Monday, September 24, 2012

Letters from the Underworld: Ecstasy and the Century Plant

An archaeologist's favorite mysterious places...

As I think back, this is where a part of me came alive.

It happened, it seems, about a million years ago. I was naive to the hilt, eyes wide, devouring the world with an appetite of lust and fear.

That's the way we need to be when we are twenty.

I had moved to Greece to study the language and culture, and was spending the first weekend on a small island in the Saronic Gulf. As I sat with the other students, finishing our meal, we watched the sun melt into the sea, flanked by a set of century plants, their single blossoms piercing the violet sky. A spoon against a water glass was followed by silence. Our program director stood up and said just one word.

Ecstasy.

Katharine looked intently at the spellbound group around the dinner table. We let the word sink in as the sun sagged lower, fusing alchemically with the turquoise water.

The word is from the Greek, she finally continued. Ex, meaning out of and stasis, meaning standing.

This is Greece - a place imbued in history. What I want for you is to create your own life history, she encouraged us. Experience everything it has to offer. To stand outside yourself, she said - to step out of yourself - is what I expect you to do here in the coming months.  

And in the months ahead, step out I did. Listening to the silence at Delphi and letting the bees tell me its secrets. Swimming in a hidden turquoise cove, then - thanks to a local fisherman - plunging my foot in a bucket of urine to release a sea urchin thorn. Getting stranded on an island in the middle of a winter storm and sleeping in my clothes, freezing, hoping the seas will calm and the ferry will return. Dancing on rooftops till dawn, fueled on ouzo, tossing glasses over the edge. Watching the sun rise over Olympia, breaking through a fog encased valley, wondering when Athena will begin to speak. Watching the moon rise over the Parthenon, reflecting off its white fluted columns while being serenaded by friends on my twentieth birthday. Speeding down a dark mountain road with a group of friends after a village celebration, terrified to be in a car that was driven by a guy I realized too late, was drunk. Feeling so desperately lonely and distant from anything familiar in life, driven to question everything I ever believed, even my sanity, and wondering when the maenads would get off my back. And when the maenads were holding me down, realizing, years later, they were trying to whisper that the meaning of agony - a struggle and the pain that goes with it - is from the word agon - a gathering, or contest for a prize. Originally a happy celebration.

So this is what I learned - in life, as in words, the Greeks had innately understood that every experience, every meaning was bound with its opposite, and from the pain that goes with a struggle comes the knowledge to stand outside of yourself. 

On that little island we visited our first days in Greece, this is the view that greeted me every morning. Pushing open the shutters, the sea was my living room. And just around the corner, out of sight, were the century plants that I would never look at again without remembering this moment, this place, reminding me to live life to the fullest.


So this is a place where part of me was born. And in a way, a place that compels me to die to the illusions of this life until I learn why I am here.

Will I ever learn? I ask that question each time I step foot on Greece's - at times seemingly infernal, yet eternally sacred - landscape.

Shortly after my mother died, the century plant behind my parents' house did something it had never done the entire time they lived there - it bloomed. A single, elegant shoot extending so high into the sky that it was visible from down the road, towering over the property.

It reminded me of the first time I saw such a plant, and learned the meaning of a word - both of them rooted deeply in the Greek firmament - and the lesson that opposites: agony and ecstasy, darkness and light, life and death, are intrinsically and irrevocably linked.

So yes, I think it may have been she. Standing outside herself.

Stepping out.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Goddesses in the Dust: The Veiled Prophet

Unearthing the divine feminine, one archetype at a time...
The founders of the Grand Krewe of Osiris in Memphis, Tennessee, whose 1954 King and Queen Osiris XVI Robert Heard, Jr. and Isis XVI Marion Canale King Woodall are shown here,  are also thought to be members of the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet 
If this looks creepy to you, raise your hand.

When I first moved to this part of the Midwest some years ago, I had no idea that customs, such as the debutante ball, continued. Our city's version, known as the Veiled Prophet, is held in December, but every July 4th the organization sponsors a fair, drawing over a million people to its annual fireworks display, one of the largest in the country. The Veiled Prophet organization does charitable work to enhance civic life, but its strange origins and traditions die hard, and there are folks who take this thing very, very seriously. 

I mean, look at these guys.

This definitely falls under the category of things that make you go hmmm? 

While I was researching the origin of the Veiled Prophet I came across a book written by a woman named Lucy Ferriss. Back in 1972 she was 'presented to society' at the VP ball. Self described as a 'reluctant debutante' her book, Unveiling the Prophet, tells the story of how a militant organization called ACTION protested the event. This was the Vietnam War era, and a debutante ball for rich girls must have seemed deplorable in a city with overcrowded government housing projects and a country in which violent protests were breaking out on college campuses. It also must have seemed pretty outdated with women in the rest of the country burning their bras and fighting for equal rights. 
ACTION leader Percy Scott demonstrating outside the 1972 Veiled Prophet Ball
At the 1972 VP ball that Ferriss attended, an ACTION protestor and civil rights activist named Gena Scott broke into the event and - in a move worthy of cinematic action heroines - slid down a cable into the auditorium and tore off the veil of that year's 'prophet'. Being unmasked from what Ferriss referred to as his "eerily Klan-like costume" was apparently a big deal, as the whole point is maintaining the secrecy of his identity. 

