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“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons”–My December Pick

As K.P. and I reflect on our past year’s posts, we decided to select first our favorite posts to write. Perhaps my “favorite” post is the one that started out to be the one I dreaded most–the post on our “women warriors.” This one was difficult for all the reasons I outlined in the original article, but once I got started, I kept finding more things to say. Though I also love my Arthurian articles, enjoying Camilla surprised me in a good way, and the article I procrastinated the most ended up being the most fun to write. So, without further ado, here’s a re-visit of “With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons.”

“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons: The Carnage of Camilla”

Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

With the year coming to a close, I thought I’d take the chance to talk a little about some of my favorite posts I’ve worked on this year. My top favorite is rather recent but was a joy to write…Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death. Awgawd, I could analyze these concepts in history and literature forever. I’m sure, for those who follow our blog regularly, you will notice that I am particularly fascinated with this theme. When I was a college freshman, a dear professor of mine introduced me to Marija Gimbutas. The perspective offered by Gimbutas captivated me and gave me a new lens to study history. While Gimbutas’s work is not perfect, it is monumental in that it challenged us to flip gender expectations in history on its head. When we do, suddenly a lot of connections come along with that perspective. Pythia and this article was one of those moments. You can imagine how tickled I was when that dear professor of mine agreed to contribute to Unbound (Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg – highly suggest you check her bio on our Guest Contributor page). More on that in my next blog post. In the meantime, I hope you can enjoy this article either again, or for the first time.

Unbound

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words…

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Death, Lust and Fire: The Many Aspects of Women in the Ancient World

Winter is the cold, long dark. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, made popular by the Game Thrones television show has even thrust the phrase, “winter is coming,” into common use. Many people complain of the snow, ice and frigid temperatures, longing for the warmer seasons or to finally, “move somewhere tropical,” where they can escape the ache in their bones.

But ancient belief systems did not compartmentalize their experience of the year into good or bad categories. They were simply folded into seasons, times of particular purpose for either agricultural or pastoral peoples. Winter was indeed the cold, long dark. It was threatening and required preparation in order to survive. But it was also a time of rest, of slowed movement, kinship and fire.

Women’s lives and roles were much the same. The trajectory of marriage and motherhood as the singular destination of women was not popularized until Christianity took hold. Instead, women of the ancient world existed in multiple spheres, in many 1280px-John_Bauer-Frejaroles, sometimes in sequence, sometimes simultaneously. There wasn’t a common of locked-in fate or unalterable identity that was held for a lifetime. Certainly there were exceptions, just as there were exceptions to the marriage/motherhood role of Christian Europe. These were viewed as parts of a woman’s life. The ravages of disease, childbirth and violence most likely helped promote this, as women who survived could easily find themselves a mother or wife one moment and not the next. Since the emphasis on virginity and sexual faithfulness did not hold the strength it did in the Christian world, this additionally contributed to freedom of movement for women into many roles.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the myriad of identities held by female divinity. In last week’s article, E.J. articulated the many aspects that the Celtic goddess Brigid held. From prophetess, poetry, midwife to smithy, Brigid seemingly did it all. Some goddesses

800px-Tjängvide
Tjangvide Stone – Warrior welcomed to the Norse afterlife

seemed to embody aspects that were in conflict, such as the Norse Freyja who traditionally is attributed as the goddess of love, but whose roots are clearly in early fertility worship. She is not only the patron of love, but of lust and death, picking first from the glorious Viking dead to reside in Folkvangr, near her home.[1]

The Hellenic stele inscription that serves as our theme for this month, also describes the life of woman who not only was a mother, but a priestess for multiple deities as well as serving as a patroness, possibly as a mentor. The multiple aspects of ancient goddesses reflected well the reality of a woman’s life—varied, often changing but all part of the same person.

Hailed in neo-pagan beliefs is the concept of the triple goddess, described as the “maiden, mother, crone.” This refers to three major phases of a woman’s life based on age and roles she may play. These aspects are derived from many examples of ancient divine figures, but more importantly the number three when referring to female roles. Ancient divinity abounds with triple aspect goddesses.

The Norns in Norse mythology held dominion over even the Viking pantheon. Loosely, they represented what has occurred, what is currently occurring and what will occur. The Ancient Greek mythos includes The Fates who oversee the thread of life, spinning, measuring and finally cutting the lives of mortals. Even the Celtic Brigid with her manyMorrigan identities is segmented into three aspects where she represents the maiden, mother and crone. The dark and often chilling Celtic goddess Morrigan is among those who play seemingly competing roles as she represents both war and fertility. Sometimes “Morrigan,” is instead a title that contains three goddesses: Badb, Macha, Nemain.[2] These associations are varied as at times these aspects are depicted as sisters of Morrigan and in others they represent goddesses of war and death with hazy lines between their specific roles.

