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

by K.P. Kulski

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.

____________________________________________________________

[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.

Compassion “For Such a Time as This”

by E.J. Lawrence

Etymology is a hobby of mine. I not only relish the history of people, but I also relish the history of the words they use. So when I thought of this month’s theme–“compassion”–I wondered where such a word even came from.

Of course, compassion implies more than just a strong feeling–what we usually think of when we think of the word “passion.” It usually means a call to action–the feeling must drive the person in some way to do something. To have compassion is to not just feel sympathy, but act upon the sympathy one feels.

Spirit_of_Compassion
The Spirit of Compassion
(1931) Raynor Hoff

Which brought me back to the etymology–where does this word even come from? if “com” means “with,” and “passion” is a “strong feeling,” does compassion mean to do things with a strong feeling?…Yet I am passionate about writing; I am passionate about relationships; I am passionate about leaving a better world. I would say I do most things “with passion.”

But that does not always mean I am compassionate.

“Com” could more nearly be translated as “together” while the root of the word “passion” is Latin passio, “suffering; submission.”

Compassion–Suffering together.

Perhaps even…With submission to suffering.

Compassion is more than a feeling; it is a belief held so strongly that one must submit oneself to suffering in the effort to alleviate, or even share, another’s pain. It is willingly shouldering a burden that isn’t one’s own.

Compassion–I not only suffer for you; I suffer with you. If your pain is in my power to alleviate–even if it causes me physical or emotional torment–I will do whatever I must.

Then why, on a blog dedicated to praising active heroines, would we choose such a subject of abject humility?

I, for one, believe in the old paradox that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be

Spirit_of_Compassion2
Spirit of Compassion as a Doctor (Epcot)

last,” even though our modern society does not do a very good job of lifting up the humble. However, come to think of it, no society in history has done a great job of recognizing those people among them who daily lay down their lives for others. Sometimes it seems as though the loud, the proud, and the pompous receive all the praise.

But those who are compassionate know that praise is not warranted or required. The compassionate do not show compassion out of a need for praise or desire for reward; in fact, if they did act out of such motives then, by definition, they would not be compassionate. They would be opportunists. Compassion is not, and cannot, be about tit-for-tat. Compassion is about seeing the humanity and brokenness of another, and joining in that humanity and in that brokenness.

Compassion involves, by necessity, an act of humility. The focus of being compassionate is not to reap rewards or call special attention to oneself or one’s own pain–or even the pain of another. True compassion is silent, unassuming. It is caring more for the good of another than for one’s own good. It is kneeling down to bring another up.

Compassion also involves bravery and faith that the act of submission to suffering will lead to an alleviation of the same.

This was the hardest month I’ve had yet in terms of choosing the woman in literature or history about whom I wished to write. However, when I truly thought about the meaning of the word “compassion,” and determined that compassion by definition involves humility, bravery, and faith, one woman kept repeating over and again in my mind: Queen Esther.

Esther
Queen Esther (1879) Edwin Long

During the time of the Persian Empire, Esther was a Jewish exile living in Babylon. In her time, the Persian king was a man named Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes. Esther is perhaps most well-known for winning a beauty contest–when the king wants to choose a wife–because he deposed the last one for refusing to come when he called her (Esther 1:19)–he calls all the virgins in the land to him, and ultimately selects–you guessed it!–Esther (2:9).

She wins the contest and gets a literal crown…that came with some small measure of power.

However, Esther was Jewish, and not Persian. A dangerous heritage. At the behest of her guardian, Mordecai, she doesn’t reveal her ancestry to the king.

So the plot thickens. Haman, the king’s adviser, does not like Mordecai because he will not bow down whenever he (Haman) passes by, so Haman devises a scheme to have all the Jews in the land eradicated (3:6). When Mordecai hears about this, he puts on sackcloth and ashes to weep for the fate of his people. Esther’s response? “She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them” (4:4). Then she tries sending one of her men to Mordecai to ask him what is wrong. When Mordecai explains the edict and pleads for her help, Esther is frightened; if she goes to the king without first being called, her life is forfeit (4:10). Mordecai replies by saying that she is the one with the power and position to help “and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14). Her argument is that she is powerless; Mordecai’s argument says the opposite.