According to historian Thomas M. Spencer, the Veiled Prophet organization was founded in 1870 to boost participation in a local agriculture and mechanical fair held in October. After a general strike in 1877 when railroad wages were cut, Spencer states the ball and parade were developed as more of a "show of power than a gesture of healing." 

The businessmen who concocted the organization back in the 19th century based it on a poem by Thomas Moore, the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, whose main character wore a veil to either cover up his beauty or ugliness, depending on the version. The founders' explanation for the veil was to assure the focus of the group's deeds remain with the organization as a whole and not on any one member. A New Orleans native named Charles Slayback, whose background was in grain sales, contributed many of the ideas for the Mardi Gras-styled affair. After the protests in the 1970s the VP's annual parade was moved to the 4th of July in an apparent attempt to transform the organization's identity from elitist to serving everyone. 

Strangely, an early Veiled Prophet parade was themed the "Festival of Ceres," Ceres being the Roman name for Demeter, the Greek Goddess of agricultureAs readers of my blog probably know, Demeter is the mother of the Goddess Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and her consort Pluto, or Hades, is known both as the God of Wealth and King of the Underworld. An organization that revolves around wealthy men, secrecy and a young woman who is chosen as the Queen of Love and Beauty bases its origins on not only a Middle Eastern-styled poem but mythological archetypes, and has powerful overtones of ancient Greek mystery cults. 

As with all things anachronistic, this annual spectacle will undoubtedly continue to polarize people into two camps: those who love the ritual, and those who wonder why in the 21st century women would agree to don a ball gown

and bow very deeply in front of a man wearing a veil.

So if you think this looks like fun, then come on down to the VP ball, strap on a feather headdress, grab your closest Prophet of Khorassan and party like it's 1899!
Photo credits: Google images, Osiris, Ladue News, St. Louis Today, Life magazine, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Guest of a Guest

Monday, September 3, 2012

Goddesses in the Dust: Hecate and the Crossroads

Unearthing the Divine Feminine, one archetype at a time...
Triple Hecate
Persephone is actually part of a trinity of goddesses representing the three major phases of a woman's life. Maiden is the equivalent to Persephone, Mother is related to the goddess Demeter, and Crone - or Wisewoman - is represented by Hecate.

Hecate has been given a bad name, much in the way age has a negative connotation in our society. Every commercial you see on TV and every slick ad in fashion magazines screams at consumers to do everything one can to keep aging at bay - to look youthful forever.

But what does this do to our perception of growing older? Wrapped in such pessimistic marketing, our western culture's tendency to focus on youth and beauty sends the message that aging is to be avoided at all costs. But what about the wisdom that is gained from having lived many years? Why don't we value our elders as other cultures do? This is where Hecate comes in.

As D.J. Conway states in her book, Maiden, Mother and Crone, 

"The Crone aspect of the Great Goddess is the least understood and most feared of the three aspects. She has been called the Terrible Mother, the Hag, the Dark Mother, the Wise One. Because She deals with death and the end of cycles, most people tend to avoid this face of the Goddess. In life, we go out from the Crone's recycling cauldron into existence, then eventually return again to Her waiting vessel. Jung calls Her the dark side of the human psyche. Sometimes this is called the 'shadow self', the dark personal demons we each have buried in the subconscious mind. In order to heal these wounds and exorcise these demons, we need to follow the inner labyrinth to the place where the shadow self dwells. We must develop a relationship with this shadow self, the Dark Mother within, before we can empower ourselves again."
Hecate and Cerberus, Apulian red-figure krater ca. 4th century B.C.. Munich
Hecate is called the goddess of the crossroads because food offerings were often left at three-way intersections in her honor. Sometimes three masks would be hung from a pole erected at the intersection by those seeking guidance from the goddess in choosing the right direction. 

It was Hecate who "saw" Persephone's abduction by Hades, the god of the underworld, and informed her mother, Demeter. Yet as Conway states, "she does not interfere when the Maiden is dragged down into the underworld. Demeter is outraged and vengeful, but Hecate remains calm, knowing that certain things in life must come to pass and there is little point in becoming hysterical about them. If we do not know this aspect of the Goddess or acknowledge Her wisdom, we cannot have a truly integrated personality."


A few years ago I visited ground zero for the goddess trio of Persephone, Demeter and Hecate. This crossroads is now the intersection of the ancient and modern at its worst. Surrounding the modern village and ancient site of Eleusis are flaming towers of oil refineries. Tankers are anchored off the coast to offload crude oil from the Middle East and the smell of burning oil permeates the air. Scattered everywhere are remnants of magnificent temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were celebrated annually at this site just outside Athens. If you close your eyes, you can imagine the ancient beauty of the landscape, in which elegant buildings stood among the pine groves, waiting for hundreds of pilgrims to walk the Sacred Way from the Parthenon to be initiated into the ancient secret cult. 

Somehow, Hecate is patient with humanity. She personifies the wisdom of age when we learn from the mistakes we've made in life. Hecate teaches us that, instead of fighting against them, we can move forward in understanding and cooperating with the natural rhythms and wider cycles of life.