There are many arguments that could be made for social improvements that came along with the establishment of Christendom, or conversely the degeneration of society due to the loss of ideas from the pagan world. There is a fascinating relationship between the ebb of pagan beliefs, the rise of Christianity and the value of women (where value varies significantly on the role of wife and mother). However, to the credit of many ancient pagan societies, the female identity was originally fluid and changing. Ultimately acknowledging the realities of life and women’s place within a community, culture and in the great divine.

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[1] “Freya the Goddess of Love.” Norse Mythology. Accessed 18 NOV 2017. http://norse-mythology.net/freya-the-goddess-of-love-in-norse-mythology/

[2] “Morrigan.” Encyclopedia Mythica. Accessed 18 NOV 2017. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/morrigan.html

Brigid, the Goddess of Wisdom and Everything Else

I love studying mythology. Since we generally live in a society that brushes myths off as “mere superstition” and “just stories,” we run the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; of denying the truth of mythology simply because it does not line up with our understanding of the facts.

But facts and truth are not the same person. They are siblings–they share blood, and perhaps DNA, but are two distinct, unique beings.

For if mythology were “mere superstition,” we should have no need of any fiction, for fiction–and mythology especially–are not just stories which allow us to escape from this world. Rather, they are stories that allow us to understand it. Few stories do this better than creation myths.

There are those who say all creation myths are the same. There’s something to that–but only because they do not vary by kind; still, they do vary somewhat by degree.

180px-The_Great_Holker_Lime_at_Holker_Hall_-_geograph.org.uk_-_271197
The Great Holker Lime at Holker Hall (John Clive Nicholson)

But in considering our November theme of women who have experienced much and done much, I could think of no mythological figure who fit this theme better than the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose role is pivotal not only to the Celtic creation myth, but to the culture as a whole. Brigid literally translates to “Exalted One,” and we find that though Brigid is a well-rounded goddess, what makes her truly exalted is her thirst for wisdom.

The Celtic creation myth, much like other myths such as the Greek or Norse traditions, has supernatural figures that exist before the gods. In Celtic mythology, Danu–the “Mother Goddess”–and Bíle–the sacred oak–fulfill these roles. Into the void, Danu sends her divine waters to the thirsting oak, and from the oak come two acorns. The first is Dagda, “Father of the Gods”; the second is Brigid, the “Exalted One.”1

St._Brigids_Well_Cullion_WellwithStationinBackground
St. Brigid’s Well

Brigid becomes the mother of many gods. She was known for imbibing from the holy waters of her mother, Danu, and thus grew in wisdom.2 In this is a beautiful picture of the historical significance of wisdom being passed from mother to daughter and continuing through generations. Because of Brigid’s willingness to drink from her mother’s fountain–being nourished by her both literally and figuratively–she became one of the most accomplished goddesses of mythology, overseeing healing, craftsmanship, smithing, poetry, war, and so forth. As one mythologist puts it, “she excelled in all knowledge.”3 Many mythologists believe that it was her understanding that the secret to all wisdom came from her mother which granted her access to such knowledge and insight. This again points back to a culture that values the voices of women as being voices of wisdom. Without these voices, we, the children, cannot hope to attain the heights or enter the secret places of discernment.

1200px-Rossetti,_Dante_Gabriel_-_La_Ghirlandata_-_1871-1874
La Ghirlandata (D.G. Rossetti)

That isn’t to say the Celtic culture is the only one who understands this. Indeed, it seems many ancient cultures had similar ideas; the entirety of Proverbs 31, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a king reciting a series of lessons his mother taught him, including to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves and to look for a wife who “speaks with wisdom and…faithful instruction.”4 Can you imagine how much different the world might be if we sipped from the fountain of wisdom which came before us?

Brigid is “exalted,” revered, listened to, believed. Not simply because she is a goddess; she enjoys her stature because of her thirst for wisdom and because she is relentless in her pursuits. Though she is the goddess of war, she is also the goddess of poetry, two perhaps contradictory pursuits that she, being steeped in wisdom, understands how they connect. In one story, she tells her children to go and people the world, but to beware their cousins who are all the inverse of their grandmother (what’s a myth without a battle between good and evil?). It’s in this war that one of Brigid’s own sons (Ruadan) is killed, and Brigid shows that even the exalted can be brought low. Yet, from this defeat, rises a new form of song, keening, showing Brigid’s other face–the face of emotion. Of Poetry:

“But after the spear had been given to him, Ruadan turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at Ruadan so that it went through him; and he died in his father’s presence in the Fomorian assembly. Brig came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the Brig who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)”5

Her symbols are fire, water, snakes, and oxen. She is goddess of the home, and goddess offire-1629975_1280 the battlefield. Goddess of the flame, and goddess of the well. Goddess of those who create, and goddess of those who destroy. It’s almost as though there is no end to her multi-faceted being. In some versions of the legend, she is a three-part goddess, and each part represents a different aspect of her nature. Her wisdom is the seed for all else; it allows her to understand, to empathize, to learn, to seek, and to do.