Faced with this choice, Esther decides there is but one option. She has compassion on her people by telling Mordecai to fast and pray for three days, as she does the same, and at the end of those three days, she would go to the king to plead on her people’s behalf: “And if I perish, I perish” (4:16).

Though the word “compassion” is not used, we know from Esther’s response that she humbles herself–by fasting and praying with her people, she willingly abandons her position as queen in order to suffer with them. For those three days, she says, they will suffer together.

Her response is also brave. She recognizes the danger and the potential torment, even death, that she will receive if the king does not have mercy on her. Yet the suffering of others drives her to action, gives her motivation. And she is willing even to perish for their sake.

Finally, her response is faithful. Her loyalty to her people is firm. She will not leave them to die, and though she could easily claim her position as queen and turn her back on her people, leaving them to suffer without her, she does not do this. Rather, she says they will pray and fast for three days, and then she will go to the king “even though it is against the law” (4:16).

“And if I perish, I perish.”

She could only make such a bold statement if she was humble, brave, and faithful. But she could also only make such a statement if she loved her people. And that, to me, is the most compelling, and mysterious, aspect of compassion. Compassion is born out of love. Not duty, not a desire for fame, or a desire for gain. To be truly compassionate, we must be willing to get into the dirt with someone else; to feel cuts and bruises with someone else; to give up our desires in order to aid another; to give up our own comfort and safety to reassure another.

There is no other rationale for doing such things than unconditional love.

To finish the story of Esther, the king grants her petition and does not order her execution. She pleads her case to the king, and when Haman tries to plead with Esther, the king believes his adviser to be making a move on his wife, and instead orders Haman’s execution. But Esther’s trials are still not over; she makes one more petition to the king: To reverse Haman’s order and not kill her people. The king grants her petition.

And so it seems Mordecai was right–Esther was placed in her position “for such a time as this.” She loved her people and was moved to compassion; she chose to suffer with them, when she could have chosen comfort. Her love was an abiding love.

In our “times such as this,” when suffering abounds, may we find such a love. And may we shine its light in our compassion for others.

 

Work Cited:

New International Version. The Holy Bible. https://www.biblegateway.com/

 

 

Revolt: Morisco Women on the Way to Alpujarras

by K.P. Kulski

During and following the Reconquista of Spain and Portugal, Morisco women donned traditional veils and heavy layers of clothing reminiscent of their Moorish roots and appeared to go about their lives as newly minted Catholics. But their existence was much like their clothing, shrouded from full view, at once both familiar and foreign. Their presence reminded the Castilians that there were limits to the control of Morisco cultural and religious devotion. It was an idea that both attracted and repelled, creating with it a sort of mystique.tapadas

Encapsulated in Morisco veiling, Castilian women took up the practice, adopting it to their own uses evolving into tapadas, a type of veiling that covered the entire face, leaving only a single eye exposed.1 Interestingly enough, Castilian women who popularized the style embraced the same two-fold experience, becoming enticingly exotic yet threatening. More importantly, women dressed in tapadas found freedom in the act of veiling, a sense that through hiding they maintained an internal freedom. Morisco women found much the same sense of internal sovereignty with the act of covering their bodies and faces, which reflected their hidden lives.

Their internal worlds became the singular authentic place of existence for Morisco culture.

It was also a rejection of patriarchal power by disrupting male view and judgment of female appearance. More importantly, it provided a limited but hidden space for the continuation of Morisco culture and religious practice. What was once the inner space of women, in the absence of the male outer space, became the container of Morisco will, identity and rebellion. Morisco women created internal sanctuaries not only within themselves, but their homes, families and communities. Their internal worlds became the singular authentic place of existence for Morisco culture.

