sun every 25-to-26 months.

Even Johannes Kepler, modern master of comprehending planetary motion, struggled to formulate a theory to express the movement of Mars… Like a wayward friend on the day you need help moving, Mars shows up when he feels like it.

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Especially in contrast to the elegantly predictable eight-year cycle of Venus, Mars is more like the guy your parents don’t trust to bring you home on time.  This is part of what fuels Mars’ reputation as  war-like and rebellious.  And his depictions in art?  Think Renaissance-era Sexy Fireman calendars.  That Bad-Boy mystique has some serious mileage on it.

Mars and Venus don’t meet often either.  After this encounter, they go their separate ways until late February 2015, but then separate again.  They have a near-miss in early February 2017, but Venus retrogrades away at 5 degrees.  They finally reunite in early October 2017, this times in the predawn sky and far enough ahead of the Sun (23 degrees) for splendid viewing.

But right now, Sun, Venus and Mars are clustered together.  The grouping will separate over the coming week, but for now I’ll be opening my awareness to how this might feel – my desire for harmony and beauty and love (Venus) mingling with my various passions and life-force exuberance (Mars), and my ability to conjoin and embody these qualities, and then step it all forth as my presence in the world (Sun).

Mars also has a less martial, more verdant, identity.  One astrologer friend views Mars as the Green Man.  Another astrologer friend quotes Dylan Thomas

…the force that through the green fuse drives the flower…

May Mars in his ancient aspect of wildwood Mars Silvanus carry His instigating spark into this arriving Spring.

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*Titian’s “Mars, Venus und Amor,” plus a sky-shot via Starry Night astronomical software, and a vintage Sun.  PS: Mars and Venus were conjunct the Sun in 1530, too.  Did Titian know?  Or care?

“Descanso de Marte,” Diego Velázquez, 1640.

Some phrases lifted directly from the Night Sky book, © 2011.

Mourning, Moving to the Stars

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As people throughout several on-line communities post their expressions of sadness on the passing of film critic Roger Ebert, I went looking back over some of his writings and posts, and found this amazing quote.

It comes not from Ebert himself, but from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, around June 9, 1888:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

I’ve recently been visiting with a friend in hospice, someone who won’t be traveling “on foot,” but rather is taking one of those “celestial means of locomotion.”  Amidst the vulnerability, turmoil and pain of illness itself, this person has such clarity and calm anticipation of the view forward to their approaching transition.

We’re all just visitors here.  And then, back to the stars.

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Vincent van Gogh, quoted in Ebert’s piece, “I do not fear death,” from Salon, September 15, 2011.  Also here on this van Gogh site.