It’s hard to believe Brigid would be quite so renowned and exalted if she had not first sought wisdom and discernment from the waters which flowed from heaven and “showed her children that true wisdom was only to be garnered from the feet of Danu, the Mother Goddess, and so only to be found at the water’s edge.”6 Whatever one might say about the factual nature of this statement, the truth of it cannot be denied; in fact, it’s the old paradox repeated in story after story, “mere myth” after “mere myth”–in order to ascend the heights, we must first humble ourselves at the feet of another. Only then can we obtain the wisdom necessary to know what true potential is.

 

  1. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, London, 1988, pp. 25.
  2. Ellis, pp. 26.
  3. Ellis, pp. 26.
  4. The Holy Bible, New International Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+31&version=NIV

5. Cath Maige Tuired, translated by Elizabeth A. Gray, line 125, http://www.sacred-     texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm

6. Ellis, pp. 26.

Funerary Artifact Highlights: Death and Rebirth in the Ancient Greek World

While Halloween is over, the leaves here in Ohio have turned into crisp yellows and warm reds and with those colors, beautiful death abounds. Autumn is the season of death, the passing of one thing, but also, the promise of something new.

November has always felt like a more appropriate time to think about these things. It is one of the reasons I chose an inscription on a Hellenic funeral stele for November’s theme. The inscription serves to memorialize the deceased woman, but to also remind that women play many roles in a single life, that while there may be the passing of one role, there can be many adventures waiting around the next bend.

For this week’s featured site, I’m actually going to point readers to a couple sites on Ancient Greek funerary steles. Along with some background for the curious, the sites (of course) include images of engaging and endlessly fascinating artifacts that shed light on Ancient Greek funerary practices and how they honored their dead. In turn, how they acknowledged and honored the many identities a person held within their lifetime.

The Hermitage Museum – Funerary Steles of Palmyra

Death in Antiquity – Strategies of Dealing with Death in the Ancient Greek and Roman World

North Carolina Museum of Art – Surviving Death: Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian Funerary Art

Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words can be found in many sources from the ancient world. But there’s so much more to the existence of the Pythia that captures my imagination, it is what she represents—a remnant of even older belief systems.

serpentThe serpent brings instinctive fear. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Devil, in the form of a serpent who tempts Eve, who, along with Adam are cast out from the Garden of Eden as punishment. The Medusa of Ancient Greek mythology with her head writhing with nest of serpents could turn a man to stone. Early civilization abounds with the association of women with serpents, something that continues into the Ancient Greek world. The very title “Pythia,” is a reference to themedusa great Python, the serpent beast who originally guarded the Delphi site.

Snakes frequently nest in crevices and the underground. They emerge from the Earth itself, as if born forth from a womb. Much like humanity, they can be beneficial but are also dangerous. The Oracle is the conduit, much like the Earth, or a mother for what thing that emerges. She is the womb of prophesy, just as filled with potential and uncertainty as humankind. While controversial, the studies of Marija Gimbutas bring entirely worthwhile connections. If the serpent is representative of what can emerge from the Earth, what other connections can we find? Gimbutas says upon death European Neolithic cultures may have believed, “new life grows from the remains of the old…symbolically, the individual returned to the goddess’ womb to be reborn.”[1] She goes on to place a direct correlation between what she calls the “tomb as womb.”[2] That is to say, in death everyone returned to the womb of the Earth and then ultimately were reborn.

The site at Delphi likely represented that regenerative cycle, further because of the presence of the fault line within. The Pythia was further reported to have drank from a spring that ran underground and back to the surface near Apollo’s temple.[3] The spring is yet another strong cyclic signifier. The mythological story of Apollo slaying the Python of Delphi and claiming the site as his own also points to this cultural memory. Some have argued that Apollo acts as a patriarchal symbol slaying a matriarchal belief system. If we interpret the serpent and Earth as female symbols, it is not hard to see a patriarchal connection to the slaying of the Python.

virgil_solis_-_apollo_python“Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her (Python): Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth…but here shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.”[4]

But even as Apollo takes control (by force) over prophesy, he cannot eradicate the origins of the Delphi site. Note that the Pythia, like many oracles in the ancient world, was a female specific position. While the Ancient Greeks believed that Apollo gave the words of prophesy to the Pythia, the oracular significance remains female. Joan Breton Connelly asserts that, “the Pythia Pythia Aegeus Themis Delphi[1]exerted considerable control over the oracles that she delivered,” and that while male priests existed they did not perform as oracles and further were not the ones who were the subject of attempted bribery.[5] Meaning, they had little control or influence over the Pythia and further, she likely was quite purposeful when she delivered her highly influential answers.

I suppose, some things don’t change after all.

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[1] Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999), 55.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 76.

[4] “The Homeric Hymns.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Accessed 28 OCT 2017. http://omacl.org/Hesiod/hymns.html.

[5] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 78.