DoorOnce part of the dominant ruling culture of the region, Morisco’s came to occupy a peripheral existence that inspired an excess of suspicion and hostility from Castilian Catholics. The suspicion was not entirely unfounded. Within the home, Morisco mothers continued to teach traditions as well as the Arabic language. Publicly, the adherence to Christian practices took the place of Muslim worship, but not necessarily within the home. But this activity came with great risk. Under the culture of the Inquisition, Moriscos who were found to practice Islam were questioned, usually under torture and executed. It went beyond mere religion, reading and writing in Arabic and later donning traditional Morisco clothing could result in execution. By the mid-16th century, Morisco society could only exist in increasingly smaller confines. The dwindling space had occurred slowly with the erosion of the Caliphate. It was a reflection of the very space of an empire turned kingdom, then eaten up by Christendom until it no longer existed at all. Even before the completion of the Reconquista, the sense of Moorish loss resounded in the formerly great Caliphate as a harbinger of Morisco fate.

Those radiant cheeks are veiled in woe,

A shower descends from every eye,

And not a starting tear can flow,

That wakes not an attending sigh.

Fortune, that whilom owned my sway,

And bowed obsequious to my nod,

Now sees me destined to obey,

And bend beneath oppression’s rod.2

Despite the greater loss, Morisco culture dug in stubbornly and grew into active revolt. When the second rebellion at Alpujarra begun in 1568, Morisco women continued to play a significant role. Mary Elizabeth Perry discusses the amazonian presence of Zarcamodonia, a Morisco woman who worked as an envoy between Morisco and Ottoman forces, “it shows how women played many active roles as wartime overturned the gender order.”3 In fact, the Morisco female warrior identity was prevalent at Alpujarra. Just as Morisco women maintained culture and community, their participation in the rebellion exemplified the rebellion of an entire people. They had, after all, maintained the heart of Morisco culture under threat of torture and execution. Why stop there? In the absence of weapons, women used whatever they could find to arm themselves, stones and roasting spits were documented by Christians.4

They were the great mosques, palaces and artwork of places like Cordoba, gobbled up, kept alive and vivid within the flesh of womanhood. All-Ways-Spain-CM2-Mosque-Cathedral-Cordoba-1920x750

I’ve come to see Zarcamodonia and the Morisco women like her, as more than women, but the living remnants of Moorish Spain. They were the former Caliphate and the echo of the greatness of the Islamic Empire. They were the great mosques, palaces and artwork of places like Cordoba, gobbled up, kept alive and vivid within the flesh of womanhood. They were intolerable and enticing all at once. No matter how the mosques were painted anew and rebranded as places of Christian worship, they were like these women, merely veiled, hiding and ready to burst forth in rebellion at any moment.

Clearly, the Christian Castilians felt the same.5

 

Endnotes

1. Laura R. Bass and Amanda Wunder discuss theories on tapada fashion citing the influence seemed to have occurred when Moriscas were required to adopt the Castilian mantle, disposing their previous Moorish head coverings. The fashionable manner in which Moriscas covered their faces with these mantles led to Castilian adoption and stylistic preference for covering one eye. (The Veiled Ladies of Early Modern Spanish World: Seduction and Scandal in Seville, Madrid, and Lima, 104-105)
2. Prince Mohammed Ben Abad. “Verses to My Daughters,” Fordham University Sourcebook, Accessed 30 APR 2017, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/moorishpoetry.asp.
3. Mary Elizabeth Perry, The Handless Maiden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 89.
4. Ibid., 88.
5. Both sides contributed to the tragedy in the form of significant cruelty and violence during the uprising. Moriscos were eventually defeated by the Castilian forces. The Castilians would in turn, undertake a campaign to expel those of Moorish descent and entice Christian settlers to the region, effectively rendering the Morisco threat nil.